Issue #103 (October 1, 2000)

The Steadfast Heroine:
In the last issue of At the Back Fence I wrote that I had never read a romance heroine who could begin to touch the accomplishments of Clara Barton. After such a bold pronouncement, I looked forward to hearing from readers wanting to prove me wrong. I wasn't disappointed.

Lis wrote that Clara Barton's renown stemmed from the fact that she was "a woman on her own in a time when it was unheard of. And, because she founded the Red Cross." She added that many women in Border States "probably did just as much during the war and endured so much more suffering than Clara Barton that they'll probably always be anonymous to us."

I'm sure there's some truth in what Lis said, but I really do believe that if a man had done what Clara Barton did, we would still be talking about him today. Although she is remembered as a field nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, her actual accomplishments went beyond that. But I do think that Lis makes an interesting point about strength being found in all kinds of women.

The truth is that much as I admire Clara Barton, an entire shelf of historical romances filled with Clara Barton type heroines would be a bit hard to swallow. You run into a limited number of geniuses per century (of either sex) and given the constraints of the nineteenth century, accomplishments like those of Clara Barton are even more rare than they would be otherwise. In fact I’ve only read one romance with a heroine who was a genuine genius, My Darling Caroline, by Adele Ashworth. Much as I enjoyed that book, one of the things I liked about it was that Caroline was unique and even a bit eccentric. She was not a person I would expect or want to find in every book. Genius is not a thing I expect to see everywhere.

Lis’ comments made me think about the fact that there really are different kinds of strength. I’m sure that the nineteenth century had as many strong women as any other time. The question is: how did they use their talents? In the days before laborsaving devices, the question was more about getting everything done than it was about choices. A woman with just one or two servants did a fair amount of physical labor herself and the mistress of a large country estate had to worry about the lives or dozens of people, not to mention the running of a bakery, dairy, food preservation etc. A nineteenth century woman had to be strong just to survive and there are good arguments to support the idea that the “weak female” was more a fantasy of the nineteenth century man than it was a reality. But women did use their strengths differently and society had different expectations. The acceptable route was to use your creativity and resourcefulness to enrich the lives of those around you. There is nothing weak in this. And, given the fact that one in eight childbirths resulted in the death of the mother, I think we can say that there were plenty of places to show one’s internal fortitude - regardless of class or income level.

Which brings me to another kind of strong heroine: the steadfast heroine.

There is a different kind of heroine whom I can imagine out on the battlefield with Clara Barton. She would not have been arguing with her congressman or writing to hundreds of people to get supplies. She would not have made a “spectacle of herself." She would be more the steadfast woman with a quiet sort of strength, but like Barton, she was often on the battlefield. I wouldn’t give up the difficult brilliant loner heroine for all the world, but there is something to be said for the kind of strong woman whom nineteenth century society found acceptable.

Before the twentieth century, battlefields in America and in Europe often included women desperately trying to nurse either soldiers in general or particular relatives and lovers who were there. “Camp followers” included not only the infamous prostitutes but laundresses, wives who “followed the drum," children, and others.

A very strong steadfast heroine, in fact my favorite historical heroine, falls into this category. She is Catherine Melbourne, the heroine of Mary Jo Putney’s stunning Shattered Rainbows. I have to come clean here; I’m not entirely rational on the subject of Shattered Rainbows. It is, quite simply, the best historical romance I have ever read. One of the many reasons I like it is because much of it is set in Brussels before during and after the Battle of Waterloo. Another reason I like it is that, apart from being a romance, it is a historical novel that personalizes the bravery and sacrifices of the people who fought Napoleon.

During much of Shattered Rainbows, Catherine Melbourne is married. Despite this, her behavior and that of the hero Michael, are absolutely irreproachable. Not only do the two not act on their love, they do not acknowledge it to each other, for fear that discussing it will lead to temptation. But even if Michael had not behaved with such propriety, we know that Catherine would have suffered anything to avoid adultery. Part of this has to do with a secret she carries, but most of it is simply based in character. Catherine is an adult and because of that she stands out, not just among romance novel heroines but among the characters in fiction in general. Quite simply, I would like to be Catherine when I grow up and I would like my daughter to be her too.

