Saturday, September 15, 2007

How young is too young?

Every once in a while, I'll read a review of a historical novel in which the reviewer expresses discomfort about the heroine's young age. Some people prefer not to be reminded that a mere hundred years ago, while most women first married in their early twenties, it wasn't unusual for new brides to be fifteen or sixteen. Or even younger.

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?


  1. Anonymous10:14 PM

    Yeah, I've been worried about this for my next book. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Juliet is two weeks away from her fourteenth birthday when the play takes place. Her mother says, quite frankly, "I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid."
    Which has me marrying off Juliet's mom to Antony when she's eleven, and pregnant at twelve. Freaks me out during the show, and during the writing. I can only hope that I've dealt with it in such a way that the readers won't throw down the book in disgust.

  2. When I was doing basic research for this blog post (it proved harder than it should be to find average age at marriage at different points in history...) I found numerous references to R&J. Marriage of Meggotta is described in one publisher's blurb as a real-life R&J story, due to the lovers' young ages. Here's an article on Juliet's age that I found pretty interesting. It talks about the symbolism of Juliet being nearly fourteen, and how unusual that would have been to an Elizabethan audience.

    I'll be curious to read how you handled the issue!

  3. My heroine in The Traitor's Wife was married historically at age 13 1/2 (amazingly, we know her date of birth within a month or so and the exact date of her marriage), and she had her first child when she was about 15. So I let her consummate her marriage on her wedding night--but I kept the details to a bare minimum. I haven't had any complaints--but then I haven't tried to sell it to my mother's church friends either.

    Strangely, I just finished Destiny's Child.

  4. Anonymous4:30 PM

    When I read historical fiction growing up, the ages never bothered me, because they all seemed so much older than I was :-). Even as an adult, I defintiely view the ages of historical characters differently from if those characters were in a novel set today. Mélanie in "Secrets of a Lady" is twenty-six, but the book goes into a lot of things from her past that happened when she was a teenager. Basically she grew up very quickly at the age of fifteen, due to being caught up in some some horrific events during Sir John Moore's retreat during the Peninsular War (she was also, ironically enough, playing Juliet with her father's traveling theater company at the time). So to me it's believable that she went on to do the things she did. But every so often, I'm brought up short, reminded of how young she is in bits of the story (which show up as flashbacks in subsequent books).

    David, I saw one production of "Romeo & Juliet" where the nurse raised her brows at Lady Capulet's line about "I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid" and Lady Capulet frowned at her, implying that Lady Capulet was fudging the years a bit. It's one way to handle it.

  5. Anonymous11:11 PM

    Sarah - Thanks for the article. I'm just opening it.

    Susan - Traitor's Wife is finally winging my way, and now I have anther reason to dive in - to see how you handled the issue.

    Tracy - Yeah, I've seen it done that way often. And it certainly works. In fact, when my wife plays the nurse, that's what she does with it.

    But in the scene before, Capulet also has a line hinting at his wife's youth, and what an ill effect young marriage has on girls - "Too soon marred are those so early made." And the conflicts that arise from this early marraige, and the effect on little Tybalt, are too rich to ignore.

    So I guess I'll stop whining and wait to see how readers respond.


  6. Hi Sarah,
    After reading your post I went back to check the review on our website and found that the book was reviewed as an inspirational because at the time Leisure was publishing books intended for the Christian market and was marketing this book to the inspirational market which is why our reviewer gave it one star.

    If it was a typical romance it would have received a different rating.

    We try to "warn" the intended audience who will be plucking down $7 for a book.

    In the reviewer's opinion she felt that if someone thought this was a typical Inspirational romance and bought this book she would have be offended and wasted her money.

    That's not to say someone who reads regular romance would not enjoy this books and NOT BE OFFENDED.

    This book was reviewed in the Inspirational section of the magazine and is also tagged "inspirational" on the website because that is the way the publisher marketed the book so we had an obligation to review it as such.

    Hope this helps clarify.

    Carol Stacy,
    Publisher of
    Romantic Times BOOKreviews

  7. Hi Carol, thanks for responding - I'm well aware of everything you mentioned. I frequently read inspirational fiction, both for review and to keep up with the genre. I also realize that reviewing is by definition subjective (the 3- and 4-star reviews of the two other novels in Hubbard's series demonstrate this, imho). I've read other inspirational western romances that dealt with sexual situations and included mild profanity ("damn," for instance). People's reactions to this do differ!

    The main point of my post dealt with ages of heroines in historical fiction, and what readers tend to find acceptable. In this case, I applaud the author for choosing to create a historically accurate heroine, in terms of her age, who's forced to deal with a situation common to her time and place.

  8. You're very welcome Sarah.

    I guess your aside: "(It's set in the Old West, by the way, and not from a Christian publisher.)" is what I was trying to clarify i.e. even though Leisure is not a Christian Fiction publisher they were at the time experimenting with inspirational romance following the success of Steeple Hill.

    I agree with you completely that the author should be applauded for being historically accurate even though she knew it might put off some inspy readers.

    But the age is not the only criticism the reviewer had.

    Here is her comment:
    "sexual references and frequent swearing are offensive and make it impossible to recommend Hubbard's novel for its intended Christian audience. Also, the plot takes some wild, unbelievable leaps, and may not engage readers in the story, and the characters are hard to sympathize with."

    I think it would have received a higher rating despite the age of the heroine if it were not for the other issues she found with the book.

