THE PROBLEM WITH HEROINES

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Creating heroines of historical romances is not an easy thing for an author. I often think of it as being a bit like a tightrope walk. On the one hand readers want to be able to admire and identify with the heroine of the book they are reading. They want a strong, assertive, independent woman who can stand alone if need be and does not have to cling to her man for either support or protection. On the other hand, they surely want heroines who are historically believable. Women of Regency England were very different in almost every respect from women of the 21stcentury. Legally they weren’t even persons. They were chattel. Almost invariably they belonged to some man as his possession. They had very little freedom and very little opportunity to develop their full potential. Their education was for the most part severely restricted. Their choices when they grew up were even more so. How on earth can they be admired and identified with as heroines by readers today?

Well, fortunately we can see how writers of the time handled the problem. Jane Austen, who wrote in the Regency era, and Charlotte Bronte, who wrote in Victorian times, did not write historical novels. They wrote contemporaries. They knew first-hand what they were talking about. And both managed to create heroines who were true to the times but still admirable to us all these years later. Jane Austen gave us Elizabeth Bennett among others, and Charlotte Bronte gave us Jane Eyre, both of them fictional heroines who drew power to themselves by daring to stand alone when they might have chosen to be safe and dependent. Yet neither of them was a real rebel. Neither did anything that any other woman of their times might not have done. Theirs was a strength of character and a self-respect that transcended all else, even personal comfort and the prospect of happiness. Elizabeth refused marriage offers from both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy even though the alternative seemed to be a future of dreary spinsterhood and near-poverty. Jane refused to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress when it was discovered—at the altar on their wedding day—that he already had a wife and could not marry her. She did it even though she knew he loved her passionately and would have been forever true to her. She walked away and risked destitution rather than compromise with her moral values. Austen and Bronte are like a beacon of hope to authors of historical romance, like me.

My reading suggests to me that a number of writers of  historical romance (though not all, I hasten to add!) try to suggest strength in their heroines by giving them characteristics that might be common and admirable now but make them stick out like a sore thumb in their historical setting. How many feisty (a word I hate) heroines do we meet in historicals? I have encountered a number of Regency misses who defy all the rules of genteel society by striding off alone to take on the world. It very rarely works (in my judgment anyway) because it is not remotely realistic. I remember once reading a story of two young women, one of them the daughter of an earl, who went to London alone together to find jobs, which they did. By day they worked. By night they attended all the most exclusive of the ton balls and parties, and of course each got her aristocratic man in the end. Parents, sponsors, chaperones, official presentations at court, invitations, etc. etc. Where were they? They certainly made no appearance in that story. I read another in which the heroine swore so foully and so unceasingly as she strode out into her own life that even if she had been a contemporary heroine I would have wanted to wash her mouth out with soap. Yet the hero was enchanted. He thought she was cute. Huh? When I read a story set in Regency England, I want to be swept off into that world, not straight back into my own. When I write one, I want to get it as accurate for its historical time as I can possibly make it—which does not mean, by the way, that I always get it right! I have been known to make an error or three of historical fact. But I do try.

My heroines run the gamut of human types. They can be quiet and dignified (Lauren Edgeworth in A SUMMER TO REMEMBER), talkative and klutzy (Cora Downes in THE FAMOUS HEROINE), reclusive and socially awkward (Wren Heyden in SOMEONE TO WED), fierce and bold (Freyja Bedwyn in SLIGHTLY SCANDALOUS) strait-laced and bookish (Mary Gregg in THE NOTORIOUS RAKE), widows determined to find love on their own terms (Hannah Reid in A SECRET AFFAIR),  prostitutes trying to find their way back to respectability (Viola Thornhill in NO MAN’S MISTRESS) women deeply wounded by sexual assault and a resulting single parenthood (Anne Jewell in SIMPLY LOVE), aging spinsters who live with an acceptance of loneliness and the dull circumstances in which they find themselves (Dora Debbins in ONLY BELOVED)….and so on. Nevertheless, I try very hard to do the same two things with all of my heroines. First, I try to make them into strong women who can deal with their own lives and who can, if necessary, stand alone at the end of their stories even though they are not called upon to do so—they are, after all, the heroines of love stories. The love in which they share at the end is never a dependent thing. It is a shared passion at which the hero and heroine arrive from a position of equal strength. Second, I try my best to make my heroines believable Regency types. I like to feel that they could find themselves in the pages of a Jane Austen novel without feeling as if they had been caught in a time warp.

