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.”
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?