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.
Lauren Willig’s The Betrayal of the Blood Lily is one of my very favorite dead first husband stories because Penelope and Freddy are still married at the beginning of the book, so we get to see their relationship (which is mostly bad, but not all bad) and we get to see her grieve for him, too.
Everyone warned Miss Penelope Deveraux that her unruly behavior would land her in disgrace someday. She never imagined she’d be whisked off to India to give the scandal of her hasty marriage time to die down. As Lady Frederick Staines, Penelope plunges into the treacherous waters of the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, where no one is quite what they seem—even her own husband. In a strange country where elaborate court dress masks even more elaborate intrigues and a spy called the Marigold leaves cobras as his calling card, there is only one person Penelope can trust…
Captain Alex Reid has better things to do than play nursemaid to a pair of aristocrats. He knows what their kind is like. Or so he thinks—until Lady Frederick Staines out-shoots, out-rides, and out-swims every man in the camp. She also has an uncanny ability to draw out the deadly plans of the Marigold and put herself in harm’s way. With danger looming from local warlords, treacherous court officials, and French spies, Alex realizes that an alliance with Lady Frederick just might be the only thing standing in the way of a plot designed to rock the very foundations of the British Empire.
“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. How did you decide where on the spectrum you wanted Freddy to land? (And let me just pause for a second here to talk about how much I LOVE Freddy and Penelope’s relationship. Because they had an awful marriage but she also kind of loved him? And I also loved that their problems weren’t sexual. Also I just have a soft spot for Freddy’s type of jerkness. But seriously, <333.)
LW: I was frustrated with the trope of the first husband who is old, cold, and, for, bonus points, evil with a capital E. When I was writing The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, I wanted to address the question of: what happens when the heroine marries the wrong guy? Not a parentally arranged marriage to a much older man, not a nightmare marriage to an incurable sadist, but just your fairly typical specimen of slightly debauched aristocratic manhood, no better and no worse than many of his fellows. When I imagined Freddy, I saw him as a frat boy in Regency clothing, with an elaborately tied cravat rather than a baseball cap, and a decanter of claret rather than a keg of beer. It’s not that Freddy is evil; he’s just entirely the wrong person for Penelope, who is much more complicated than her public persona of daredevil debutante would suggest. They bring out the worst in each other, while, at the same time, being very physically attracted to each other—which is what got them into their mismatch in the first place.
Having them be physically attracted to each other, even in the worst of their troubles, was very important to me. For one, because without that attraction they would never be forced into their marriage of inconvenience, but also because I have less than fond memories of all of the romances I read during the 90s in which the heroine’s first husband was invariably impotent, deviant, inept, or just plain not interested in women. Penelope is a very passionate woman. I wanted the sexual chemistry to be the one thing in Penelope and Freddy’s relationship that did work.
On the other end of the spectrum from the evil first husband, you have what I think of as the Sainted First Husband trope: the one who was so wonderful that the heroine Can Never Get Over Him To Love Again (that is, until she meets the hero). This is one I played with in another book, The Garden Intrigue, in which my heroine, Emma Morris, ran off with a much older Frenchman, Paul Delagardie, when she was only fifteen. When we meet Emma a decade later, she’s grappling with her husband’s death—not because he was perfect, but because she had only just learned to love him for his imperfections. When sixtee-year-old Emma realized her husband wasn’t the romantic swain of her imaginings—after alienating her important family by eloping with him—she went off in a sulk. Over time, though, she and her husband had arrived at their own peace, and his death of a fever years later, just when they were truly beginning to understand each other not for their early romantic imaginings, but for who they really are, throws her for a loop and makes her curl up like a hedgehog.
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? Would you have needed Freddy to die anyway?
