My Favorite Heroines

While doing research about heroines, romance novels, who identifies with whom, and what exactly is the attraction to some of these absolute dimwits who populate old skool romance (I still haven’t answered that question to my own satisfaction), I’ve had to go back at my old and dusty keeper shelf and look at some of my favorite heroines from romances in the past 20 years.

I started reading romance that wasn’t breast-grabbing Sweet Valley Highs in 1992, and my introduction was Midsummer Magic, a book that still occupies a very special, creamy place in my heart (ok, ew, sorry, I couldn’t resist). But since digging in the depths of my bookshelf, I’ve come up with a few other heroines in the Frances mold that I just love revisiting.

The Lion's Lady The Lion’s Lady by Julie Garwood features one of my very faves, “Princess” Christina, a white woman with blonde hair and striking blue eyes (of course) who is raised by the Dakota and brought to England to make her debut. Because what does any self-respecting white girl raised by Native Americans need? A marquess, duh. One who is just as dangerous and out of bounds of society as she could be, were her past made known to all the snobby, snooty ton. I love her dialogue with Lyon, I love the fact that she munches on shrubs, and I love that she hides who she is but never once thinks she’d be better off if she’d never been raised by her Dakota family. She thinks most of English social customs are nuts. She kicks ass and has no problems about her ability to do so, though she knows she has to hide her talents. I only wish the period of time when Lyon and Christina verbally sparred with one another lasted longer, because their relationship was resolved so quickly in the course of the story that the only obstacle to their happiness was an external villain, and as much as I was ready for him to have his ass handed to him on the sharper end of a spear, I loved the conflict between Lyon and Christina more.

Devil's BrideAnd speaking of kicking ass in a complete different way, Honoria Anstruther-Weatherby from Stephanie Laurens’ Devil’s Bride, oh how I love you, despite the man-jawed nightgown-wearing weirdness that is allegedly you pictured on the back of my very old copy (also, worst hair for a hero, ever. Ev-er). I sat on the floor in front of my bookshelf and read the opening third of this book, and an hour disappeared before I knew I’d spent it re-reading. Honoria is upper class and almost snobby about it at times, and determined to embrace her independence in a way that’s historically possible but still shocking (she wants to go to Egypt in the shadow of Hester Stanhope) at the time, but despite all that I really, really love how Honoria shines in ways that are entirely, utterly appropriate, and yet fascinating. She’s good at running huge estates, managing guests, making people feel at home, and telling that giant autocrat Devil where to get off. She’s innocent and yet fearless, and, my favorite part, level headed. She’s capable and longs for adventure of some sort. She kicks ass within the assigned boundaries of her class and her gender, and yet stands out because she’s so strong willed and confident in herself.

I love me some completely impossible heroines in historically plausible settings, especially the ways in which these women shine in that setting. I often wonder if the alpha heroine of the current urban-fantasy, ghost-hunting, vampire-slaying, lycan-shaving, mummy-unwrapping novels has some distant fringe roots in these types of historical heroines, who were ass kicking within the boundaries historically ascribed to them. It’s not like Christina wanted to be a dentist, or Honoria wanted to open a printing press. Ok, well, Honoria did want to go sail into Egypt all by her onesies but even as she pays lip service to her demands for excitement, she demonstrates through the plot how competent she is at the not-insignificant responsibilities expected of women at that time. That part just fascinates me. I could easily be assigning too much significance to heroines I love like damn and luggage, but Christina, Honoria, and heroines like them are unique in ways that never manage to grate on my nerves overly much.

What about you – who are your favorite heroines from Days of Yore?

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  1. 1

    When oh when will Julie Garwood’s backlist be electronic??? Woe is me!

  2. 2
    Hortense Powdermaker says:

    WADR, Sarah – not getting the enthusiasm for Honoria. She’s like all of Laurens’ virgins, supposedly independent and feisty and plucky and whatnot, but rolling over in the end.

    I like heroines who walk the talk, like Daphne Pembroke from Mr. Impossible (Loretta Chase) and Callie Dunbrook from Birthright (Nora Roberts).

  3. 3
    LizC says:

    Days of Yore? Yeesh. I’ve been reading romance novels for years and a lot of them (a lot a lot) were my mom’s from the 70s and 80s. They all run together in my head. But Sarah Whitfield from Danielle Steele’s Jewels is still a favorite mostly because that was the first non-YA romance novel I ever read.

