History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 September 2011

Love & Protectiveness

I recently posted an excerpt from my next Malcolm & Suzanne book, Imperial Scandal, on my website. One of the commenters, Jeanne Pickering, had come great observations about the protectiveness (or lack of it) of one of the characters, Raoul, toward the heroine, Suzanne/Mélanie.

It’s his ruthlessness that gives Melanie her independence and her freedom to be “feral”, “fierce” and “reckless.” He never tries to protect her by restraining her actions. He uses her for those qualities seemingly without hesitation.

But the common trope in a romance is that, if a good man loves a woman, then he wants to keep her from endangering herself. He may not act on those feelings, he may even recognize the inconsistency between loving her for her strength and wanting to protect her from harm but those protective instincts always seem to arise. So when we are seeing from the good man’s POV, we will eventually hear those thoughts.

Which made me ponder the question, is protective behavior a sign of love? Or is it a sign of love to accept a beloved's need to run risks? Jeanne blogged about this question, and I blogged about it myself on my website. I've been mulling over the question some more since.

It's a question that one of my favorite literary couples, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, struggle with. As Jeanne said, I can think of one other male “romance” character who understood that love doesn’t give a man the right to restrain a woman’s actions in order to protect her. It’s Lord Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night. Here's an excerpt where Peter and Harriet confront the issue:

[Peter]"But if it's only my own risk, I can afford to let it blow. When it comes to other people--"

[Harriet]"Your instinct is to clap the women and children under hatches."
"Well," he admitted, deprecatingly, "one can't suppress one's natural instincts altogether; even if one's reason and self-interest are all the other way."

"Peter, it's a shame. Let me introduce you to some nice little woman who adores being protected."

"I should be wasted on her. Besides, she would always be deceiving me, in the kindest manner, for my own good; and that I could not stand. I object to being tactfully managed by somebody who ought to be my equal."

Later in the book, Peter understands Harriet's need to run risks in the course of solving the mystery, despite the fact that her life has been threatened. Which in turn helps redress an imbalance that has been one of the issues in their relationship. Harriet has always felt indebted to Peter because when they met she was on trial for murder, and Peter proved her innocence and saved her life.

[Harriet] "I owe you my life--"

"Ah!" said he, smiling. "But I have given you that back by letting you risk it. That was the last kick that sent my vanity out of doors."

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes struggle with similar issues in Laurie King's wonderful series. They have an extraordinarily egalitarian relationship. Yet the scene that ends with them becoming betrothed begins with Holmes hitting Russell over the head and knocking her out so she can’t go with him after the villain. Granted Russell is still recovering from being abducted and exposed to heroin at the time. But it becomes part of their marriage negotiations (“I'll not marry a man I can’t trust at my back.”).

Malcolm/Charles, Suzanne's husband, is a bit more protective than Raoul. Not that he’s overprotective–-she runs a lot of risks at his side from even before they get married. But he slides into what she calls his “Brutus/Hotspur” moments where he tries to protect her or feels guilty because she’s been hurt or put in danger. As she says to him in Vienna Waltz, “Darling, I knew what you did when I married you. I knew I’d never be able to bear being your wife if it meant sitting on the sidelines or waiting like Penelope to see if you came back alive. If you wanted that sort of wife you shouldn’t have married me, however strong your chivalrous impulses.”

Two of my other favorite historical detective couples also confront this issue, Tasha Alexander's Emily Ashton and Colin Hargreaves and Deanna Raybourn's Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane. In both series, the heroes can accept their wives as partners in adventure but have moments, when Emily and Julia are in danger, where they find themselves rethinking the partnership. Needless to say, neither Emily nor Julia sees the situation the same way.

Of course, sometimes protectiveness is an issue of one partner having greater experience than the other. As Holmes says to Russell,

"I give you my solemn vow, Russell, to try to control my chivalrous impulses. If, that is, you agree that there may come times when--due entirely to my greater experience, I hasten to say--I am forced to give you a direct order."

"If it is given as to an assistant, and not as to a female of the species, I shall obey."

In one of my favorite TV series, Castle, Beckett frequently tells Castle to stay out of danger. After all, she's a police detective, and he's a novelist. Similarly, Colin and Brisbane are trained agents, while Emily and Julia begin the series as amateurs (unlike Suzanne who is a trained agent herself, which I think influences the way both Raoul and Malcolm see her).

Do you equate protectiveness with love? Or are you more inclined to equate love with stepping back while a beloved runs risks? What are other literary couples you can think of who struggle with this issue?

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Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

The line between love and protectiveness is a tough one to walk when writing a romance. Especially when writing a historical romance as that whole honor and chivalry and the frailness of women thing gets in the way.

I love a hero who respects a woman's ability to look after herself, but I must admit to being silly enough to sigh at a hero who risks it all to save the heroine when she is genuinely in danger.

Actually, the hero and heroine in my current WIP spend quite a bit of time working out his need to protect her from things she doesn't consider dangerous.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I do think it's a particularly interesting question in historicals, Louisa, because of issues of honor and chivalry and the fact that the hero is particularly likely to have greater skills at "protecting" than the heroine. I also think there's a difference between protecting someone when they're in danger and trying to stop someone from doing what they think they need to do because they *might* get into danger.

10:32 AM  
Blogger JeanneTops said...

A dimly remembered comment about chivalry and fun has been floating around in my head during this whole discussion. It turns out it's from Gaudy Night as well.

LPW: I admit it is more fun to punt than to be punted, and that a desire to have all the fun is nine-tenths of the law of chivalry.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

It's a fine line issue. I think PEOPLE (male and female) have a natural impulse to try and protect those they love. If the "hero" is willing to accept this from the "heroine", and his own protection doesn't simply come down to sidelining the heroine as though she were a child, then I think it can work either way.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the Lord Peter quote, Jeanne! It is true that staying out of adventures often mean staying out of the most fun part of the story.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think it does cut both ways, Isobel. There's a scene in my Waterloo book, Imperial Scandal, (for which I'm currently in the midst of copyedits) where Malcolm and Suzanne have an exchange about this:

“War is about to break out. I’m worried about our friends. I’m worried about my husband.”
“I’m not going to be anywhere near the fighting.”
“Liar.” Screams echoed in her ears. Blood glistened on the cobblestones before her eyes. “I’ve already gone through one war with you, don’t forget.”
His gaze moved over her face. “I can’t, Suzette.”
“Can’t what?”
“Promise to stay here in Brussels with you.”
She swallowed. She’d made her choices a long time ago. She would have to live with them. “I wouldn’t ask that of you. Any more than you’d ask it of me.”
“Well then.” He touched her arm. “This is nothing we haven’t been through before.”

12:57 PM  

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