While tales of the gentleman ignoring the strictures of society to marry a heroine of humble status is a long-established tradition in romance fiction, tales of the lady marrying the groom or even the merchant are much rarer. Perhaps the plot is less appealing for romance writers and readers because the most disastrous alliance was one in which a lady married a man of inferior birth. When Anne Elliott, heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, falls in love with a junior naval office, she refuses his offer of marriage because “She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing—indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it.” When the lovers are finally reunited eight years later, the junior naval officer is a captain who has acquired wealth and rank. A marriage between the two is no longer imprudent. Even so, Austen makes clear that Anne’s marriage will mean a move from the rigid class distinctions of her father’s world to the far more egalitarian world of navy life.
(Note: This post follows “Class Difference, Part 1: The Triumph of Love Over Level”)
The most realistic portrayals of romances that involve a woman marrying a social inferior may be those that supply the background of a character rather than serving as the central romance. For example, Lydia Grenville, heroine of Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion, grew up in harsh circumstances, never knowing her mother’s family because her mother’s runaway marriage to an itinerate actor led to her being disowned by her family and struggling to survive. Such an ending to the central love story, of course, would move a story outside the realm of romance. When a heroine in romance fiction marries outside her class, her hero is almost always a man of great wealth, and the heroine’s family is usually persuaded, albeit sometimes with difficulty, to accept the marriage.
Since Lisa Kleypas is the champion of the self-made hero in historical romance, it is not surprising that the story of the heroine who marries a socially inferior man should be common in her books, including one (Because You’re Mine, 1997) in which the hero is an actor—but a successful one. I counted nine such novels among her historical fiction titles, and I may have missed some. Perhaps her most famous use of heroine matched with a socially inferior hero is Dreaming of You (1994). The protagonists of that book, Sara Fielding and Derek Craven, are among romance fiction’s most beloved couples. Sara is a proper young gentlewoman from a country village who is also a popular author. Derek Craven, owner of London’s most successful gambling club, is also one of the city’s wealthiest men, but he has risen from the very dregs of society. Born in a drainpipe and abandoned at birth, he owes his survival to prostitutes. He has done whatever he needed to do to survive and eventually prosper, including time as a climbing boy, a thief, a grave robber, a gigolo.
Three of the heroines in Kleypas’s popular Hathaway series marry men who rank below them socially. In Mine Till Midnight (2007), Amelia Hathaway marries Cam Rohan who not only earns his fortune and reputation working at Jenner’s Gambling Club but is also half-Rom. The Hathaways, of course, are not typical aristocrats, which doubtless accounts for their easy acceptance of matches that most families would object to strenuously. The once fragile Win Hathaway and the mysterious Rom Kev Merripen find their hard-won HEA in Seduce Me at Sunrise (2008), and Poppy Hathaway marries Harry Rutledge, a dangerous businessman in the pattern of Derek Craven in Tempt Me at Twilight (2009).
But my candidate for Kleypas’s best treatment of the upper-class heroine matched with a wealthy, self-made hero is Where Dreams Begin (2000) in which she pairs Lady Holland Taylor, the widow of a man described as “the epitome of everything a gentleman should be. . . . Intelligent, handsome, and born to an exceptional family,” with Zachary Bronson, a Midas of incredible wealth and power whom the ton views as a dangerous, vulgar social climber. It is not just a match that shocks the world to which Holly belongs but one which some view as a real threat to the stability of that world.
Mary Balogh has written more novels in which the hero is matched with a heroine from a lower class, but she has created some memorable tales of heroines who defy conventions to marry outside their class. In one of her lesser known novels, Beyond the Sunrise (1992), the central characters meet and fall in love as teenagers, he the illegitimate son of an English marquess and she a French countess. The class issues that separate them as young lovers are no less real when they meet again more than a decade later when Robert Blake has achieved the rank of captain in the British army and Joana da Fonte has become the widowed Marquesa das Minas. Balogh gives them a credible HEA despite Robert’s warning that “Neither of us would be happy in the other's world once the first gloss had worn off our passion for each other.''
Many years later Balogh wrote a much lighter story in A Matter of Class (2009) in which a marriage is arranged between Reginald Mason, the son of a wealthy coal merchant, and Lady Annabelle Ashton, the only daughter of the Earl of Havercroft, a match that the earl finds financially expedient but an enormous blow to his pride nonetheless. I hesitate to say more for fear of spoiling this delightful book for anyone who hasn’t read it. Suffice it to say that Balogh gives a different twist to the “matter of class.” I think her richest treatment of an aristocratic heroine paired with a middle-class hero is The Proposal (2012), the first book in her current Survivors’ Club series. Gwendoline, Lady Muir, the daughter of an earl and the widow of a viscount and a secondary character in several of Balogh's most popular books, falls in love with Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham, the son of a wealthy merchant. Hugo, whose title is a recent and uncomfortable acquisition, the reward for heroism in battle, is proud of his middle-class background and, except for his fellow Survivors’ Club members, uncomfortable among aristocrats. Balogh shows not only the ways class has shaped Gwen and Hugo, but she also shows them moving in one another’s worlds, meeting one another’s family, and even the two families interacting.