    And, oh, Dream a Little Dream by Antoinette Stockenberg! I’d completely forgotten that book but Elinor was awesome. As was William. I need to track that book down the next time I’m at my dad’s so I can reread it and see if it’s as fun as I remember.

    Also, Alexandria Carrington Falconer from Celeste De Blasis’ Wild Swan trilogy. I love that series like pie and Alexandria kicked ass. I was reading that trilogy when I should’ve been reading boring books for English lit.

  4. 4

    Sophy and Deborah from Heyer’s The Grand Sophy and Faro’s Daughter.

    Jessica and Delilah from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels and The Devil’s Delilah.

    Pru from Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel—it’s tough to write a heroine who decides to make the best of being a whore.

    Merlin from Kinsale’s Midsummer Moon, now (Yay!) back in print.

    Most of Carla Kelly’s heroines.  I like how they think.

  5. 5
    Susan G says:

    I went on a Julie Garwood reading spree about 10 years ago and thought I had read all of her historical romances. But I didn’t recognize Sarah’s description of the storyline from

    The Lion’s Lady

    so I popped over the BN.com to check it out and see if their synopsis would jog my memory. This five star review I found there just tickled me so I thought I would share it with you.

    I just loved this book!!! I am a huge Julie Andrews fan and this is my favorite book by her. I love her female characters. They are strong and kind, unlike in some romance novels where the women are weak. Julie Andrews is a wonderful author.

  6. 6
    Eeyore9990 says:

    I couldn’t agree more about Christina.  I haven’t read Devil’s Bride, so can’t comment, but my favorite two heroines belong to Julia Quinn.

    Penelope Featherington (Bridgerton now) and, oddly, Violet Bridgerton. 

    I loved Penelope from the very first book and knew sometime during Anthony’s book that she was … well, I don’t want to spoil the series.  But anyway, I love her character and have read the cover right off “Romancing Mr Bridgerton” three times now.  My current copy is looking a tad woeful now (you can’t read the writing on the spine), so I imagine it won’t be long before I’m plunking down another $8 for a story I’ve read more times than even I care to admit.

    Violet Bridgerton is an oddity because she’s not actually a main character.  But I fell in love with her from the very first time we saw her in Daphne’s book and never once did I feel that she was ever played false by her author.

    Biggest disappointment in a heroine, sadly, comes from Ms Quinn, as well.  Hyacinth Bridgerton was such an utterly flat, two-dimensional character in her own book.  I looked forward to that one as much as I had to Penelope’s story (okay, it was really Colin’s story, but for me it was all about Penelope) because as a secondary character, Hyacinth dazzled me.  I loved her wit and spunk and adored the fact that, by the time of her book, I had watched this character grow up.  Woe was me when I slogged my way through her book. *scowls*  I really would like Quinn to try again with Hyacinth at some point because yeah.  Huge disappointment.

    Huh.  My spam word was name77.  Won’t two suffice?

  7. 7
    LizC says:

    I’m going to have to read Romancing Mr. Bridgerton aren’t I? I wasn’t as impressed with The Duke and I as some people so I decided to stay away from the Bridgertons for a while but people keep mentioning how great Penelope is. Like Borders needs any more of my money.

  8. 8
    Eeyore9990 says:

    Liz, to get the full scope of Penelope, you sort of need to read the three books that come before hers (and even, to a smaller extent, the mini-books that are set in the same “universe”).  Penelope’s story doesn’t start in her own book, so a lot of it is that sense of anticipation you build up over a series, when you’re just WAITING for this wallflower character to finally get her chance to be a heroine.

  9. 9
    bungluna says:

    One heroine that made me sit up and take notice was Nina from Crusie’s “Anyone But You”.  She was the first one I read who wasn’t a young virgin pretending to be a grown up.  She didn’t want kids!  She had already done the alpha male marriage bit.  And she got a younger guy!  Great heroine. 

    On the historical front, I love Jessica from “Lord of Scoundrels”.

  10. 10
    kukulcan girl says:

    I love Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels, too, and Leila Beaumont from Captives of the Night.  Another old skool heroine I really liked was Vicki Bliss from the series by Elizabeth Peters.

  11. 11
    RfP says:

    not getting the enthusiasm for Honoria. She’s like all of Laurens’ virgins, supposedly independent and feisty and plucky and whatnot, but rolling over in the end.

    I both agree and disagree on Honoria.  Laurens’ heroines are smart, competent women, but many do turn out to be pretty conventional.  Which is fine on an individual level, and perhaps appropriate to the times, but makes her endings sooo predictable.

    Not all Laurens heroines, though!  My fave heroine of hers may be Caroline (The Ideal Bride), who’s a little older.  She’s smarter and more experienced in diplomatic circles than Michael.  He teaches her about sexx0rring, she takes his career (and other parts) in hand to mold him into a budding statesman—and explicitly takes her own place as a political power in London.

    Ideal Bride isn’t my fave of her books, but Caroline’s a little out of the usual mold.  I also like Alathea and Gabriel—again, she’s a bit older, and although things get conventional in the end, he has to meet her at least halfway.  (There was a non-virgin in one of Laurens’ recent books, but that wasn’t enough to make her interesting—and by then I’d gone off the series.)

    Other interesting heroines—for me it’s about developing the character vividly.  E.g. I haven’t read the book, but I love Loretta Chase’s description of her newest heroine, a courtesan.  Not because she’s a courtesan, but because Chase says she uses that to give the character license to be less conventional, more open:

    One thing… that I loved about writing this story was all the risqué jokes and double entendres the women as well as the men could indulge in.  That’s part of my emphasis on giving Francesca tremendous joie de vivre—so that my readers as well as my hero could understand why men throw away fortunes on her.

    I like ‘em smart, multi-dimensional, and imperfect.

  12. 12
    Gina Ardito says:

    I fell in love with the whole historical genre when I read Bertrice Small’s The Kadin. Janet Leslie aka Cyra Hafise went from sheltered Scots girl to the power behind the Ottoman throne. Talk about smart, multi-dimensional, yet imperfect!

  13. 13
    MaryKate says:

    Merry Patricia Wilding from Tom and Sharon Curtis’s The Windflower is my favorite heroine of all time. Why? She evolves during the story. She starts as this incredibly sheltered heroine who is kidnapped by pirates (of course!), shoots at someone with a crossbow, nearly drowns, catches malaria,  and becomes this resilient, strong, feisty heroine by the end of the story. When the hero finally proposes to her, she punches him in the face. She’s a terrific heroine who evolves so beautifully throughout the story. And the best part is that the authors don’t scrimp on it at all. The hero, while wonderful is hardly the very best part of the story, although I love him. She makes the story, absolutely.

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    She’s like all of Laurens’ virgins, supposedly independent and feisty and plucky and whatnot, but rolling over in the end.

    Honoria’s pithy ‘But what about Eeeeeeeegypt?!‘ness I overlook, because throughout the book, she’s competent, clever, authoritative, and one of the few who stand up to Devil. She may roll over on the whole Eeeeeeeegypt thing, but she learns that despite being cheated out of her own debut and her own future in society, her role is important, and her skills in management and dealing with minor and major crises are exemplary. She is independent and feisty and plucky, imo, because she stands up to Devil, she will not allow him to shut her out of things she wants to be involved in, and she refuses to take no for an answer. Even as she assumes a very, very conventional role, Laurens does two things very smartly imo: she allows Honoria’s conventional skills to be outstanding (and damn interesting) and she involved Honoria’s “conventional” skills in solving the mystery that Devil and his Brotherhood -sorry wrong series – Cynstah Bahr (wouldn’t it be great fun if they were Southies? WOHD!) are focusing on.

    For a very conventional heroine who ultimately comes to terms with a very conventional future – marriage and a new family- Honoria remains unique in that she’s not just a mere Duchess but the female head of a very large, very powerful, very frequently sequeled family, and that’s a rather large role, both for the first and future books. I dig Honoria.

  15. 15
    Chanel19 says:

    Angelique by SergeAnn Golon.

    Rags to riches over and over.  Every male wanted her (and if I recall right, more than a few had her) but she always reconciled with her true love.

  16. 16
    Josie says:

    I second Daphne Pembroke from Mr Impossible – one of my all time favourites. And one of the few that still makes me laugh out loud no matter how many re-reads I’ve had.

    But lets face it, Loretta Chase knows how to give good heroine.

  17. 17
    Nanny says:

    I don’t get the Penelope thing. I mean, you’re pretty. You may be curvy by modern standards, but in your time period, that’s in. You KNOW your dresses make you look terrible. But do you do anything about it? No, mama. I’ll wear the dress, mama. And I’m trying to write this in a way that will avoid spoilers – but don’t you think that Lady Whistledown could have found SOMETHING to criticize Penelope for other than her mother’s bad taste?  I liked Daphne, Kate, and Sophia and gave up on JQ immediately after. 

    My favorite heroines… I like Carla Kelly’s, I like Phoebe from SEP’s It Had To Be You, and I found myself oddly liking Sugar Beth from Ain’t She Sweet. I also like Melanie from Tracy Grant’s Secrets of a Lady, and I like Laura Kinsale’s Melanthe.  So I suppose my preference is for heroines who have real problems but respond by pulling up their socks and getting on with it.

  18. 18
    BevQB says:

    Could not agree more about Devil’s Bride. I’ve said many a time that it is closer to perfect than any other romance I’ve ever read. Really, the only disappointing part of this book was that unfortunate back cover- Joey Tribiani (sp) does Andy McDowell… at a vintage photo stall… in a cheap amusement park.

    Everything you said about Honoria is spot-on, Sarah. Consider that here was this young woman who CONFIDENTLY slipped into her role as a leader of the ton, who usurped the rank and power of many of the established matrons, but because of her poise and competence, she was never resented for it because she didn’t just marry into it, she EARNED it. That really is the key to Honoria’s appeal—confidence and competence. No endless whining, no whatever-shall-I-do drama, no empty-headed silliness.

    As for The Lion’s Lady, I’ve never read that particular Garwood novel, but if I come across it, I’ll pick it up.

    Honestly, I think I’d have to put Skye O’Malley as #1 on my list of Favorite Historical Romance Heroines. I know that Bertrice Small’s style runs toward what is now called purple prose, and even I don’t care for it from anyone else but her. However, Skye O’Malley is one of the strongest, confident, most practical heroine’s ever written. Good Lawd, look how many husbands she buries! I love how Small entwined Skye’s life with that of the English Court, particularly Elizabeth I.

  19. 19
    Mary Beth says:

    I ran into her for the first time when I was in junior high- we’re talking 1975.
    Amelia Peabody.
    The best!
    I actually got to meet Barbara Michaels aka Elizabeth Peters at my local library… she wore her bloomers and pith helmet and she was the shizznitt
    embi

  20. 20
    Shannon C. says:

    I’m afraid I have to agree with Nanny. Penelope’s book was so disappointing, because there was such a good setup for it and then it was all… blah.
    I’ve started “Devil’s Bride”, but not gotten far into it, mostly because I find the “Oh, you will marry me!” “No I won’t!” “Yes you will!” song and dance a bit tiresome.

    As for my favorite heroines, I admit that I liked Daphne and Kate from “The Duke and I” and “The Viscount Who Loved Me” better than any of the rest of that series. Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels is absolutely wonderful, too, and I adore Sarah from Lisa Kleypas’s “Dreaming of You”. (Nobody ever seems to mention Sarah very much when they talk about that book, but I thought she was the one who did the most growing in the course of the book.) I also agree with the comments re: Phoebe and Sugar Beth from “It Had to be You” and “Ain’t She Sweet” respectively. Those are the only SEP books I’ve read, but I am hoping she writes more heroines I like. I also can’t leave this comment without mentioning Lilith from Meljean Brook’s “Demon Moon”, Eve Dallas from the In Death books, and I really liked Gail Alton from Kate Noble’s recent release, “Compromised”. Don’t know if she’ll survive to be one of my all-time favorite heroines, or even one of the best I’ve read this year, but I love that she is a brainy bluestocking done well.

  21. 21
    Tae says:

    I love Kate Sheffield from The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn.
    Loved Sherry from Judith McNaught’s Until You

    Alyssa Locke from Suzanne Brockmann because she’s smart, sexy and small but she can seriously kick your ass to the moon

  22. 22
    Shannon C. says:

    Damn, I quit typing before I was ready to let this go. I am one of those readers who has to like the heroine in order to like the romance. I mean, I can lust after a hero, but if he’s paired with a limp rag for a heroine, I don’t feel that the hero has found a satisfying love match and I don’t get invested in the book. Which is the main reason I have been able to put down the crahck pipe, as it were. I can remember things I liked about, say, Meljean Brook or Marjorie Liu’s heroines, but JR Ward and Christine Feehan? Not so much.

  23. 23
    Gennita Low says:

    Christina Dodd’s Candle In The Window.  Heroine is blind.  Stays blind.  And is awesome withing the confines of her times (medieval)

    Helen Mittermeyer’s Princess of the Veil.  I reread this book more than anything else.  The most kick-ass Viking princess ever.  She even beat the hero at oar-running, hee.  I have three copies of this book for backup.

