Women and Power in Historical Romances
Two February releases present the interesting struggle of women and power in historical romances. A woman during the Regency romance period had virtually no rights, particularly a married woman. A married woman ceased to even have a legally cognizable existence. Her husband was immediately conferred the property of woman whether she had any by inheritance or earnings. He could provide for her upon his death, but if she married again, the property would come under the ownership of her subsequent husband. (Obviously the best thing to do was to marry well, kill off your husband after he has left you a boatload of money and remain a widow).
There were two ways in which a married woman might keep control of property, either through inheritance or through a marriage settlement. Both sums of property and/or money had to be put into a trust. During the marriage, however, the money/property would still be subject to her husband’s whims. If the family failed to provide for th woman or her husband was a douchebag, the female was basically screwed.
The point of this is to demonstrate how singularly powerless women were. In a setting where women have so little power and men have so much, it takes some deft writing to come up with a story in which the hero and the heroine appear equal. Carolyn Jewel in Scandal takes one run at it, pitting the hero’s happiness in the hands of the heroine, making her own that power. Claudia Dain in The Courtesan’s Wager takes a different attack, showing instead how a smart woman can manipulate the men, women and society to result in the one thing that will effectuate a positive end for the woman, a good marriage.
Scandal by Carolyn Jewel.
In The Scandal, Sophie is living with her brother because her dead husband whored, drank, and gambled his way through her money leaving her destitute. The hero, Earl of Banallt, is as Sophie describes him, the man her despical husband aspired to be. It wasn’t until Timothy married Sophie that he had the funds to move in Banalt’s exalted circles, but despite the rarified air, the vices were the same, perhaps only executed with greater excess.
Much of this story is told from the point of view of Banallt who, at one time, was everything that Sophie despised. He cheated on his wife. He gambled. He drank to excess. He even tempted Sophie when she was married. Maybe because he tempted her to stray from her vows does Sophie view Banallt with such suspicion and fear. Banalt has changed, though. He’s lost much in the past two years and is torn between desparately wanting Sophie and trying to put her out of his mind because Sophie refuses to have him. We read of his longing, his despair at ever convincing Sophie that she should take a chance on him, that he’s worth the risk.
In the relationship between Sophie and Banallt, she holds the ultimate power even though in nearly every other aspect of her life she is dependent upon the goodwill of others. Even when Sophie agrees to sleep with Banalt, he knows that he shouldn’t. Banallt’s inability to withstand Sophie’s charm until he secures her emotional affection deepens Sophie’s belief in his inconstancy.
Scandal represents a delicious juxtaposition between how women can have power in some very important areas of her life, over her own happiness; even if the means of ordinary life must be met by the whim of others.
The Courtesan’s Wager by Claudia Dain
In contrast to Scandal, Claudia Dain’s The Courtesan’s Wager is told primarily from the female point of view. It is the heroine’s journey to achieve happiness and security through the one legally legimitate way: a good marriage. Lady Sophia Dalby used her wit, intelligence, craftiness and beauty to go from courtesan to Countess. She engineered the marriage of her daughter to the Earl of Ashdon in Courtesan’s Daughter. She matched Lady Louisa with the right man, Lord Henry, instead of the man Louisa thought she wanted knowing that Louisa’s choice would only bring her misery. In The Courtesan’s Wager, Lady Sophia helps Lady Amelia, the daughter of a duke, marry her heart’s desire, a duke.
While each book contains a specific romance between the young woman and the right man (as opposed to even a different but good man), it is Lady Sophia who delights me the most. She is unabashedly teaching these women that in a society that views them nothing more than adornments they have worth.
Lady Dalby smiled and said, “Lady Amelia, if you will allow?”
Amelia had no idea what Sophia was asking permission to do, but she nodded her assent. What could she do? Had she not just this moment asked for Sophia’s help?
“You must never thank someone for complimenting you, particularly when the compliment is merely a statement of the obvious. And most particularly when dealing with dukes.”
“I must not?”
“You absolutely must not,” Sophia said. “You accept the compliment as your due and see where that leads. You must know your worth first before you can require anyone else to recommend you for it.”
Lady Sophia is unabashed at using the tools around her, manipulating the chess board, maximizing society’s quirks to the benefit of the young women who seek her aid. Lady Sophia knows all too well the dangers of being powerless and it is not something she would wish on any young woman, not while she is around.
The men that are suitable for the women in these books are of all types. Ashdon was a bit of an uptight, brooder. Lord Harry was the solid best friend who proved to Lady Louisa that she had all the danger and excitement she could ever handle with him. Lady Amelia’s partner was one who had to make up for a past misunderstanding. In a sense, they all had to prove that they were worthy of the women that they found that they loved.
The tone of these books are in stark contrast to Scandal. They are lighthearted and fun, relying on wit and the Machiavellan plots of Lady Sophia, to carry the momentum of the romances until the end but the stories are much the same. Women in historicals have little power. How they acquire power, mostly through emotional leverage, makes for fascinating reading.