Sep 26 2013 3:00pm

Gallant, Precious, and Sometimes Strange: The Waif Archetype in Romance Novels

Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of OzMuch has been written about the character type of The Waif. Tammy Cowden, who writes about fictional archetypes, calls her the “original damsel in distress, [whose] childlike innocence evokes a protective urge in the beastliest of heroes.” Cowden points out that The Waif also has a very strong will. If she can't fight back, she'll simply endure her lot, which kicks up those protective urges. Likely because she's often a bit on the plucky side, like Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

Many a Disney heroine, particularly early ones, are also waifs; think Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. It it gets a little trickier with more recent Disney heroines. Ariel from The Little Mermaid, for instance, is plucky, but she loses her power by giving her voice to Ursula. Belle from Beauty and the Beast has even more pluck, but she's at the mercy of The Beast in much the same way as every orphaned or governess heroine who takes up residence—often on a dark and stormy night—in the manor of a man said to have murdered his wife.

In movies, it's not just the characters who are waifs. It is also the actresses. Think Demi Moore with her short hair in Ghost, or Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, or even Liza Minnelli. She may not have portrayed a waif in any particular film, but for years she sure looked the part with her huge eyes and short hair.

If you've ever read a Gothic novel from the '60s or early '70s, you also recognize The Waif. She is most always physically or metaphysically alone. She may be an orphan, or simply unloved. She is a character whose lot in life elicits sympathy from the reader. Weirdly, her experiences have not taught her to be cynical. No, she is kind, good, and trusting, and as a result is easy to manipulate and else could she ”wait it out?“

In a society where you could never be too thin—and the cultural icon during much of the '60s was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—physically, The Waif was a perfect fit. And think mores now; until the sexual revolution it was all about being a “good girl.” Which body type represented the “good girl”—Audrey Hepburn with her gamine looks or Marilyn Monroe with her vavoomish appeal? Monroe fairly reeks of sex while Hepburn is all innocence.

But Hepburn, whether in Sabrina or Funny Face, or even My Fair Lady, had a backbone. In no way does this backbone turn The Waif into the feisty, hair-tossing, foot-stomping heroine who came into vogue after the Gothic fell out of style. No, it was a quiet dignity that saw her through tough times. She didn’t bluster her way out of danger, but found a way to be ladylike until she was saved (compare Melanie, for instance, with Scarlett in Gone With the Wind).

For the hell of it, I went to goodreads and typed “waif” in the title search line. Six titles came up on the first page of results, and surprisingly enough, just two were published during that Gothic romance era.

Gallant Waif (Anne Gracie, 1999)
Precious Waif (Ann Hampson, 1970)
From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife (Julia Justiss, 2009)
Cockney Waif (Elizabeth Waite, 1993)
The Strange Wife (Violet Winspear, 1967)
From Waif to his Wife (Lindsay Armstrong, 2007)

Evn when she is not part of a book’s title, The Waif is a romance novel staple. The heroine is at least part waif if:

● Her decisions are not her own (Quinn in Lynda Aicher’s nearly-new Bonds of Hope)
● She is orphaned or perhaps the hero’s ward all grown up (Emily in Teresa Medeiros’s Once an Angel)
● She is about to be thrown into the workhouse (Bonnie in Katherine Sutcliffe’s A Fire in the Heart)
● She is mistreated, perhaps even disowned, by her family (Lady Fellis Grayson in Velvet Touch by Catherine Archer)
● She lives with a paralyzing fear (a stretch, perhaps, but Mandy in Chain Lightning by Elizabeth Lowell)
● She is a poor relation or governess (Tallie in Tallie’s Knight by Anne Gracie)
● She is “too thin,” unable to eat when upset or stressed (Rachel in Diamond Bay by Linda Howard)
● [And, giving waifs a bad name everywhere], she crosses the line from selfless to doormat (insert any Diana Palmer title here)

As a feminist, I should not like The Waif very much. Alas, I do (but draw the line at doormats). Frankly, it’s not something I even realized until I read Iris Johansen’s York, The Renegade for my August e-book reissues column and was introduced to heroine Sierra Smith, whose fragile air, big black eyes, and “lashes too heavy to lift” incite not only protective instincts in York Delaney, but primitive ones as well, even though she has no “illusions about her attractiveness” and isn’t insulted when her boss, who runs a traveling vaudeville troupe, tells her, “If I’d wanted a woman to seduce [York Delaney], I’d have brought Selma. You’re hardly equipped for it, Sierra.”