Whether I succeed or not is up to the reader to decide, of course. Tightropes are not the easiest things to walk without teetering inelegantly and even toppling off at least once in a while.

To one person who leaves a comment below by Friday, November 16, I will send an autographed copy of either A SECRET AFFAIR or SOMEONE TO WED—winners’ choice.

 

[Last week’s winner was Kass]
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Showing 59 comments
  • Brenda
    Reply

    It must be very difficult to write about women in the regency/Victorian era because of the reasons you explained.I really understand that but what I find truly amazing is your ability to capture us in your story telling and be behind your heroine/hero as they endeavour to win through.Many writers have a plot but fail to make it believable.I can honestly say I have read many of your books and have not been left feeling disappointed.Long may you continue to enjoy writing ,I will continue to look forward to your next story and thanks.

    • Brenda Newman
      Reply

      I always like a heroine, but I like her to get into a bit of trouble and have to use her brains to come out well in the end.

  • Mary T
    Reply

    Many writers, even some that I like a great deal, seem to write the same characters (or at least the same character traits) over and over again. I love that you create so many different types of characters. I may not love them all equally, but they are all interesting. I sat here trying to decide who my favorite heroines (from your books) are. It was difficult because there are so many to choose from. I love Anne Jewell because she was the heroine from SIMPLY LOVE, the first of your books that I ever read. Angeline Dudley from SECRET MISTRESS is another favorite. Thank you for writing her story. I know that you wrote it at the request of your fans years after you wrote the original Mistress books. Another favorite is Christine Derrick, the perfect match for Wulfric (BEST DUKE EVER) in SLIGHTLY DANGEROUS. And finally, Hannah Reid, the perfect match for Constantine Huxtable in A SECRET AFFAIR.

    No need to put me in the drawing, I already have the two books you are giving away.

  • Polly N Cassady
    Reply

    Since you are one of my favorite authors of historical fiction, I think you walk the tightrope well. I do appreciate the challenge you face, and the effective way your heroines stay true to both themselves and the times they live in.

  • Lynn Olsson
    Reply

    I I didn’t realize the historical background. I’ve always loved your heroines, Mary. I love their feisty struggles to assert their independence.

  • June Hart
    Reply

    Love all the heroines in your novels, they have principles and courage when meeting society’s constraints.
    Priss in a Precious Jewel over came terrible circumstances.
    Too many to choose a favorite, but if pressed today I will go with Harry in The Double Wager, tommorow it would be different. Thanks, Mary.

  • Kat Tolle Wiley
    Reply

    The problem with a lot of heroines is they still need a man to help them! I love it when she save the man!! Nothing better than a Bad A** women!!

  • Cheryl Ferguson Cross
    Reply

    Your heroines have intelligence, courage and grit. They are also tempered by compassion. How could we not love them?

  • Karen Rothe
    Reply

    I love all of the different types of heroines you write about. Variety is wonderful in real life and even better in fictional books. I’ve been reading historical romances for most of my life and recently discovered by oldest granddaughter is a “closet” romance reader. We are now sharing my books and I’m loving it!! She would make a marvelous heroine….oldest girl of seven children (2nd born), homeschooled, feisty, independent but very reserved. A talented artist, but is not interested in selling her art, she does it for herself and once in a while as a gift for a family member. She still lives at home and while she may not always be angelic with her siblings, I wouldn’t try to hurt one of them …. you’ll find a wildcat attacking you! I’m sure that my love of reading makes me see the personality traits of each of my grandchildren (along with the fact that I live across the street from them and see them frequently). Keep writing just the way you have been, Mary…I’ll keep on buying your books and enjoying them!

  • Barbara Markham (England)
    Reply

    I must admit up until this year I have not read Historical Fiction, then I picked up one of your books at a car boot sale. And I became hooked, I cant get enough, have read all the Dudley books, and most of the Survivor Series, I cant get enough, the only problem I have is I like to read them in order. Some I have read 3 and 4 times, but I am building up my collection, but I do so get involved with the Heroines and the Hero’s, basically I just love them all. You do a wonderful job. I wish I could do it

  • Annette N
    Reply

    Ma’am,

    I have enjoyed every heroine you mention in this post. I believe that one of the reasons I love your stories is the fact that your heroines are not of the present time.

    I enjoy reading about lives in another time and place. I enjoy seeing the constraints that women faced and had the intelligence to overcome.

    And I think most of all, when I read about a woman who was strong and brave and humorous and kind and faithful and all other good qualities, it creates a realization that sacrifices in the past have provided my life in the here and now.

  • Lisa Harper
    Reply

    I believe you walk the tightrope very well. Simply Wicked was your first book I ever read and I collected all I could find in paperback over the years. When I got my kindle, I started collecting your ebooks and was very glad I did when I lost my books in Harvey. Every couple of years I will start with One Night for Love, then Summer to Remember and then go through the Wicked, Simply and Survivor series. I love following all the characters and families and I escape into the Regency era without any anachronistic hiccups. Thank you for taking time to make sure my escape is complete!

  • Sue C
    Reply

    I so enjoy your charterers they do seem so real and believable. Thank you for continuing to write for all our enjoyment.
    Sue C Grant

  • Gale Thompson
    Reply

    I’ve read a couple of wall bangers in which the heroine is clearly a California girl and not a Regency miss. I can skim over the occasional anachronism but if they constantly pop me right out of the story it hits the wall. Thanks for the many hours of reading pleasure over almost 30 years!

  • Rosemary E Sherwood
    Reply

    I love your books, Mary. I am so happy your old books are coming out on Kindle, I can’t wait to read them, and I love re-reading your books

  • Jennifer Coomber
    Reply

    I try to give the author as much leeway as I can when reading historical fiction as long as I am not thrown out of the narrative. I’ve always been conscious of the fact I am reading through the lens of my modern experiences and have read heroines that would be considered accurate to the time that I just could not like because of this fact. I do love your heroines as does my mother. We have discussions about your characters as if they were personal friends we have just had to tea.

  • Connie Lewin
    Reply

    Mary, I was so happy to read this as it echoes my feelings on so-called Regency heroines being written today. I too hate the word “feisty” and if I see it in the blurb on the back of the book, back onto the bookstore shelves it goes.
    You should teach a writing course for anyone writing Regency romances! One on developing realistic and relatable and likeable heroines and the heroes who love them.
    Thank you for the bottom of my heart for writing stories I can love.

  • Carol
    Reply

    I have to say that you have succeeded in your goal of writing heroines who are both strong and with in the realities of the Regency period. While they are each unique and different, they are Interesting to read about and completely believable. That element of your books brings me back over and over. It’s the reason you are on my “buy/TBR” list.

  • Barbara
    Reply

    I so agree. I really dislike when the heroines of a historical romance have modern sensibilities very jarring.

  • Deb Fair
    Reply

    It is indeed a tight rope, and especially to have each heroine have her own personality. What I am interested in is how much research do you do for each book. And what do you look at first to create and make it all believable .

  • Phyllis Gilmore
    Reply

    I, for one, appreciate believable characters in general, especially in historical novels. I’ve read a few stories that left me cold (including one or two from authors I otherwise love). One thing you would never be guilty of was the one I read years ago that had clearly originally been set in the late Victorian period—and whose publisher or editor had insisted on recasting it for the Regency. (Details of dress and, yes, behavior and such were hints. But the real kicker was catching a photograph of a bad guy running across some crowded square in London. In 1810.)

