I make a concerted effort to broaden my range of romance novels, (see my post about the size of the industry here) but it seems I keep finding myself back in the age of corsets, rakes, and scandal, in or around the Regency era. For many reasons, I love the Regency books, as both a reader and a writer. Scandalous behavior is far easier to come by, and the marriage of convenience/necessity/ruined reputation is a trope of which I will never grow tired. But there is another, even more delightful element that comes along with the historical romance novels – beauty.
Of course, romance novels are a delightful escape. For that reasons our heroines only have bad hair days when it suits the plot, and our heroes are disheveled, not because they slept through their alarm, but because they don’t give a hang for the strictures of society, or some such. Otherwise, curly hair remains in perfect ringlets, (as someone with wavy, oft frizzy-hair, I don’t buy that they’re living in England without conditioner, but I digress,) their fingers are slender, and the slope of their necks is positively enchanting. Yes, yes. It’s true, we enjoy a delightfully fuzzy version of beauty. (For heroines, at least. Our heroes are supposed to be as rock hard as they come.)
But if you add these fuzzed edges to the standards of beauty from two hundred years ago, the average reader can begin to feel rather confident that they, too, would have been the toast of the London season.
I’ll use myself an example – I’m pretty darn short, and on short girls a little more curve is entirely obvious. I exercise several times a week and do yoga, Zumba, jogging, and the like, but I simply don’t have a body type anyone would ever refer to as slender. Mainly, that means I can’t wear button down shirts, and if the skirt looks like it will be too short on me, my hips and rear will guarantee the truth of it. All in all, I love my body. I love my curves and my breasts, (though they often land me in trouble,) and I don’t make a habit of comparing myself to other body types.
But every once in a while, there will be a day when I feel a little squishier than normal. It’s a feeling we all know and it happens to everyone.
On these days, I call myself fleshy.
On these days, I think about the way I would write myself as a Duchess, (if we’re fantasizing, we might as well go all the way, right?) Duchess heroines aren’t referred to as squishy, writer me tells human me. Duchesses are curvy, with breasts barely hidden behind teasing corsets, and waists a man would long to run his hands over. Duchesses do not shield themselves from the gaze of their lover, they languidly stretch in the glow from the fire, as their estranged husband struggles for control over his surging loins.
I am often kinder to my characters than myself.
So now, I make an effort to reclaim the words that were meant to be disparaging, as I glimpsed my after dinner reflection, and I turn them on their head. I am fleshy because fleshy is delightful, sensual, all the more delicious for the more that it provides.
It applies to all body types. In the instance of Helene Holland, The Countess Godwin, in Eloisa James’ Your Wicked Ways, she considers herself stick-like. She is too thin, her cheekbones are too pronounced, she likely appears malnourished at points. And yet, by the end of the novel we feel as beautiful as Helene does, and all separate from the attention of her husband.
For this reason, romance novels have an even greater responsibility to include a wide range of body types and diversity. If the goal of escapist fiction is to blur the lines, so that the average reader may place herself in the heroine’s shoes, (and also so that we do not consider the general smell, state of women’s rights, or role of leeches in medicine,) why not push it one step further?
We are comfortable in the heroine’s body – thin, curvy, short, dark, pale, spectacled – why not allow ourselves to be comfortable in our own? If we are willing to see these character imperfections are not imperfections at all, but the very things that make us beautiful, we are equally as capable of applying the logic to our own selves. We must be as kind to ourselves as we are to the characters in our favorite novels.
There should be no character we love, or accept, more than our own selves. We are the heroines in our novels, after all. Think about how you might be written.
Paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.