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27 April 2009

Crusading Heroines & Readers Who Love Them

Pam’s comments on a recent post had me thinking all weekend . . .

There is a trend in historical romance (or so it seems to me) for heroines to be crusading do-gooders, or at the very least to be overly aware of the myriad of horrors that lurk behind the everyday commonalities of life and commerce and production. This awareness on their part seems to be in direct contradiction to historical reality and even to modern reality.

When I’ve discussed this issue with friends (of both the reader and the writerly persuasion) I get a response that I find quite curious: they think that having characters highlight the dark side of life back then by being reformers makes the character more accessible for a 21st century reader. I like to counter by asking if they felt a lack of connection with the women on Sex in the City or Desperate House Wives because they don’t obsess about the factories full of women (and yes, they’re almost all women, practically girls) who spend 9/10 hours a day sewing their garments, or the boys who cobble their shoes, or the Pakistani children who sharpen and polish surgical instruments so their doctor boyfriends can earn their astronomical salaries to pay for those dinners at Nobu? I never noticed that it was a problem for the masses.


In fact, most modern Westerners (yeah, I’m pointing my finger at Canadians and Europeans here too) don’t know and don’t care where their “cheap” goods come from. The mom shopping at Wal-Mart for her kinds Dora the Explorer flipflops doesn’t care what conditions they were made under and she doesn’t want to be told and made to feel bad. The college student dumping his old PC for a shiny new Mac doesn’t know (and doesn’t care) about the electronic waste that’s poisoning the 3rd world. People don’t want to be told that their penchant for beef is one of the leading causes of global warming, or that the imported teak floor they just installed is an environmental nightmare.

But I’m beginning to wonder if readers’ penchant for crusading historical heroines isn’t a way of sidestepping their modern guilt over all of the above (I mean, we all KNOW at some level that everything we buy and eat and wear and drink has a cost in blood, sweat and tears that someone else is paying, right?). If characters like Heyer’s Arabella Tallent (who scoops up climbing boys and faces down their masters) and Jeffries’ Lady Clara Stanbourne (who runs a home for pickpockets), and, oh, I don’t know, a dozen other books I’ve read where the heroine runs some committee for the poor, or puts on a ball, or is BFFs with her maid, aren’t giving us an extra jolt of fantasy and an extra hit of feel-good-about-the-world that is totally based on our being able to feel superior along with our heroine? Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t see this same trend in contemporary romances (or maybe I’m just missing the books with the heroines who are consumed by modern causes . . . but I think not, cause in a modern setting such a character quickly begins to feel preachy).

I mean, can you tell me (without looking!) where your shoes were made?

20 Comments:

Blogger Keira Soleore said...

No comment whatsoever since it hadn't occurred to me before, but wow! I love the post.

An aside, not all historicals (for example, medievals) reflect this crusading zeal--mostly Regencies seem to have these misses (rarely men). Men were the ones making the deals and mooching off the poor for their profit.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Maire Creegan said...

Hi Kalen! Great post. I agree. I do think that reading about heroic heroines with a zeal for changing injustice is a way for us to sidestep current issues. I think it is very easy for an audience todays, to say- well of course everyone should have been fighting poverty in the seven dials, closing work houses, and ending slavery. Most people historically didn't do this. And the most people category is the one that . . . well most people fall into today.

Sigh. Thanks for reminding me that every day I should try to be a bit like the heroines I so admire. My own personal favorite is Margaret from Gaskell's North and South.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

@ Kiera: Heyer has Sir Waldo in The Nonesuch who runs orphanages for boys (and who nearly gets bit in the butt when the heroine falls under the impression that the boys are all his by-blows, LOL!).

If you look at the history of the Abolitionists, you'll find a lot of REALLY dedicated men and women. I've often played with the idea of having an Abolitionist hero, but once you open that kettle of worms all kinds of stuff becomes an issue (like abstaining from sugar, rum, and cotton). It’s like going vegan, suddenly every choice you make is fraught with *meaning*.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I think it is very easy for an audience todays, to say- well of course everyone should have been fighting poverty in the seven dials, closing work houses, and ending slavery. Most people historically didn't do this.

True, and while we do want our characters to be exceptional, I'm not sure how much I'm able to buy in to them being hyper-exceptional (I have this same problem with the heroines who don't want to marry because they want to be a doctor, explorer, or other generally impossible and totally unrealistic goal).

