Leading ladies with more wealth than their leading men.
In historical settings, heroes who have more wealth and power than their heroines are the norm, and this makes sense, but in 2012, perhaps less so. Yes, women continue not to crack the glass ceiling at the very top, so I don't foresee wealthy women taking over Harlequin Presents novels—or those starring billionaires or multi-millionaires—anytime soon. But with more women than men graduating college and becoming doctors and lawyers, wealthy women are less of a rarity.
In Downton Abbey, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, was among those property-rich, cash-poor titled Englishmen who married an American heiress to secure and maintain the Earldom and Downton Abbey, the family's historic estate. Cora became the Countess of Grantham upon their marriage, and over time they came to love one another.
Because they never had a son together, Cora's money is tied to Robert's title and estate. When their eldest daughter Mary's affianced dies on the Titanic, the family is in danger of losing everything to the nearest male relative, a middle class doctor. This Pride & Prejudice type conflict is what sets up the series, although Robert and Cora's relationship is but one of many viewers have come to watch with interest. Still, without it, and the question of who will inherit Cora's fortune and Downton Abbey, there would be no show.
Lorraine Heath's 2002 romance, To Marry an Heiress, also features a land-rich, cash-poor titled Englishman who marries an American Dollar Princess. But there's a twist; Devon Sheridan loved his first wife, but she didn't handle their genteel poverty well, particularly his working the fields to save the ancestral estate. Her attitude informs his behavior after marrying American heiress Gina Pierce, a woman who desperately wants to have a baby, only to discover after a fabulous wedding night that her father lost the family fortune.
Gina becomes an albatross around Devon's neck. He vows not to sleep with her until he's restored his estate, which puts the kibosh on her having a baby. He labors in secret in his fields, working hard to plant and bring in a good harvest. Little does he know that Gina, who was raised poor, much prefers an honest working man to a poor aristocrat sitting around twiddling his thumbs. Eventually she discovers what he's up to and joins him in bringing in a crop. He's embarrassed, but this hard work done together brings them back together.
And then there's Judith Ivory's The Proposition (1999). Lady Edwina Bollash is reduced by circumstance and must use her skills as a linguistics expert to hire herself out as the 19th century version of that 20th century Southern phenomenon—Cotillion. Gamblers hire her to tutor a ratcatcher by the name of Mick Tremor, with the goal of passing him off as a gentleman. The Cockney-accented Mick is tall and handsome, and though Winnie is small-breasted, large-hipped, and six-foot tall, she has gams for miles and glorious hair.
He takes to his lessons with ease, and though she's a lady, she's not stuck on herself. Naming himself after Reed and Barton silver, Michael, the Viscount Bartonreed, eventually accompanies Winnie to a posh tearoom and easily passes himself off as a gentleman. As for Winnie, she goes with Mick to the Bull and Dun tavern and gets into the spirit of things by dancing on the table while the customers ogle her long legs.
The conflict comes when Winnie's doubts about the morality of their deception become paramount. Then too, as Mick disappears into Michael, she misses the man she met, and doubts about her desirability balloon. While she remains as desirable to him as she ever was, he's a realist about their differences in station and resigned to give her up after he succeeds in pulling off the charade. When The Proposition was published, I remember lots of discussion about how Ivory resolved Mick's problem. Some readers felt it tied things up too nicely with a bow, others accepted it as a reasonable way to fix things so Winnie and Mick could be together.
Judith McNaught's classic—to many, but not me—Paradise, further reduces the hero's position, at least his position when he met the heroine and they fell in love. Matt Farrell put himself through college by working in a steel mill. His relationship with Meredith Bancroft, scion to a department store fortune, is ruthlessly cut short by her father's nefarious determination to separate them.
Matt plans to go to Venezuela and make his fortune. But when Meredith gets pregnant, they decide to marry. Meredith's father offers to pay off Matt, who refuses. Then the tables turn; Daddy Dearest seems to capitulate on the marriage as long as Meredith stays in the U.S. during her pregnancy.
This is a pre-Internet book, one in which international calls are expensive and people communicated long distance as a result through snail mail. Daddy Dearest steals some of the correspondence, and then Meredith loses the baby. She believes Matt no longer cares, and he believes she aborted his baby. Daddy Dearest wins, Matt and Meredith divorce, and both go on with their lives, not knowing their break-up was connived and manipulated because her father didn't want his daughter to marry a man beneath her in station.
For me the plot to this point screamed “Danielle Steel” in large, neon letters, and I stopped reading. I know that years later, after Meredith's fiancé discovers the divorce is invalid, they manage to find their way back together. By this time Matt is a successful CEO and Meredith has plans to succeed her father in his company. Some seven hundred pages in, the bird in a gilded cage and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks finally have their HEA.
In addition to seeming like a Danielle Steel novel, McNaught's 1991 romance already seemed incredibly dated when I tried to read it in the late 1990s. The heroine in such a gilded cage as was Meredith early on in the story, with such a manipulative father, read more like a Victorian novel to me than a contemporary one, which may explain why I had far better luck with a couple of McNaught's historicals than I did her contemporaries.
Some twenty years later, and another book with a trust-fund heroine and a working-class hero...Liberating Lacy, by Anne Calhoun. What a difference a couple of decades make!
Lacey Meyers is a successful lawyer whose first husband cheated on her. Now divorced and wanting to experience more than a missionary style love life, she and Hunter Anderson hook up at a bar. He's a cop who works construction for his dad on the side. His relationships stay on the surface, which is fine because he believes classy women like Lacey might dally with blue collar guys, but only to walk on the wild side for a little bit.
