Today we're joined by Rose Lerner, whose Sweet Disorder (out now!) is the story of a widow who has no intention of ever marrying again, because her first marriage was not what she had hoped. But certain things in her life force her to reconsider that decision. Rose is here to talk about the 'specter of the Dead First Husband' in historicals. Thanks, Rose!
Trigger warning: mentions of rape and abuse
Phoebe, the heroine of Sweet Disorder, is a widow. As I wrote the story, I was conscious of a long line of widow heroines who had gone before her, and particularly of the specter of the Dead First Husband. When I started reading historicals back in the ‘90s, pretty much every dead first husband was awful, if not outright evil. Sometimes he was impotent, sometimes a rapist, often old, and sometimes even, for added villainy, gay or bisexual. Blargh.
I love me a good evil ex story (God knows there are plenty of them out there), but variety is the spice of life, so it's nice to see a fuller spectrum of previous relationships being presented these days. I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historical romances featuring dead first husbands, and got back some delicious food for thought.
I once read an interview (which I now can't track down, but I feel like it was either with Tom Hiddleston or with someone involved in the making of Prometheus?) which said that larger-than-life stories like we see in sci-fi/fantasy, where dramas play out across galaxies or universes, resonate with us so strongly because our own emotions feel epic and larger-than-life to us. In other words, heightening reality is one of the best ways of making fictional emotions feel as overwhelming and compelling as real ones.
For me, this is part of the appeal of historical romance. The struggle to create an equal relationship with someone is a big deal, such a big deal that even an argument about the dishes can feel all-consuming. That struggle takes on added weight when the financial, legal, and social gaps between men and women were even greater than they are today. Courtney Milan brought up the “powers that a husband has over a wife in that time period [Victorian England]. For instance, they refer to sexual intercourse between a husband and his wife as the man's 'marital rights'—something that if you really think about it, is kind of gross, because it erases the notion of the wife being able to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband.”
(Depressingly enough, marital rape did not start to become a crime in the U.S until the mid-1970s.)
Making a wise decision about who to spend your life with—well, it's pretty darn high stakes, isn't it? British-set historicals in particular raise those stakes even higher with this Catch-22: without readily available divorce, marriage really is until death do you part, while at the same time, there is intense pressure on women to find a husband, since marriage is set up by society as the be-all and end-all of a woman's life.
As Lauren Willig puts it, “The entire shape of the marriage market creates an image of marriage as a goal without giving any sense of the eons of time that will follow that triumphal announcement in the paper...The romantic missteps most of us experience as a matter of course (except for those lucky few who marry their high school sweetheart) come at a much higher cost in Regency Land than they do in today's world.”
Sometimes, historical romance heroines marry their first husbands without understanding what love and marriage really mean, taking on an adult role and responsibility before they're ready. Sometimes they don't have much choice—they need to marry for financial or practical or family reasons. Whether the first marriage was based solely on sense, or solely on sensibility, the new relationship with the hero offers the opportunity to make a complete decision, one which takes into account every aspect of her personality. The heroine is not just deciding to be with the hero, but deciding how she wants to live her life: What do I owe others, and what do I owe myself? How do I decide who to be loyal to? What risks are worth taking? What risks aren't?
In Sweet Disorder, Phoebe married her first husband at eighteen, shortly after her beloved father's death left her without a buffer between her and her hypercritical, difficult mother. Will made her feel better, and she thought it was because she loved him, but looking back, maybe it's just because he got her out of the house. Their marriage was a disaster and she's planning to never marry again. But over the course of the book, through her relationship with the hero, she's able to face down the things she was running from and look into her blind spots. By the time she agrees to marry him, she's ready.
When I asked these authors how the heroine's decision to marry or be with the hero was different from the decision to marry the dead first husband, I got some fascinating responses:
Jeannie Lin on The Dragon and the Pearl: Suyin “had no choice technically, but in a way she did have a choice. She chose to excel at the role the Emperor created for her. It was a means of survival and she becomes exceptional at it.[...] With Li Tao, she's forced to make the decision whether survival is enough or does she want something more than a cold, safe existence? If she wants happiness, she has to fight for it and for him.”