Catherine Melbourne is beautiful but that is the least of it. A resourceful and tireless woman, she is a military wife, “following the drum” with her husband Colin and daughter Amy. Though money is always short and Colin is less than a partner, Catherine has learned to cope with virtually anything. She is used to being the one who shoulders the responsibilities of a home life. She can go into a town like Brussels, find her family a place to live, make a home, and take in a number of single officers to live with them and help share expenses. There is a scene in the first part of the novel where Catherine, bone tired from nursing soldiers night and day, begins to get out the pan to prepare a meal for her husband. Amy, their daughter, tells her mother she is too tired; she has been working herself to the bone. “Your father fought a battle today,” says Catherine and continues to prepare breakfast.

Catherine and her friend Anne (another military wife) are much more like typical nineteenth century women than those usually depicted in historicals. They are used to taking care of children, doing their own cooking and making life livable for the men around them. But most of all, Catherine is a tireless nurse both on and off the battlefield.

I had a male friend read Shattered Rainbows recently. He pointed out that Catherine’s role as nurse allows her one of the few places where women are allowed to be stronger than men - and the men were soldiers no less. Indeed Catherine is very much the angelic ministering angel whose strength is wrapped up with goodness. When Michael meets Catherine for the first time he is wounded and in great pain. Here is he sees her:

His bleak thoughts were interrupted by a woman’s voice, as cool and clear as a Welsh mountain spring. Strange to hear an English lady in such a place. She must be one of the intrepid officers wives who chose to "follow the drum," accompanying their men through all hardships and danger of campaign life.

Softly she asked him, "Would you like water?"

Unable to speak he nodded assent. A firm arm raised his head so he could drink. She had the fresh thyme and lavender scent of the Spanish hills, discernable even through the stench of injury and death. The light was too dim to see her face. The light was too dim to see her face, but his head was resting against a warm curve. If he could move he would bury his face against her blessedly soft female body. Then he would be able to die in peace.

Other readers who read the last At the Back Fence brought up heroines whom they would define as “strong.” Some of them were in the “steadfast” category while others in the more “heroic” Eve Dallas mode. Lori, for instance, wrote that her favorite heroic heroine was Lucy Waring from Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride. As Lori explained, "She's a young girl in China who is responsible for providing for 15 'girl children' and the dying Missionary that raised her. Not only does she risk her life to care for them, but she walks across China in the middle of the Boxer Rebellion. Since I first read about her when I was 13 I guess she set the bar pretty high and no one's knocked her out of the top spot yet."

Susan compiled a short list of heroines about which many readers would likely agree, including such heroines as:

  • Carrie from Patricia Gaffney's Sweet Everlasting, of whom Susan wrote, "She's not an 'action hero,' but she impressed me as especially courageous and strong in surviving incredible adversity with soul and sanity intact;

  • Juliet in MJP's Silk and Secrets, whom Susan described as "almost the opposite of the female stereotype. She's emotionally immature and runs from her marital problems, but she's an excellent warrior and leader;" and

  • Emma Costello in Carla Kelly's Reforming Lord Ragsdale, who, wrote Susan, "is another survivor of incredible adversity with strength and character intact."

Catherine from Shattered Rainbows was also on Susan's list. For her, "Catherine is the kind of person the word 'gallant' was invented for. There's the blood transfusion to save the hero's life back when it was a risky, experimental procedure, the risks she takes to protect her daughter, etc."

For Karen, Roberta Gellis' groundbreaking medieval Roselynde Chronicles features some of the strongest heroines in historical romance. While all the heroines in the series are strong, including Gillian, who "begins as a victim but grows into a worthy woman of Roselynde," she is particularly drawn to Alinor (the second title in the series). Karen wrote, "Alinor is a woman who believes that 'God helps those who help themselves.' She's been raised to be responsible for her land and possessions and she does just this. She is not passive and raises her daughter to the same standards. Alinor's husband Ian questions her love and wonders if he's just another of her possessions. The wonderful ending of their story reassures him of what we readers knew all along." (For those on the lookout for this series, the titles, in order, are Roselynde, Alinor, Joanna, Gilliane, Rhiannon, and Sybelle, although The Sword and the Swan is sometimes listed as the first title in the series.)

