Presumed Innocent

"How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world," Shakespeare's Miranda cries on seeing a fine young man for the first time, "that has such people in't!" Given the multitudinous virgins gasping their way through the canon, one can hardly say that Miranda's astonishment is unexpected. But I am rather surprised at the numbers of innocents one finds in romance written in 2010, rather than 1610. The bookshelves are full of young women, gasping their shock and general pleasure at the sight of males and their accoutrement. In short, the allure of innocence is still strong, some 400 years after Miranda voiced her surprise in The Tempest. This column looks at five novels whose heroines are marked by the kind of joyful astonishment Shakespeare gave to Miranda. These women are the opposite of Mae West ("A hard man is good to find"); they tumble into love without a shadow of disillusionment or cynicism to shade their perception of the "beauteous mankind" who happen their way.


Julia Quinn is a master of innocent joy, and Ten Things I Love About You is one of her very best. The novel is named, of course, for the beloved Shakespeare knock-off, Ten Things I Hate about You, a version of The Taming of the Shrew. That film knocks the rough edges off Shakespeare's misogynistic take on marriage, and Quinn takes the cause even further. The impoverished Miss Annabel Winslow is being courted by the utterly repellent Earl of Newbury, whom she cannot possibly refuse—until she meets Sebastian Grey, who turns out to be the earl's despised heir. Annabel is sexually innocent even for a Regency heroine; her reaction to an orgasm is bewilderment: "I don't know what you just did to me." But more importantly, Annabel hasn't a cynical bone in her body; she has trouble interpreting the sharp gossip and sexual innuendo that circulates through London. Quinn provides a brilliant counterpoint in Annabel's sensual lush of a grandmother, Lady Vickers, whose jaundiced advice as regards the aged Lord Newbury includes the cheerful fact that "he'll die soon…You couldn't hope for more." Lady Vickers's cynical sensuality throws her granddaughter's charming innocence into high relief, and that innocence is a perfect antidote to Sebastian's severe war-invoked PTSD. Annabel's genuine, generous nature rescues Sebastian from his tormented nightmares, allowing him to share his secrets as he falls in love.


The heroine of Meg Cabot's Insatiable is a contemporary version of Annabel, with a special twist: Meena Harper intuitively knows how each person she meets is going to die. Meena is no virgin—but the key to her character is her utter lack of cynicism. Even when she realizes that she's fallen in love with (and been seduced by) the prince of vampires—not to mention his other titles, such as "prince of darkness" and "anointer of all that is unholy"—Meena can't help thinking that the devilishly handsome Lucien Antonescu is misunderstood. And for his part, Lucien is enthralled, as is a studly warrior for the Palatines, who fight vampires, by Meena's innocence, and finds himself wondering if "there was a sweetness about her in which he could somehow find his own redemption?"  She's the key to saving whatever shred of soul he has left. Like Sebastian, Lucien is weary with battles and killings, and sees Meena as a shining light in a dark world.


Kris Kennedy's The Irish Warrior features a heroine with a singular, odd power, rather like Meena's. Senna de Valery holds the key to a mysterious wool dyeing process that can turn cloth invisible—and also act as an explosive. Senna knows nothing about sensuality; the warrior she rescues from prison, Finian O'Melaghlin, labels her a "clerical virgin." Like Meena and Annabel, Senna is neither contemptuous nor distrustful. She is manifestly a good person—"surely an angel," as Finnian recognizes. In fact, Senna is no angel, but she does have the remarkable ability to feel joy even in stressful circumstances, as the two of them flee the revolting and violent Lord Rardove, a man desperate for both the dye and Senna. The Irish Warrior is a lovely tale in which Finian's distrust of women and the English is gradually won over by Senna's joyful innocence. By the end of the novel, the beleaguered warrior has a new outlook on life: Senna makes him feel "wide-awake. Alive. Engaged."


Charlotte Fallon, the heroine of Maggie Robinson's Mistress by Mistake  is a village spinster with a trollop for a sister—which explains how she ends up in the said trollop's house when Sir Michael Bayard arrives to take possession of his luscious new mistress. He's surprised, to say the least, when he discovers the near-virginal Maggie sleeping in his mistress's bed. Charlotte is not an obvious substitute for her sister: she is "as solemn as a nun," as Michael puts it, with innocent blue eyes and a sturdy sense of morality: "I am a respectable woman. A spinster. I live in a cottage in little Hyssop. With cats." But he demands that she compensate for her sister's crimes, and before he knows it, he's falling in love with her honesty and her "vexingly upright" nature. Mistress by Mistake is a charming, extra-sexy tale of a surprising love affair in which a dissolute rake is won over by precisely the kind of woman he most dislikes, a "Miss Prim," as Michaels labels Charlotte. Pretty soon, Michael has discarded his dissolute lifestyle, rediscovering his passion for art through his love of sketching Charlotte.


