Thursday, October 19, 2006

Not-so-secret Children and Babies

Today I want to go, if not from the sublime to the ridiculous, at least from the Platonic ideal to the more prosaic reasons why children might be included in romances.

First of all, children may, as suggested in the Symposium, be the embodiment of a couple's love. However, although children can be read as proof of a couple's continuing love and affection (or at least, of an active sex-life), they may be indicative of little more than considerable fecundity and a lack of contraceptives. In Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy, for example, Lady Ombersley, a minor character, is described in the following terms: Twenty-seven years of wedlock had left their mark upon her; and the dutiful presentation to her erratic and far from grateful spouse of eight pledges of her affection had long since destroyed any pretensions to beauty in her' (1951: 2). Despite being referred to as 'pledges of her affection', it's clear that the children are not the result of the sort of romantic love one would expect the hero and heroine of a romance to feel for each other.

New babies, as well as being 'pledges of affection' may also serve to reinforce the depiction of a society undergoing change. According to Pamela Regis one of the essential elements of the romance genre is 'Society Defined' and 'Near the beginning of the novel the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed' (2003: 31). Regis also describes some additional 'accidental elements characteristic of the romance novel' (2003: 38) which occur towards the end of the novels and these include the wedding/dance/fete which demonstrates that 'Society has reconstituted itself around the new couple(s) and the society comes together to celebrate this' (2003: 38). If the hero and heroine have children together these can be interpreted as being among the first new members of this new, 'reconstituted' society, and a hope for the future.

From the point of view of the plot, children and babies can often provide a reason for a hero and heroine to meet or work closely together for the first time, or, in the case of many of the secret-baby books, to come back into contact with each other. Babies and children may be a source of conflict between the hero and heroine but they cannot simply walk away because the children have needs (for care, a home etc) which force the hero and heroine into close proximity and oblige them to work with each other.

Whether or not babies are intrinsically romantic, however, is another matter. For Kimber, children are on her list of things in the romance genre which are 'Not Romantic':
what could be less romantic than having to keep the sex quiet in case Junior wakes up in the night and comes down looking for a drink of water? Or when Little Susie gets a life-threatening fever or is kidnapped by the villain? Although better a son, since then your hero can effortlessly become the male role model/father figure that Young Master desperately needs.
The combined effects of dirty nappies, sleep deprivation, the baby's crying and the physical and emotional consequences of childbirth do not create the ideal circumstances for romantic interludes. Even if the baby is not the heroine's, she and the hero would still have to deal with the sleep deprivation, the nappies, crying, feeding etc. Babies in romance novels do tend to be remarkably easy to care for, but this is not necessarily unrealistic given that:
  • (a) some people have more help than others (for example, in historicals set among the aristocracy one might expect the heroine to have the help of a nursemaid or two)
  • (b) some people's experiences of this stage in a baby's life are better than others (some babies quickly sleep through the night and fall into a routine easily, for example)
  • (c) not all mothers experience negative physical or emotional consequences of childbirth.
Personally, however, I find the easy-care babies so often found in romances intensely irritating, but that's probably due to extreme jealousy on my part, because my baby was very far from the ideal in this respect.

Nicola Marsh is an author who used to think that children were 'contraception on legs', but after writing some romances featuring children, she changed her mind. In the comments on that blog post Fiona Lowe added that 'I reckon children are a GREAT way to showcase the softer side of our hero'. They certainly are seen to have that effect on the perception of Sophy, the heroine of Heyer's The Grand Sophy. Following Sophy's devoted nursing of her sick young cousin, Sophy's very conventional suitor, Lord Bromford, says that:
"[...] even Mama owns herself to have been moved by the devotion of Miss Stanton-Lacy to her little cousin!" [...] Lord Bromford, who had started to repeat O woman, in our hours of ease! [...] pronounced: "Any doubts that might have been nourished of the true womanliness of Miss Stanton-Lacy's character, must, I venture to say, have been lulled to rest." (1951: 224-225)
It's not simply that the ability to interact with children shows a 'softer' side, it's also that children, particularly young children and babies, are often considered innocent.
Around the enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, popular conceptions of childhood changed. Society adopted the idea of the "blank slate" and beginning life in a state of unconsciousness. Art reflected the transition: no longer vessels of psychological and sexual awareness, children became asexual, physically neutral, and psychologically unaware. The "Romantic child" was born. [...] No longer considered little adults in need of moral reform, children became icons of innocence and naivete onto which adults could project their own hopes, dreams, and ideals.
As a result of this belief in their innocence, the approval of children, like that of dogs and other animals, is often an indication that a character who may appear wicked, depraved, or merely lacking in conscience, in fact has redeeming features. For example, here's a short conversation from Heyer's Frederica, between Felix, the heroine's young brother, and the self-centered Lord Alverstoke, the hero, who has already met, and successfully dealt with Lufra, Frederica's very large and unruly dog:
before suffering himself to be led away by Charis, [Felix] took his leave of the Marquis, and said eagerly: "And you will take me to Soho, won't you, sir?"

