NOTE: This piece contains slight spoilers for Christmas with the Duchess by Tamara LeJeune, as well as for Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series.
Oh, divorce. It’s all too common these days, and many a protagonist in contemporary romances has an ex-husband or-wife. It can be a key point in the plot, but it’s not always dramatic or significant. It just is. But things haven’t always been this way.
Despite a few notorious historical examples, you don’t hear too much about people in England divorcing each other back in the day. For many — especially women — it wasn’t legally an option, or at least not a viable one without having your name dragged through the mud and your entire personal life made public.
So it isn’t too often that we see a character in a historical married to someone other than the hero or heroine. There just aren’t that many options for this situation to be resolved. Thankfully the number of virgin wives/widows has decreased over the years, though I’m sure all of us can think of at least one book where the heroine got an annulment based on non-consummation (whether this is legally legitimate is up for debate).
One of the anachronisms I dislike the most is casual treatment of divorce. In Christmas With the Duchess by Tamara Lejeune, this is the case — no consequences and a whole heck of a lot of lies. Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements also centers on the heroine’s petition for divorce. This is a much, much better book, and (if I recall) seems to be more realistic in its portrayal.
Of course, there’s a slightly more grisly option for an author to get rid of the unwanted spouse — kill them off. Lauren Willig has done this not once, but twice, in her Pink Carnation series. There are the doddering old dukes that have bought a blushing young virgin, whose hearts just can’t handle the pressure of consummation. There are the collateral victims along the way of a vendetta against one of the protagonists. And there are the husbands or wives who are actually enacting that vendetta. But there aren’t a whole lot of options beyond that, are there?
It sort of sucks when this happens. I don’t like it when people have to die to make it convenient for our hero and heroine to hook up. When the hero showed up with a wife in Christmas with the Duchess, I was actually shocked when she survived the book.
Which is better — offing an unwanted spouse, or putting our hero and heroine through an emotionally and reputationally damaging divorce that will affect the rest of their lives? Both options suck. Which is probably why authors avoid this for the most part.
It was probably more common for someone to marry for convenience, and find love outside the marriage. It’s what some characters are encouraged to do after falling in love with someone “unsuitable,” and it’s what Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famously had. But that’s not very satisfying as a romance, is it?
In this case, I prefer my stories a bit unrealistic. I don’t want either hero or heroine married when the book starts. I don’t want to see them to get divorced. And I don’t want someone killed off. Even if it limits the plot possibilities, I fully support authorial avoidance of unwanted spouses, especially in historicals. It’s a bit of a cop-out, perhaps, and makes things easier, but that is a lot more satisfying to me as a reader than the other options.
– Jane Granville