WARNING: This article contains spoilers below the cut for Someone Like Her by Janice Kay Johnson.
Last weekend, I wrote a review for Janice Kay Johnson’s contemporary romance Someone Like Her. While I liked many aspects of the book a lot, I felt the relationship between hero and heroine to be unequal, and to some extent this spoilt my pleasure while reading, and my belief in the HEA. Two days later, my mum phoned me and told me about a situation involving a relative, and I couldn’t help wondering if his marriage, also an unequal relationship, might have something to do with it. (Mind you: Both my cousin and his wife are lovely. It’s just that there is a very obvious imbalance in their marriage.) So I am inclined to take this issue rather seriously, and it makes me wonder how it is treated in romances, which are about relationships in all their facets.
In Someone Like Her, the heroine has spent all her like in her small hometown, surrounded by her very close, nosy and large extended family. At the beginning of the novel, she dreams about moving somewhere else, but by the end of the novel she has learnt to appreciate her hometown better (without being blind to its drawbacks) and doesn’t want to leave anymore. So far, so good. The hero, a highly successful corporate lawyer, lives in Seattle, and as he falls in love with the heroine, he plans to ask her to move to Seattle. He meets her family and enjoys spending time with them, but he also experiences what it’s like to have one’s every move observed. At the end of the novel he decides, very suddenly, that he will give up his present job, move to the small town, and work as a family lawyer there. What strikes me as unsettling here is the fact that he gives up everything his own adult life consisted of in order to be enveloped entirely by her life. There is no thought that he might miss some of the advantages of living in a large city – and Seattle is a very attractive one, I am told. There is no thought that he might wish for more privacy, or independence – everything he has been used to enjoying without question. There is no thought that he might wake up one day and suddenly feel he has gotten the short end of the stick.
Now my cousin’s life has been similar: He moved from a medium-sized town to a small village. He lives in the midst of an extremely close-knit family now that is not his birth family. And he lives completely immersed in his wife’s lifestyle, with horses, a large garden, family dropping in any time of the day, and the doctor across the road whose competence one doesn’t quite trust, but it wouldn’t do to offend a neighbor. Both their children and their finances are managed the way she wants it, with her never considering he might disagree with her decisions and him only rarely asserting himself. It’s not that he’s weak: Mild is an attribute that describes him better, and with strong convictions, but unable as yet to properly deal with the force of nature that his wife is.
Many relationships go through an unequal phase at some point, but the true danger lies in accepting this inequality as a matter of course, and not recognizing it for what it is and then fighting it. As I love romances that deal with working out matters in relationships, when dealt with perceptively, the unequal marriage can be one of my favorite motifs.
How often do we see such unequality in romances? A lot. We see it whenever a poor girl marries a duke / billionaire with the accompanying lifestyle. We see it when a jaded person from the big city – for some reason New York is a favorite – settles in one of those homey small towns in the middle of nowhere, complete with his or her new lover’s family and hobbies. Very few romances actually address the problems that might come with such a dramatic and one-sided change, because these questions would have to be asked close to the end of the novel, and could thus endanger the HEA. In fact, the only romances that do so I can think of at the moment are some of the traditional regencies and older gothics, often with marriage of convenience plots.
Georgette Heyer’s exquisite Friday’s Child comes to mind. Here, the charming and selfish Viscount Sheringham, a young man about town, marries Hero Wantage, who is seventeen, extremely innocent and the daughter of her family’s black sheep, to gain control of his fortune. Sherry removes Hero to his London apartment and expects her to settle in her new role as his wife without a hitch and without disturbing his comfort in any way. Completely out of her depth, and unhappy because she is aware of this yet unable to deal with the situation alone, Hero gets into many scrapes and the HEA is only possible after Sherry understands he must give up his old life, too, and create a new one together with her. I seem to recall that several of Victoria Holt’s gothics and Carola Salisbury’s Mallion’s Pride also depict marriages in which a young woman is transplanted into an environment which is completely alien to her and which she is expected to adapt to without fuss, causing great unhappiness.
Another novel that deals with the problem of the unequal marriage is Jo Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride, one of my favorites by her. In this book, Lucien de Vaux, Marquess of Arden, heir to the Duke of Belcraven, and Elizabeth Armitage, a schoolteacher, enter a marriage of convenience engineered by the powerful duke. Lifted from a plain, intellectual, middle-class lifestyle into the ducal mansion, Beth feels jittery and out-of-place from day one, partly because all the adjustment is expected from her, and next to none from Lucien. As they are characters of equal strength of will, their battles are fierce, and they hurt each other painfully. But Lucien learns to consider his wife as anything but a pawn, while she discovers sides to him that are a far cry from his splendid society persona and that make him approachable to her. They end the novel as equals in every sense, and they create a home that combines both their lifestyles.
As I avoid contemporaries featuring billionaires like the plague, I don’t know of any which really address the problem of one partner getting used to the lifestyle of the mega-rich. I have read one contemporary in which a man of moderate means marries a recent millionaire heiress – Julie Cohen’s Driving Him Wild aka His for the Taking – but the disparity of fortunes was not really the primary issue there.
Can you name any other romances – historical, contemporary, futuristic – which really address the situation of one partner giving up everything in his or her old life to be completely immersed in a new lifestyle, and the problems this can mean for the relationship? Do you like or dislike it when realism enters the HEA in such a way? Is it part of the fantasy for you that one partner can be transplanted just like that, or does this leave a feeling of unease in you, as it does in me?