In general, I’m highly skeptical that most people had even the vaguest idea of the conditions under which the items that made up their lives were produced (today we have access to vastly more information on this topic and the level of knowledge and interest are abysmally low).

Gaskill’s North and South is a great example of this (though even when we come to understand the world of the North I still find it appalling and would prefer the South!).

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Maryan Wherry said...

"There is a trend in historical romance (or so it seems to me) for heroines to be crusading do-gooders. . ."
I’d suggest it’s more than that. Romance novels--particularly historical romances--have a distinct reputation of being light fluffy, frothy escapism into some sort of dopey fantasy. The actions of Heyer’s Arabella are actually more plot complicating comic elements than a reflection of a more noble character trait. It seems that making the heroine into a crusader is an attempt to dispel the flighty reputation of the heroine and the genre. You know, to give it Purpose. Moral Redemption. Greater Meaning.

In a similar development, Heyer’s (and others) heroines all liked to read but they mostly read novels (some wonderful post-modern self-referentiality) but the trend now is to have the heroine reading the classics or history--you know, Real Literature--rather than popular romances.

"I mean, can you tell me (without looking!) where your shoes were made?"
Yep: Germany. I wear Birkenstocks—and even there, they cost a pretty penny.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Okay, Kalen, I'll bite.

I don't know where my shoes come from, but when I wrote The Slightest Provocation, I was every bit as outraged as my heroine about a government that was stomping upon the principle of habeas corpus. And if I tried to create a socially conscious heroine who was less than perfect vis-a-vis her own chambermaid -- it's because I think that's how fiction works best, as mimetic of the world as we find it.

While as for North and South that PBS has taught us all to love... The very dishy Richard Armitage aside, I don't think the actual novel is a very good example of anything except a confused moment when Mrs. Gaskell was pressured to show "both sides of the story" after the response to her earlier, angrier, and better Mary Barton (rather as today's mainstream media looks for two sides to every political story, as though there could have been two sides to the story of what went on in the Manchester mills).

The Regency was an extraordinarily political period, with a gazillion newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsheets screaming about political outrages -- like slavery, waged and unwaged. Mansfield Park's Fanny Price followed the abolitionist discussions (with sympathy, I assume, as did her Tory author)-- and Shelley and Byron and Caroline Lamb knew perfectly well about social inequality (Byron spoke in the House of Lord on behalf of machine-breakers), even if their day-to-day activities didn't accord awfully well with their principles.

So I think there's a lot more than guilt motivating at least some of us who try to recuperate a certain deeply fascinating aspect of the period.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

In some ways I agree, and in some I don't. I really AM interested in learning about the social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and if you use one of them as a heroine and an aristocrat as hero, you get instant conflict that doesn't need to rely on Big Misunderstandings. Because they don't misunderstand, they just don't agree, and compromise has to happen before the happy ending.

I would be annoyed, though, if a reformer heroine pitched it all in to loll around in luxury once she married.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

So I think there's a lot more than guilt motivating at least some of us who try to recuperate a certain deeply fascinating aspect of the period.I really wasn't thinking of your novels so much, Pam . . . you're one of the authors out there who I think actually really digs down and uses the period *issues* as a meaty part of your book (as more than a layer of marchpane to show the reader that the heroine is *smart* and *nice* and *worthy*).

I do know that a lot of people during our period of interest really DID care about the issues of the day, but I guess I'm rebelling against the more frothy versions that abound (where the heroine's concern is almost used to comic effect).

Maybe I’m just not expressing what’s bothering me very well . . .

12:40 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

@ Victoria: Now you've got me picturing The Winslow Boy. I love the final scene in the film. It's uber romantic and you can tell those two are in for some serious fights, but you can also tell that they respect one another and are almost looking forward to a life of "discussions", LOL!

12:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I know you weren't really thinking of my books, Kalen, so I apologize for the hauteur that colored my comment. But then, I wasn't really thinking of you so much as of the absurdity that certain pundits make of "liberal guilt." As though it were somehow shallow to express one's vexation at the selfishness, stupidity, and downright evil that underlies perfectly preventable social inequities. As though it were more elegant and heroic to create a witty frame around it. As though it were easy to know what one person can do in the face of it.

As for showing the reader that the heroine is *smart* and *nice* and *worthy*... That's a very interesting question about our genre. Why do we need to like our h&h so damn much -- and almost from page one? Why must they be our *nicest* selves, instead of our deepest, most problematical...?

That said, I agree that

1:10 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

That said, I agree that (in the last post) should be ignored as a typo. Sorry.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Why do we need to like our h&h so damn much

I wonder about this too. I'd much rather have interesting protagonists that I can learn to respect and grow to like than a Mary Sues and Marty Stus. *rolls eyes*

And it's not that I dislike the idea of books featuring people of character and ideas, but that so often it doesn't feel authentic when I see it done. The character is a “staunch Abolitionist”, but she’s eating sweets on every other page (guess where sugar comes from, baby?). It’s like the author didn’t think it though . . . or like they didn’t really understand the issue they decided to feature as their character’s *own*.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Very provocative post, Kalen. And maybe I should stay out of it because I tend to read more historical fiction than historical romance -- at a ratio of maybe 99 to 1. And the historical fiction I tend to be blown away by (Pam and I have both mentioned Geraldine Brooks's remarkable "March") on this blog, tends to have more to digest than the average romance when it comes to incoporating historical events into the novel.

And before people get their hackles up, it's not to "diss" the romance genre. But, given what publishers choose to send to the shelves, I'm thinking that it's a matter of what they feel readers want to buy. That's why I love the hoydens so much. We happy few history geeks may be more interested in the nitty gritty and the darker corners of the societal eras in which we set our novels (also discussed at length in the past here) than what the publishers' sales and marketing forces, and the numbers coming out of Ingram and Borders and Amazon are reflecting.

2:33 PM  
Anonymous Maire Creegan said...

Pam, I completely agree with you about Gaskell's North and South. It is so hard to see the side of the "Bosses". Even though Gaskell does a good job of trying to be open minded, it is hard to put aside the abject poverty in which the workers lived.

I also, didn't quite look at his post as I should, in that heroines are written as do-gooders strictly for comedic purposes. Hrmm. I do think it is true. Rather like the heroine loving children and always caring for the sick. Unless we're talking The Duchess of Devonshire style of reformer I'm really not interested. She was a REAL reformer and lived quite a "not nice" life.

I also think its odd that we need "Mary Sues" and "Marty Stus". Though I feel like it could be a whole separate post, is it because we feel that we have failed at being "nice people" and therefore need to read about them? After all the quintessential couple Lizzie and Darcy are not really very nice. Why do we have to be nice?

In truth, nice people. . . like well behaved women, rarely make or change history. :D Now, I'm not saying every one go out and be mean, but really now?

Fabulous post. Everybody's comment have just really inspired me.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Kalen! I quite enjoy reading about crusading characters, and I've written several. As Pam says, the Regency era is so complex and rich and distinctly tarnished beneath the glamour. Crusading characters can be a window into the some of the darker recesses of that world and the fascinating contradictions. Besides, again as Pam says, there's quite a bit of social consciousness expressed in period letters and pamphlets and novels. I find characters interesting who aren't necessarily crusaders but still have a certain amount of social consciousness. I don't think I could write a hero or heroine totally lacking in social consciousness (at least not by the end of the book).

As to shoes, I do know where mine are made, and my dresses and skirts and sweaters. I routinely check when I'm shopping. It doesn't mean I won't buy clothes from certain countries, but I do like to know (for one thing, certain countries tend to be particularly good at certain fabrics and types of clothing). I regret that I had Mélanie serving sugar in "Secrets of a Lady." I suspect Charles and Mélanie would boycott sugar. After all, I drink fair trade coffee :-).

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Why is it that in the many, many medieval historical romances I've read the heroines are rarely "do-gooders" crusading for a cause? Most of the time they were simply struggling to survive. The middle ages were tough for everyone.

Now I know I am making a generalization here, and someone out there will find a ream of medieval romances where the damsel is doing good for a worthy cause, but really, that heroine is most often seen in regency, westerns and victorians, don't you agree?

