16 November 2012

Nothing New Under the Sun

When the theme came up for November, “Is there a place for old-school heroines in modern romance novels?” it made me laugh just a little. First, let me say, I’ve been reading romances for an unconscionable number of years. My mother was a huge Mills & Boon fan, and while my tastes in genres are a lot wider than hers, when in need of a read I’d grab one of her thousands of books. Her romance library spanned from the early 60s forward. When I was about eleven, and my grandmother realized I was reading those books, she decided I should only be reading Barbara Cartlands, and would send me piles of them. From there, in my mid-teens (still in the Dark Ages LOL!) I branched out, finding and devouring whatever caught my eye.

So when presented with the term, “old-school heroine” maybe my perception of what that means might differ slightly from someone who’s looking at the 1980s, or even the 1970s. I know the term is generally meant to mean the too silly to live heroine who needs the man to save her, usually over and over again, as he molds her gently (or not so gently) into the woman of his dreams. Yet, is that really what an old-school heroine is? How old is old school? And in any timeframe have all the heroines in romance been created in any one mold?

Barbara Cartland was well known for writing heroines who often would fit into the TSTL mold (let me add a caveat that not all of them would). Yet one of her contemporaries, Georgette Heyer, often wrote incredibly strong-minded, strong-willed, smart as a whip heroines, one of my favorites being Sophia Stanton-Lacey in The Grand Sophy, which was first published in 1950.

Too far back, perhaps? Okay, let’s look at the 1970s when, despite being the era of sex, drugs and disco, romances still had heroines who hadn’t a clue about the real world, right? Well, despite the simpering girl/women in some romances, there were also women like Aislinn of Darkenwald, from The Wolf and the Dove. She’s never broken. Instead the hero has to learn to live with a woman as strong willed as he is!

Yet, if we take the saying ‘old school heroine’ at face value, using it to mean the young, virginal heroine who apparently doesn’t know her ass from her elbow, I’d say she’s been around forever…and she apparently isn’t going anywhere. There are variations on the theme. The Unknowingly Powerful heroine, who has no clue about the magic residing within until some forceful older man, often portrayed as the mentor, saves her from obscurity and shows her the truth. The Sweet Doormat, who isn’t moved to stand up for herself until her love for the hero makes it imperative. The Hopelessly Clumsy and Clueless heroine, who doesn’t know how beautiful and desirable she is until the hero can’t resist her allure. Within the last year I’ve read newly released books with those themes, with those heroines.

It can, actually, be done now and even sometimes done well. I think the difference between many of the older books with those heroines and the newer incarnations is the endings. Instead of being no smarter, savvier or able than she was at the beginning, the new breed of old-school heroine is expected to get her act together, and GROW. Not just grow into the relationship, but grow into herself, become a woman in control of her own life, not just a cipher for her man. Realistically though? I can think of at least one book I’ve read recently where at the end I still wanted to strangle the woman and shoot the man, because she was a twit and he a bully and neither had learned anything at the conclusion of the story.

So I guess the answer, at least for some publishers and readers, is yes…there is a place for that old-school heroine. She’s a part of romance history, and doesn’t seem inclined to go quietly into the good night. And as long as there’s a demand for them, they’ll continue to people the pages of romance novels.
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