Last night I was re-reading Madam, Will You Talk?, which I haven’t read in, oh, probably ten years. As happens (to me, at least), although I remembered the main plot, there were plenty of things I’d forgotten. One of them is that our heroine, Charity, lost her husband in the war.
This is not the only Stewart where the heroine has a dead husband. Kate Herrick, heroine of Rose Cottage, also lost her husband to the war. But in Rose Cottage, readers don’t know much about him other than that he was wealthy and that the courtship was short because of the war. He’s a cipher, a placeholder in the text.
But this is not true of Johnny, Charity Selborne’s dead husband. He is very much a part of the story of Madam, Will You Talk?. In fact, when Richard, the hero, first meets Charity she is having a nostalgic moment over her dead love. It is in part the things she has learned from her marriage to Johnny that allow her to save herself, and when Richard asks her about their relationship she says:
“What was between me and Johnny was a real thing that we built very carefully for ourselves, and, when we built it, it was perfect and satisfying.“
And yet, the reader has no doubt, as Charity has no doubt, that her second love will be equally perfect and satisfying.
This is not something I see a lot of in modern novels. The idea that a person has only “one true love” or “soul mate” seems to have taken over so that previous relationships fall into several categories:
- the ex was a complete jerk
- the relationship was unsatisfying in some fundamental way
- either the person or the relationship was not as great as they looked on the outside
- the relationship was about to come to an end right before the death
God forbid you should have an ex that you adored but simply couldn’t live with. Or that you loved desperately who died but whose death you are over. (Because, yeah, occasionally I come across a book where the protagonist has a dead spouse, but that’s always the major conflict. It’s never simply part of what made them who they are.)
I tend to write older heroes and heroines than are in the current fashion (the WIP has a heroine who’s 23 — but it’s a Gothic, and that’s part of the Gothic style), so they have previous relationships. If they don’t, there’s a good reason for it. I have yet to write a widowed or divorced heroine — or hero, for that matter — but I’m considering it.
Love may not be a choice, but a relationship is. And love may be easy, but maintaining a relationship isn’t. It takes commitment, dedication, and work. Characters who have made that commitment, done that work, are different from those who have not and it was only after reading the Stewart that I realized how rarely I see them in contemporary romance. It made me sad.