Expanding the Boundaries of Romance

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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December 3, 2012

This post at Wonk-o-mance (especially this comment) along with some conversation on Twitter the other night got me thinking about the sorts of protagonists I’d like to see in romance novels.

Disabled protagonists–where the disability is more profound than an inconveniently placed birthmark or  a limp. One of the things I loved about Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie was his autism and how it was portrayed as an integral part of who he was but not the only thing about who he was. I was really looking forward to Tessa Dare’s A Lady By Midnight because Kate had been described in previous books as having a prominent port-wine birthmark on her face, but then it turns out that it’s but a splotch on her temple and I started to wonder if everyone in the prior books was just really shallow. I had the same problem with Eloisa James’s Fool for Love, whose heroine has a (IIRC) congenital hip deformity that impairs her ability to walk to a limited extent but which is not otherwise a serious problem (although in the book, she does believe that if she were to try to have a child that it would kill her but, of course, it doesn’t). And I seem to recall a Regency with a deaf heroine, but the title escapes me right now.

While all these representations are great to see, they are still somewhat limiting and are, to a certain extent, window-dressing. I know that historically (and even now, in some situations), people with disabilites were not allowed to marry or have romantic or sex lives–this was brought home to me a number of years ago when I read a biography of Helen Keller and learned that she had wanted to run away and elope with Annie Sullivan’s secretary but was thwarted by her mother. I’m not sure how a historical with a seriously disabled protagonist would work, exactly, but I’m sure it could be done. And it would certainly be appropriate to see such protagonists in contemporaries–I would love to see a contemporary really examine the barriers that a lot of people with disabilities encounter when trying to form romantic relationships and have fulfilling sex lives.

And how about protagonists who aren’t perfect physical specimens in other ways? There are a lot of sylph-like women and heavily muscled men out there in Romancelandia. When a character is fat, it’s always just plump or chubby, never fat–and I don’t think there are many books with fat male protagonists (one of the other things that disappointed me in James’s Duchess Quartet was the way the narrative treated Miles, Esme’s first husband–he was short, fat, and balding and mocked for it and then he keels over from a heart attack in his mid-thirties).

I’d also like to see characters from different socio-economic  groups represented. There are lots of wealthy people and small business owners and tycoons and nobility out there–how about middle-class people who work boring jobs? Or people who are poor?  Or people who work in the skilled trades? Or are unemployed? Or who are retired?

Finally, this last one–which is not really related to everything above–is one that some readers may feel is too serious and possibly too much of a downer for a genre romance and that is a Regency that acknowledges the rot at the heart of the setting: slavery.

I am not one of those readers–I think that with the right writer, a romance that looks this issue in the face has the potential to push the limits of the genre to a really interesting place. There are readers who would also prefer not to have same-sex or interracial relationships or explicit sex scenes in romance. There are other readers who prefer characters to be nothing more than ciphers for wish fulfillment fantasies. The genre is big enough for lots of different kinds of stories. I think romance has a lot of power to challenge people’s perceptions.

Tessa Dare touched on slavery in A Lady of Persuasion.  The female protagonist, Isabel, is the daughter of a disgraced younger son sent to the Indies to manage his family’s sugar plantations which have slaves. She has two half-brothers, one is the son of a free white woman and the other is the son of a black slave. Isabel’s mother was Spanish and mentally unbalanced. Isabel is a reformer and an abolitionist and is pretty strident about it and the only reason she marries Toby is that she thinks he’ll help her with her cause. I loved her but a lot of people didn’t.

Julie Ann Long also touches upon slavery in her Pennyroyal Green series and I am hopeful that when she does write a book about Olivia Eversea and Lyon Redmond that she deals with the subject more directly.

This is, naturally, a difficult and fraught subject and one which directly affects a lot of readers. I know I avoid most historicals set in the US before the Civil War because I absolutely do not want to read books in which slavery isn’t challenged by both the characters and the text. If I want to read apologia for keeping human beings as property (and I’d really rather not), I can find plenty of texts written in the time period for that.

Some people may argue that as historical novels, having racist slave-owning characters is true to the period except: romance novels are modern novels written for modern readers and the ones I enjoy the most do not adhere strictly to historical accuracy when it comes to the protagonists’ beliefs and behaviors. After all, we don’t see female protagonists dying in childbirth (this only happens off-screen to either mothers or first wives and occasionally sisters) or rakes with raging cases of the pox which they then proceed to pass on to their wives and children.

But that is another post for another day–what kinds of protagonists would you all like to see in your romances? Are there stories out there that deal with these issues of which I am unaware? If so, please let me know so I can expand my reading horizons!

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