When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with Twilight. In my defense, it was the 2000s and Twilight obsession was everywhere and was hardly confined to teens. But I would say I was fairly hardcore, even in the realms of (I hate this term) Twi-hards—I read the books repeatedly and bought all the merchandise, posted online pretty much hourly with my fellow obsessives and saw the first couple of movies multiple times in the theater, on the same day.
One thing that I used to find so infuriating back then was that people were always accusing Edward Cullen, a 100+ year old vampire and my ideal man, of child sex offences, because love of his life Bella Swan is only 17. It seemed to me so unfair, not only because I didn’t think that Edward would have been taking advantage of me if we met and fell in love, and I was younger than Bella (there may even still be fanfic about that possibility somewhere), but because those same people didn’t seem to give the 200+ vampire Angel the same level of grief over his 16-year-old girlfriend, Buffy. (Was it because she was good with a stake? Probably.)
Sometime during this period, my Grandmother introduced me to Georgette Heyer, intending, she later confessed, to wean me off the “sparkly vampire books” and get me into reading “decent literature.” She gave me The Black Moth, and I was into it right away. Before long, I had lessened my time spent on Edward, Bella and the gang – I didn’t even see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 in theaters until it had been out for over a week (!!!) – and was devouring Heyer novels, one after the other, for at least the next year.
And one thing I kept noticing, as I continued through the catalog, was just how many of these romances were taking place between people of vastly different ages and levels of experience. It wasn’t just that the women were virginal, because they were unmarried and so had to be (Edward would approve), it was that they were very often so much younger than the men they ended up marrying. Sometimes worryingly so.
And sometimes, it wasn’t even the age difference that concerned me, but the age itself. It was one thing, I felt, for Bella to find her true love at 17, get married at 18 and settle down to an eternity with Edward and their freaky speed-growing baby. It was another for girls even younger to be locking themselves into marriage, and in a time when there was no such thing as a quickie divorce and they weren’t being turned into forever-young vampires.
Horry in The Convenient Marriage is 17 when she offers herself up to the Earl of Rule, in place of her beautiful older sister whose heart lies with another. 17 and married! To a man of 35, eighteen years her senior.
Regency Buck’s runaway Pen is likewise 17 when she falls into the arms of Sir Richard Wyndham, 29 and far more worldly than the sheltered, naïve Pen. And sure, he says he’s not interested:
“Rid yourself of the notion that I cherish any villainous designs upon your person,” he said. “I imagine I might well be your father. How old are you?”
“I am turned seventeen.”
“Well, I am nearly thirty,” said Sir Richard.
Miss Creed worked this out. “You couldn’t possibly be my father!”
“I am far too drunk to solve arithmetical problems. Let it suffice that I have not the slightest intention of making love to you.”
But by the end of the book, he definitely does, despite her years.
And Hero! In Friday’s Child, she really is one, still sixteen when she marries the 23-year-old Lord Sheringham (he, out of spite; she, out of hero worship and desperation). And she was definitely not ready for adulthood, let alone marriage, at all:
Within a month of their taking up their residence in Half Moon Street, it had been borne in upon his lordship that his wife was no more fit to carve her way through life than the kitten he called her. His lordship, who had never known responsibility, or shown the least ability to regulate his own career on respectable lines, found himself sole lord and master of a confiding little creature who placed implicit faith in his judgement, and relied upon him not only to guide her footsteps, but to rescue her from the consequences of her own ignorance.
But, of course, the most disturbing age of any Heyer heroine is that of Juana María de los Dolores de León, just 14 when she marries the 24-year-old Harry Smith in The Spanish Bride. Yes, this is based on a true story and no, I don’t think the historical record should be altered to reflect current standards, but romanticizing a child bride situation, and turning Harry into a hero because he saved her from the consequences of the war he was complicit in fighting (and because she’s well-bred) has always seemed to me pretty exploitative, if not silently condoning underage marriage.
It’s true that the young women of history (and, sadly, some of today) were sold into marriage by their families at very young ages, and especially amongst the gentry and nobility, love was considered to be a luxury rather than a necessity in any marital union. Building family ties and gaining wealth and prestige was the point, and the daughters of the house were just bargaining chips used to seek the best deal. Georgette Heyer was doing no more than reflecting the prevailing trends of the eras in which she wrote when she gave us Horry and Pen and Hero (and, absolutely, Juana). I just think it’s interesting to note that those very young, by today’s standards underage, heroines and their much older husbands would be beyond scandalous today, and the age of consent would be very much invoked when these men were tried as sexual predators.
At least Edward waited until Bella was 18.
Clara Shipman is a voracious reader of all kinds of Romance, Mystery and Women’s Fiction (whatever that is). She lives on the outskirts of Boston, where she spends her days writing algorithms and her nights writing reviews for Romantic Intentions Quarterly, when not on long walks with her dog, Lufra.