The Girl Next Door Heroine Trope in Romance Novels
By Madison Crutchfield
This paper explores the Girl Next Door (GND) heroine trope. The GND is related to, and sometimes synonymous with, other tropes- the “wallflower” trope commonly seen in Regency romance, the “best friends to lovers” or “best friend’s little sister” trope in contemporary romance, and in some cases the “virgin” trope found in most romance (Klasky). Over the course of my research I have come to the conclusion that my analysis is the first to singularly analyze this trope under this nuanced label. Drawing evidence from three main fictions- Maya Rodale’s Seducing Mr. Knightly, Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do, and Victoria Dahl’s Talk Me Down– I argue that the efficacy and popularity of the GND is derived from its ability to resonate with female readers; a redolence that comes from the GND’s embodiment of a more contemporary heroine who demonstrates autonomy, ambition, and, perhaps most importantly, imperfection. Section one of my argument defines the trope; section two explains why and how the GND is effectual and fulfilling; and section three analyzes the heroine’s relationship with the hero that uniquely spurs this heroine’s transformation. In proving these four discrete aspects, I hope to show how the GND trope humanizes heroism in showing that imperfection is beautiful and self-realization cannot be achieved alone.
I. Defining the GND trope
GND tends to refer more to this heroine’s personality than her looks. In fact, the GND is more often than not the local beauty, on occasion even being described as a knockout or a bombshell. However, regardless of whether she does have the looks, she does not flaunt it. She generally embodies a wholesome, “celestial-grade femininity” that renders an “instinctual attraction”; and she is capable of passion, but she is not overtly sexual (Dare, 120). She can be modest to a fault, completely unaware of her attractiveness, which tends to be a result of historically being disregarded. She will rarely force herself on anyone, as she is happy keeping to herself, usually captivated in her writing or reading. Consequently, others give her a good girl image, a youthful innocent, too delicate and sweet to be lustfully desired by the hero.
Annabelle Swift in Seducing Mr. Knightly, very aptly personifies these more prototypical character traits of the GND trope. Docile Annabelle is more of a servant in her brother’s home than anything. She is always worrying about and taking care of others, appropriately writing the advice column for the London Weekly newspaper, a pastime her family knows nothing about. Her personality does not stray far from Rodale’s other heroines in her Wallflower series.
Pauline Simms in Any Duchess Will Do is similar to Annabelle, resembling a Cinderella story as the overworked serving girl/barmaid of Spinster Cove. She has never been hung up on men, but is instead bound and determined to open up her own bookstore. She is uncomplaining, bubbly, and painfully self-aware of where she ranks in society, yet she has a certain comfortability in her own skin and a subtle won’t-be-told-what-to-do mentality.
Victoria Dahl, similar to Tessa Dare, writes a nuanced spin of the GND heroine in Molly Jennings. Molly is the younger sister of the hero Ben Lawson’s best friend, and in that sense, maintains the aspect of the GND that makes her seem untouchable; but, boy has she grown up from the cute, virginal teenager he remembers. “She was still Molly Jennings to him, too, albeit spiced with new memories of dirty talk and blow jobs” (Dahl). Unlike Annabelle, or even Pauline, Molly has a wicked streak. She returns to her hometown after ten years as a strong-willed, self-indulgent, sexually experienced, flirtatious and unapologetic bachelorette with a crude sense of humor, fiery temper and naughty secrets. Unlike an Annabelle, who would blush at the thought of a man noticing her, Molly barrels into Aspen like a bull in a china shop. After a few encounters with Ben, she is almost positive he is more than a little interested in her. And despite her paranoia, terribleness with kids, dishonesty, difficulty to trust, and unbridled craziness, she remains irresistible to him. She embraces being the bad girl. On more than one occasion Molly dissuades Ben from believing her good girl image. “You’re a sweet girl, Molly. You always have been,” he whispers. “You wish,” she murmurs (Dahl). Or again, moving his lips to her jaw and working his way back to her ear mutters, “I think there’s really a good girl underneath all that naughtiness.” “Dream on” she says (Dahl). We see a milder version of this bad girl facade with Pauline. When she is imploring the hero Griffin York, the Duke of Halford, to show her his entire library, he says to her, “If I did possess a secret section of my library that consists entirely of books inappropriate for young ladies, you could hardly expect me to direct you to it.” And she says, “Why not? I’m no lady. Not that innocent, either” (Dare, 92).
