I wish I could read the way I did when I was fourteen: I went through eight library books in a week (the legal limit), plus rereading books, and working my way through the spinner racks at the drugstore. I read comic books, classics, SF, historicals, mysteries, Regency romances. I read a huge amount of romantic suspense–and its down-market cousin, the Gothic.
Gothics had nothing to do with dark eyeshadow, macabre jewelry, or black Doc Martens. The form arose from 18th century novels like The Castle of Otranto: a young, innocent woman comes as a stranger to a place where she is buffeted by turbulent familial or social currents, falls in love with the brooding master of the house, misidentifies threats to her life (or thinks the peril emanates from the object of her affections), nearly loses her life, and lives happily ever after.* The covers were almost always the same: brooding castle in the background, scantily clad heroine running away from unseen menace in the foreground.
I read these things by the carton-full. And while I was impressionable at that age, one of the things that did not impress me was the character of some of the heroines. Many of them combined the least useful aspects of the babysitting teens in slasher movies, the gullibility of PT Barnum’s suckers, and the neurotic selflessness of Pacient Griselda. Even at 14 I thought they were mugs; part of the fun of reading the books was my internal monologue: “What part of Don’t Go Into the Forbidden Wing of the Castle are you missing?!” But it was more than just having no common sense; many of these heroines were just soggy. They had no confidence, they had no skills (those who were not governesses often had some non-specific female-friendly job that let them roam around getting into trouble). Some of them–the Barbara Cartland-inflected ones, anyway–were so breathless they couldn’t seem to get from one end of a sentence to the other without heavy use of ellipses. And I used to wonder, is there something appealing about this feebleness that I’m missing? Is this who these writers want to be when they grow up?
Sometimes, for plot reasons, your heroine has to go into the dark room or down the dark alley. But even at 14 I thought there must be ways to set a situation up so that Our Heroine didn’t look like an idiot for doing so. (And there’s just no reason to go poking into a dark cellar in your bra and panties.) People do things all the time that seem like the right idea at the time and turn out to be breathtakingly stupid in retrospect. I respect that as a plot mechanism–as a matter of fact, if it’s done well it can be terrific (want to see it done right? Watch an early episode of ER called “Love’s Labors Lost”).
It comes down to this: when I read those books with the fleeing heroines on the cover, the ones I enjoyed most were not the most Romantic; they were the ones with the smart, able heroines who got in over their heads, realized it, and kept swinging anyway. They were the ones who stood up to the Brooding Hero, were sympathetic to his pain but got impatient with the brooding thing. If they were hoping for love, that wasn’t all they were looking for. They earned their happy ever after. Bonus points for a sense of humor and no ellipses.
*Jane Eyre is often considered to be the ur Gothic. Jane Eyre is my favorite book, but while there are congruencies, there’s centuries more going on in Jane Eyre. But that’s a whole different post.