How far can a heroine go?

First, a quick apology for the inherent bias in this question. It’s so unfair, yet I’ve noticed that readers who complained about too much sex in my books always castigated the heroine. “Ladies didn’t do that during the Regency” was a comment was directed at a heroine who dared have sex with her husband.

OK, I won’t debate that one πŸ™‚ but these readers have a point, skewed as it is. Historically, women paid the highest consequences for sex, biological and social.

I love SEX AND THE CITY. In all the sexual exploration the four main characters go through, they are searching for something, even if they’re not sure what it is. And when they find it, it’s LOVE. BUT I think it’s dodgy to translate their attitudes to women of the early 19th century. Not that they didn’t have sex–and sometimes outside the rules–and sometimes enjoying it! πŸ™‚ But they were living and loving in a different world, with different stakes.

I admit to having trouble with the Regency heroine who experiments with sex lightly. With the heroine who keeps insisting to herself and everyone else that the hero is a loathesome jerk and the last man on earth she’d ever marry, yet repeatedly has sex with him without ever worrying about social disgrace or pregnancy or destroying her sisters’ chances of making good marriages. Such heroines usually strike me as some combination of needy, confused, selfish or just TSTL.

Yet I love so many sexy Regency era romances.

Things that mitigate the “Lydia Bennet” factor: marriage of convenience, no reputation to lose, supposed infertility (though possibly reversible!), birth control (some forms existed, but it has to make sense that the characters would know about and use it). And emotional commitment.

There’s also this mysterious thing: “heat of the moment”. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve written this whole post and I’m still not sure how some authors make me feel that it really is the right moment for the characters to go at it, and why sometimes it just feels too early. Is it just incredibly sensual writing? Or deep enough characterisation that I feel the love even if the characters aren’t fully aware of it?

Maybe part of it is that I want some buildup.

What do you think? When has a heroine gone over from being human and vulnerable to TSTL in matters of sex? What makes “heat of the moment” work, or not? Which authors do you think handle this the best?



About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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16 years ago

I think Mary Balogh has done some of the most convincing “heat of the moment” scenes in historical romance. I can think of a couple just in the Slightly series in which the h/h end up making love as a result of grief or in the aftermath of some tragedy and it is entirely believable and seems a natural progression of the relationship.

One example of TSTL I recently encountered was when the h/h who have never met before have sex within fifteen minutes of spying each other across the room. The setting was Victorian, but still, I fail to see how even a widow of that era would engage in such behavior solely for the excitement or the experience of it–especially in a public place.

Megan Frampton
16 years ago

I agree with Mandacoll about Mary Balogh’s ability to write those kinds of scenes (although I do like the book she doesn’t like in the second paragraph of her comment).

The thing that drives me nuts is the hero who won’t back down, even if the heroine says ‘no.’ (Even though we know inside she’s dying to do what she’s saying she won’t). Unless it’s clear she can walk away, it’s perilously close to date-rape for me, and I don’t like those kinds of heroes. Plus the ones who think with their throbbing manhoods all the time.

I read those historicals you mention, Elena, and if the writing and story is good, I usually suspend disbelief about birth control, social stigma, etc.

Cara King
16 years ago

I do have real difficulty suspending disbelief in a lot of these cases! I’ve always been interested in the different way people (and societies) think, and that’s one part of my interest in the Regency. So if I read a Regency-set book in which the unmarried heroine seems to think that if she has a child out of wedlock, all will be fine and dandy for her, her child, and her family, I just can’t swallow it, even a little.

I agree, Elena, that a lot of authors find ways to have a sexy book without violating the spirit of the times — at least, not as much as the heroine mentioned above! I admit I’m more than a little cynical when a Regency heroine believes any method of contraception is foolproof — heck, we’ve had decades of science and we’re still far from foolproof — but at least if it’s handled well by the author, it’s not necessarily a big problem for me as a reader.

Heat of the moment I buy sometimes…but not as often as it’s done. πŸ™‚

I think marriage of convenience is a great tool for a historical writer! πŸ™‚ (Sorry for the plethora of smileys, btw! I only do them in the heat of the moment.)