LW: I had a really tough time decided whether or not to kill Freddy off. It just seemed far too easy—getting him out of the picture like that. Until about halfway through the book, I wobbled on it. Part of me was tempted to keep Freddy alive and see how Penelope and Alex dealt with a relationship out of the bounds of society. But even if my heroine, Penelope, might have been willing to flout society and live in sin, I couldn’t see my hero, Alex, going for it. Plus, there’s exactly what you say about the Regency-set difference. Because of the rarity of divorce and the social code that surrounds these characters, any ending that didn’t leave Penelope and Alex free, not just to be together, but to marry, would be vaguely unsatisfying. And for that, Freddy needed to be dead.
I realized, as I was working on the book, that killing Freddy off wasn’t actually an easy out for my characters, that, in fact, the guilt of his death just as Penelope was becoming romantically involved with another man was probably more of an impediment to her relationship with Alex than a Freddy alive and carousing. And we’re all about those impediments…
RL: How did you want Freddy to contrast with Alex, and how did you want Penelope’s relationships with them to contrast with each other? What does Alex give Penelope that Freddy didn’t and couldn’t?
LW: It’s all about the contrast, isn’t it? Freddy has guinea gold hair. He’s fashionably dressed. He’s charming. And, fundamentally, deeply shallow. (Again, not evil. Just shallow, in a frat boy kind of way.) In one of my favorite passages in the book, when Penelope realizes he’s dead, she thinks back to the first time she saw Freddy: “He was smiling at her, as he first had all those months ago at Girdings House, his hair as glossy as his boots, his cravat a miracle of engineering, his cheeks flushed with cold, port, and that indefinable eau de rake that Penelope found more compelling than any number of virtues…She had seen him and wanted him. She had wanted him as a child might want a shiny gold coin, not because she had any particular use for it, but because it glittered and it was pretty and other people didn’t want her to have it.”
In contrast, Alex is brusque. He’s business-like. He has greater worries on his mind. As the eldest child of a polyglot family, he has a confusion of siblings and half-siblings he cares for and worries about. Unlike Freddy, who has inherited money and lives for pleasure, Alex works for a living: he’s in the diplomatic end of the East India Company and is forced to navigate between his own loyalties and strong beliefs and the mandates of the Governor General. In short, he’s a serious kind of guy with a lot on his mind. Penelope has never met anyone like that before, someone who actually has a purpose beyond a party. When it comes down to it, Alex is a born caretaker, and Penelope desperately needs someone to look past her flippant façade and take care of her—without making her feel patronized or diminished.
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 love and prudence, 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 money or reputation or because her parents made her without really being in love with him at all. How does Penelope’s first marriage shaped the course of her romance with Alex (other than, um, Freddy dying in the middle of it—another bit I absolutely loved, how she really does mourn Freddy and how that separates her emotionally from Alex)? And how do you think that applies to how she lives the rest of her life, and what she expects and doesn’t let herself expect?
LW: There’s a great Rowan Atkinson sketch in which he plays the devil, welcoming sinners to hell. As part of his intro speech, he informs them that they’re going to be there for eternity, “which, as I hardly need tell you, is a heck of a long time”. When Penelope plunges into marriage with Freddy, she doesn’t stop to think that this is going to be forever and a Wednesday; she doesn’t think of all those years and years yoked together. She acts, as she so often acts, on a bitter impulse. Marriage is, after all, the goal. Her social climbing mother has been pushing her to make a good match, and Freddy, on externals, is quite good indeed. To Penelope, Freddy is largely interchangeable: he might be any good looking young man with a future title and a large income. The entire shape of the marriage market creates an image of marriage as a goal without giving any sense of the eons of time that will follow that triumphal announcement in the paper. If she did think of it, I’m sure Penelope, desperate to leave her mother’s house, would have said, with a shrug, “How bad can it be?” The first half of Blood Lily is Penelope learning how bad it can be, to be yoked to someone on whom she is entirely dependent, but with whom she has no genuine bond. Penelope’s first marriage teaches her that understanding and liking are as much a part of marriage as sexual attraction or a line in Debrett’s Peerage. When she gets together with Alex, it’s not about the externals he can bring—because, let’s face it, he’s a social and financial step down for her. It’s about really liking and needing another human being, with a full awareness that marriage is about tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and that some of those tomorrows might be sunnier and others might be gloomier.
