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.
Jeannie Lin’s The Dragon and the Pearl is one of my favorite romances EVER (my Goodreads review). Technically the heroine is not a widow, she is the Emperor’s former concubine, but I think it fits!
Li Tao lives life by the sword, and is trapped in the treacherous, lethal world of politics. The alluring Ling Suyin is at the center of the web. He must uncover her mystery without falling under her spell—yet her innocence calls out to him. How cruel if she, of all women, can entrance the man behind the legend…
RL: Dead first husbands (or in this case, protectors) fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. How did you decide where on the spectrum you wanted the Emperor to land?
JL: This is going to be odd because I have to talk about a book that does not exist to the public to answer that question. I originally wrote a trilogy of books of which Butterfly Swords and The Dragon and the Pearl were books #2 and #3. Book #1 will likely never see the light of day, but it first introduced the character of Ling Suyin and also the Emperor and sets up the period of unrest and political upheaval. (I was young and counting stars. I fully thought that, not only was I going to be able to sell one historical romance set in the Tang Dynasty, I was going to somehow sell three that constituted an epic saga)
In that book, the Emperor was established as a benevolent ruler who tragically doesn’t leave behind any heirs. So from the beginning, he was a larger than life, almost legendary figure.
RL: How did you want the Emperor, and Suyin’s relationship with him, to contrast with Li Tao and her relationship with him? What does Li Tao bring to Suyin that the Emperor didn’t and couldn’t? (Besides sex. 🙂
JL: With the Emperor, Suyin learned her games of intrigue and subterfuge. So he was always both her sovereign and also her mentor. The Emperor teaches her how to fool the world. With Li Tao, Suyin finds herself on the same level as an equal. Here, she tries to play the game as she’s been taught, but finds an adversary who is in many ways her mirror image and so she’s able to find herself. In a way, both Li Tao and Suyin were set up in a way that they could only ever discover themselves when forced into conflict against a worthy opponent. (Wow, I just realized how Eastern philosophy that sounds.)
RL: One of the cool things about widow-type 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. Suyin didn’t really have a choice to be the emperor’s concubine, whereas being with Li Tao is a difficult decision she makes with her eyes open. Um. I’m not sure what the question is exactly, but I don’t know…thoughts?
JL: It is different a bit here because she had no choice technically, but in a way she did have a choice. She chose to excel at the role the Emperor created for her. It was a means of survival and she becomes exceptional at it. She lives for someone else—the Emperor—instead of living for herself. She gives up on happiness, like many a virgin widow. She accepts the fate she’s been dealt and does the best she can with it. With Li Tao, she’s forced to make the decision whether survival is enough or does she want something more than a cold, safe existence? If she wants happiness, she has to fight for it and for him.
RL: What kinds of widow stories in romance influenced how you wrote TD&tP? Were you reacting to or interacting with any genre conventions that you were aware of? In particular, did you have the virgin widow trope in mind when you wrote the story?
JL: I had the virgin widow trope in mind in that I was terrified of it. I knew it was a common trope in romance and I might be skewered for having a virgin, but the trope I was trying to flip was actually an entirely different one. The Tang Dynasty is full of stories of Machiavellian and cutthroat women of power. It is also a recurring trope throughout history to blame the downfall of empires and emperors upon a femme fatale. Most particularly, I was thinking of the tragic love story of Concubine Yang and Emperor Xuanzhong. I’ve always believed historians conveniently vilified these women of power when THE DUDE IS THE EMPEROR OF THE REALM!!!!! Don’t you think he was pretty good at ruling and playing politics? Shouldn’t he, like, maybe take some responsibility?
So Suyin, as powerful as she was perceived, was also a pawn. At any moment, she could become the victim or she could remain the seductress. The way she interacted with powerful men was dictated by trying to find that balance point where she stayed on top.
RL: The virgin widow story is sort of the flip side of the coin of the abusive ex or the ex who was bad in bed, in some ways a really pure form, because instead of having her hope and anticipation of love crushed or destroyed, it was simply…ignored. Yet people around her expect her to have already had this experience that she still longs for. The moment in the flashback when Suyin cries into her pillow because she had thought that eventually she’d get to fall in love is such a powerful one—what do you think is the emotional need the trope fills for a reader? What about the story appeals to you as a writer?
JL: At the heart of it is the idea that everyone deserves a second chance and it’s never too late for love. Even if you believe it will never happen for you, as long as there is hope in your heart, you can still find happiness.
For me as a writer, I was fascinated by these larger than life love stories that historically end in tragedy such as the story of Concubine Yang or Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. Queen Elizabeth I to some extent—though she didn’t die tragically, she’s still thought of as a tale of unrequited love. (Though I believe she loved ruling, so no need to weep too hard for her.) Wouldn’t that be the ultimate love story? To take a tragic figure like one of these grand ladies, but give her a happy ending?
(An aside: Eeek — ok, here’s the historical writer in me emerging. You’ll totally understand. [RL’s note: why yes, yes I do. ALL THE ERRORS I’ve spotted while prepping Penny and Lily for rerelease, let me show you them.] I’ve been researching the Tang Dynasty for over eight years now and I know a lot more now than I did several years ago. Pillows in the Tang Dynasty weren’t soft fluffy things you could cry into. They’re hard pedestals you rest your head on. I know for the scene it works emotionally, but now that’s going to haunt me FOREVER. Heck, you can still rest your head on one and cry. I’m resting my head on this hard laptop and crying now.)
Thanks, Jeannie! You can read an excerpt from The Dragon and the Pearl at her website.
Check out the rest of the interview series: