Jan 6 2013 1:00pm

Rarer Than Hen’s Teeth: Sexually Experienced Heroines in Historical Romance

His Every Kiss by Laura Lee GuhrkeWith Chelsea Mueller’s recent Heroes and Heartbreakers article on sexually experienced contemporary and paranormal romance heroines, she took an excellent look at the slut-shaming that can often happen in romances of those subgenres, as well as the growing trend of experienced, sex-positive heroines in contemporary and paranormal romance.

That being said, there is still a romance subgenre that remains a little behind the times—mainly because its stories are intentionally behind the times. I’m speaking, of course, of historical romances. Experienced heroines are rarer than hen’s teeth in a subgenre that remains overwhelmingly fixated on eighteenth to nineteenth century Great Britain.

Well, no, that’s not precisely fair. There are sexually experienced heroines in historical romance—just not a lot with positive sexual experiences before meeting the hero. Most often they are the widows of unimaginative, inconsiderate, or abusive husbands. Those few who engage in the act outside of wedlock are either raped or exploited. Those even fewer heroines who make sex their trade do so only to keep food in their bellies or in the bellies of their numerous and vulnerable dependents.

That being said, historical romances do have sexually voracious female characters; they just happen to be villains. Adulterous wives. Spiteful courtesans. Self-indulgent merry widows.

The popular argument for this is that “This is unrealistic! Nineteenth century sexual morals were completely different back then! I wouldn’t believe in a positive, moral heroine of that time period who would seek out sexual gratification!” And yet no one questions the innate morality of the Dukes of Slut heroes who have totally realistically never caught syphilis.

That being said, here are some engaging, well-written heroines who have been around the block a time or two—in a well-appointed barouche, of course.

One of my favourite romance novels is Laura Lee Guhrke’s His Every Kiss. The heroine Grace Cheval ran off with a painter when she was a teenager. While their relationship eventually deteriorated, for their first few years, per Grace’s own admission, their relationship was an emotionally and sexually amorous one. Her reactions to the hero Dylan’s ministrations aren’t of “what is happening to my no-no place” surprise, but of “Oh God I missed this” anticipation.

Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta ChaseAnother fantastic heroine is Francesca Bonnard from Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways. True, becoming a courtesan was not her first career choice after her husband tossed her aside, but once she went down that road, she never looked back and sees no point in harbouring regrets. Not only does she enjoy her work, but she enjoys the attentions of another man after meeting the hero (gasp!).

A heroine in a similar (and similarly awesome) vein is Lydia Slaughter from Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. Also a courtesan, she sleeps with her protector Roanoke several times after she meets the hero, and enjoys it, to boot! While Roanoke is far from romantically fulfilling, he is both athletic and considerate as a lover. He also falls asleep immediately after sex, which makes it very easy for Lydia to play his cards at the gaming tables to pad her bank account.

Not Proper Enough by Carolyn JewelEugenia Bryant from Carolyn Jewel’s Not Proper Enough is another heroine who had a sexually and romantically fulfilling relationship with her now-deceased husband. When she feels attracted to the hero, Fox, she actually requests a sexual relationship first, with no emotional attachment whatsoever.

And finally, we have Vera Drake from Sherry Thomas’s Delicious. Nobody forced her at gunpoint to become her employer’s mistress. While he eventually disappointed her, she willingly had a notorious affair with him, and continues to behave as an independent sexual being after their breakup and his premature death. Don’t believe me? Ask readers of this book about the infamous scene where our hero walks in on her act of self-pleasure in a bathtub.

All of these heroines are fantastic, well-developed female characters. On top of that, they’re all clearly the “good guys” of their stories. They’re intelligent and kind-hearted, courageous and forthright. None of them need to be “redeemed” and none of them have to regret their smutty habits in order to be emotionally ready to fall in love with their heroes. And none of their heroes hold their sexual experience against them.

So let’s hear it for the experienced historical heroine! What sexually experienced heroines are your favorites?


Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.

