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 Cecilia Grant had to say about her stunning debut, A Lady Awakened.
Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate—and housemaids—from a predatory brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes…for a fee.
Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all…love?
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 think Mr. Russell falls on the spectrum, and how did you decide where you wanted him to fall?
CG: I hope Mr. Russell falls where I wanted him, which is in the absolute neutral middle.
For story purposes I obviously needed Martha to have had a first husband, but I wanted him to take up as little of the reader’s emotional energy as possible. I didn’t want the reader to actively dislike him, so I made sure he had some good qualities—disapproval of his villainous brother, affection for his first wife—but I also didn’t want the reader spending a lot of time feeling sorry for him for having been married to such a cold fish as Martha. I tried to make it clear that the marriage had been a pragmatic, unsentimental match on both sides: she wanted a grown-up life with an estate to be mistress of, he wanted an heir, and neither one had thought much further into it than that.
I also decided to give Mr. Russell a quiet over-dependence on drink. Drinking to excess was so common in that time period, and I think it must have been an issue in many marriages – sometimes manifesting in towering rages and abusive behavior (think of Helen’s marriage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which takes place only a few years later), and sometimes carving a less dramatic, ever-present rift between husband and wife. It makes Martha’s distance from him a little more relatable, I hope, than if it had all been due to her cold-fishery.
RL: The DFH (and dead first wife) interests me in particular in historicals because divorce wasn’t widely available. Writing a hero or heroine who was married and isn’t anymore requires a dead first spouse, whereas in contemporaries I think bad breakups are more common as backstory. I realize that the entire plot of ALA hinges on Mr. R being dead since Martha is trying to conceive an heir, so I don’t really have a specific question for you about that, but if you have thoughts I’d love to hear them!
CG: Yes, it’s fascinating to read about how people navigated marriage, especially unhappy marriage, in a time when divorce wasn’t really a possibility. There were plenty of people trapped and miserable in ill-advised unions, but there were also people who managed to find at least partial escape.
Among the upper classes there were separations, and marriages where both parties took lovers with the other’s tacit consent, and mistresses who had almost as much security and social standing as wives. Among the lower classes there might be wife-selling (not so common by this time, but it did happen) or people simply dissolving their marriages and taking new partners without legal or church sanction.
I don’t know how palatable any of these scenarios would be to modern readers, though. An HEA with the love of your life, when you’re still legally married to someone else, is probably a bit too messy for our present-day sensibilities. Thus, widow and widower stories.
RL: Having a dead spouse opens up a possibility for a successful first relationship, because the relationship didn’t end in a break-up—and yet DFHs and Ws are almost always jerks. (While I’m fond of my own heroine’s DFH, they certainly didn’t have a good marriage.) Why do you think that is?
CG: Partly because it makes for a lot of good drama! You’ve got your hero whose DFW cheated on him with his best friend: he’s lost his trust in women and is going to struggle with letting the heroine into his life. You’ve got your heroine whose DFH constantly dismissed and belittled her ideas: she’s lost track of her own voice and needs to find it again; needs to learn to ask for what she wants in the context of falling in love. There are so many ways a jerkish DFW or DFH can fuel the story.
Beyond that, I suspect we don’t want the heroine (or hero in the case of a DFW) to have divided affections. We don’t want to worry that the HEA might contain moments of her wistfully recalling what she had with that first husband, or reflecting that his taste in music more closely matched hers than the hero’s does. We want to close the book knowing that the hero is the right man for her in every way. As with most genre fiction, we like it to be a little tidier than real life.
RL: Related question: 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?
CG: I think DFH stories must connect with readers in a particular way, but I’m not sure if it’s because readers are relating that failed first relationship to a failed relationship in their own lives. I really don’t know. Part of the action of most romances, I think, is the realization of the wish to be truly understood. And usually the DFH serves as a foil for the hero there; as an example of a relationship that was frustrating because the heroine was NOT truly understood. (Is this the same in the case of DFWs? My impression is that it isn’t, but honestly, I haven’t read enough DFW historicals to be sure.)
As far as trying to reflect an aspect of real-life romantic experience, I can’t say for sure I wasn’t doing that, but I wasn’t conscious of it. In sketching Martha’s first marriage, I was more interested in the aspects of Regency marriage that feel alien to us (the convention of the loveless pragmatic union; a wife’s disadvantages in terms of property rights or sexual autonomy) than in the aspects most of us would find more relatable.
