Mar 5 2014 2:30pm

Made in America: American Heroines and Heroes in English-Set Historical Romances

Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken HodgeFor well over four decades, authors of historical romance novels have found that the conflict between American and British cultures adds interesting layers to the relationship between the hero and the heroine. Granted that sometimes these American characters, born or brought up in the United States, seem little more than stereotypes, but when they are believable, distinctly American characters, they provide a more egalitarian perspective with bourgeois values that contrast, sometimes sharply, with the manners and mores of the British aristocracy.

The first American protagonist I remember in an English-set historical romance is Christina Tretton, the heroine of Jane Aiken Hodge’s Watch the Wall, My Darling (1966), an adventurous romance with Gothic elements. The novel is filled with masked highwaymen, smugglers, spies, and threats of French invasion, all of which, along with her newly met English family, test Christina’s intrepidity. She exhibits her American independence when she, unlike most of her English relatives, refuses to be ruled by her controlling grandfather.

By the 1980s when traditional Regencies topped my list of favorite reading material, the American protagonist was not quite so rare. Regency Sting (1980) by Elizabeth Mansfield was a particular favorite because the American hero, Jason Hughes, Viscount Mainwaring, enjoys playing to his English connections’ assumption that he is a graceless yokel badly in need of tutoring in how to look and behave in ways befitting his newly inherited title. I reread another favorite oldie, Joan Wolf’s American Duchess (1982), not long ago. The basic plot anticipates the “Dollar Princesses” of the late 19th century, the American heiresses who came to England looking to exchange their wealth for marriage to a titled gentleman. While the situation between the rich American heroine, Tracy Bodmin, a dutiful daughter who accepts her father’s plans for her, and the impoverished, aristocratic hero, Adrian, Duke of Hastings, who needs an infusion of cash to protect his family and his heritage, is standard fare, Wolf adds details that make American Duchess more realistic and more substantive than similar tales.

The American Duchess by Joan WolfFirst, Tracy’s father was born in poverty in England and became, through a combination of hard work, native ability, and a bit of luck, an enormously wealthy and influential shipping magnate in America. His background makes his desire for a title for his daughter and blue blood for his grandchildren more comprehensible and more poignant. Even more commendable is that Wolf makes her heroine American in more than name. Tracy is not only different from her English counterparts in manners but also in her political convictions, reserving her respect for those who win fortune through their own efforts rather than through inherited wealth and viewing the class consciousness of London society with contempt. Political conflict between Britain and America increase tensions between Tracy and her duke.

In addition to heiresses on the marriage market and new-world heroes who unexpectedly inherited old-world titles, romance authors also showcased American characters with Native American ties, by birth or by adoption. Blonde and blue-eyed Christina Bennett, the heroine of The Lion’s Lady (1988) by Julie Garwood, was reared from the time she was a toddler as a member of the Dakota tribe, revered as the lioness who appeared to the tribe’s shaman in a vision. When she reaches adulthood, according to the promise made to her birth mother, her Dakota family sends her to England where Christina takes the ton by storm as the mysterious Princess Christina and wins the heart of Lyon, the Marquis of Lyonwood. Maxima Collins, the heroine of Mary Jo Putney’s Angel Rogue (1995), the revised version of The Rogue and the Runaway (1990), is the daughter of the younger son of an English viscount and a Mohawk woman. She accompanies her father to England, and when her father dies, she sets out to find answers to her questions about his death, undaunted by a 250-mile walk to London to get those answers. It is at this point she meets the hero, former spy Lord Robert Andreville. Robin appreciates the qualities in Maxie that set her apart from proper English ladies—her independence, her indifference to rank, and the calm center that is part of her Mohawk heritage.

The hero of Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed an Earl (2010) is a self-described “mixed-breed bastard” reared in an American orphanage until he became the protégé and informally adopted son of Captain Moreheart. The king may have granted Asher Flint English land, a century-old estate, and the resurrected title Earl of Ardmay, but it still stings when Flint hears the term “savage” applied to him by the English ladies speculating about his manly attributes.

In a lighter vein, Julia Quinn’s debut novel, Splendid (1995) features a red-haired American heiress, Emma Dunster, who is visiting English relatives with every expectation of returning to America and running her father’s business. The unconventional Emma meets Alexander Ridgely, the Duke of Ashbourne, when she slips away to enjoy a bit of anonymity before her debut leads to her being recognized as a wealthy American, and thus she is in the right place at the right time to save Ashbourne’s young nephew from being struck by a carriage. A sexier version of the earlier traditional Regency romps, Splendid boasts the humor and sparkling dialogue for which Quinn has become well known. The purists were quick to point out that Quinn had her dates wrong since the invasion of American heiresses was still several years after the fictional Emma’s arrival. These critics were apparently unaware that Quinn could point to the enormously wealthy Canton sisters of Maryland who arrived in London in 1816 with letters of introduction to the Wellesley family, of whom the Duke of Wellington was a member, and who achieved remarkable social success despite prejudices against them as Americans and Catholics. One sister became a marchioness, another a baroness, and the third a duchess

Mary Jo Putney created one of the best examples of the American hero in an English-set historical when she introduced Gavin Elliott to her readers in Bartered Bride (2002), a novel loosely connected to the Fallen Angels series since the heroine is Alexandra Warren, daughter of the heroine of Shattered Rainbows. Born in Scotland, Gavin was brought up in America, and he is thoroughly American in his republicanism, his pride in his success as a trader, and his disapproval of the British aristocracy. He is dismayed to discover that Alex, the woman he risked his life to save, has links to the aristocracy and even more shaken that his own aristocratic connections are reasserting their claims on his life. Some may argue that since the first half of this book takes place in the East Indies, it has no place on my list; but since the other half takes place in England, I think it qualifies.

