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 Theresa Romain had to say about her adorable, poignant It Takes Two to Tangle. (For the complete schedule, see the end of this post.)
WOOING THE WRONG WOMAN…
Henry Middlebrook is back from fighting Napoleon, ready to re-enter London society where he left it. Wounded and battle weary, he decides that the right wife is all he needs. Selecting the most desirable lady in the ton, Henry turns to her best friend and companion to help him with his suit…
IS A TERRIBLE MISTAKE…
Young and beautiful, war widow Frances Whittier is no stranger to social intrigue. She finds Henry Middlebrook courageous and manly, unlike the foppish aristocrats she is used to, and is inspired to exercise her considerable wit on his behalf. But she may be too clever for her own good, and Frances discovers that she has set in motion a complicated train of events that’s only going to break her own heart…
The dead first husband (hereafter abbreviated “DFH”) is Charles.
RL: DFHs 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 Charles to land? 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?
TR: In planning ITTTT, I wanted to twist the trope of the so-called pure widow. You’ve probably seen this character before: she may or may not be a virgin, but she’s certainly never been in love before meeting the hero. I started with the opposite character in mind: what if the heroine had loved her first husband desperately?
That “desperately” is a key word. It was a passionate romance that overrode sense. Frances’s love for Charles is an important part of her character, because it was a cross-class romance that led to a breach with her parents. That shows what she’s willing to sacrifice for love.
As for Charles himself, he falls in the middle of the spectrum you describe. At heart, he was young and lusty and somewhat selfish. A lot like Frances herself! Their romance started off hot, then dwindled on his part into indifference. That hurt her deeply, but it wasn’t a pain Charles meant to cause. His love was conditional, but neither he nor Frances knew that until the conditions changed.
RL: DFHs mean something a little different in Regency-set historicals since divorce wasn’t widely available, and because women’s control over their money was so tied to their marital status. How do you think that affected your story? In a contemporary, might you have chosen to make Frances divorced instead? (I realize that saying “what if this book were a contemporary” about a story so entrenched in its period is kind of meaningless, but it’s still fun to think about…) How do you think Frances’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?
TR: In a contemporary, Frances might have been sued for divorce due to fraud, since she, ahem, neglected to mention key financial details before marrying Charles. In ITTTT, money is closely tied to love and trust. Frances’s money is a large part of her appeal to Charles—and once she doesn’t have access to that money, Charles ceases to trust her. That’s when their marriage begins to fall apart.
After Charles’s death, Frances never again thinks of herself as eligible because she doesn’t have the money that seemed to be the source of her appeal. And she feels guilt not in having lied to Charles, but in not feeling sorry that she did. She was reckless in pursuing the man she wanted. When she meets Henry, he lays his trust upon her. That’s what snares her attention—and that’s what makes her a little reckless again, as she begins to hope for a new romance.
RL: How did you want Charles to contrast with Henry, and how did you want Frances’s relationships with them to contrast with each other? What does Henry bring to Frances that Charles didn’t and couldn’t?
TR: Charles was from a lower social and economic class than Frances, and so it was tempting for him to look to her as his provider. When she lost access to her money and couldn’t fill that role, Charles enlisted against her wishes. By doing so, he took on the “provider” role himself but also abandoned their marriage.
Henry, having survived war, is ready to rebuild rather than to tear apart. He and Frances are both veterans of grief who have decided never to lose their senses of humor. Though he’s not a wealthy man in his own right, Henry also has a social and economic stability that Charles never had. That may not seem romantic, but as Frances learned during her first marriage, neither does poverty.
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?
TR: I think DFH stories absolutely can connect with readers in terms of their own romantic experience. What a DFH story shows—no matter whether the DFH was a saint or a devil—is that there’s hope for love after the end of a significant relationship.
In ITTTT, I hoped to reflect that most people have had a past relationship that was, at some point, pretty good. Just because one has loved before, it doesn’t mean love is worth less when it comes again.
RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. Did writing a sexually experienced heroine affect the story and the romance in ways you didn’t expect? Were you able to do things you couldn’t do in other books?
TR: Frances frankly lusted after her first husband, and it didn’t seem realistic to deny that they had a sexual relationship. But again, her romantic past doesn’t negate the significance of the present.
We’re used to allowing romance heroes to have a sexual past, and sometimes this can put them in a position of superior knowledge or power over the heroine. In the case of ITTTT, Frances and Henry both have a sexual past, and so in that sense, they’re equals when they move forward with their own relationship.
RL: It’s interesting that Frances’s first husband was also a soldier, but one, obviously, who didn’t make it. Did you consider other ways to kill him off, or did you always know he’d died in the war?
TR: As the story came together in my mind, I always knew I wanted Charles to die in the war. This was the closest way Frances could experience the horror of war without actually “following the drum,” as was said of soldier’s wives who accompanied them into the field. Because Frances thought of Charles’s enlistment as a betrayal, I wanted his death to seem especially unnecessary. And so Charles died not in combat, but from disease—which historically was a much more common killer of soldiers than combat.
RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.
TR: Julia Quinn’s When He Was Wicked is one of my favorite DFH stories, because both the hero and the heroine loved the DFH (a cousin of the hero’s). His death affected them both deeply, and grief and loyalty are all tangled in with the hero and heroine’s own newfound romance. So. Many. Emotional. Layers. It’s a beautiful story.
RL: This is kind of just for my personal curiosity, but do you know stuff about Charles that didn’t make it into the story? DID he love Frances? How did he feel about her lying to him? On the one hand, he was clearly a jerk, but on the other, you can’t entirely blame him for being angry…
TR: Right, exactly. To Charles, Frances would have seemed like a miracle. A pretty, rich upper-class woman pursuing him? It would have been impossible for him not to be flattered enough to think he was in love. He thought she would change his life, but she couldn’t when (as she suspected) her dowry was withheld. As to whether it was her lies or her change in circumstance that killed his feeling for her—well, it was both. Though I think he’d have forgiven lies and wealth more easily than truth and poverty.
Thanks, Theresa! You can read an excerpt from It Takes Two to Tangle at her website. I particularly recommend it if (like me) you enjoy MTV’s Catfish (OMG I love that show).
Check out the rest of the interview series: