Adele Ashworth on her Virgin Widow
I’ve been reading romance novels for a long time. A long time. Now, it’s true that for the first twenty-five years or so of my personal romance reading, there wasn’t any place for discussion of what I liked and disliked as there is now on the Internet. I simply read what was available to me and accepted the stories for what they were.
But today is different. I think it’s wonderful that readers can now gather “virtually” to talk about which books and authors we enjoy and/or dislike. It’s opened up a world of great books, with differing ideas and attitudes, for many of us. But what truly stuns me is how vitriolic many readers are about certain issues — like virginity — in works of fiction. Doesn’t anything go in fiction?
Of course I realize that for most of us liberal-minded, educated women of middle age (like myself), we remember and are very much aware of just how suppressed female sexuality has been through the history of time, and how fortunate we all are to be able to live in a modern world where we can make our own sexual, and reproductive, choices. In fact, we’re generally very vocal about it. I know many of you who become irate when you read about the virgin widow in a romance novel, even in an historical romance, can speak for a lengthy span of time about it. It’s obviously a hot button for a lot of readers. I understand how the heroine’s virginity or lack thereof can make for an absorbing discussion but what I really don’t understand is: why the anger? And I mean I really, really don’t understand it.
I found it interesting to read many of the comments about the “virgin widow” on the latest ATBF Message Board. As most are now aware, my book, Duke of Sin, featured a “virgin widow”… sort of. Laurie offered me this opportunity to clear the air about my book, my thoughts on the issue, and my publisher’s decisions to make changes to the book, and so I’m going to do just that.
First, before I get to specifics from the board, let me say that the heroine in Duke of Sin is not a widow. She poses as a widow. Yes, that’s kind of a spoiler, but in my view a very, very minor one, just as I thought the virginity thing was a minor issue. But because, through most of the book, the reader thinks Vivian, the heroine, is still married, my publisher was concerned that having her engage in sexual acts with the hero would turn off more conservative readers because technically the hero and heroine would be committing adultery. However, if it’s discovered that she’s a virgin when the hero and heroine consummate the relationship, there would obviously be more involved (and in my mind more interesting questions), like … why didn’t her husband sleep with her? What happened to him? Why hasn’t she taken a lover? What is she thinking in terms of her continued virginal state?
I can’t speak for other publishers or writers, but in my case, as I was writing Duke of Sin, I really believed there would be more scuttlebutt regarding the issue of why the heroine’s husband didn’t sleep with her rather than why she was a married/widowed virgin. I thought I was doing really well to come up with something other than the “gay husband” approach; I used opium addiction and impotence instead. But immediately upon the book’s release last November, on the AAR Reviews Board, lots of people jumped in, upset with me and/or my publisher, regarding something I thought was a non-issue. A couple of readers said they read and enjoyed the book to the point of consummation, then “threw it down in disgust.” To say I was floored by this reaction is an understatement. I mean, the hero discovers she’s a virgin after their first encounter, she explains it, and that’s that. After less than a two or three paragraph discussion between the two, it’s hardly mentioned again and the story continues regarding her husband and what happened to him, the hero’s murder charge of five years previously, the bad guys, the kidnapping and extortion plot, the rescue, the near-death scene, the “I love yous” and on and on and on. The hero couldn’t care any less about her virginal state; he’s falling in love with her.
So why were readers so mad? The only answer I can fathom is that readers feel they read too many books with the “ploy” of keeping the heroine’s virginity intact until she meets the hero. I’m sure there are a lot of these stories published each year, but I can guarantee to all of you, without any doubt whatsoever, that there is no “virginity conspiracy” going on in the Big Apple. Sure, in real life virgin widows were probably rare, even in historical times, but ultimately, shouldn’t each book be judged for its own writing, plot, character development, and how the author uses such plot devices? The same so-called ploy may be used in lots of books, but then so are marriage of convenience stories. There isn’t a “marriage-of-convenience conspiracy” going on in New York, either.
I’d like to address a few reader comments that struck me while reading the recent ATBF discussion on the topic of virginal heroines.
First, maggie b.writes:
“I am not someone who demands experience in every heroine and has a “down with virgins” attitude. But this is something that truly sends me over the edge. It seems to send a message that sex of any type — even what would typically be deemed “good girl” sex (surely you are allowed this within a marriage??)– completely “ruins” a woman. The underlying message of the Virgin Widow seems to be that virginity is not just preferred in a romance heroine but required.”
I don’t think authors or publishers intend to send forth a message that sex of any kind “ruins” a woman. Frankly, I don’t think editors, marketers, booksellers, authors, and publishers think very deeply about such a thing. Remember, the sex in a romance novel is a very small part of the whole book. All the work that goes into one particular book is about making that book salable. However, since publishers will publish what the majority of readers buy, in a sense, if books with virginal heroines sell better than books with sexually experienced heroines, then yes, I would say that although virginal heroines aren’t required, simply from a sales standpoint they are likely preferred.
Carol M. follows with:
“What a wonderful explanation of why I absolutely can’t read books with this theme. I’m totally disgusted by the idea that virginity is so important that even if a woman has been married, she should still be a virgin when she meets the hero. I bought Duke of Sin by Adele Ashworth, but didn’t read it when I found out that the publisher had insisted that her widow become a virgin. There is almost no possible plot point in a romance that can make me more angry or make me avoid future books by an author who uses it.”