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Darlene Marshall
1. DarleneMarshall
Even though the author says her books aren't romances, I'd put Claire Beauchamp Randall of Outlander on that list. Not only does Claire enjoy sex before she meets Jamie Fraser, she teaches him about satisfying a woman.
Amber Belldene
2. Amber Belldene
Great post! I am so glad you mentioned Cecelia Grant's A Gentleman Undone--it was my favorite book last year, and the first one I thought of when I saw your topic. I also like Darlene's suggestion of Claire--there is something very unique in the dynamic between her and the inexperienced Jamie. Gabaldon pulls of a great feat in making him a sexy as hell virgin!
Amber Belldene
3. Polished Bookworm
Cassie Fox from Mary Jo Putney's "No Longer a Gentleman" was a wonderfully refreshing heroine who was unapologetically experienced. Cassie was a definite favorite for me in 2012!

Also, Caro Townsend of Miranda Neville's "Importance of Being Wicked" may not have had the perfect first marriage but her husband obviously gave her some happy memories. I loved that she gave her new husband 'lessons' and felt sorry for him for having had such inadequate mistresses.
Amber Belldene
4. willaful
I have to put in a word for Slightly Married by Mary Balogh. The heroine doesn't really belong on the list because she didn't particuarly enjoy the sex she had, but I was very impressed as a romance newbie by the fact that 1) she wasn't a virgin and 2) the hero barely reacted to the news.
Amber Belldene
5. LMS430
I went looking for these books on Amazon, to add to my TBR pile, and found "Delicious" is $3.99 for the Kindle edition...not sure how long that will last, but I'm snatching it up!
6. Rose In RoseBear
Let me go back a little further in history ---

Roberta Gellis' medieval heroines are, one and all, awesome. Nobody played the political game in Richard's court like Alinor, and there was no way she wasn't going to have the man she wanted in her bed, no matter that he was much older and poorer (Simon, her first husband, in Roselynde) or that he was her age and beautiful (Ian, Simon's former squire, in Alinor).

In Fire Song, Fenice d'Aix didn't have a happy first marriage, but the sex was great. She takes her upbeat sexual attitude into a second marriage to a man with a load of sexual hangups, which causes friction of the wrong kind.
Tamara B
7. tamarab
Judith Ivory's "Sleeping Beauty" springs to mind - the heroine is a courtesan who has enjoyed her protectors. Great book, as are her others. I also enjoyed "A Gentleman Undone" and "Not wicked enough", so I was glad to see them mentioned. Haven't read Loretta Chase's "your Scandalous Ways" but it will now join the TBR pile.
Amanda Gordon
8. AmandaLyn
Don't forget Jennifer Ashley's Highland Pleasures series! Several of the heroines in those books have had positive sexual experiences/pasts and none of them were courtesans. (Though two of them, Isabella and Eleanor, end up falling in love all over again with the men that they lost their respective virginities to.)

Beth in particular (from The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie), is a widow who had a vicar husband who taught her that it wasn't a sin to feel pleasure in the marriage bed. And the pleasure she initially seeks with Ian is well outside the strictures of wedlock-- she simply wants him for herself, because she misses the pleasure she once knew.

Also, Kristen Callihan's Firelight-- a historical/paranormal blend-- features a heroine (Miranda) who had a sexual experience before she weds the hero. Though she was jilted in the end by her first, you don't get the impression that it was such a horrible experience that she went out of her way to avoid other sexual encounters. (Or, at least, *I* didn't get that impression.) The other books in this series also feature heroines that have sexual pasts (Daisy's was negative, and Poppy's is with her own hubby-- story to be released FEB 2013).
Jennifer Meriwether
9. JenM
I just finished His Mistress By Christmas by Victoria Alexander which features a widow whose husband was much older and taught her to enjoy sex. She misses him but doesn't want to give up her independence so she chooses a man with a reputation as a rake and proposes to become his mistress. Unfortunately for her, he wants to marry her! It was a light and cute story with lots of good banter and I loved her unapologetic attitude.
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