I really love Madeline Hunter’s books. She writes great stories that are full of passion and excitement. She also writes for USA Today. Being a Canadian, I don’t read that paper, but thanks to Twitter and her devoted fans, her articles pop up regularly on my feed. She recently wrote one about the spinster trope. It was a really interesting article to read. She interviews Julia London and Sabrina Jeffries about their use of spinsters and what makes it so special.
Here is the link to the article, but I’ve pasted it in for you to read:
In my forthcoming book His Wicked Reputation (March 3), the heroine is a spinster. She had one romance in her life, but when her brother’s infirmity kept her from leaving England with her young man, he went without her. Five years later she is so firmly on the shelf that no one thinks of her as potential target of seduction, let alone marriage.
It is not the first time I used an older, unmarried woman as a heroine and it won’t be the last.
Pity the poor spinster? Not the ones in romance novels. They get some of the best stories, and at the end they get the heroes. Writers love them. Readers respond to them. Their historical worlds may have scorned or made fun of spinsters, but in historical romances they have their revenge.
Julia London loves writing about spinsters as much as I do. Her Cabot Sisters series is full of them, including the recent The Devil Takes a Bride. Her forthcoming book in that series, The Scoundrel and the Debutante (late April), features another of the sisters, Prudence.
As a result of her sisters’ scandals, the reputation of Prudence is tarnished, and as she approaches her 23rd birthday, she has no prospects. She fears she is going to waste away in the country taking care of the family’s elderly. So when an opportunity for something exciting and daring and completely out of character presents itself, she figures she has nothing to lose and goes for it.
The maturity of spinsters means they have some life under their belt, and perhaps dissatisfactions threatening to boil over. Julia says that is the case with Prudence. “She has hung on for four long years after her older sisters’ scandals, but she is through with waiting. She has become much less rigid about proper behavior, because in her mind, she was always the sister who followed the rules, who kept herself above reproach, who wanted to be married and have a family. Now, she is the only one without a life she wanted and entirely dependent on others. She doesn’t see how her proper behavior has benefited her, and she is determined to follow her desires before she wastes away at some country estate.”
Sabrina Jeffries also enjoys the potential that spinsters bring to the page. In fact, she has a whole series called the Swanlea Spinsters. She will launch her next series on July 21 with a spinster heroine, too. “The Art of Sinning is the first of my Sinful Suitors series. It is about an American artist named Jeremy Keane who zeroes in on a well-known unmarried sister of an earl, Lady Yvette Barlow, to be his model. Although Yvette is an heiress, she doesn’t want a fortune-hunting husband and her non-titled brother is a convicted criminal, which means scandal with a capital S. So she’s not having much luck in the marriage department. Also, Yvette happens to be tall, stocky, and not the average blond beauty, so she wears a giant chip on her shoulder.
I asked Sabrina why she keeps turning to the spinster heroine. “It’s fun to deal with how a woman like that makes her own way,” she said. “Younger, prettier women generally manipulate the system, but spinsters either refuse or can’t, and that makes for great conflicts.”
Jo Beverley also finds spinsters interesting heroines. “I like to explore many facets of period courtship and this is a classic one. It’s also one particularly potent in the early 19th century when the war led to a shortage of eligible young gentlemen for gently born ladies. Jane Austen’s novels are mainly built around that problem,” she explains. “The position of the upper-class spinster was particularly difficult. If she has money, then is marriage worth the costs? She’ll have to surrender her money and her independence and put herself in her husband’s legal power. That is why Lucy in my novel A Shocking Delight decided not to marry — until, of course, she met a man she came to love and trust.”
Readers will be able to enjoy another of Jo’s spinsters in her upcoming April release. “Lady Hermione Merryhew is the daughter of a marquess, but he was the ‘Poor Marquess,’ so she has a minuscule dowry. She’d like to marry, but not if she’ll be penny-pinched. She’s had a lifetime of that, and her older sister’s troubled marriage to a man of moderate means is a warning. Also, she’s not willing to marry just anyone. The distant relative who’s inherited her father’s title wants to marry her. He’s rich and he’s offering to help her sister’s family, but only if the marriage takes place. She doesn’t like him, but it will be hard to refuse, which is why she’s on an urgent journey to try to claim an inheritance from a long-lost relative. She has troubles enough without a man on the run seeking refuge in her inn room, but that’s where her situation becomes Too Dangerous for a Lady.”
