It’s no secret that I’m reading my way through Courtney Milan’s backlist. I’m just that kind of reader. I may not read a series in any order resembling sequential, but I will eventually download every novella and pick up every book when I’m feeling the author-reader-simpático vibes.
In more than one story Milan tackles romance for “the ruined woman”–deflowered, possibly pregnant, and always completely unfit to mingle with good society (see A Kiss for Midwinter, The Governess Affair, Unclaimed). It’s a heroine I’m drawn to for fairly obvious reasons. As a 21st century feminist reader who loves to read historical romance, rolling within the confines of gender expectations in Regency and Victorian England isn’t easy. Most of the romance novels I read are wonderfully subversive (a la What a Wallflower Wants) and fully embrace the spirit–if not the exact letter–of modern feminist ideology. Yet naive virgins continue to find their well-worn space on the romance shelf, and will always do so until someone decides to take their DeLorean back to the 19th century and completely change women’s history.
Let me be clear: I don’t mind these kinds of heroines. In fact, I downright love stories about wallflowers, spinsters, and bluestockings. But to me, these women who’ve never been kissed have less in common with perfect white-frocked debs than they do with ruined ladies. Like their “fallen” counterparts they aren’t expected to play by conventional society’s rules, which provides ample opportunity for adventure, romance, empowerment, and an all around good time.
The ruined woman in particular is presented in modern historical romance not as a warning but as a commentary on the unequal gender norms of the time. She’s not dying of consumption in a back-alley; she’s running a gaming hell, demanding retribution from a Duke, calling out sexual predators, planning for a better future, and generally living her life in a time when virginity loss was essentially a loss of self.
One aspect of these stories that’s often a sticking point for me is the woman’s path to ruin. It’s usually paved in rape or coercion, and if freely taken, is often tinged with regret. Is it too much to ask of historical romance to want a sexually adventurous never-been-married heroine with no regrets? Probably. For that storyline we’ll just have to stick to merry widows, who have some measure of independence and no longer have their sexuality commodified. That being said, if there’s a ruined woman in a historical romance novel, I will read it. I will cheer her on in her journey to love, empowerment and acceptance in the arms of the person of her dreams. In the end I love a HEA as much as the next romance-reader, and when it happens to this particular type of heroine it’s just that much more satisfying.