At the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference last week I attended a seminar entitled Universal Elements of Romance Fiction, hosted by Catherine LaRoche.
Catherine LaRoche is a professor of gender and cultural studies at a college in the US, and has just finished a year at Leeds University in the UK. (My old uni, and home of many fond memories – mainly of reading romance novels and playing cards :) ) You can read the gist of Catherine’s talk here on the fabulous Romaniacs’ blog, where she welcomes comments on her theories.
As it happens I’d been mulling over Catherine’s talk ever since the conference, and in particular thinking about the second universal romance element she cites:
It is a man’s world. Women generally have less power [in romance novels], fewer choices, and suffer from vulnerability and double standards. They often get stuck looking after men or being overlooked by men.
I’ve been wondering if this is really true these days about contemporary romance novels. Do the heroes really still have all the power?
(I’m not talking about historical novels, because in ye olden days men did have all the power, so the relationship between hero and heroine ought to reflect this. Although even here, to be honest, 21st century authors – especially in the US – give the heroines in Regency romances far more autonomy than they ever really had. Their heroines are often assertive women with liberal values – a bit like a college graduate in a corset.)
I’ve tried to think back on the last few contemporary romance novels I’ve read, to see whether Catherine LaRoche’s theory that the heroines live in a man’s world holds up in them.
First up, I’ve just finished Zoe’s Muster, by the brilliant Barbara Hannay. Zoe runs her own business, in a totally female world: she makes cupcakes and does tea parties for hen do’s. She’s not happy in her business, though, and only started it because her dad – a powerful politician – kept on at her to make a go of herself. Also, her mum gave up a promising career as a musician to support her husband in politics. So far, the man has it. But! only a few pages into the book we find out Mr Porter isn’t her real dad, anyway, so he’s lost his power now. Zoe travels to the outback to find her real dad and takes up a job as cook on a cattle muster. This is a real man’s world, but Zoe takes an equal part in it, doing an essential job with efficiency and aplomb. She falls in love with one of the ranchers (of course!), and I couldn’t say the hero has any more power or better choices than she does. He’s carrying a hang-up about a previous girlfriend who was only after his land, which makes him vulnerable. And at the end of the story, the politician father-figure fails to get re-elected, and is devastated, and his power drops entirely away. In this story the heroine’s parents lived in a man’s world, but the heroine broke out and did what she wanted to do.
The contemporary romance I read before that was The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, by Jill Mansell. The heroine, Sophie, runs her own photography business, and is financially independent. Like the hero of Zoe’s Muster, though, she’s carrying a major hang-up about an old flame, so this does make her vulnerable. The hero, Josh, runs a hotel jointly with his grandmother, which I thought was a nice power-sharing touch. His concern for his grandmother is his vulnerability. I didn’t come away from the novel thinking there was a power imbalance, but that’s just my opinion. Maybe others might read more into Sophie’s hang-up about relationships, but really I didn’t find the hang-up particularly believable. I saw it as just a plot device on Jill Mansell’s part to keep the hero and heroine apart for the course of the novel.
Now to quickly put my two contemporary romances under the spotlight. The Silk Romance – yes, fair do’s, the hero here does have all the power, and the heroine is struggling for cash and caring for her family. To be fair, this is the first romance I ever wrote. I totally love the hero, but I did feel at the time of writing – rightly or wrongly – that this was the way to write a romance novel. Now I feel personally that present day contemporary romances have moved on from this power imbalance.
So in my second published contemporary romance – The Antique Love – I tried to make sure the power balance was equal. The heroine runs her own business. She doesn’t earn as much as the hero, but that’s not an issue because she has a good income and is passionate about what she does, and that’s important to her. Both the hero and heroine have vulnerabilities. The heroine struggles with self-esteem, because her mother was a beautiful film star, and her grandmother brought her up to feel she’d let the side down. The hero has issues because of his terrible step mother. Both are equally flawed, due to the powerful women in their childhood, but their mutual love “cures” the other’s flaws.
I’ve never been one for reading the Bought by the Billionaire Sheik type of book, so maybe that’s why I find contemporary romances show a more equal power balance these days. I prefer romances where the heroine is equal to the hero, and they both have something to offer each other. But Fifty Shades of Grey was the best-seller ever, so what do I know?
I’d love to know what you think. Do you read a lot of romances? Is it “a man’s world” in the books you’ve read recently, and do you like the billionaire type hero? Can you recommend any romances where the power was an equal split?
If you have any thoughts or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!