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?