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And What of the Anti-Heroine?

Louise Brooks, silent cinema’s best-known anti-heroine, plots her next move in “Pandora’s Box.”

It’s Villains and Anti-Heroes Week here at Ye Olde Sweet Rocket! That, my darlings, includes Anti-Heroines, as well!

There’s plenty of room for bad boys in Romanceland, but the world of romance leaves little space for the anti-heroine, otherwise known as the difficult, unlikeable or villainous heroine.

The accepted intelligence is that romance readers, overwhelmingly female, need to be able to identify with the heroine, or imagine themselves in her place. Perhaps this explains the lack of anti-heroines, in romance — few women want to imagine themselves as the courtesan or whore, the bitch or the duplicitous, conniving sort. It goes to follow that the number of bad girl heroines is few. After all, no one likes mean girls.

But every so often, a bad girl heroine slips through the cracks. Here are a few of the Romanceland anti-heroines that stand out in my memory:

Lady Jocelyn Kendal — The Bargain by Mary Jo Putney

Lady Jocelyn was the first anti-heroine I ever encountered in romance, and boy, is she a doozy. In order to secure her inheritance, she needs to marry, and quickly. The man she has her eye on isn’t coming to heel fast enough for her purposes, so she decides to marry a dying Waterloo veteran, David Lancaster, with the hopes of being a widow in time to receive her inheritance and capture the man she wants. Poor Lancaster, as nice as the day is long from the time we meet him, agrees to do this only because Lady Jocelyn agrees to settle an income on his sister Sally, who naturally takes an instant disliking to Lady Jocelyn.

Lady Jocelyn is also responsible for my all-time favorite bad-girl scene in a romance. How’s this for nasty:

Turning to her writing desk, [Lady Jocelyn] lifted a jingling leather bag and tossed it to Sally….
“You needn’t count the money. It’s all there — one hundred twenty five pounds in gold.”
Sally’s head snapped up. “Not thirty pieces of silver?”
Jocelyn said softly, each word carved in ice, “Of course not. Silver is for selling people. Since I was buying, I paid in gold.”

Oh, that Jocelyn — ain’t she sweet? Naturally David Lancaster does not die, Lady Jocelyn becomes less than a virago, and there’s the obligatory happily-ever-after.

Bryony Asquith — Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Bryony, a late-Victorian era physician,  is curmudgeonly, driven, and unforgiving. Which sort of makes her a Victorian-era female Dr. House. Unfortunately, that means she’s curmudgeonly and unforgiving to her darling husband, Leo, and so driven to prove herself the equal of any man that she all but emasculates him,  separates from him (hence the title) and literally leaves the country. That’s my kind of girl, really, and despite all her obvious flaws, I liked her. But then I don’t have to sleep with her — why Leo puts up with her is beyond me. Yet for whatever reason, he’s willing to risk life and limb to go to India to fetch her back home to England, and there lies the story. In the course of fetching her back, he also manages to, well… I won’t say that he redeems her completely, but she’s much less prickly by the end of the book. Leo is a wonderful hero, and the book is worth it just to get to know him.

Lydia Slaughter — A Gentleman Undone by Cecelia Grant

How about that Lydia (cue theatrical wolf-whistle)? First of all, she’s a former prostitute and the mistress to a nobleman, and makes no apologies for it. Also, she’s a cardsharp who fleeces the hero, Will Blackshear, out of a nice chunk of change at the outset of the book. Instead of giving it back, like the standard romance heroine would when she realizes that he really needs the money, she engages him in a scheme to fleece more unwitting fools out of their money. She may also be a full-on nymphomaniac. Before you start throwing rotten tomatoes, that’s not slut-shaming, and plenty of other reviewers have also noted Lydia’s strange relationship to sex, which, from a modern psychological standpoint, is likely the well-documented phenomenon of post-sexual abuse promiscuity. Aside from all that, Lydia’s an admirable, wildly intelligent, honorable heroine — unless she’s trying to rob some poor gambler blind.

Mina Masters — Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran

Mina’s sort of a toss-up, when it comes to an anti-heroine; while you realize that she’s very much a victim of her circumstances, that of a self-made Victorian-era woman trying to fend for herself against a cruel stepfather, she still comes across as manipulative and somewhat selfish. Phin, the hero, is pretty miserable, too. They deserve each other.

Lady Elizabeth — Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

Just read my review. That tells you everything you need to know about snooty Lady Elizabeth.

Mary Gray — The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Well, she was planning to finagle an estate and fortune out of a dying old man… wasn’t she?

Ugh — I just realized I have no contemporary anti-heroines, aside from Mary Gray! That’s indicative of two things: one, I don’t read much contemporary romance, and two, most of the contemporaries I have read had really nice heroines. What, pray tell, does that mean?

Also note that at least three of our anti-heroines are driven by greed, another two driven by their careers, while at least one is prostitute/mistress. What does that tell us about the acceptable motivations for bad-girl behavior in romance? Plenty. It’s okay to be greedy or just plain mean if your evil, misguided or dead male relatives or rakish lovers have left you in dire straits, as is the case with Lady Jocelyn, Mary Gray, Lydia Slaughter and Mina Masters (and, to an extent, Lady Elizabeth). You can also get a pass for being what is, frankly, a bitch, as long as you’re doing so because the man is holding you down, i.e., keeping you from joining the scientific or medical community, as in the cases of Lady Elizabeth and Bryony. In other words, in every example I’ve noted here, the anti-heroine’s bad behavior is acceptable because it’s a reaction to behavior that’s just as bad or worse on the part of men.

Personally, I’d like to see anti-heroine who’s bad just for the sake of being bad. Maybe she’s a female rake, flirting and teasing her way through a bevy of men. Maybe she’s a villainess who causes trouble for meeker, cowering souls. Maybe she’s just a bitch because she wants to be one, not because her daddy didn’t love her enough. It’s time we see a real female villain redeemed by the love of a good man — we see enough of the reverse, certainly.
I will probably have to write that romance myself, but if anyone, anywhere, knows of any good anti-heroines I’ve missed, do tell — I’m dying to read one!

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Goodreads Review: Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

Lady Elizabeth's CometLady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever read a book once, and thought meh, then went back again and found it a totally different book? That’s me and Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. 

Part of my problem when first reading Lady Elizabeth’s Comet was, unfortunately, Lady Elizabeth. Lady Elizabeth is as near to an anti-heroine as you’ll find in a Traditional Regency. She’s short-tempered and snobbish, often treating the hero (and various other characters in the book) unkindly or dismissively. Interested more in astronomy than the people around her, it seems amazing that Lady Elizabeth could somehow attract not one but two suitors, her father’s heir, Tom Conroy, Lord Clanross, and Clanross’ close friend, Lord Bevis.

But as it turns out, some of the same pejoratives I applied to Lady Elizabeth applied to me as a reader, at least on my first go round with Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. If you stick with the book long enough to make friends with Lady Elizabeth, you’ll find she’s also funny and smart, and eventually all-too-aware of her own shortcomings. 

I won’t spoil the book for you by revealing which of her suitors Lady Elizabeth chooses, but I will say that although Lady Elizabeth is one of the least romantic female leads I’ve ever personally encountered, the romance that develops almost painfully slowly over the course of the book is delicious.  It will remind you more of an Austen romance than even a Heyer romance.

I find myself returning to Lady Elizabeth’s Comet  when I’m burned out on trite or trope-filled Traditional Regencies, or just want a great example of everything that is wonderful about the Traditional Regency genre.

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Rakes, Fake Rakes, Anti-Heroes and Reformed Villains

Here’s a gratuitous picture of Basil Rathbone, everyone’s favorite villain. And he’s in costume as the dastardly Mr. Murdstone from “David Copperfield!”

It’s Villains and Anti-Heroes Week here at Le Sweet Rocket! In today’s riposte, we’ll look at just what makes for a good bad boy hero, be he a rake, anti-hero, or straight-up villain!

Romanceland is the land of the bad boy, the rake, the bodice-ripping pirate and dark knight. What woman doesn’t swoon at the idea of reforming a rake, melting the heart of the ice-cold nobleman or even making an honest man of the deadly mercenary? It’s the tale as old as time, indeed, and one that is the basis of countless romance novels.

But what separates the dark hero from the true anti-hero? The villain from the rake? Or, better still, the real bad boy from that worn-out romance trope, the fake rake?

It’s a fine line for an author to toe, to create a hero that’s deliciously wicked without being so degenerate that readers are turned off rather than turned on, and it’s often one that separates the bad boys from the real men, the fake rakes from the reformed villains.

Both the  fake rake and his close cousin, the Duke of Slut, can, in fact, be traced to this very difficulty. Fake rakes and Dukes of Slut are famous for their wicked exploits, but we rarely see them in action — we hear about them second hand.  The heroine hears horrified whispers and snippets of conversations to tell her that the hero is baaaaad, that he uses and discards women like handkerchiefs, that he’s dueled/shot a man in cold blood/cheated at cards, but we never catch a real glimpse of this bad behavior.  It’s the easy way out, for authors who want to have a bad boy hero but don’t actually want to risk losing readers by showing their bad deeds.

The difference between a fake rake and a real rake is all in the telling. An excellent example of a real rake is the Duke of Tresham from Mary Balogh’s More Than a Mistress. When we meet Tresham, he’s engaged in a duel, the result of his affair with a married woman. The heroine, Jane, a domestic servant, interrupts the duel and sets the wheels of the plot in motion. Jane becomes Tresham’s nurse when he’s injured in the duel, and afterward, his mistress. Whereas a fake rake would have gone into the vapors at the thought of besmirching a young virgin’s honor by first risking her reputation by moving her in with him, then setting her up as a mistress, that’s hardly Tresham’s style. He’s so despicably snobbish and selfish through much of the book that it rarely occurs to him to treat Jane with anything but pettiness and unwitting cruelty, but slowly, throughout the course of the story, he is redeemed by Jane’s kindness.