RL: When you created Mr. Russell’s character, how did you want him to contrast with Theo, and his relationship with Martha to contrast with the Theo’s? What does Theo bring to Martha that Mr. Russell didn’t and couldn’t?
CG: The big difference is that Theo engages with Martha and challenges her in ways Mr. Russell didn’t. Martha’s overriding memory of Mr. Russell is of his emotional/psychological absence; Theo is always there. Sometimes irritatingly so—right from the beginning, he’s pelting her with personal questions—but he compels her to engage with him, and gradually draws her out to engage with the rest of the world. He has an emotional intelligence that not only Mr. Russell lacked, but that Martha lacks too—he’s able to set an example for her in that area, pick up the slack when she fumbles, and generally complement her strengths. He becomes not only her heart’s companion, but the teammate she never knew she needed.
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 you think Martha’s life-decision-making process changed from before her marriage to the beginning of the book, and how did you want to show it changing again over the course of the story?
CG: Martha didn’t give nearly enough thought, before marriage, to what it would mean to share life and physical intimacy with someone for whom she felt no affinity, and by the beginning of the book she’s realized that. Like a lot of historical-romance widows who find themselves unexpectedly freed from unhappy marriages, she builds all her hopes in the beginning around a life in which she doesn’t have to get married again.
Not only did she choose poorly the first time, but she was in some ways too immature, and too ungenerous, to be a good partner in marriage. Her journey through the course of the book isn’t just about coming to love and trust Theo enough to take the step of marrying again, but also about learning to recognize and own her over-judgmentalism and lack of interpersonal skill. And then to learn to respect other people’s perspectives, and cut them some slack. Her journey toward falling in love runs parallel to her journey of becoming a more humane person. So by the time she makes that decision to marry again, she’s better equipped to make the decision and better equipped to be married.
RL: How did you decide how to kill off Mr. Russell?
Poor Mr. Russell. I gave him the quickest, most painless death I could think of (thrown from a horse and instantly killed). He wasn’t a bad guy (yeah, he could have been more sensitive to Martha’s enjoyment—or lack thereof—of sex, but he wasn’t introspective enough to question what society had told him were his rights) and I didn’t want him to suffer.
(I’m pretty sure I subconsciously borrowed the thrown-from-a-horse thing from Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by the way. That book probably influenced ALA as much as any book did, though I tried to steer clear of gothic angst.)
RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. (One of the things I love about ALA is that Martha hasn’t had good experiences of sex, and Theo has to work to seduce her, but she isn’t exactly inexperienced either—she’s given oral sex before, for example—and she’s had orgasms on her own. So him seducing her is more about restoring her sexual autonomy and sense of control/safety than it is about teaching her of sensual delights or whatever. It’s a combination you don’t see that often in historicals.) Having written heroines with differing levels of sexual experience, did you find that it impacted the story in ways you didn’t expect?
CG: One of my impetuses (impeti?) in writing this story was to try to create a heroine who was sort of adamantly unmoved by sexual intercourse. I’d read plenty of romances with heroines who were responsive and orgasmic right from the start, or heroines who weren’t responsive, but felt ashamed and disappointed in their non-responsiveness, or heroines who had an aversion to sex due to some trauma in their past. But I hadn’t seen any who were just plain Not Impressed and not particularly bothered by the fact. It seemed like a niche that needed filling.
The unexpected way in which it impacted the story was that it was ridiculously fun to write those sex scenes, and so I kept writing them and writing them—in my original version, her carnal indifference persisted much further into the book than it does now. My agent finally reined me in, saying, “You know, people do pick up these books in search of a fantasy,” and I thought, oh, yeah, she’s right. I think the story came out better for that change.
Also, by the time I finished the book and the rewrites I was burned out on sexual indifference, and that led me to write the vehemently sexual heroine Lydia in my next book [A Gentleman Undone].
RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.
Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince sticks with me, I think because the DFW’s death—bleeding out during childbirth; cursing the hero (and cursing her father for making her marry the hero) with her last breaths—was just so damn vivid. Hoyt really knows how to go for it.
Cheating here because this person was neither dead nor a husband, but something I really enjoyed in Joanna Bourne’s The Forbidden Rose was the relationship between the heroine and the man who’d been her lover when they were young. They’d both grown up and moved on; her old lover was happily married, and there was history and mutual regard between them without any lingering sparks or tension. It’s rare to see that kind of relationship, especially in a historical, and I thought it was really well done.
Thanks, Cecilia! You can read an excerpt from A Lady Awakened at her site.
Check out the rest of the interview series: