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.
Here’s what Courtney Milan had to say about her heartwrenching, amazing The Countess Conspiracy.
Two warnings: this post contains mentions of rape and abuse, and there is a major spoiler for the series in the upcoming back cover copy.
Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake: an educated one. When he’s not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he’s outraging proper society with his scientific theories. He’s desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised—and he laughs through it all.
Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she’d like to stay that way. But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England’s most infamous scoundrel: Sebastian’s theories aren’t his. They’re hers.
So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she’ll do anything to save their partnership…even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good.
“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. Where do you see Lord Cambury as falling, and did you know from the start where you wanted Lord Cambury to land?
CM: Lord Cambury absolutely falls on the “abusive asshole” end of the spectrum, with the caveat that his behavior at the time would not have been seen as particularly abusive. I don’t want to say more because spoilers, but while I think his behavior is awful and unforgivable, it’s also something that wouldn’t have been seen as anything other than aggressive at the time. You can find tales of that kind of thing happening to all kinds of degrees back then.
I’d planned for him to be a Not Great Guy from the beginning. The exact details shifted over time, though.
RL: DFHs mean something a little different in Regency- and Victorian-set historicals since divorce wasn’t widely available. Like, if the heroine is married to someone other than the hero, he has to die for her to marry the hero. How do you think that affected your story?
CM: I don’t think it did.
I think the story is more affected by other powers that a husband has over a wife in that time period. For instance, they refer to sexual intercourse between a husband and his wife as the man’s “marital rights”—something that if you really think about it, is kind of gross, because it erases the notion of the wife being able to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband.
[RL’s note: Depressingly enough, marital rape did not start to become a crime in the U.S. until the mid-1970s.]
RL: How do you think Violet’s experience of marriage affects how she’s been living the rest of her life—not just practically, but emotionally, and in what she expects and doesn’t let herself expect? (This is a really basic question, I guess, since that’s so central to the story, but we also didn’t see Violet before her marriage, when she was already living by her mother’s rules. I basically would read ALL the backstory fic in the world about what she was like as a girl, and in the first months of her marriage when she thought things were going to turn out well.)
CM: Violet’s mother gave her girls a pretty good grounding in proper behavior, and society did the rest. Women are supposed to defer to their husbands. They’re taught to do that, taught that men know best, taught that men are the ones that will keep them safe. So when things don’t go down that way—when the things that everyone has been telling her don’t quite turn out that way—I think it’s hard for her not to blame herself. As the book starts, Violet has internalized a lot of her husband’s criticism. It may not be rational, but I think it’s pretty normal.
RL: How did you want Lord Cambury to contrast with Sebastian, and how did you want Violet’s relationships with them to contrast with each other?
CM: Well, I knew that what Violet needed was someone who could break through the difference between the way that she saw herself and the way that she actually was. Violet sees herself as a flawed, cold woman—in part because her husband told her repeatedly and painfully that she was frigid for refusing to have sex with him at some point in their marriage. Violet thinks that the breakdown of the marriage was her fault, based on her decisions.
Violet is not a cold woman, and Sebastian, who has been her friend forever, knows that and sees that in a way that she can’t see herself. Violet’s first husband distorted her view of herself; Sebastian is the one who lets her see the truth.
RL: One of the cool things about widow-type stories is the contrast between the decision the heroine took to be with the DFH 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 idealism and realism, if that makes sense? Like a lot of times the heroine married her first husband out of love without practical consideration, or out of an idea of what love or marriage should be like, or else she married him because she needed/had to for some concrete reason. Um, I’m not sure what the question is, exactly, but…thoughts?
CM: Well, I think that Violet didn’t so much make a decision to marry her first husband. She was seventeen, he was an earl, she was young, and marriage was a thing one did, and this particular man fit all the criteria. Her sister had made a brilliant marriage and Violet was excited about doing the same thing. But at seventeen, I don’t think you’re old enough to really comprehend exactly what you’re getting into—and Violet had things to struggle with that would put stress in any marriage, even one between rational adults.
RL: It’s safe to say that most readers have had an unsuccessful relationship at some point. And it’s probably also safe to say that a good chunk of women have had a relationship or sexual/romantic experience with a man that seriously hurt and scarred them. It seems like that’s an aspect of life as a woman that you deal with frequently (and powerfully) in your stories. Can you talk about that a little, and why it might be important for romance novels to hold up a mirror to that side of things too?
CM: Honestly, I don’t think I can talk about this. I don’t know that I was trying to hold up a mirror to women who have been hurt before. I do think that I write books about women who are far outside the ordinary mold, and often, in order to explain how they got there, I have to give them a strong motivation to push normal society away.
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?
CM: Honestly, the main reason that Violet is a widow is that I had announced the title of the book as The Countess Conspiracy and then decided I didn’t want to make Sebastian a lord. That meant that she had to be a countess, and she had to have a prior husband. So there wasn’t any conscious intent to add to the canon of DFH stories.
The remainder of the details just came out as necessary to fit the story.
RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.
CM: I actually think my favorite one is an oldie but a goodie—Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince. I still remember it as an absolutely lovely, touching romance.
Thanks, Courtney! You can read an excerpt of The Countess Conspiracy at her website (but I do recommend reading the series in order, starting with the prequel novella, The Governess Affair).
Check out the full interview series: