Heyer vs. Harlequin: Family Fantasies

Sprig Muslin, my recent Georgette Heyer re-read, features one of my favorite types of Heyer heroines/plots: the older, responsible heroine who is freed by love.  Now that she’s in her late 20s, Lady Hester’s family has given up expecting her to marry. While she is nominally the mistress of her widowed father’s house, “as his son and heir, Lord Widmore, found it expedient to reside, with his wife and growing family, under his father’s roof, the Lady Hester’s position was, in fact, little better than that of a cipher.”  She hopes one day to set up house for herself in a little cottage, but her family intends to send her off to act as unpaid governess and general dogsbody for one of her sisters.

Not all the Heyer heroines of this type are so down-trodden. But several are trapped by duty to their families or to random stray teenagers (in a nice twist, Sprig Muslin burdens its hero with troublesome runaway Amanda “Smith”). There’s Abby in Black Sheep, Annis in Lady of Quality, and Frederica and Venetia in their eponymous novels. Some of their charges are more annoying than others, but all of them limit the heroines’ ability to seek their own happiness (so, of course, do the conventions of their era, but these women don’t wish for particularly unconventional lives).

The way in which love frees the heroine is particularly clear in Black Sheep and Lady of Quality. Spoilers ahead, though not huge ones (I mean, you know the hero and heroine are getting together, right?). Skip to the paragraph after the block quote to give them a miss.

Abby in Black Sheep loves Miles, but can’t bring herself to abandon her idiot sister and niece to marry him. So Miles, who feels no attachment or duty to his own family, elopes with her, essentially forcing her to give in to her own desires. At the end of the rather similar Lady of Quality (I don’t mind the similarity; I love both these books), hero Oliver cheerfully finds another home for his niece and ward Lucilla, whom Annis had temporarily taken charge of. As Oliver explains, he doesn’t wish to include a third person in their household:

“I want a wife, not a chaperon for my niece!  . . . A companion, Annis! Someone who may say, if I suggest that we should jaunt over to Paris, that she doesn’t feel inclined to go to Paris, but who won’t say: ‘But how can I leave Lucilla?'”

Sounds dreamy, of course, but my feeling on reading this is always, “Oliver! Dude! You come closer to saying you can’t wait to get her into bed than most Heyer heroes ever do. What the heck do you think is going to happen in the early 19th century?!?!? That third is going to come along before you know it, and you won’t be able to leave him/her with nurse while you jaunt off to Paris forever.”

End spoilers.

This fantasy of escaping from family obligations into a blissfully free romantic duo ends a good many Heyer novels. Other characters may say it’s time the hero was setting up his nursery, and he may acknowledge that responsibility himself, but he rarely if ever makes it part of his declaration to the heroine. Mooning over the image of his beloved’s belly swollen with his child is not for him.

How different the contemporary romance. Today, a couple can choose to remain child-free so that they can jet off to Paris at will. Yet few contemporary romance couples do. Even more, as a recent Twitter conversation bemoaned, it’s not uncommon for them to be brought together by an unplanned pregnancy. Harlequin Presents (and to a lesser extent Superromance) are the most egregious perpetrators of “you’re having my baby, you must marry me” plots, but they crop up elsewhere. Romance heroines almost never consider alternatives to continuing a pregnancy and keeping the baby, though they’re more likely to consider not marrying the father. I don’t wish to mock that decision when made by real-life women. But it’s certainly not a reflection of reality that so few heroines even consider the morning-after pill, abortion, or adoption. In some books, that seems realistic for the particular character (an older, financially independent heroine who thought she might not have a chance to be a mother, for instance), but in many it is decidedly not.

This contrast between Heyer and her literary descendents made me think about how the fantasies–of family or not–they offer relate to their historical context. It’s easy to point to the conservatism of the romance genre and of its American readership. After all, American TV and movies seldom dare to represent a “good” character who chooses abortion either. That’s true enough, but I think there’s more to it.

North Americans live in a time and place where divorce rates are high, and there’s a lot of sadness and disappointment behind those statistics. I think women who have abortions would rather not have had to make that choice (I’m certainly grateful I was never confronted with it). Don’t get me wrong: I think divorce should be legal; I think abortion should be legal and that American women should have much better access to it than many of them do right now; I think both and divorce and abortion can be wise, right choices for people to make, and that they should be able to make them based on their own values, not other people’s. But I also understand why a fictional world where people don’t confront those hard choices, where an unplanned pregancy leads to a happy-ever-after family, can be appealing to some people these days.

Heyer, on the other hand, wrote in the first half of the 20th century, when an unplanned pregnancy often did mean marriage (and/or shame) and people were largely trapped if their marriage was not a happy one. A time when women were disproportionately burdened by the responsibility of caring for children. It makes sense, then, that she and her readers might find the fantasy of freedom from such responsibilities appealing.

In some ways, Heyer’s happy endings are far less conservative than modern ones; characters like Annis might be more at home in the era of the pill and childlessness by choice than are many contemporary romance heroines who cheerfully ditch their careers, move to small towns, and start popping out babies. While that progression might seem backwards, viewed in historical context it makes some sense.

I’d still like to see more variety and risk-taking in contemporary romance, though. Does it have to offer us so much fantasy, or can we see more happy endings that reflect the full range of ways modern women define that for themselves?

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7 Responses to Heyer vs. Harlequin: Family Fantasies

  1. In some ways, Heyer’s happy endings are far less conservative than modern ones

    Heyer was extremely conservative, though. According to Jennifer Kloester’s biography

    Georgette gradually became completely conservative – even reactionary – in her views, and ambivalent about the role and place of women in society. She consistently criticised the feminist stance, and could be vehement in her condemnation of women in business, despite the fact that for most of her life she would be the main family bread-winner. (134).

    Her heroines would never need to consider what to do about an unplanned pregnancy because they’re would never have sex before marriage. In Devil’s Cub the heroine’s sister has loose morals and is depicted as being by far the heroine’s inferior. Indeed, this contrast between the heroine and her sister is taken as an indication that the heroine has taken after her aristocratic father, whereas her sister takes after their vulgar lower-class mother. Heyer’s working-class characters generally know their place (and if they don’t, they’re despised for being vulgar “cits” and “mushrooms.”)

    That third is going to come along before you know it, and you won’t be able to leave him/her with nurse while you jaunt off to Paris forever

    Heyer’s protagonists are aristocrats. This means that when “third” gets older you send him to Harrow/Eton or leave her with a governess. This wasn’t really a “fantasy” for Heyer, by the way: she sent her own son off to boarding school when he was about nine (Kloester 216). As far as I know, that was quite a common thing for parents of her class to do at that time.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Geez, I knew I shouldn’t have just dashed this one off. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Heyer herself was not conservative. I do think, though, that the happy ending in her novels is often represented as an escape from family rather than, as in many contemporary novels, an embrace of family (all those baby epilogues). And in contemporary North American terms, at least, I’d see the latter as a more “conservative” ending. No question, in other ways Heyer’s novels are far more conservative than their contemporary descendants.

      Do you think most of her readers were of her class? I imagine that aristocratic freedom was very appealing to women who did not have the options Heyer and her characters did. While I agree with all you say, pregnancy and childbirth would limit a couple’s life periodically and temporarily (and a daughter would eventually need chaperonage for a time). I just think it’s interesting that Oliver Carleton’s vision of the future seems to be of an eternal perfect dyad, and however many servants you turn your children over to, that isn’t quite the case (I wonder how he will feel about perfectly lovely Annis when she has strech marks and gray hair, too).