And honestly, I have no problem with a book in which hero and heroine do not have sex — even at the end! (For example, “Pride and Prejudice.” I have an imagination.) I love it when the publisher and readers allow the author to do what’s right for the characters….

Cara (building castles in the sky today)

Janet Mullany
16 years ago

Let me play devil’s advocate here. Love and desire are irrational and volatile, and send good sense, morality, strictures of society and all that good stuff out the window. If a book doesn’t have that undercurrent–not necessarily the consummation–but the awareness by h/h that passion will upset their lives, then it’s not going to work.

Look at Elizabeth and Darcy (or watch this scene on the latest P&P, which,has so much pent-up passion you worry they’re either going to jump or kill each other):

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth clarifies his proposal: “…you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?”

Too often books without “real” sex don’t have this underlying passion. I believe it’s possible to do both–have the comedy of manners and wit over the teacups, while dark, dangerous things happen under the table.


Elena Greene
16 years ago

If a book doesn’t have that undercurrent–not necessarily the consummation–but the awareness by h/h that passion will upset their lives, then it’s not going to work.

Janet, you’ve nailed why some of the books I’ve read didn’t work for me. Without that life-changing undercurrent, the risks just seem…dumb.

You quoted Darcy’s lines: “In vain I have struggled”. It makes it much more passionate if they try to resist. You can’t have this tension with characters who are oblivious to the risks.


Cara King
16 years ago

I agree, Janet, that the intensity should be there — but I think a sex scene can often kill the sexual tension anyway! Think how boring Jane Eyre would have been if Jane had become Rochester’s mistress! Instead, we have thwarted passion, and misery, and rage — and the end is all the sweeter for it. πŸ™‚


Janet Mullany
16 years ago

but I think a sex scene can often kill the sexual tension anyway!
If it’s done badly or if it leaves you with the impression that it was so throbbingly, wonderfully, ecstatically, oh-I’ve-never-felt-like-this-before-and-the-earth-universe-heavens-entire solar system-moved, then it doesn’t leave the h/h anything else to do!

Elena Greene
16 years ago

In good romances (defined as those I like, of course!) sex creates more problems than it solves. Or it raises the stakes by showing how great the couple are together despite the other problems still preventing their happy ending.

Elena πŸ™‚

Pam Rosenthal
16 years ago

Late and perhaps a bit OT, but what’s life for otherwise . . .

This is a fascinating question, Elena, to me more in the sense of a feeling of proper historical tone. I think that your reader who thinks “regency ladies didn’t do that” is really thinking “regency ladies in the sanitized world I have come to think of as the regency didn’t do that.” But while that particular reader is too silly to be taken seriously, but I think that the genre cherishes more than one assumption that also should be questioned.

What, for example, are we to do with Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s step-sister, who, as the person who introduced Byron to Shelley, belongs in any Regency world I’d be interested in immersing myself in. She threw herself at Byron when she was less than 18, penning these rather cool words:

“Have you then any objection to the following plan? On Thursday Evening we may go out of town together by some stage or mail about the distance of 10 or 12 miles. there we shall be free & unknow; we can return early the following morning. I have arranged everything here . . .”

He treated her like a rock star would treat a silly but not-unattractive groupie — she had his child and a heartbreaking story follows.

After which she picked herself up, traveled, supported herself, spoke many languages, read widely and had many friends. Her life was hard but also very interesting.

I don’t have a clear take on any of this except to say that the period was bigger and much more interesting than certain genre conventions would necessarily have it.

Amanda McCabe
16 years ago

I agree with Pam, definitely. The Regency (not the “Heyer Regency”, but the real thing) was so much bawdier and messier, and more interesting, than many readers are led to expect.

My main heroine peeve is that dreaded “feisty type.” You know, the one who stamps her feet, tosses her hair, and rushed headlong into a danger she has been warned against. Thus having to be rescued (usually again and again) by the long-suffering hero. Luckily this type seems less prevalent than she used to be. I like heroines (and characters in general) who have a brain in their head.

Risky Regencies
16 years ago

LOL Amanda! Maybe my real problem with some sex scenes is I don’t think TSTL heroines should procreate.

Elena πŸ™‚