Propose RIGHT!

balogh“Will you marry me? You would be well advised to say no.”

These are the words Edmond uses to propose to Mary in Mary Balogh’s The Notorious Rake. I first read it well over a decade ago, but it remains my favorite proposal in all of romance. And as a veteran reviewer of nearly twelve years, I’ve seen my share. Because I’ve seen so many, the unusual proposals stand out, and are duly noted. Also duly noted: A new Disturbing Trend, one you’ve probably noticed too. Heroines can no longer accept their first proposal from the hero. No matter how logical it may be, no matter how much they love the guy, they just can’t say yes the first time around.

Oh, we all know why. It’s because he didn’t ask right . The scenario goes like this: Hero and heroine have sex. It is 1815. She might be pregnant, because hey, it’s 1815. The hero, who has been in love with the heroine forever but just didn’t realize it, is secretly thrilled. Now, finally, he has an excuse to do what he’s been wanting to do for some time, which is ask this gorgeous woman to marry him so they can have sex legally whenever they feel like it. So he gets down on one knee, professes his regard and his fervent hope that she will accept his hand. Only to hear, “I can’t marry you! I won’t force you to marry me just because I am ruined and might possibly be pregnant!” Never mind that those are actually excellent reasons for getting married in 1815, particularly if you love someone anyway.

We all know what the heroine is waiting for – a pretty profession of love. Granted, if it happened in the middle of the book, the book might be over too soon. I am not really faulting the heroes, because after all they love the heroines and are bumbling through the best they know how, even though they are doing it all wrong. I blame the heroines, who should, I think, say yes occasionally, even if the hero has botched the wording. I’d like them to take an optimistic leap forward, trusting that even if the hero hasn’t said he loves them yet, he eventually will. I’d like them to have the common sense to realize that in the times they live in, they could do far worse than marry the man they love before he has said exactly the right words.

I should clarify that I am talking only of historicals. Life is different now; we have reliable, readily available birth control, and a variety of family structures. Single parents are not as stigmatized, and in most circles, brides are not expected to be virgins on their wedding day. That’s not to say that all women abstained from sex before marriage 200 years ago either. I actually did my senior thesis in college on illegitimacy rates in the 18th century (and yes, it was an interesting ice breaker at parties). There were plenty of pregnant brides and “early” babies, but for the most part people knew that a choice to have sex meant that marriage would soon follow, unless the man was an absolute bounder. And while I’m not an absolute stickler for historical realism, the sheer number of “I-can’t-marry-you-until-you-ask-me-right” heroines verges on both the unbelievable and the cliche. It’s getting to the point that I cringe when I see the proposal scene coming, because I already know what’s going to happen, and I already know I won’t like it.

That’s not to say that two proposals can’t ever work. No one would have expected Elizabeth Bennett to say yes to Mr. Darcy the first time he asked. Not only was it completely unexpected; he asked her in an arrogant, high-handed way. But then Elizabeth hadn’t just been banging him the night before either. If she had, the proposal wouldn’t have come as such a surprise.

Maybe I just have a soft spot for guys who can’t quite express their feelings exactly right. My own husband sort of forgot to propose. He told me he loved me, and said he wanted to marry me – forgetting that there was supposed to be a question involved in the process. I guess I said yes to the unasked question, but I did make him re-propose a month later – in the center of Disneyland, with a Mickey Mouse ring (which fit our budget at the time), and an actual question. That was almost 21 years ago. I have a better ring now, but I’m glad I stuck with the same guy – even if he kind of forgot to propose the right way.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite romance novel proposal? Does the “Propose right!” phenomenon drive you crazy?

- Blythe AAR

19 thoughts on “Propose RIGHT!

  1. Hi just became aware of your blog through Google, and found the homepage of yours competing at the same asLady gagas official site wich is quite unexpected. I’m going to tell you a secret, sometimes i go to google and just press a letter to see what suggestion i would get.your site i did find starting on the letter n. Maybe you can figure out the rest for yourself?;D

  2. I completely agree with you! I find it weird that heroines refuse heroes in Regency romances because they don’t think the hero “loves” them, when in reality, the whole concept of marriage in the Regency era was a financial transaction, nothing more. Mrs. Bennet wants to marry off her daughters to give them a comfortable future (since they would sink into poverty when Mr. Bennet dies like the Dashwoods) not because she wants them to “find true love.”

    I find it selfish of the (possibly pregnant and already ruined) heroine to reject the hero. They never stop to think what would happen not only to them but to their baby. Chances are no one would take them in, marriage to any man other than the hero impossible, at best, she’ll become a maid (governess out of the question since she has given birth to a bastard).

    Yeah, those books are written for modern readers, but the author never takes the time to consider what what people actually thought in the Regency Era. That (to quote the “Becoming Jane” film) the credo of the era was “Affection is desirable but money is absolutely indispensable.”

  3. Call me silly, but most men–in fiction and in real life–don’t take lightly asking a woman to marry them.

    So heroines and ladies of today, if you are proposed too, please take it seriously. You never know if he will ever work up the courage to ask again!

