When we prepare to open one of our Special Title Listings, we look at the original definition and we look at the books that were nominated in the past and made their way onto the list, and matters seem straightforward enough. Then we write a little bit for the blog, trying to illustrate further what is so especially fascinating about that particular trope, and what variations there may be within it. Then you, our readers, nominate books. With most, the procedure is simple enough: They obviously fit the category, they have received glowing reviews here at AAR or at other respected sites, and on the list they go. But then there are the borderline books: They don’t quite fit the definition, but yet they are very close to it. Do we change the definition to encompass a larger range of books, to permit a wider variety within the list? Or do we stick to the definition because we don’t want to water down the list?
With the Courtesans, Mistresses and Prostitutes list, this time there was a tough decision to make: Would we hold up the definition as it stands, namely only accept books on the list in which the heroine or hero “have sold their bodies in exchange for money to someone other than the hero (or heroine)”, or would we also include books in which the heroine or hero prostitute themselves, exchanging money for sex, but the first partner with whom they do this ends up being the love of their life? Romances like The Secret Pearl by Mary Balogh or The Duke by Gaelen Foley, which were nominated for this list, describe how a young woman decides to prostitute herself and goes through with it. The repugnance and degradation that go with such a step are depicted with depth. On the other hand, as bad as the situation seems initially, in each of these books the young woman just happens to find as her very first customer/protector a man who very quickly cares deeply for her and does everything in his power to protect her. The dilemma of how someone reacts to the fact that his or her beloved put up their body for sale to several others, which in our eyes is central to this trope, does not even arise. So we decided to keep the definition as it was, and not admit The Secret Pearl and The Duke, as well as More Than a Mistress (also by Balogh) and Gabriel’s Woman by Robin Schone.
On the other hand, we decided to expand the definition of Experienced Heroines and Femmes Fatales. So far, it was limited to heroines who are widely sexually experienced and who enjoy their own sexuality. While this made for fascinating heroines, it excluded women who unabashedly use their sexual allure to manipulate the men in their lives. Often these heroines are also sexually active, but there may be heroines who only entice, but never carry through. In fact they may be virginal, or frigid, or just too jaded to enjoy sex. But as they exploit sexual desire as their road to dominance, we felt they should find a place on this list as femmes fatales. Thus, the definition has been altered as follows:
“Whatever the circumstances, the experienced women definitely know what they’re doing, and there’s not a shrinking violet or blushing virgin among them. They are, in short, comfortable with their sexuality. The femmes fatales mainly use their sexual allure to manipulate. The list has been divided into two categories, widows and non-widows. The only contemporary experienced women included are those who, even by modern standards, have an enormous amount of experience.”
We are glad in retrospect we decided to revise both these lists at the same time, as there were several nominations that we felt didn’t fit the list they had been nominated for, but were perfect for the other. An example is the secondary heroine in Emma Wildes’ Twice Fallen. She has taken many lovers, but as she is independently wealthy and does not expect money or gifts from her lovers, she qualifies for the Experienced Women list and not the Courtesans one. On the other hand, the heroine of Monica Burns’s Pleasure Me, while of an aristocratic background, is dependent on the financial support of her lovers and stays on the Courtesans list (for which she was dominated anyway). A number of heroines (among them Justine from Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk and Eve Duggan from Julie Anne Long’s A Notorious Countess Confesses) were nominated for both lists. While it was straightfoward enough to enter them on the Courtesans list – both have been a prostitute or a courtesan for a time – we decided against entering them on the Experienced Women list as well, arguing that although their actual sexual experience is not in question, Justine is actually frightened of sex and chooses her next lover with great care, and Eve – after some mild flirtation – does not use her sexual allure to manipulate the hero.
The Tormented Heroines, for which more titles were nominated than for the two other lists, are another challenge that we propose to meet by next week. You rightly pointed out that there are titles on the present list that do not really meet the defintion as it stands, so this is something we must think about. So we invite you to come back for the revised Tormented Heroines list next week, and for two more new lists to be opened tomorrow!
– Cindy, LinnieGayl and Rike