Of Wimpy Heroines and Raping Heroes – So You Think You Know Historical Romance

I recently re-watched Phantom of the Opera and I’ve decided Christine is one of the wimpiest heroines in historical romance. Gaston Leroux probably didn’t know he was writing a romance novel back in 1909 and 1910 (He first published it as a serial.), but he was. It’s okay, Gaston. Lots of romance novels are written by accident. Nicholas Sparks does it all the time. Of course these days Sparks makes certain to kill either the hero or the heroine to prove he isn’t writing romance, but lets face it, the man has more issues than National Geographic.

But I digress. I do that a great deal. I’m a writer. Try to keep up. Back to the lovely Christine in Phantom of the Opera. Every time you turn around this woman needs to be rescued. She follows a mysterious man into all sorts of nasty, scary places. She lets opera directors and a diva walk all over her and then she chooses the wrong guy. Sheesh! I was a professional opera singer for a long time. I’d choose a composer who worshiped the ground I walked on (even with a few temperamental and homicidal issues) long before I chose some rich kid with better hair than mine.

Watching the film brought to mind a conversation a group of historical romance writers has been having since we returned from RWA National Conference a month ago. It seems one of the reasons some readers of romance choose to avoid historical romance is they believe all of the heroines are weak damsels in distress with a side order of TSTL (Too Stupid to Live) and most of the heroes are overly macho Alpha Males who see ripping bodices as foreplay and only know one way too woo a woman – rape her into submission.

Not counting Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and the Bronte Sisters (I began reading them when I was nine years old.) I didn’t start reading those thick paperback historical romance novels until I was in undergrad school. I loved them. They were a complete escape from the world of endless practice hours, cramming for tests and work study jobs that never seemed to end. And yes, some of the heroines were a bit … wimpy, by “Modern Women” standards even in the 1980′s. And most of the men would have been doing twenty to life in the Big House for their approach to romance. I still like them. It’s fiction, ladies. And yet much of it portrayed the lives of medieval and colonial women in a very real way.

I’m here to tell you judging today’s historical romance by the standards of a Fabio cover medieval romance where we read about the hero’s big … sword every twenty pages is like deciding you don’t like Tom Hanks because you thought Bosom Buddies was a lame, sexist drag show with bad writing. It’s a long way from Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party to Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan, but the man made the journey. So has historical romance.

To quote one of my favorite movies – “Let me esplain. No, is too much. Let me sum up.”


Exhibit A – Christian Jervaux from Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale

Here is a hero who has suffered a stroke, but still has the cunning to manipulate his unsophisticated Quaker heroine into forsaking her religious community and helping him to stave off an attempt to have him declared incompetent. Alpha? Yes. Macho? Absolutely. Conniving? Undoubtedly. But not clever enough. She leaves him to return to her Quaker community and renounce her marriage to him. She leaves a DUKE ! And plans to renounce her marriage to him. That’s like marrying Donald Trump and leaving without alimony. This guy can easily buy another wife. Instead Christian crashes Maddy’s presentation to the Meeting committee as a last-ditch bid for her heart.

Christian felt a sinking scarcity of breath as she rose. [ . . . ] He took hold of the framing of the door behind him, gripping it hard. [ . . . ]
‘Truth!’ Christian shouted, staring at her, a mindless echo of himself, the only word that came. [ . . . ] Wrong! He had to tell her that. He tried to tell her and hit the wall—the bars, the jacket and chains and words throttled before they ever got to his throat, imprisoned in his brain. [ . . . ]

In his furious desperation he held his ground. He stood there pulsating with shame and ferocity, breathing like a jungle creature, a miserable mad idiot standing in front of them.

‘Better!’ The word slammed through, a shout. He spread his arms. ‘Look! Me! Can’t talk sinner! His voice battered the bare walls of the room as he pointed at Gill. ‘Think he’s . . . better?’ He sneered at the Mule. ‘Think you . . . so hold . . . deserve . . . my wife?’ Turning his back, he lifted the paper toward the solemn men in the galley. ‘Who wrote this? You?’ He brandished it at the sober faces? ‘Or you? Not her. Not her . . . say I’m—enemy.’ Christian shook his head and made a disbelieving groan. ‘Maddy . . . “fornication”?’ He was halfway between a laugh and tears. ‘I called it . . . love for you. Before God . . . love . . . honor . . . my wife . . . cherish all my days. I said it. Still truth, Maddy. Still the truth . . . in me, and always. [ . . . ]

‘It was . . . you,’ he said. ‘Duchess. You . . . took me out of there. You married . . . duke.’ He pointed at the floor. ‘You tell me now—go down on my knees, and I will do it. The Devil’s gift. Not pearls, flowers . . . gowns. I give you . . . selfish, arrogant bastard . . . what I am, and I can do. I give you . . . my daughter. . . .’


Wimpy women don’t inspire a man with impaired speech to fight through a declaration of love like that.


Exhibit B  -  Jessica Trent from Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

She flung back the shawl and lifted her right hand. There was a pistol in it, the barrel aimed straight at Dain’s heart. “Go away,” she told Esmond.

Dain heard the click as she cocked the weapon and the scrape of a chair as Esmond rose. “Mademoiselle,” he tried again.

“Say your prayers, Dain,” she said.

His gaze lifted from the pistol to her glittering, furious eyes. “Jess,” he whispered.

She pulled the trigger.


How many of you liberated, modern ladies have ever had a man do you wrong? What did you do about it? Well, this historical romance heroine shot her hero into submission. Later she had to practically assault the big lug to get him to make love to her. Jessica Trent is my kind of heroine!


Exhibit C – Justine DeCabrillac from The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne

A long time ago, she’d shot him. They’d been friends, and then lovers, and then enemies. Spies, serving different sides of the war.

The war was over, this last year or two. Sometimes, he walked outside the shop she kept and looked in. Sometimes, he found a spot outside and watched for a while, just to see what she looked like these days.

The last time they’d exchanged words, she’d promised to kill him. He hadn’t expected her on his doorstep, half-dead, running from an enemy of her own.

I have the most dangerous woman in London in my bed.


If this is how the hero sees her, can you imagine how the rest of world sees her? Justine is one tough woman – hard as hell to kill and even harder to love. Call her a wimp. Go ahead. I dare you.


Now I’m not saying all historical romance heroines shoot their heroes. They only do that if the guy deserves it. They also rescue their heroes. They stand beside them firing pistols, cannons and slashing away at enemies with swords. They pass themselves off as soldiers, physicians, composers, newspaper editors and business owners in eras during which they could be jailed, shunned or thrown penniless into the streets for doing so. They run castles and clans during the medieval era. They run plantations and hospitals during the Civil War. They are bounty hunters and ranchers in the American West. Life isn’t easy for them, but they make it work. They are loved by their heroes because they are intelligent, independent and they refuse to settle for less than what they deserve. Sound like someone you know or perhaps like someone you want to be? Pick up a historical romance. Find your new Book BFF. Find your new Book Boyfriend and when the time comes, don’t settle for anything less. Heroes like the ones in historical romances are out there, sweetheart. You simply have to know what you’re shopping for before you leave the house. “We’ve come a long way, baby?” You have no idea! 


Those of you who read historical romance, tell us about your favorite heroine (and her hero too!) Those of you who don’t read historical romance please tell us why!






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