At the Back Fence Issue #203

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

July 1, 2005

We bring you two wonderful – and very different – segments in this issue of At the Back Fence. First up is Anne Marble’s look at Redemption in Romance. Then Robin Uncapher takes us on a personal historical journey to help us start thinking about the romance in our own pasts.

Redemption in Romance (Anne Marble)

Redemption is more than just getting money back on a coupon. It can also be a powerful theme in a romance novel. Some readers can’t get enough of stories about redemption. Some hate this kind of story, often because so many redemption romances have sputtered out or turned out to be utterly lacking in believable redemption, or in some cases, because the heroine so often gets to do all the saving. Others simply hate this type of story because they hate reading about the hero and/or heroine doing bad things to each other.

As for me, I’m going to paraphrase Harold S. Kushner and ask “How good do heroes and heroines have to be?” Some of the greatest stories come from the flaws of the main characters. If those flaws drive them to hurt each other, so much the better – as long as they pay for their sins and make it up somehow, and as long as the sin isn’t unforgivable. Oh, and of course, as long as the writing is good, but that’s another story. But given those caveats, I love redemption romances. I love the elements of sin and vice, betrayal, grovel, and eventual forgiveness.

After all, I started reading romances in the days of bodice rippers and rampant alpha heels. I was used to stories where the “heroes” betrayed the heroines or accused them of sleeping around or kidnapped them, and then made it up just by saying “I did it because I love you” at the end. Blech! Don’t get me wrong, I loved the tension, but I hated the payoff (or lack of it). When I first found books where the heroes did bad things and made it up at the end, I wanted to read more books like that. And believe me, I looked for them.

First, exactly what is a redemption romance? Many (if not most) romances are about people getting over emotional troubles that keep them apart, working together to overcome the ghosts of the past. Few romances are about balanced people who meet and fall in love. Heck, what’s the fun in that? So what makes a redemption romance different from all the rest?

Although opinions may (probably) differ, redemption stories go beyond the usual tale of characters with troubled pasts. In the redemption romance, there is more than just the idea of getting over the past. Instead, in these stories, one of the characters does something bad, maybe more than one thing, usually to the other character, and must make up for it by the end. (There are books where they don’t make it up at the end – I call them “annoying.”) Yuri thinks that redemption stories go beyond merely being about tortured heroes and tormented heroines. Instead, they are “about someone who for whatever reason has behaved badly in systematic fashion – has been a bad person, and by the end of the book has been redeemed. Of course, given that morality differs between people, what makes someone a bad person is going to differ among readers.”

As that definition sounds better than mine, I’ll use it. As with any other type of romance, redemption stories have their supporters and detractors. Also, as with any other type of story, most people fall into that vast gray area of “It depends.” They’ve liked some redemption romances, hated others, and agree that it all depends on the characters, whether or not the HEA is believable, the type of wrong involved, and so forth.

Candice falls in the “It depends” category. These stories work for her if the hero has already started working on redeeming himself when the heroine comes along. In these stories, while the heroine helps give the hero an incentive, he has to play a part in redeeming himself, too. Some of her favorite examples include Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night and Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You. On the other hand, she hates “stories that show a jackass hero who is ‘saved’ by the love of a good woman. He does nothing – just having this woman fall in love with him cures him. Often it’s impossible to figure out why the heroine would fall in love with such a jackass.”

Of course, the most important standard most readers have is that the story must be well-written. kur likes redemption stories, but they must be well-written ones because she “can’t stand any poorly churned out cr @p regardless of theme.” Other than that, she says, “Bring me your tortured, your flawed, your socially outcast!” kur believes that in some form or another, most great romances are about redemption. She doesn’t have hot button issues that get in the way – except that she insists on good writing, of course. Elle also likes well-done redemption stories, with the emphasis on well-done. Part of the attraction for her is that she likes flawed heroes and heroines, and realizes that when the characters are that flawed, they need to be redeemed. Her recommendations for well-written redemption stories include Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, Laura Kinsale’s Seize the Fire, and Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Shadows. She hates redemptions that come out of left field, however, wanting the change to be gradual and believable.

