“Will you marry me? You would be well advised to say no.”
These are the words Edmond uses to propose to Mary in Mary Balogh’s The Notorious Rake. I first read it well over a decade ago, but it remains my favorite proposal in all of romance. And as a veteran reviewer of nearly twelve years, I’ve seen my share. Because I’ve seen so many, the unusual proposals stand out, and are duly noted. Also duly noted: A new Disturbing Trend, one you’ve probably noticed too. Heroines can no longer accept their first proposal from the hero. No matter how logical it may be, no matter how much they love the guy, they just can’t say yes the first time around.
Oh, we all know why. It’s because he didn’t ask right . The scenario goes like this: Hero and heroine have sex. It is 1815. She might be pregnant, because hey, it’s 1815. The hero, who has been in love with the heroine forever but just didn’t realize it, is secretly thrilled. Now, finally, he has an excuse to do what he’s been wanting to do for some time, which is ask this gorgeous woman to marry him so they can have sex legally whenever they feel like it. So he gets down on one knee, professes his regard and his fervent hope that she will accept his hand. Only to hear, “I can’t marry you! I won’t force you to marry me just because I am ruined and might possibly be pregnant!” Never mind that those are actually excellent reasons for getting married in 1815, particularly if you love someone anyway.
We all know what the heroine is waiting for – a pretty profession of love. Granted, if it happened in the middle of the book, the book might be over too soon. I am not really faulting the heroes, because after all they love the heroines and are bumbling through the best they know how, even though they are doing it all wrong. I blame the heroines, who should, I think, say yes occasionally, even if the hero has botched the wording. I’d like them to take an optimistic leap forward, trusting that even if the hero hasn’t said he loves them yet, he eventually will. I’d like them to have the common sense to realize that in the times they live in, they could do far worse than marry the man they love before he has said exactly the right words.
I should clarify that I am talking only of historicals. Life is different now; we have reliable, readily available birth control, and a variety of family structures. Single parents are not as stigmatized, and in most circles, brides are not expected to be virgins on their wedding day. That’s not to say that all women abstained from sex before marriage 200 years ago either. I actually did my senior thesis in college on illegitimacy rates in the 18th century (and yes, it was an interesting ice breaker at parties). There were plenty of pregnant brides and “early” babies, but for the most part people knew that a choice to have sex meant that marriage would soon follow, unless the man was an absolute bounder. And while I’m not an absolute stickler for historical realism, the sheer number of “I-can’t-marry-you-until-you-ask-me-right” heroines verges on both the unbelievable and the cliche. It’s getting to the point that I cringe when I see the proposal scene coming, because I already know what’s going to happen, and I already know I won’t like it.
That’s not to say that two proposals can’t ever work. No one would have expected Elizabeth Bennett to say yes to Mr. Darcy the first time he asked. Not only was it completely unexpected; he asked her in an arrogant, high-handed way. But then Elizabeth hadn’t just been banging him the night before either. If she had, the proposal wouldn’t have come as such a surprise.
Maybe I just have a soft spot for guys who can’t quite express their feelings exactly right. My own husband sort of forgot to propose. He told me he loved me, and said he wanted to marry me – forgetting that there was supposed to be a question involved in the process. I guess I said yes to the unasked question, but I did make him re-propose a month later – in the center of Disneyland, with a Mickey Mouse ring (which fit our budget at the time), and an actual question. That was almost 21 years ago. I have a better ring now, but I’m glad I stuck with the same guy – even if he kind of forgot to propose the right way.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite romance novel proposal? Does the “Propose right!” phenomenon drive you crazy?
– Blythe AAR