This week’s blog post begins with an exhortation from the delightful Mandy B., The Well-Read Wife:
Hi Writers: Hot Guys and girls don’t have to fall for other hot guys and girls. Give me some non traditional beauty please. #books
— Mandy Boles (@WellReadWife) August 7, 2013
I see this advice to writers a lot. I see it coming from readers, bloggers, and other writers. It does seem to be fairly common in the romance genre, both textual and visual, to have beautiful heroes and heroines and I am terribly guilty of it, but for my own personal reasons.
As a way of example, I just finished watching the 2004 BBC miniseries North and South with Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe in the leads of John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Armitage is smoldering and Denby-Ashe is gorgeous; it just does not get prettier than those two.
How does the visual match up to the book?
Here is Margaret Hale’s description of herself from the original novel North and South written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1854-1855:
Sometimes people wondered that parents so handsome should have a daughter who was so far from regularly beautiful; not beautiful at all, was occasionally said. Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and ‘an’t please you, sir.’ But the wide mouth was one soft curve of rich red lips; and the skin, if not white and fair, was of an ivory smoothness and delicacy. If the look on her face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning,–full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future.
So Margaret Hale is intelligently beautiful but not classically beautiful? Or at least, that’s what she thinks about herself, because here is John Thornton’s first impression of her:
She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve; her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom.
On the other side of the equation, Mr. Thornton, in Margaret’s eyes, is the standard Victorian masculine hero with “rock-like power of character,” “passion-strength,” and a “tall, massive frame.” Yet, in his own eyes, he considers himself “rough, and stern, and strongly made,” a description that lacks the heroism of Margaret’s point of view.
While one might consider oneself a Plain Jane, in the eyes of the love interest we become a “full beauty.” Despite our own opinions of ourselves, this is what love does to another’s perception of us:
It was this that made the misery–that he passionately loved her, and thought her, even with all her faults, more lovely and more excellent than any other woman…
So, in the visual representation of the novel, the other’s point of view is cast, and hence, the love interests look like Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe.
I think this is what romance novels of today aspire to do, and what I hope I do.
I, too, am guilty of the beautiful heroine and handsome hero syndrome. At least two of my heroes look like Ioan Gruffudd: Sam of The General’s Wife (except Sam has blue-gray eyes), and Nicholas of my WIP Dr. Christopher’s Device. Everybody in The General’s Wife is attractive, Clara probably impossibly so, even the villain General Strathmore.
Everybody, except Paul Bridgers.
At least that’s what you’re supposed to think.
Here’s how Paul Bridgers views himself:
…he was embarrassed by his bulky shape, his own belly paunched from good living, and the mass of dark hair trailing from his chest to his groin snaking around to cover his butt.
Yet here is Clara’s perception of her “Mr. Bridgers”:
He was solidly built, somewhere between her age and her husband’s—perhaps thirty—and just a little taller than she, which meant when standing face to face, Clara could look deeply into his lovely light brown, almost golden eyes.
And when she sees him on the street, she at first perceives him to be “a man cutting a dashing figure in a green frock coat.”
How could Paul Bridgers be both paunched and dashing? Because it has everything to do with point of view and how love and attraction both cloud our opinions of ourselves and enhance our opinions of others. What Paul considers “paunched” Clara considers “solid”.
I understand that readers of romance – who, let’s not kid ourselves, do tend to be women – want to place themselves in the role of the heroine, and that if a heroine is too beautiful – and let’s not kid ourselves again, many women do not think of themselves as beautiful – many readers will not feel great empathy for the heroine. But, I have a totally different take on the matter. I want to be the beautiful heroine. I’ve already played the part of the quirky, nerdy, intelligent, inner-beauty-despite-outward-appearances heroine. I’ve been playing that part for decades, far too many decades.
Romance novels are fantasies. They are fantasies wherein the reader can get swept away and be that beautiful heroine regardless of how she really looks or feels she looks. Did I get annoyed watching the exquisitely beautiful Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale capturing the heart of the ridiculously handsome Richard Armitage as John Thornton? Absolutely not! I want those beautiful people to be together and have their happily-every-after.
As I get older I realize that everyone under the age of twenty-five is physically beautiful – quite possibly everyone under the age of thirty – despite what each individual thinks of him- or herself. (Seriously, when you’re about forty-five go look at photos of yourself at age eighteen. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.) Therefore, a debutante heroine in a historical romance is going to be described as beautiful by everyone around her by virtue of her being eighteen years old. And, at the risk of sounding maudlin, as we age we see different kinds of beauty in others even if the physical beauty has dimmed.
And then we realize that falling in love is the ultimate in beautiful.