Sierra is one of those heroines in need of near-constant rescue, and if I was in any danger of not realizing that she’s a waif, the term is referenced more than a dozen times during the story. She almost faints from exhaustion and a bad respiratory infection when first meeting the hero, York Delaney. When their paths cross again, she actually does—and is nearly choked to death by a python (not part of her act in the vaudeville show)—which results in his ensconcing her in his mansion. She’s poor, overworked, wants nothing else but to belong, and is sure no man would want to make sexy time with her.

York Delaney is one of those traveling men who temporarily settles down in the small mining town owned by his family in the mountains of Arizona. He’s incredibly handsome, equally arrogant, and frustratingly obtuse. After nearly dying from a lengthy childhood illness, he never reconciled with his miraculous recovery, and as a result, refuses to be a full member of his family (she never had a home...he doesn’t believe he deserves his) or to love a woman. His reaction to Sierra goes well beyond lust, and each time he nearly succumbs to his feelings, he pulls away, leaving her certain he initiated the pass only to be “nice,” but couldn’t go through with it because he found her wanting.

Eventually, though, their relationship becomes intimate, and his reaction is to have his brothers come to town to take her off his hands. As far as plots go, this one is outrageously old-fashioned, the dialog goes from Lavender to Amethyst to Indigo, yet I couldn’t stop reading. The same “haunting and vaguely melancholy” eyes that affected York like “the force of a land laid upon the heart,” the same impulse that drove him to want to do “anything to chase away her melancholy [and] lay the world at her feet,” led me to root for her.

Sierra’s fragile, but she’s a fighter. Even though she’s barely got the strength to stand when she begins to recover from her illness, she determines she’ll earn her way. This may seem utterly ridiculous, but as somebody who once drove herself to the E.R. in the middle of the night to avoid waking up her husband (still trying to live that one down after well over a decade), I can tell you it’s not entirely unrealistic.

Sierra’s not willing to endure endlessly for love, though. Even though Delaney admits his love for her, he can’t...well, read for yourself:

“All right, I love you.“ He strode back up the walk and took the porch steps two at a time. ”I love you so much I can't eat or sleep. I love you so much, it's tearing my guts out.“ His hands were on her shoulders, jerking her to him with a roughness that was close to desperation. ”Dear Lord, yes, I love you.“ His kiss bruised her lips and made her head whirl. Then he was releasing her and running back down the steps. ”But it doesn't make any difference.”

This is altogether too much for Sierra. She calls Delaney on his bullshit, forcing him to meet her in the wilderness that makes up his family’s ancestral land to tell him “it’s time you came home.” Because he really does want to lay the world at her feet, he does.

There’s little like a waif feeling her power, is there?

Who are your favorite waifs from film and fiction?


Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on her My Obsessions tumblr blog, Goodreads (where she spends much of her time as late), follow her on Pinterest, or on @laurie_gold, where she mostly tweets about publishing news and [probably too often] politics.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Lee Brewer
1. LeeB.
Fun article Laurie! Gallant Waif is my favorite "waif" story that comes to mind right away, but I know I've read tons more.
Laurie Gold
2. LaurieGold
Lee, if you remember anymore, please come back and post. Funnily, I could never finish Gallant Waif, although I loved, loved, loved Tallie's Knight.
3. wsl0612
I'm not very fond of the waif archetype and OMG that reference to being "ladylike" until saved really stirred up my dander! :-) I loathe the concept that a woman is supposed to bear hardship with dignity and be genteel while suffering, ugh! That's one of the reasons I never liked GWTW, Scarlett was a spoiled beyotch and Melanie was a doormat.
Post a comment