If you look at the way love has been portrayed in fiction over the last 200 years, you might think that human nature has changed drastically. In Francis Burney’s Camilla, for example, published in 1796, the virtuous young hero considers his engagement with the heroine with at an end (after hundreds of pages of obvious attraction between the two) when he witnesses his bethrothed receiving a kiss on the hand from another gentleman. That’s it. That kiss on the hand is enough intimacy to constitute serious commitment (or in this case, infidelity) to the eye of the beholder. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet is too modest to even give any sign whatsoever of her affection for Mr. Bingley—she won’t even flirt.
Now let’s consider the story in similar settings, popular Regency-set historical romances, which take place during the same time period, between 1790 and 1820. But these stories are written by 21st Century authors for 21st Century audience. In public, the conventions remain the same—if anything, those in the more recently-written stories are more rigid. The heroine must not be alone with a man or she could be “ruined.” If she is caught alone with a man, particularly in a compromising position, friends will force them to marry. Many plots hinge on this convention, whether it truly existed or not. A heroine must behave in public.
But in private, she’s expected to be something of a nymphomaniac, obsessed with the tightness of the hero’s breeches (really they would be pantaloons but that just doesn’t sound heroic). Even though Miss Ladylike and Lord Dashing detest one another and cannot possibly marry, by Chapter Five they still end up having sex (a) on the desk of the hero’s study (b) in the carriage on the way to visit indigent tenants (c) in the bedroom that one has mistakenly walked into thinking it was the butler’s pantry or (d) all of the above.
Heroines in today’s novels are expected to have a strong virtuous streak that is overcome by an even stronger sex drive (and really, when the reader gets the description of the hero, who can blame her?) So what has happened? Have women really changed that much in the last 200 years? Or is it our ideal of a heroine that has changed?
To my mind, human nature really hasn’t altered over time and that’s why I find the study of history so interesting. Social conventions evolve all the time so humans have to channel their needs, urges, desires into different outlets, and that is fascinating to observe. I don’t think most women are or have ever been totally chaste angelic creatures or devil-may-care sexual mavens wielding unstoppable power from the bedroom (or that desk in the study). The truth lies somewhere in between. But I suppose the truth is not much fun to read about . We want to place ourselves in the position of a heroine we can admire. It just so happens that what we as a society choose to admire seems to have changed.
I thought the whole brouhaha over the kiss on the hand in Camilla was a bit much. But really I would rather read Francis Burney or Jane Austen’s books than those of most modern authors. I think my husband would rather have it the other way around. However, he needs to face facts: (a) Our minivan doesn’t have as much room as a carriage, (b) he doesn’t even have a study with a desk in it, and (c) really, would he want to wear 19th Century pantaloons? I think not.
But what do you think? About the depiction of heroines, I mean, not my husband in pantaloons. Do you think modern fictional heroines are over the top or right in line with human nature? After all, I’ve been on the fringe before, so if I’m completely wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time. Let me know what you think!
READING ROMANCES ROMANCING THE VALENTINE GIVEAWAY HOP!
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