  4. Another reason for the heroine to not accept the proposal is that she ‘knows’ the hero doesn’t love her and does not want to trap him. How about letting him make up his own mind.When the hero points out that she might be pregnant, she assures him that she won’t be. Coming from a society where we have a lot in common with Regency heroines, this sort of behavior drives me crazy. Here a pregnant aristocratic heroine would be given three choices -marry the hero,get rid of the baby or give it for adoption.I can’t believe the Regency heroine would be given more choices.

  5. While Sir William had made a “tolerable fortune” in trade prior to his elevation to the knighthood, I don’t think it was a great enough sum for money not to be a factor in Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins. Austen writes, “Mr. Collins’s present circumstances made it a most eligible match for their daughter, to whom they could give little fortune; and his prospects of future wealth were exceedingly fair.” I’m not saying money was the only reason Charlotte married him–she was 27, not beautiful, and didn’t have many other options–but it was something she had to consider. In the end, she felt it better to have a husband like Mr. Collins than no husband at all.
    +1

  6. This may not be a totally new trend but it definitely seems to have ramped up over the past few years. I want to hit the heroine upside the head when she turns down the handsome, rich, highly eligible hero (and father of her potential baby) simply because he doesn’t use the “L” word. I understand not wanting to be in a loveless marriage, but that has to be way better than being a single mother in 1815, both for herself and her child. Jessica’s rationale is one of the reasons I love Loretta Chase and loved “Lord of Scoundrels”.

    As for N&S, I think Margaret’s refusal of her initial suitor was justified. She was only 19 or 20 and her parents, especially her mother, clearly needed her at that point. She did not love him, and part of what’s confounding about too many historical romances today is that the heroine refuses the hero even though she DOES love him.

  7. Completely with you on this one. It drives me nuts. I’d much rather they marry and then the hero proves his love later. I think one of the reasons it drives me insane is because of how little regard the heroine seems to give to her unborn child. And just the fact of how anachronistic it is.

    And yes too re the “I’ll never marry again” thing. But real people are generally much more optimistic about life than romance protagonists…

  8. See, I kind of disagree. I don’t read as many romance novels as I used to (tastes change and I’m BUSY) so I can’t speak to a more recent trend, but I feel that there are times that the heroine refuses not because the wording is not “right” or “perfect” but because the relationship has unresolved issues. Now, in reality we ALL know that commitment does not mean the resolution of problems, but I often interpret the first refusal as a recognition that there are problems or issues in the relationship that need to be resolved before moving forward. The unsuccessful proposal is an indicator of this.

    I don’t really care if there is a lot of historical practicality in my romance novels because they are written for a modern audience with modern sensibilities. There is a very large stigma on women today who “trap” men into marriage via sex/pregnancy/whathaveyou and I would imagine that authors are trying to stray more towards a self aware heroine who wants to be loved for herself not as an obligation. Unrealistic? yeah, totally, but it meets the needs of a lot of readers who, themselves, judge women by modern standards of behavior. Marriage for baby = bad life choice in today’s culture.

    • Rebekah: See, I kind of disagree.I don’t read as many romance novels as I used to (tastes change and I’m BUSY) so I can’t speak to a more recent trend, but I feel that there are times that the heroine refuses not because the wording is not “right” or “perfect” but because the relationship has unresolved issues.Now, in reality we ALL know that commitment does not mean the resolution of problems, but I often interpret the first refusal as a recognition that there are problems or issues in the relationship that need to be resolved before moving forward.The unsuccessful proposal is an indicator of this.

      If there are unresolved issues in a relationship the obvious solution is to DISCUSS them before answering the proposal. That is what the heroine of Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Shadows does, and she had far more weighty issues to consider (such as potential religious differences and whether the couple would live in England or abroad) than do most other heroines who receive proposals.

      In any event, if you are pregnant and single in England in 1815 and receive a proposal from the man you love, most “unresolved issues” don’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things. It is so obviously in the heroine’s best interest to accept the proposal that a refusal looks absurd.

      While there are modern readers who want to impose their own sensibilities on novels set in previous eras, there are probably as many who object strongly to anachronisms of this type. There’s no point in setting a novel in the Regency or any other prior period if the characters are going to ignore the social conventions of the day and act and behave like 21st century people.

      I’ve commented on this subject in several threads in the forums. It’s really a subset of the cliche of heroines walking away from relationships for little or no reason. So why do authors do it, given that the characters’ behavior is ridiculously implausible? Is it to make the hero prove his love by continuing to court the heroine after being rejected? Or is it simply a convention that is now so firmly established that most authors don’t question it’s rationale?

      • [humor]I imagine that being proposed to by a rich, handsome and besotted man must be wonderously wonderful. I don’t know what my high-side tolerance for this incredibly fabulous event might be in a single romance story, but I’m not taxed at twice.

