There was a post on Romance Novels for Feminists recently about the way we read “feisty heroine” as “feminist heroine”, even though this is often not true. In the comments, Jackie and I talked specifically about the feisty heroine who sees some “wrong” and runs about fixing it as she sees fit. She either makes this pig-headed mess that the hero has to clean up afterwards, or comes to realise her strongly held beliefs were wrong and wouldn’t be strongly held by anyone with more sense than a worm.
Doesn’t exactly scream intelligent, competent woman.
So it was a joy to read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War the next day and see her tackle this heroine trope head-on. Her heroine, Minnie, has declared war on her hero, Robert, when he refuses to give up the dangerous activity he’s involved in. She tells him she’s going to find proof of his involvement and turn him in to the authorities. Robert proceeds to think this:
In reality, he suspected that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of amateur sleuthing. Bad disguises, ham-handed questions, attempts to go through his rubbish in search of clues… Miss Pursling was undoubtedly the sort of hotheaded young lady who would throw herself into the chase with abandon.
Instead, she ignores him. And then they have this conversation:
He swallowed and cleared his throat. “This isn’t what I expected when you said you’d go to war with me.”
“Let me guess.” She fingered her glove carefully, and he noticed that she was worrying at a tiny hole in the tip. “You thought I would simper if you smiled at me. You supposed that when I said I would prove what you were doing to everyone, that I planned to engage in a bumbling, graceless investigation into your surface activities.”
“I–no, of course not.” But Robert felt his cheeks heat. Because that was precisely what he had thought.
She bit her lip, the picture of shyness. But her words were the opposite of shy. “Now,” she whispered, “you’re surprised to find that I overmatch you.”
Reading it again gives me tingles. She’s quiet, composed and confident. And she does outmatch him, and it surprises him. It worked for me as a kind of romance-trope satire because what Robert – and the reader – expect of her contrasts powerfully with what she really is. It’s creating character on the deepest level. However, it is still satire, in a sense. Robert doesn’t have any reason to expect silly sleuthing from her. He doesn’t think, “That’s how women are,” or even, “That’s how they are in silly romantic novels.” The expectation comes entirely from the genre itself, so it’s playing against the reader’s own expectations in a meta fashion.
Milan tackled quite a few romance tropes in The Duchess War. Some of them worked less well for me – they were less character-driven and more satirical, and so asked me to be conscious of myself as the reader and pulled me out of the story. This conversation between Minnie and Robert’s mother in particular (**CONTAINS SPOILERS**):
“Second,” she said, “you might consider not consummating the marriage.”
“What? Why? So it can be annulled?”
The duchess rolled her eyes. “That is a horrid myth. You cannot annul a marriage for simple lack of consummation. Trust me; I have consulted every lawyer in London as to the ways in which one might end a marriage. I know the law to an inch. … “
Perhaps women did hold the misconception back then that an unconsummated marriage could be annulled, and Minnie’s reaction is accurate. But it’s been one of the most pervasive, old-school misconceptions of historical romance, and I can’t help but feel that this exchange is a tongue-in-cheek jab at that, more than at any notions Minnie had or didn’t have.
The sex scene also challenged common romance tropes, though in this case it was absolutely wonderful, and served their characters before it served anything else. But it did make me think about social reading, and how it affects what and how we read.
There was a rash of Wish List posts recently, asking for more of certain romance trends. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex stuff in the comments: mostly requests for more bad sex and more virgin hero sex.
I’m not saying Milan is responding directly to what readers are asking for, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, she would have started writing this book ages ago. For another, she’s an author who writes consistently ahead of the curve. Also, she’s as engaged with the genre as any reader and would be as frustrated with certain tropes.
But her innovation isn’t read in a black hole. It immediately becomes part of the conversation.
I enjoyed the book a lot, but to me it felt one draft away from ready; some scenes felt as though they’d been changed from one POV to another and not entirely cleaned up, and there was one conversational exchange that should clearly have happened after, not before, an event. I particularly would have wished for Robert to depend on Minnie and her superior tactics for his end-game. She may not have been an unfeminist feisty heroine, but she was still not allowed to act in the crucial moment.
Maybe it’s because it felt unfinished that I could see more clearly than normal where Milan’s taking up the romance conversation, and what her book is doing to generate more of that conversation. The critical conversations around romance online is one of my favourite parts of the genre. There is so much intelligent, fascinating, engaged discussion going on, and I suspect we will see it affect what is written and published more in the next few years, just as what’s published feeds back into the discussion.
Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.