Francis Ray's heroine in It Had To Be You brings together two similar characters, modern though they are. Zachary Albright Wilder is a record producer known as RD or "Rolling Deep," famous for sleeping with all his female artists. Laurel Raineau is a classical violin-player, who wants nothing to do with Zachary and his dissolute reputation. But when she escapes to an island vacation, Zachary follows her, hoping to change her mind. Soon Laurel is no longer a virgin, while Zachary is falling in love—and facing a serious problem. She has no idea he's the loathed RD; in fact, their first fight comes when she jokes that RD is a thug, likely with a police record. This is a heart-wrenching novel, because Laurel's innocence­—her naiveté—fuels her passionate love of music. When she discovers that Zachary is RD, and that he came to Cancun planning to wrangle a way to sign her, it destroys her world. To his surprise, it breaks Zachary's heart to see disillusionment in her eyes. Laurel's chaste joy, in more than a sexual sense, made him "want to be better," and he finds himself fighting bitterly to regain her trust.


Rather than sexual innocence, per se, these novels celebrate a kind of joyful exploration that precludes cynicism or disillusionment. These women make, as Zachary puts it, life seem "fun again." Even back in 1610, Shakespeare understood how rare that kind of innocence is: Miranda, after all, lives her whole life on an island before she encounters Ferdinand. These novels are the antidote to contemporary Mae Wests, to Sex in the City and Housewives from Big Cities. They celebrate a sensuality that doesn't compare men, but celebrates the pleasure and novelty of a lifetime spent loving only one.


If you'd like to discuss romances featuring innocent heroines (or not), please stop in to chat with Eloisa James in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she'll be joined by Julia Quinn. Please do check out Eloisa's past columns in the Archives, and if you'd like to get her reaction to romances as she reads them, follow her on Facebook or Twitter. If you'd like a peek at Eloisa's own romances, please visit her web site at


And don't forget the Barnes & Noble daily romance blog, Heart to Heart, where readers chat about the hottest news in the world of romance, from favorite authors to scorching love scenes.


Eloisa James's most recent novel is  A Duke of Her Own.

by Mary_Anne_Landers on ‎06-07-2010 10:36 AM

Thank you for your article, Eloisa.


Mind if I voice a different opinion?  I wish there were less focus on virginity in romance fiction.  You argue that virginity imparts a fresh outlook on life, an unsullied point of view that hasn't had the chance to become jaded, skeptical, or cynical.  But in my experience, this simply isn't so.  I don't see any correlation between virginity and attitude.


If someone, real or fictional, is a virgin, all that means is that this person has not yet had a sexual experience.  It says nothing about whether that person is healthy-minded or twisted, open to new experiences or closed to them, optimistic or pessimistic, sociable or withdrawn, bright or dull, sophisticated or simple.  That person might have a terrific attitude or a terrible one.  Indeed, it might be that a terrible attitude is what's preventing that person from having a first sexual experience.


Here in the real world the only segments of our society that make a big to-do over virginity are conservative if not reactionary religious groups. Intentionally or not, they predicate the intrinsic value of a woman's life on whether or not she's chaste.


I don't mean to imply that you personally subscribe to such views.   Or that you promote them in your writings.   But a professional such as you knows better than anyone else how a reader puts his or her own spin on an author's works. 


Therefore, if a writer romanticizes and glorifies virginity, if she celebrates it for any reason, some readers will inevitably make this tie-in:  Virginity makes a woman worthy of attention and respect.   It makes her valuable.  It makes it possible for her to be the center of her own fictional story, so it should accord her a corresponding role in real life.  Lack of virginity means she deserves none of this.


Personally I'm happier with fiction writers who never mention a female character's sexual experience or lack thereof.  If it's relevant to the plot, of course it would have to be mentioned.  But does it really need to be dwelt upon?  And to me at least, the most interesting stories---including romances---are those in which virginity is not relevant at all.


What if a story takes place in a setting in which people do or did make a big issue over virginity?  I say, okay, give it a line or two, then move on to more interesting themes.  And I can think of very few that are duller.


Well, I've gone on long enough.  Thanks for starting this discussion.  Keep up the good work!




by cories on ‎06-07-2010 04:54 PM

Hi!  I don't look at virginity quite the same way, Mary Ann.  To me, it's not just not having any sexual experience; it means that the virgin hasn't had her heart broken by some man.  Thus, the world is still marvelous and full of the possibility of joy.  The cynicism of life comes after the disappointment in someone so dear to a woman (in this case, although I'm sure guys go through the same thing), someone whom she has chosen to value (as opposed to a family member, say).  That's why the dissolution of a first love hurts so much; the broken heart is never quite the same again, not so trusting in any case.

by EloisaJames on ‎06-07-2010 10:01 PM

Dear Mary Anne,


I see the connection you're making, and certainly some religious groups would agree with that.  But I don't think that readers will necessarily make that connection, particularly while reading romance.  I get a certain number (but steady) complaints from readers who don't want to read about sex in their novels.  Sex is in romances tends, I would argue (and they concur), to consider the sexually joyous woman to be a "woman worthy of attention and respect... valuable," as you say.  For some readers, this is an anathema; they'd rather that sex (or virginity) simply wasn't considered at all.  


It's an interesting question, but I tend to think that there is no general answer.  In other words, in the hands of one writer, virginity will make a heroine worthy of attention -- because the author herself feels that way about that stage in life.  Another writer will have a great time making fun of an unpleasant first time.  


All best, Eloisa

by king19 on ‎06-09-2010 01:30 PM

It Had To Be You By Francis Ray: In my own words i believe this to be a wonderful love story. I  love how Laurel is able to brush Zach off and he finds a way to get next to her without her knowledge. Sounds like something i would do.... When i read this story i get caught up in it and i think of how well Laurel is protected and how Zach is being himself, yet not being himself. He is Zach Wilder Albright, but he is also R.D. the famous producer.  I dont really like the fact that Laurel has not be only honest with Zach either yet she escapes totally untarnished by that fact. Even though Zach does know who she is i think she still should have told him about her family which maybe would have made him tell her who he was. It was amazing how they came together at the beginning and how everything got messed up in the middle between the loves and the lies. In all Greatness, it is an amazing story.

by Francis_Ray7 on ‎06-11-2010 02:03 PM

Interesting discussion on virginity.  First, I'd like to thank Eloisa for including IT HAD TO BE YOU.  In creating characters, virgins or not, I always start with their childhood.  I strongly believe that is where  a person's  personality, values and morals are shaped. Once that is done,  I can easily determine if the women is sexually experiences or not.  Thus far in my books, their sexuality is  a conscious choice.  I enjoy writing about virgins.  I have yet to receive one letter from a reader upset that the heroine was a virgin.  I love my readers and appreciate that they've allowed me to tell the story I envision.


 Thank you, king19, for stopping by.  Delighted you enjoyed ITTBY.



by susannac on ‎06-25-2010 02:45 PM

Thank you for a lovely column, Eloisa. I do consider your reviews when making decisions about new authors to try. I appreciate your time and effort in researching/writing this!


As for virginity in romance novels, it's certainly not an overwhelming meme in romances as a whole. Someone who does not care for virginal heroines has much to choose from, up to and including an expanding selection of erotica. And in your column, Eloisa, I did not see a glorification of virginity for its own sake - rather, as an aspect of character that contrasts with the hero's character. I suspect deciding whether to write a character - male or female - as a virgin has to do with time period, life circumstances, character necessary for the plot, and the plot itself. Given that the vast majority of virgins in romances relinquish that state well before marriage, I think you have to acquit romance writers generally of choosing to write about virgins because of a feverish desire to convert the world to their Puritan point of view.


To Mary Anne specifically: I agree with you that a person's virgin status alone is not wholly predictive of their character, health or attitude. By the same logic, a person's non-virgin status is also not wholly predictive of their character, health or attitude. I do, however, think that how you express your sexuality is a good indication of all those things. I personally do not connect well with characters for whom sexual encounters have the emotional meaning of a good massage, who can speak of their various lovers in much the way they would speak of the relative merits of the various cars they've driven. And I'm not particularly confident that a "happily ever after" for those people means more than "until I'm bored or tired of you or see something better". Virginity, or abstinence if you're between marriage partners, to me is an outward indication that a person has the ability to stick with a difficult decision - and will be highly likely to be faithful to his/her partner when they do bond. A virginal, abstinent, or highly selective character in the beginning of a romance gives me the confidence to believe in the happily ever after at the end.

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Three Weeks with Lady X.

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