I read Courtney Milan’s latest book last night and this morning. I really, really liked it. One of the things I like about it is the way it ends. I’m not going to spoil it for you but I am going to say what I did on twitter earlier. I think Free epitomises the ‘undiminished heroine’. That is, she ends the book with more opportunities and choices than she had at the start. She has her man, yes, of course. She has love, deep and fierce and real. She’s had to make choices and compromises. But when Edward says to his brother, “Haven’t you figured it out? I married her to unleash her on the world, not to keep her under wraps” we know that he means it, and that Free as Edward’s wife will be herself, only more so. He’s in a position to open doors for her at a practical level, but more importantly he doesn’t want her to change who she is, he wants to give her freedom to flourish. It’s not all about her, of course. He will be stronger and better with Free at his side than he would have been alone, and that is important too.
Something about the undiminished heroine trope speaks very strongly to me. It is the ultimate romantic fantasy for me. Not only that a woman should be loved so deeply and strongly, but also that being loved does not take away her choices. As Ridley put it on twitter, it’s a question of agency. The undiminished heroine does not lose agency by virtue of loving and being loved. She doesn’t always get to have it all, but she gets to make her own choices and compromises, and she will expect her man to do the same. Where there are compromises to be made, it won’t be assumed that she will be the one making them. Both parties will be stronger together and will work to give each other their dreams, whatever they happen to be. It’s not always about her getting the career or the external validation, but it is about self-realisation. She gets to decide who she will be. I want that. I want the fantasy that says I can be loved without giving up any of my dreams.
But there are other fantasies too and sometimes I want those. Miss Bates mentioned Betty Neels and it’s true, her heroines do not really fit into the undiminished mould. Whatever their aspirations are at the start of the book, however competent they are to achieve them, by the end they are given over wholly to the hero. A Betty Neels heroine always ends up as a wife, whose role is to run the house and have children. She’ll have gifts lavished upon her and all sorts of luxuries. She’ll be taken care of and provided for. She’ll be rescued.
When I’m tired. When life is hard. When I’m lonely or sad. When I’m not sure how I’m going to pay next month’s bills. That’s when I want a Betty Neels book. That’s when I want this sort of ending. To lie back and trust someone else to look after me. It sounds blissful, for about five minutes. And then I remember the sort of person that I am and realise that actually, I don’t want that life at all. I don’t want someone who’ll make all my decisions for me, on the assumption that he knows me better than myself. I don’t want everything that I am to be subsumed into my love for another person. I still want to be me.
How about a more realistic ending? One that does involve sacrifice. One that means making hard choices and giving up things that are important, because the relationship is more important. I like those books, too. I like heroes and heroines who have to talk about stuff like grown ups and can’t find an easy way to solve all the problems. I like that they have to commit to each other and forge a relationship based on compromise. I think those endings can be very satisfying, but for me, they aren’t quite the fantasy. They’re hopeful, because they paint a picture of what life might really be like, but they do leave me yearning for a better world.
That’s something that Free says, too. She isn’t turning the world upside down. It’s already upside down and she’s trying to set it straight. I think romance novels can do that, a little bit. At least they can show us what the world could be like, rather than what it is like.
By nature, I’m a hopeless idealist. I can’t get my head round politics because I just want to throw it all out and start from scratch. I’m not very good at working out the best way to deal with how things are, and I much prefer to think about how they ought to be. So I guess that’s why I like best the endings which offer me the fullest promise. I want to believe, at least for the time that it takes me to read a book, that the world can be re-made in order to make two lovers happy.