The Regency: when men were men

One of my favourite historical details about the Regency is that men used to cry in Parliament to express their sensitivity.

But I digress. Earlier this year I entered a whole bunch of the American contests, just to get my MS out there when it still wasn’t quite ready for agent submissions. The scoresheets have been coming back in dribs and drabs and giving me a pretty good cross-section of what reader reactions might be to my novel. A few mornings ago I received this:

Your Hero, and please do not take this the wrong way but use this as constructive criticism.  At points in your story I had to re-read some paragraphs.  Example When the Dukes friends were over after whites it sounded more like a group of women talking to each other call them by pet names.  My impression at that time was that the Duke was bi-sexual, not that I have a problem with that, but this is a Historical Romance Category.  I’m not impressed with his image at all for a Hero.[Note to self: bi-sexuals ok, just not in Historical Romance.]  Although the Duke suffers Panic attacks does not make a man weak.  His character or what I’ve read of it sounds like a weak, selfish and insecure Duke who thinks he is in love with one sister who is not the Heroine.  I would focus on a better Character for this Duke. [So what you’re saying is – that Really Average Character I’ve given him isn’t working?] I would not have him thinking he is in love and I would not have him sleeping with a married women who is your Heroines sister.  I would also not have him calling other men pet names.  He needs to be a little tougher like you had him acting at Whites, when the Earl of Benruin confronted him.

You also mentioned in your synopsis how he and Kit your Heroine had sex.  They should be making Love and Sex should be with the other women who shouldn’t be her sister….[I shall have to look into this “making love”.]

Confusing once again due to the amount of characters introduced in the first few chapters.  Example all the dandies sounded the same with calling each other by pet names.  Try to maybe have one dandy and one who is Mr. Serious and the other a jokester. [Then the jokester can come out with lines like, “I don’t know why they call him Mr Serious. They should call him Mr Seriously Can’t Tie A Cravat. Because look at his cravat.” Comic gold. I see where you’re going with this…] This way your characters will all have a distinctive voice. [If by distinctive you mean hilarious.] Try and match a voice to your Duke.  Make him a man most girls would fall for.  Hansom, tough looking and can melt butter when he entertains the ladies and a mouth that shots bullets when talking with a man.  Distinctive. [Hmm, my husband doesn’t really look tough, so I guess that counts against him. But on the upside he’s very handsome and does occasionally melt butter while entertaining me. I haven’t noticed any bullets shooting from his mouth, but who knows what he gets up to when I’m not around? Manly things, I suspect.]

Okay, so it’s a bit mean to pick this apart – and the truth is that I really appreciate the time and consideration this judge put into reading my entry. Nothing obliged her to read it but her good will and desire to support aspiring authors. And the other truth is that, should this book ever see the light of day, a large chunk of readers are going to react in exactly this way to my hero.

He is not, as the judge went on to say, A Hero.

He’s slight, and effeminate. He calls other men by pet names. He has sex with them. He’s having an affair with my heroine’s sister (though he never is in love with her – I think this judge read love where there is only respect and affection). He’s so clever he tangles himself up in it, and because he has no idea how to express intimacy like a normal human being he tends to be vicious to the people he loves the most. Oh, and he wears a dress – and not only that, he wears the whole persona of a gorgeous, charismatic, powerful Georgian woman.

Actually, her statement about what girls (and here let me say, mine is definitely a novel for women) really like in a man made me feel a bit sheepish, because this happens in my book:


The single word was violent as a bullet shot through the house…

That’s BenRuin speaking – the cuckolded husband of my heroine’s sister (my hero’s lover. Keeping up?). He is big and tough. He’s handsome. He comes straight from the Alpha mould.

A lot of readers are also confounded by the fact that the book starts in his POV – and through his eyes the reader sees my hero as a frippery. The readers who are confounded by it tend to be the readers who would prefer to read BenRuin’s book.

I did that on purpose. BenRuin is A Hero. Darlington is not.

In a recent podcast, Dan Savage gave this advice to a young bisexual dude: Be confident in your sexuality and the ladies will flock to you to get some of that. (More or less.) I agree. I find the idea of a bisexual man really hot. And I get that some women don’t.

I’ve always known that as a fairly queer book (there’s a tertiary gay romance, too, that’s boiling away in the background) My Lady Untamed won’t be for everyone. But when I only knew that theoretically, I kind of couldn’t imagine how anyone would not just fall for Darlington completely. To me he’s heaven. So it’s great to have proof and be able to put a shape to how some people will read it.

But it also solidifies for me that the kinds of heroes I fall for aren’t what the judge described. And that’s really why I start my novel with BenRuin. He’s the old guard. He’s A Romance Hero. I wanted him to see and dismiss my hero, because my hero is something else.

In the most recent Dear Bitches Smart Authors podcast, Sarah Wendell, Molly O’Keefe and Stephanie Doyle talk about the women who are pushing historical romance to its limits: Cecelia Grant, Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran. They’re writing complex characters and redefining what sex is in romance. They are, without hesitation, the authors I aspire to stand beside.

Comments 15 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Thank you so much! I think even if no publisher wants to risk it, I’ll look into self-pub a couple of years down the track when I have more experience. My duke will see the light of day one way or another!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I love what you’ve done there with ‘coming out’ :-D. It’s under submission to agents at the moment – and there’s one reading the first three chapters now. But even if I manage to sell it, it’s still 18 months or so till it’s out as a book. This business takes time…

  1. mezzak

    Was just thinking of the Australian propensity for nicknames (just call me Mezza/Mim. etc) and how the response from the judge re petnames is a response from her lived culture. It doesn’t reflect the one I live in. E.g. my cousin-in-law calls his kids – boys and girl ‘chicks’ “listen chick”, answers the phone call from daughter “Hey poppet,…” The response seems to me to overlay a Victorian way of speaking and being in the world onto the Georgian and Regency period as well. It also ignores that when boys have been to boarding school together or in the Army there is a dialect arising from their shared experiences and nicknames/petnames are part of that. I wonder if she has ever read anything by Nancy Mitford? U/non-U boundaries are set in part through slang and language and everyone has a nickname. By-the-by, I think your guy sounds like a nice version of that creature Hervey.

    I am also thinking about how the comments imply that only Alpha types can be heroes in the genre. Just this week I re-read Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion where the Alpha is both the anti-hero and wrong for the heroine. Freddie is a beta and his heroism is subtle and largly consists of smoothing Kitty’s path, making things easy and safe and enjoyable for her. Kitty is at the centre of his world and his engagement with her makes him a better man in his father’s eyes because in acting to care for her, in solving problems of social relationships and what we owe to whom he shines and can finally be seen. Even when he punches Jack out, he and everyone acknowledges that it was a footstool that made Jack fall. Freddie is not less because he can’t act on Alpha terms but he is able to manipulate the world they live in so that he wins what he wants.


    1. anna cowan Post author

      How cool is your cousin? I love the idea of calling all kids, regardless of gender, ‘chick’. So sweet. Lived culture does make such a difference. I was just chatting with a woman on twitter about how the religious culture of the US can be uncomfortable in the secular culture of Australia (e.g. Kelly on Everybody Dance Now makes comments like, “Watching him dance makes me praise God’ or some such, and that makes me squirm). So you do have to understand the culture within which comment is made.

      I don’t know whether men are really Men anywhere the way they are in romance, though 🙂 A lot of what she described is obviously her preference for a hero, and what works for her romantically in fiction. It shows a level of discomfort with effeminate men, but if she doesn’t find that hot, it’s totally fine. However, her level of discomfort with it led her to suggest I change my whole character…. which is a different thing. Hey, I’m not gonna tell you to make your Alphahole have sex with other dudes! 🙂

      I LOVE your point about Heyer. Freddie was maybe SLIGHTLY gormless for my tastes, but I adored Sir Richard from the Corinthian. Actually, I think that novel was the first time I’d come across a really effeminate hero, and it charmed my socks off.

  2. londonmabel

    I would definitely prefer to read your sort of hist rom. I’m sick to death of alphas. As you mentioned above, you should definitely look into epub if you don’t get a traditional publisher.

  3. jillsorenson

    You might try entering a contest in which the judges are agents, editors and/or published authors. This critique is poorly written, but I can’t discount all of the advice given. An effeminite bisexual hero who dresses as a woman is a hard sell in any subgenre. Even m/m, I’d say. Which doesn’t mean you have to change him–write him however you like. What springs to my mind is The Scarlet Pimpernel. IIRC, he’s clever and courageous, wearing female clothing as a disguise to spy for his country. Could you do something like that with your hero? I don’t want you to compromise your vision, but I would caution you against a hero who is effeminite AND unsympathetic.

    good luck!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      thanks Jill! Darlington does have a political agenda, but that’s not necessarily WHY he is how he is, more just another facet of him.

      I think this is one of those books that can only be, if it’s being 100% itself. It’s either this extreme, or not at all. Darlington isn’t going to be an easy sell, there’s no doubt about it – and if I do sell or self-publish at some point he won’t be for everyone. I hope though that the people who love him will love him just as passionately as I do!

  4. jillsorenson

    Right after I wrote this comment I felt like I’d given you the wrong advice. I once wrote an f/f subplot and was asked to change it to f/m. It’s a terrible feeling! I didn’t mean to come off as anti-alternative sexualities. Have you heard of Riptide Press? I think they are open to a broad spectrum of GLBT characters.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      thanks for the rec – hadn’t heard of Riptide, but will definitely look into them. All I took from your comment was concern for me and my book in the market 🙂 – and it’s true that it’s not going to be an easy book to pick a niche for.

  5. Arachna

    So the funny thing is that I basically want to write the inverse of this critique to every romance author I read. I don’t like alpha heroes. That’s 90% of romance and 95% of urban fantasy/romance. So why do I read these genres sometimes? Well… I like aspects of it? A heroine that is kick ass?

    I realize that I can’t really wail about how the heroes aren’t what I like when I know perfectly well going into it that the heroes will be alphas. Or at least that it’s not polite or fair to complain about it.

    But seriously, if a reader does like alpha heroes they are spoiled for choice! It’s is hugely unfair for them to complain about that rare rare book that is written more for my taste.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I enjoy an alpha hero sometimes, but it’s not as a rule my “thing”. (Uh, obviously.) I feel like this lady has never met women with (or who admit to) other preferences – in her world the alpha is a man “every woman loves”. It does seem to reflect an assumption most of romance publishing makes, despite the very obvious fact that people are people and complex and faceted and don’t all want this one thing.

      Your comment made me think of this reply by Dave Gaider to an entitled Straight White Male Gamer:

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