“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,” Shakespeare’s Miranda cries on seeing a fine young man for the first time, “that has such people in’t!” Given the multitudinous virgins gasping their way through the canon, one can hardly say that Miranda’s astonishment is unexpected. But I am rather surprised at the numbers of innocents one finds in romance written in 2010, rather than 1610. The bookshelves are full of young women, gasping their shock and general pleasure at the sight of males and their accoutrement. In short, the allure of innocence is still strong, some 400 years after Miranda voiced her surprise in The Tempest. This column looks at five novels whose heroines are marked by the kind of joyful astonishment Shakespeare gave to Miranda. These women are the opposite of Mae West (“A hard man is good to find”); they tumble into love without a shadow of disillusionment or cynicism to shade their perception of the “beauteous mankind” who happen their way.
Julia Quinn is a master of innocent joy, and Ten Things I Love About You is one of her very best. The novel is named, of course, for the beloved Shakespeare knock-off, Ten Things I Hate about You, a version of The Taming of the Shrew. That film knocks the rough edges off Shakespeare’s misogynistic take on marriage, and Quinn takes the cause even further. The impoverished Miss Annabel Winslow is being courted by the utterly repellent Earl of Newbury, whom she cannot possibly refuse—until she meets Sebastian Grey, who turns out to be the earl’s despised heir. Annabel is sexually innocent even for a Regency heroine; her reaction to an orgasm is bewilderment: “I don’t know what you just did to me.” But more importantly, Annabel hasn’t a cynical bone in her body; she has trouble interpreting the sharp gossip and sexual innuendo that circulates through London. Quinn provides a brilliant counterpoint in Annabel’s sensual lush of a grandmother, Lady Vickers, whose jaundiced advice as regards the aged Lord Newbury includes the cheerful fact that “he’ll die soon…You couldn’t hope for more.” Lady Vickers’s cynical sensuality throws her granddaughter’s charming innocence into high relief, and that innocence is a perfect antidote to Sebastian’s severe war-invoked PTSD. Annabel’s genuine, generous nature rescues Sebastian from his tormented nightmares, allowing him to share his secrets as he falls in love.
The heroine of Meg Cabot’s Insatiable is a contemporary version of Annabel, with a special twist: Meena Harper intuitively knows how each person she meets is going to die. Meena is no virgin—but the key to her character is her utter lack of cynicism. Even when she realizes that she’s fallen in love with (and been seduced by) the prince of vampires—not to mention his other titles, such as “prince of darkness” and “anointer of all that is unholy”—Meena can’t help thinking that the devilishly handsome Lucien Antonescu is misunderstood. And for his part, Lucien is enthralled, as is a studly warrior for the Palatines, who fight vampires, by Meena’s innocence, and finds himself wondering if “there was a sweetness about her in which he could somehow find his own redemption?” She’s the key to saving whatever shred of soul he has left. Like Sebastian, Lucien is weary with battles and killings, and sees Meena as a shining light in a dark world.
Kris Kennedy’s The Irish Warrior features a heroine with a singular, odd power, rather like Meena’s. Senna de Valery holds the key to a mysterious wool dyeing process that can turn cloth invisible—and also act as an explosive. Senna knows nothing about sensuality; the warrior she rescues from prison, Finian O’Melaghlin, labels her a “clerical virgin.” Like Meena and Annabel, Senna is neither contemptuous nor distrustful. She is manifestly a good person—”surely an angel,” as Finnian recognizes. In fact, Senna is no angel, but she does have the remarkable ability to feel joy even in stressful circumstances, as the two of them flee the revolting and violent Lord Rardove, a man desperate for both the dye and Senna. The Irish Warrior is a lovely tale in which Finian’s distrust of women and the English is gradually won over by Senna’s joyful innocence. By the end of the novel, the beleaguered warrior has a new outlook on life: Senna makes him feel “wide-awake. Alive. Engaged.”
Charlotte Fallon, the heroine of Maggie Robinson’s Mistress by Mistake is a village spinster with a trollop for a sister—which explains how she ends up in the said trollop’s house when Sir Michael Bayard arrives to take possession of his luscious new mistress. He’s surprised, to say the least, when he discovers the near-virginal Maggie sleeping in his mistress’s bed. Charlotte is not an obvious substitute for her sister: she is “as solemn as a nun,” as Michael puts it, with innocent blue eyes and a sturdy sense of morality: “I am a respectable woman. A spinster. I live in a cottage in little Hyssop. With cats.” But he demands that she compensate for her sister’s crimes, and before he knows it, he’s falling in love with her honesty and her “vexingly upright” nature. Mistress by Mistake is a charming, extra-sexy tale of a surprising love affair in which a dissolute rake is won over by precisely the kind of woman he most dislikes, a “Miss Prim,” as Michaels labels Charlotte. Pretty soon, Michael has discarded his dissolute lifestyle, rediscovering his passion for art through his love of sketching Charlotte.
Francis Ray’s heroine in It Had To Be You brings together two similar characters, modern though they are. Zachary Albright Wilder is a record producer known as RD or “Rolling Deep,” famous for sleeping with all his female artists. Laurel Raineau is a classical violin-player, who wants nothing to do with Zachary and his dissolute reputation. But when she escapes to an island vacation, Zachary follows her, hoping to change her mind. Soon Laurel is no longer a virgin, while Zachary is falling in love—and facing a serious problem. She has no idea he’s the loathed RD; in fact, their first fight comes when she jokes that RD is a thug, likely with a police record. This is a heart-wrenching novel, because Laurel’s innocence—her naiveté—fuels her passionate love of music. When she discovers that Zachary is RD, and that he came to Cancun planning to wrangle a way to sign her, it destroys her world. To his surprise, it breaks Zachary’s heart to see disillusionment in her eyes. Laurel’s chaste joy, in more than a sexual sense, made him “want to be better,” and he finds himself fighting bitterly to regain her trust.
Rather than sexual innocence, per se, these novels celebrate a kind of joyful exploration that precludes cynicism or disillusionment. These women make, as Zachary puts it, life seem “fun again.” Even back in 1610, Shakespeare understood how rare that kind of innocence is: Miranda, after all, lives her whole life on an island before she encounters Ferdinand. These novels are the antidote to contemporary Mae Wests, to Sex in the City and Housewives from Big Cities. They celebrate a sensuality that doesn’t compare men, but celebrates the pleasure and novelty of a lifetime spent loving only one.
If you’d like to discuss romances featuring innocent heroines (or not), please stop in to chat with Eloisa James in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she’ll be joined by Julia Quinn. Please do check out Eloisa’s past columns in the Archives, and if you’d like to get her reaction to romances as she reads them, follow her on Facebook or Twitter. If you’d like a peek at Eloisa’s own romances, please visit her web site at www.eloisajames.com.
And don’t forget the Barnes & Noble daily romance blog, Heart to Heart, where readers chat about the hottest news in the world of romance, from favorite authors to scorching love scenes.
Eloisa James’s most recent novel is A Duke of Her Own.