One of the elements that draws me to the romance genre is the heroine’s story. When catch my first glimpse of a new release, my interest sharpens if the cover features a woman—or if the heroine is in a prominent position—and is further piqued if the blurb promises an intriguing heroine with a meaty conflict. In turn, I give my heroines greater leeway for unsympathetic behavior than I do my heroes, and nothing turns me off a book quicker than the deterioration of a heroine’s strength, character, and story once the hero appears on the scene.
My introduction to the heroine’s story was through gothic romances. Beneath the brooding Rochester-esque heroes, the spooky castles, and the heroine’s helplessness and relative innocence lies a coming-of-age story. Some of my favorite gothic romances—The India Fan by Victoria Holt, Merlin’s Keep by Madeleine Brent, Castle of Foxes by Alanna Knight, to name a few—frequently discussed and challenged the roles of women in historical settings, and the heroine’s refusal to give into the hero’s darkness was a test of her strength and character. To focus on Victoria Holt in particular, she always began her books from a turning point in the heroine’s childhood, and though the heroines were poor or disadvantaged, they were always fiercely intelligent, resourceful, and independent.
Drusilla Delany of The India Fan defines herself by her plainness after overhearing a servant compare her—a vicar’s daughter—to the beautiful daughter of the aristocratic Framling family. Nevertheless, Drusilla remains pragmatic and likable despite being mistaken for an unwed mother, the death of her father, losing her almost fiancé to Lavinia Framling, and later, moving to India to work as governess for Lavinia’s children in the months before the Sepoy Mutiny. Holt turns the “Plain Jane” trope on its head by using Drusilla’s alleged plainness as a catalyst for her to want more from life than what Victorian society said plain women deserved. Ultimately, Drusilla finds her HEA in a most unexpected quarter without resorting to a makeover or proving her “goodness” over a vain, silly, and beautiful rival. Which leads me to another love for Holt’s gothic romances—the nuanced relationships between her female characters.
From Holt I jump to Eloisa James, who has built her career on books connected by women, be they sisters or best friends. To this day, the Duchess Quartet ranks high on my keeper list for its blend of romance, history, laughter, friendship, and passion. In a way, the relationships between James’ female characters are more important than their individual HEAs, for these bonds help the heroines cope with the curve balls life has thrown at them, be they runaway husbands, bad matches, illicit affairs, unexpected pregnancies, live-in mistresses, or overbearing mothers. How else would Esme have coped with the result of her indulgence with Sebastian if she hadn’t Helene by her side? Who else but her sisters would have put up with Imogen’s antics after her short-lived marriage to the reckless Draven Maitland? What else by friendship kept Jemma sane during her separation from her husband?
Granted, I have plenty of love for the many amazing heroes in romance (I swoon over Royce Westmorland from Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams), and there are many books I have enjoyed where the focus was on the hero, but I like my heroine-centric focus. After all, where else but the Romance genre do get to see a variety of female characters, find a variety of stories and conflicts, and pair these women with amazing and sexy heroes as they work their way towards a satisfying HEA?
Do you believe the best romances are hero- or heroine-centric, or do you have to like both protagonists? For those hero-centric readers, which books challenged your stance? Do you have any recommendations for heroine-centric romances?
Evangeline Holland is a writer of historical romances, an amateur milliner, and a really great cook. When not writing or reading, you can find her blogging about the Edwardian era on her website, the aptly titled Edwardian Promenade.