Back in the 1980s, novels like Judith McNaught’s historicals ranked at the top of the charts. They had intrigue, they had excitement, they had heroines in gorgeous (albeit historically-suspect) gowns, as well as heaps and heaps of drama.
They also had extremely aggressive and dominating heroes who often were, for the lack of a better word, misogynists. Take some of McNaught’s most popular novels—Until You, Whitney My Love, and Something Wonderful. Stephen, Clayton, and Jordan are wealthy, handsome, and powerful; but they dismiss women as grasping chits who care only for money, status, and frivolous finery. They continually suspect the intentions of their own heroines on the basis of their femininity, resulting in Big Misunderstandings that fuel much of their novels’ drama.
No one can say that McNaught’s novels are boring—whether you are reading or hate-reading them, they are impossible to put down until the final page. But the virtues of McNaught’s heroes have been hotly contested in romance circles ever since. Hate-readers often cite the heroes’ misogyny as the novels’ main drawback. But fans assert that, despite their misogyny, McNaught’s heroes are still compelling, interesting and entertaining characters—even though some readers do add the apologetic footnote of “these books were written in a different time.”
But does that mean that heroes written in today’s “more enlightened” cultural climate cannot be misogynists? Is it impossible to have a sexist hero without a sexist novel? Or without the novel supporting sexist ideas?
Loretta Chase indicates this isn’t the case. Take Lord of Scoundrels; its hero, Dain, restricts his feminine company to whores because he believes all women are ultimately sluts but at least prostitutes are upfront about it. Vere, from Chase’s The Last Hellion, becomes obsessed with besting a crusading female journalist in order to punish her for daring to believe herself the equal of a man.
And yet neither Lord of Scoundrels nor The Last Hellion have sparked the level of debate and controversy that McNaught’s novels have. What separates Chase’s woman-hating heroes from McNaught’s woman-hating heroes?
First, You Need a Strong Heroine:
In a previous article of mine, “How Alpha Is Too Alpha,” I hypothesized how a hero’s aggression and forcefulness are easier to tolerate in romances where there is an equal power balance between the hero and heroine. An aggressive hero paired with a fierce heroine creates an entertaining battle. An aggressive hero paired with a weak, submissive heroine results in an exploitative bloodbath.
McNaught’s heroines tend to be sheltered innocents who exist within limited, often rustic social spheres. The agency of McNaught’s heroines lies in their ability to submit, forgive, and endure. A mere forty pages after being kidnapped, assaulted, and raped by Clayton, Whitney travels to his country house and begs him to take her back. Something Wonderful’s Alexandra is physically assaulted by Jordan—and a few pages later, takes a bullet to the head for him. Within the contexts of the novels, these actions are indicators of their bravery and selflessness.To readers less enamoured with McNaught’s oeuvre, these novels appear to reward rapists and wife batterers.
With Loretta Chase’s novels, after The Last Hellion’s Vere steals a kiss from Lydia Grenville, she responds by knocking him flat on his ass with a single punch. In Lord of Scoundrels, Jessica uses her cunning to turn Dain’s seduction attempt into a public display of affection. These heroines do not submit; instead, they fight back. In Chase’s novels, both the hero and the heroine are fighting for equal stakes since they both risk losing face when they do battle, resulting in a more balanced power dynamic.
Secondly, The Narrative Should Not Support the Misogynist:
This is the kicker. Well-developed characters need to have flaws—their own particular prejudices, hang-ups, and misconceptions about the world around them that arise from their upbringing and personal development.
You can have a racist character, for instance, without your novel being racist. As long as the larger narrative indicates that it does not support the character’s racism, by using non-racist points of view, for instance, then a particular character’s prejudices are dissociated from the book’s overall morals and themes.
The easiest way to accomplish this in a novel with a misogynist hero is to write a bunch of strong female characters who, by their mere presence, disprove the hero’s beliefs. With The Last Hellion, we not only have Lydia (who is a force unto herself), but also her staunch ally Tamsin Prideaux and the clever courtesan Helena Martin. Secondly, the novel further dissociates itself from Vere’s initially sexist views by demonstrating how much of an emotional screw-up he is—even his closest friends (like Lord of Scoundrels’ Dain) acknowledge how far he’s fallen.
Unfortunately, in McNaught’s novels, the use of the female characters tends to reinforce the righteousness of the hero’s misogyny. Women are frequently villains in McNaught’s novels—like Jordan’s promiscuous mother and murderous aunt from Something Wonderful, or Stephen’s ex in Until You who tried to manipulate him into murdering her husband. In Until You, Whitney, and Something Wonderful all together, there is only one male villain—Jordan’s cousin who conspires with his aunt to try and murder him.
This may not be intentional; McNaught’s novels thrive on high emotional drama (secrets, intrigue, and lies) rather than physical drama (swords, guns, and explosions). Most of the obstacles come from Big Misunderstandings that are fueled or instigated by jealousy, greed, or bitterness—which makes it just as easy for women as it is for men to provide obstacles to our protagonists’ happiness. However, to an outsider’s perspective, when the vast majority of life-ruiners in McNaught’s novels are women, it legitimizes the hero’s views that all women (except for a precious few) really are slutty, scheming, emotionally shallow creatures.
Thirdly, He Can’t Be a Misogynist by the End of the Novel:
This, ultimately, is what the controversy around McNaught’s novels comes down to. Her standard hero falls in love with the heroine after spending the novel discovering just how unlike every other woman the heroine is—wow! She doesn’t care about status? Wow! She’s hasn’t slept with a barn full of stable hands? Wow, she isn’t vain and petty and jealous like all my ex-mistresses?
The hero doesn’t learn to love women from loving the heroine—the hero learns to love the heroine because she is unlike other women. She serves as the exception that proves his personal, misogynistic rule.
This differs widely from Loretta Chase’s heroes Vere and Dain. Their prejudices are not portrayed as aspects of their characters or as indicators of their Alpha Masculinity, but as personal flaws to overcome with the help of their heroines. In Scoundrels, Dain does everything he can to push Jessica away, because he’s convinced that all women are bound to leave him the same way his mother did. Jessica not only doesn’t leave, she fights back, smashing Dain’s misogyny to bits in the process. At the end of the novel, he even comes to understand and forgive his mother for abandoning him.
With Vere, he despises having been bested by a woman, only to learn that the constant challenge of keeping up with Lydia makes him a better man than he’s ever been.
This does not mean that McNaught’s novels are intended as misogynist, merely that they are easier to interpret as misogynist. All her heroes love their heroines (sometimes to the point of madness), and all of them eventually realize how special their heroines are, how badly they’ve misjudged them, and they make genuine attempts to grovel and apologize.
However, using Loretta Chase’s novels as examples, there are more effective ways to present a flawed protagonist within a sympathetic context, using a more balanced distribution of power, stronger female characters, and deeper character development.
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.