Jo explains the conundrum facing spinsters during the early 19th century — the situation that makes their stories so rich for writers today. “When a gently born spinster has little money, her choices are few. She might receive an offer of marriage, but it’s unlikely to be from a wealthy man, so she’ll have a hard life trying to make ends meet for her growing family. She can find employment, but, unless she wants to sink lower on the social scale, only as a governess or companion — a type of upper servant. She might be offered shelter as a poor relation, but likely treated as an unpaid servant.”
Of course, spinsters existed in other periods, too. Michelle Styles has created an unusual one, set during Viking times. Her “spinster” has chosen her unmarried life and has interests and inclinations very different from other women. “Sayrid, the heroine of Taming His Viking Woman, vowed she will marry no man unless he first defeats her in combat,” she says. “At over six feet in height and clumsy, she could never do any dainty work but learned how to fight in order to help her younger brother. She soon discovered that she excelled at it. When a powerful sea king offers her the opportunity to go to Byzantium at the head of his fleet if she defeats him, Sayrid seizes the opportunity and loses. Now she is forced to change her warring ways and occupy her husband’s bed in order to keep her lands safe.”
Michelle draws on the Viking lore regarding shield maidens for her heroine. “There has been this long-held belief amongst male archaeologists that women were never warriors during the Viking era. However, recent DNA tests showed that some of graves with weaponry were occupied by females. This coincides with the various sagas where women were either conventional wives or shield maidens. If shield maidens married, they ceased to be warriors and put on women’s clothes.”
Spinsters in romance novels do find love, of course. But their status as spinsters can undermine their views of themselves because of the way society treats them. As a result they have a very human vulnerability. This can be seen in His Wicked Reputation, when the heroine reacts to the assumptions of the two sisters (also spinsters!) who are cluing her in on Gareth’s infamy.
“He is reputed to be very wicked,” Ophelia said. “Most skilled in his seductions. Wives, widows, women of maturity like yourself—”
“Mostly wives,” Jasmine said. “But our friends say he considers any female over twenty-three fair game, and some suspect he has even deflowered innocent girls.” She lowered her voice, as if confiding a secret. “We are told that he employs certain exotic techniques that leave women enthralled, even addled, and unable to give him up…”
“I am grateful, of course, that you chose to share this with me,” Eva said. “I need to reassure you that Mr. Fitzallen has no such interest in me. I am the last woman to turn such a man’s head, even for a few hours. I think we can all agree that while he may someday be wicked with a lady in Langdon’s End, it will not be me.”
They both looked at her in a peculiar way. Then at each other. Then at her.
“It goes without saying that we are not concerned about you,” Jasmine said.
“It is Rebecca whom we fear will attract his wickedness.”
Of course. They worried for beautiful Rebecca. It was me he almost kissed. He gave that little gift to me.I am the one he might seduce and abandon. She came close to saying it. Shouting it. Except she knew the sisters were correct. She was in no danger. None at all.
On reflection—much reflection—she had concluded she had been mistaken. He had not almost kissed her. For one thing, from the sounds of things Gareth did not almost kiss women. Far from it.
It is society’s dismissal, and even mockery, that give these heroines their depth as well as their conflicts. That along with their struggles to make lives for themselves under their own terms also makes them very appealing characters. “It’s always fun to root for the underdog,” Sabrina says. “We want to see the spinster with no prospects get the prime article. It’s Cinderella all over again.”
Jo adds, “The beauty of romance novels (and Pride and Prejudice is a prime example) is that such spinsters get more choices, find ways to use their good qualities to triumph over their challenges, find friends and allies, and end up happy in the end. And that’s why readers enjoy the stories.”
USA TODAY and New York Times bestseller Madeline Hunter is the two-time RITA-winning author of 25 historical romances. Her next release, His Wicked Reputation , will be published March 3. You can find her at http://www.MadelineHunter.com. To contact Madeline about content for or in this column, please e-mail her at RomanceUnlaced @ gmail.com (close up the spaces). Due to the volume of mail, e-mails from authors may not be answered personally, but all will be read.
