Recently, I reread Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March. It’s a book I’ve read with great pleasure before; this time I was particularly struck by the way the relationship between the poet Catullus and society lady Clodia is portrayed. He loves her with all his heart and writes great poems to her and about her; she sometimes admits him as her lover and spends time with him before jilting him again in favor of a rival. The novel leaves no doubt that Clodia is cruel and capricious; however, at this reading, I suddenly felt that I understood her right to jilt him, and her urge to do so. In spite of the undoubted depth of Catullus’ feelings, it is quite clear that Clodia does not feel as deeply for him. Yes, she might have treated him with far less cruelty, as Caesar points out to her, in ending the affair. But for the first time, my reaction as a reader was sympathy with her desire to regain her autonomy in the face of Catullus’s overwhelming love and of his general wonderfulness.
There are very few romances with a heroine refusing a suitor who feels an overwhelming passion for her. It sometimes seems as if the idea that a woman might just not be into a certain man who loves her with great and enduring passion is a no-no for romance. If there is such a man, he is made a creep who abducts the heroine to finally possess her, and so to the reader it’s perfectly understandable why she refuses him. His apparent or yet-hidden creepiness justifies her rejecting his passionate love. In the other possible scenario, there is an old buddy of the heroine’s who has loved her for ages but never let on. He is ususally a beta male and soon eclipsed by the hero. But how many romances are there in which the heroine refuses a deeply loving, passionate, fascinating man for just not loving him back?
The idea that in novels passionate love must be returned is not new. In Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline; or The Orphan of the Castle, first published in 1788, the heroine is wooed by her cousin Lord Delamere. He is rather like Georgette Heyer’s Vidal: charming, spoilt, a sportsman and wild young man about town. Emmeline partly refuses Delamere’s advances because his father, her uncle, disapproves of the union, but does so even more because although she likes Delamere well enough, that emotion is sisterly, and she feels she will never love him like a wife should. In modern terms, she just isn’t into him. She later meets the likeable, but far less charismatic Godolphin, and falls for him without hesitation. Contemporary readers of the novel like Walter Scott were unhappy that Emmeline chose whom they felt was the wrong man.
Among modern romances, a striking example of a heroine refusing a passionate, fascinating suitor in favor of a much plainer character can be found in Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant. (Warning: spoilers ahead! Read the rest of this paragraph at your own risk! ) Sent on a rather ridiculous errand by his cousin, Nez, who is actually a duke, disguises himself as a merchant and travels to the countryside, where he encounters the delightful Libby. Nez, besides being a duke, is handsome, charming, rich, arrogant, haunted since the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, and an alcoholic. First-class romance hero material, you’d think. He is also very likeable, even if he needs to be taken down a peg or two. When I first the novel for the first time, I fully saw him as the hero. So when a rival suitor turns up, Dr. Anthony Cook, who is a country doctor and has loved Libby from afar for ages, I was quite prepared to feel sorry for him when eventually he lost out – after all, characters like Anthony never get the girl. Imagine my delighted and utter surprise when matters did not turn out as I expected. I adore Anthony as a hero, and Libby’s London Merchant is still one of my favorite Carla Kelly romances (in which I’m not alone – see AAR’s Favorite Books by Favorite Authors poll, where the novel ranks third). Nez, by the way, does get his own book. But the fact remains that he is a truly fascinating character and fulfils more or less all requirements for romance hero, yet Libby rejects him.
I can think of very few romances with a similar scenario. In Georgette Heyer’s The Black Moth, the real hero is almost overshadowed by the charismatic villain, who turns up again as hero of These Old Shades. Come to think of it, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park must be listed here, as its heroine Fanny refuses the far more dashing Henry Crawford because she loves her rather staid cousin Edmund.
Can you think of other romances in which the heroine, instead of falling in love with the charismatic/millionaire/alpha male lead, chooses a very nice, but not that thrilling hero? Do you like this scenario? Or does romance, for you, mean that the heroine needs to find her HEA with Mr. Larger-than-Life?