As part of my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, I wrote a guest post at Heroes and Heartbreakers about the tradition of widows and dead first husbands in historical romance. For that post, I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historicals with widow heroines, and I got back such awesome, detailed answers that I wanted to share the complete interviews with you.
My critique partner Susanna Fraser has written no less than three awesome widow heroines: Anna in The Sergeant’s Lady, a cross-class road-trip romance about an heiress and an NCO Rifleman who end up stranded together in a Spanish war zone and have to find (and sometimes fight) their way out together; Elizabeth in An Infamous Marriage, about a general and a mousy young woman who wed because of a death-bed promise and after years of separation try to find a way to live together; and Rose in A Dream Defiant, an interracial romance novella about a soldier’s widow who must marry immediately to keep herself and her son safe in an army camp, but finds herself falling in love with the man she chooses. I highly recommend all three, especially if you like historically accurate military romance!
Dead first husband is hereafter abbreviated DFH.
RL: DFHs fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. You’ve written DFHs at all points on the spectrum (let’s see, there’s Sebastian, Sam, and Giles…actually Giles is one of the few DFHs I’ve seen that was actually a great marriage, or had the potential to be one). How do you decide where you want them to fall?
SF: It varies from story to story. In general, I feel like making the first husband an evil abusive asshole has become too much of a cliche. It can be the easy way out, narratively. Of course the hero is the best thing that ever happened to the heroine, her One True Love! That other guy was evil, don’tcha know? So my default is to write DFHs who are decent, well-meaning men, whether they’re someone like Giles in An Infamous Marriage whom the heroine could’ve been happy with, or more like Sam in A Dream Defiant, who was a really sweet guy, but without the brains and ambition to make him an equal partner for Rose.
That said, the first DFH I ever wrote, Sebastian in The Sergeant’s Lady, was definitely of the evil abusive asshole variety, and I do think the contrast between him and the hero allowed me to write a powerful story of healing and second chances. But even he didn’t start out evil. He and Anna were secondary characters in the first manuscript I ever finished—one which, in much altered form, eventually became my second published book, A Marriage of Inconvenience. That book took me something like two and a half years to write, and over all that time Sebastian changed from a stern, solemn, but basically good man into a misogynistic control freak, and Anna kept revealing hidden depths. So as I finished that first draft, I promised her I’d write her a sequel and give her someone awesome.
RL: DFHs mean something a little different in Regency-set historicals since divorce wasn’t widely available, and because women gave up so many property rights by marrying. How do you think that’s affected your stories? In a contemporary, might you have chosen to make some of those heroines divorced instead? (I realize that saying “what if this book were a contemporary” about stories so entrenched in their period is kind of meaningless, but it’s still fun to think about…)
SF: I think in a contemporary I’d be more likely to fill the DFH role with a Live Ex-Boyfriend, because in our time there’s less stigma attached to a woman having had romantic and/or sexual relationships that didn’t end in marriage. (I wish I could say “no stigma attached,” but sadly that isn’t always the case.)
RL: How do you use DFHs to contrast with your heroes, and their relationships with the heroine to contrast with the hero’s? What do your heroes bring to your heroines that their DFHs didn’t and couldn’t?
SF: Again, this varies from story to story. In The Sergeant’s Lady, where Sebastian truly is an evil abusive asshole, Will brings Anna all kinds of wonderful things she didn’t have in her first marriage—respect, trust, friendship, playful affection, an equal partnership—but above all healing that allows her to see her passionate nature and her sexuality as blessings rather than curses.
The contrast between DFH and hero in An Infamous Marriage is more subtle. The heroine, Elizabeth, grew up in a narrow, restrictive environment, and her first husband Giles was able to offer her kindness, affection, and escape from an unhappy home. But as a village clergyman of limited means, he too lived in a narrow, sheltered world—and happily so. He was a quiet, peaceable homebody of a man. That would’ve been just right for many women, but Elizabeth is curious and adventurous. If she had to live in a small village for all her life, with maybe a short trip to London every decade or so, no matter how much she loved her husband and children, some part of her would always feel dissatisfied, like something was missing. With Jack, who shares her adventurous spirit and as a high-ranking army officer is in a profession that takes him all over the world, she’s able to have the kind of life she’s always longed for, one that Giles would never have been able to give her.
In A Dream Defiant, Rose’s first husband Sam was able to see and appreciate her gifts as a cook and ambition to use them professionally, but he didn’t have the kind of matching drive it would take to make her dreams a reality. He was a straightforward, simple, good-hearted man, but he wasn’t so good at holding onto money, thinking beyond the present day, and so on. Given the power imbalance inherent to 19th century marriage, I imagine it must’ve been maddening to be a woman with ambition, self-discipline, and drive married to a man lacking those traits. So what Elijah is able to offer Rose that she’s never had before is true partnership—rather than holding her back, he helps her soar.
I believe a good relationship is one that encourages you to become more—happier, more confident, more accomplished, more true to yourself. I try to show that, in ways large and small, all my heroes and heroines are more at the end of the book than at the beginning. So when the heroine is a widow, the hero has to in some way give her a piece of that more that her first husband wouldn’t or couldn’t.
RL: One of the cool things about widow stories is the contrast between the decision the heroine took to be with the dead first husband and the decision she takes at the end of the story to be with the hero—and because she’s been married before, she knows what it means to compromise her autonomy in that way. Widow stories are often about learning to balance love and practicality, if that makes sense? Like a lot of times the heroine married her first husband either entirely out of love without thinking about whether it was a good decision, or else she married him for practical reasons without loving him at all. How do your heroines’ first marriages shape the course of their romances? And how do you think that applies to how they live the rest of their lives, and what they expect and don’t let themselves expect?
SF: Well, in two of my three books with widowed heroines, marriage to the hero isn’t a decision the heroine makes at the end of the story. When Elizabeth is widowed, she’s left destitute, and Rose is the widow of a common soldier in an army on campaign, so in a very real sense she and her young son aren’t safe alone. So their romances with the hero follow the marriage of convenience trope, where the commitment comes first and love follows. They start out with necessity, and when passion comes, too, it’s an unlooked-for blessing. While they get more from marriage to the hero than they expect, the same would be true of a marriage of convenience romance without a DFH in the picture.
In The Sergeant’s Lady, Anna is wealthy and well-connected enough that she need never marry again, so her marriage to Will is very much a free choice, and a triumphant one. But now that I think about it, there’s actually a certain external similarity in how she marries Sebastian and Will. In both cases she’s marrying against the judgement and advice of trusted, beloved family members and making what the outside world would see as a reckless, hasty match. The difference is that her choice of Sebastian springs from an immature infatuation. She doesn’t really know him—she’s in love with the idea of a dashing, romantic officer and blind to the extremely flawed real man. But by the time she marries Will, she knows herself and him, and their love has been tested and proven. Her marriage to Sebastian is “I want what I want and you can’t stop me.” When she chooses Will, it’s “I know where I belong now. This is my life, this is my love, and here I stand.”
RL: It’s safe to say that most readers have had an unsuccessful relationship at some point. Do you think DFH stories connect with readers in a unique way? Were you trying to reflect an aspect of real-life romantic experience?
SF: Writing widowed heroines in historicals allows me to write heroines who are often a little older and have more life experience than I’d typically write in a Regency with a heroine who hasn’t been married. I think this can make them more relatable for modern readers without having to compromise historical accuracy, since unless you marry your high school sweetheart, you probably have a Past by the time you meet the person you want for your Future.
RL: How do you decide how to kill off a DFH? (I realize that in the case of Sam this is pretty important to the plot, but for Sebastian and Giles I think you had more options.)
SF: Yes, Sam’s death is the inciting incident for A Dream Defiant’s plot—he’s killed in the act of claiming battlefield plunder that he means to give to Rose, and with his dying breath he entrusts it to Elijah. While I certainly could’ve had a soldier on campaign die without a battle—in those days disease often killed more soldiers than wounds did—the plunder element was a key to the story, so battle it was.
With Giles I wanted something shocking and sudden that could strike down an apparently healthy young man, newly married and happy with his whole life before him. I could’ve used an accident, something like a fall from a horse—the narrative equivalent of dying in a car crash in a contemporary—but I decided to go with illness instead. He catches chicken pox, which I know from personal experience can be severe if you get it as an adult, and it leads to pneumonia.
Sebastian…dies as he lived. He mistakes a respectable young woman for a prostitute, refuses to take “no” for an answer when she resists him, and is killed by her brothers when they rush to her defense when she screams for help. I wanted something appropriate to his character that would emphasize to readers that neither they nor his widow need to mourn this guy.
RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. What is different about writing sexually experienced heroines? How does that affect the stories and romance (besides simply in the sex scenes)?
SF: When the heroine is a virgin, the first few sex scenes can be as much about sex itself as about her relationship with the hero. Sex, period, is a big mystery, exciting and scary all at once. With a sexually experienced heroine, a man’s body is familiar territory to her, and unless her experience with prior husbands or lovers was uniformly bad, she’s not going to fear physical intimacy in itself. So all the mystery, excitement, and fear is going to be about the hero specifically and what sex means in their relationship. It concentrates the story, in a way, makes it more particular.
RL: What kinds of DFH stories in romance influenced how you wrote? Were you reacting to or interacting with any genre conventions that you were aware of?
SF: I can’t help being aware of the tropes, and with the exception of Sebastian I’ve tried to push back against the evil abusive first husband trope. I’ve also vowed never, ever to write a virgin widow—though now that I’ve posted that publicly, my muse will probably kick out an amazing virgin widow story, one that I’ll be convinced is fresh and different, never ever told before.
RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.
This isn’t a historical, but it feels like one because of the semi-feudal aspects of the characters’ culture—the two-book science fiction romance arc of Komarr and A Civil Campaign in Lois McMaster Bujold’s marvelous Vorkosigan Saga. For most of the first book, Ekaterin’s first husband Tien is still alive. And he’s an evil abusive asshole…but subtly so. He isn’t overtly violent or cruel, and though he does some horrible things, we see through Ekaterin’s eyes what motivates him, and while we never approve or sympathize, we do understand and pity. After Tien’s violent and mysterious death, she’s questioned under the influence of a truth serum to clear her of any involvement, an event we witness from the POV of Miles, the hero:
“Did you hate him?”
“No…yes…I don’t know. He wore that out, too.” She looked earnestly at Tuomonen. “He never hit me, you know.”
What an obituary. When I go down into the ground at last, as God is my judge, I pray my best-beloved may have better to say of me than, ‘He didn’t hit me.’ Miles set his jaw and said nothing.
Later, but long before they’re romantically involved, Miles and Ekaterin have a rather adorable conversation about his several ex-girlfriends. She quickly notices that every one of them gained more power, more freedom, more of their heart’s desire, over the course of their involvement with Miles and thinks:
Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.
Though Ekaterin is by no means ready to consider marrying again at that point in her story, the reader knows then that ultimately she’s going to choose this man with his gift of making his friends and lovers more rather than less.
RL: In older historicals especially, it sometimes seems as if the asshole first husband is almost forced to be an asshole because the heroine isn’t allowed to have any positive sexual or romantic experiences other than with the hero (cf. the classic virgin widow plotline). Even now, there can be pressure in the genre to make the hero and heroine’s relationship supercede and outshine all other relationships in their life. Did you worry, writing Giles, that that would be a problem?
SF: I didn’t worry as I was writing it, because it was the story I wanted to tell—a woman who loses a perfectly good husband and is forced to remarry more quickly than she ever would’ve wanted, and how she ultimately finds a deep, passionate love that will carry her through a lifetime with the near-stranger she marries.
And I think most readers were fine with that aspect of the story. That said, I did get a few reviews who weren’t happy that Jack wasn’t Elizabeth’s only love. While that surprised me—how many people only love once in real life, after all?—I guess for those readers that’s an important part of their Happily Ever After fantasy. And that’s fine, too. I’d even suggest that if they otherwise liked my writing, they try my upcoming Christmas novella. It’s about young lovers reunited who discover their feelings are as strong as ever, so it’s very much in the One True Love trope. 😉
Thanks, Susanna! At her website you can read excerpts of The Sergeant’s Lady, An Infamous Marriage, and A Dream Defiant.
Check out the rest of the interview series:
4/4 – Theresa Romain
4/7 – Susanna Fraser
4/9 – Jeannie Lin
4/11 – Cecilia Grant
4/14 – Tessa Dare
4/16 – Lauren Willig
4/18 – Courtney Milan