  • Teri kain
    Reply

    I love all your heroines. I think you do a fabulous job portraying them

  • Brenda Soules
    Reply

    The reason that you are my favorite historical romance author is because your charactars and stories are so believable. Thank you for “sweeping me away “ into the Regency period.

  • Catherine Stout
    Reply

    I agree that the heroine is not believable in my novels. You make heroines who have an inner strength. Oh they may stick out a little like Freya Bedwyn, but they are still firmly Regency women.

  • Tayo Ajibade
    Reply

    Dear Mary,
    It the attention to historical detail and social standards of the time and the tension between modern view points of male and female roles that makes an interesting historical fiction romance. I enjoy your writing because it feels like a window opening on a relatable but very different point in history on relationships. I love the sense of being immersed in period detail and the tapestry of a life different in context from my own day to day existence.

    Like Georgette Heyer, you convey a sense of place and society contemporary to its point in time, so as a reader I learn about how life was lived, relationships formed, choices made in a society bound by different rules of honour and class constraints. But above all you convey emotions we all experience, character development and personal growth through trials or triumphs telling the intimate stories of people I come to care about. Thank you so much.

  • Irina
    Reply

    I can tolerate a heroine whose characteristics are not in sync with her time if the rest of the story fits into the time. In a story like those that you mentioned I find myself keeping track of all the inconsistencies and it simply spoils the narration for me. If an author wants that kind of story than it should be set in our times. It can still be romantic, you can still have the pretty gowns and such but it will definitely be more convincing. Apart from that – I love your heroines!

  • JoAnne
    Reply

    Good read.

  • Patricia Gross
    Reply

    Mary – I am an avid reader of regency novels and you are by far my favorite! An idea for another heroine may be the sister of someone with Down Syndrome. With the heart and spirit of these individuals it may be very comical to bring their joy of life into a story. It would be interesting to see how these family dynamics would affect the relationship of your hero and heroine.
    As the mother of a child with Down syndrome I wonder what her life and that of her siblings would have been like if they were members of the regency upper class.

    • marybalogh
      Reply

      Constantine, the hero of A SECRET AFFAIR, has a brother with Down Syndrome, Patricia Gross!

  • Christine
    Reply

    I have to agree with some of the other comments that I can accept a heroine with slightly modern ideas if the rest of the story is correct with the time it’s set in. What I find more horrible yet is if an author gets other basics wrong – like addressing a duke with “my lord”. This is an absolutely no go.

  • Agnes
    Reply

    Interesting thoughts. There are many aspects historical feminine ideals differed from modern ones, some of which can be adopted in a historical romance and some of which can’t. I find the idea of rebelling against the constraints of thought and education and making important life choices a positive one, while rebelling against social rules can sometimes turn into crassness that is unappealing. Luckily, Regency was an era of changing ideals. While Elizabeth Bennet is very modern character, Fanny Price ((rom Jane nAusten’s Mansfield Park) is more conforming to traditional feminine ideals – many modern readers find her annoying.

  • Margaret
    Reply

    I get terribly irritated when readers complain about “sexist” acts or language used in historical romance–that’s what makes them historical! The plight of women has been detestable throughout history, and even today we see how little credence is given to women who dare to object to what’s been done or said to them. But Mary, I almost always find your heroines believable, and I greatly admire how you allow them choice and strength in spite of their historical constraints.

  • Silvia G. A.
    Reply

    Love your books!!!! It must be really hard to write this kind of heroine, who lives in XIX century for XXI women, but yours are so human, strong and believable that it’s inevitable to love them.

  • Megan S
    Reply

    The most important part of a heroine, to me, is that she is a person in her own right. As you say, “I try to make them into strong women who can deal with their own lives and who can, if necessary, stand alone at the end of their stories…” When I read a romance and see characters develop, I want to see them fall in love, but I don’t want to see them lose who they are into another person. It’s very important to me and I find that personal strength over and over again in your heroines. Thank you.

