Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rags to Riches

A thought-provoking post on the Wonkomance blog got me thinking about how my own working-class upbringing has impacted my taste in romance novels.

I am one of those readers who prefers novels that provide an escape from real life rather than a story that mirrors the challenges that I have personally faced. To that end, I usually read historical romances, particularly those that take place in Regency or Victorian England.

I have noticed that most of the heroines are members of the gentry. They may be poor, but it is genteel poverty. The hero may have grown up poor, but by the time the story begins, he has usually amassed significant wealth through his own hard work and ingenuity. If he is a nobleman (or at least a gentleman), he may be facing debts that his forbears amassed and need to marry money for the sake of the family estate. He is almost never a poor man of the lower classes. One exception is Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove novella Beauty and the Blacksmith. I did not enjoy it nearly as much as her other books, perhaps because the HEA seemed less happy to me.

Less rare is the historical romance novel that features a poor, lower-class heroine who manages to win the love of a wealthy gentleman. It is hard to resist a good Cinderella story. I am currently reading The Bridal Season by Connie Brockway, which features an illegitimate music hall performer/con artist impersonating a noblewoman. Naturally, the hero is the local magistrate. I have no doubt that the two will eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. In keeping with the spirit of the Cinderella story, the heroine does have noble blood (she is the natural daughter of a viscount).

Here are some other memorable rags-to-riches historical romances that I have read over the years:
  • River Lady by Jude Deveraux - This book is unusual in that the heroine, Leah, grows up in grinding, not genteel, poverty; during their first encounter, the hero has concerns about her personal hygiene. After they are forced to marry, his female relatives do the requisite make-over to turn Leah into an acceptable wife. While the book's values seem shallow at times, it also makes a strong case that Leah's admirable qualities are largely because of rather than in spite of her unfortunate upbringing. She is intelligent despite being illiterate, and she has keen memory skills because she cannot rely upon written notes. The setting on the American frontier makes such extreme social mobility seem more plausible.
  • The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale - One of the most outrageous plots that I have ever enjoyed -- poor English shopgirl meets white Hawaiian ninja. Just go with it; you won't regret it. Check out the old Fabio covers and the author's amusing comments on the website (note that she names "shark" as the book's mascot animal, for obvious reasons).
  • An Offer from a Gentleman by Julia Quinn - The third book in the Bridgerton series was deliberately patterned after Cinderella. Sophie is the natural daughter and "ward" of a deceased nobleman, but her stepmother treats her like a servant (just like in the fairy tale).
  • Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare - This is probably the least plausible plot in the Spindle Cove series, in which a lower-class farmgirl-turned-tavern-wench finds herself betrothed to a duke. The book is well-written and enjoyable, however, even if it required a greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief.
Happy reading. Try to turn in before midnight.

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