Not only does Lis agree that Gellis writes wonderfully strong heroines, she wanted to add the heroines from another of Gellis' series: the Royal Dynasty trilogy, featuring Elizabeth from Siren Song, Alys from Winter Song, and Fenice from Fire Song. While many students of history love this author's writings, she has had a difficult time getting published in recent years. That's truly a shame, for as Lis mentioned, "she also wrote about the women of the middle classes (as she did in The Rope Dancer), and women who belonged to the Guilds. She is an incredible historian and has never gotten the accolades she deserves."

Elaine's addition to our "short list" is the author Roseanne Bittner, in particular, her books since 1990 or so. Many strong heroines are featured in the books of authors who write about the American West, and Elaine's favorites include this quartet of titles by Bittner: Texas Embrace, Song of the Wolf, Tame the Wild Wind, and Tender Betrayal. For Elaine, the more "historical" authors of historical Western romances, such as Bittner, Janis Reams Hudson, and Jodi Thomas, to name a few, write strong heroines "probably because of the demands of setting and plot." She added, "The heroine of Anita Mills' Bittersweet (apparently modeled on one of her ancestors) was an incredibly strong woman. And last but not least, how about the three heroines of Penelope Williamson's Heart of the West? Strong women, every one of them."

Female Archetypes:
Though we presented a look at eight archetypal heroines in an earlier issue of this column, I'd like to share a different and definitely older set of female archetypes as described by Jennifer. Jennifer took the triad of female archetypes taught in college lit courses and applied it to romance novel heroines. I read her analysis several times and think it fits perfectly into our larger discussion. See if you don't agree:

"As much as romance novels are generally by women and for women, the vast majority of them play on the male/female archetype. Many of the things that I, and apparently a lot of others want, are counter to the female archetype that survived for previous recorded history until the 20th century. This doesn't mean that there were not a lot of women who went against the archetype. There generally are. It means that there was a code of conduct that was considered standard.

"There are three familiar women in literature: The mother, the virgin and the whore.

    "The Mother: She crops up in a lot of romance novels, perennially downcast and desperate. She’s almost always been left by a no good bum who cheated on her and doesn’t care about his kids at best. At worst he’s a psycho who wants to kill her. Generally, she’s not financially stable, either having sunk all of her money into a “new start” like a small business eking out a profit, is a teacher, a social worker a secretary or a waitress.

    "The Virgin: Can be anyone, but is representative of that stage between girl and woman. Most of these types are insecure in their dealings with men, lacking confidence in their attractiveness and ability to converse easily with a sexy man. If older than the norm, they have devoted their lives to their career, believing that a choice had to be made, ergo they are emotionally immature in a sense.

    "The Whore: Universally represented as bad. She is oftentimes the 'other woman,' having experience and confidence that the young virgin lacks and is threatened by. She is almost always held up to scorn and her personality is almost never flattering. She can be a double agent in the movies or the past mistress in historical romance novels or one of the faceless women in the heroes past who accepted no strings attached affairs. In other words, never good enough to achieve the goal of all women, a loving husband and kids.

"Most romance novels feed into these archetypes and rarely do they try to combat the status quo. The few women who are not represented in the virgin category are generally quasi-virgins; didn’t enjoy the sex so the hero is allowed to teach them the joys of the experience.

"Because women who pursue men or are experienced are almost universally represented in the whore category, it is very, very rare that these women become heroes.

"I love women who know what they want. But, society has always had a deep seated fear about these women. They will cause you to betray your country, your honor, or even kill you a la the succubus (as mentioned in the last issue). In Christian society, Eve has been held up as the standard bearer - this is what happens when men do what women tell them to do. You’ve got Pandora, representing Greek mythology as the original TSTL poster child, and while I am unaware of a similar figure in Islam, the fact that women are the ones forced to remain hidden to fight against men’s lust is enough for me. Many African tribes still remove the clitoris from their young girls with the idea that if a woman doesn’t enjoy sex she won’t cheat on her man. What all of this says is that the sexually active woman is to be fought against at all costs.

