Kaetrin is one of my favorite Internet people (she’s also a regular person, but she’s in Australia, so I like to pretend that she lives in my computer). If she were to become a Romance heroine, her book would probably be Her Outback Rescuer, except that this time she would be the rescuer.
Giving the Heroine a Second Chance: A Hero-Centric Reader’s Journey Toward the Middle by Kaetrin from Kaetrin's Musings
Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale, we meet Quaker Maddy Timms. She’s been brought up to believe in the charity, austerity and plain speech. Even though she secretly loves pretty things, she despises the excesses of the rich and this is pretty much embodied in Christian Langland, the Duke of Jervaulx. He’s filthy rich, he’s a ladies man (at the start of the book he’s unashamedly having an affair with a married woman who is pregnant with his child) and he duels. He’s also very handsome and charming but Maddy is not taken in by him.
When Jervaulx has a stroke, he is placed in an asylum by his family and it is there Maddy encounters him again. He is not what he was. Aphasia and confusion mean that he doesn’t talk much and when he does, it is a struggle for him to be understood. Maddy feels an “opening” which is a religious calling to help Jervaulx and it is because of this opening that she stands strongly against her cousin Edward (who runs the asylum) in order to become Jervaulx’s nurse.
By the end of the book Jervaulx is a changed (again) man. He has largely recovered from the effects of the stroke but he will never be the same as he was. (What took him a minute before, now takes him two, as Maddy says). But he has also changed internally. He loves Maddy unequivocally and would do anything for her. He despises the rake he once was and is ashamed of his previous wasteful ways. He is determined to do better, be better. But, in the end, Maddy leaves him and he is alone. When I first read the book, I thought Maddy was a big meanie. Here was this amazing, brilliant, handsome man adoring her and she walked away? I thought she was being needlessly cruel. Looking back, I think I was so very caught up in the difficulties of Jervaulx’s situation, that I felt so strongly that Maddy was his only bulwark against the ravening horde, that for her to leave him was the ultimate betrayal and all things considered, unjustified.
I listened to the audiobook recently. Now, I can’t for the life of me work out why I thought as I did.
This time, Jervaulx was, for me the same amazing wonderful brilliant man and I absolutely wanted them together, but this time Maddy also shone in a way she hadn’t before. I felt her struggle to reconcile her love for Jervaulx and the tenets of her faith. I felt her grief for the loss of her community, from which she would be permanently exiled if she were to choose Jervaulx and this time, I felt that, while she should totally toss the Quakers, that it wasn’t the easy decision I had previously thought. This time, it was hard. (And, her choice of Jervaulx had more meaning because it was hard.)
This time, I appreciated the significance of Jervaulx’s betrayal. The betrayal which came first and to which Maddy responded by leaving. This time, I felt the slap in the face Maddy had when confronted with Jervaulx’s bastard child – with the reminder that he will do whatever he wants for his own reasons and she just has to live with them. Maddy had kept all of her commitments. It was Jervaulx who, even genuinely loving her, acted out of selfish need and desire without any real thought for Maddy. This time, as much as I continued to adore him, I turned my squinty-eyed gaze on Jervaulx and waited for him to shape up.
There are other readers who have always felt this way about Maddy. (I think though, that I wasn’t entirely alone – conversations on Twitter indicate there seem to be a fair few people who agreed with the old me.) But for me, this was a bit of a revelation. I think it shows in part how a second reading can reveal things one might miss on the first go round.
But, I think it also indicates how far toward the middle on the scale of “hero-centric” to “heroine-centric” I am becoming in my reading.
Not all that very many years ago, female agency was a term which confused me because it had nothing to do with the post office (and also I didn't see why an agency had a gender). Through reading posts at such events as Heroine Week and interaction with some smart and amazing people (mostly women) in Romancelandia, my horizons have been expanded and not only do I understand what “female agency” means, I notice it when it is absent or when it is celebrated. I admit to liking domineering heroes (to be fair, I like all sorts of heroes) – but usually only when they are paired with a woman who won’t let him get away with too much. (For example, for me to enjoy Curran (and I do), I need Kate.) I dislike books where the heroine has no power or agency or is only “allowed” it via the hero. I wouldn’t have understood that last sentence a few years ago.
No doubt I have a long way to go but just in revisiting Flowers From the Storm, I can see how far I have come.
To be completely honest, I think I will always lean at least slightly toward the hero – the fascination of “other” I believe is, for me, what is at its core, but my appreciation of the heroine continues to grow and grow and grow.
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