Try changing the point of view from first person to third person in the opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and you will understand the power a first-person narrative can have. I doubt that the opening sentence would be among the most famous in American literature had Melville written “His name is Ishmael” rather than “Call me Ishmael.” Or imagine Jane Eyre without the pervasive presence of Jane’s consciousness. The reader’s understanding not only of who Jane is but also of Rochester and other characters would be quite different if the story had been told in a different point of view, as Jean Rhys shows in Wide Sargasso Sea, her deconstruction of Charlotte Brontë’s classic text.
First-person narratives are common in literary fiction; in fact, some critics charge that first person point of view is overused in contemporary literary fiction. In popular fiction, first person was often adopted by writers of Gothic romances, and, more recently, it has been used by dozens of chick lit authors. It seems to work particularly well in establishing the conversational, confidential tone for which these authors are aiming. It has the same effect when Kristan Higgins adopts it for her contemporary romances. The intimacy it creates between character and reader has also made it an effective choice for authors of romance/women fiction hybrid novels by authors such as Lisa Kleypas, Marsha Moyer, Barbara Samuel, and Deborah Smith. But generally genre fiction privileges third person point of view, and there has been an unwritten rule that historical romance authors particularly should avoid first person narratives.
The traditional Regency is not the subgenre in which one would expect to find rebellious authors, but several trad Regency authors have ignored conventional wisdom and used first person point of view. Diana Brown’s The Emerald Necklace (1981) showcases the dangers and the advantages of first-person tales.
Lady Leonora Fordyce is the point of view character, and for the first part of the novel, she is an arrogant, dishonest snob who is almost unbearable. She’s so superior in her own estimation that it’s difficult to summon much sympathy for her even when she is forced into marriage to a man she doesn’t know and whose social status appalls her. Rather than the unreliable narrator famous in literary fiction, the reader is confronted, at uncomfortably close range, with an unlikable narrator. But the point of view makes the growth Leonora experiences later in the book more powerful and more authentic than it would be in third person. It also makes this book one of those rare romances where the reader begins to question if the HEA is possible. Brown’s quiet, character-driven stories have led some to compare her to Carla Kelly.
Elizabeth Mansfield acknowledged in an AAR interview in 2001 that editors discouraged first-person point of view because they believed readers disliked it, an assumption Mansfield found supported by many of her readers who confessed they found first person POV “distracting.” Nevertheless, Mansfield employs first person narrative in Love Lessons (1983). A guardian-ward romance, the novel uses first person point of view to particularly good effect in presenting the heroine, Anne Saunders, as she matures from early adolescence into young adulthood, from hoyden to debutante.
Memoirs of a Hoyden (1988) by Joan Smith is written in first person as well, but Marion Mathieson is the opposite of Mansfield’s heroine. She is an independent, thirtyish spinster who lives a life rich in travels and adventure, which she uses in the novels she writes. She even has a male secretary, and she sees no need for another man in her life. The first person point of view gives the novel an immediacy and vitality that make Marion endearingly real. I also think it adds a dimension to the book’s distinctive humor which depends on voice for its execution. There is a terrific scene in which Marion notices that the cleric who is a fellow passenger in the coach in which she is traveling is using a copy of John Donne’s Devotions and Sermons to conceal drawings of “females en dishabille.” Although not at all shocked, she deplores the Reverend Cooke’s hypocrisy and observes:
This would no doubt have shocked some provincial ladies. I am immune to that sort of shock after my travels. It is all a matter of custom. In Damascus a lady risks her life if she shows her face to the world, whereas the Druse women in the mountains of Lebanon expose their faces and half their breasts.
Men are the same the world over—they decree that some part of the female anatomy must be kept hidden, and spend the rest of their lives trying to get a glimpse of it. It all has to do with trying to make us poor women mysterious and therefore desirable. I refuse to find anything disgusting in the attraction between the sexes. There is something undignified if not downright ridiculous in the way procreation has been arranged, but it is not disgusting. It is the prudery that I despise most.
Joan Wolf is the undisputed champion of the first-person historical romance. She wrote five first-person Regency historicals between 1996 and 1999: The Deception, The Guardian, The Arrangement, The Gamble, and The Pretenders. Wolf wrote that she found writing the books “great fun” but recognized they proved a mixed experience for her readers: “To me, the delight of reading a first-person novel is the strength of the voice and the immediacy of the connection you make with the main character. The limitation, however, is obvious. There is only one set of eyes through which the events of the novel are viewed.”
Wolf understands her readers well. Seeing the story from the heroine’s point of view allows the reader to identify closely with the heroine and to understand her motivation, and Wolf’s heroines generally are strong characters—intelligent, responsible, and decisive. At the same time, for readers accustomed to having access to the hero’s point of view as well, the limitation to only the heroine’s point of view means that Wolf’s heroes can seem too good to be true. In The Deception, for example, Adrian Woodrow is flawless—handsome, honorable, courageous, compassionate, nurturing and he’s a good lover who holds three titles in addition to his military rank. He seems more dream than reality. In contrast, Winterdale, the hero of The Gamble, remains so far removed from the reader that his character lacks warmth and his choices seem inexplicable at times.
The close identification with the heroine that is a strength of Wolf’s first-person books is also crucial to the success of The Accidental Duchess (2003) by Jessica Benson in which the heroine discovers she is married not to the easygoing, rather irresponsible young man to whom she has been pledged since childhood but to his more intense, more complex twin, heir to a dukedom, who is in most ways the antithesis of his brother. Being denied access to the hero’s thoughts, which can be a disadvantage, works well with this particular plot. Much of the novel’s charm and humor rests in the narrative voice—discursive, confused, and witty.
I married the wrong man.
And by this I do not mean, as people often do, any of the more cryptic things that you might imagine: That I awoke one morning to the realization that my husband and I had grown apart. That I discovered something about my spouse that caused me to doubt that we were well-suited. Nor, even, that I had met by chance an old love in Bond Street. And as I shopped for reticules and he carried an armload of packages for his wife, our eyes met and it was as though the intervening years in which we had both found others had never been.
What I do mean is that yesterday I stood up in St. George’s, Hanover Square, and before some three hundred witnesses promised to love, honor, and obey the wrong man.
I’m convinced Benson made the right choice in writing this novel in first person. I doubt that I would have liked the heroine nearly so well if hers were a third-person story. Now if I could only convince those readers who insist they never read first-person novels of what they are missing.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.