"The only one who is allowed to have somewhat enjoyed sex is the mother figure, but that is usually with her husband and at best it was pleasant. There was definitely nothing even remotely kinky going on, at least not with her. The mother figure is allowed heroic acts when they are for her children’s sake because we all know that a mother defending her young is the frightening.

"So, what’s my point? We need a new category. In my opinion it can be easily defined by one word: Adult.

"We need women who are adults, who are strong, responsible individuals with the passions and failings of everyone. It is not a title assigned by gender, but by age and maturity, something notably lacking from many heroines.

"This is a person who can pursue the men she wants, who can fly F-14 Tomcats, who can teach in an inner city school without being a bleeding heart, or hopelessly naïve or stupid (for an example, read The Freedom Writers Diary).

"In other words, she can be your neighbor, your mother, your sister or yourself. She is any and all women. I have several examples that I love:

    "Murphy Brown - Who was more than the baby. I’d love to see her get a man worthy of her.

    "Christine Cagney from Cagney & Lacey - I loved how real she was, incredibly flawed but still lovable.

    "Mary Beth Lacey, also from Cagney & Lacey - Here was a working mother of three with an adoring husband she also loved. But she too could be flawed and incredibly raw.

    "Eve Dallas from J.D. Robb's In Death series - Sometimes she can be crass, sometimes she can be cruel, sometimes she can be bitchy. To me, she’s always real and she’s always trying.

    "Honor Harrington - My favorite literary character. She’s purely military sci-fi, but she’s incredible. (I will note that the author dropped the ball on her sexuality. It’s extremely stereotypical of the worst romance novels have to offer.)

"I could go on, but this is long enough. What’s interesting is that most of the ones who came to mind were not married. I think that’s the barrier. In literature, women are only allowed to be strong and independent outside the shackles of marriage. Once those are applied, she must settle down into more acceptable behavior for wife and mother, which almost always implies a sacrifice of personal satisfaction in deference for those of her husband and children."

I found this analysis to be fascinating and often true. I do think that the best romance heroines are in the “adult” category, or if they are not, have adult aspects to them. Many of Julie Garwood’s heroines, such as Sara from The Gift and Jamie from The Bride would initially appear to be “the Virgin,” not only because that is what they are but because they retain the kind of pure spirit that we tend to associate with virgins. At their worst, Garwood’s heroines are ditzy and her books can be anachronistic, but at their best they are truly good people who demonstrate their selflessness with their caring behavior toward others.

LFL made a particularly thought-provoking point when she wrote: "One of the many reasons I prefer historicals to contemporaries is that surprisingly, though they lack the freedom women are given today, historical heroines are more likely to be strong, at least in comparison with the norm of their time frame, than contemporary heroines."

I have to admit that I read a limited number of contemporaries and the ones that I read tend to have Suzanne Brockmann/Ruth Wind style strong heroines. I did find, though, that LFL’s comments resonated with me when I thought of one of my greatest pet peeves in contemporary romance - the Daddy Dominated Virgin.

The Daddy Dominated Virgin/Heroine:
We go beyond wimpette territory with the Daddy Dominated Virgin - these women are children in disguise. The Daddy Dominated Virgin is not just a woman who hasn’t had sex. She’s a child in a woman’s body. No wonder she hasn’t had sex - and thank goodness, for her virginity is not a state of being. It’s a present she gives to the hero (who has generally had a lot of experience - probably with the whore archetype noted above). The Daddy Dominated Virgin is without question my biggest turn-off. If I find her on page three I am sorely tempted to shut the book. Even a very good book, in my opinion, cannot survive her and I am amazed and saddened by her enduring popularity among romance authors and, apparently romance readers.

In a Daddy Dominated contemporary, the heroine’s father faces off against the hero for the life of the heroine. Okay, I don’t want to even think of the Freudian implications of this. Ugh. But beyond that we have a book where the heroine (usually a woman in her early twenties) who is portrayed as a person who cannot escape the manipulations of her father. Often this woman is portrayed as “madcap,” a distinction that while charming in a 1940's screwball comedy, is downright insulting in a twenty-first century woman. Authors go to great extremes to justify these women, but for me it never works.