"If I don't, my secretary shall," replied Alverstoke.

"Oh! Well - Well, thank you, sir! Only it would be better if you came with me yourself!" urged Felix.

"Better for whom?" demanded his lordship involuntarily.

"Me," replied Felix, with the utmost candour. "I daresay they would show you anything you wanted to see, on account of your being a - a second-best nobleman, which I know you are, because it says, in a book I found, that Marquises come directly after Dukes, so--"
In addition to this ability to bring out the best in adults, 'out of the mouth of babes and sucklings' can come forth truths that adults would either leave unspoken, or of which adults might otherwise remain in ignorance.

It has to be admitted that, on occasion, the children in romance can bear an unfortunate resemblance to those George Eliot mentions in her description of 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' (1856):
There are few women, we suppose, who have not seen something of children under five years of age, yet in "Compensation," a recent novel of the mind-and-millinery species, which calls itself a "story of real life," we have a child of four and a half years old talking in this Ossianic fashion -
"Oh, I am so happy, dear gran'mamma; -- I have seen, -- I have seen such a delightful person: he is like everything beautiful, -- like the smell of sweet flowers and the view from Ben Lomond; - or no, better than that -- he is like what I think of and see when I am very very happy; and he is really like mamma, too when she sings; and his forehead is like that distant sea," she continued, pointing to the blue Mediterranean; "there seems no end -- no end; or like the clusters of stars I like best to look at on a warm fine night [...]"
Luckily child prodigies are not the only, or even the most frequent, sort of child depicted in romance. There are plenty who are interesting characters in their own right, with their own particular flaws and quirks. For example Lou, the heroine of Jessica Hart's Contracted, Corporate Wife, says of her teenaged children:
'I’d like to be able to say that I had raised a couple of thoughtful, unmaterialistic, community-minded children who understood that the love and security you strive to give them mattered more than the latest brand of trainers or the newest computer game, but sadly they’re not like that at all!’
‘Oh?’ said Patrick, rather taken with the idea that Lou’s children weren’t the paragons he would have expected them to be. He found her attitude refreshing. He’d had to listen to too many mothers telling him how clever and talented and generally marvellous their children were.
‘They’re not bad kids,’ said Lou, ‘but they’re like all their friends. They want to be in with the in-crowd, to be like everyone else and to have what everyone else has. [...].’ (2005: 41)
In romances with more realistic portrayals of children, the hero and heroine's difficulties in caring for children and babies may provide an interesting source of discussion for the adults, revealing their own experiences of childhood. In Polly Forrester's Jewel Under Siege, for example, the hero is a Frank, on crusade, while Elena Rethel is a Byzantine merchant. Their ideas about child-rearing reveal much about the adults' different cultures:
'You'll spoil that child, if you haven't already.'
'Oh, but he's only a baby, my lord. Not even three years old, yet.'
'Time enough to be spoiled by rich food and an indulgent mother. Well-born Franks are sent from home at four to become pages. By then they're hardened enough to wait at tables and live with the hounds. That soon puts some character into them. Sink or swim.'
"I don't doubt it, my lord. Yet what sort of people raise their children among animals? [...]'
'People whose men are more than milk and water. Men who will fight for what they know is right, and will not dress in effeminate fashions [..]' (1990: 89-90)
The hero and heroine's attitudes towards children can be instructive in contemporary settings too, often giving clues about their own very different childhood experiences. In historical romances (of the non-wallpaper variety) attitudes towards childcare form part of the historical setting, reminding us that, in many respects, 'the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'. As Jo Beverley observes
The way we portray children and parenting in books can be interesting. I don't think we can help bringing some modern sensitivities to it, but I like to try to get within the thinking of the day. For example in one of my books, CHRISTMAS ANGEL, Judith and Leander fall into fights about the raising of her children. She wants to protect them from hurt while he believes boys sometimes need the cane. Speaking from his own experience, he claims to have preferred it to endless lectures and tiresome punishments such as writing out pages of the Bible. And he adds that as Bastian won't escape being beaten at school, he might as well learn to accept it with dignity. That, to me, is true to the times, but it bothered some readers.
There's a lot of variation in the way children and babies are portrayed, depending on factors such as the level of realism with which they are described, the historical setting and the ages of the children. Sometimes children seem to be included mainly for their cuteness factor, and because they provide a source of conflict or otherwise propel the plot forwards. At others, the children are well-developed characters in their own right.
  • Forrester, Polly, 1990. Jewel Under Siege (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Hart, Jessica, 2005. Contracted, Corporate Wife (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Heyer, Georgette, 1951. The Grand Sophy (London: The Book Club).
  • Regis, Pamela, 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).