  • Amy Rhodes
    Reply

    I love the way your heroines are spirited without being historical inaccurate. The fine line you walk in the stories you write not only draw the reader in to the time but make the characters believable. You have an amazing ability to capture the readers attention using the smallest of details and pull them into the pages with the heroine. One actually feels like they are right there with the character. That is what makes you such a gifted writer. Thank you for all the amazing work you have done.

  • Kat Tolle Wiley
    Reply

    My favorite heroine of yours was Imogene. To watch her husband be tortured and kill and still remain strong was just amazing and an inspiration I was never so happy when she found love again. The Survivors Club was my favorite series!!

  • Lisa Murphy
    Reply

    It is hard walk that tightrope but you do so quite well. It is even more challenging when you write historical fiction because of the restrictions on females of certain class and monetary backgrounds. Thanks for tackling these limitations and making your heroines so likeable.

  • Mary Hart
    Reply

    I think your main advantage is you tell a great story and I often learn something new. I definitely prefer a heroine and hero to be of the time. Many thanks for all your efforts!

  • Marie Watt
    Reply

    I really enjoy reading your books and always look forward to the next one. My favorite hero and heroine of yours are Wulfric Bedwyn and Christine Derrick in Slightly Dangerous. I love how opposites truly did attract each other. It makes me think of my husband and myself because when we met I was the very shy and serious one and he was the one who could laugh and talk at ease. We’ve been married for almost 48 years so I can attest that opposites DO attract!

  • LuAnn
    Reply

    Tightrope walking indeed. Wouldn’t want the typical stereotype but go to far and you ruin the period of the story.

  • Mary Lu McFall
    Reply

    Every time I read a Regencey you have written, I am amazed at the ability to find new qualities in a heroine that have not been cliched to death. Then she meets a man … The man, who also is somehow managed to become attractive in new ways. You do it so well.

  • Julie Kennedy
    Reply

    Thank you for your creativity and excellent writing skills. You were instrumental in my returning to reading historical fiction. I am so tired of others criticizing women reading this genre. I believe it is an excellent attempt to reach our imagination and heritage. Looking forward to another book by you!

  • Jeanne Shaw
    Reply

    I have never met one of Mary Balogh’s heroines that I did not like. They are all so genuine that I believe in them at once. I do not make friends easily, and yet I love these heroines, and care deeply about their stories. I think that Mary must believe in them herself in order to make them so real. I love that they are able hold my attention without sensationalism and the vulgarity that some modern authors deem necessary. I recommend Mary to all of my friends and to strangers at the library😍

  • Wendy Higgins
    Reply

    I’m always amazed with the authors journey. How the characters grow and the romance begins. I appreciate all the hard work put into the book/series. Thank you!

  • Tracey
    Reply

    Con Huxtable is possibly my favorite hero. Tea parties. Saving cast off people. Keeping everyone at a distance. Cannot get enough. And Hannah is his perfect match. Plus my other favorite part is the other secret about Hannah’s beloved late duke (SPOILER)

    having a lifetime love affair with his secretary. He taught her to value herself and to not give up on love. Con helps her express that love in ways she might never have imagined. I would treasure a signed copy forever!!!

  • Emiline
    Reply

    I’ve always loved and respected your writing of romantic fiction as “a cut above”, and it’s interesting to hear you explain your efforts and now understand WHY it always is so! Thank you for the endless, happily-spent hours of romance, escapism, and happy endings.

  • Judy Owen
    Reply

    Thinking back over the variety found in your heroines and the challenges that they meet in their stories, I am very impressed with your ability to control that tightrope! The setting in historical context more than 200 years ago is never obtrusive, but always believable, and I certainly never have noticed any anachronisms. I think that the quality that impresses me most in your heroines is their inate dignity with which they meet every challenge. This certainly seems to be lacking in many historical novels that I have encountered. I am always so relieved when each finds a hero who deserves her. Of all your heroines, I think that Jane and her Jocelyn are my favourites, but I have many more.

