Romance readers are notoriously tough on heroines. Some have theorized that readers hold heroines to a stricter standard because most romance readers are women who, in significant numbers, cast themselves in the heroine’s role, internalizing her thoughts and feelings. The reasoning is that if the heroine behaves in a way that antagonizes the reader or frightens her in some way, she condemns the heroine. Even readers who insist they don’t identify with the heroine to this degree often admit to preferring heroines whom they can imagine as friends or with whom they would like to spend time. Whatever the reasons for judging flawed heroines more harshly, and I think they are more complex than the reasons I mentioned above, the result is that in a genre that features redemption as a frequent theme and makes standard the transformation of bad boys into men of honor and integrity who deserve the heroine’s love, stories in which the heroine is redeemed are rare.
When I tried to develop a top ten list of redeemed heroines for this post, I could not think of ten. Now granted, most of my romance reading is limited to historicals and contemporaries, but I have read deeply within those subgenres, and I’ve been reading romance for decades. I should note that I eliminated some titles that are classified as redeemed heroine stories. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers is arguably the most famous example of the redeemed heroine in romance fiction, but with its roots in Hosea and its author’s clear purpose of using Angel’s story as an allegory of God’s redeeming love, both in the original mainstream version published in 1991 and the 1997 version revised (some would add “and sanitized”) for a Christian publisher, it has little in common with other books on my list. I considered and rejected others because the heroine’s redemption remained unconvincing to me. So here are eight stories in which I thought the heroine’s redemption did work. (I find it interesting that only one novel on my list was published before 2000.)
1. A Christmas Bride (1997), Mary Balogh
Lady Helena Stapleton is Gerald Stapleton’s seductive stepmother in one of Balogh’s most beloved books, A Precious Jewel (1993). Her story takes place thirteen years later. Helena has spent much of the period since her elderly husband’s death as a restless pleasure seeker skirting the boundaries of acceptable behavior, hiding her self-loathing and remorse beneath a mask of cynicism and arrogance. Her journey to self-forgiveness evokes first pity and eventually admiration. Balogh pairs her with Edgar Downes, the brother of Cora, heroine of The Famous Heroine (1996). Readers so wanted Helena to have an unclouded HEA that Balogh wrote a post-publication epilogue and offered it as a free read on her website. When A Christmas Bride was reissued last year, that epilogue was added to the novel.
2. To Wed a Stranger (2003), Edith Layton
Lady Annabelle Wylde, a renowned beauty and accomplished flirt who first appears in Layton’s C series, most notably as a malicious, determined-to-have-what-she-wants character in The Chance (2000), has reached the age of twenty-seven unmarried and with a history of having lost some very eligible suitors. Having given up on love, she consents to an arranged marriage with a stranger, Miles Croft, newly named Viscount Pelham. Annabelle becomes seriously ill the day after her marriage, an illness that lingers while Annabelle loses weight, has her dark locks shorn, and generally is transformed from a woman defined by her beauty to a physically weak, waif who must discover who she is when she is no longer a Beauty. With the object lesson of her mother-in-law, a former beauty who has become a bitter, disappointed woman, the support of her husband, and her own courage, Annabelle develops into a character of strength and wisdom.
3. Ain’t She Sweet (2004), Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Sugar Beth Carey, rich, spoiled, and self-centered, was the queen bee of the local high school in Parrish, Mississippi, where she basked in the adulation of her handmaidens, tormented her hated half-sister, and did her best to destroy the young teacher who refused to kowtow. Fifteen years later, she is broke, desperate, and due for payback when she return to Parrish. Although she has matured enough to feel regret about her past behavior and, in at least one case, has learned to put someone else’s needs before her own, Sugar Beth is still no noble, altruistic heroine. Her reason for returning to Parrish may not be totally selfish, but it assuredly is not motivated by remorse or a desire to make amends. Most readers likely identify more closely with the tormented Winnie or the former satellites who never measured up to Sugar Beth, making SEP’s task of redeeming Sugar Beth in the eyes of those who have valid reasons for disliking her especially difficult. She does so by revealing the emotional wounds and vulnerabilities that lay behind the public image of the girl who apparently had everything. (This is also the only standalone novel on the list.)
