My favorite example comes from Romantic Times' review of Charlotte Hubbard's Journey to Love: "Even though a 16-year-old seeking marriage was common in the 1860s, it is unsettling to read about today." This novel received a whopping one star from RT, largely - it appears - because of the heroine's age, some sexual references, and the "frequent swearing," which the reviewer found offensive. (It's set in the Old West, by the way, and not from a Christian publisher.) It's a matter of taste, but such a novel wouldn't offend me. In fact, the review almost makes me want to buy it!
It's one thing to prefer to read about heroines of one's own age, because one can identify with them more. This is something different. One-star reviews are very rarely given out, and this one, IMHO, wasn't deserving.
I suspect the reviewer felt unsettled because the novel was too realistic, destroying the pleasant sense of escapism it was supposed to provide. She probably wouldn't want to know about my 2nd great-grandmother, Elizabeth Smith, married at fourteen in 1871, in rural central Michigan, to a man nine years her elder. It happened.
This sort of thing can make people squeamish, so you don't see it much, accuracy aside. I can think of two other examples, taken from history and historical fiction. First there's Meggotta de Burgh, from Edith Pargeter's The Marriage of Meggotta, married in her early teens to the young man she loves in a story one Amazon reviewer calls "deeply romantic and tragic." Also Margaret Beaufort, from Iris Davies' Bride of the Thirteenth Summer, better known as Henry VII's mother. The latter novel was retitled Destiny's Child upon its 1999 re-release, for reasons that should be obvious. Both works were published first in the 1970s. Shall we be seeing a romance about Mary de Bohun, first wife of Henry Bolingbroke, published anytime soon? Not likely.
On the other hand, the heroine of Priscilla Galloway's The Courtesan's Daughter, set in ancient Greece, is fourteen-year-old Phano. (Excellent novel, btw, selected as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults in 2002.) Interestingly, and paradoxically, sentiments of uneasiness about her age seem not to exist. Reviews simply mention that at nearly fifteen, she's of marriageable age. Is this because it's a YA novel, or because it was set so long ago that readers don't automatically compare Phano with her 21st century counterparts?
How much like 21st century people, in terms of age and marital status, should we expect our historical heroines to be? Given the choice, and to increase their chances of getting published, should authors make their heroines more like us? At a time when horror stories of 14-year-old child brides from polygamous sects are splashed all over CNN, do you find the idea of 16-year-old romantic heroines in the Old West realistic, disturbing, or both?