Tresham’s despicable actions make him as much an anti-hero as a rake. Anti-heroes, unlike rakes, fake rakes or Dukes of Slut, are not necessarily debauched or slutty, but are, instead, so at odds with the heroine that it’s hard to imagine them being in the same room, much less falling in love. Elusive, dark, brooding and naturally fascinating for it, the anti-hero is the standard hero of the Gothic romance, and often the medieval, as well.

Gunnar from Lord of Vengeance is a good example of an anti-hero, but an even better example may be Michael from Anne Stuart’s Now You See Him. Since Stuart herself has often bemoaned the fact that she came to romance too late to write Gothics, it’s no surprise that many of her novels feature gothic overtones, particularly her heroes, most particularly Michael. A secret agent (think Daniel Craig’s take on James Bond), Michael seeks out the book’s heroine, Francey, because he suspects of her being involved with an Irish terrorism ring. He lies to her about his identity, leaves her in the lurch at least once or twice, and, despite his developing attraction for Francey, has no plans of abandoning his career to be with her. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a stone cold killer? Yet he’s one of Stuart’s best anti-heroes, which, considering that’s pretty much all she writes, is saying something.

Just as Tresham could have been an anti-hero, Michael could easily have been a villain, which brings us to our final breed of romance bad boy, the reformed villain. The reformed villain is perhaps the most challenging hero to write, because, in order for him to be successful, he has to first be very very bad, yet not so bad that readers can’t stand to see him redeemed. When this works, it’s wonderful. When it doesn’t, it’s often because the villain suffers from fake rake syndrome, or because he’s simply not bad enough to be believable as a villain. A reformed villain for the ages is St. Vincent from Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter.

As is often the case for the reformed romance villain, St. Vincent appears in two books in a series. His first dastardly appearance is in It Happened One Autumn, where he is a cad of the first order. He betrays and deceives his best friend, then abducts the heroine of that book. Plus he’s a degenerate gambler and a rake (naturally). St. Vincent was so heinous, in fact, that many Kleypas fans were worried that he could not be redeemed, when they discovered that he would be the hero of Devil in Winter. St. Vincent’s redemption works because he is not redeemed off the page, between the two books; he’s paired with Devil in Winter’s heroine, Evangeline, because he’s marrying her for her money, and he proceeds to be a real horse’s ass for much of the book. This wouldn’t be a romance if he weren’t eventually reformed, but the reader sometimes wonders how, exactly, that’s going to happen. Which is as it should be with a reformed villain.

When the redeemed villain plot fails, it’s often because the author is afraid to let the villain be too despicable, lest he be irredeemable. A good example of that problem is Elizabeth Hoyt’s Thief of Shadows; one of that book’s villains is so obviously being set up as a hero for a future book that his motives are so obscure and his behavior so wishy-washy that as a reader, it’s difficult to believe in him, either as a villain or as a future hero.

Why, if rakes, anti-heroes and reformed villains are so difficult to pull off, do we love them so? While our desire to believe that true love can conquer even the worst in human beings is strong, I think there’s more to it than that. A believable rake, villain or anti-hero almost always comes with fascinating back story, for one thing, which makes for an page-turning read. The redemption provides inherent drama and plot of the most human, and therefore natural, kind. I suspect, however, that we love a good bad boy because it takes a very talented writer to create a character who is so bad, and yet so good…


I’m In Love With…. Villains!

It’s Villains and Anti-Heroes Week here at Le Sweet Rocket! In celebration of the best villains and anti-heroes romance has to offer, here’s a kick-off post featuring some of my very favorite villains!

Sometimes the villain’s the best part of the story. Or at least, in these cases, the hottest part! Here are a few villains I just love…

Orson Welles as the dastardly romantic Charles Rankin in The Stranger!

Dana Andrews menaces Ruth Warrick in Daisy Kenyon!

Richard Armitage (featuring that rarest of creatures, the attractive mullet) as the wretchedly sexy Guy of Gisbourne in BBC’s “Robin Hood”!

Basil Rathbone as, oh, just about any Basil Rathbone character!

Hot villains often make reappearances as reformed heroes/anti-heroes in romance novels. Some romance anti-heroes/reformed villains of note:

Conner Winslow from Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree

Freddie Sullivan from Mary Balogh’s Dancing With Clara

Lord St. Vincent in Lisa Kleypas’ It Happened One Autumn/Devil in Winter

Almost all of Anne Stuart’s heroes

Almost all of Victoria Holt’s heroes