First, in defense of my publisher, they never insisted that my heroine be a virgin when she meets the hero. What actually happened was that my editor was concerned that as readers learned the heroine’s husband was still alive, in the first chapter, I might add (even though she was posing as a widow to everyone, including the hero), they would be more disconcerted by the heroine committing adultery than by any other factor, especially when readers still knew nothing about the husband or his life with the heroine. I happened to agree with them and so took their suggestion that I rework the plot. What’s not been revealed is that my publisher never said she had to be a virgin widow. I could have created Vivian any way I chose. If her husband was dead – truly dead – then nobody in New York would have blinked at her having a long and satisfying sexual past until she met the hero. In the end I was quite pleased with the changes to the plot and character because I thought they made the heroine’s life more interesting, and it made the hero more interested in her past and why she remained a virgin— something I could delve into more deeply in character study than just an average, everyday sexually experienced widow. Average, everyday sexually experienced widows are fine; Duke of Sin just wouldn’t have been the same story with one of them.
Next, Liz A commented:
“…I usually enjoy Adele Ashworth a lot, but when I read that the heroine was a virgin despite being married for years and years, I felt this was not the book for me. It just doesn’t ring true to me. It just seems forced. there are good reasons why somebody is a virgin, but they never get used. I could understand it in a small community (frontier farm or something like that) with strict moral values, where all the guys were married to people the heroine knows and respects – then, maybe, yes. But an aristocrat in the 19th century? no.”
I think comments like this trouble me the most, not because there are readers who don’t like my books or plots or characters, but because many readers decide before reading a book — and this could be any author’s book(s) — that they won’t like it due to one small and perhaps insignificant thing they’ve heard or read about on an Internet message board.
What concerned me initially with the release of Duke of Sin was that the “virgin widow” issue came out immediately after publication on the AAR Reviews Board. There was a lot of talk about it, and I suspect there were a number of people who might have purchased it to read, or wanted to read it because of the DIK status it received, who then never did because the “virgin widow” plot point was revealed when really no such plot point existed— at least not in the sense that it was described. But what has maybe not been said is that Duke of Sin sold very, very well, and in general reader feedback has been extremely positive. Could this be because the majority of romance novel readers tend to enjoy conservative plots and/or characters? I don’t know, although it’s certainly a possibility. There’s no way of knowing how many AAR board lurkers out there purchased the book because the heroine is a virgin, even a married virgin, but I think it’s food for thought.
I do know that those who frequent and post on the AAR boards do not seem to typify the average American romance novel readers. They can’t possibly when sales say otherwise. And for publishers, sales are everything. Period. Sales are the only real way they have of determining what the public demands. As it’s been said here and elsewhere numerous times, publishing is a business, and what’s selling is what’s printed and put out there for reader consumption. Babies sell, brides sell, millionaires sell, clinch covers sell, rakes sell, aristocrats sell, Regency Historicals sell, and yes, virgins sell, even widowed ones. When, month after month, publishers try new things — like, for instance, flowers on a cover of a non-big-name author’s latest release (because big-name authors can sell by name) — that book won’t sell nearly as well as a cover displaying a bare-chested rake holding a barely clad, and probably virginal, heroine. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. But just because lots of readers, and authors, would prefer it, no publisher is going to change it until sales start suggesting flowers, not clinches, is what’s selling. And this goes for virginal heroines.
My personal opinion is that the majority of romance novel readers really want the hero to be the one for the heroine, not just in love and spirit, but in flesh as well. The United States is, by all accounts, a conservative nation, which means we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that the majority of romance novel readers prefer a conservative book. This is neither right nor wrong, it just is. But that certainly doesn’t mean those who work in publishing, from the author to the bookseller and everyone in between, share these conservative attitudes and try to push them on everyone.
In the end I think I, and many other authors I know, will continue to write what we want, creating our own twists to standard plots, with the inspiration and input and suggestions from our marvelous editors and publishers. They know what sells, what the public wants (which is always drifting with the tide), and try to steer us toward writing the best — and the best selling — book possible. We authors know what we love to read and will always try to mesh our ideas with what our publishers think will build our careers, not diminish them.
One final note about conservative readers: My third book was entitled Winter Garden . It’s a luscious story about a sexually experienced, 29-year-old woman who wants a sexual, no-strings-attached relationship with the hero. He, in turn, is in love with her from page one and withholds sexual contact with her until at least half-way into the book when he finally needs to express his love as he gives in to her. When I wrote it, I intentionally wanted to turn the tables on the standard love story, and by all accounts it was a success. Winter Garden won as Best Romance in AAR’s 2001 reader poll, and has received continued praise for being “different” from the standard virginal heroine/rakish hero storyline. Readers still talk about it more than any other book I’ve written. However, just recently, this reader review was posted at Amazon.com, which I have to say I found rather interesting if not a little disheartening:
“This is the first review I have written for Amazon, although I have been with them for many years. But I feel driven to say that this book is trashy. I was expecting a lovely romance (it has a nice title and I guess I was naive.) But there is little or no plot to this book, and it seems to be simply a vehicle for inserting torrid sex scenes, one after another. I have read less erotic stories in Penthouse and Playboy. No doubt there are readers who want that kind of writing, and I don’t object to their having it, but I think it is wrong to label this book a romance novel; it is simply pornography, and should be labeled as such. I have read my share of both and know the difference. I shall avoid this author in the future.”
To each her own, I suppose. But maybe publishers aren’t that far off base when it comes to knowing what readers — in general — want to read in a romance novel.