Jul 21 2011 2:00pm

Older Women in Secondary Romances: Still Sexy After All These Years

Skinny Dipping by Connie BrockwayMadeleine L’Engle once said, “I am still every age that I have been.”

It seems that most romance readers agree with L’Engle, and have chosen the mid-20s as the age they prefer for identifying with the heroines of romance fiction. Despite what some tout as the rise of “boomer lit," in romance fiction the heroines remain young, more chick than hen.

In fact, according to, the average age of heroines in romance fiction written in the U.S. ranges from 24-26. The average romance reader is a generation older, 44.6, to be exact, says RWA. The breakdown of readership by age is no longer available on RWA’s statistics page, but earlier figures placed the number of romance readers over 45 at 44%. But Harlequin’s Next and Everlasting Love lines which frequently featured heroines over 40 are defunct, and books that featured older heroines such as Skinny Dipping by Connie Brockway and Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar by Pamela Morsi, although enthusiastically received by some readers, failed to reach an audience in line with the number of 40+ readers. All these references to numbers are preface to the real topic of this essay: older women in secondary romances.

I am part of the 44% of romance readers over 45, and while I enjoy many romance novels with heroines in their 20s, I also like to see mature female characters who mirror the women I know in their 40s, 50s, and beyond who are vital, passionate, and fully engaged in life. For the most part, I find such characters not as protagonists but in secondary roles as mothers, aunts, or friends to the hero or heroine. I’m particularly grateful to Anne Gracie, Sherry Thomas, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Lorraine Heath, and Robyn Carr for giving me these top five favorite secondary women characters who prove to be still sexy despite their years:

The Stolen Princess by Anne GracieMiss Jane “Tibby” Tibthorpe, The Stolen Princess and His Captive Lady by Anne Gracie

Tibby, former governess and current friend to Princess Caroline of Zindaria is “about thirty-five, little, neat, with brown hair and brown eyes and a way of looking at a man as if he was lower than a worm.” In other words, Tibby appears to be a stereotypical spinster. But she isn’t. She has courage enough to stand up to the villains, wit enough to warn others of their presence, and romance enough to see in her rescuer who tossed her on a horse, swung up behind her, and galloped away as a “Young Lochinvar,” even though he’s a fortyish Irishman with “a tough-looking face and a pugilist’s build.” Tibby’s relationship with the Irishman, Ethan Delaney, develops gradually as they come to know each other. She gives him literacy lessons, and they correspond when she moves to Zindaria. One of my favorite moments in historical romance is when Ethan gives Tibby the romance her heart craves and arrives on horseback to claim her, announcing “I am Not-So-Young Lochinvar, and I’ve come for Fair Tibby.” Tibby had decided that she was “no fair Ellen from a poem,” but clearly, contrary to her belief that she’s meant to be a spinster, she will be someone’s bride.

Victoria Rowland, Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas
The heroine’s mother in Sherry Thomas’s debut novel could have been just another manipulative mama. Instead, Thomas turns her into a fully realized character with her own history and growth. A former Beauty forced by her family’s depleted finances to marry a much older, wealthy industrialist instead of the titled gentleman she had expected to wed, Victoria Rowland has been driven to see her daughter a duchess. The first candidate died before the wedding, and Victoria’s daughter seems determined to divorce the Marquess of Tremaine, heir to the Duke of Fairford. The obvious solution is to find another duke for her daughter, and Victoria does. He is Langford Fitzwilliam, the Duke of Perrin, and he’s nearer Victoria’s almost 49 years than to her daughter’s age.
From their first meeting, it is clear that Victoria and the duke, a former rake turned reclusive scholar, are attracted to one another. When he reluctantly comes to her aid in freeing a conveniently treed kitten, she thinks of him as a “temporary and rather churlish Galahad;” he sees her as “Snow White after a few decades of happily-ever-after.” Watching their weekly teas multiply so that their verbal duels can continue is sheer delight, as is watching the attraction between them grow. The nights of the serene Mrs. Rowland are troubled by the duke:

“The least reference to his former wickedness had her in a lather. Accompanied by one of those alluring smiles . . . well, she could count on not sleeping much tonight.”

Her effect on him is just as disturbing:

“This woman constantly forced him to reevaluate his opinion on what being a virtuous woman entailed. Apparently, sexual creativity in a proper, earnest English marriage was not half as dead as he’d believed.”

Their relationship involves more than banter and potentially explosive chemistry, however. The duke challenges Victoria to become openly the intelligent, independent-minded woman who has lurked beneath a social façade, and she gives him the knowledge he needs to be freed from an old guilt that has shadowed much of his adult life. They even get the traditional happy ending when Victoria becomes the Duchess of Perrin.

This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth PhillipsLilly Sherman, This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Lilly Sherman, the biological mother of SEP’s hunky football hero Kevin Tucker, is an aging actress who insists that she “passed the beautiful woman mark a good ten years and forty pounds ago.” She admits to 45; she’s actually 50. It takes seeing herself through the eyes of Liam Jenner, a reclusive, bad-tempered genius of American art, to allow her to accept herself as the creative, sexy, mature woman she has become. Liam appreciates every curve of her lush body, and the portrait he paints shows “every sag, every wrinkle, every bulge that should have been flat,” but it also shows her “luminous with a glow that seemed to come from deep inside, her curves strong and fluid, her face majestically beautiful . . . wise in her age.” The love scenes between actress and artist sizzle with as much heat as any scene between younger lovers, particularly the scene where Liam paints Lilly’s body: “Not an image on canvas. He painted her flesh.”