Courtney on The Countess Conspiracy: “Well, I think that Violet didn't so much make a decision to marry her first husband. She was seventeen, he was an earl, she was young, and marriage was a thing one did, and this particular man fit all the criteria. Her sister had made a brilliant marriage and Violet was excited about doing the same thing. But at seventeen, I don't think you're old enough to really comprehend exactly what you're getting into.”
Cecilia Grant on A Lady Awakened: “Not only did she choose poorly the first time, but she was in some ways too immature, and too ungenerous, to be a good partner in marriage[...]Her journey toward falling in love runs parallel to her journey of becoming a more humane person. So by the time she makes that decision to marry again, she's better equipped to make the decision and better equipped to be married.”
Lauren on The Betrayal of the Blood Lily: “To Penelope, Freddy is largely interchangeable: he might be any good looking young man with a future title and a large income[...]When she gets together with Alex, it's[...]about really liking and needing another human being, with a full awareness that marriage is about tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and that some of those tomorrows might be sunnier and others might be gloomier.”
Tessa Dare on Twice Tempted by a Rogue: “Meredith is a very pragmatic woman, by necessity[...H]er first marriage was very much a business decision. She needed security for her and her father both, and neither love nor attraction factored into the equation. Her attraction to Rhys, on the other hand, is anything but practical[...]It's like a dream come true—and that’s exactly why she doesn't trust it.”
Susanna Fraser on The Sergeant's Lady: “Now that I think about it, there's actually a certain external similarity in how [Anna] marries Sebastian and Will. In both cases she's marrying against the judgment and advice of trusted, beloved family members and making what the outside world would see as a reckless, hasty match. The difference is that her choice of Sebastian springs from an immature infatuation[...]Her marriage to Sebastian is 'I want what I want and you can't stop me.' When she chooses Will, it's 'I know where I belong now. This is my life, this is my love, and here I stand.'”
That's an interesting point when looking at Theresa Romain's It Takes Two to Tangle, because at first glance, Frances makes the same mistake twice: she wants a man, and she lies to get him. The difference is twofold: with Henry, the hero, Frances does come clean about her lies—but also, this time Frances chooses well.
Theresa describes Frances's first husband Charles as “young and lusty and somewhat selfish. A lot like Frances herself!” For young Frances, falling for someone with whom she had a lot in common meant falling for someone she couldn't make a good life with. But now, older and wiser, she's drawn to a man who can be her equal and her partner and her best friend, and whom she can see clearly enough to feel confident in that choice. As Theresa says, “[Henry] and Frances are both veterans of grief who have decided never to lose their senses of humor.”
I'm getting a little swoony just reading these answers, people. I love romance!
My last question for all these authors was to tell me a favorite historical with a memorable first marriage.* Here are their answers:
- Courtney and Cecilia: Elizabeth Hoyt's The Raven Prince
- Theresa: Julia Quinn's When He Was Wicked
- Lauren: Joan Wolf's The Arrangement
- Jeannie: Lisa Kleypas's Stranger in My Arms
- Susanna: This isn't a historical, but it feels like one—the two-book science fiction romance arc of Komarr and A Civil Campaign in Lois McMaster Bujold's marvelous Vorkosigan Saga
- Tessa: Courtney's The Countess Conspiracy and Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie
Do you have a favorite dead first husband? Tell me about it!
*And I'll be posting the full interviews with these authors on my blog in April, so keep an eye out.
Learn more or order a copy of Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner, out now:
I discovered Georgette Heyer when I was thirteen, and wrote my first historical romance a few years later. My writing has improved since then, but my fascination with all things Regency hasn't changed. When not reading, writing, or researching, I enjoy cooking and marathoning old TV shows. I live in Seattle. Visit me at roselerner.com.