By coincidence, I’ve recently read three books set during the world wars. Even after all this time, those two conflicts call up profound revelations about the human condition. What is a hero? What is compassion? What is friendship? What gives meaning to life? I found the stories unbearably sad.
I was also struck by the depth of societal change wrought by WWI in particular. The old class system was broken down. When servant and master fought shoulder to shoulder in a muddy trench, there was no going back to doffing a cap to your “betters.”
Women, especially upper class women of privilege, were thrown up against brutality they’d never imagined let along touched. Yet, there they were, driving ambulances, nursing men who cried for their mothers, dealing with lice and filth and blood and excrement. Some of these women had never drawn their own bath. Now they were expected to bandage a weeping stump where a leg had been. When the war ended, there was no going back to the ignorance of their former lives. Even those who “kept the home fires burning,” had tasted independence. They’d worked for a wage. Made decisions about their own lives and those of their children without the help or hindrance of a male relative.
When the guns fell silent in 1918, the world was a far different place than that of 1914.
I think the “me too” movement has had a similarly profound effect in North America now, especially in how men and women relate to each other. Since I write romance — stories about men and women falling in love — this new reality affects me as a writer and as a reader. Do the old tropes still work? Is Cinderella part of the problem instead of the solution?
I don’t know the answers, but here are a few thoughts.
I never did like the arrogant, alpha male, who patted the heroine on the head and told her to trust him, or worse, pushed her around, caused her pain and refused to explain himself. Why did women fall in love with him? I don’t know, but scores of female readers did — and do. The Harlequin Presents line, with its emphasis on the alpha hero, is still one of its most popular offerings. With the pendulum of society swinging to female power, this phenomenon is hard to explain. Then again, romance is escapist literature, so maybe that annoying alpha hero is part of the escape.
The “kick ass” heroine has been around for decades, punching and shooting her way through any obstacle in her path. Even before “me too” fantasy romances especially, teamed with warrior princesses and empowered crones. Can these heroines “fall” in love, or do they have to make a rational decision about mutual interests and the survival of the species?
So what about the old-fashioned romance? Those little dime-store novels that catered to women’s longings and created an industry? Can we still write about women who like pretty things? Who want a home and a family? Who like a man who holds doors and brings her flowers? Do these stories belittle women? Can a beta male be a hero?
In my Prospect series, the heroines are all strong, independent women. Lottie, an unwed mother, runs a prosperous farm and makes a home for herself and her son. The man who wins her heart has to offer more than superficial courtesies, but he can’t be a bully.
Emma comes from a world of privilege but must now stand on her own in a harsh country. She won’t trust any man who wants to “take care of her.” She did that once and was betrayed. The man who wins her heart will respect her toughness while seeing through the uncompromising exterior to the passionate and tender woman beneath.
Louisa has been controlled and shamed by her father for her whole life. She sets out to rescue herself, build an independent life in her own home and her own shop. She’s not immune to some light-hearted flattery, but the man who wins her heart must be her equal, not her superior, nor her footstool, and nothing at all like her father.
I think these books can stand scrutiny in the “me too” era while still appealing to women searching for a softer heroine.
What are your favourite romances? Are they fairy-tales with a prince to rescue Cinderella? Are they battle stories with female generals? Are they boy-next-door fiction where she turns out to be a hired assassin?
I’d love to hear your recommendations.