  1. Believe it or not, I actually like children in real life. :-)

    However, I'd suggest that rather than being a "GREAT way to showcase the softer side of our hero," children (and pets) are a CRUTCH for showcasing your hero's softer side. It's too easy. Your hero can be an arrogant, domineering asshole until a child or dog appears on the scene, when suddenly he's overcome with humanity and mushiness. Perhaps that's why the alpha male is drawn towards the innocent—she's got all the complexity and baggage of a toddler or pug.

    Similarly, have you ever noticed that in many romance novels, the heroine doesn't feel like the hero is human or has a soft side until she sees him sleeping, when he inevitably appears "boyish" and "innocent"? I'm not sure what this implies, but it seems part of the same pathology.

    Like you, I don't object to children in novels or TV if they're treated like real characters. Children who talk and act like little adults and perfect children who never fuss or feel resentful just drive me crazy. Remember all those great movies from the 1970s, like "An Unmarried Woman" and "The Goodbye Girl," that had real, gawky kids in them? In fact, everyone was gawky and complicated in those pictures, not just the kids.

  2. I loathe the overly precocious kids one sometimes encounters in romance novels, but I really like the ones that seem real. I have yet to give any of my characters children, but there are children in their immediate circles, cause that’s life.

    I’m childfree, as are 95% of my friends (didn’t plan it that way, it just happened). But there are still kids around (our siblings have them, our neighbors have them, and there are those that are the product of the small % that chose to have them). Yeah, nearly all of my life is adults only, but I still probably deal with kids once or twice a week, and even though I don’t want kinds, I DO judge the men I date on how they deal with my friend’s kids (and how they deal with my dog!).

  3. I think you're right, Kimber, that children (and animals) can be used as a crutch, particularly if they're non-realistic children. But, as Kalen points out, children are part of life (although I suspect that in certain social circles in the past, children might have been mostly seen and not heard, and even then only seen infrequently by visitors), so if the contact with children is one that arises from the circumstances of the story, and the children are depicted realistically, then I wouldn't have any problem at all with it. Seems like we've got a consensus on this one - no overly cute children just plonked into the story to show the hero's got a softer side.

    To give an example of a book which did use children (and a pet) as a crutch, I read a contemporary romance (written some time ago, and which shall remain nameless) in which the hero is the type who annoys the heroine, gives her orders, makes assumptions about her and they fight all the time etc. But - he helps out with the boy scouts and has a pot-bellied pig. In that case the children and pet felt like an attempt to round out the hero's characterisation but it really didn't work (in my opinion).

    the heroine doesn't feel like the hero is human or has a soft side until she sees him sleeping, when he inevitably appears "boyish" and "innocent" Now that you mention it, yes, I do remember this. I tend to avoid alpha heroes, so perhaps that means I don't see it as often (since I'd imagine it's used to provide a contrast when the hero is not at all boyish or innocent when awake). I think there's a scene like this in Heyer's Devil's Cub, and it does bring out the heroine's maternal instincts.