The Isolated Romance Heroine
A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Romance and life philosophies, and during the vibrant ensuing discussion, Liz Mc2 made a great point about how the more Romance novels narrow their focus to just the couple, the less we see of their interaction and engagement with the outside world. As she put it:
Of course there are exceptions, but when the larger community context is a vestigial part of someone’s life as represented in fiction, so many things that matter to people in real life get dropped out.
On Saturday, Miss Bates’s review of a Ruthie Knox novel prompted a long and winding discussion about, well, all sorts of things, but among the topics discussed was the social and familial isolation of Romance protagonists, especially heroines.
The isolated heroine has long been one of my Romance soapbox topics, because as useful as it often is in a genre where you want individuals to forge an intense, possibly unbreakable romantic bond, it can also make the heroine more vulnerable and disempowered.
We more often see the isolated heroine in historical Romance, whether she be the orphaned governess or powerless daughter forced to marry The Wrong Man (or The Right Man who initially appears to be The Wrong Man). And there seems to be a strong perception that women were more isolated in the past, although I think this may have more to do with the ways in which we conceptualize connectedness and independence and social power in a contemporary context. In any case, historical Romance more often seems to rely on the trope of the isolated heroine to place the heroine in a position where she can meet, fall in love with, and ultimately marry a man she might otherwise never have access to. Whereas authors of contemporary Romance — like Shannon Stacey, Julie James, Erin McCarthy, Kit Rocha, Jessica Clare and others — are more inclined to feature female friendships, if not necessarily close family relationships.
Still, the trope of the isolated heroine is hardly obsolete, as Truly Yours, the book that initially gave rise to the epic Twitter conversation demonstrates. The novel apparently makes use of the ‘innocent girl alone in the big bad city’ trope, with the hero set up as her protector. And I was talking with Jane about Linda Howard’s books, where you see some of her lighter books, like Mr. Perfect, Open Season, and To Die For (the Blair Mallory series), featuring better connected heroines, with darker books, like Dream Man, Diamond Bay, and Shadow Woman, isolating the heroine from family, friends, and even society. Harlequin Presents often makes use of this trope, as well.
There are many reasons that the isolation of the heroine can be useful. I encourage you to read through the Twitter discussion for some of them, including word/page count limits, the creation of conflict, the need for hero and heroine to ‘forsake all others’ for the romantic bond to form, and creating vulnerability in the heroine’s circumstances that hasten her romantic attachment to the hero, who may or may not appear in protector mode. Some authors, like Courtney Milan, often present the heroine as somewhat self-isolating or socially marginalized as a way to illustrate her strength and necessary independence. There are myriad reasons for a heroine’s isolation, and not all of them end of diminishing her relative to a male partner.
Still, the trope’s popularity in genre Romance is interesting. For one thing, it can be characterized as pretty WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) in orientation. Which is ironic, since in so much Western thought, the nuclear family is perceived to be the political, economic, and social core of society, which means that even when the unit is strong from the inside, it must be a meaningful element of the larger society, and for that to be the case, there must be connectedness to outsiders, from extended family to neighbors to childhood friends or those encountered through social institutions (church, organizations, the workplace, etc.). This also goes back to the way in which certain sub genres — historical Romance, Romantic Suspense — seem to make more extensive use of the isolated heroine and why.
How often in the genre do we come across the heroine who has been cut off from family and friends for whatever reason, who is adrift in some fundamental way, and who, in her isolation, becomes the perfect candidate for the ‘found family’ of romantic bonding with the hero. Eve Dallas comes to mind immediately, as the found family is a consistent theme for her relationship with Roarke, as well as all the friends she begins to accumulate after she falls in love with him. Lisa Kleypas’s Travis family series came up during the Twitter convo as an example of a series of books in which family is a very complex notion. But even though there is a strong family ethic at the center of the series – patriarch Churchill Travis is very present in the books – Haven, in Blue-Eyed Devil, is isolated from her friends and family when she is abused by her first husband, and Smooth Talking Stranger’s Ella’s mother and sister abandon her so she will have to take care of her newborn nephew, Luke. Even Ella’s boyfriend refuses to have any part of the baby, although Kleypas does give Ella a strong network of female friends who provide a good deal of support, advice, and interaction, all of which keep Ella from being completely vulnerable and disempowered relative to the wealthy and well-connected Jack Travis. Eloisa James has also written historical Romances with strong female friendships, and I am convinced that one of the reasons Kristen Ashley’s books are so popular is that more often than not her heroines have a) a strong supportive family (that often provides comic relief), b) a wide, outspoken, and diverse group of friends, or c) both a and b.
When a heroine has a strong personal support system, we may get the signal that she doesn’t need the hero, but that the romance is more additive to an already full life than compensatory. Especially when a heroine is portrayed as being professionally successful, I think it’s important to see how those different relationships in her life work to support and sustain her. In both historical and contemporary Romance, I love to see the large, eccentric, perhaps even somewhat overbearing family, not only for comic relief, but also because families are themselves micro-societies, and they have their own cultures and ecologies, which shape children in all sorts of positive and negative ways. Pride and Prejudice, for example, presents a family in the Bennets that is hardly unproblematic, but still very much there and essential to the structure of the novel and the lives of the Bennet sisters. Families may also help catalyze romantic conflict, as in the feuding families trope.
This goes to what I would call the difference between cultivating dependence between protagonists and interdependence. Interdependence has an element of equality, because individuals are dependent on each other to some degree, but they can still be very independent and highly functioning in general. I do think the genre has made a lot of good strides toward equity between romantic protagonists, especially male and female, but I also worry a little that by routinely isolating heroines from friend and family support structures, we may inadvertently reinforce the social agency of men over women.
Of course, there are circumstances where the lack of family – or of a highly dysfunctional family – is essential and even desirable in the genre. The heroine who must marry the man she thinks is all wrong for her because she will be destitute if she does not can give rise to a great deal of emotional conflict and character development carried out in close quarters. Romantic suspense and PNR often utilize the isolated heroine, perhaps because her vulnerability sets up the suspense portion of the story, or her independence gives rise to her power. Thinking about it, I realize that one of the reasons I love Shelly Laurenston’s paranormals so much is because the really strong and complex relationships the heroines have, both with other women and men, including family members, make me believe more strongly in the romantic coupling between two really independent and volatile characters. That they can sustain long-lasting, complicated relationships in other parts of their lives gives me hope that they can do the same in their romantic bonding.
I wonder, though, if there is also a certain lingering fear in the genre that a really strong and dynamic friendship or family relationship will compete with the romantic relationship in a way that would diminish the romance. For example, if a friendship seems more engaging to the reader than the romance, it may undermine the success of the genre imperative of romantic love. And I also have to wonder how many Romance relationships would provoke caring friends and family to warn the heroine away in the strongest terms. All the rakes and super spies and bikers, etc. do not exactly have the best romance resumes, which is part of what makes them so appetizing to so many readers, but also problematic from a real-world perspective.
And in their own way, friends and family can provide a somewhat real-world perspective in Romance. They may be the proverbial Greek Chorus, vocalizing thoughts the reader is likely to entertain. They add layers to the protagonists, and they reveal the network of associations that people routinely have to navigate in their daily lives. But does the well-connected heroine also rub subtly against the persistent notion that somehow women need romantic love for completion, something that I think still drives some aspects of the genre? Or is the isolated heroine merely a trope that helps build emotional suspense and romantic conflict?