Before I get to actual books, I have to begin with celebrity gossip, about a very famous German soccer player. Some time ago, while she was pregnant with their second child, he left his wife of many years and very publicly fell for a much younger blonde. He dated this younger woman for several years, yet never divorced his wife, spending part of his holidays with her and their children every year. Last year, the relationship with his girlfriend came to an end, and since then he has been accompanied by his wife to public appearances. Though it is not confirmed they are together again, the public – including the yellow press – wishes them well and applauds their effort at reconciliation. This reconciliation is, in fact, considered romantic.
And if you think there might be a double standard at work here, listen to my second case: An heiress to one of the big German industrial fortunes, married with three children, fell victim to a professional con man. She had an affair with him and then was blackmailed to pay several millions, until his demands became outrageous, and she went to the police. This caused a first-rate scandal, but the blackmailer was arrested. The lady and her husband have spoken very little to the press, but it is known that he supported his wife, and it is assumed they are giving their marriage another chance. Again, the adultery itself is not condoned by the public, but it is not seen in absolute terms; the fact that two people who have seen their marriage in terrible straits are trying to mend it meets with general approval and even the occasional romantic sigh.
How would these couples fare in a printed romance? Would their attempts at reconciliation after one partner committed adultery in a spectacularly public fashion elicit approval from readers, or would it appear their love was irredeemably tainted, and that the partner who was betrayed should find true love somewhere else? Would we let them have their HEA?
While numerous romances out there deal with marriages at some point of crisis, outright adultery is a red flag for a number of readers. On a recent list on the AAR Potpourri Forum about “Situations you avoid” in a romance, several readers named infidelity as a big no-no. And I can think of comparatively few romances where a couple gets a believable HEA after adultery.
One example is The Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh. Miles and Olivia married for love when very young, but in a drunken moment he is dragged along into a brothel by some friends, and his wife hears about that and throws him out. Fourteen years later, their daughter instigates a scheme that will force her parents to meet again, and it is only now that we and Olivia understand that Miles never slept with anyone that night, although he did have an affair for a limited period of time during the long years of their separation. In this romance, adultery is regarded as such a horrible betrayal by Olivia, but also to Miles, that the end of their relationship is felt to be the appropriate result. Looking at their situation realistically, there is comparatively little she has to forgive him for, and Mary Balogh makes clear that not talking to each other about what happened is the true reason for their estrangement, and in fact more devastating than the adultery as such.
In Eloisa James’s Your Wicked Ways, Helene and Rees eloped to Gretna Green because they were so deeply in love, but soon their different attitudes towards life (and some bad sex) put a great strain on their happiness, and they separated. Nine years into the marriage, at the beginning of the novel, Helene is as straitlaced as ever she was, while Rees pursues a Bohemian lifestyle, live-in mistress included. As in The Counterfeit Betrothal, Helene is able to forgive her husband as she grows to understand their natures better, and this is aided by the fact that although he did indeed betray their marriage vows, he was not quite what his reputation suggested.
The newest Eloisa James novel, This Duchess of Mine, will feature a couple that have been separated for years, with both partners committing adultery at some point. As the story of the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont has been central to the Desperate Duchesses series from the start, we already know a great deal about their relationship. Jemma’s and Elijah’s marriage was arranged, but they were very fond of each other nevertheless, and very happy, until one day Jemma caught her husband with his mistress, whom he hadn’t given up because he believed a nobleman entitled to both a wife and mistress. Jemma left him and lived in Paris for many years, earning a scandalous reputation with her many liaisons. Because he needs an heir, Elijah finally asked her to return, and they have slowly gotten accustomed to each other again. At the end of the last novel in the series, When the Duke Comes Home, Jemma is finally ready to enter into marital relations once more. While Elijah’s betrayal is undisputed, we already know that Jemma did not sleep with all her admirers and in fact permitted her reputation to appear worse to punish him. I do hope we won’t find she was faithful to him all those years, and only pretended to have affairs, as there are so very few unfaithful wives in romance, and here infidelity makes the couple equals in an intriguing manner. I am looking forward very much to reading This Duchess of Mine!
Why would I find romances featuring love after adultery to be, well, romantic? Undoubtedly adultery is an act of betrayal, and one I hope I will never have to face in my own life. On the other hand, love represents our greatest power of forgiveness, and the kind of love that doesn’t give up in the face of terrible difficulties, the kind of relationship that is so precious that it’s worth fighting for even if the hurt has been dreadful moves me when I read it. And I’m not talking serial adulterers or philanderers here – I’m talking people who may even mean well but stepped horribly wrong, and who now, with the help of love, make a true new start. That amazing power makes for a very moving story, and when done well, it’s very much worth reading and considering as romance.