The Regency was famous for ruination. Ever since Lydia Bennet plunged her family into disgrace by running off with the handsome but unworthy George Wickham, the heroines of today’s historical romances have been crossing the fine line between propriety and scandal.
The best part? Unlike Lydia Bennet, they’re getting away with it.
Readers swoon over Darcy and Elizabeth’s happily-ever-after at the end of Pride and Prejudice, and rightly so. Mr. Darcy, with his handsome face, simmering passion and grand estate in Hampshire is the ideal romantic hero, and witty, fun-loving Lizzie is his perfect mate. She’s just audacious enough to catch Darcy’s attention, but not so much so she subverts the social order. For all Lizzie’s vivacity, she never sets a toe outside the boundaries of propriety. She doesn’t laugh immoderately at balls, drink too much wine, or speak to gentlemen to whom she hasn’t been introduced. Lizzie gets her hero the right way. She behaves like a proper lady, albeit a lively one, and thus retain her respectability.
Lydia, on the other hand, gets her hero the wrong way. She causes a scandal in Brighton, runs off with a scoundrel, humiliates her family, and compromises her sisters’ futures. Her shocking elopement is fun while it lasts, but in the end, Austen punishes Lydia for her behavior. Even as Lydia rides off into the sunset with her handsome officer, Austen darkly hints at a comeuppance on the horizon. Lydia and Wickham are banished to Newcastle, far from their family and friends, and at the end of the novel we discover they’re cursed with debt, and have grown to despise each other. It’s not precisely a happily-ever-after.
It’s curious how things change, isn’t it? We’re as enamored today with Lizzie Bennet’s cleverness, intelligence and wit as we’ve ever been, but contemporary historical romance heroines are far more inclined to nudge propriety aside in favor of freedom. Today’s heroines are refusing to wear their bonnets in direct sunlight, despite the threat of freckling. They’re parading down St. James’s Street with nary a blush, dressing in brightly-colored silk gowns with daring décolletage, and sneaking from crowded ballrooms into dimly lit gardens with notorious rakes.
This heroine rebellion didn’t happen all at once, of course. We can see a trend toward more unconventional heroines as early as the mid-twentieth century. Georgette Heyer’s Deborah Granthamin Faro’s Daughter runs a gaming hell (gasp!), but that doesn’t stop the arrogant, critical and fastidious Max Ravenscar from falling madly in love with her. Then there’s Sophie Stanton-Lacy. She’s too bold, too rash—too everything—yet she displaces the staid, unimaginative Eugenia in Charles Rivenhall’s affections in The Grand Sophy. What’s so fascinating about heroes like Ravenscar and Rivenhall is they fall in love with their heroines because of their unconventionality, not in spite of it. Sure, they kick and scream along the way, as gentlemen do, but the irrepressible heroine wins out in the end.
But if Heyer’s heroines set the stage, it’s the twenty-first century heroines who stormed it. Lisa Kleypas and Julie Anne Long, two of historical romance’s brightest stars are beloved for their bold heroines, among them cheeky American heiresses, scheming wallflowers, and shameless mistresses. Long’s scandalously tarnished stage actress Evie Duggan marries a vicar in A Notorious Countess Confesses. Loretta Chase’s Jessica Trent in Lord of Scoundrels actually shoots her hero (in public, no less, and yes, he deserves it!). Sarah MacLean’s Lady Calpurnia Hartwell dresses as a gentleman and sneaks into White’s in Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, and Alyssa’s Cole’s former slave Elle Burns is a brilliant, fearless spy, risking her life for the Union Army in An Extraordinary Union.
It’s not surprising our most popular Regency romance heroines today are more a reflection of our time than their own. The contemporary historical romance hero is far more likely to be swept off his feet by a heroine who subverts the social order, because today’s reader demands it.
The allure of the Darcy-esque and his cheeky but proper, virginal heroine still persists, of course. There’s no shortage of white, titled, wealthy English noblemen in twenty-first century historical romance, but the landscape as a whole is undergoing a seismic, if gradual shift. Readers may always remain enamored of their Regency-era English dukes, but they’re also increasingly embracing stories set post-Regency or outside England entirely, featuring heroes and heroines of diverse classes, ethnicities and sexual orientations.
Lizzie Bennet will always hold a special place in our hearts, in great part because she isn’t a meek, shrinking violet of a heroine. Her character has withstood the test of time precisely because she was, in many ways, ahead of her time. But while Austen might be considered an early feminist, she wasn’t a social revolutionary. She was a product of her time, just as we all are. In Austen’s world, the Lizzies and Janes are rewarded and the Lydias punished, and that is just as it should be.
These days, nothing is as it should be. When it comes to historical romance, anything can happen. Aristocratic ladies are spies, thieves, and powerful courtesans. Noblemen marry commoners and illegitimate orphans become duchesses. Our heroine may be a spy, a courtesan, a suffragette or an upstart American, and in the end our hero, whether he likes it or not, loves her all the more for it. It’s social chaos, and readers can’t get enough of it.
Anna Bradley writes steamy, sexy Regency historical romance—think garters, fops and riding crops! Readers can get in touch with Anna via her webpage at http://www.annabradley.net. Anna lives with her husband and two children in Portland, OR, where people are delightfully weird and love to read.
Her next novel, FOR THE SAKE OF A SCOTTISH RAKE will be released February 18, 2020.