Another great article. I love the fact that romance novels are getting more and more airtime in traditional publications. Hunter raises some great points about the use of a spinster in creating a dynamic and engaging story. As Sabrina Jeffries points out – it creates great conflicts. Until you read a great spinster book, you probably think of Miss Bates from Emma as the archtypical spinster.
Everytime I read a book with a spinster as the lead, I cringe when the author mentions a mobcap. Could there be anything less attractive? In Lisa Kleypas’ book Dreaming of You, the devilish Derek Craven threw away Sarah’s mobcap as soon as he could. In fact he threw it in the mud so it could never be worn again.
When I googled the word ‘spinster’ an interesting conglomerate of images popped up. Not flattering at all. From the cat lady to an old woman to lonely women, it appears that societal views on spinsters is not kind. It made me realize how much of a challenge it is to make the spinster in a story not only desirable, but exciting and worth of holding a readers attention.
But a spinster from the Regency period is very different than your modern day friend who has just never settled down with the right partner. A spinster from years past was actually a very precarious position. It was a lonely life. They were not like old fashioned Bridget Jones – drinking on the couch, watching old movies and sleeping with the boss. To be a spinster meant living on the grace of others. Living in a home that was not your own, to be at the mercy of your family (hopefully you had one) and never knowing a relationship with a man. It wasn’t as if a spinster could just go out on a date, for many women life was all but decided by the age of 22 to 24. How sad is that? I was just beginning my career at the age of 24 – I felt like my whole life was ahead of me! It is amazing that we live in a world where same sex marriages are common place, transgendered people are treated with diginity (in a perfect world) and common law relationships are about to outnumber marriages – yet there is something unacceptable about a woman who has never chosen marriage or even worse, that marriage hasn’t chosen them.
I think there is a conception out there that unmarried or spinster means something is wrong with the woman. In historical times, it’s easy to call the woman a bluestocking or perhaps she has put caring for family above her needs. Whatever the reason, it is a real challenge to make the spinster into someone the reader of a historical novel can relate to and stay with throughout the length of a novel. Maybe it is easier than a modern day single woman because there usually is a reason a woman is single in historical times, rather than a choice. Since most marriages in historical times are arranged for financial gain, power or alliances, looks and personalities are not important – but icing on the cake if one is lucky.
There are so many themes that authors explore – the repentant rake, the wallflower, the vixen, the diffident duke and so on. They all fascinate and titillate depending on the skill of the author. I enjoy a great spinster story and these are some of my favourites:
Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens
When Devil, the most infamous member of the Cynster family, is caught in a compromising position with plucky governess Honoria Wetherby, he astonishes the entire town by offering his hand in marriage. No one dreamed this scandalous rake would ever take a bride. And as society mamas swooned at the loss of England′s most eligible bachelor, Devil′s infamous Cynster cousins began to place wagers on the wedding date.
But Honoria wasn′t about to bend society′s demands and marry a man “just” because they′d been found together virtually unchaperoned. No, she craved adventure, and while solving the murder of a young Cynster cousin fit the bill for a while, she decided that once the crime was solved she′d go off to see the world. But the scalding heat of her unsated desire for Devil soon had Honoria craving a very different sort of excitement. Could her passion for Devil cause her to embrace the enchanting peril of a lifelong adventure of the heart?
Lady Sophia’s Lover by Lisa Kleypas
Lady Sophia Sydney would do anything to ensnare the unattainable Sir Ross Cannon. Her goal—to ruin his reputation and cause a scandal that would be the talk of all London. So she insinuates herself into his life by gaining his trust and living in his house.
Every morning, her lush presence tempts him beyond all reason…the way she bends over the table to serve him the meals she has prepared…the way her hands oh, so gently—yet sensuously—brush against him. Every night, she promises with her eyes—and her body— that the hours before dawn could be spent in unbridled passion instead of restless sleep—if only he’d let her share his bed.
