Jun 6 2011 9:30am

In Praise of the Heroine’s Journey

Castle of Foxes by Alanna KnightOne of the elements that draws me to the romance genre is the heroine’s story. When catch my first glimpse of a new release, my interest sharpens if the cover features a woman—or if the heroine is in a prominent position—and is further piqued if the blurb promises an intriguing heroine with a meaty conflict. In turn, I give my heroines greater leeway for unsympathetic behavior than I do my heroes, and nothing turns me off a book quicker than the deterioration of a heroine’s strength, character, and story once the hero appears on the scene.

My introduction to the heroine’s story was through gothic romances. Beneath the brooding Rochester-esque heroes, the spooky castles, and the heroine’s helplessness and relative innocence lies a coming-of-age story. Some of my favorite gothic romances—The India Fan by Victoria Holt, Merlin’s Keep by Madeleine Brent, Castle of Foxes by Alanna Knight, to name a few—frequently discussed and challenged the roles of women in historical settings, and the heroine’s refusal to give into the hero’s darkness was a test of her strength and character. To focus on Victoria Holt in particular, she always began her books from a turning point in the heroine’s childhood, and though the heroines were poor or disadvantaged, they were always fiercely intelligent, resourceful, and independent.

The India Fan by Victoria HoltDrusilla Delany of The India Fan defines herself by her plainness after overhearing a servant compare her—a vicar’s daughter—to the beautiful daughter of the aristocratic Framling family. Nevertheless, Drusilla remains pragmatic and likable despite being mistaken for an unwed mother, the death of her father, losing her almost fiancé to Lavinia Framling, and later, moving to India to work as governess for Lavinia’s children in the months before the Sepoy Mutiny. Holt turns the “Plain Jane” trope on its head by using Drusilla’s alleged plainness as a catalyst for her to want more from life than what Victorian society said plain women deserved. Ultimately, Drusilla finds her HEA in a most unexpected quarter without resorting to a makeover or proving her “goodness” over a vain, silly, and beautiful rival. Which leads me to another love for Holt’s gothic romances—the nuanced relationships between her female characters.

From Holt I jump to Eloisa James, who has built her career on books connected by women, be they sisters or best friends. To this day, the Duchess Quartet ranks high on my keeper list for its blend of romance, history, laughter, friendship, and passion. In a way, the relationships between James’ female characters are more important than their individual HEAs, for these bonds help the heroines cope with the curve balls life has thrown at them, be they runaway husbands, bad matches, illicit affairs, unexpected pregnancies, live-in mistresses, or overbearing mothers. How else would Esme have coped with the result of her indulgence with Sebastian if she hadn’t Helene by her side? Who else but her sisters would have put up with Imogen’s antics after her short-lived marriage to the reckless Draven Maitland? What else by friendship kept Jemma sane during her separation from her husband?

A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaughtGranted, I have plenty of love for the many amazing heroes in romance (I swoon over Royce Westmorland from Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams), and there are many books I have enjoyed where the focus was on the hero, but I like my heroine-centric focus. After all, where else but the Romance genre do get to see a variety of female characters, find a variety of stories and conflicts, and pair these women with amazing and sexy heroes as they work their way towards a satisfying HEA?

Do you believe the best romances are hero- or heroine-centric, or do you have to like both protagonists? For those hero-centric readers, which books challenged your stance? Do you have any recommendations for heroine-centric romances?

Evangeline Holland is a writer of historical romances, an amateur milliner, and a really great cook. When not writing or reading, you can find her blogging about the Edwardian era on her website, the aptly titled Edwardian Promenade.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Marleen Gagnon
1. Marleen Gagnon
I have to like both the hero and heroine. I prefer both to be shown on the cover whether I can see their faces or not. I want a heroine and hero who are strong and know what they want, but they are only complete when they are together. Any good book is going to give the reader that. I can think of Jane Eyre for one and if we leave the classics, Outrageously Yours by Allison Chase or Caine's Reckoning by Sarah McCarty. All have strong heroines and heros and all are good reads for me.
Marleen Gagnon
2. Darlynne
Can I just say how much I love the cover of Alana Knight's Castle of Foxes? Sight of it took me right back to older Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart covers. Wow.

Both heroine and hero have to speak to me, although, as I think about it, I do enjoy hero-centric romances. In fact, as I follow that thought, it does seem that focus on the hero frequently means a less-than-interesting heroine. Hmmm.

Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels is definitely heroine-centric, as is Devon Monk's Allie Beckstrom. Is that because they're both first person narratives? Possibly. Same for C. E. Murphy's Joanna Walker, Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville. Both Meg Gardiner's series, one of which is third-person.

This is a really good question. I'm going to have to ponder my reading choices a little more. If we get both POVs, does the heroine suffer for including focus on the male?
Janet Webb
3. JanetW
In my romances, I'm agreeing w/@Darlynne ... the focus can't be too heavily on one or the other or I'll feel like I've been cheated. Often tho, heroines start strong and crumble when the hero comes on the scene: that's a letdown, imo.

What an interesting blog!
Marleen Gagnon
4. Janga
I too prefer a balance rather than a hero or heroine-centric story, but if the focus leans toward one, I prefer that it be the heroine. I can think of a few romances where I have felt little sympathy for the hero and still found merit in the book. Eloisa James's Potent Pleasures is one example. I can think of only one where I have been out of sympathy with the heroine and still liked the book. Oddly enough, it is also an EJ book: The Taming of the Duke.

Mary Jo Putney is another writer who has created some of my favorite heroines, characters who are as strong and as fascinating as their heroes: Lady Alys Weston (The Rake), Catherine Melbourne (Shattered Rainbows), Troth Montgomery (The China Bride), Abby Barton (The Marriage Spell). Even her secondary female characters interest me. I love Maria Fitzgerald (One Perfect Rose) and Lady Agnes Westerfield (Lost Lord series).
5. EvangelineHolland
@Marleen - I completely agree! My keeper shelf is full of books where the hero and heroine were both equally compelling characters. I always feel the best romances are those which show the growth of both protagonists, rather than one helping the other.

@Darlynne - I love the cover too! And good, that I made you think!

@JanetW - I really hate when that happens. It doesn't bode well for the story of the heroine does not become a better person with the hero's love and interest.

@Janga - That's why I highlighted Eloisa James. Her books are very heroine-centric, even though she writes amazing heroes. I'll also have to check out some of those books you've mentioned!
Donna Cummings
6. Donna Cummings
I've been pondering this for a few days now, and I'm still not sure what my comment is going to be! LOL I like strong heroines, and I enjoy the journey they travel throughout a story--I also want them to be somebody I would hang out with. However, I fall in love with a book because of the hero. I think. LOL I definitely want him to be somebody I'd challenge the heroine to a duel for!
Post a comment