At the Back Fence Issue #295

February 25, 2008

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Does He Give Good Grovel?

To many readers, the grovel scene is one of the most important parts of the romance. In fact, it may be the whole point of reading a novel with a very domineering hero. They want to see him make up for all the trouble he’s caused the heroine. When the hero doesn’t give the heroine more than a token apology, then the book can be a major disappointment.

Many of us can think of books where the hero treated the heroine horribly. Some readers simply give up once he goes too far. But some of us keep reading the book, expecting him to make up for his actions. When he doesn’t so much as apologize, when his apology is a token apology, or if the heroine forgives him too readily, it’s a huge disappointment.

lijakaca thinks that the more domineering the hero, “the more groveling he’ll need to do.” She’s not a fan of this type of hero, so she doesn’t see much need for the grovel scene in the books she enjoys. However, she realizes that many fans love these heroes. “Maybe in their own life they have to deal with some jerky guys and seeing [them] realize they are wrong and have to work to be forgiven let the readers, at least vicariously, lets off some steam about this type of guy.”

There may be something to this. Most of us have run up against men and women who are bossy, over-bearing, and even dictatorial. Maybe the grovel scene is a way of rewriting those moments and changing them so that the jerk realizes that you were right all along. But I don’t think this is the only reason why the grovel is popular. I enjoy most grovel scenes in the context of the story; if the hero mistreats the hero, then he should redeem himself. Otherwise, the novel won’t satisfy me. Some readers love this type of book precisely because they look forward to a grovel scene during which they can watch the hero redeem himself. xina doesn’t necessarily love books with obnoxious heroes, and has a hard time reading 250 pages of a hero continually trying to best the heroine by “keeping secrets, concocting big misunderstandings, and generally making her life miserable.” She tries to stay away from those sort of books, but admits that some of the authors she likes “make the hero a jerk for at least part of the book, and, darn it, if I have to put up with reading this behavior, the grovel is my payoff.” And the grovel isn’t just her payoff – it’s the consequence that the hero has to endure for his actions. In real life, if you do something wrong, you’re expected to pay a price for it; xina wants the hero to pay the price for what he’s done. She started out reading books by Catherine Coulter and Shannon Drake and found herself at odds with the actions of some of the “heroes.” In those books, the grovel scene often turned out to be the best part. Since then she’s learned to avoid that type of book, but understands that some authors write heroes as obnoxiously as they can in order to redeem them at the end. And that redemption is surely necessary; without it and “we’d all have big holes in our walls from throwing all those books!”

I’ve been there, done that, got the dent in my wall. Some heroes are so bad that they make me hear Metallica’s The Unforgiven while I read their stories. When a hero makes me think “I can’t believe he did that,” something has to happen later to make me like him again. That doesn’t always happen. In older romances, I often had to take the hero’s word that he had healed himself. If he couldn’t own up to his mistakes, I couldn’t believe him, and couldn’t understand why the heroine accepted him.It’s not just a matter of apology – it’s a matter of trust in the relationship. If the hero spends most of the book thinking the heroine is a slut or a thief, or for that matter, if the heroine is an ice queen because she thinks he married her only for her money, then I wonder what their future is going to be like together. Five years from now, will they relive the same arguments? The hero of Diane Palmer’s Heart of Ice thought the heroine was a slut because she wrote romance novels. He was even furious when she turned out to be a virgin. He never made up for his actions. How will he act a few years down the row, when he sees her talking to a male business associate? Will he become suspicious of her again? For some heroes, the grovel is like counseling in a shortened form, and you can’t change if you don’t accept that you have a problem. For that reason, I couldn’t imagine a stable future for this couple.

I started out reading authors such as Catherine Coulter and Shannon Drake, not to mention Rosemary Rogers, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and early Karen Robards and Johanna Lindsey. In those books, the heroes got away with a lot, and they often never made up for their mistakes. In Catherine Coulter’s The Heir, the arrogant hero is sure that the heroine is sleeping with another man; he saw them, after all, both leave the barn at the same time, and she pulled hay off her clothing. After this he begins to see her every action in a new light. Because of this, he rapes her on her wedding night. But even though he learns she’s a virgin, he’s still not happy. After all, maybe she learned other ways to please her lover. And he doesn’t think it’s rape because after all, he used the infamous cream Coulter notoriously has obnoxious heroes use when first having sex with their heroines, who invariably turn out to be virgins. Even after the rape, he continues to throw her supposed perfidies at her. Yes, even though she has to look up the word “sodomy” in the dictionary and has no concept of oral sex, he thinks she must be a slut. Once the truth comes out, he does ask her to forgive him, and he admits that he should be whipped. But that’s about it. After some apologizing, they’re having makeup sex, and then solving the mystery. Meh. While the heroine has her own issues, she deserves better. She deserves a great grovel. After all, this man spends much of his time glowering at her, and he never did cop to the rape. The most he did was admit he was rough with her.

Like Justin, the “hero” of Johanna Lindsey’s A Pirate’s Love also admits that he should be whipped. He tells the heroine, “And after all that, I bind you up and rape you again,” Tristan said dejectedly. “No wonder you wanted to get even with me. I should be horsewhipped!” Is it no wonder readers started demanding more apology from their heroes? Compare that to the famous grovel scene in SEP’s Kiss an Angel, one of the few romances where I can remember the hero actually getting on his knees. AAR’s Kate also points to SEP for one of her favorite grovels – the one in Heaven, Texas. Kate says that Bobby Tom’s grovel makes her laugh and cheer every time she reads it. AAR’s Rachel also loves both of these SEP grovels, although her favorite comes in a non-romance, Sharon Shinn’s Archangel.

AAR’s Robin grew up reading Gothics, and she thinks the big grovel has taken the place of the “big reveal” that used to be standard at the end of Gothics. In Gothics, the POV almost always centered on the heroine, leaving the hero mysterious. The heroine would sneak around, trying to find out if the hero was a murderer or smuggler. They didn’t talk much and often spent a lot of time apart. When they did meet, the hero would stare at her a lot. In the “big reveal,” the hero would clear up his mysterious behavior. The reason he kept staring at her all the time? He was in love with her! The reason he kept trying to bully her into leaving the mansion? Because he feared she was in danger. They don’t really know each other, but it’s okay because he revealed his big secret and finally told her that he loved her all along.

But imagine having a Gothic without a big reveal scene. The ending would he disappointing. Did he love her? Was he a killer? Why was he lurking about the caverns? The reader would never know! In today’s romance novels, because we’re in the head of the hero, they are forced to grovel because they can’t explain away their bad behavior with the old saw, “But I loved you all along!” If you’ve been in the hero’s head all along, you know that he loves the heroine, so he can’t explain away all his behavior just by saying “I love you.” Sometimes he has to do more than just ‘splain himself.

kspears remembers a book that suffered from the lack of grovel – a 1995 romance by Elizabeth Stuart called The Lion’s Bride. She loved the couple, but about 50 pages from the end, the hero, for some lame reason, decided he couldn’t be too attached to the heroine – never mind that they were married by this time. He had a fling with a prostitute who looked somewhat like her, hoping to make him forget the heroine. When the heroine found out, she attacked the prostitute and cut off her hair. The husband was stunned that she had such a temper and perhaps felt a little sorry for what he had done. Then another crisis got in the way, and kspears felt gypped because there wasn’t much of a grovel. She wanted a grovel, big time, and the lack thereof, added to the fact that the hero never told the heroine he loved her, was too much. She argues, “If any book deserved a grovel scene, this one did, and way before the last few pages. I think some of the problem was that this was one of the few times I felt what the heroine was feeling and I wouldn’t have been able to forgive as fast as she did. I wanted him on his knees begging.”

AngieMB had a similar experience with Creole Nights, a 1992 romance by Deborah Martin (aka Sabrina Jeffries). She felt strongly enough about it to start a thread because there wasn’t enough groveling to satisfy her. “There needed to be something more than I got at the end. That’s certainly not the case of most of the books I read. Usually I’m quite happy with the ending, satisfied with their relationship, but occasionally it’s just not enough.” By grovel, she simply means that she wanted the heroine to get a heartfelt apology – and she didn’t get that. Instead, the hero just told her “I believe you” and “I love you”. “He never let her know that he regretted the way he’d treated her throughout the book. He was still too arrogant when they first see each other again, after he’s discovered that everything she’s been telling him is true.” Also, this hero still felt jealous when she danced with another man and kept wanting to know if she missed him while he was away. AngieMB wanted and expected more through the entire book. When she didn’t get the satisfaction of a “good grovel,” she was a little disappointed.