9:26 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Why is it that in the many, many medieval historical romances I've read the heroines are rarely "do-gooders" crusading for a cause?Not only was life tough in the middle ages, Kathrynn, but they already had crusades and a literature based upon them like Orlando Furioso. And whatever the true history and politics of The Crusades, the literary historians would have it that all romantic adventure story since then contains some element of the retelling of medieval quest narrative.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I've noticed a couple of memes with medieval heroines (though I’ll admit I don’t often read books with settings before the English Civil War): Often they are "healers" of some kind and their "crusade" is to use their gift to benefit everyone around them; or they are champions of womens’ rights (some even donning armor to defend their castles). This doesn’t fit the discussion of social do-gooders in quite the same way as the charitable do-gooders of the Regency, but I think the *idea* still holds.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Interesting and very valid post, Kalen. My shoes, by the way, are made in the United States, Germany or Italy, and yes, those choices are deliberate on my part.

I'm no saint. I don't eat beef, but I do eat chicken and turkey. I make a lot of my own clothes, but I am sure I have things that are made under some awful conditions.

Most of my causes tend to be animal causes. I've helped the local sheriffs bust a couple of dog fighting rings and turned a national rescue organization on to a puppy mill about 20 miles from here.

My first novel is a minor tribute to Black Beauty, my favorite childhood novel as my heroine is involved in "rescuing" horses from cruel owners and "stealing" them away to a place they can be cared for in comfort. My second Regency addresses the topic of child abuse / molestation.

It is hard to write about the underbelly of the Regency world without getting preachy about it, but it CAN be done. Of course, any hero or heroine involved in this sort of thing would be a character outside of the norm, but there are ways to make that attractive and write an intriguing, spellbinding story.

People are perfectly aware of the things that go in the world that prove we have NOT evolved as a species nearly as much as we think we have. As a bakery manager at Wal-Mart I scan out and throw away THOUSANDS of dollars worth of food every day. Wal-Mart will NOT donate to charity for fear of being sued should someone get sick. It sickens me to throw this food away. I was not brought up like this. At times like this, I cannot help but think "No wonder so many countries hate us." Those people who pick over every single item on my shelves to find the newest, freshest date are the very ones who talk about what a shame it is and yet they think they DESERVE the freshest food available.

1:55 PM  
Blogger C. Edwards said...

Ooo... lovely question. Shoes -- made in Portugal. What does that mean? I don't know, but Portugal doesn't come up on the abusive labor practices scale often.

Here's my perspective (coming at it as a historical demographer more than as a working on it novelist): It's easier to crusade against something when it's in your face every day. For modern Western culture, we don't see the sweatshops and the factory farms and the child labor. It's not happening on our block or in our cities and we humans have really short and really short-sighted attention spans. We're not very good at associating our local lives with what's happening on the other side of the world.

However, even two hundred years ago, that wasn't true. One didn't have much choice but to see the rag and bone men, the chimney sweeps, the abused animals, the starving children. I can easily see Regency heroines with even a scrap of empathy being motivated to "Do Something" about what they see every day, especially considering the fairly divergent paths of Christian theology at the time. One path says, "The poor will always be with us; God makes the poor poor on purpose and it neither serves His Will nor benefits anyone to struggle against that and divert resources from His Mission (though that mission is not well defined)" and seems to be the older idea, perhaps a cultural remnant of feudalism. Then there's a second path that seems to come out of the Enlightenment that says, "As you treat the least amongst us, you treat Me, so care for the poor, make an effort, do your best to help others."

Thus, for a relatively young, curious, well-educated woman, having been presented with those theological arguments -- since most girls, even if they didn't get much other education, did get a solid theological one -- and seeing realistic horror around her, I find it natural. Further, especially in the Regency, when various crusades were common, literacy was nearly universal even for middle-class women, and every paper had a pet project, being socially unconscious would be difficult.

There's also the aspect of distraction -- they had less of it. As I sit here, typing this, I'm listening to a new album, thinking about where a pair of characters need to go, thinking about this question, avoiding laundry, castigating myself for not getting my new bookcases built... The same labor issues that motivated a Regency heroine to crusade against children in coal mines also gave her the leisure to do so. So they had a level of cognitive dissonance running through their lives, too, but the typical Regency Heroine isn't working in a coal mine. She has people do do her laundry, cook her meals and keep all that hideous chinoiserie clean. So in that, they're not terribly different from us.

8:40 PM  

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