Some recent examples of this kind of book include Diane Palmer’s Once in Paris, in which the older hero marries the heroine to keep her from being forced into a “bad marriage,” Elizabeth Beverley’s My Man Pendleton (a very funny book) where the unbelievably wealthy heroine is constantly being forced to consider Daddy’s choice of suitors and the recent Crazy for Cornelia, by Chris Gilson, (a book with a wonderful hero) where the heroine is being held captive by a weak (but rich) Daddy to silly to understand that keeping a grown woman captive is a stupid vicious thing to do. This last book was a heartbreaker for me. It’s the only book I can think of where I enjoyed all the chapters with the hero until he spent time with the heroine.

The reason these books don’t work is not because of Daddy. It’s because they all include virgin archetype heroines who don’t behave as adult people. To read these books you would think that having money was a crippling thing. Now I have known some wealthy people in my time, and a few debutantes as well. I tend to go with Hemingway. The rich are not different except that they have more money. Why romance novels idolize wealthy heroes and denigrate wealthy heroines is a mystery to me. The Seven Sisters are filled with women who are more likely to be headed for medical school or an MBA program than they are to be asked to marry Daddy’s business partner. A heroine like this would definitely fall into Jennifer’s “adult” category regardless of her income level.

Anne Stuart’s recent Shadows at Sunset is an example of a book where the heroine could have fallen into the Daddy Dominated mode but did not. She has all the trappings - wealthy “tycoon” father, a hero controlled by hatred for Daddy, and money worries that could tempt her into being manipulated by her father. But, thankfully, she doesn’t do any of these things. She has her own job away from her father’s influence and has learned to judge herself by her own accomplishments. How refreshing!

The Wimpette:
As I had anticipated, not everybody bought into my charge that Clare, heroine of Mary Jo Putney's Thunder and Roses, is a wimpette. (But that’s what makes this fun, right?) One of the most thoughtful discussions came from fellow AAR Reviewer Candy Tan. She wrote:

"I don't agree 100% with the example of what makes a dame and what makes a wimpette, especially in the case of Clare from Thunder and Roses. Jane Eyre may have been able to run away from temptation, Elizabeth Bennet may have had the option to be witty and cutting, and Maggie Tulliver could have clung to her dignity even to her death, but I think they had less at stake than Clare did. Clare had to think about her village.

"Clare could have behaved like Scarlett O'Hara, but that would have been completely out of character for her. Plus, I honestly don't like Scarlett even though GWTW is one of my favorite books - I mean, talk about someone with a seriously compromised moral code! Being a Welsh Clara Barton and organizing the village herself would have been wonderful, but I think Barton was an extraordinary person - I don't think even one person in a million has the cojones and conviction that she had. I know I don't.

"Although super-strong heroines are great, I wouldn't want to read about them all the time. There's also the whole structure of the aristocracy on top of gender prejudice to take into account: Nicholas was a filthy-rich earl and a man, which would have made opposing him particularly tricky.

"I read Thunder and Roses a little while ago and although it's not an all-time favorite, I enjoyed it very, very much and I didn't have a problem with what Clare did. (OTOH, I did have a problem with what Nicholas proposed and I was very tempted to kick him in the fanny at the beginning of the book, but that's another can of worms.) I usually hate self-martyring heroines, but I think Clare did what she thought was best in a very, very difficult situation.

"Moral codes are all well and good, but when faced with a dilemma, they may very well have to be compromised. Feeling secure in your virtue would probably be very cold comfort when people are dying around you. Sometimes I think consciously doing something society has defined as wrong in order to improve a desperate situation takes more bravery than steadfastly sticking to your guns. (There are limitations to what I just said, of course; sleeping with someone when you're an unmarried, unattached female and he's an unmarried, unattached male rates very, very low on my "bad things to do" list, as opposed to say, killing somebody or betraying a trust.) In these cases, heroines facing a dilemma would probably have to weigh one objectionable option against the other: What would cause more harm in the long run?

"In reality, Clare may have had more options if she had pursued the matter more, but I think Putney did a pretty good job of convincing me that Clare didn't really have many choices. Plus, the admittedly contrived 'I shall seduce you, my dear' situation made for a very, very sexy book. (Even though I still would've kicked Nicholas in the fanny for his proposal.) I nominate Clare as, not a wimpette, not a dame, but an ordinary woman doing what she though was best, and leaning more towards the dame end of the Isaacs' scale."