Dick also puts in a vote for good writing. He thinks the problem readers have with some redemption stories is not so much the redemption element but “that the redemption is too quick, too facile, too much a deux ex machina device to end with an HEA.” Dick believes that if the author plants enough clues throughout the story, then they can make a redemption believable, no matter how unlikable the character. And that if the story doesn’t work, then it’s the fault of the author.

Generally, I agree in blaming the author when the book doesn’t work. However, with redemption stories, I’ve seen many cases where a book has as many fans as it has detractors. Some of the best known and most beloved stories of redemption are also the most controversial. In those cases, I think the author can only be credited with creating a book that moves so many people, even if some of the people are only moved to rant about how much they hated the hero.

Mention some redemption books on a message board, and you’ll end up with discussions (or arguments) over whether or not the hero was redeemable. There are a lot of heroes who worked for some, and didn’t work for others. Sebastian in Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, for example. Or Rome of Linda Howard’s controversial Sarah’s Child. Then there’s the hero of MJP’s Dearly Beloved. Some people believed in his redemption all the way, others wanted to shoot Gervase and bury him in a well so that the heroine could find someone else.

The Hero Redeemed

Just as most recovery and addiction romances are about the hero as addict, most redemption romances are about the redemption of the hero. Yuri prefers romances that are more focused on the hero, and stories that are simply fun. Because most redemption romances are far from fun, and tend to focus on the character being redeemed, she prefers those that focus on the hero rather than those that spend a lot of time on the heroine. Yuri also points out that while some readers think all the responsibility for the redemption is left to the heroine, when the bad behavior comes from boredom, lack of caring, or habit, then having someone who loves you can make a believable reason for the behavior to change.

Some of the romances I remember the most over the years are hero redemption stories – everything from MJP’s Dearly Beloved and The Rake to Kinsale’s Seize the Fire. More recently, I’ve also enjoyed Megan McKinney’s Gentle from the Night, Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Claire’s Angel, and Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold. In To Have and To Hold, the second book of the Wyckerley trilogy, I think there is a two-pronged redemption – Sebastian starts out bad and must be redeemed, but a part of his redemption is saving Rachel from the wall she has built up around herself. (Also, just to show she’s no ordinary writer, Gaffney has the hero redeeming the heroine in the first book of the Wyckerley trilogy, To Love and To Cherish.) Oh, and I even liked the redemption in Elizabeth Lowell’s To the Ends of the Earth, even as I wanted to hit the hero (and at times, the stubborn heroine) over the head with a frying pan. Oh, and how could I forget Anne Stuart’s To Love a Dark Lord, with a hero so bad he tried to convince people that he was committing incest with the heroine.

What is it that is so special about heroes who are redeemed? I think xina has it right when she says “I like the redemption plot when the heroine eventually has the upper hand and is calling all the shots. A little grovel on the heroes part doesn’t hurt either.” Maybe what makes the hero redemption so special is that in the best of these stories, the power is given to the heroine. While some people see heroines who redeem heroes as sacrificial lambs, they can be strong and powerful figures, active saviors rather than self-sacrificing doormats.

Other reader favorites include Mary Balogh’s Dancing with Clara (a number of her other traditional Regencies are strong redemption romances as well, including The Notorious Rake and The Obedient Bride), Laura Lee Guhrke’s His Every Kiss (the jury is still out on her more recent book, The Marriage Bed, although AAR’s Jennifer Keirans certainly enjoyed it), SEP’s Kiss An Angel, Claudia Dain’s Tell Me Lies, Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, Karen Ranney’s Upon a Wicked Time, Stuart’s A Rose at Midnight, Joan Johnston’s The Bridegroom and Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades (both revenge stories), Paula Detmer Riggs’ Her Secret, His Child, Diane Farr’s The Fortune Hunter, and Katherine Sutcliffe’s Darkling I Listen . I’d also count many of today’s paranormal romances, such as Christine Feehan’s Carpathian books and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series.

Many of these books aren’t just in my TBR pile, they’re in my “I wish I knew where I had put that book because I really wanted to read it” pile. All those wicked heroes, just waiting for me. Sigh, just the thought of all those larger-than-life tortured sinners of heroes makes my heart go pitter-patter.

Why Can’t a Woman Be Redeemed More Like a Man?

But what about the poor heroines? It’s a sad fact that heroines don’t get to be redeemed as often as heroes. In fact, heroines tended to be the saviors rather than the saved. This annoys a lot of readers. For example, while Kerstin likes redemption stories in other genres, she tends to avoid them in romances because in most cases, the “heroine is a very good woman, much more virtuous in fact than the average woman in the street and usually forgives him far too easily. I don’t care for that combination at all. It is so cliched and one-dimensional that I grind my teeth to pieces with frustration.” She also dislikes this type of story because when the heroine is this saintly, the hero himself doesn’t really have to do much work to redeem himself.

Sherry also hates the way “redemption in Romance seems to become solely the female’s chore, when the heroine is the instrument of redemption, as the ‘angel of the house’ civilizes, renovates, scolds and heals the imperfect, sinning hero. Gee, most of us are doing well if we can keep the house clean … or, in historicals, deal with the servant problem … and now we’re totally responsible for some guy’s overcoming all of his various issues?” She worries that this reflects the way some women think they have to become redeemers themselves, even to the extent of staying in unhealthy relationships and wonders why more romances can’t be critical of this message, transforming it by making the hero clean up his own life or even having the characters help each other.

There may be reasons why heroine redemptions are less prevalent. One reason might be that readers simply prefer to read about a heroine redeeming a hero. For a lot of fans, this is because a vital part of romances is the fantasy aspect of the plot, and what more powerful fantasy is there than reading of a heroine who saves a wretched hero from himself? I wonder, though, why it isn’t an equally powerful fantasy in reading of a hero who saves a heroine from herself?

Another possibility is that it’s so much harder for the writer to get away with a heroine who does wrong. First, while most readers tend to let the hero get away with a lot, they are not so forgiving of the heroine. When Elaine Coffman’s The Fifth Daughter came out, a lot of people hated the spoiled, flirtatious heroine. She had fewer defenders, including one who pointed out that the heroine, for all her flaws, was much less worse than a lot of beloved heroes. Even more controversial was the heroine of SEP’s Ain’t She Sweet, where the heroine was a real bitch during high school, not to mention spoiled and just plain mean. While the story is about Sugar Beth coming back to town after she has grown up, many readers couldn’t get past Sugar Beth’s past. Some readers found it hard to forgive her for her being cruel. For example, Teresa found that heroine “difficult to pity; after all, she had caused a lot of misery, I don’t think a big change in character should excuse having to account for previous bad treatment, saying all sorts of excuses, I was young, stupid etc..” Many readers agreed with her, though others banded together in Sugar Beth’s defense.

Second, there are only so many sins a heroine can get away with. Heroes can be everything from con men to the Duke of Slut to gamblers, but in historical settings (and sometimes in the present), many of those “callings” were closed off to women. It’s hard for a writer to make us believe that a heroine could have done those things and gotten away with it. Maybe that’s why while heroes in need of redemption often get to commit cool crimes, heroines in need of redemption are often spoiled brats, kleptomaniacs, and the like. Also, when heroines do get to commit the “cool” crimes, they can come across as pathetic rather than nifty. A Regency era hero who gambles away a fortune might come across as fascinating, but a heroine who gambles is merely an addict at best.

Still, there are stories where the heroine gets to be redeemed. Examples include Kleypas’ Then Came You, Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart, Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish, Gayle Feyrer’s The Thief’s Mistress, Maggie Osborne’s The Bride of Willow Creek, and Francine River’s much loved inspirationals, Redeeming Love and The Scarlet Thread. I would also count stories where the heroine starts out as a brat or starts out spoiled and has to grow up, such as the heroines of Jill Barnett’s Wicked, SEP’s Honey Moon, and Sandy Hingston’s The Suitor.

And then there are those romances wherein the heroine does something awful, but for all the right reasons…she was forced to do so to protect her mother (as in the love-it-or-hate-it Prisoner of My Desire by Johanna Lindsey), or she thought the hero was responsible for the brutal death of her sister when he’d merely pretended to be a baddie (Barbarian by Kate Douglas). After committing their horrendous acts, the heroes take revenge. In Douglas’ short story, the heroine refused to forgive herself until the hero, by turning the tables, allows for her forgiveness and eventual redemption. As for Lindsey’s book, it’s hard to say whether or not the heroine actually required redemption. Does having the equivalent of a Medieval gun to the head mitigate any action?