On the other hand, many readers hate the grovel scene. They find it demeaning. Even emasculating. For example, Talithareads has no problem with a sincere apology, but she sees the grovel as more extreme. She expects the hero and heroine to meet on equal footing and respect each other. Neither the hero nor the heroine should grovel. “At times, when I read posts or reviews, there seems to be the desire to almost emasculate the hero. I understand hoping for strong female characters but does it have to be at the expense of strong males?” Like Talithareads, Linda in SW can’t stand grovel scenes. She does like a sincere apology, but a grovel? No way. She has always felt like the “odd romance reader out” because she doesn’t like grovel scenes. “A book having a ‘great grovel scene’ is a book that I’m going to steer clear of. I don’t get any enjoyment out of that, in fact it ruins the book for me – usually right at the end too.” She doesn’t want to see the hero grovel and has never understood the attraction to this sort of scene. Linda also suspects that some authors made the hero do terrible things to the heroine so that the heroine (and thus the reader) could get that “great grovel scene.”

jitterbug admits that if forced to read a romance with a hero who is an overbearing, dominant jerk – a very common type of hero – then she needs to see that grovel as a sign of a concrete change in his behavior. “Thus, apologies are a must (the sooner the air is cleaned the better) and the more serious the hero’s misbehavior, more articulate his sincere mea culpa must be.” But she hasn’t read many romances wherein the heroine demands an over-the-top apology. Instead, isn’t it much more common that the heroine forgives everything the hero does all too easily? In those instances, I think the grovel scene does as much to lend the heroine some needed dignity as it “lowers” the hero.

I don’t see the grovel scenes as emasculating myself. To me, a grovel scene means that the hero is owning up to his mistakes. Owning up to his mistakes doesn’t emasculate a hero. Just the opposite. After all, there’s a reason they call it “manning up.” Yes, there are times when I want to see the hero taken down a peg. This may seem emasculating to some readers, especially as heroes are generally very alpha and often have to suffer before they can win the heroine back. To some readers, this must make them uncomfortable because they want an alpha hero, and seeing him doing something desperate to win the heroine back can make him look weaker. Maybe it’s not the apology that disturbs people but rather over-the-top grovel scenes. But it’s hard for a hero and heroine to meet on equal footing when throughout the book his foot has been firmly on her back.

MarianneM agrees that there seems to be an unspoken contract between some writers and their readers to set up the hero to be emasculated. First, the hero acts like an insensitive bully. Then, the plot requires him to “grovel endlessly and swear never to do it again.” She thinks this may be because while our civilization has grown from repressing and infantilizing women toward letting women play a more equal part, perhaps “there is a childish aspect in most of us that wants to stay in ‘victim’ mode for past insults to us, to imagine endless groveling in today’s dominant people for injustices perpetrated against us in the past. And we all read romance novels to fulfill our fantasies, don’t we? But do we really want to cater to our childish wishes for excessive retaliation, for endless apologies?” For her, “I end up disrespecting a hero who grovels like that is a less than admirable hero, someone who drones on and on about how wrong he was. He’s either a bore or a con man, and I don’t much like either kind of person. He’s certainly not a hero in my eyes.” Tee also isn’t a fan of over-the-top groveling. “Changing someone’s heart, followed by a change in attitudes and behavior; then actions will speak louder than words for most anyone.” She also thinks that too much groveling can give the author carte blanche to let the hero behave too badly earlier in the story.

When MarianneM and Tee describe the over-the-top grovel, I imagine Jimmy Swaggart sobbing “I have sinned against you.” If a hero apologized in that fashion, I truly would fling the book against the wall. There are real apologies, and then there are people who come across as con men caught with their hands in the till. Luckily, I’ve never come across a romance hero like this. Maybe some readers are cautious about heroes who grovel because the news these past years have been full of unbelievable apologies from everyone to politicians to actors. Rather than The Unforgiven, some of these apologies make us think Whoops, I did it again. When we see that sort of apology, we don’t buy into the redemption.

