From Bennets to Billionaires: Some Thoughts on Writing Money in Romance

Money has been woven into the romance genre from the start. Take Pride and Prejudice, that classic foundational text. Sandwiched between the witty banter and the embarrassing family antics is a deep, urgent concern with money as a social stabilizer. Elizabeth Bennet's courage consists largely in rebelling against marriage for purely material concerns, even though marrying someone who will financially support her is basically Her Entire Job As A Gently Born Lady. Her refusal to settle for the first eligible offer of marriage (or the second, counting Darcy's jerk-proposal) is a big, big risk, despite the fact that it's never entirely clear how dire the Bennet's circumstances will be after Mr. Bennet's death: will they be starving in the streets? Or will they merely have to fire their two servants and do for themselves while living simply? Is it real poverty or only the kind of poverty that will make them a social embarrassment? Either way, Lizzie's insistence that her happiness is as vital as her family's social standing is a bold moment that changed the entire history of English literature, both popular and literary. Jane in Jane Eyre is similarly unmoved by money, despite being a virtually penniless orphan -- what she values in Rochester is his grumpy brilliance, that mercurial charm that makes him both unlikeable and fascinating. He tries to shower her with gifts, and she refuses them. She later inherits a fortune from a distant relative and promptly gives away as much of it as she can. Miss Eyre is definitely more self-sacrificing than Elizabeth Bennet, but both heroines are in the same moral register where personal satisfaction is a higher good than mercenary material gain.

In a recent conversation on Twitter, the incisive Miranda Neville mentioned that historicals are "all about money" (partial feed here). Certainly there are countless historicals following the Austen/Brontë format, with poor or lower gentry heroines being wooed by lavishly wealthy aristocrats (and the occasional lavishly wealthy tradesman or criminal). One of the things I loved about Julie Anne Long's Like No Other Lover was its upending of this trope: the heroine explicitly planned on using her good looks to snag a rich husband, because she had a few shillings in her purse and that was about it. (This situation was scary and refreshing, though it's true the book has some flaws.) But rarities aside, it's abundantly clear that in Romancelandia, the scales of finance are more often weighted in the hero's favor.

Sex and the Single Man in Possession of a Large Fortune

But it isn't just historicals that are all about money. Think of the new appetite for billionaire hero romances, from Christian Grey to Gideon Cross to all the BDSM billionaire knockoffs I don't have the patience to list here. They're not only kinkier than the classic Harlequin lamp-jawed CEO, but they're wealthier too.

And the trait the heroines of these billionaire BDSM books share with both Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre: they're not only sexually virginal, they're financially virginal as well.

Heroes are endowed with licentious pasts and taboo sexual tastes. Heroines -- well, not so much, at least not outside of erotic romance, and even there there's a pretty strong let this sexy dude instruct you in the sexy ways of sex vibe. (Full disclosure: I've written one of those myself, so I'm not entirely immune to their appeal.) But it seems like heroes are also permitted to be rich, to bask in the trappings of wealth: penthouse apartments, fine furniture, expensive and tailored clothes, wine, food, private helicopters. Heroines -- again, not so much. One of the consequences of the Lizzie/Jane Eyre tradition is that it's pretty much a moral imperative in the genre that Heroines Do Not Care About Money. Chick-lit strongly rebelled against this for a while, before collapsing under the weight of all those shoe descriptions. Aside from Nora in Tiffany Reisz's The Siren, I'm hard-pressed to think of a wealthy heroine who really enjoys being wealthy. (Eva from Bared to You -- which I have not read -- may be an exception as well. Feel free to weigh in in the comments.)

The giant elephant in this post is, of course, prostitution. Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre exist in the context not only of mercenary marriage, but in the context of an unspoken underclass of women who have sex for pay (whether of their own volition or or coercion because it was the only economic option does not matter here). As a result, women and money existed in an uneasy relationship -- the rules of behavior for ladies exist in large part as a way of distinguishing between respectable women and whores. Centuries of social and legal activism have opened up women's financial horizons -- here in the States we can own property and hold jobs and earn wages now, even if those wages still aren't equal to men's on average -- but in romance it still comes across as unseemly if a heroine thinks too much about money. Even if it's her own money she's throwing around. Even if she's worried about how to feed her kids or pay her rent or keep her business from going under. The billionaire romance's happy ending is not that the heroine now has access to money, it's that the heroine never has to think about money again, because Thinking About Money Is Bad.

So we get this weird double standard that exists across multiple books and even multiple subgenres. For every city girl who finds love in a small town and gives up the urban flash and glamor, we have a bespoke-suited billionaire in a shiny penthouse who gets to keep all his fancy things when he finds true love. In the first story, the heroine comes down to the hero's financial level (how often have you read small-town heroes who can't bring themselves to depend on the heroine's money because of pride? A LOT); in the second, the hero raises up the heroine to upper-class status, though of course she doesn't really care about such things, oh no, not the silk dresses or the satin handcuffs or the of-course-we-can-pay-for-it trip to the emergency room from all those adorably klutzy accidents. In Jane Eyre, at least it was Rochester who fell down when he and Jane first met.

Contemporary heroines in billionaire romances are expected to prove -- to readers as well as to the hero -- that they are not that dreaded monster, the gold-digger. (Cue Kanye West earworm in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...) One way authors do this is by showing that the heroine is uncomfortable around the trappings of money. Heroines refuse expensive jewelry and fancy dresses, they stand in awe of the gleaming marble in penthouse foyers, and so on. Some of this no doubt is meant to play to reader fantasy -- since most romance readers are not billionaires, the theory goes that they may relate more to a heroine who's equally at sea in the world of high finance, while still getting a vicarious thrill from all the niceties. Wealth in fiction is a fantasy with a lot of appeal, to be sure -- but I think it's telling that we so rarely write the working-class hero, gaping at the rich heroine's foyer. (You ever have one of those days where everything sounds vaguely dirty? Gaping at the heroine's foyer, hur hur hur.)

Sometimes the power differential is so skewed as to make me uncomfortable -- a big reason why I haven't tried to pick up 50 Shades or any of its imitators. If total dependency upon a hero is really the fantasy you're after, we're never going to like the same books. But you've got plenty of yours already, so let's even the scales. Let's see more billionaire heroines with kinky tastes corrupting innocent young workingmen, please. (Cough cough The Siren cough.) Let's write a heroine who's hard up for money and when a rich dude she's got the hots for offers to take her to a fancy dinner, she says Hell yes and orders all the wine because he won't miss the money, she can't afford to treat herself and hell, she's going to boink his brains out anyway so the wine is just a bonus. Let's write heroines who don't care about the billionaire hero's money because they already have plenty of their own. Let's close the romance wage gap.

Because if we can't even bring ourselves to do that in the fictional worlds we create, how can we hope to effect that change in our real lives? If romance is fantasy and escape, why does that fantasy always take such a conservative form? Where are the romances for women who fantasize not about bagging the billionaire, but about being one?

{In closing: this particular author is nowhere near being a billionaire. If you'd like to do your bit to change that, please consider visiting my books page to purchase one of my fine stories, available in many convenient digital formats.}