In addition to the novels by Kleypas and Balogh, I include the following novels in the excellent, highly recommended category.
Her Man of Affairs (1986), Elizabeth Mansfield: Lady Theodora Fairchild, daughter of an earl, and Davie MacKenzie, an ambitious bank clerk. This is a traditional Regency gem in which the heroine’s extravagance has her hovering on the brink of disaster; she hires the hero, a Scot, to manage her family’s financial affairs. To say the two clash is accurate, but it fails to convey the exceptional charm of this story.
The Lady’s Companion (1996), Carla Kelly: Susan Hampton, poor but of gentle birth, and David Wiggins, former soldier and current bailiff to Lady Bushnell, widow of a general and war hero. Susan meets David, who is illegitimate with a past that includes poaching and theft, when she is hired as a companion to Lady Bushnell. Theirs is a relationship that develops gradually as the two move from mutual suspicion to friendship to love. Both are conscious of their class difference, and Susan’s family, already displeased about her work, disowns her upon her marriage.
Wild at Heart (1997), Patricia Gaffney: Sydney Darrow, the widowed daughter of an anthropologist in late 19th-century Chicago, and Michael MacNeil, the “lost man” that the University of Chicago anthropology department places in the care of Sydney’s father. If Gaffney’s name had not been on this, I would have chosen to reread a Russian novel (my literary bête noire) rather that read a romance novel with a feral man as hero, but in her gifted hands Michael becomes an unforgettable hero, and his and Sydney’s love story one of the sweetest I’ve ever read. Not a typical romance involving class differences, the difficulties of the daughter of a distinguished professor paired with “Ontario Man” are significant.
The Proposition (1999), Judith Ivory: Edwina Bollash, daughter of the Marquess of Sissingley, and Mick Tremore, a rat catcher who happily accepts the responsibility for thirteen siblings. Edwina and Mick are eminently likeable characters, and as soon as the six-foot redhead agrees to use her experience at turning awkward young ladies into polished practitioners of the social graces to transform Mick into a gentleman in six weeks, the reader looks forward to a comic tale, but the humor does not eradicate the reality of their very different backgrounds. Readers typically either love or loathe the fairy-tale ending to Ivory’s Pygmalion story, but few can resist these unique characters.
The Weaver Takes a Wife (1999), Sheri Cobb South: Lady Helen Radney, daughter of a duke, and Ethan Brundy, a wealthy cotton-mill owner. Helen, known as the Ice Princess, is angry at her father’s for selling her into marriage with a man she holds in contempt because of his origins, but she soon discovers that the unrefined, unpretentious Ethan possesses intelligence, kindness, and strength enough to put most of the polished gentlemen she knows to shame. With enough obstacles to keep things believable, the weaver and his wife find their way to an HEA.
Hazard (2002), Jo Beverley: Lady Anne Peckworth, daughter of a duke, and Racecombe de Vere, tradesman’s son, former soldier, and friend and secretary to the Earl of Wyvern. Lady Anne, the ultimate wallflower, was rejected by both Viscount Middlethorpe (Forbidden) and the Earl of Wyvern (The Dragon’s Bride), and Race is commissioned by the Rogues to check on her. Watching these two unlikely people quietly fall in love is a joy.
His Captive Lady (2008), Anne Gracie: Lady Helen Freymore, daughter of the late Earl of Denton, and Harry Morant, the illegitimate son of an earl and a chambermaid. Harry, recently returned to civilian life after military service, is seeking a location for his stables and for a wife, preferably a well-dowered daughter of a wealthy merchant who will be content with his aristocratic connections to the relatives that recognize him. Instead, he meets and almost immediately proposes to the impoverished Lady Helen, who is on a quest of her own. Despite the heartbreaking nature of Nell’s quest, the novel in typical Gracie style is shot through with humor.
I Kissed an Earl (2010), Julie Anne Long: Violet Redmond, daughter of the wealthy, powerful Isaiah Redmond, and Asher Flint, newly named Earl of Ardmay. It sounds as if this one doesn’t belong on this list, but Flint is also a “mixed-breed bastard, privateer, and trader,” a far remove from the indulged, privileged life of Violet. Class is not the only barrier between Violet and Flint. His goal is to capture Le Chat, a pirate who has been plundering and burning ships, some of them English ships, and Violet is convinced that Le Chat whose ship is the Olivia is her brother Lyon.
In the Arms of the Heiress (2013), Maggie Robinson: Louisa Stratton, heiress and “new woman,” and Charles Cooper, child of working class parents and veteran of the Second Boer War. This romantic comedy with a touch of mystery is a particularly interesting treatment of class differences because the heroine is not the daughter of a duke or earl or even a baron. Her mother was one of the American heiresses who came to England to find a husband, suggesting a nouveau riche background, and even her father, described as an untitled gentleman, owes part of his fortune to banking interests. The hero acknowledges that while education and military service have polished away most traces of his lower working-class roots, some rough edges remain.
Have you read any of these? What books would you add to the list?
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.