People do want the hero to redeem himself, but they don’t want something that strips him of his dignity. graceC doesn’t like a groveling scene that’s there simply to emasculate the hero. They’re not romantic to her, and in fact, she finds them “demeaning and tasteless.”

Carla Kelly also thinks that the grovel can result in a loss of dignity. She doesn’t like to see any character forced to grovel, “unless it is absolutely and utterly essential to the plot. And even then, I think there should be a really good reason why.” Carla thinks that maybe some characters need to be more willing to admit their failings and apologize, but they shouldn’t be forced to trade their dignity in the process. Above all, she believes in the dignity of people.” Anne Frank nailed it in her journal with her comment about believing in the good in people. If she can, I can.”

graceC and Carla are right that apologies can be demeaning. Sometimes they’re meant to be that way. Many a Medieval king was forced to apologize to the pope by doing something demeaning. For example, in 1075, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV donned sackcloth and ashes and stood in the snow outside the pope’s residence for three days as a penance. Literature sometimes reflects this. One example of an undignified apology was Claudio’s epitaph in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Claudio believes his fiancee died after he accused her of being a slut right at the altar, and he apologizes by reading a poem at her graveside and then agrees to marry someone he thinks is her cousin. He announces that he will come to her grave and recite the poem once a year – much like a reformed drunk driver making reparations by talking to students about his crime. Then again, the whole point of the scene is that Claudio is being demeaned for wrongfully accusing his fiancee in such a stupid and public fashion. The poem was written to make him sound stupid. It’s one of those moments where the line between comedy and tragedy is thin. Claudio wasn’t far from being Othello, or for that matter, a jealous romance novel hero. The only way Claudio can prove he has “gotten over himself” is by agreeing to the burden placed upon him. But it’s worth noting that Claudio wasn’t the real hero of Much Ado About Nothing. The real hero was Benedick, who was ready to kill his friend Claudio when Beatrice asked him to do so.

graceC believes that if there is a grovel, it must be justified; the hero has to have done something big enough to call for the grovel. She prefers it when authors show the true depth of remorse without resorting to the grovel – for example, in Linda Howard’s Cry No More or Jennifer Donnelly’s The Tea Rose. “In both books the heroines were betrayed by the heroes in the most painful way possible, yet both authors managed to show her readers the depth of remorse both heroes feel about their mistake and totally redeem themselves in the end that groveling scene was no longer necessary at all.”

Then there’s Jo Beverley’s take, at least her take way back in 1998 from this ATBF column:

“Why? Why this urge to bring a man to his knees? Now, if people said, ‘when a good woman shows him she’s his equal in all the ways that count,’ I’d be with you. Or even, ‘when a good woman knocks some sense into his head.’ Or even, ‘when a good woman takes him in hand and looks after him.’ (Those true alphas, like true geniuses, are usually clueless about real life.) “You don’t take Genghis Khan, Wellington, or a top race car driver and start trying to make them into a more tender, caring man. They are what they are, and that’s what makes them interesting, though not necessarily great mates.”

In this way, one of the most interesting heroes I ever met was the Duke of Cabria from Teresa Deny’s The Silver Devil. And I use the term “hero” loosely. Domenico was reported based on Ceasare Borgia – not my idea of a romantic lead! Domenico bought Felicia from her brother, raped her, manipulated her, and even had a man tortured because of his jealousy. He was the epitome of a Renaissance tyrant. Tender and caring? No way. In his own twisted way, he does love the heroine, even if it takes him more than 350 pages to think to tell her. He even asks the heroine “Does this look like pride? Or must I grovel?” And indeed he does:

He was on his knees at my feet, and as I watched he lifted the hem of my gown to his lips and kissed it. I made some sort of sound in my throat, but I could not speak.

“You cannot go.” He spoke in a whisper, without lifting his head. “I love you. I have always loved you – I bought you from your vile brother because I could not live without you.”

A grovel, yes? But emasculated…him? Heavens know. He might cut off the testicles of any man who looks at Felicia, but his own are intact. Even as he is on his knees before Felicia, the poor woman still thinks it could be a trick. He has a lot of ‘splaining to do. And Felicia has a very interesting future because there is no way this man will ever cease being dangerous, even if he did kneel before her and declare his love.

bamagirl says “I love a good grovel, but never at the point of emasculation. I mean, what’s the point of romance if it goes that far?” That said, though, she can’t remember reading any grovel that took the apology to the point of emasculation. If one of the characters treats the other badly, she wants that apology. “I want to be able to feel that they were sincerely sorry and I don’t want it mentioned over and over again.” She loved the apology in Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams. She dislikes the sort of apology found in some of Catherine Coulter’s books. “If one treats the other in a way that is unfair, then I need the partner in the wrong to make up for it.”

Laurie thinks that “good grovel” brings a natural balance of power to a relationship that has always lacked one – or restores the balance after a seismic shift. She can’t remember ever reading a grovel that emasculated the hero and can point to any number of books where the lack of a necessary apology led the book to sail across the room into the nearest wall. She also remembers the apologies in A Kingdom of Dreams; what sticks most in her mind is the heroine’s apology to the hero, so it does go both ways. And, she points out, it’s rarely the heroine who demands the hero grovel; he “knows he done wrong” and realizes a grand gesture is required. But she has never forgotten Jo Beverley’s earlier statements, and every time she reads an Anne Stuart romance, she’s glad that Stuart lets her heroes remain as they were from beginning to end. If they’re hard-hearted sons of bitches, they tend to remain pretty hard-hearted, albeit with a soft spot for the heroine. They don’t grovel, but their reappearance in the lives of their heroines is enough, because those heroes are well matched with their heroines.

Maybe what we have here is a failure to communicate… What exactly is the grovel? Some people see it as something where the hero must debase himself in order to make up the heroine. They often focus on the hero literally groveling at the heroines feet. Yet I can only think of three novels where the hero actually knelt at her feet. Usually heroes who “grovel” are simply apologizing, and they’re giving a sincere apologize rather than an old-fashioned “It wasn’t rape because I used cream” defense.

The word grovel may be poison to some readers. When I think of groveling, I imagine the first unmasking scene in the musical The Phantom of the Opera, where the Phantom ends up on his hands and knees before the heroine, covering his disfigured face with his hand and sobbing. When I say that I want the hero to grovel, I don’t mean that I want him crawling on his hands and knees before the heroine and sobbing. I just want him to own up to what he did.

dick agrees that “grovel” might be too strong a word for the situation involved. “Perhaps a fervent, heartfelt apology? Or a humble request for forgiveness? But groveling? I’m not particularly heroic, I don’t think, but I’d be damned before I’d grovel – to anybody.”

Allyson also agrees that the word “grovel” is what might be turning off some readers. She has never read a book where the hero did what she would consider “groveling.” She also hasn’t come across any book where the hero was “emasculated.” She wonders if she has missed these books, or if she has a different perspective. Maybe she has avoided them so far because she hates jerk heroes. “I don’t mind hero or heroine making mistakes, but if either character is treating the other so terribly that this sort of thing is required, the book is probably not for me.”

Unlike Allyson, I don’t mind heroes (and occasionally heroines) who do terrible things. Maybe because I cut my romance teeth on authors like Catherine Coulter, I sometimes get nostalgic for old-fashioned reads where the heroes do everything from kidnapping the heroine to chaining her up. But eventually, by God, he had better make up for his behavior. He doesn’t have to crawl on his hands and knees and sob. But he has to use more than slick words. I have to know that he “gets” it. If he doesn’t really make it up to her, I’ll wonder if he’ll hurt her again in the future. Maybe one reason so many readers love the grovel scene is because it’s like a glimpse into the HEA. And if there isn’t enough redemption, they won’t believe in that HEA, no matter what pretty words the hero uses.

Now it’s time for you to post to the ATBF Forum. We’ve covered groveling pretty extensively, so we won’t ask specific questions. Just the column as a jumping off point to talk about whatever you agreed with, disagreed with, want to talk more about, and to share books that illustrate any points you’d like to make.

Anne Marble

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