4. My Favorite Countess (2011), Vanessa Kelly
Bathsheba Compton, Countess of Randolph, is the malicious ex-mistress who does her best to destroy the reputation of the heroine in Sex and the Single Earl (2010). I was curious about what motivated Bathsheba’s clearly desperate actions when I read this book and delighted when she turned out to be the heroine of the third book in Kelly’s Stanton Family series. But even though the truth of Bathsheba’s unhappy marriage and the precarious financial situation she and by extension her dependent, invalid sister face earn sympathy points from the reader, Kelly wisely keeps Bathsheba a heroine who is sarcastic (at times cruelly so), somewhat selfish, and determined to marry wealth—not admirable characteristics. These qualities make her the antithesis in significant ways of the hero who is noble and self-sacrificing. Bathsheba may never become likeable, but her tenacity, her courage, and her honesty make her admirable and comprehensible.
5. Can’t Buy Me Love (2012), Molly O’Keefe
Tara Jean Sweet wears leather miniskirts, flaunts her cleavage and her blonde, big hair, and hides her past as an exploiter of lonely, old men. She may have a genuine fondness for Lyle Baker, her faux fiancé and all-around ornery bastard, and be grateful for the chance he has given her to accomplish something, but even at her best, Tara Jean is no Girl Scout. She is audacious, loyal, funny, strong, vulnerable, scared, damaged, and a perfect match for Luc Baker who shares many of those characteristics. She is also one of my all-time favorite heroines because her redemption includes acquiring the strength to accept her flawed self and to risk her mended heart.
6. Can’t Hurry Love (2012), Molly O’Keefe
Victoria Schulman is a heroine I actively disliked when she was introduced in Can’t Buy Me Love. My opinion didn’t change during the first part of the book that featured her as a heroine. I thought she was selfish, spineless, and self-pitying, and even her rotten father and her jerk of a husband were not enough to evoke much sympathy from my perspective. Her love for her young son was her only redeeming quality. But as I realized that Victoria saw in herself the same qualities I saw in her and that she hated them with an intensity that far exceeded mine, I began to hope for her to change, to cheer when she made a stand, and to believe that she deserved redemption and the love that made that redemption possible.
7. Perks of Being a Wallflower (2013), Manda Collins (enovella)
Miss Amelia Snowe, once the most dazzling of the diamonds on display in London ballrooms and other social settings and the mean girl throughout Collins’s Ugly Ducklings trilogy, is now the companion of a wealthy mill owner’s daughter. Her own behavior assured that she had no friends willing to help her when she was plunged into poverty. I admit that I was a scoffer when I first heard that Manda Collins was going to write Amelia Snowe’s story. I don’t have much forgiveness to offer mean girls, and I already thought Cecily, Juliet, and Maddie were too quick to accept Amelia’s apologies. But Collins shows her readers a truly repentant heroine, one whose present circumstances are more than payback for her offenses. She also reveals Amelia’s history, so that the reader understands the forces that shaped her into the jealous, spiteful beauty whose venom spilled out in the Ugly Ducklings books. In this case, to understand is to forgive, and I wasn’t very far into The Perks of Being a Wallflower before I found Amelia a sympathetic character whose HEA I was anticipating.
8. Christmas in Snowflake Canyon (2013), RaeAnne Thayne
This is the sixth book in Thayne’s Hope’s Crossing series and an October 29 release. It features Genevieve Beaumont, the rich bitch and bridezilla from earlier books in the series, whose offenses include leaving another heroine stuck with Genevieve’s wedding dress and the balance due for the meticulous hand beading that had to be done twice and an assault on the reputation of the teenager her repulsive fiancé had an affair with and left pregnant. I still can’t quite believe that Thayne made me like this character. It’s even more remarkable that she did the same thing with the hero, Dylan Caine, a wounded veteran who was last seen isolated and drowning in anger and self-pity.
Who are your favorite redeemed heroines?
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.