Special Title Lists and Thinking About Definitions

thinker 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

14 thoughts on “Special Title Lists and Thinking About Definitions

  1. >>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.<<

    Why is this dilemma more central to the trope than how the individual feels about prostituting themselves and how that might also color their other sexual and romantic experiences?

    • To expand in The Secret Pearl while the hero is very solicitous and caring of her afterwards she’s afraid of and is repulsed by him for more than half the book – treating their bad sexual experience more as a violation – almost like a rape – rather than her willingly prostituting herself. Her experience scars her and makes it more difficult not easier for him to see him as a romantic partner.

    • In reply to this I can only say that we considered this very question and felt the issue of having a romantic lead having slept with a number of different people for money and not for love as central to our understanding of the trope. One of the reasons is that in quite a few European Historicals (and a great number of Harlequin Presents!) the idea of prostitution is toyed with and not carried through: The heroine becomes the hero’s mistress but really she is in love with him already, and he with her, even though they may not admit it yet. We consider that a watering-down of the trope.

      Granted, this is not case in The Secret Pearl, but even here the hero claims at the end of the novel that he loved the heroine at first sight, so that means (if you take him at his word) that he was in love with her when he had that painful (for both) first sexual encounter with her. (I keep wondering what that says about him?) While Fleur’s reactions to that first encounter are indeed described with great depth, in my reading it’s the almost-rape which is central to her fears (and the fear of being apprehended by her evil pursuer), less than the fact that she prostituted herself that one time. So that would put her onto a Survivors of Violence list, which does not exist so far. Do you think this might be an interesting addition to the Special Title Listings?

      • While I understand this for prostitutes, I don’t understand it for mistresses. The central conflict of mistresses, I would say, is not “multiple partners” but “sexual relationship without marriage.” So while it could be argued that a book in which the hero is the only john for the heroine isn’t really in the spirit of a prostitute book, I don’t really see how a heroine who is a mistress can’t be in the spirit of a mistress book.

        Doesn’t it seem weird that a book called More than a Mistress, in which the heroine becomes the hero’s mistress, can’t go on a list about mistresses?

        • Agreed. It’s about the arrangement itself not that the hero is the heroine’s lone client.

          Those HP books with mistresses in the title are mostly phony. Most of those women have jobs or careers and don’t even live with the hero let alone live off him in exchange for sex. They use the term in the loosest way possible in describing pre-marital sex.

        • More than a Mistress is the perfect example why we are sticking to the definition of the Courtesans list as it stands. Hero and heroine are already in love as they begin to negotiate the terms of their new relationship (that of mistress and protector). It’s very clear even though they are not yet prepared to admit so to themselves. The negotiations about the conditions of the relationship are a business negotiation only on the very surface; mostly they are a playing ground for giving hero and heroine scope to explore their emotional relationship and where it is going. So the heroine shows herself as cautious, while the hero is given scope to prove his generosity and the fact that he will never demand anything she is not prepared to grant him freely.

          • Well, maybe in the next round of revisions, “mistress” could be spun off from “prostitute/courtesan.” That might solve the problem.

      • Yes. She’s running from violence and attempted rape which adds to her feelings about prostituting herself but the act itself then makes her a Tortured Heroine – so she could even be on that list.

        Adam says he loved her at first sight but that’s pretty much romantic hindsight. He wasn’t even in lust but rather in need for human physical connection after 6 years of celibacy and it ended in disturbing and unpleasant sex for him as well since he felt she she was repulsed by his scars.

        Adam helps her after when he realizes she was a virgin, mostly likely well bred and completely out of her of her depth in her new profession (Eh – every one is beginner sometime but this is Romancelandia and the virginity of heroines is sacred thing)

        He does this out of guilt not love. Guilt and an over inflated sense of responsibility is Adam’s calling card. He even feels that for his odious wife. He becomes more and more interested in Fleur until there is love and he falls before she does but it never read as love at first sight for me.

  2. I’m glad more thought has gone into these lists and their definitions; Tormented Heroines was especially vague and I look forward to seeing the updated list.

    I noticed that Marcelline Noirot from Silk is For Seduction is listed as a non-widow in the experienced heroines list. This is a mistake, as she is indeed a widow.

    • Sorry about Marcelline – Silk is for Seduction is one of those books nominated I haven’t read myself and it’s not apparent from from the book’s beginning. Thanks for pointing this out, we will change it.

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