Tag Archives: the age of innocence

Top Eleven Romantic Heroines of Literature

1. Tess Durbeyfield – Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, 1891
2. Sarah Woodruff – The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, 1969 (but inspired by an 1823 novel)
3. Catherine Earnshaw – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, 1847
4. Elizabeth Bennett – Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813
5. Anne Elliot – Persuasion by Jane Austen, 1816
6. Scarlet O’Hara – Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1937
7. Sophie Zawistowska – Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, 1979
8. The Marquise de Merteuil – Les Liasons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1782
9. Countess Ellen Olenska – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, 1920
10. Roxane – Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, 1897
11. Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Not included on my list but available for discussion: Anna Karenina – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1877

These are my top eleven (today anyway) favorite romantic but flawed heroines of literature. You might have others that don’t appear on my list, but I had a couple of binding rules for including characters on my list:

1. I had to have actually read the book, not just seen the movie or BBC adaptation.
2. They had to be smart and not just victims or ciphers for the male character to show off to.
3. I had to find them sexy.

Curiously this set of rules nearly knocked Jane Eyre off the list. Much as I admire her spunk and passion, she never set my pulse racing, but on deep consideration she’s too well written of a heroine not to include. Tess might be on the list for the opposite reason – she’s hot, but I’m not sure she’s not more of a victim than not. Of course considering the time periods all of these heroines had to live in it’s not at all surprising that their lives are often tragic, and that fate deals them hands that no one could raise above, no matter their inner steel.

Taking my heroines one by one I will give a brief explanation for their inclusion on my all time favorites list; however please bear in mind there is no particular order to the list. Tess is there because of her struggle. Viewed through the eyes of the men around her we see her vulnerability and desirability, and yet… she’s so badly treated by them all. She keeps getting kicked down, getting back up, and getting kicked back down again. Sarah Woodruff, on the surface seems a similar sort. Her mystery makes her desirable and then Fowles plays with us by giving us all possible versions of her, and yet not revealing which is the true Sarah. Cathy Earnshaw is elemental in her passion. Who wouldn’t fall for a woman that death couldn’t even hold down? Elizabeth Bennett is one smart cookie, but prone to understandable blindness. Her beauty lies in her essential goodness and her ability to learn, grow, and her loyalty to those she loves.

Anne Elliot is a more gentle heroine, trapped by social mores, she retains dignity. In the end she wins deserved love and redemption. Scarlet O’Hara is maddening. She’s beautiful, passionate, and fiery. She’s strong-willed, an idiot, and irritating as hell. Who hasn’t fallen for such a woman? Sophie from Sophie’s Choice is so beautiful and tragic, she makes my heart bleed. I suppose in the literal sense The Marquise de Merteuil is not a heroine. She is spiteful and scheming, and yet I feel that she is such a woman of passion and intelligence she deserves her place here. She is merely having her revenge for the status her gender demands. She uses her wit like poison, and in the end it is she that suffers.

The Age of Innocence is the one book on this list I did not read until the end, but not because it wasn’t worth reading. I had seen the movie first, and then intrigued picked up the novel. It was great, but for me the repressed and thwarted passion of Ellen Olenska was more than I could bear a second time. I wanted her to win against society, when no winning was possible in that time period. I think Roxane is an overlooked heroine. Everyone focuses on Cyrano, and with good reason, but Roxane is the lovely woman with the understanding to adore beautiful words, and in the end she would have loved Cyrano as well or better than Christian, if she’d been given the opportunity. Jane Eyre… everyone knows her: mousy governess with a wild heart capable of great and passionate love. It’s the dark eyes, luminous in a pale face, that does it.

Anna Karenina is not on the list because I hated that book. The story of Anna was powerful and provocative, but cut with a very boring second story about some landowner and his wheat crops. I have no idea this far removed his name or why he was there, but I didn’t finish the book and it pissed me off. I did, however, read the incredibly lengthy War and Peace, so it’s not big wordy Russian novels by Tolstoy that put me off.

Which brings up another question I have about my own list. Why are all the books so old or even if written in this century set in an earlier age? Where are the modern heroines to make my blood boil and my heart strings sing? I don’t know if I have the complete answer to that question. I know that I read a great many classics in my teens and twenties – exactly at the time when the hormones were raging the most – so it’s entirely possible that my concept of what was romantic was crystallized by my reading habits. I also know that I don’t often read modern fiction, and when I do I don’t find a lot of romantic writing there. I won’t pick a ‘romance’ because they are often, for me, of very limited scope and reading quality as genre fiction. Has a good modern romance been written? If so please tell me about them so I can expand my horizons. Also feel free to post your own list in my comment box. I want to hear more about it.

Sex & Romance: Let’s Write It!

Romance. We all love it, even those of us that suggest otherwise. Sex. Ditto there, folks. But is there any deeper quagmire that a writer can sink in? I’m talking about experienced authors as well as first time writers. It’s a morass. How do you write about sex and romance, either together or separately, without coming off like something from Penthouse magazine or worse just plan repetitive, dull, or clichéd? The topic is so sticky with cliché and innuendo that often people don’t even recognize when something is clichéd. They’re programmed to either go ‘ahhhhhh’ or blush, or sneer, or mock, or even giggle inanely.

For a writer, if we are writing some pure romance, or want to create a great sex scene that warms the… heart then we certainly don’t want to cause our readers to put the scene down with a humph, a yawn, or a ridiculing laugh. If that scene is part of a greater whole than we sure don’t want our readers to rush through uncomfortably, knowing that they won’t miss anything of great import. Sex, like any other human activity, needs a reason to be in the story. If you’re writing a romantic novel where boy meets girl, or girl meets girl, the sex is part and parcel of the narrative. No need to agonize whether or not to include it. The only question that needs to be in your mind is “how spicy, how explicit”. In this case that judgment call is more about your audience. Some readers like their sex soft, romantic, vanilla, and veiled in pretty words, and that’s just fine for that kind of novel. This blog isn’t about that kind of writing.

Sex, just like romance, can be rude, quirky, dirty, sloppy, hurried, insane, intense, funny, and clumsy – and it happens for a reason. In our fiction writing it happens to reveal something about the character, or lead the characters where they need to go. These are all elements that once included make the reader associate more intensely with your characters and not reject the sex as gratuitous fluff. When it comes to awkward moments we’ve all been there and done that – and good sex is like good wine: it can combine flavors that seem madly disparate like blackberries and charcoal. The trick is knowing what is sexy and what is not out of those elements. If you’re looking to turn up the heat you can be inventive and silly, but you have to know when any particular element is gross or makes your hero look like an unattractive ass. My trick is to imagine the scene completely: would I be turned on or off if a particular thing happened during sex?

Falling off the bed during the intensity of love-making can either be funny, tragic, or sexy. It will depend on the telling. Accidentally farting will always end the heat, even if the laughter kicks in (in real life you might get over it, but I can practically guarantee your reader won’t). It’s like overflowing trash in your kitchen when you’re cooking. It spoils the appetite. It’s important to keep it real, and yet, for the heat, you have to keep it from getting too real. It’s always got to be a little bit of the best sex you ever had, and not necessarily just the best sex you ever imagined.

Truly great love affairs are never easy. They’re not about candy, Hallmark greeting cards, soft focus, or soft love-making from incredibly virile men with a sardonic smirk and a searing kiss, who knows when the heroine (who is unbelievably lovely, spunky but submissive in bed) says “no, no” she means “yes, yes”. Truly great sex is often memorable for the details. Where you were, what you were doing before hand, how you felt at the time, and that warm laugh you shared when you broke your coffee mug as you swept it off your desk in the heat of passion. It’s that wonderful little bit in When Harry Met Sally when she fakes an orgasm in the deli, or Bridget Jones’s Diary where Hugh Grant strips off the cute little cocktail dress only to find granny panties. Or it’s that bit that makes you want to crawl out of your skin in The Age of Innocence where the passion of the main characters, so repressed by the societal mores of their day, is entirely expressed by Newland Archer removing the glove from Ellen Olenska’s hand during a carriage ride and pressing her fingers to his lips.

So let’s talk language for a second. I’m a fan of no beating around the proverbial bush. I find words like ‘member’, ‘tool’, and other such euphemisms amusing so they spoil the moment for me. Those that don’t like their sex written so explicitly will, violently on occasion, disagree with me. If you have to use euphemisms be cautious with them, and choose the words with great care so that you’re not accidentally inspiring laughter instead of sympathetic passion. You might be sparing your less sensitive readers much blushing but instead causing your more bold readers to laughter or worse, to feel boredom. Telling a sexy story need very rarely ever go right to the finish either. This is not porn we’re talking about. The ‘money shot’ is seldom really called for in any scene. An orgasm is only an orgasm in real life. In fiction it’s the lead up that counts. Make me squirm and shudder. Take me to the brink and I’ll fall over the edge all by myself with the aid of my own imaginative juices.