Like many readers, as much as I love reading about hero redemptions, I would love to see more heroines redeemed by the hero. I’m even willing to read about bratty or spoiled heroines who grow up over the course of the story. Those stories are hard to pull off – kudos to the authors who take the risk of writing about a heroine they know many readers will hate right off the bat.

The Unforgiven – Redemptions That Didn’t Work

Often, when we read a redemption story, we can buy into the story, no matter what the person does. But sometimes what we accept in a story depends a lot on what we are able to accept in real life. Naava finds it harder to believe the redemption depending on the vice that the character is being redeemed from. First, there are some vices that she just doesn’t like. Also, in some cases, she has a hard time believing the character will simply stop. “For instance: Duke of Slutdom. I find it difficult to imagine a really hardcore womanizer is going to be monogamous no matter how many cows come home. So I don’t like this type of redemption story because it doesn’t jive with my set of beliefs.” On the other hand, Yuri doesn’t mind promiscuity and doesn’t see it as something that must be redeemed, while she does think that infidelity must be redeemed.

But besides those controversial vices, there are some redemption stories that simply don’t work for many readers. What makes one redemption story work and another not? A lot of it, of course, depends on our personal preferences and beliefs. Like Naava, many people don’t like promiscuity and infidelity, so they can’t stand romances where one of the main characters is promiscuous or cheats. Others can accept promiscuity but can’t accept heroes who yell at the heroines, or heroes who try to cheat the heroine out of money or property, or heroes who have violent pasts (such as warriors).

Also, some heroes cross the line so far that they practically fall on their faces. Many readers loathed Patrick Donovan, the hero of MJP’s The Burning Point, who had physically abused the heroine in the past. For example, Teresa “thought that guy was mentally ill and dangerous.” But Lord Anthony, Earl of Clare, the hero of Catherine Coulter’s Devil’s Embrace makes Patrick Donovan look like a saint. Even for 1985, Anthony (I have to resist the urge to call him Lord Jerk) was over-the-top. The heroine was engaged to someone else, the man she “thought” she loved, and Anthony loved her from afar. So he kidnapped her the day before her wedding, held her on his yacht, and in the style of bodice rippers, raped her until the fell in love with him. With a relationship that whack, they should have been sailing on the River of Denial. Even more controversial may be Coulter’s Graelam de Moreton, who was a rapist and villain in Chandra (later Warrior’s Song), only to become the hero and all around nice guy of Fire Song.

So are there some things that heroes simply can’t get away with? There are many varying opinions and lots of different lines that readers draw for themselves. For example, many readers draw the line at rape, while others avoid heroes who cheat on the heroine or become jealous and possessive. Heroines get away with even less, so readers will often avoid bratty or spoiled heroines, flirtatious heroines, and of course, heroines who cheat on the hero.

On the other hand, many readers draw lines but carry erasers because they know that the best authors will make them question their boundaries, or at least erase them for as long as necessary to enjoy the story. I’m one of those. I thought I’d had it up to here with rapist heroes in the 1980s. Then along came Gervase Brandelin in MJP’s Dearly Beloved, and I accepted him, warts and all. (And he had a lot of warts.) And a story about a heroine who chains the hero to her bed and forces him to get her pregnant? I was sure I couldn’t forgive her, but then, I read Prisoner of My Desire, yet another book that is better than it has any right to be.

A Steady Diet of the Stuff?

While I was working on this segment, I started gathering some of the redemption romances I had been meaning to read, both old and new. I dipped into one and then the other before finally reading To Have and To Hold. I read bits and pieces of the others, both the beloved books (The Fortune Hunter) and the notorious (Devil’s Embrace). After a while, I looked at all those redemption stories I had ahead of me and thought, “Can’t I just read a Julia Quinn novel instead?!”

So yeah, I love a well-written redemption stories. But sometimes, I just want to shove those sinners into another room (preferably one holding group therapy sessions) and grab something that’s more fun. I don’t even mind if the characters are somewhat messed up, as long as they avoid hurting each other and don’t seem as if they should go through years of therapy before entering a relationship.

