Pity the poor traditional Harlequin hero—it used to be enough to be a Millionaire Italian Stallion to win the hot Heroine Virgin Bride, but in these difficult economic times, he won’t get to first base unless he’s a billionaire. A million dollars or euros just don’t go as far as they used to.
Billionaires are all the rage in contemporary romance these days—I have a friend whose editor asked her to come up with a trilogy of them—but grade inflation has also been taking place in historical romance. It used to be that any kind of lord would do. Indeed, the sainted Georgette Heyer had some heroes that had no title at all. Simple Misters!!!! Imagine, it was enough to be a wealthy gentleman. Shocking, isn’t it?
The heart of this is the Cinderella myth of marrying up, and which is part of the fantasy in most romances. It makes perfect sense—most people have to deal with money problems at some point, and some live near the financial edge their whole lives. So it’s great fun to imagine a billionaire whisking you off to his private island in Greece, or the lord making you the lady of his manor.
There are romances that don’t take place at such lofty financial levels, of course—the small town series that are so popular now focus on people with much more normal incomes. But the common theme is that once Cinderella wins the prince, she’ll have more comfort and security for her future. The reason it’s such a strong romance trope is because it’s true in reality: it’s a very fine thing to have food on the table, a roof over the head, and a future where those things will continue to be secure.
Jane Austen wrote wickedly amusing social commentary, but it was based on harsh
reality. In Pride and Predudice, modern readers can see the scary economic realities of her time. Since Mr. Bennet has no son, his entailed property will go a male relative and his five daughters face uncertain futures. Marriage is their best bet for security, but without much in the way of dowries, their prospects aren’t good. If they marry at all, they might have to move down the social scale.
Hence, Jane’s marriage to Mr. Bingley (5000 pounds a year!!) and Elizabeth’s to Mr. Darcy (10,000 pounds a year!!!!) represent not just a social but an economic triumph. Because family was the social net of the day, the other Bennet sisters will be assured of “three hots and a cot” even if they remain unwed because their well married older sisters will look out for them. Being a spinster aunt and companion isn’t ideal, but it beats being homeless. (Lydia will be no help, though. She and the appalling Wickham will regularly try to hit up their brothers in law for handouts.)
That’s the economic reality buried amongst the billionaires and dukes: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better.”
How much money one needs to feel rich is an interesting question. I suspect that I’d find a billion dollars oppressive rather than comforting. Quite apart from having trouble imagining that amount of money, I know that fortunes on that order require a lot of tending, and tending money is boring.
So I don’t need a billionaire, but how many millions would it take to allow me to feel rich? Two million? Five million? Hard to say. I once read that most people consider “rich” to be somewhat more than they have. In an African village, the rich guy might be the one who has a concrete floor in his hut rather than dirt. In Beverly Hills, it’s safe to say that the amount is much higher. <G>
Do we need a duke??
To bring these musings back to historical romance, I freely admit that I enjoy throwing titles around, though I’ve written several books where the title belongs to the lady and her true love is a commoner. But I try to avoid rank inflation. There weren’t all of that many dukes around, so I only use that title when I want to make a particular point.
Most of my heroines have at least a dash of Cinderella in them because they’re seldom wealthy. Often they must make their own way in a society that doesn’t have a lot of options. But by the end of the book, they have secure futures.
I write the stories that way because that’s how I like books to end when I’m reading. Some years ago, I read a Scottish Rising historical romance. The sensible and well grounded heroine, who is loyal to the British crown, ends up falling for a handsome Jacobite. At the end, they run away from everything without much more than the clothes on their backs. I did NOT like that. (And wouldn’t like it even if I had a better opinion of Bonnie Prince Charlie.)
This is probably not unrelated to the fact that I know a number of women who have bag lady fantasies, particularly those who are unmarried and/or self-employed. (A fantasy writer friend of mine just bought her first house, and a major motivation for the purchase was so she needn’t fear ending up single and impoverished and potentially homeless, which is a very real fear for writers in a difficult market and rising rents.)
I should note that despite my wanting to see characters financially secure, in my own life I’ve chosen creative fun over common sense every time. Perhaps that’s why I like at least my characters to be secure. <G>
All of this contributes to why marrying money fantasies are so inherent in romance, whether it’s mega-money or modest comfort. The commitment at the heart of a romance often implies building a family, and a woman wants security for her children as well as herself. She wants a man who she can trust on all levels: that he’ll be kind, loving, faithful—and that he’ll provide well enough to protect their offspring.
I’ve read that success is getting what you want, and happiness is wanting what you get. People who enjoy the small things of life and are content with what they are better off than those that are never satisfied.
So what degree of material comfort and security do you like to see in your romances? Or in your own life? What is wealth? And how much is enough?