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!
As part of this week’s Valentine giveaway, I’m giving away a copy of any of my ebooks, winner’s choice. To enter, all you have to do is either leave a comment on this blog or send a message to email@example.com. And follow the link below to many more Valentine Giveaways! Have fun!
Thanks for reading!
If Regency-era women and their men were all that different from the lusty gals of today, we wouldn’t be here. Hard to impregnate a person by kissing her hand. Life (translated: SEX) will not be denied.
But, culture dictates that we hide the truth or be ostracized.
I think a lot of historical romance characters are written over the top because, as a romance-novel-reading audience, we’ve matured and, like us, our culture has relaxed its standards.
I recall reading Barbara Cartland books in front of my mom, but not Rosemary Rogers. Had to hide the sexy books.
Now, not only am I reading them in public, I’m writing them. But, I still blush and do a lot of backspacing when writing a love scene. We’ve relaxed our standards, but we haven’t discarded them.
Do you blush when you read a love scene or just when you write one? I don’t even feel comfortable carrying some of the books in public, let alone reading them. I have a stack of books to judge for the Ritas and they have pretty standard romance covers. I picked a romantic suspense that I thought would be least embarrassing from my son’s perspective because I was taking it with me to his batting practice. He covered it up with a Gatorade bottle and told me the heroine’s tank top was too low cut so I needed to cover her up. I thought guys were supposed to like that stuff. Maybe it would be okay if he was reading it but it was not okay for me to have it? There was no guy on the cover so that didn’t figure into the equation…
I do think that in modern regency romances things are a bit dramatized and they are in the older ones too. But I love to read the newer romances because they can take me from the here and now and put me into a whole other world. Thanks for joining in on this hop, reading this post was interesting, funny, and great food for thought! Oh ans if I were to win I would love to get Deceptive Behavior or A Certain Want for Reason (or both 😉 lol)
You’re right that newer romances are better at sweeping you into another world and maybe that’s because they are less realistic or just because they’re easier to read because the sentences are shorter. (When I’m reading the older stories I sometimes have to stop and try to figure out what the author just said) Thanks for reading (and taking the time to comment)!
Women have been having “early” babies forever, so they were obviously having sex before marriage, but not to the extent it happens now I would think with the stigma and danger of being shunned. I think society has changed and while people are openly having sex outside of marriage and tend to be more publicly demonstrative I don’t think it should be stated that we are sluttier now, just that societal norms have changed.
Regarding your reply above, OMG yes. I hate to show the covers of some of the books I get and hope the check out person at the library doesn’t study them too much. I prefer not to share some of my books with my mother, not that she doesn’t know what’s happening out there and might actually have done some of them, but ick….it’s mom.
I think sometimes they can be depicted a little over the top. However, when reading, I am like a little bit out there – a different world – escape – a journey.
skovach717 (at) gmail (dot) com
well it depend who is writing the book and what is about they are getting
to were you have to be dirty or sluty some time and then turn the check
and then write a love story for a lot
desi the blonde at msn dot com
Thank you so much for the chance to read one of your books.
mary_reiss @ hotmail.com
Thanks for sharing! You have some valid points. I first stared out reading historicals (with little to no sex) and it was ok in my family to read them. Then i started reading harlequin presents and desire, on to blaze and ‘now’ authors. The day i found elloras cave, oh my god! I remember hiding them, i knew my family wouldnt approve. Then i started finding more books, ones others classify as smut. (Desiree Holt, Delilah Devlin, R.G. Alexander, etc..) I remember hating taking a book out in public or letting anyone see me buy one, the covers were explicit, and people tend to stare or give ‘looks’. After a while, i finally said screw it! If i like the books, im gonna read em and i dont give a damn what others think. I now have my mom reading the books i do, my sister sometimes and now, no one in my family blinks twice at a cover, let alone what could be in them. I did adore the day i got an ereader though. Only i can see the book and read it. ;D Especially when i read at work. No one was the wiser. 😉
I read very few historicals now. To me, they fall flat. I hate reading about how the woman has a “place” in society and needs to stay there. I hate the lack of passion. Even some of the kisses are pecks on the cheeks and a week later there family is scandalized because of her. The older ones are lacking and focus more on the trials and pain the characters go through, more towards the friends and family around them effecting there lives. Most even share same plots. Different characters but usually same city, same rules, etc…
Now, romaces are blazing blazing with passion, even with a simple kiss. The plots, different with each book, characters; different chemistry. The genres range (different worlds, even species, societies, etc..) taking us on a journey. Each book is different and some even leave you guessing on the story and arent so predictable.
