As I mentioned earlier, my recent email exchange with Robinjn following her re-examination of LaVyrle Spencer’s Years got me thinking generally about age differences in romance, and how reactions can vary depending on sub-genre, character, and conflict.
In historical romances, the age difference is often expected, or at the least not worth noticing as a potential conflict. In many historicals, the women are younger and possibly virginal, and likely looking or staunchly not looking for a husband (except for that steaming attraction to that guy) (and maybe at some point she wears a pelisse or some boy’s trousers) (or both).
Meanwhile, the men are older, lordlier, and *ahem* experienced. Case in point: Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series starts with Daphne, even though she’s the fourth-oldest sibling in the family, because her older brothers weren’t going to marry first. The other males in her family were paired off after she was. She’s eight years younger than her eldest brother Anthony, and married the year before he did – which is not very startling in historical romance land.
Then there’s books like Kate Noble’s “Follow My Lead,” which I read last week and enjoyed immensely.
The heroine, Winn, is thirty, and the hero, Jason, is thirty as well. Because Winn is thirty, she can go many places unescorted because she’s considered well past a likely marriage, but she’s also limited in her options as a spinster. Winn is determined to be recognized for her own intellect, and her stubborn dedication to that goal is troublesome and difficult for those around her because she’s a woman, and because she doesn’t fit neatly into the existing categories for older women who are not married. Jason, meanwhile, is rolling up to the age at which he figures he ought to get married and start doing married lordly things, precisely on proper schedule.
The similarity in their ages and the differences in their present positions and their futures is a theme through the book. In one scene, one of my favorites, Winn is calling Jason out on his propensity to treat her as both a naive innocent stumbling headfirst into trouble and a bothersome spinster who should go fade in the nearest strip of wallpaper:
“[T]he world has different expectations for us. And I’m well aware of how the world sees me. A spinster, whose life is in a library, who missed my window for happiness by caring more for old men than young ones. My life is over.”
“But you, the world sees as young and virile – your life is laid out before you. You can do anything you wish. Even if you contemplate marriage, you are just beginning.”
“Winn” – Jason sighed wearily – “what are you trying to say?” …
“Why, if we are the same age, am I considered done and you just getting started?”
The idea of Winn’s life just beginning at age 30 in an historical romance, is fascinating in the story, and remarkable because it is not a plot I’ve read much of in the past few years.
This is not to say that all differences of age are barely worth a mention. Some historical romances do play with age difference, particularly when the plot conflict is derived from “May/December” tension, as Robinjn mentioned in the previous entry. In our email exchange, she brought up Heyer’s These Old Shades:
I re-read These Old Shades with a different viewpoint as well, but I don’t think it hit me as much in that book because there was really very little introspection on Avon’s part. He mentions in passing that he knows he’s too old for her but it doesn’t bother him much or really affect much of the plot.
I remember that Anne Mather used to do a LOT of May/December and when I was reading them in my teens the age difference meant nothing to me at the time….
I mentioned that in historical romances, a young lord in his early 20s might not be much to read about, and Robinjn said, “Well it’s kind of hard to do dissipated and cynical with a 21 year old face, isn’t it? And with historicals it’s somewhat easier to kind of dismiss it since girls DID marry very young, and often older men.”
Contrast that with paranormal romances, where the heros could be hundreds or thousands of years older than the heroines, and the age difference isn’t worth much of a scandalous twitch of possible impropriety. More often it is a source of maudlin ruminations or unintentional humor.
In Patricia Briggs’ Alpha-Omega series, which I adore and re-read last weekend, Anna is a young woman, while Charles is hundreds of years old. Their age difference isn’t an issue of propriety for some for an assortment of reasons, I think. First, they’re not human. Second, they are exceptionally long-lived, if not immortal, and third, Charles, as well as the men who are even older than he is, all look about as young as Anna. Charles’ father, the Marrok, is described as very young looking:
Charles’s father, Bran Cornick, looked for all the world like a college student, a computer geek or maybe an art major. Someone sensitive, gentle, and young – but she knew he was none of these things. He was the Marrok, the one all the Alphas answered to – and no one dominated an Alpha werewolf by being sensitive and gentle.
He wasn’t young, either. She knew Charles was almost two hundred years old, and that would necessitate his father being older yet.
Cry Wolf, 2008
Millennia of age difference aren’t that uncommon in paranormal romances any more than age differences of ten or more years in an historical romance.
And really, the aged and ageless paranormal hero is quite a model. It’s quite the hot male, if you think about it: young, virile, and sculpted on the outside; aged, wise, and incredibly mature on the inside. RWOR.
But not every supernatural creature is immune from the age- difference commentary. Nalini Singh’s last book, Kiss of Snow attracted a good bit of reader commentary about the age difference between Hawke and Sienna. When I interviewed Nalini Singh a few weeks ago while she was in New York promoting Kiss of Snow, one of the questions I asked came from a reader named Mouna: “Your fans have carried on ad-infinitum/ad-nauseum about the age gap between Hawke and Sienna which by my calculation is around 14 or 16 years (if he was 30/32 when she was 16). Traditionally in romance, heroes in most genres, are at least a decade older! Why do you think there has been this drama about their ages? Is it because she was 16 when it started or is it that the younger generation of readers are no longer attracted to such a large age gap? No one mentions the thousand plus years Raphael has on Elena – so why the icky factor when it is 14?”
Nalini said that part of the commentary was based on the fact that readers have been watching Sienna grow up and come of age through the Psy-Changeling series, and because she was so young when she first met Hawke, after leaving the PsyNet with her family. I also think it’s because the Psy aren’t explicitly described as having millennia-long longevity, so they are perceived by some readers as human-like, even though they are not. When one’s lifespan is only a little bit more than a normal human’s, age becomes more important.
When one’s lifespan can stretch into the hundreds of years, age really is nothing but a number. And when one is a smoking hot angel in charge of a few major cities and some hard-core smoldering, age difference is expected: Raphael is probably older than just about everyone, other archangels aside.
Robinjn’s re-reading of Spencer, and my own experience talking to readers about Kiss of Snow has given me a lot to ponder as to why age differences in some sub-genres is remarkable, and in others it’s expected or not important. I honestly don’t notice it unless it’s The Reason For The Conflict. If I encounter an age difference, I usually trust that the author will address any concerns I might have by either incorporating the age difference into the world building, or addressing it some other way. But I confess, I’m sort of used to it as a commonality to romance.
When do you notice age difference? Is it a plot device you enjoy? Do you see it more of an obvious conflict in one sub-genre than another?