  • Lisa hutson
    Reply

    I can’t imagine creating in this way. Your heroines have to each be their own person. It must be really hard. And you do a great job! I love Freyja Bedwyn. 👏🤗

  • Amanda
    Reply

    I would imagine that there are many aspects to writing historical fiction that would be daunting. However, your heroines are consistently relatable to modern day women. This is the beauty of your writing! I am currently working through your catalogue of novels, and never cease to be surprised!

  • Lila Rives
    Reply

    No wonder you are one of my go-to authors for historical romance. Your description of Elizabeth Bennett is spot on. One of the reasons I love Jane Austen is because she wrote such wonderful stories of her own times. And her first book was even published as “by a Lady”, which shows how limited women were. She wrote about life as she knew it. And perhaps because I love her work, I’m a reader who feels as you do about historical accuracy. I’ve put more than one book down when I come across events or situations that just could not have happened in the time period. I’ve never had to put one of your books down because they are realistic for the times. So, know that your hard work and effort to retain historical accuracy is very much appreciated. And so is this chance to win a signed copy of one of your books. 📚

  • Carolyn
    Reply

    The reason why I love your books is because you are so meticulous in respecting the conventions of the period you are writing in. I’ve often come across characters using words that weren’t used until the 20th century (and are also often ‘Americanisms’). Your heroines are always believable and I can easily be transported to the Regency period.

  • Bonnie
    Reply

    I find that I tend to be hero-focused, and am more critical of heroines. I like them to be strong, but not outrageous; intelligent, but not top lofty; vulnerable, but not a pushover. I smiled when you mentioned hating feisty. Let me add saucy, a minx, spitfire, etc. Jane Eyre is my favorite all time book.

  • MELANIE BERRY
    Reply

    Mary you do a wonderful job with your heroines – real women who are real to their times and yet extraordinary women at the same time. Like others in the comments and as you mentioned, I have read historical books where the heroine does things that are way out of character or reality for their times. So I truly admire authors like you who have managed to successfully walk the tightrope.

  • Tully Ehlers
    Reply

    Oh Mary dear, this is one of the things I enjoy the most in your books. They are truly belivable. Even strong women, like Joana from Beyond the Sunrise, that work along with men, as does Lily Doyle, (two of my favorites ) they have a conduct code by which they live and for which they fight. And I love that, because I am like you, I want to scape for another era when I real.

  • Tatiana Agibalova
    Reply

    Dear Mary,
    I hope I have the right to address to you like this. Your books are like a mirror to those times which have gone, but are alive in our hearts till the present day.
    Of course, the relationships between people, their behaviour and the expression of their feelings… In some way, probably, it was different. But it is only one side of the coin.
    People do not change, and people’s life remain the same. What makes us feel your heroines are so close to us? The answer is quite simple. Common values.
    There always will be the most important thing in life, the value that is immutable. This value makes us better, stronger…
    This thing is life itself. It is LOVE. We need to love, to be loved. We need to share this love with other people, and to gain love in return.
    Your novels remind us about honour, duty and real friendship. But, above all, it is a great reminder of the importance of love, as the most important thing in life.
    Love is life itself.
    P.S. My favourite Mary Balogh’s heroine is Cristine from “Slightly Dangerous” (Bedwin series). She is so open to people around her. She is so emotional and friendly. And, of course, she is passionate and full of life. She loves people, and they give her their love in return. Even Wolf could not resist this light that shines in her.
    Thank you for your books. They inspire, they add sense to life. I begin to believe in all the good things that are in all the people around me. I simply begin to see all the good. I wish you all the best!
    Yours sincerely,
    Tatiana

  • Lynn Edgar
    Reply

    Every Heroine I’ve read in your books offers hope for women in many different situations. Thank you for that hope.

  • Brandy Pittman
    Reply

    I think you do a great job with all characters in your books. I always look forward to any new book you write.

  • Marina Leonard
    Reply

    I love how you are able to make them like they would be today but with the historical accuracy, it is amazing. Thank you for the wonderful stories that you write.

  • LaResa Draffin
    Reply

    I love your heroines and how realistic and believable you make the story lines and characters in your books. You are my favorite author of regency romance books, and I love all of your books!

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