        Advice to romance heroines: the author didn’t invest 300 pages in the two of you to let him get away. He’ll be back. Never accept the first offer!

        chris booklover: There’s no point in setting a novel in the Regency or any other prior period if the characters are going to ignore the social conventions of the day and act and behave like 21st century people.

        Anh! As if! What about those dresses and carriages and servants and midnight rendezvous on darkened terraces with dukes? What 21st century gal doesn’t enjoy wrapping her fantasies around that?

        Well, that is, if the fantasies also include modern plumbing, of course.[/humor]

  9. @Catherine – I agree that it’s not exactly new, but I feel like we have turned a corner recently in that it’s almost expected. It’s become shorthand, and I think it leads to lazy plotting.

    I have a similar frustration with contemporary series romances. More often than not, series heroes have had one bad relationship…which has made them decide that marriage is not for them. I know virtually no one in real life who thinks like this. (“It didn’t work out with my girlfriend! I must swear off committed relationships forevermore!”) IMHO, both the historical and contemporary scenarios share a similar problem: They just aren’t logical.

  10. One of the things I loved about Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn – the man she’s loved forever proposes and she actually accepts! It seemed almost unheard of. ;-)

  11. A favorite is Blue’s proposal in Ruth Wind’s Midnight Rain where he doesn’t really propose – he’s emotional and exhausted – but tells her all he’s feeling and what he wants but without actually using the word love or actually asking. He shows her a box and says he wanted something romantic she could tell their grand kids about, tells her he wants to marry her, spend his days with her, how much she makes him happy and how he never knew how lonely he was before he met her. The heroine is smart enough to say yes – even though she doesn’t
    actually say yes – just holds him and tells him she can’t promise to live forever. Beautiful.

    It takes a lot of guts to open yourself up for that kind of rejection, so when the heroine (it is her 99.9% of the time) rejects the guy on style points she doesn’t deserve to be proposed to again. Later if she wants to marry she should be the one proposing.

    In the case of pregnant or possibly pregnant heroines in historicals, that’s just idiotic even if you don’t think the man is in love but you do care for him. That it’s usually followed by some kind of (heinous) secret baby or refusal of financial support makes the heroine monumentally moronic, self destructive and destructive of others.

  12. I haven’t been reading romance for as long as some, but I am a little surprised at the idea that this is a *new* trend.

    A few years ago I read an online comment about Diana Gabaldon’s character Brianna, referring to her refusal to accept her first marriage proposal from Roger, “unlike a romance novel heroine” (written disparagingly). I remember thinking that the person who made that comment displayed her ignorance of the romance genre, and I decided that I couldn’t think of many books where the lady accepted right away.

    These books are written for women, so I think it’s perhaps something to do with making us feel flattered by having the man remain interested even though the lady says no right off the bat.

  13. One of my favorite proposal scenes is from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. The heroine considers the offer to marry (after she has been publicly compromised) “the equivalent of a gift of a reptile or rodent” from a boy. I love that she refuses to be a martyr to pride and accepts: “I find the prospect of a life of poverty and obscurity in a remote outpost of civilization singularly unattractive. I can think of nothing more absurd than living so merely for the sake of my pride. I had much rather be a wealthy marchioness…”
    I think I had just read a rash of historicals in which the pregnant heroine refuses all aid from anyone, so I really relished this scene.

    A good contemporary one–not a proposal, but a commitment to the marriage–is at the end of SEP’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine. The hero is somewhat incoherently (via picking wallpaper) trying to express his commitment to the heroine. She doesn’t really follow what home decorating has to do with anything, but she does grasp that he loves her madly, and that’s good enough.

    Yes, I do get annoyed with heroines who have a precise script that the hero must follow. (The reverse seems to happen less frequently.) Especially in historicals, for the social and economic reasons you refer to.

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  15. At the mid point in the film North and South when John Thornton proposes and Margaret refuses, I always wonder if she has lost her mind. Or if indeed she ever had a mind.

    Sadly, I am not the stuff romance novel heroines are made of as I would have nearly certainly married the stuffy but kind (and besotted with her) solicitor she turns down at the beginning of the movie. After all, her family doesn’t have any money, she isn’t getting any younger, and she seems to have no other goals she has a burning need to accomplish. So why not?

    Mr. Collins, though, I would have turned down. The Lucases had money, right? Spinsterhood would have been better than Mr. Collins. Waterboarding would have been better than Mr. Collins.

    • Rachel: Mr. Collins, though, I would have turned down.The Lucases had money, right?Spinsterhood would have been better than Mr. Collins.Waterboarding would have been better than Mr. Collins.

      While Sir William had made a “tolerable fortune” in trade prior to his elevation to the knighthood, I don’t think it was a great enough sum for money not to be a factor in Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins. Austen writes, “Mr. Collins’s present circumstances made it a most eligible match for their daughter, to whom they could give little fortune; and his prospects of future wealth were exceedingly fair.” I’m not saying money was the only reason Charlotte married him–she was 27, not beautiful, and didn’t have many other options–but it was something she had to consider. In the end, she felt it better to have a husband like Mr. Collins than no husband at all.

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