Lacey knows not to expect more than sex from Hunter, but as he helps her scratch items off a sexual “to-do” list, emotions begin to creep in. His behavior doesn't fit a man only in it for sex, although he does remain emotionally aloof. She's confused, but one thing is clear: Some day Hunter will tire of her and move on. He's confused too, but one thing is clear: Some day Lacey will want a man from her own class.
Not only is Lacey wealthy, she's eight years older than Hunter—36 to his 28. The age thing is quite a bit less of an issue than the money thing, though, which begins to become a problem when he accompanies her to a business function. The lock-jaw pretentiousness and otherwise Bad Behavior of another man at the party plants the seed. And when Hunter goes to replace the comforter from Lacey's bed—it got ripped during a particularly amorous encounter—he realizes he's just spent what he makes in an entire month. Concluding Lacey will soon tire of slumming, he breaks it off.
He thought about Whole Foods, Eggs Benedict, twenty-thousand dollar engagement rings, and BMWs. He thought about sex, about trust and emotions, about friendship and love, about uniforms and fifteen hundred dollars of hand-embroidered silk. He thought about who he was, what he had to offer, how he felt and what Lacey needed.
Thinking changed nothing. It never had. Neither had wishing or dreaming. There was reality and cold, hard facts. He operated in a black-and-white world defined by accumulated experience, where he acted based on his experiences.
It was time to act.
Aside from Lacey's lack of sexual expertise, she's actually, you know, contemporary (even if she occasionally shops at Talbots). She may live in a gorgeous, expensive house she inherited, but she's not sheltered from Real Life. Compare her to Meredith Bancroft, introduced to readers in Paradise as a teen isolated by her father's wealth and old-fashioned views on classes mixing. Her one friend tells her it looks as though Helen Keller picked out her clothes, she lies to the kids at school by saying her chauffeur is really her dad, and is more at home as her father's hostess than she is with her other kids her own age.
Calhoun handles the “money thing” well. Though Lacey was raised in a monied environment, no evil father or mother kept her from experiencing Real Life. But as a result of growing up rich, her marriage, and her career as a commercial mortgage broker, she lives a privileged life, with expensive clothes, a beautiful home, and an appreciation of the finer things. She's not a snob, and in fact, it's Hunter who has more of a problem with their socio-economic differences, but then again, that's probably realistic. Also realistic is that she simply fails to realize until Hunter cuts out of that party that even if it's not a problem for her, it might be a problem for him.
A wave of self-reproach rushed up from her belly and into her throat. She’d been so busy assuming he wouldn’t want to go to the party with her then so delighted that he did that it simply hadn’t occurred to her that he might not feel comfortable there.
Stupid, stupid Lacey. Stupid and thoughtless.
“I quit smoking six years back,” he said when she drew too near for him to even pretend to overlook the swish of her skirt. “Nights like this I wish I had a reserve pack in the car.”
Oh, God. She looked at the big hands, still tightly balled in his pockets. A Lexus SUV loomed at her back, stirring memories of their first night together. Hunter stood so close she felt the wool of his pants leg against her calf, close enough to touch if waves of discomposure weren’t radiating from him.
Brainless. Naïve. Definitely obtuse. Sometimes a liberal arts degree wasn’t such a good thing. She had a substantial vocabulary with which to label her current sense of air-headed privileged ignorance.
...“I’m sorry, Hunter. It was inconsiderate of me not to think about how you might feel there. You just seem…indestructible to me. Like you can go anywhere. Do anything.”
“In uniform, yeah. In a suit…” He shrugged. “Why did you even want me there?” She fiddled with the beads on her evening bag, knowing there was no way to tell him the truth without sounding needy, or arrogant, or both. “I wanted you to see who I am. What I do. You see me in nice clothes for dinner and you see me…”
“…naked and begging?”
“I don’t beg,” she said primly. The look he shot her was pure green-eyed devil, with a knowing smile to boot, so she hastily moved on. “I wanted you to see that I’m not just money and a nice house. I work hard and I’m good at my job.”
“I see that, Lacey,” he said, his voice gruff. “I saw that before this disaster.”
Those looking for a lot of eroticism will find Calhoun's book fairly tame, but to me this is more of an erotic contemporary romance than a contemporary erotic one. The lack of kink is more than made up for by the story itself, the author's subtle hand in crafting Lacey and Hunter's emotional lives, and the manner in which she reunites the couple is sweet and not at all overdone. Quite frankly, it's as tasteful as Lacey.
I'm addicted to Downton Abbey and very much look forward to the prequel Julian Fellowes has planned, which will explore the courtship of Robert and Cora Crawley. I'm also a fan of To Marry an Heiress (even though I continue to mourn the day when Lorraine Heath stopped writing Westerns), and The Proposition. I know everyone but me loved Paradise, but my recommendations for a good time with McNaught are A Kingdom of Wishes and Once and Always.
As for Calhoun, her backlist is limited. Her next release, out in December, is Breath on Embers. Whenever an author turns a trope on its head, I'm there, and it looks as though Breath on Embers turns the hero-who-won't-commit premise upside down. According to the blurb, it features a hero in pursuit, itself a marvelous trope.
Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on her My Obsessions tumblr or goodreads, where she spends much of her time of late, or follow her on Google+, Pinterest, or on Twitter @laurie_gold, where she mostly tweets about publishing news and [probably too often] politics.