For the past few weeks I have been reading three historical romances focused at least in part around conceiving an heir. This was coincidental, as I had not really thought about the first book in those terms until I’d read the second, and then the third arrived at the library where I had put a hold on it. Still, reading three books that had to do with this trope was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories.
I first encountered this trope in Alyx (1977) by Lolah Burford, and perhaps the less said about that book the better. I was fifteen or so when I read it and it both horrified and fascinated me because the hero and heroine were white slaves forced to conceive an heir for the owner of a Caribbean plantation. They did not know each other at all and boom: forced to have sex. And that was only the beginning of the hero and heroine’s trials and tribulations. Reading the book was a little like rubbernecking at a car accident.
I read other books that made use of this trope in the years that followed, but few were as memorable as LaVyrle Spencer’s debut, a historical romance titled The Fulfillment (1979). Although Spencer is a very good writer and I have enjoyed many of her books, The Fulfillment was not among my favorites of her books. Set on a Midwestern farm, The Fulfillment featured a heroine whose husband, unable to sire an heir to whom to leave the farm, asked her to sleep with his brother. Yes, the hero was heroine’s brother-in-law. Hero and heroine were both sympathetic characters, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the squick factor.
Another book in which the heroine’s husband asked the heroine to conceive an heir with the hero was Patricia Ryan’s medieval romance Wild Wind (1998). This one was more to my liking and I especially appreciated that not only the hero and heroine, but even the heroine’s husband were sympathetic.
I don’t remember too many books that have riffed on this trope in recent years, although one of my critique partners, Sherry Thomas, had one in 2008. Private Arrangements dealt with an estranged couple. The heroine wanted a divorce and the hero insisted that he would grant her one if she first provided him with an heir. It is possible I am biased, but I loved this book.
The thing I find most interesting about this trope is that it typically brings together a couple who are either on the outs or not yet in love, and requires them to have sex. As a result, the sex scenes aren’t the standard insert tab A in slot B affairs. They are almost always charged (with purpose and with conflict), and that is one of the marks of a good sex scene.
Here then are some of my thoughts on the books I have been reading this month:
Thief of Dreams by Mary Balogh
Thief of Dreams opens with its heroine, Cassandra, about to celebrate her 21st birthday. Cassandra has one of those rare titles that can pass down to a female, and she is an only child. Her father died a year earlier and she became a countess in her own right, and not through marriage.
Nigel is a viscount who appears at Cassandra’s estate and tells her that he was a close friend to her father. After a whirlwind courtship, Nigel asks Cassandra to marry him and although smitten, she asks for a week to think it over. Cassandra’s family members warn her that she knows next to nothing about him, and up until the moment he returns, Cassandra plans to turn him away. But when it comes to actually doing so, she realizes she cannot.
The first sex scene in Thief of Dreams takes place shortly after Nigel returns. Cassandra goes to Nigel to drown out her misgivings with lovemaking, and Nigel, aware of her reasons, both takes advantage of her state of mind yet does so slowly enough that she will not be able to tell herself later that he did so. There is something almost chilling about Nigel’s deliberation at times, and yet it is clear that at other times, he thinks he is doing Cassandra a kindness.
It’s not until the honeymoon period that Cassandra learns that Nigel was no friend to her father. The lead up to this moment feels slow and even frustrating at times, but once Cassandra gets a clue, her disillusionment makes the novel riveting. Disillusionment is a favorite theme of Balogh’s; another is that surface appearances aren’t what they seem. Both are in play here. Even as Cassandra struggles to decide how far she can trust Nigel, Nigel’s admiration of her grows into love, snaring him in a trap of his own making.
Throughout the book, Nigel thinks about how if he can get Cassandra pregnant, her bearing of his child will be the fulfillment of his dream. Of course, Cassandra is a countess in her own right and her firstborn will hold the title, but Nigel is a viscount himself so for the longest time it’s not completely clear why this is so important to him.
At least, not until the resolution of the novel when the answers are fully revealed. Thief of Dreams has been an influence on my own novel WIP, so this is another instance where I may be biased, but I hadn’t read it in a decade and I was impressed at how well it held up for me. B+/A-.
A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
This novel won’t be released until late December, but Jane has been touting it for months, so when I got the ARC I immediately started reading it. Martha Russell, recently widowed from a man she did not love, learns that her brother-in-law, who stands to inherit her late husband’s estate, raped and impregnated two maids when he lived there as a young man.
Martha’s sense of responsibility is her most paramount characteristic, and she realizes she must stop her brother-in-law from inheriting. If only she had given her late husband an heir, or if she were pregnant… But though she is not, Martha has a brainstorm and realizes that it may be possible to remedy that. She hires Theo Mirkwood, the son of a baronet who owns the neighboring estate, to do the deed.
At first glance Theo seems as feckless and irresponsible as Martha is determined to do right by her servants. He sleeps in church, has been exiled to Sussex as a punishment for reckless spending by his father, and to his own mind, his one accomplishment is his ability to satisfy women. It therefore comes as a shock to Theo that Martha doesn’t wish to be satisfied and is only interested in him for his seed.
To say much more would be to spoil a whole host of surprises, but I will say that like Jane, I loved this novel. The first third was my favorite part, but the latter two thirds were also immensely satisfying. From the characters to the language to the love scenes to the plot, so much came together unexpectedly and beautifully. Historical romance needs more authors of this caliber, and as I said on Twitter, I hope Ms. Grant has a long career in the genre. A.
Waking Up with the Duke by Lorraine Heath
Waking Up with the Duke arrived at the library almost as soon as I had finished reading A Lady Awakened. Perhaps it was a mistake to read the former immediately after the latter, since it suffered by comparison. Waking Up with the Duke is a conceiving an heir story in the tradition of Spencer’s The Fulfillment. Here too it is the heroine’s husband who asks the hero (in this case, his cousin) to give his wife the one thing he cannot: a child.
The interesting twist in this book is that the heroine’s husband was paralyzed from the waist down in a carriage accident that took place when the hero was drunk and holding the reins. The hero therefore feels responsible for his cousin’s condition. I thought this setup had a lot of potential but for me that potential was not fulfilled, and I gave up on the book sixty pages short of the ending. Review to come.
What about you? What have you been reading lately? And what are your thoughts on the conceiving an heir trope? Do you usually like or dislike it? And what are your favorite and/or least favorite examples of this trope?