handsThere were many things I loved about Sherry Thomas’ Ravishing the Heiress, secondary characters notwithstanding.  The writing.  Fitz and Millie.  The writing.  (Can you tell I love it?)  But there’s one particular aspect that stands out, and that’s how Ms. Thomas treats an arranged marriage.

I saw Pixar’s Brave the same weekend that I finished Ravishing the Heiress, and the contrast could not have been greater.  In the first, Scottish princess Merida rebels against her mother, traditional feminine pursuits, and the whole idea of an arranged marriage.  Forget embroidery, and to hell with marrying one of the chieftain’s sons to keep the clans together – Merida will win her own hand in marriage.  I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that by the end Merida will have reached a new understanding with her mother and learned the value of compromise – but she sure ain’t married either.

Things are different in Ravishing the Heiress, besides the obvious differences in audience (it’s a romance) and form (it’s a novel – duh).  Millie loves Fitz, and Fitz loves someone else.  But does Millie refuse the marriage because she wants to marry for love, and wait until he recognizes his love for her?  Nope.  Millie’s family wants social standing and Millie has been groomed for this her entire life; and Fitz needs to restore the decrepit estate.  So Millie goes through with it.  And it takes eight years – read that, eight years – before their relationship becomes true love.

I’ve read some criticisms of RtH focusing on martyrish elements of Millie’s behaviour.  She waits too long for Fitz; she’s a doormat; she should have taken a lover to pay him back.  I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.  But here’s another perspective, and maybe it’s the latent Asian in me: Endurance and patience require greater strength than outright rebellion.

I believe in happy endings, in the happily-ever-after, and in True Love.  But I also believe in working for it.  I believe in divorce only as a last resort, if there is abuse, rank incompatibility, or other necessities.  I believe in sucking it up and making the best of it.  And I believe in learning to love your job (or person), rather than waiting to find a job (or person) you love.

In other words, there’s a time and place for rebellion and refusal.  Merida is Merida, and maybe rebelling was right for her and the clan (although I would just call it feistiness, and not in a good way).  But the fact that Millie accepts rather than fights; that she repays her parents for years of love, commitment, nourishment, and health by marrying the man they choose; that she finds happiness and over eight years crafts friendship, intimacy, and companionship with the man she loves even if it is not Love; that she runs the equivalent of a marathon rather than a 100-metre sprint – all this makes her passive and weak?  A doormat?  A martyr?  Not in my book.

Two sixteen-year-olds, two historical settings, two names beginning with M, and two arranged marriages.  Millie loves Fitz, and makes the absolute best of it.  Merida wants to pursue archery, and goes to the local witch and gets a potion to change her mother.  Now I ask you – who’s the true heroine of the two?

What’s your take on arranged marriages?  Do you think there’s a cultural element to it (e.g. Asian vs. Western, modern vs. historical)?  What do you think of arranged marriages in Ravishing the Heiress and other romance?

– Jean AAR

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