Two of Lisa Kleypas’s wallflowers are certainly among the most popular American characters in historical romance fiction. Lillian and Daisy Bowman, daughters of a wealthy American soap manufacturer, are among the dollar princesses brought to England to snare a titled husband. In It Happened One Autumn (2005), Lillian is paired with Marcus Marsden, the Earl of Westcliff. She thinks he is a stuffy, arrogant aristocrat, and he sees her as out-of-control American lacking a proper sense of decorum. Both perceptions play into the conventional expectations of character types, although in Kleypas’s capable hands, they emerge as definite individuals. Daisy, the last of the wallflowers to find a mate, gets her HEA and an American husband in Scandal in Spring (2006). When, after three seasons, Daisy has failed to find a husband, her father announces that if Daisy has not found a husband by the end of spring, she will marry Matthew Swift, Bowman’s protégé. Daisy is appalled and determined to thwart her father’s plan. When Swift joins the family at Westcliff’s country home, he lists all that Daisy is looking for in a husband: “Fair-haired, aristocratic, sensitive, with a cheerful disposition and ample leisure for gentlemanly pursuits.” In other words, Daisy’s ideal is the diametric opposite of Swift who is dark-haired, more plebian than Daisy knows, apparently cold-hearted, somber, and as hardworking and consumed by business as Daisy’s father. Everything about Swift—from his accent to his haircut to his steady rise in Bowman’s Enterprises—proclaims his nationality.

The most recent use of American characters in an English setting is Laura Lee Guhrke’s An American Heiress in London series. This is not Guhrke’s first use of this plot. Seduction (1997) is a variation, although the American heiress, Margaret Van Alden, and the impoverished English lord, Trevor St. James, actually meet in Italy. In a more successful version, Trouble at the Wedding (2012), another American heiress, Annabel Wheaton from Mississippi, is engaged to Bernard Alastair, Earl of Rumsford, yet another impoverished lord, when Christian DuQuesne, an impoverished duke, agrees to stop the wedding for the half million dollars Annabel’s uncle agrees to pay him. He fulfills the agreement, but he falls for Annabel in the process, although it takes a while for them to reach their HEA. The American Heiress in London series begins with When the Marquess Met His Match (2013). It is the intriguing story of Lady Belinda Featherstone, once an American heiress and now the widow of an impoverished earl who broke her heart, who becomes a matchmaker renowned for guiding young American heiresses through the shoals of the London season and introducing them to men with the requisite titles who will also treat them with kindness and protect them from the disillusionment Belinda suffered. Nicholas, the Marquess of Trubridge, is an appropriately rakish charmer who needs a wealthy wife after his father cut off his trust fund. He approaches Belinda to find him a match, but Belinda is convinced that he is a man in the mold of her late husband and determines to see that he fail in his goal. In a journey that combines witty exchanges, surprising discoveries, and substantive growth, the two find their way to an HEA. In May 2014, How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days, the second book in the American Heiress in London series will be released. The American protagonist in England trope is approaching the half-century mark and still winning readers.

What are your favorite novels with American heroes and heroines falling in love with Brits?

Love American Historicals? Check out Janga's Top 10 American Historicals: An Opinionated Opinion!

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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. AMG
Sorry to say, it's not a trope I enjoy or seek out (I'm Canadian!), but I'm happy to see some love for Jane Aiken Hodge. She's one of my favourite gothic/historical thriller authors.
2. Kareni
I don't think I'd call it a favorite now (though I do still have my copy from the seventies!), but don't forget Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame and the Flower.
3. Janga
AMG, I read all of Jane Aiken Hodge's books back in the day. I still have several on a keeper shelf. Greek Wedding is probably my favorite despite its lack of American characters.
4. Janga
Kareni, did you notice I skipped right over the 70s. I would certainly include Woodiwiss in a list of romance fiction's most influential figures, but she's not a writer that comes to my mind when I write about books I have loved. I think my romance reading in the 70s was mostly Gothics and categories along with Heyer and Clare Darcy and, late in the decade, other trad Regencies.
5. Kittywhacko
The Windflower by Laura London!
6. AMG
I have many JAHodges in PB too! Slowly collecting them all. And now she's being released in e-form. Faves are still 'Here Comes a Candle'/Muleverer Hall/Savannah Purchase/Last Act. So good.
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