"To me, the best example of a wimpette is the heroine in a historical who doesn't smack the alpha-jerk hero on the head or give him a scathing set-down for abusing her abominably. The type of wimpette who drives me absolutely crazy is the heroine who apologizes for being right about the alpha-jerk hero. This wimpette always comes to the sudden realization that all the hero wants to do is 'tame' her into a more manageable (and presumably, a better) woman, therefore making all his abuse okay."

Another interesting comment came from Christine, who pointed out that many heroines start out strong and fall apart as the book goes on. She wrote that in many of the books she's read, the heroine starts out strong but falls into a more traditional role while "under the hero's spell." This often takes a sexual turn if the heroine is a virgin and the hero introduces her to the joys of lovemaking, but Christine noted that it also occurs outside the bedroom. "In cases where the hero and heroine live in different states, it's the woman who leaves her home, job, and loved ones behind to be with the hero, usually without a second thought. I know that all successful relationships require compromise, but the pressure to do so is greater for women. Which is worse, a thoroughly weak wet noodle heroine or one who changes from a Scarlett O'Hara to an Ally McBeal?

AAR Reviewer Kelly agreed and added that, "My least favorite plot is the strong heroine who kisses the hero and suddenly loses her brains - not just in a dazed moment of passion, but for the rest of the book. That particular plot usually turns an otherwise okay book into a wall-banger." She added that Christine's comments reminded her of SEP's Nobody's Baby But Mine.

Kelly went on to say that the so-called happy ending for the heroine, a physics professor who had worked so hard throughout the book to gain academic success, entailed her dropping her career altogether and moving off to a rural area where she couldn't do physics at all. She recalls talking to other readers about this at the time she read the book, but no one else seemed upset by this; most of the comments she heard went along these lines: "but of course she'd give everything up - it's true love!" While she enjoyed the idea of the heroine finding a more balanced life, she don't consider giving up everything 100% completely to be any more balanced than the alternative.

One last thought I’d like to add is this: although I’m a huge fan or the dame heroine (Katherine Hepburn type) I don’t really want every single heroine to be one. Yes, I still think Clare was a wimpette because she allowed herself to be put in an awful position and she let the hero dictate the rules of a game that she should not have agreed to play. But Clare was also a good person, a woman trying to do her best in a difficult situation. A wimpette in my eyes is not necessarily a doormat. There are not many doormat heroines any more. Out of the hundreds of romances I’ve read I can only think of one right now, the heroine of Alison Lane’s The Beleaguered Earl. She allowed the hero to enter her home with some friends and a gang of “courtesans,” a very extreme case.

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Its been fun looking at heroines these past few weeks and I have to thank everyone who has contributed to a very interesting discussion. But of course now I want you to contribute again! Here are the questions:

The Steadfast Heroine - Do you agree that there is strength in quiet courage as well as in heroic accomplishment? What heroines can you think of who show this kind of strength? What do you think of my theory that the idea of female weakness in 19th century women may have been a male fantasy? Would you agree that Catherine Melbourne is one of the best examples of the steadfast heroine? Who are some other favorites?
Female Archetypes - Jennifer used the literary theory of the Female Archetype to explain the way that many heroines are portrayed. What do you think of this theory? What heroines can you think who fall into the various categories of mother, virgin, whore? Jennifer suggested that a new category of "adult" should be added. What do you think of this idea? Can you think of some adult heroines?
The Daddy Dominated Heroine - My least favorite contemporary heroine is one whose life is controlled by Daddy? Do you share this pet peeve? Do you enjoy this kind of heroine? What heroines can you think of who fall into this category?
Wimpettes - Do you agree with Candy that I was too tough on Clare, the heroine of Mary Jo Putney's Thunder and Roses, and similar heroines in expecting her to stay out of temptation's way? What do you think of my statement that romances need wimpettes? What about the wimpette versus the doormat? Can you think of some wimpettes who were not doormat's. I could only think of one doormat; can you think of others?
Self-Sacrifice - Where does self-sacrifice fit into this discussion? Think back to all those heroines who seemingly gave it all up for the love of a good man. Did they really?

-- Robin Nixon Uncapher

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