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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Regency Ladies Gone Wild

Well-behaved women seldom make history.  

I’ve always loved this quote, not only for it’s humor, but also for the truth contained within it. History is written about those who do something, usually something that goes against the social rules of the times. Occasionally, notoriety even means gathering the courage to challenge the laws. Consider the women who marched for Women’s Suffrage. What about Rosa Parks? Change happens because non-conformists refuse to follow the status quo. Granted sometimes they aren’t motivated by the desire to make the world a better place, but it’s hard to deny they make it more interesting.

An ongoing discussion occurs in historical romance circles about heroines that behave differently from other women of the times. This is especially true in Regency romance. Some authors and readers feel strongly that a Regency lady never would have done things that go against social norms or take risks that could result in becoming ruined, so it shouldn't happen in fiction either. (It’s important to note that one’s reputation was as valuable to the 19th century upper classes as one’s accomplishments are to people today.) While I agree the average lady would follow most rules to the letter, well-behaved ladies seldom make interesting heroines, in my opinion.

Two authors who actually lived during the Regency era that wrote interesting female characters were Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Miss Marianne Dashwood had no clue she should hide her emotions in polite society, and she did the unthinkable and wrote letters to a bachelor. Then there was Bronte’s Catherine from Wuthering Heights who behaved like a hoyden, running around with Heathcliff and spying on her neighbors. (Of course Catherine wasn’t a likeable young lady, but she wasn't boring.)

Even the mother of Regency romance, Georgette Heyer, wrote heroines who weren't deterred by societal expectations. Mary Challoner (Devil’s Cub) pretends to be her younger sister and meets the very rakish Marquis of Vidal to run away with him to save her sister from making a mistake. Mary believes the marquis will let her go once he learns she is the plain and very proper sister. It isn’t until Vidal discovers Mary's trickery, flies into a rage, and forces her to come to France that she realizes just how naïve she has been. The heroine in An Infamous Army, Lady Barbara Childe, Bab,  (An Infamous Army), is young widow who scandalizes Brussels by arriving at a ball with painted toenails and engages in flirtations to make gentlemen fall in love with her. And then - GASP - she dances twice with the hero, causing quite the stir. 

As a reader, I don't mind a lady who misbehaves as long as she has a good reason for acting the way she does. What do you think? 

Are historical heroines who push the envelop or bend the rules interesting, or do they make you want to scream?  


  

6 comments:

  1. I don't mind a heroine who's not completely historically accurate but (like all things in books), I think it depends on how the author presents it.

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    1. I agree, Jennifer. Motivation carries a lot of weight, I think. In the Devil's Cub example, Mary is naive and it's easy to see her plan is going to be disastrous, but she's sympathetic because she really does think she can protect her sister. So I guess what I'm really saying is the heroine has to be sympathetic for me to give her some leeway. :)

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  2. I too don't mind the heroine bending the rules. Also long as it makes for a fun and enjoyable read and fits its purpose I'm all in! But if the said girl is just being a brat and is writien or told in such an unbelievable way then we might have a problem. I like the rebellion to be accomplishable.

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    1. Good points, Ki. I don't like bratty behavior either. A free-spirit, I don't mind. :)

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  3. If a heroine does something a bit humorous, I'm fine with that. I just don't like for one to overstep the bounds too much because that takes away from the time period for me. Sorry. I guess that makes me sound like a prude. :(

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    1. I don't think you sound like a prude, Connie. It's always interesting to me to hear what readers prefer. As my husband has always said to me, "It's okay. You like what you like.":)

      You've pointed out something I never thought about, but it's a great distinction. I'm much more onboard with the heroine behaving in a less conventional way when the story is clearly meant to be comedy.

      There are definitely times I'm probably seen as prudish. For example, a lady needed a chaperone or an escort of some kind. I don't care if the chaperone is really poor at the job, but one was needed. London was a dangerous place, even for men, so going out alone would be a big safety risk. So if a heroine does go out alone, she better know there are consequences and have a good reason for doing it anyway. I think what bothers me is if a character is blithely unaware of the social rules, and no one else in the book reacts to her breaking them.

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