Finding the Romance in Your Past (by Robin Uncapher)

Have you ever wondered about the historical romance and adventure in your family’s past? I’m going to get away from the subject of romance novels here and talk a bit about the romantic stories that all of us have in our own lives.

In my mother’s desk at home, there is an old news clipping which includes the wedding announcement of my father’s grandparents, Gus Taylor and his wife Mary in 1896, in Lonsdale, Rhode Island. It is a fun little story, much more personal than most of the ones that would appear today. The reporter writes that while Gus answered his vows in a “very low voice,” Mary said them quite loudly, giving the impression that she had “long ago made up her mind.”

But what is really delightful about this clipping is not the sweet story of my grandparents nuptials. It is another story that appears on the back of the clipping. According to this news story, a local married politician (I will call him Mr. G) had left the pure and upstanding city of Central Falls, Rhode Island and sneaked off to that den of inequity, Hartford, Connecticut, with his paramour. (Yes they used words like paramour in newspapers in 1890.) Unfortunately for Mr. G, he was recognized! The clerk at the hotel realized that Mr. G’s paramour was not the Mrs. G that Mr. G claimed she was! Needless to say he told Mr. G that the hotel was not “that kind of establishment” and sent them both packing. Mr. G and the ill fated paramour boarded one of the many local trains, apparently thinking they would find another hotel for their illicit romance.

But the clerk at the hotel was not about to allow these two to go break the law elsewhere. He contacted the local railway station about the couple, (New England was crisscrossed with hundreds of local railways at the time) so they could not try the same trick elsewhere. The upstanding men of the railway notified the local authorities and the newspapers and the poor Mrs. G. Word spread like wildfire. A crowd of people gathered at each one of the railroad stops from Hartford to Pawtucket. The couple could not leave the train and soon realized that their plan to check into a hotel was doomed. Rhode Island authorities (the police?) met them and took them into custody.

And Tom Cruise thinks he has problems.

Who were the elderly relatives you met when you were little? Was there a Great Grandma Fern who came to New York alone from Russia after her first husband died? An Aunt Nellie who ran off with “a man” in 1903 and whom you met at a wedding in 1980, when she was a sweet old lady, or perhaps an Uncle Jack who married an Italian after his Irish mother threatened to throw him out? That lady, Aunt Gina, was at your first communion in 1985 at the age of 90. Gee…she looked so conventional. Who knew she would arouse such strong passions in a handsome young Irishman that he would defy his mother and extended family?

Though we read about passion, betrayal, and humor in historical romance novels, we seldom consider that our great grandparents and grandparents were part of the very group we are reading about.

It doesn’t take many generations to get back to Victorian times. Who in your family was alive in 1900? Where did they live? How did they come to America? Australia? Canada? Scotland?

I didn’t really think about this until a few weeks ago when I discovered that I could look at old census records for free, from my house, by using a site available through my local library called HeritageQuest. It was an odd experience. One minute I was tooling around the Internet, finding what was there – the next minute I was gazing at a document more than a hundred years old, written by the census taker who visited my Grandfather Nixon’s home in 1900. There were the names of my aunts and uncles, some of whom I remembered from early childhood. There was the name of my grandfather, the baby of the family, who was ten years old. Someone who had met them all had written this all down and now I could see it, in the fine scrolled handwriting of the 19th century. I could see the names of neighbors, the boarders and the servants, when they had come to America and if they spoke or read English.

One neighbor owned his house and rented to his brother-in-law. He did not work. Had this caused trouble? Another neighbor, a merchant, had four children, two of them boys in their twenties who were in college. Hmm…they were from New York and were native born Americans, unlike everyone else on the street. What had life been like for those children whose neighbors were working in the mills at age 12?

The census records told me all kinds of things that I had never expected to know. One grandfather is a laborer in the 1900 census, but by 1910 he has worked his way up to being a machinist. Another grandfather owns a grocery story in 1900 but by 1910 he has lost his money and works in the bleachery. By 1920 he has a skilled job there but his children have been forced to leave school and work in the mills. I had known all this in a vague kind of way, but I must admit that nothing prepared me for the jolt I felt in seeing my great-grandfather’s comedown in the world in black and white.

The census records gave me a different feeling about Central Falls, a place I had always thought of far from the suburbs of Cumberland – though it is less than ten miles away. In 1900 Central Falls had many mills and the most dense population in the United States. Looking at the names and backgrounds of the people there in 1900 I could not help but believe it was a pretty exciting, though extremely difficult place to live. Sitting at my desk in Bethesda I read the handwritten names of hundreds of people who had come from a handful of small towns in England, Scotland, Ireland and Canada. My grandfather could have knocked on every door for a mile and not found one person with an American-born parent. Adults had been born in times we think of as ancient, 1850, 1860.

And what did all this mean? English and Scottish ancestors get very little play in the American memory and when we read an English romance set in 1880 we seldom consider the numbers of people leaving the places we are reading about. When we think of immigrants we often think of people who left terrible times or persecution – the Irish and the potato famine, the Jews fleeing the pogroms.

But the people of the lower classes in England and Scotland were leaving too – in droves.

It is a strange thing to look at these lists of names when some of them are people you knew. These were people whose mothers and dads grew up in the England of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, an England where seemingly, every person had his place, and was content in remaining there. Except it seems, they were not content, not satisfied, not willing to put their children in service or in Yorkshire mills with the certainty that their grandchildren would be doing the same.

Almost all of the adults of Central Falls arrived in America in the 1880s and 90s. They had jobs like wasp tender and loom fixer, though I did find one whose occupation was driving a four in hand. Most could read and write, but there were exceptions. Most had children – those who did not lived in boarding houses or with aging parents. Some of the children worked, as did nearly all of the teenagers. There are very few old people among them. The aged hadn’t made the trip to the United States.

In this strange world mothers stay home, (undoubtedly trying to find ways to keep an eight person family clean and fed in a house that sports a backyard privy). No one else in the house, except perhaps an aging and widowed mother-in -law is without an outside occupation. They work and work and work and work. The mills run twelve hours Monday through Friday, and a half day on Saturday. People come home tired, with bits of silk, cotton, and wool stuck to their clothing, hair, and faces. They breathe the cotton and suspect there is something bad in that, though no one really knows.

Except for married women, women worked for pay. I had to laugh. All that talk in the 1970s about how women could not hold a job because of “that time of the month.” In my childhood in the 50s and 60s, I never could have imagined so many women working. Pictures of factory workers in the 1950s and 60s are all male. In pictures of factory workers in 1900, at least half are female.

In this odd world men made ten dollars a week. Women and children make seven, but the mills pay better than the shops so people take the mill jobs despite the hard life. Many work for the same English and Scottish companies that employed them in the UK. Workers from the Coats & Clark Mill in Paisley, Scotland work for Coats & Clark in Pawtucket. The Lonsdale Company not only imports workers, they import the bricks from England (English bricks were better quality than American bricks and did not need paint) and build Lonsdale Village. They even build Christ Church, an Anglican church (very high) church where their workers could feel comfortable.

In old copies of Harper’s Bazaar, at the Library of Congress website, I discovered that sickness in Central Falls was on the rise in 1900. The mills sat on the banks of Blackstone river poured their waste into a once beautiful landscape. Children came down with malaria, a disease associated with South America and Africa. Other children got polio and no one knew what to do. Even the children of the wealthy merchants and mill owners were susceptible. Old doctors shook their heads and wondered about progress when they saw diseases that were almost unknown when they were young. In the Library of Congress there are pictures of the sick rooms in the mills that were used to isolate workers when necessary.

And the sight of people in the mills is not what you or I might think. In pictures they are clean and neat. The women wear long graceful skirts, hair that has been fussed with and pulled up in the latest style, blouses that have been washed by hand and ironed. The men wear black trousers and white starched shirts with arm bands to adjust the length. They are proud of having their pictures taken. The clothing is flattering and they are slim and attractive in our eyes, far more attractive than more affluent people of the same period.

203a 203b

But they work so hard and get so little. And all this they do, why? To become Americans. Isn’t that amazing? Can you think of anything more romantic? More exciting? More impossible?

One thing that we Americans have in common (as do most Canadians, Australians and anyone else who comes from a family that emigrated to a new place) is that we all have exciting, and often romantic, stories in our family histories. We take it for granted. It hardly occurs to us that all people around the world do not have family histories that involve somebody trying to do something nearly impossible, and usually succeeding.

To finish off I will tell you and old and very romantic story.

Once upon a time, in a small town in Quebec, there lived a beautiful and well to do French Canadian girl named Blanche. Blanche’s father was a doctor and the family was very comfortable. There was a man to take care of the horses, a laundress, and a couple who lived in a servant’s house on the land. Blanche and her sisters went to boarding school in a convent. Though she loved to read, Blanche cared very little for the rest of school because all she wanted to do, day and night, was play the piano.

Blanche played and played. She would not do math and insisted on copying music during the lessons. When the nuns complained to her father, he just laughed. Blanche was going to be a pianist.

When she was ten Blanche’s mother died, leaving four little girls and a baby boy. Her father was bereft but soon remarried. Blanche hated her stepmother. Her stepmother felt the same.

All Blanche wanted to do was play the piano. She was very, very good. She was wonderful. When she was sixteen her father entered her in the piano competition in Quebec. There were many young musicians there, all competing. Blanche played Chopin and won the gold medal. She was the best young musician in Quebec.

Her father began to make plans. They would go to Paris together, he and his daughter. She would study music and become a pianist. He would study surgery. It was 1908.

Then Blanche’s father caught pneumonia and died.

After that things happened fast. The stepmother picked up her baby and left the children alone. The trustees for the father’s estate arranged for the children to finish school. Blanche, her three sisters and little brother moved into the servant’s house and rented the big house. Naturally they brought the piano.

Blanche still had two years of school left but her future was a worry. There was no money for a trip to Paris or more lessons. A young lawyer wanted to marry Blanche. He loved her. But Blanche still wanted to play. His mother hated Blanche and said that “if you marry that one, you will be eating piano keys for dinner.”

So, when she was 23, Blanche got on a train and went alone to Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Though she had never been away from home except to live at the convent, she took a room in a boarding house run by a French Canadian family. Woonsocket was a French American town with French newspapers and mostly French speakers. But even though her new acquaintances spoke French, no one Blanche met in Woonsocket was anything like her. These were mill people, nice but with rustic accents and little education. It was lonely and Blanche wondered what her father would think of her life. The lawyer wrote to her and sent her clippings from the local paper. Blanche stayed.

To earn a living she took a job playing the organ in church and began to charge for lessons. She taught the mill girls to play instruments – piano, organ, guitar, violin, and eventually the ukulele (which was all the rage). She began to play piano at parties and met Albert, a handsome young man, at church. Albert had a beautiful voice and sang solos. They began to play at parties and got married.

I am sure you have guessed that she was my grandmother. Now isn’t that a romantic story?

Go find your own.

Time to post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

Do you enjoy redemption romances? If so, what it is about them that makes them so powerful? Which have been the best redemption romances you’ve read over the years? If you are a fan of this theme, do they always or nearly always work for you, or have there also been some horrible reads?

On the other side of the fence, if you don’t generally like redemption romances, why do you think that is, and even so, have you read any good ones, and if so, which ones? And, for you, which have been the worst?

Redemption in romance seems far more prevalent for heroes than heroines, which makes us wonder whether or not readers simply accept the idea of a hero needing reform more than they can or do with a heroine. Is that the case, do you think, or is something else at play, perhaps the inherent allure of the bad boy or that a woman reforming a man is more romantic than the reverse?

Romances often focus on the role of the love interest as the impetus or biggest contributor toward reform. In other words, it’s more or less the love of a good woman that leads a man to reform (or, less commonly, the love of a good man causing a woman’s reform). This is romantic for some readers, but for others it is not…it’s too facile or too cliched. What do you think?

Are there limits to behavior you find unredeemable? This harkens back somewhat to our discussion in May on Heroes on the Edge. In addition to considering the most “out there” heroes and heroines that you’ve accepted and those you’ve not, what actions/behaviors of a hero or heroine do you think are unredeemable? Are there some actions/behaviors you never thought you’d accept that somehow worked in a certain romance, and if so, which one?

Robin’s reflections on her family’s history were incredibly poignant. Please share similar stories from your lives and histories so that we can build a collective history of our readers. Also, have you ever tried to research your family’s genealogy, and with what results? What’s your heritage?

Anne Marble & Robin Uncapher

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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