When I first started reading romance – OK I’m one who didn’t grow up reading romance, but historical novels – I often encountered something that became one of my least favorite themes. A historical heroine with no domestic skills. I’m was always asking myself, why would the hero want a woman who couldn’t help him in anyway, can’t do anything except provide sex?
Would you believe a contemporary hero who wanted to marry a woman who not only couldn’t get a job, but couldn’t drive a car, use the phone or computer, couldn’t vacuum, cook, look after the kids, couldn’t do anything but be a bed partner. The contemporary hero, if he had enough money, could hire everything else done. But not so the historical hero. He needs a partner, a helpmate — a wife. Even the contemporary heroine doesn’t need a man. She can hire someone to mow the lawn, fix the garbage disposal, install a new water heater.
In a historical novel one of the sub-themes is that it takes a man and a woman working together to make a go of it. A true partnership. Which, of course, is the foundation of romance.
I like historical novels where the woman is shown pulling her own weight. Where her husband-to-be/husband recognizes that he’s got a prize beyond rubies.* I like historical novels showing how women worked and the contribution they made to make the home and society function.
Of course, this does not mean that I want paragraph after paragraph as we follow the heroine through the day. But I want to see her work, her skills, the qualities the hero admires in the background as the story progresses. Everyone of us reading this knows what it’s like to work, we all do it all the time, and part of reading historical is to see ourselves reflected in the past, the past reflected in us.
In Johanna Lindsey’s Medieval novel DEFY NOT THE HEART, the knight hero, resisting marrying the lady tells his friend ‘any lusty village wench will do’. And his friend points out to him all the work involved with keeping a castle by saying ‘can you hand a villein a sword and call him a knight? It takes years of training to be knight, years of training to be a lady.’
The Medieval Lady is a woman with responsibility. She’s the one who sees that the meals are on time and of good quality, that the household is feed and clothed, the castle clean (there’s a task!!), food is stored for the winter, wool and flax are spun, woven, cut and stitched. The lady oversees the laundry, kitchen, wine cellar, buttery, linen closet, gardens, etc. She’s the CEO of the castle and the manor people.**
If your writing about a Regency lord, what will he want in a wife? Can she handle his household, will she behave so as not to disgrace his name and family. Show her capable of making a gracious home, organizing a charity, raising his heir – whatever he considers important.
When creating a character you have to ask yourself what qualities would a hero and heroine look for in a lifetime companion (and remember, for most historical period, it was ‘lifetime’, as divorce wasn’t an option). Pretty and handsome are good, but will it bring home the bacon?
I think this sub-theme shows up best in Americana historical, which are usually set on the ‘frontier’ of the time. If you lived in next door to Daniel Boone, would you want your daughter to marry a handsome man, or one who knew how to hunt and farm so she and her children wouldn’t go hungry? Because this idea of ‘partnership’ is so appealing to me, this is why the frontier is my favorite time frame. The frontier man knows full well he needs a wife to help tame the wilderness. A man alone in the wilderness just becomes part of the wilderness.
For example, think about the movie LAST OF THE MOHICANS, do you think Nathaniel (Daniel Day Lewis) and Cora (Madeleine Stowe) are going to live exactly the same life style that Nathaniel lived before? While I loved this movie, I sometime wonder about the HEA. Do you think Daniel will go back to Europe with Cora? Probably not. So it’s a good thing that we know Cora is strong, as she’ll have to ‘hack it (a life) out of the wilderness, without so much as a by your leave’. Does she possess the domestic skills she’ll need to live in a log cabin? Probably not, but after what they’ve been through, I’m sure she can learn.
When I wrote KENTUCKY GREEN, I made sure that the background to all the scenes showed how the heroine worked. In conversation with a secondary character to give exposition, the two women are mending. In a pivotal scene where the hero acknowledges to himself he loves her, they talk while she churns butter. In COLORADO SILVER, COLORADO GOLD, the heroine is helping her uncle with some bookkeeping. Later in the day she fixed a sandwich for the hero, and I have him think how she’d been ‘at work’ at the office, and now is still working at the house.
It’s the history teacher in me that makes me want a historical novel to subtly teach something to the reader. And working women is a great sub-theme. We contemporary women can identify with the woman of the past who are always busy. And the little details of the work you put in your story add the dept that makes it realistic. And since in historicals, the HEA is, per force, marriage, I want to see a partnership that as a reader I’ll believe lasts beyond the last page of the book.
What else makes a book a keeper, than to believe in the characters and story so that they live in the readers mind after they close the book? I guess what I want is to see that the hero values the heroine beyond her pretty face and young, sexy body. Probably because I’m old enough to know that the pretty face and young, sexy body won’t last forever.
Terry Irene Blain
who after 40 years of marriage and two sons, can no longer fit into her wedding dress
*Bible (King James version) Proverbs 31:10-31, in the original language, an acrostic of the ideal wife.