Pantaloons, lol, I can’t get over the pantaloons 🙂
If you saw my husband, the image would be truly, well, I’ll say “memorable”
Yes, I think so. There are different genres for romances.
Women have not gotten sluttier, sex sells it always has. If you go back BEFORE the regency and victorian era.. you realize that life was earthy.. even virginity was a commodity that while valued for a first son wasn’t that big of a deal..
And remember marriage itself was a business contract so women once they did their jobs.. had no problem finding fulfillment else where.. it was not only allowed it was accepted..
Love wasn’t really part of the game. So are women getting sluttier? No, but we are allowed to write and read about it now
Tea and Book
This was a very interesting post. Thanks for the giveaway.
I have to agree with Shadow on a few points, but I don’t think the heriones are any slutter than they ever have been. There are still the same amount of sexless books being printed, or books with unexpilcit sex in them, as in the age of our mother. I think it might seem like there are more just for the simple fact that many authors aren’t hiding anymore. I like a wide range of books so it depends on my mood as to what I read. Thanks for the giveaway!!
Great article, Kate! It’s amazing how the level of romance has changed over the years!
Society has changed what is acceptable, so while there were then and always will be those who push the envelope, our view of those people has changed. I want you to imagine this, and I can’t even believe I am admitting it, but I used to write spicy Little House on the Prairie stories. :O I know. They were based upon the TV show, not the books, and they came about because TV’s Laura and Almanzo gave off about as much heat as a damp sheet. Now, Melissa Gilbert was under 18 at the time, so it’s not a surprise, but Charles and Caroline had a lot of chemistry, so why wouldn’t their daughter and her husband? TV viewers in the 70’s and 80’s would never have accepted it. I wanted to portray with my fanfiction, however, that Almanzo and Laura were very much in love and that they were attracted to each other as a young married couple.
Take Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, which aired in the 1990’s, and you see lots of passion there. Granted, Jane Seymour and Joe Lando were very much adults, but this was considered a family show, and yet Michaela and Sully were very passionate, as were other townsfolk–married or not.
At this point, I think I’m going in reverse. So disgusted by how sex is jammed down the throats of even kids, I don’t have a desire to read these types of romances as much as I used to. I’ll go for the sweet ones.
Great post, Kate.
I like the idea of Laura and Almanzo fan fiction! I re-read the book about their first year of marriage shortly after I got married and found it much different than when I’d read it as a girl. I’m sure they had a very interesting relationship!
What books are you reading? I must not have ventured into those historical romances recently.
In all seriousness, though, I think it’s because there are so many warped views on what sex is, what it isn’t, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, etc, that we are getting this effect in books. Until people can have real conversations about sex and even start agreeing on what it means, you’ll have this ‘sex sells’ attitude amongst authors as well as in many other areas.
What is repressed comes back to haunt us in other ways. If society doesn’t make changes, I won’t be surprised to see even more sex in more books.
It’s just the fact that reading tastes have changed. Sex sells.
I was a voracious reader when younger and then adulthood happened and between work, marriage, children and home ownership, I didn’t have much time to read. When I finally had a empty nest and only worked part time, I started reading again and was slightly shocked when my favorite Regency romance genre had the heroine “melting” in the hero’s arms and giving up her “virtue” so easily. I read Georgette Heyer when I was young. I think everything changed around the time Rosemary Rodgers wrote “Sweet Savage Love.(1980’s?)” Or maybe Kathleen Woodiwiss was the first. Anyway, I think things started to loosen up when those books became bestsellers.
mcv111 at hotmail(dot)com
You are certainly right that sex sells and books have changed a lot. My question I guess is whether people have changed much. I think the heroines used to be more chaste than real life women. Now I’m wondering whether they are more sex-obsessed than real life women, or whether they’ve just barely caught up. I can only speak for myself. So it is truly interesting to read others’ perspectives on this. Thanks for sharing!