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?
LW: Yes, yes, and yes! I’m so glad that you brought up this point. One of the things I find occasionally maddening about the very books I loved in my teens is that the heroines so often seem to stumble upon their true love at the very first ball of their very first Season. (Or he wanders naked into their bedroom, as so many confused Regency rakes seem wont to do.) It doesn’t generally work out that way for most of us. In both The Betrayal of the Blood Lily and The Garden Intrigue, I wanted to show a heroine who’s been around the block, a heroine who doesn’t get it right the first time around, but—and this was important to me—isn’t considered sullied by her previous experience, but instead emerges stronger and more sure of what love actually is. Because of the nature of courtship and marriage in the Regency, there isn’t the space to portray failed attempts at love that we have in our contemporary lives, which is where the dead first husband comes in. The romantic missteps most of us experience as a matter of course (except for those lucky few who marry their high school sweetheart) come at a much higher cost in Regency Land than they do in today’s world.
I had a bit more leeway in my second Dead First Husband book, The Garden Intrigue, because that one is set in consular France, where mores are somewhat more flexible than in London. My heroine, Emma, makes an impulsive first marriage at a very young age, and is just learning, after a period of initial disillusionment, to truly understand and love her husband when he dies. She has a rebound that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to those coming off a relationship now: to dull the hurt, she takes a lover who is the antithesis of her husband, and then regrets it. As a widow, in France, Emma can get away with that sort of behavior and still be socially received. Penelope, as an English debutante, has a much more difficult time of it.
Anyway, back to the original point, with both books I wanted to portray all the floundering and missteps and bruised emotions that come in the pursuit of love—where the right person just might not be at that first ball…or even that first season…but might appear years later at a deeply inconvenient moment.
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?
LW: Oddly enough, that didn’t make much of a difference. I’ve found in all my books that the level of eroticism depends on the nature of the hero and heroine, ranging from full-on canoodling in some books to chaste kisses in others. I’ve had some very passionate inexperienced heroines (Amy, the heroine of my first book) and some very wary experienced heroines (Emma, the heroine of my other dead first husband book, who has already had her rebound fling and is leery of jumping into bed with yet another man). It all depends on the people and the circumstances.
Where Penelope not being an innocent did make a difference is that I got to turn yet another trope on its head: in Blood Lily, Penelope is the more experienced party and the sexual aggressor in terms of her relationship with the hero. Over her years in society, Penelope, has learned that sex is power—and the only power available to her. That’s simply the way she interacts with the world. It’s by refusing to play that game with her that her hero, Alex, makes a real place for himself in her life. Usually, we see the heroine holding out, attempting to protect her virtue from the hero’s advances so he’ll respect her in the morning. In this case, it’s the hero.
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?
LW: In writing The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, I wanted to turn the forced marriage trope on its head. In so many novels, the hero and heroine are flung together in a compromising way (see all those Regency aristocrats who appear to wander naked into innocent maidens’ bedchambers, above), forced to marry, and then—gasp!—discover that they’ve been just the right people for each other all along. But what happens when the pair in question aren’t the right people for each other? What then? By turning the forced marriage plot on its head, I found myself with a dead first husband story in the making.
RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.
LW: The author who does it best, in my opinion, is Joan Wolf. In The Arrangement, the heroine had a perfectly happy first marriage with her husband Tommy, her childhood love. When she meets the hero, the heroine reflects that Tommy was the love of her youth, the Earl the love of her maturity. I think it’s a beautiful way of giving each love its due, without diminishing either relationship or resorting to the trick of running down the first relationship to give the second more oomph.
Check out the full interview series: