One of the many things that makes Charlotte so great is that she is unapologetically sexual. She's creative in bed, versatile and enthusiastic. She's perfect for Cooper, who's frankly stalled in adolescence and is this close to being a sex addict. She's so good at sex that she's established a practice dealing with sexual performance and dysfunction. Oh, and she can renovate their bathroom, too.
Charlotte is precisely the character I think of when I read posts on Dear Author and elsewhere about how romance novels need more sexually confident women. Damn straight they do, and as we already have some pretty classic (and misleading) sexual tropes in romance (the simultaneous orgasm comes, you will forgive the expression, to mind), why not start introducing more women like Charlotte? She has never, and will never, apologize for being sexually experienced and proficient. Nor should she.
[Honest, if you haven't seen Private Practice, tape a couple episodes and watch just for KaDee Strickland's character. Although, personally I love it all. It's medical ethics with tears & tissues.]
I know I've given the impression of not favoring this movement to get Romance Fiction women (specifically, but not exclusively, heroines) to be more like Real Life women. But that's not my position. Here's what I believe:
- Yes, Romance Fiction women should be more like Real Life Women. I don't take a position on what percentage of RF women need to be more like Charlotte (my exemplar for the sexually experienced and unapologetic female), but I completely agree that more women in romance novels should be more like Charlotte.
- Each romance novel should be judged on its own merits. If it has a virgin heroine but is otherwise a good romance, then I'll all for that author's choice to make her heroine a virgin. There are virgin women in Real Life -- not very many by the time they're old enough to merit an HEA, but a few -- and maybe this is a book about one of those very few women. But understand -- to my mind, the author of a virgin heroine romance has a tougher hill to climb to convince me that her heroine is sensible, smart, autonomous, etc., particularly as virginity well into one's 20s seems counter-intuitive.
- Real Life women come in a range of sexual identities, so it's not unreasonable for Romance Fiction women to also come in a range. It's a bell-shaped curve of sorts: the virgins at one end (statistically infrequent but not the null set) and Charlotte at the other end. I consider Charlotte to be a narrow-end type simply because she is so proficient and experienced; I don't think many RL or RF women own a black latex cat suit.
- Historical fiction doesn't operate by the same rules as contemporary romances. Sorry, but it's true. In Real Life, 19th century women were almost all economically dependent on a man (father, brother, uncle, husband); the few professions for women were class specific (so even in poverty, a genteel woman would not have been able to get a job as a domestic servant) or outside the cultural norm (actress, opera dancer, etc.), and virginity -- or rather the appearance of complete sexual propriety -- was a fundamental element of a young woman's value as a spouse and mother. Once she'd married, the rules changed.
Authors of historical romances must then juggle the degree of historical accuracy, the degree of modern cultural sensibilities, and the need for internal consistency that every romance novel has. One reason Loretta Chase's Don't Tempt Me didn't bother me is that she found a historically accurate quirk (the tendency of certain Englishmen and women to travel to foreign parts) and exploited that to come up with a different sort of heroine. If Zoe had been deflowered in the harem, that loss of value might have been the end of her hopes for a Society marriage. But instead, she's both a Charlotte and a virgin! How novel, and yes, how unbelievable in any statistical sense -- but Chase managed to win me over, so Rule #2 was satisfied. I would say the same about every historical romance where a) the heroine is a virgin, b) isn't a virgin, c) is a mistress/courtesan/paid sex worker, d) in love with a Duke of Slut, or e) in love with a Duke of Discretion: They have to work as romances and to the extent the author has deviated from the cultural norms of the 19th century, she'd better make it work.
- Finally -- and this is where I have gotten in trouble -- there has to be a reason why we don't get enough Charlottes in our romances. (As opposed to sheer random chance.) Here are the reasons I can think of, any or all of which may be at work:
- Authors aren't writing Charlotte romances so that even if publishers wanted more Charlotte romances, they aren't getting the manuscripts to reflect that.
- Authors are writing Charlotte romances but they get rejected because publishers (or big box store reps, or whoever) don't want Charlotte romances.
- Authors have written Charlotte romances that got published, but readers haven't bought them in sufficient numbers to push publishers to seek out more Charlotte romances.
It was with high hopes, then, that I read First Kiss by Marilyn Pappano. Her heroine, Holly, is presented as being more like a guy when it comes to sex: she has serial affairs, she doesn't want anything but sex from the men she sleeps with, and she's definitely good in bed. But she's no Charlotte, and I'll tell you why.
First off, let me say I liked everything about this book except for the first 135 pages, and the two angels. Other than those minor details, it was a great read. On page 136, the hero, Tom Flynn, asks Holly to marry him. He's not in love with her; she's not in love with him. Her counter-offer (he's a corporate lawyer so it's all about the deal for him) is no thanks to the marriage, but she would love to have sex. He declines that offer, and counters with no sex, no marriage (for now) and how about if they date. Get to know each other. What makes this fun is that neither of them know how to date, where dating is defined as conversation and a nice meal but no sex.
What keeps Holly from being a Charlotte is her motivation for being so sexually active. Turns out she has daddy issues, and lost her virginity as a teenager (and didn't enjoy the sex), then "did it" again and again with different guys. Boys rejected her as being "easy." She doesn't value herself as a result. Trust me -- it's all in there. She's not a Charlotte, she's a woman who has a legitimate reason to find it hard to trust, so she figures any man who will sleep with her will also leave her. She rejects Tom's marriage proposals over and over until finally he gets it that this deal isn't happening.
It's actually got a nice emo-porn ending, and on balance I quite liked the book. (Too bad about the first third, which dragged so badly I really despaired of ever finishing it.) So, other than my reservations, it passes my Rule #2: it holds up on its own terms. Pappano wanted to write a book about a sexually experienced woman who hadn't yet figured out that having great sex isn't the same as making love. When she learns to love, the sex is better, yes, but the context has completely changed -- and, for the first time, when the guy leaves she's devastated.
Just a word on the angels: No. These characters were smart enough to get there on their own. Supernatural interference shouldn't be necessary.
I'm still looking for good Charlotte contemporary romances. Arm Candy by Jo Leigh had a sexually confident heroine but it didn't satisfy my Rule #2, as it just wasn't very romantic: All the emotional stuff was shoehorned into the final ten pages or so. It's possible I've already read and loved a Charlotte romance but didn't recognize it as such at the time. Two candidates come to mind: Linda Howard's To Die For, which I know I loved -- enough to lend it to a non-romance reader who doubtless donated it to charity; time to buy it again! -- Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Ain't She Sweet. I am actively soliciting suggestions for more titles; leave a comment please.
And yes, I have a Charlotte in mind for a future book I want to write. I'd better obey my own Rule #2!