Aug 4 2011 9:30am

Breaking the Rules With Class and Grace: Eloisa James

This Duchess of Mine by Eloisa JamesEloisa James’s meteoric rise to romance writing fame over the past decade started with a simple goal: to help pay off her student loans so that she and her husband could afford to have a second child.

Her ability to start with a character or a plotline and turn it on its head has defined much of her very successful writing career. For example, it is a bona-fide Rule of Romance that heroines do not, ever, under any circumstances, commit adultery. That behavior is for villains and the occasional supporting character only. If it’s a female character who’s doing the deed with someone other than her husband, she generally winds up dead.

Eloisa is one of the very few writers who successfully writes about the romantic forbidden. To wit: adultery, marital separation, and even a child’s death.
In This Duchess of Mine, Jemma spent years living in Paris sans husband, during which she has two brief, unsatisfying, but widely discussed extramarital affairs. What sent her fleeing from her marriage? Her husband’s own extramarital affair, which tanks the relationship before it even has a chance to get started.

In Duchess in Love, Eloisa gives us one of my favorite supporting characters in all fiction: Esme. Unhappily married and desirous of a child, she embarks on an affair that becomes much more when her husband dies with spectacularly awkward timing.

Sleeping Beauty by Judith IvoryEloisa’s decision to write sympathetic adulterous women is a brave one considering the market’s usual reaction to heroines with any substantive sexual history. Does anyone remember the public reaction to Judith Ivory’s Sleeping Beauty, in which the heroine was a former courtesan? A real one, too, not a virgin who happened to escape from the harem just in the nick of time but not before learning all manner of sexxxxy tricks. Coco, and hence the book, was an incredibly polarizing character who got raked over the coals by a lot of romance fans.

Another one of Eloisa’s unusual twists on the usual boy-meets-girl theme is that several of Eloisa’s protagonists are already married when the story begins. Reconciling with one’s spouse after a period of separation isn’t what I’d hazard most women have in mind when searching out romantic fiction, but Eloisa manages to make the process fun, sexy, and adventurous.

With her latest series, Eloisa was inspired to use traditional fairy tales as her books’s jumping-off points. In real life, Eloisa is the daughter of famed poet Robert Bly. As a child, Eloisa’s father used to ask her probing questions about fairy tales they read together. “What does it mean when Jack climbs the beanstalk?” he would ask. “Why does Jack climb the beanstalk?”

When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa JamesAt a recent Lady Jane’s Salon in New York during RWA, she read from When Beauty Tamed the Beast, in which (**spoiler alert!**) the heroine’s near-death scene references T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock.” Her December 2011 release, The Duke is Mine, is a reworking of “The Princess and the Pea,” while A Kiss at Midnight is a take on “Cinderella.”

And did Eloisa have that second child? Yes, she did, and her Italian count husband and her family are thus far having their own Happily Ever After ending.


Carrie Netzer Wajda is an independent researcher and freelance writer in New York, and can be found at A devotee of romance and mystery fiction, she someday hopes to actually finish one of the 182 gazillion “first books” she has started writing in her lifetime, and maybe even publish it. In the meantime, she loves blogging about her favorite authors.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
I have been an Eloisa James fan for awhile, but it wasn't until When Beauty Tamed the Beast that I elevated her writing to brilliant in my mind. I have said it all over the place, but will repeat it here: That book is a game-changer, a really masterful romance novel that is just stunning.
And I have always loved that she takes traditional 'don't's in romance novels and makes them work in her books.
Carrie Wajda
2. Carrie Wajda
Megan, I can't agree more. Her writing is really elegant, and it just keeps getting better and better. I love how she can move a scene forward in a few short sentences. Plus, nothing grabs my attention more than a really well-done broken rule. Sarah MacLean is another one who does some beautiful rulebreaking.
Carrie Wajda
3. chris booklover
I was surprised to read "it is a bona-fide Rule of Romance that heroines do not, ever, under any circumstances, commit adultery." Bertrice Small and Virginia Henley both wrote about adulterous heroines in the 1980's - in fact, this was something of a trademark for Small. Sheila Bishop's 1979 Regency The Rules of Marriage, Daphne Clair's 1981 contemporary Harlequin Presents, Marriage Under Fire and Mary Jo Putney's Silk and Secrets (1992) also featured adulterous heroines. There are other examples, but the point is that Eloisa James is not nearly as original in this respect as suggested above.
Megan Frampton
4. MFrampton
@chris booklover--I think what Carrie means is more that there is usually a hue and cry when a heroine commits adultery in books, and most authors wouldn't even dare to try it these days. Not to say that Eloisa is absolutely alone in writing it, but that most readers would say it's a dealbreaker if the heroine commits adultery, or the hero even sleeps with another woman after getting involved with the heroine.
Carrie Wajda
5. chris booklover
I certainly agree that many romance readers do not want to read about cheating, but that is a very different statement from the original "it is a bona-fide Rule of Romance that heroines do not, ever, under any circumstances, commit adultery." As my examples showed, authors wrote about adulterous heroines long before Eloisa James published.

They continue to do so today. In the past five years we have seen Jennifer Haymore's A Hint of Wicked, Joan Kilby's When Love Is True, Denise Lynn's Bedded By Her Lord, Annette McCleave's Tempting The Knight, Kathryn Shay's A Price Worth Paying, and so on - plus the explosion of the menage sub-genre. I guess I'm not sure why Eloisa James's work should be regarded as distinctive or pathbreaking in this respect.
Carrie Wajda
6. Janga
I think This Duchess of Mine is even more remarkable when you consider that many readers followed the story of this adulterous H/H through four previous books, rooting for their reconciliation.

Another rule-breaker moment that I relish occurs in A Kiss at Midnight. It looks as if the hero has chosen duty over love and the heroine, between the black moment and the HEA, recognizes that as much as she loves the hero, wants him in her life, and thinks life will be better with him, she can have a life without him.
Carrie Wajda
7. Teresa Medeiros
Hey! I just finished writing a "heroine who managed to escape from the harem in the nick of time after learning all sorts of sexy tricks" book. I resemble that remark! ;)

Great article, Carrie! :)
Carrie Wajda
8. Carrie Wajda
Oh, Teresa, I can't wait to read it! Also I think I will go hyperventillate awhile now because Teresa Medeiros commented on my blog post! Squee! :)

I love a good heroine-escapes-the-harem plotline - nothing against it at all. Romance wouldn't be romance without that kind of fun.

@Chris & Janga, yes, Megan has it right: it's not that adultery is never written about, ever, but authors have to be very careful so as not to offend the romance readership. I think Eloisa stands out because she's done it in a number of books, and she writes about it in a way that manages not to inspire the kind of wrath other authors have incurred. I find it an interesting motif throughout her writing, but as Janga notes, that's hardly the only romance rule she breaks.
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