Tess, Duchess of Ainsley, Waking Up With the Duke by Lorraine Heath
Lorraine Heath’s conclusion to her London’s Greatest Lovers series is a romance about love triangles. The primary triangle involves the Duke of Ainsley, his cousin and friend the Marquess of Wolfort, and Wolfort’s wife, Lady Jayne. The secondary triangle involves Ainsley’s mother, the 52-year-old Duchess of Ainsley, Leo, her current lover, and the Earl of Lynnford, the great love of her life and father of one of her sons. Tess is a woman who, as her son says, “enjoys her notoriety.” She and the mysterious Leo, fifteen years her junior, have been together for ten years. It is Leo who is uncertain that Tess loves him, who fears he will lose Tess to Lynnford. The passion between the two of them is strong, but it is only one dimension of their relationship: “no other woman had ever affected him as she did. His joy in her encompassed more than what transpired in the bed. He enjoyed every moment of every day that he was in her presence.” When Leo leaves, convinced Tess will choose Lynnford, Tess has the determination to track him down and to propose after years of turning down his proposals.

Angel’s Peak by Robyn CarrMaureen Riordan, Angel’s Peak and Moonlight Road by Robyn Carr

One of the joys of Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series is that it includes lovers of every age from hormone-driven teens to grandparents. One of my favorite story lines in the latter group is that of Maureen Riordan, a 60ish widow and mother of five sons (Luke, Sean, Aidan, Colin, and Patrick) and George Davenport, 70, a retired clergyman and college professor. The two are opposites in many ways. Maureen is a devout Catholic who spends her time involved with church activities and playing golf, tennis, and bridge with women friends. She is convinced that “romance is for young girls, not women her age.” George is an ordained Presbyterian minister and a childless widower who enjoys a close relationship with his step-children and their children and with Noah Kinkaid, pastor of Virgin River’s lone church. Maureen brushes off George’s first invitation to dinner, leery of dating at her age and horrified by the idea of exposing her aging body to a man’s eyes. But George is persistent, and Maureen’s friend Vivian reminds her, “It’s one thing to be strait-laced, but another entirely to stop living.” Maureen discovers she likes picnics and conversation and George’s kisses. Before too long, she is selling her condo, distributing family treasures among her sons, and planning a year-long, cross-country trip with George in his newly purchased RV. Her scandalized sons are in shock, but Maureen’s in love.


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.

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connie brockway
1. connie brockway
Excellent blog, Janga!
Older heroines have richer back stories, feel the emotional stakes to a greater degree, are nuanced and flavorful. I loves me older heroines!
Charli Mac
2. CharliMac
I write my characters in their thirty-somethings. That's where I am . I like to read about characters falling in love at any age. The Notebook to me was a great example and even Bridges of Madison County.

I watched Moonstruck the other day- talk about generational love stories. Cher's character was 37 in that movie. Olympia Dukakis even got some action in it. Love is beautiful at any age. I yawn at the twenty-something novels.
connie brockway
3. Janga
Thanks, Connie. I totally agree. Your description certainly applies to your Mimi Olson. I love that book!
connie brockway
4. Janga
CharliMac, the heroine in my first ms, is 34, and I had a contest judge who liked the story suggest that I make her younger since 34 seemed too old for a romance heroine.

I'm not a Nicholas Sparks fan, but I too think it's the love story, not the age of the heroine--or hero--that matters.
Donna Cummings
5. Donna Cummings
I remember re-reading This Heart of Mine a couple years ago and being completely enchanted with the "older couple" romance, although I didn't really remember it from the first time I read it (when I was younger). I guess I was more focused on the younger couple initially. :)

I enjoy reading about love at different ages, but I think there is more inherent drama with younger couples, so maybe that's why it appeals more to me. The hopes and fears are different at each stage of life too.

Lots of things to ponder! Great post.
Kate Nagy
6. Kate Nagy
Some of my favorite heroines are 30+. For example, in Jude Morgan's An Accomplished Woman, heroine Lydia is over 30 (which would have been quite, um, mature indeed in that day and age), and she's awesome. And Lois McMaster Bujold has written some amazing "older" heroines -- Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is in her mid-30s at the beginning of the Vorkosigan series, and Ista is 40 in the award-winning Paladin of Souls. (Of the 18-year-old woman-child Fawn in the Sharing Knife series we will not speak.)
Carmen Pinzon
7. bungluna
@Kate - LBJ is allowed one younger heroine, come on. (;-)I've been reading a lot of contemporary romance latelly, with 30something heroines acting like teens. I find this more anoying than reading about 20somethings behaving badly.
connie brockway
8. Sue Warhaftig
My book has a heroine at 50! It's a coming of Middle Age story. Steamy, sex and a story line that will keep you on the edge of your chair cheering for her to figure life out! I hope Heroes and Heartbreakers will review our book and tell you all more! Sue
connie brockway
10. J. Arlene Culiner
My book, All About Charming Alice, (Crimson Romance) will be coming out on August 12th. Both the hero and heroine are well over 40. They lead interesting lives and have no qualms about their age. Both have rich pasts and believe me, there definitely is "inherent drama" in their story.
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