  2. “Do you think most of her readers were of her class?”
    While Heyer’s readership may not have been predominately upper or upper middle class, it was certainly middle class and she probably appealed most to those with a predisposition towards the gentry (at least in their fantasies.) Therefore taking care of their own children would not be an aspiration. Nannies, nurses and nursery maids! Ship ’em in, please. Even now the English tend, in my experience, to be much less sentimental about their offspring than Americans. Leaving them at home with the help (or Granny) while the parents take a civilized vacation sounds totally normal and, indeed, a Good Plan.

  3. Isobel Carr says:

    I simply find the abortionless landscape of contemporary romance to be unrealistic and hard to identity with. It feels so very 1950s. I’ve been lucky enough to never get pregnant, but nearly woman I know under fifty (barring the lesbians who’ve never slept with a man) has had an abortion. It’s a VERY common procedure in modern America (last statistic I saw said that 22% of all pregnancies, and half of unintended pregnancies. end in abortion).

    Given the facts on the ground, when having a child will severely impact a heroine’s life (in a negative way), the idea that she never thinks about having an abortion says to me that she must have a moral issue with it, and this she’d likely to be deeply religious and/or adopted (as these are the only women I’ve ever met who would never even consider the option, or would ruin their lives over it). It would make sense to me to see this kind of stance in an Inspie, but it’s a bizarre stance for a heroine who’s having one-nighters with playboy sheiks or billionaire bosses. Those women are otherwise portrayed as modern and feminist and self-actualized. So it’s jarring when they don’t share the position/reality of the majority of actual women. Or it is to me.

    And now I’m sure I’ll get gutted, just like I did on twitter …

  4. Do you think most of her readers were of her class? I imagine that aristocratic freedom was very appealing to women who did not have the options Heyer and her characters did.

    I have the impression that she had a fairly wide readership. You and Jessica have both written posts about overreading and underreading recently and in the light of them I think that then, as now, readers probably focused on the bits they found most enjoyable, skimmed or smoothed over those they didn’t, and filled in gaps in their own ways.

    I do think, though, that the happy ending in her novels is often represented as an escape from family rather than, as in many contemporary novels, an embrace of family (all those baby epilogues).

    Thinking about Heyer’s attitude towards motherhood reminded me of the one novel by Angela Thirkell I’ve read. I posted about it at TMT because, as you point out, there does seem to have been a very different attitude towards childrearing and mothering in the period when Heyer and Thirkell became mothers. Here’s part of what I had to say about the Thirkell:

    For Laura, and other mothers of her class and era, sending children to boarding school would have seemed entirely normal, and although she may wonder, “as she had often wondered with the three older boys, why one’s offspring are under some kind of compulsion to alienate one’s affections at first sight by their conceit, egotism, and appalling self-satisfaction” (4) she does love her sons.

    I wonder if part of the reason you’re feeling that the Harlequins are more conservative is because the ones you mention in your post are contemporaries. It seems to me that with historicals it’s much easier to brush off more jarring aspects of the society depicted, and attitudes expressed, because that society is a distant one. In a historical, a heroine could seem like an admirably independent woman if she does nothing more than speak her mind (on a relatively innocuous topic) in a forthright manner. The same couldn’t be said for a contemporary heroine, because in contemporary-set romances you can’t help but be aware of all the other opinions she could express, and all the other options available to her.

  5. Merrian says:

    I read Sarah Morgan’s ‘Once a Ferrara Wife’ last night. This Harlequin story touches on your post. The story revolves around the the question of what makes a good life/marriage and how both husband and wife haven’t communicated about this until they are in desperate straits (lots of good angst and grovelling by the way). Part of their reconciliation is deciding and clearly communicating what a good life means to them. There is a miracle baby but that doesn’t turn them into breeders (like e.g. Pamela Clare’s stories). Their HEA comes because they are making clear and determined choices that reflect their hard won understanding of themselves and their relationship not an author’s worldview/preferences.

  6. Once again, you have raised an interesting genre question for me to ponder!

    …which means I don’t have a substantial comment right now. *ahem*

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