With Chelsea Mueller’s recent Heroes and Heartbreakers article on sexually experienced contemporary and paranormal romance heroines, she took an excellent look at the slut-shaming that can often happen in romances of those subgenres, as well as the growing trend of experienced, sex-positive heroines in contemporary and paranormal romance.
That being said, there is still a romance subgenre that remains a little behind the times—mainly because its stories are intentionally behind the times. I’m speaking, of course, of historical romances. Experienced heroines are rarer than hen’s teeth in a subgenre that remains overwhelmingly fixated on eighteenth to nineteenth century Great Britain.
Well, no, that’s not precisely fair. There are sexually experienced heroines in historical romance—just not a lot with positive sexual experiences before meeting the hero. Most often they are the widows of unimaginative, inconsiderate, or abusive husbands. Those few who engage in the act outside of wedlock are either raped or exploited. Those even fewer heroines who make sex their trade do so only to keep food in their bellies or in the bellies of their numerous and vulnerable dependents.
That being said, historical romances do have sexually voracious female characters; they just happen to be villains. Adulterous wives. Spiteful courtesans. Self-indulgent merry widows.
The popular argument for this is that “This is unrealistic! Nineteenth century sexual morals were completely different back then! I wouldn’t believe in a positive, moral heroine of that time period who would seek out sexual gratification!” And yet no one questions the innate morality of the Dukes of Slut heroes who have totally realistically never caught syphilis.
That being said, here are some engaging, well-written heroines who have been around the block a time or two—in a well-appointed barouche, of course.
One of my favourite romance novels is Laura Lee Guhrke’s His Every Kiss. The heroine Grace Cheval ran off with a painter when she was a teenager. While their relationship eventually deteriorated, for their first few years, per Grace’s own admission, their relationship was an emotionally and sexually amorous one. Her reactions to the hero Dylan’s ministrations aren’t of “what is happening to my no-no place” surprise, but of “Oh God I missed this” anticipation.
Another fantastic heroine is Francesca Bonnard from Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways. True, becoming a courtesan was not her first career choice after her husband tossed her aside, but once she went down that road, she never looked back and sees no point in harbouring regrets. Not only does she enjoy her work, but she enjoys the attentions of another man after meeting the hero (gasp!).
A heroine in a similar (and similarly awesome) vein is Lydia Slaughter from Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. Also a courtesan, she sleeps with her protector Roanoke several times after she meets the hero, and enjoys it, to boot! While Roanoke is far from romantically fulfilling, he is both athletic and considerate as a lover. He also falls asleep immediately after sex, which makes it very easy for Lydia to play his cards at the gaming tables to pad her bank account.
Eugenia Bryant from Carolyn Jewel’s Not Proper Enough is another heroine who had a sexually and romantically fulfilling relationship with her now-deceased husband. When she feels attracted to the hero, Fox, she actually requests a sexual relationship first, with no emotional attachment whatsoever.
And finally, we have Vera Drake from Sherry Thomas’s Delicious. Nobody forced her at gunpoint to become her employer’s mistress. While he eventually disappointed her, she willingly had a notorious affair with him, and continues to behave as an independent sexual being after their breakup and his premature death. Don’t believe me? Ask readers of this book about the infamous scene where our hero walks in on her act of self-pleasure in a bathtub.
All of these heroines are fantastic, well-developed female characters. On top of that, they’re all clearly the “good guys” of their stories. They’re intelligent and kind-hearted, courageous and forthright. None of them need to be “redeemed” and none of them have to regret their smutty habits in order to be emotionally ready to fall in love with their heroes. And none of their heroes hold their sexual experience against them.
So let’s hear it for the experienced historical heroine! What sexually experienced heroines are your favorites?
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.