    As we all know reviewing is subjective and you are 100 percent right on when you stated that you would still read Hubbard's book based on the description despite the one star rating.

    That is exactly how our reviews should work. We provide enough information for you to make the decision for yourself regardless of the rating. If the story interest you and you do not agree with the principles of the criticism then we would hope that you would give the book a try.

    Our star rating is just one person's opinion but it's all we can provide. We trust that our readers will know if they want to read a book despite our rating.

    The same goes for the higher end of the ratings. Some readers may totally disagree with what the reviewer found to be excellent about a particular book. Because a book receives 4 1/2 stars does not mean everyone will love the book. It just means that the reviewer loved it. Our job is to tell the reader why she loved it (or in the case of a low rating why she did not) and then give enough about the plot for readers to make their own decision.

    That is about all we can do. The rest is up to the reader.


  9. I think most people reading historical fiction already know that people got married at a very early age in the past, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem (unless you go into too much detail--yuck).

  10. Very interesting post, Sarah. It is amazing how ignorant many, many people are about the age of brides in other times and cultures. I read one person on a blog say that the opera "Madama Butterfly" is a story about "pedophilia" because the heroine is married at age 15. Unbelievable!!! What people do not understand is that in the past girls were made ready for marriage at an early age. It was part of the culture.

    I am writing a novel about my great-great grandparents who came over from Ireland. When they got married, the bride was 15 and the groom was 34. That was not uncommon for the 1830's. But when I tell people, I get some raised eyebrows. But that is the way it really was and I am not going to change the truth.

  11. Thinking... this isn't about the marriage issue, but K.L. Cook's The Girl from Charnelle (a recent Editors' Choice from HNS, and the winner of the 2007 WILLA in contemporary fiction from Women Writing the West) does go into detail about a minor's relationship with an older man. It's set in 1960, so the "this happened back then" reason doesn't apply -- rather, the whole point is to make readers think about the issues today (as the reviewer noted, rather sensitively I thought).

    Most of my pioneer ancestors (the women, anyway) married at seventeen or earlier.

  12. Anonymous6:02 PM

    This is an issue of concern to me as well. My novel about the sixth century empress, Theodora, begins with the story of her early life, and her sexual activity wasn't about marriage. Her contemporary, the historian Procopius, reported that Theodora was put on the stage by her mother "as soon as she arrived at the age of youth and was ready for the world. Forthwith, she began a courtesan..." and I leave out what he suggested she did before she began this career. I've pushed her as close to fourteen as I can, but still I worry about how this will be received. My agent doesn't seem worried about this, but I've yet to get a response from the editors where it is submitted. I do think readers of historical novels are pretty savy and understand the realities of years past, yet it is a senitive area. Nonetheless, to understand the empress she became, a look at Theodora's early experiences is essential. I'm glad to hear how you folks are relating to the issue.

    By the way, love the blog Sarah.

  13. Hi Sally - and thank you!
    I wonder if readers are less bothered by this in mainstream historical fiction? With Theodora - great subject for a historical novel, btw, it's been ages since anyone's written about her - how else are you supposed to tell her story?

    I agree that readers of historical novels are generally familiar with the realities, and wouldn't want them brushed aside, especially in biographical fiction. If I ever read an author's note that stated that they aged their real-life heroine purely to avoid offending modern sensibilities, I'd wonder what else the author changed for that reason. When I read HF, I don't want the characters changed to reflect modern attitudes - an author's doing so would make me look askance at his/her work henceforth!

    Just found another review (of Robin Maxwell's upcoming Mademoiselle Boleyn - I searched for reviews of it, because Anne was fairly young when she came to the French court) that acknowledges the issue, but understands the author's choices.

  14. Anonymous6:15 PM

    While I find the discretion and delicacy of the writers here refreshing, consider the wider pop culture. It seems to have no problem with the sexualisation of young girls. They dress provocatively, watch atrociously promiscuous stories on film, sing songs full of sexual inuendos and double-entendres, and imbine so much that is completely inappropriate and immodest. And yet this is the world that is horrified at young brides. It appears to be okay that girls become sexually active quite early (with all the necessary "precautions") but the thought of early marriage is anathema. So it must not be the "marital embrace" that puts people off, but the lack of freedom and lattitude that a wedding ring imposes. Yet, the earlier generations of women were no less happy, and perhaps happier? Hard to tell.

  15. Fascinating and thought-provoking comment, gsk. Along the same lines, I've been wondering if it may have to do with the impression that teenage marriage implies societal conformity or pressure, even in a historical sense. On the other hand, today's pop culture frequently sees teenage sexuality as female empowerment. I'm not saying I agree with this, but the difference in reaction is very interesting.

  16. Sally, I look forward to your novel about Theodora. In her case, if I remember correctly, she was basically forced into prostitution at a VERY young age. It surely must have been traumatic. But amazingly she overcame her past became a great empress and beloved wife. She made rape a capital offense, which is interesting. What a great woman!

    Young brides, although they did not always choose their spouse, sometimes had a great deal of autonomy, a lot of decision making, especially if they had an estate to run. It was different in different places. But we should not just assume that because a girl was married at fifteen that she was a mindless chattel who had no say in anything ever again. Those of us who read history know the various situations-- many girls achieved power and influence by means of their early marriages. Not that power should be an end in itself, or even a source of happiness.