Romance Trope: The Redheaded Heroine

We here at Olivia Waite love a good discussion of tropes almost as much as we love not being sick—but we're only going to get one of those today, and it's not the second one. Lately both Smart Bitches and Dear Author (though I can't find the exact citation on the latter, sorry) have mentioned the prevalence of redheaded heroines in romance. It's true the statistical probability of women with red hair is much higher in romance than in the dull and tawdry realm known as "real life"—but then, Romancelandia is also populated with an immoderate number of heroes with Mighty Wangs, so let's not pretend that a strict adherence to probability is our first and greatest concern.

Someday perhaps I'll combine those two tropes and write about a well-endowed, redheaded hero, like this handsome dude:

A muscular, lantern-jawed, slightly bearded young man with shoulder-length red hair. He stands in a sunny forest, wearing a grey t-shirt, and holding a fishing rod in his right hand.

In fact, the high number of redheaded heroines makes total sense if you know where to look.

We talk a lot in the romance community about Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet as foundational heroines of the genre, and their descendents are indeed legion. But there's a third figure, not often cited but always present, whose influence has yet to be fully articulated.

Of course I'm talking about Anne of Green Gables.

Anne Blythe, née Shirley, is the unsung proto-heroine of many a romance novelist (as this post from Heroes and Heartbreakers bears out). She's bright, strange, lonely, and almost terminally optimistic. She constantly spars with über-beta-hero Gilbert Blythe right up until the moment where she thinks he's died and suddenly realizes he's the love of her life. {Author's note: swoon!}

She also, famously, has red hair. It is not simply a happenstance of appearance, but a defining signal of her character, as she explains:

You'd find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair... People who haven't red hair don't know what trouble is.

Anne's red hair is a mark of difference—of her orphan status, her dangerous imagination, and her unquenchable passion. It's remarked on by others—especially Civilization's Bitch-Queen, Mrs. Lynde—and fought against even by Anne herself, desperate to dye her hair Cordelia-black in a failed attempt at self-reinvention.

If we accept Anne's statement about her hair color as true, then we must also accept the reverse proposition: that people who have red hair do know what trouble is. This may in part explain the proliferation of redheads within sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal romance. These are also the genres that most benefit from a visible mark of difference to set the heroine apart from her society—whether that society is normal non-magical people or a futuristic race of space vampires engaged in political skulduggery. Red hair always has been culturally linked to the supernatural. (For instance: according to legend, redheads can spontaneously become vampires when they die! No fangs required.)

And to use hair color as a visible difference marker sits much more comfortably with authors and readers nowadays than if we used, oh, skin color as the same kind of tool. (I'm looking at you, Tolkien, with your dark dirty orcs and pure white shining elves.) So the prevalence of red hair could also be seen as a symptom of genre fiction's general and deplorable tendency to whiteness: we want our heroine to look different and special—but still, you know, white. So not that different after all.

To indicate that the prevalence of red hair in the book world is not simply in our imaginations, here is a highly unscientific Google Ngram search for the word 'redhead' from 1880 up until 2000.

Google Ngram for the word 'redhead' between the years of 1880 and 2000.You'll notice the bump around 1900—and how the graph starts to rise after that. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908. My off-the-cuff explanations for the sharp rise in the 1930s and 40s are: Judy Garland and other redheaded starlets of Hollywood's golden years, plus Alberto Vargas' slew of redheaded cheesecake illustrations. Then there's a bit of a downturn—and then a huge and continuing surge, suggestively concurrent with the rise of romance and later paranormal romance in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

But it isn't just the paranormal heroines who follow in L. M. Montgomery's footsteps: there's a little something of Anne's story in the small-town romance narrative as well, where a heroine arrives in a tiny place and upsets it socially. The orphan or outsider who forces change while also adapting themselves, all while finding love in an unexpected place and suffering just enough heartbreak on the way. These heroines are usually a peculiar blend of stubborn and vulnerable, a combination which is easier to comprehend once Anne Shirley is seen as part of the pattern.

There's an Anne-type redheaded heroine in one of my favorite Regencies, as well: Eleanor Lyndon from Julia Quinn's Brighter Than the Sun. Ellie is a humble vicar's daughter who clashes with her domineering, too-correct stepmother. There's a bit of Cinderella mixed in (evil stepmother, a prince looking for a wife) but much of the romance plot is developed by discussing the color of her hair. For instance:

She'd always wanted her hair to be something more exotic than just plain red. It was an unexpected gift from some long-forgotten Irish ancestor. The only good thing about it had been that it was a constant source of irritation to her father, who had been known to develop nausea at the merest intimation that there might be a Catholic somewhere in his family tree.

Ellie had always rather liked the idea of a rogue Catholic hiding out in her family tree. She had always liked the idea of anything out of the ordinary, anything to break up the monotony of her humdrum life. (Brighter Than the Sun, 42)

Personal Agendas: I Have One

To be perfectly honest, however, one of the reasons I am always glad to see redheads in romance is that I am a redhead myself. A good, solid, enviable strawberry blonde. It's lovely, but it's not a comfortable hair color for someone who preferred to stay quietly in the background as a kid, though having to step up and speak out more than I liked has probably been healthy for me in the long run.

(And no, I've never tried to dye my hair black—but I would have, if Anne Shirley hadn't shown me the folly of it while I was still an impressionable youth. A redheaded friend in college was not so lucky—and the results were indeed disastrous. Every redhead I've ever met has craved dark hair at some point in their lives.)

This may be a significant fault of mine as a person, but it's still hard for me to remember sometimes that I'm the main character in my own life. And outside of romance, we redheads don't get very many starring roles. We're usually sidekicks and secondary characters. For every Lucille Ball there's a dozen Christina Hendrickses; for every Pippi Longstocking there's a hundred Weasleys. (Admittedly, I'm over the moon about Christina Hendricks and the Weasleys.) So there's a very deep, very personal satisfaction I get from seeing redheads working toward their own happily ever after.

So bring on your your Anne Shirleys, your Ellie Lyndons, and your Gemma Murphys—this is one trope I'm never going to see too much of.

{BONUS for those who are still with me: The complete e-text of Anne of Green Gables is available here and at Project Gutenberg. Happy reading!}

Let Us Now Praise Benedict Cumberbatch

A pale background for Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes: A dark-haired man with pale skin, his mouth slightly open, looks off-frame to the right with an expectant expression. Text reads: I have a serious Benediction. A very happy early birthday to noted British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who according to IMDb has been acting his pants off (if only!) but who first came to my attention as Sherlock Holmes in the modernized BBC adaptation. Have you seen this yet? If not, get thee to a Netflix because it is virtually perfect.

As Sherlock, Mr. Cumberbatch is cold, antic, calculating, and often unexpectedly vulnerable. He plays more to the sociopathic side of Holmes' nature—the side that can't quite get past seeing human beings as rather curious machines. But all that intellect breaks down every now and again in some very quiet, awkward, charming ways. It's a delight—and I admit that I am also quite envious of this Sherlock's long wool coat and anarchic scarf.

I am also very excited to learn that Mr. Cumberbatch is going to be the voice of Smaug in Peter Jackson's highly anticipated Hobbit. Sexy-voiced villains have been a children's movie staple since George Saunders smouldered his way through Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, or Pat Carroll's Ursula undulated for a perplexed Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

And Martin Freeman, who plays an excellent Watson to BC's Sherlock, will also be playing Bilbo Baggins to his Smaug. I can't wait for the inevitable mash-up!

As a special treat, here is a photo of BC together with other noted British sexpot Hugh Laurie:

A screencap from I don't know what, with a short-haired Benedict Cumberbatch in a grey shirt and bright blue v-neck sweater, looking left off-frame with his mouth open in preparation for speaking. He is apparently sitting in the lap of Hugh Laurie, clad in black shirt and black jacket, with a bit of a puzzled scowl on his face.

If anyone knows where this screencap came from, please do let me know so I can write myself some very Mary Sue-ish fanfic about it.

Thirteen Questions About The Most Bangable Male Characters in British Literature

This morning, we here at Olivia Waite were delighted to discover that a Facebook friend had posted the Awl's list of 111 Male Characters of British Literature, in Order of Bangability. And it left us with a few questions—thirteen of them, to be precise.

 

A Pride and Prejudice screencap of Colin Firth in a see-through wet white poet shirt, looking somewhat despondent.

 

 

  1. Seriously, Mr. Darcy is only number 3? Behind Rochester and Aragorn? Even though the latter is a total prig in the book and the former has that whole wife-in-the-attic problem?
  2. Aslan is considered bangable, even though he is a resurrected Jesus lion? And he's higher on the list than King Arthur? Who, it could be argued, is also a resurrected Jesus lion?
  3. Aslan—more bangable than Severus Snape. You're really going with that? On the internet?
  4. How is it that Captain Wentworth only barely cracks the top half of the list? I mean, isn't a naval hero who writes beautiful love letters and also hinted that he made his fortune by royally sanctioned piracy the very definition of sexy?
  5. I mean, isn't it?
  6. When you put Legolas and Robin Hood next to each other on the list, did you suspect it might inspire some kind of erotic crossover fanfic about their forbidden trans-dimensional love? Wouldn't such a story have to lean heavily on the archery metaphor?
  7. Would you perhaps post such a story if I wrote it? Because it sounds really fun.
  8. How is Willy Wonka even the slightest bit more bangable than Dr. Watson?
  9. How did Bertie Wooster beat Colonel Brandon? Or is that another erotic crossover fanfic waiting to happen?
  10. And you're just fucking with us when you included King Lear, right?
  11. And Peter Pan?
  12. And when you list Tom Bombadil as more bangable than James Bond?
  13. That can't possibly be right. Can it?

 

Announcing: Hearts and Harbingers!

We here at Olivia Waite are proud to announce that we have a second book forthcoming from Ellora's Cave! "Hearts and Harbingers" is an offbeat Regency romance about an impoverished gentlewoman, her gambling-addicted brother, and a devastatingly charming marquis. Oh, and I have I mentioned how much I love the cover?

The cover of Hearts and Harbingers by Olivia Waite: a woman in a lavender gown (falling off one shoulder) in a clinch with a shirtless (and muscly-armed) man.

On the very outskirts of polite society, Millicent Harbinger has always found a way to cover the gaming debts of her wastrel brother Duncan. His most recent losing streak is bound to ruin them, however, and her brother's solution is to arrange for Mill to marry the odious Lord Wart. In desperation, Mill decides to sell her virtue anonymously at a well-reputed brothel and kill two birds with one stone: she will have enough money to cover the debt, and her status as a fallen woman will dissuade Lord Wart from claiming her as his bride.

Jasper Goldeby, Marquess of Holder, takes one look at Mill's piercing green eyes and purchases her favors at triple the asking price -- a fortune that could support the Harbingers for life. The night Mill and Jasper share astonishes and transforms them both -- and Jasper quickly realizes one night could never be enough. Can Mill trust her heart enough to take the risk of becoming a marchioness despite her reputation? Or will Duncan's opposition and Wart's animosity destroy the lovers' hopes forever?

Freddy My Love

We here at Olivia Waite have developed quite a thing for Jeremy Brett, thanks to his performance as Sherlock Holmes. How could we not? Behold the hotness:

Actor Jeremy Brett, a man with pale skin and dark hair, wears a charcoal Victorian suit and holds one finger to his lips in a gesture indicating rapid thought.

And recently, in a wistful mood, we hied ourselves to IMDb and checked out Mr. Brett's page, which has some rather lovely quotes that only make you love him all the more. Thoughtfulness! Self-doubt! A tragic love story!

There is also a large poster of the film version of My Fair Lady under the "Known For" heading.

And this surprised me. I have seen Brett's Holmes series twice through by now—more, in the case of favorite episodes. And I was practically raised on My Fair Lady, and can still sing half the musical numbers, even the wordy ones that Rex Harrison white-man-raps his way through. But I have no memory of Jeremy Brett's face. I clicked over to the cast list expecting to see him listed as "Street Sweeper #2" or some such.

But instead—and there is not enough capslock in the world for this—JEREMY BRETT IS FREDDY EYNESFORD-HILL.

Actor Jeremy Brett in a lighter grey formal suit with matching gloves tips a dove-grey top hat in the Ascot scene from the movie My Fair Lady.

This was one of those moments when the world shifts on its axis. I've always been of the opinion that Eliza and Henry Higgins share a love as true as it is, well, kind of bitchy. Freddy always seemed to get in the way.

But now, it feels like Eliza's choice is no longer between one super-intelligent asshole and one earnest but slow-witted aristocrat—now it feels like she's torn between Henry Higgins and a guy who later grows up to be Sherlock Holmes.

And I'm not rooting for Rex Harrison in this love triangle anymore. Any dilemma where one option is Jeremy Brett—you choose Jeremy Brett!

The Vampire Sherlock

We here at Olivia Waite are a little old-fashioned. We like typewriters, and postcards, and bicycles where the front wheel is considerably larger than the back no matter how impractical that makes them for the hilly city in which we live. We are also therefore a little late to certain cultural enthusiasms, particularly A) the vampire craze, and B) Sherlock Holmes. And since we started looking into these at around the same time, they became kind of linked in the mysterious tendrils of our brain, until we came up with the following brilliant idea, that we cannot really believe nobody has written about before:

Sherlock Holmes could totally be a vampire.

A medium shot of actor Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, with a mysterious paper in one hand and his index finger pressed against contemplative lips.

Admittedly, most of the theory originates not from the Sherlock stories -- working through them slowly but steadily -- but from the Jeremy Brett series that ran in spurts for ten years starting in 1984. Of which I have seen every episode. And developed more than a passing crush on the late, lamented Mr. Brett.

Thus, without further ado: points of commonality between a traditional, non-sparkly vampire and Sherlock Holmes:

  • black hair slicked back from a widow's peak
  • pale skin
  • pointy eyebrows often raised to indicate a superiority of intellect
  • elegant clothing, but never dandyish
  • master of disguise, as either a bat or a working-class laborer, respectively
  • a predatory brain, which searches out prey in the form of edible humans or clever criminals
  • a preference for shadows and the city and not, say, country hikes on a sunny spring afternoon
  • eloquence
  • coolness of manner, particularly toward lesser beings
  • the ability to enthrall and fascinate individuals of weaker mind (cough cough Watson cough)
  • a general air of what could only be termed bloodlessness
  • a cruel streak
  • an addiction to something polite society finds distasteful (blood, cocaine)

There are a few distinctions -- vampires tend to commit murders rather than foil them, and are generally depicted as more popular with/fond of the ladies than dear Sherlock caught up in his Watson bromance -- but on the whole there's something appealing in the idea of a dark-haired man with a powerful nose and piercing eyes, flitting through the night solving crimes and drinking blood.

After all, if Jane Austen can turn vampire, anybody's fair game.