She knows he is falling more in love with her each day. But she never counted on falling in love with him. And she never dreamed he might very respectably ask for her hand in marriage…
To Pleasure A Prince by Sabrina Jeffries
Beautiful Lady Regina Tremaine has turned down so many suitors that she’s called La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The truth: she won’t marry because she carries a dark secret. She sees no good reason, however, why her brother shouldn’t court the lovely Louisa North — even if the girl’s brother, the notorious “Dragon Viscount,” objects.
Marcus North, Viscount Draker — bastard son of the Prince of Wales — is rumored to be a monster who holds women captive in his dark castle to have his way with them. He has been exiled from polite society for years. But when Lady Regina makes a plea on her brother’s behalf, Marcus proposes an outrageous deal: her brother can court Louisa so long as Marcus can court Regina. Can the beauty and the beast survive a proper courtship when the devastatingly improper passion between them threatens to cause the scandal of the century?
A Heartless Design by Elizabeth Cole
“Heartless” Cordelia Bering refuses every marriage offer she receives. Yet men still try to win her, drawn by her sharp wit and intoxicating green eyes. But Cordelia knows a marriage could reveal her deepest secret and truly endanger her life. Besides, she hasn’t met a man worth considering, until…
Sebastien Thorne, a spy in the service of Crown. One of the elite agents in the group known as the Zodiac, he comes to London determined to solve a mystery with roots on the Continent. He won’t let anything distract him. But is Cordelia a distraction, or the key to the mystery? As he learns more about the “heartless” woman, he becomes embroiled in secrets, plots, and a design that could change the future…and Cordelia is at the center of it all.
Mastered By Love by Stephanie Laurens
The men of the Bastion Club proved their bravery secretly fighting for their country. Now their leader faces that most dangerous mission of all: finding a bride.
As the mysterious leader of the Bastion Club known as “Dalziel,” Royce Varisey, tenth Duke of Wolverstone, served his country for decades, facing dangers untold. But as the holder of one of England’s most august noble titles, he must now take on that gravest duty of all: marriage.
Yet the young ladies the grand dames would have him consider are predictably boring. Far more tempting is his castle’s willful and determinedly aloof chatelaine, Minerva Chesterton. Beneath her serene façade lies a woman of smoldering sensuality, one who will fill his days with comfort and his nights with sheer pleasure. Determined to claim her, he embarks on a seduction to prove his mastery over every inch of her body . . . and every piece of her heart.
Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
Penelope Featherington fell madly, hopelessly in love with Colin Bridgerton two days before her 16th birthday. Unfortunately, Colin has always seen Penelope as the plump, shy best friend of his younger sister. By the time Penelope is 28 and a seasoned member of the English ton, she’s accepted that her love for Colin is destined to remain unrequited and she shall be a spinster forever. Fate, however, has other plans. When Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers announce that Colin has returned from his nearly nonstop travels, Penelope is blissfully unaware that her life is about to change dramatically. Colin is equally unaware of the turn his life is about to take. He’s not surprised that his beloved mother is determined to marry him off, but he’s rather astonished to find himself inexplicably drawn to Penelope. Her dry wit and intelligent mind are delightful, and Colin soon finds himself joining forces with her to deflect his matchmaking mama’s good intentions.
Together, the two will thwart their mothers’ iron wills, face the formidable Lady Danbury, confront the gossips of London society, and resolve the lovely dilemma of falling in love. And, oh yes, there is that matter of the true identity of Lady Whistledown. Will the twosome unmask the elusive journalist? Or will their efforts be doomed to failure like so many others’ before?
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
They call him many names, but Angelic isn’t one of them . . .
Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain, is big, bad, and dangerous to know. No respectable woman would have anything to do with the “Bane and Blight of the Ballisters”—and he wants nothing to do with respectable women. He’s determined to continue doing what he does best—sin and sin again—and all that’s going swimmingly, thank you . . . until the day a shop door opens and she walks in.
She’s too intelligent to fall for the worst man in the world . . .
Jessica Trent is a determined young woman, and she’s going to drag her imbecile brother off the road to ruin, no matter what it takes. If saving him—and with him, her family and future—means taking on the devil himself, she won’t back down. The trouble is, the devil in question is so shockingly irresistible, and the person who needs the most saving is—herself!