  24. 24

    On another thread someone was talking about how annoying Ayla is (Clan of the Cave Bear, Valley of the Horses) because she had no flaws and pretty much invented everything but the wheel.  I laughed and agreed but still I name her as one of my old school favorites.

    I read every Catherine Coulter book I could get my hands on when I was about 18.  Hastings of Trent from Rosehaven (hey, she survived the consummation cream, too!) and Henrietta from Lord Harry are stand-out heroines.  Both well worth a reread.

  25. 25
    Virginia says:

    Obviously this is all subjective because I love everything by Julia Quinn especially Hyacinth! As a matter of fact, I have introduced more people to the Bridgerton series by starting with Hyacinth in book # 7 It’s in His Kiss, than by having them start with the first books. I laughed so much while I was reading it and my husband annoyed me so by making me read it aloud to him – I finally handed it to him to read.

    However, my favorite book that I read as a 10 year-old has all the elements of historical romance and even the paranormal! The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope (hope I got her name right- I saw it in the library again and borrowed just two weeks ago). The contemporary heroine in it, really isn’t much- but the female ghosts and the male ghosts from the American Revolution were awesome!It must be awesome, I’ve remembered it for over 40 years! The book came out in 1958.I never remember the names of the characters, but the name of the 18th century house has stayed with me over the years- Rest and Be Thankful!

  26. 26
    Jennifer says:

    Well, since a lot of my favorites have already been mentioned…the ladies of the Kushiel series tend to be very kickass. Phedre, Melisande, Ysandre, Sidonie, and Alais in particular.

  27. 27
    Qadesh says:

    Shannon C. allow me to jump on the Eve Dallas fanwagon as well.  I’m currently rereading the whole series, and may I say dayam there are a bunch of them, this is timely.  Now, she isn’t strictly a romance heroine, but she is written by the redoubtable La Nora, so that makes her a citizen of romancelandia in my book and jeez what a character she is.  Eve has deep, gaping wounds that make her realistic and layered.  The bit about her not understanding the first thing about girlie things like make-up, haircuts and clothes, makes me laugh everytime it comes up.  And she has Roarke, nuff said.

  28. 28
    Willa says:

    I am one of those readers who has to like the heroine in order to like the romance.

    Oh, me too! And I have to like the hero, as well. What a person finds likable in a main character is so idiosyncratic, though.

    I seem to like the more calm, adult heroines (who then often become inflamed by love):

    -Blanche Harrington from Brenda Joyce’s The Perfect Bride, just love her, so calm and gracious and kind-hearted and serious and passionate. Lovely to read about her. (And her hero, Sir Rex! So deliciously tormented and resolute and honorable! Yum!)

    -Lilith Davenant from Loretta Chase’s Knave’s Wager, so proper, so kind, so responsible, so generous, so willing to love her hero!

    -Anne Wilder from Connie Brockway’s All Through the Night. Another mature adult, who seems so composed, but really a hot mess underneath. Wonderful!

    And I quite liked Jennifer Merrick from A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught, but it’s been a while since I’ve read the book. She’s much younger and maybe sillier than my other favorite heroines, but so sweet and funny! Love her.

  29. 29
    Susan/DC says:

    Favorite heroines include Marian from Gayle Feyrer’s The Thief’s Mistress.  The story is based on Robin Hood but centers on Marian and has a very big role for Guy of Guisborne.  It helps to picture Richard Armitage as Guy, but I loved this book even before he embodied the role in the recent TV series.  Marian is one tough cookie and I love her to bits.

    If you’re looking for heroines to admire, I just finished The Promise of Jenny Jones by Maggie Osborne this morning, and Jenny is great.  As the back cover says, she’s been a mule driver, buffalo skinner, and on her own since she was 10 years old, but she’s got a heart of gold and a body that makes the hero weep.  I’m not usually a big fan of Westerns, but this one begins with an unusual set-up, has an out-of-the-ordinary heroine, and is well worth tracking down.  I’d never read Osborne before, but I think I’m about to go on a glom.

    My spam filter is provide98—is it okay if I only have two?

  30. 30
    Jools says:

    I absolutely adore Miss Elizabeth Bennett!  Following her, and that is saying something, would be almost any of Georgette Heyer’s damsels.  Sophie is one of my particular favorites from the Grand Sophie. But all of the women Heyer wrote about are entertaining and remarkable in a natural way.  I also loved Aislinn from the Wolf and the Dove by Woodiwiss.  I concur with the assessment that todays kickass fems owe everything to the oh so not quite gentle women of the original trashy romance novels of our mothers!

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