This month everyone seems to be talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel in which the heroine finds pleasure in submission, but this column addresses five heroines who are the opposite of submissive: they sashay, argue, and win their way into the heroes’ hearts, not through surrendering to him but by battling it out…and winning. In short, these books are about “bad girls” whose beloveds treasure their independence and pure joie de vivre — though those gentlemen certainly find a challenge in the adjustment to a level playing field.
Lady Eleanor Ramsay, the heroine of Jennifer Ashley’s The Duke’s Perfect Wife, is a fascinatingly original and imperfect gentlewoman. Years ago, she and Hart Mackenzie, Duke of Kilmorgan, fell in love and were betrothed. But when Hart’s mistress came to her with tales of his “depraved” desires, Eleanor turned her back on the marriage, not because of the stories themselves but because she realized that Hart’s careless cruelty toward his mistress suggested he would one day behave in the same fashion toward her. At the time, Hart was supremely arrogant, certain that offering Eleanor riches and his title would make her fall at his feet. To his shock, she returned to a life of penury, rather than marry him. From the moment Eleanor walks back into his life, Hart is in a battle to master her, to lure her back to his side — but it’s not until he understands the balance of power between true lovers that he succeeds. The Duke’s Perfect Wife offers an entrancing battle of the sexes: Hart is supremely arrogant and controlling, and Eleanor is fiery, ethical, and utterly uncontrollable. When Hart finally tells her of his darkest fantasies, she offers to tie him up instead. The pleasure they find together (and since this is an Ashley novel, their love scenes are burningly erotic), is about love rather than control. For the first time in Hart’s life, he isn’t compelled to take charge, to remind his lover who is master. Instead, he finds himself “loving a woman, showing her what joy could be…loving Eleanor.”
Sophia Nash’s The Art of Duke Hunting depicts a heroine who is just as courageous, idiosyncratic, and lovable as Eleanor. The premise of this book is hilarious: due to a curse resulting from a bad love affair, a long line of dukes of Norwich have died young, mostly in the vicinity of waterfowl. Roman Montagu, the 17th Duke of Norwich, avoids ducks, bodies of water larger than a bathtub, and falling in love (a crucial component of the curse). This plan works, until he is shanghaied onto a ship. Esme March, the Countess of Derby, catches his arm as he’s about to go overboard in a storm, drags him into her cabin, and seduces him. When he makes the required offer of marriage the next morning, she laughs at him. But one thing leads to another, and (like Hart), Roman finds himself in possession of a less-than-perfect duchess with an independent streak and a wicked sense of humor. The originality of this book lies not in the curse (which Nash manages to make both hilarious and heartbreaking) but in the complicated relationship between Roman and Esme. Roman is determined neither to fall in love nor have a child, and Esme is equally determined to study art in Europe. “Most people look at each other like possessions,” she tells her husband, as they prepare to separate, “forever ordering each other about, hurting each other, trampling on each other’s dreams and desires.” So they shake hands and part, leaving Roman dazed. The story of how the duke chooses love over fear is riveting, and deliciously original.
Jill Marie Landis’s heroine, Kate Keene, is yet another woman who braves the mores of her day in order to do precisely as she wishes. Heart of Glass is set in 1876 Reconstruction-era South, when women are not supposed to be architects or invite themselves over to the houses of unmarried young men. But Katie shows up on the doorstep of the dilapidated Belle Fleuve mansion with her building plans in hand and doesn’t just pay a visit — she actually moves in. Colin Delaney, the embittered if gorgeous owner of the plantation, is recuperating from war wounds gained fighting in the Union army. He howls at the woman he barely remembers as his sister’s childhood friend, but to no effect: Katie pays the back taxes and begins repairs on the mansion using her inheritance. When Colin’s fatally ill sister appears with two children in tow, Katie and Colin marry, the better to care for the two orphans. But like the marriages depicted by Nash and Ashley, this one is complicated by the clash between Colin’s domineering personality and Katie’s boldly independent one. When he finally tosses her from the house, unable to take the humiliation of being married to a rich wife, she holds up her head and leaves proudly, even though she has spent her inheritance on Belle Fleuve and will have to live in a hovel. It takes a while for Colin to realize that pride makes a poor bedfellow, but you’ll savor every moment of his journey to understanding.
Katie is stubbornly independent at a time when women are expected to be both submissive and subservient; Olivia Brightmore has a similarly indomitable personality in a similar society, although this Victorian England has a few twists. In Isabel Cooper’s Lessons After Dark supernatural powers are widespread, although (unfortunately) precisely the same social mores prevail. After Olivia’s husband died, she became a medium in order to support herself, luring the public with promises of psychic talents she didn’t possess. That was before she discovered that she really did have magic abilities. Now she is a teacher at a school for children with unusual talents, only to discover that the school’s doctor, Gareth St. John, knows of her past and loathes her for it. But when they find themselves battling various otherworldly manifestations of evil shoulder to shoulder, Gareth begins to have trouble remembering that he considers himself far superior to a woman with a “spotted” past. Even worse, Olivia refuses to say she’s sorry for her history; instead, she calmly points out that if he cannot approve of her, she will find a new position. Like Colin, Gareth must overcome his domineering disposition in order to accept — and love — a woman who demands both honesty and respect. When he does, it’s a very sweet capitulation.
With Laura Moore’s Trouble Me, we leave the world of historical romance, paranormal or otherwise, and land in contemporary America, only to find that a woman’s past can be just as troublesome. Jade Radcliffe was a wild adolescent, always in trouble with the law, which was represented back then by Rob Cooper, a.k.a. RoboCop (to Jade, at least). When she returns to the town of Rosewood as an elementary school teacher some years later, Rob, now a widower with a little girl, isn’t the only person who’s shocked. Rob loathes the girl Jade used to be…which makes it all the harder when she turns out to be his daughter’s second grade teacher. In addition, before they recognized each other they had a blazing one-night stand that neither can forget. Jade assiduously attempts to avoid encountering Rob’s “scary mirrored aviators and unsmiling face.” But even after they once again succumb to desire, Jade’s past stands between them. And when the community discovers a secret that she’s kept from everyone, including the school principal, Rob has to confront his belief that the world can be divided into black and white, good and bad. Like the other heroes in these romances, Rob believes that there is nothing that he can’t control, including the woman he loves. It takes a while, but Rob comes to realize that trouble is, in fact, just what he most needs: “I love you…Trouble me for the rest of our days.”
Eloisa James’s latest novel, The Duke Is Mine, is out now!
For sneak peeks at all Eloisa’s romances, please visit her web site at www.eloisajames.com.