“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young lady...”
More often than not, romance celebrates the beautiful heroine. Her beauty is what enchants and draws her Prince Charming to her side. Even if she is awkward and unattractive as a child, it is almost a requirement that she metamorphosize from gangly caterpillar to blooming butterfly as she grows into womanhood.
But what about the ugly heroine who stays ugly? She doesn't bloom from a weed to a rose, but stays a weed. Our hero isn't instantly smitten with her. Often, the heroine becomes sport for the hero and his friends. Or the hero is forced to marry the ugly heroine, treating the heroine with indifference, reassuring himself that they he is indeed a “hero” because he has offered her what no one else would: Marriage.
At some delicious, romantic moment, however, the hero really sees the heroine and gets a priceless look of befuddlement and confusion on his face. We know why he loves her but it takes him awhile to figure it out. We instinctively know that the hero’s love rings true because he sees beyond the heroine’s looks and deep into her soul. It also makes for a more interesting storyline as the author must firmly convince the readers as to why the hero falls in love with her. We must be assured that the relationship is more than just a means to a convenient HEA.
There seem to be three main tropes that revolve around an ugly heroine; there's the friend to lovers trope perhaps best represented in Courting Miss Hattie by Pamela Morsi. Not only is the heroine unattractive, but she’s older then her hero, and they are best friends.
The news spread like brush fire through the whole county when widower Ancil Drayton announced his intention to start courting Miss Hattie Colfax. She was certainly spirited and delightfully sweet natured, and she'd managed to run her family farm almost single-handedly. But wasn't a twenty-nine-year-old lady farmer too old to catch a husband?
All his life handsome, black-haired Reed Tyler had worked Miss Hattie's farm—and dreamed of one day settling down on his own piece of land with the pretty young woman he'd sworn to marry. Hattie was someone he could tell his hopes and troubles to—someone he looked on as a sister. So he thought, until the idea of Ancil Drayton calling on her made him seethe. Until the night a brotherly peck became a scorching kiss... and Reed knew nothing would bank the blaze—and that his best friend was the only woman he would ever love.
Hattie is a delightful heroine, full of life with no pretentiousness. She accepts her flaws and doesn't let them weigh her down. Reed, our hero, doesn’t join in the public gossip about Hattie’s looks though he thinks, like everyone else, she will forever remain a spinster. When another man begins to court her, Reed begins to see Hattie in a new light. Watching him deal with his new feelings is hilarious. He tries to be happy for her finally having a suitor and even offers to teach her different ways to kiss, using peaches as examples, until he realises that she will be using his lessons on another man. He tries to backtrack and convince Hattie that she should stick to giving her suitor only pecks.
“Why would you peck when you can peach?”
In Nalini Singh’s Lord Of The Abyss, Singh rewrites Beauty and the Beast with a few subtle changes and we see the second trope—the hero who never sees the heroine’s ugliness but needs to convince her of that.
Once upon a time…the Blood Sorcerer vanquished the kingdom of Elden. To save their children, the queen scattered them to safety and the king filled them with vengeance. Only a magical timepiece connects the four royal heirs…and time is running out.…
As the dark Lord who condemns souls to damnation in the Abyss, Micah is nothing but a feared monster wrapped in impenetrable black armor. He has no idea he is the last heir of Elden, its last hope. Only one woman knows—the daughter of his enemy.
Liliana is nothing like her father, the Blood Sorcerer who’d cursed Micah. She sees past Micah’s armor to the prince inside, whose sinful touch she craves. But first she has to brave his dark, dangerous lair and help him remember. Because they only have till midnight to save Elden.
I loved this story for so many reasons. We never really know which is the beauty and which is the beast. Singh gives us beauty filled with ugliness and ugliness who is pure beauty. Our heroine is honest to god ugly with her small breasts, large booty, a long nose, straw textured hair, and one leg shorter than the other. Our hero is beautiful, yet an arse due to his upbringing. When these two meet, they balance each other perfectly. Lillian has lived her whole life with evil, so honestly, Micah is a piece of cake to deal with. She uses her intelligence and innate stubbornness to break through his barriers. I love the fact that Micah never sees Lillian’s ugliness. To him, she is simply beautiful. Micah being a virgin helps facilitate his affections for her. We have a beautiful hero who must rely on the heroine's “expertise,” and in doing so is transported to a whole new world.
I admit to being disappointed in the ending. I honestly felt there was no reason to change Lillian. I suppose since this is a remake of Beauty and the Beast, Ms. Singh works it in the original ending , though it’s almost as an afterthought because it has no bearing of Micah’s feeling for Lillian in the least bit.
“Arms wrapped around him, she kissed him, halting the flow of his words. He decided he would allow the kiss, but since he couldn’t make her naked here, he had to stop it. “Why did you change your face, Lily?”
Liliana lifted her hands to her face at that quizzical question, terrified her father had cast a final vengeful spell. “Is it very bad?” she whispered to the man who held her in arms of steel.
“I suppose I’ll get used to it,” he muttered, then kissed her again using his tongue and squeezing her bottom—as if his brothers and sister, and other people, weren’t standing right there.
One book I both liked and despised is Eileen Dreyer’s Never A Gentleman, an example of the third trope: The marriage of convenience where the hero is forced to marry the ugly heroine. In this book, the hero's actions more than reflect that he is unhappy with the situation, often in ways I feel are unforgivable.
Miss Grace Fairchild is under no illusions about her charms. Painfully plain, she is a soldier's daughter who has spent her life being useful, not learning the treacherous ways of the ton. She may have been caught in a scandal with society's favorite rogue, but how can she marry him when it means losing herself?
Diccan Hilliard doesn't know which of his enemies drugged him and dumped him in Grace's bed, but he does know the outcome. He and Grace must marry. To his surprise, a wild, heady passion flares between them. Yet Diccan is trapped in a deadly game of intrigue Grace knows nothing about. Will his lies destroy Grace just as he realizes how desperately he needs her? And how can he hope for a future with her, when an old enemy has set his murderous sights on them both?
Misunderstandings run rampant through the story. Our hero, Diccan, is a spy and does things for his country that are quite despicable when you see how they affect his wife, Grace. Grace, tall, plain, and crippled, knows someone like the gorgeous Diccan should and would never love someone like her but she loves him and proves it throughout, often at the risk of her self-esteem. Unfortunately, Diccan stays true to character and we are forced to listen to him disparage Grace in his thoughts and out loud.
Minette fingered the damp curls at his neck. “What about your wife?”
Grace blinked, sure she’d heard wrong. Her heart had surely gone silent as she waited. But he sounded completely indifferent. “She has nothing to object to,” he was saying, his focus on Minette’s breast. “I married her. I’ll be damned if I have to fuck her.”
Diccan, of course, comes to realize just how extraordinary Grace is towards the end, but can that excuse his behavior? I was hard-pressed to like him, and only when he is faced with the possibility he may lose her permanently do his true feelings emerge and we get out HEA.
He’d been trying to pretend it wasn’t so bad, because if it was, he wouldn’t be able to continue being such a bastard. He would be consumed by the pain he was causing her.
What got me to continue reading were the very things that annoyed me: Ms. Dreyer’s unapologetic storyline, character makeups, and emotional upheavals. We are taken through the gauntlet and made to experience every heartbreak and tremulous moment with our main characters. Neither of our characters are perfect and Ms. Dreyer makes sure we see and understand that.
Are ugly heroines an appealing storyline for you? What makes or breaks the ugly heroine romance for you as a reader?