There’s an acronym some romance insiders use to describe a heroine they consider stereotypical, one they believe rushes headlong into danger despite myriad warning signs and previous brushes with calamity. She is termed Too Stupid To Live (TSTL).

Ouchie.  I’ve always felt that was a little harsh.  I mean, I make a whole bunch of mistakes after being warned of impending error.  So I’ve got lots of empathy for anybody who trips up repeatedly, let alone someone who does it while being chased through a  gothic mansion by a dark, mysterious eccentric who either wants to murder me like he probably did his late wife, or ravish me until my virginal defenses fall away along with my layers of stays and petticoats.

Terms like TSTL appear harsh at first glance because they seem to communicate rancor toward heroines favored by many readers.  Yet I think the TSTL label may have developed because of some contemporary readers’ understandable inability to relate to or enjoy depictions of heroines’ options and adventures narrowed by time-period constraints.  

For a heroine’s choices for saving herself are far more limited in historicals, and often the day is saved in conjunction with the man she chooses, rather than within the popular we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-heroes construct, which is hard to pull off in the historical romance, even if the heroine a) owns/operates an underground printing press; b) reads and espouses Wollstonecraft; and c) lived in India where she studied Oriental martial arts, and hence knows how to use them.

Yet time and again, the exception to the historical-limitations rules can be the *Too Stalwart to Loathe, Western romance heroine, she who developed the heart of the American women we are, and who shaped the way we like to think the Western hero is won. One of the most memorable of these of late is Eden Paxton, heroine of Catherine Anderson’s unforgettable, emotionally impactful and sensually nourishing “Early Dawn  .”

Having been outed as illegitimate by her ex-fiance, Eden’s leaving tony San Francisco to live with her half brothers in Colorado when the train she’s riding with her mother’s held up by the Sebastian brothers, a notorious band of rapists, killers and robbers. Taken hostage while protecting a toddler from being shot, Eden’s dragged with the Sebastians from camp to camp and repeatedly sexually brutalized just short of intercourse; they plan to sell her in Mexico.

Matthew Coulter’s been hunting the Sebastians for the three years that have passed since they murdered his young wife. When he finds the brothers and sees them abusing Eden, he lays aside his plans to exact revenge and rescues her. Matthew quickly realizes Eden survived the Sebastians’ torture for weeks because of her grit and indomitable spirit.  And Eden easily demonstrates how the lessons her older brothers drilled into her about shooting, tracking and taking care of herself help her become Matthew’s partner despite her ill health and the danger they face.

In his favor – and a thing that makes him attractive above all else – Matthew doesn’t need to be hit over the head with a pair of Colts to appreciate Eden’s value. It just takes him a while to get right with his sexual attraction to the stunningly forthright woman who approaches her right to her body like she does her prowess with firearms – and to decide whether creating new love means letting go of the old obsession that led him to her side.

At what point does a heroine in an historical become unbelievable in her time period?  How much leeway do you give an author to create w/in the historical romance you love a heroine you can relate to as a 21st-century woman? 


Michelle Buonfiglio writes daily about romance fiction at BN's Heart to Heart and  Read her Tuesdays here at Unabashedly Bookish.

by Moderator becke_davis on ‎02-02-2010 04:34 PM

This is one of the reasons it took me so long to read historicals -- I thought the heroines would be typical of the Regency, Edwardian, Victorian (or whatever historical period applies) women of the time. Now, in real life I'm sure there were plenty of stalwart women with at least somewhat modern thinking, but I didn't expect to find them in historical novels.


For example, I just this minute finished proofreading a college paper for my son's girlfriend, which had to do with the punishments usually inflicted on misbehaving Puritans by the courts of the colonial era. (Whipping posts came into it a lot.) I kept thinking, "Man, am I glad I was born in a more open-minded era."


So, while I'm now well and truly hooked on historicals, I don't want them to be accurate when it comes to cleanliness habits, sewage, the horrors of poverty and child abuse or any of the other raw truths of the past. It's interesting to go back in the past, as long as it's not the REAL past. And I want my heroes and heroines firmly rooted in modern ideals.

by Moderator dhaupt on ‎02-02-2010 05:14 PM

These days the heroines aren't like that of the great Ms. Woodiwiss, thank god. And that's the main reason I like historical romance written by today's authors, they take a typical historical heroine and dose her with a lot of modern thinking which of course gets her into mucho trouble, but then there's the spur wearing, hip swaying, bow legged hero who comes along on his white horse and swallows everything the purty little gal tells him and because of not in spite of her tude and her courage she fits him to a tee. And of course that's just our own history, if we go waay back in history the women are treated better than chattel.


I think it's great when the historical heroine has spunk or as my grammy used to call it piss and vinegar. What I don't like is the heroine who swoons, and really is TSTL.

Thanks Michelle


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