Both heroines- Molly and Pauline- are sarcastic and at ease toying with their heroes. For instance, when Molly arrives back in town she finds amusement in working Ben up. “She crossed her arms and smiled up at him. ‘You’re kind of sexy when you’re in charge. Has anyone ever told you that?’” (Dahl). Or when rumors about them being “a thing” get posted in the local gossip column and she instinctively goes to find Ben. “’Hey, lovah. ‘I hear we’re a hot item. You move fast for a big man.’” (Dahl) Or when Griffin tries to explain how true love feels to Pauline and she tartly responds, “I don’t know that I’ve ever suffered flutterings, your grace. Perhaps they’re unique to ladies of the higher classes. I don’t possess that sort of delicate feminine nature” (Dare, 100).
Yet often, the GND doesn’t allow herself to have what she wants, either because society has told her she cannot have it or does not deserve it and she’s come to truly believe that. It is this disregard that fosters a sense of insignificance and insecurity that often cripples the heroine. Her character bears the scars of being overlooked, and her self-awareness becomes detrimental. Annabelle has been working under the same man, Derek Knightly, for three years and seven months and he has never noticed her. Pauline has been a serving girl her entire life, destined to Spinster Cove. Society has told her that she is neither worthy nor capable of being loved by Griffin York, the Duke of Halford. Molly, despite seeming thick-skinned and unphased, is no exception to this internal battle. Her family has never taken her seriously, with her modest intelligence never seeming to compensate for her innate silliness and spontaneity. She harbors severe insecurities of never being quite good enough in her parents’ eyes, overshadowed by her brother Quinn. Here she explains her motives for keeping her professional life a secret, even to her family:
“My parents….Quinn is so smart and successful. They’re so proud of him, and they should be. He’s amazing. But I’ve never been as smart, never as good in school. And my work isn’t like his, either. It’s easier this way. They understand that they’d probably be disappointed, but they don’t know. They can’t be sure. Maybe I’m a spy. Maybe I’m an artist. Whatever it is, they can’t measure it against Quinn’s accomplishments because I won’t let them.”
The difference with Molly is that rather than becoming passive like Annabelle and Pauline, she becomes rebellious. Her secrets, her joking through the hard times, are her coping mechanisms. Her insecurities are reflected in her love life, when she pushes for more of a friends-with-benefits relationship with Ben to protect herself from feelings.
As has been laid out, the GND is a versatile trope that can frame a good girl like Annabelle Swift, a bad girl like Molly Jennings, or someone who falls in the middle like Pauline Simms. An important recognition of this trope is that regardless of what facade the heroine displays, they are good at their core. There is never malicious intent in their actions.
II. Why and how is the GND trope fulfilling?
The romance heroine has irresistible appeal. According to Rachel Brownstein, author of Becoming a Heroine, “To want to be a heroine is to want to be something special, something else, to want to change, to be changed, and also to want to stay the same” (Brownstein, xv). And having the sense of the possibility of being one “is to develop the beginnings of what feminists call a ‘raised’ consciousness: it liberates a woman from feeling, and therefore perhaps from being, a victim or a dependent or a drudge, someone of no account” (xix). George Eliot, a known critic of romance novels, could not refute, sarcastically or not, the fact that
“It is not megalomaniacal to want to be significant; it is only human. And to suspect that one can be significant only in the fantasy of fiction, to look for significance in a concentrated essence of character, in an image of oneself, rather than in action or achievement, is, historically, only feminine. Or mostly” (xv).
And it is this “active participation in the imaginative experience of romance that allows [the reader] to author a new reality for herself” (Selinger). Jennifer Crusie, in pursuit of writing her dissertation and reading 100 romance novels, describes how the transformation of the heroine “spills over” so that ‘when the heroine emerged transformed from the romance story, so did she’ (Selinger).
Linda Barlow in Jayne Krentz’s anthology Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, agrees that, whether you are looking at Bronte or Richardson, romance heroines are a “psychological map” to “the deepest levels of feminine understanding” (Krentz, 46). “The various elements contained in them function as internal archetypes within the feminine psyche” (46). She claims that “the romance heroine is the primary aspect of feminine consciousness, the character with whom the reader is most likely to identify” (47). For Barlow, by the end of a romance novel, the heroine has achieved the transformation into a goddess, a metamorphosis all women strive to complete- from virgin, to mother, to goddess. She learns to love herself. Barlow describes the hero as the heroine’s “shadow”, “the dark side of herself”, “the split-off portion of the heroine’s psyche” that she denies (49). Yet, in standing up to the hero, in being aggressive and rageful, wild and libidinous, in never pulling her punches- “as many modern women do in their everyday lives”- the heroine accepts this more masculine side of herself, thereby achieving full psychological integration and completing the transformation into a goddess (19). Female readers then instinctively identify with the heroine because she overcomes, through her courage and feistiness, this subservient nature.
The heroines of pre-1960s began to notably demonstrate this transformation, ‘chastening the chauvinists, reforming the rakes’ all behind a “core of pure steel” (Krentz, 67). Then again, as Pamela Regis explains in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, a defining characteristic of the romance has always been this unapologetic “fundamental release from inhibition to action” (Regis). Judith Arnold gets at this idea of the heroine being action-oriented in her subsection of Krentz’s anthology titled Women Do. And what do women do? According to Arnold, “they work” (Krentz, 134). They blaze their own paths, set their own trends, constantly striving to do more, be more.
In an interview explaining why she thinks the GND trope is so popular, Victoria Dahl drew on this idea of doing and making things happen for yourself. She talked about the hidden possibility of the GND. And how, as a reader, “your life may be (similarly) average and boring, but excitement is lurking just beneath the surface. Just beneath YOUR surface.” The GND shows us that when we decide to get our hands dirty and dig our heels in, we can make something happen for our ordinary selves.
On the contrary, Laura Kinsale in Krentz’s same anthology, presents a counterargument to my hypothesis, as well as Barlow’s. She contends that readers have a harder time psychologically connecting and relating to someone of the same gender. She draws the distinction between placeholding and reader identification in the reader experience. In another interview, Maya Rodale captured my rebuttal to this critique in explaining that “the GND probably makes choices in her plot that the average female reader would- perhaps not the most daring ones, of if they are, the character rationalizes them in the same way the reader might too. Her emotional states probably reflect the reader’s. The effect this has is that the character seems relatable, her choices seem ‘right’ and she seems real. It also makes her more likeable.” Thus, it is not only easy for the reader to see herself in the heroine’s decision making, but the reader wants to emulate this heroine. In this way, by exposing the reader to a thought and decision making process that appears practical and is understandable since it better reflects potential real life occurrences, the GND evokes reader identification.
Furthermore, Laura Kinsale contends that part of the reason a female reader struggles to identify with the heroine is because the hero is the one carrying the book. In other words, no one wants to emulate the heroine as the secondary character. I might have agreed with this prior to the 1940s and 1950s (Krentz, 70). However, since then, literary heroines have been developed into fantasies of what “ordinary women perceive they cannot do easily or at all (Jones, 4). Their triumph in the face of a gender that delimits them makes them archetypal. Previously portrayed as flawless exemplars of the female sex, the goal of heroines was to win the heart of the man, generally resulting in marriage. The hero was the end-goal. I would argue that in a GND romance, the end-goal is the self-realization and -discovery of the heroine; and her personal transformation circumscribes the winning of the hero’s heart. Thus, a GND novel seemingly reconciles Kinsale’s previous qualms in welcoming a more heroine-centric story.
Getting back to this idea of the growth of the romance heroine, as expressed in The New Heroines, “the definition of heroism aligns with the cultural values of a specific time and place” (Wright, 4). The heroine’s journey, in particular, has tracked the evolution of the feminist movements in America that have ushered in a cultural landscape willing and waiting for women to fully embrace their feminine nature and to value themselves as bold, successful, and bursting with potential. The GND trope inherently came to reflect this shift in cultural aspirations in the form of new heroism. By the mid 1970s, during the introduction of bodice rippers and sexuality in women’s fiction, “heroines no longer hid their inner strength, but glorified in it” (Krentz, 68). In the 1980s, heroines were being described as “feisty” with American book editors working to blur the lines between male and female characterization (70). As Daphne Claire in Krentz’s anthology writes, “Instead of ballerinas, opera singers, or doctors, not to mention secretaries, nurses, and housekeepers, contemporary heroines are likely to be pilots, racing drivers, engineers, or corporate executives” (70). We see this in heroines like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, and Elsa from Frozen to name a few. These female protagonists are far less demure than early romance heroines, with unequivocal ambition and prowess to overcome adversity. Their romantic relationships take a far backseat to their other life aspirations. I argue that the GND begins to personify this shift in prioritization of the professional over the romantic. Annabelle stifles her feelings for Derek because of her loyalty to the newspaper, Pauline has only had eyes for opening her own bookstore, let alone men, and Molly jeopardizes her relationship with her lifelong crush to keep her life as an erotica novelist a secret. Moving beyond the 18th century focus of marriage and becoming the domesticated housewife, GND heroines begin to resemble postmodernist views on “contemporary gender politics and questions of cultural value” (Ferriss, 5).
In The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction, Katherine Cooper sites Deborah Cartmell and I.Q. Hunter’s discussions of adaptations, in which they describe this postmodernist heroine as reflecting “cultural and epistemological relativism” (Cooper, 4). This stands in contrast to the 17th century governess heroine whose primary preoccupations centered around honor and chastity “with little scope for epic deeds”; only to remain passive, marginalized, and objectified in 18th and early 19th century literature with no “rich source of female characterization” (Brown, 2). Cooper, focusing specifically on historical romance fiction, adds that the female figure “has become increasingly visible- previously obscured, she is now palpable, multidimensional, and undeniably present” (Cooper, 2). Using Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998) and Kate Williams’ The Pleasures of Men (2012) as examples, Cooper credits the emergence of female-authored heroines with playing a large part in reflecting this nuanced and ever present female figure (3). Daphne Claire further supports this claim in stating that women novelists were the vanguard of feminist movement (Krentz, 62).
In my interview with Maya Rodale she explained how, in an era when “strong female heroine” often means some dystopian action figurine type, the GND trope offers a much-needed relatable character that is relaxing to read. She will not judge you. She is nice. She is there for you. She is someone with whom the reader could be friends. The GND presents a more authentic and compelling portrait of the female as a complex and weighty character with profound capability and potential. Her pleasant dialogue, decisions, and relatable personality attributes create a sense of camaraderie with the reader. The heroine feels familiar and approachable- like a woman we know- that allows the reader to more intimately connect with her. She “demonstrates a strength of character absent from so many of the persistent tropes about girls and women today” (Wright, 19).
Ironically, the most compelling trait of the GND among readers is her imperfection, which lays in stark contrast to the infallible heroines of earlier romance novels. In fact, Brownstein recalls how Jane Austen mocked the romance fictions in which women were “ideally a perfect lady perfectly made for a man” (Brownstein, 155). The GND’s flaws make her human and therefore, her successes seem that much more tangible for readers in their lives. The emphasis of this character trait is especially prominent in Talk Me Down, where in the opening pages, Molly jokes about not having shaved her legs, theorizing that she might need the extra layer of insulation in the winter. Additionally, her life is described as a disaster on more than one occasion.
“So she’d changed majors eleven times in college; she hadn’t found her passion yet. So she’d stranded herself in Mexico once; a driver’s license was an easy thing to misplace. And so she wasn’t her genius brother…. who’d never dated a cute biker dude with tattoos on his neck… Yes, she was irresponsible sometimes, and irreverent, and she’d failed trigonometry… And she hovered on the razor’s edge of constant scandal and didn’t really give a shit if or when she tumbled over. Yes, she was imperfect. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t also spectacular” (Dahl).
We see it in Seducing Mr. Knightly, in which Annabelle’s inexperience in kissing is actually framed as endearing.
“She kissed with an artlessness and enthusiasm that undid him. It was not calculated to please, like that of a mistress, and it was all the more seductive because of it. It was a kiss for the sake of it. Purely for the love of it” (Rodale, 190).
And lastly, we see it in Any Duchess Will Do, when Pauline, in her self-deprecating manner, tells Griffin, “I do have many faults to choose from. Impertinence, stubbornness, pride. I curse too much, and I’m terribly clumsy.” And he responds, “Well, this week… all those faults make you perfect” (Dare, 68). Or when she describes her build as that of “a fourteen-year-old boy” (255). In their flaws, GND heroines seem to resemble the post-modernist protagonists Stephanie Harzewski describes in her book Chick Lit and Postfeminism– “highly conscious and critical of their physical appearance and who are more often pictured as flawed than feisty” (Ferriss). And yet, they are accepted and praised by the hero.
III. The hero’s role in the heroine’s transformation
The very title of this trope- “girl next door”- is from the hero’s perspective. On a more overarching scale, the holism of the GND is defined beyond the individual to include the web of relationships she’s involved in. ‘Her potential does not come from her own independence or autonomy as a character, but instead emerges though the relationships, resonances and connections she embodies’ (Wright, 19). No heroine is an island. The people around her are there to help her understand who she is and what she is capable of becoming in the future (16). The irony of the GND heroine is that she most often does not recognize her potential. The latticework of characters in the novel, especially the hero, becomes critical to helping her recognize her specialness, and as a result, helping her achieve her aspirations. We see this very explicitly in the closing chapters of Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do, when Griffin implores Pauline to think more of herself than a barmaid.
“I am asking you to live the truth of who you are. The full truth. There is so much more to you than a common serving girl, Pauline. Inside you, there’s a remarkable woman who soaked up poetry and squirreled away etiquette lessons, turned cruelty into dreams and plans- because she knew she was meant for better things. I saw that woman the first day we met. I don’t know why you won’t let the world see her, too” (Dare, 330).
This interconnectedness is what allows the transformation in the female protagonist, a critical component for new heroism (Wright, 92). Look at Katniss Everdeen, Mia Thermopolis, Bella Swan, or Elena Gilbert. These are heroines bursting at the seams with talent and intelligence and, most importantly, people unwilling to let them settle for ordinary or unexceptional. The hero gives the heroine the courage and reassurance to embrace this change. Whether it is solely through his presence, and embodying the female’s “dark side”, as Barlow previously puts it, giving the heroine the opportunity to accept this masculine side of herself; or his outward encouragement towards her, the hero is vital in enabling the heroine to evolve. This maturation is made especially evident in Seducing Mr. Knightly, when Rodale makes the distinction of addressing the heroine as Old Annabelle and New Annabelle. The hero Derek describes how “the Old Annabelle made his life easy. Bold Annabelle set his life on fire” (Rodale, 191). And how she was “something else: a delightful minx, a sweetheart of a hellion” (192).
Since he met her, Griffin knew Pauline “wasn’t just a serving girl. She was a serving girl with aspirations, keen business sense, shockingly good taste in poetry… and slight, enticing curves his hands ached to explore” (Dare, 99). Jennifer Crusie in her 2000 novel Welcome to Temptation reaffirms this role of the hero as motivator and explains how the heroine Sophie’s romantic relationship with the hero Phineas “encourages her to have fantasies that become a means of reading what lies inside her and of reading the world of things and people around her” (Selinger). Crusie goes on to explain how Sophie’s encounters with “Phin” remind her of her own capabilities and leave her ready to embrace her talents. The GND heroine’s transformation that the hero helps bring about is less so about sexual liberation, and more so focused on real-life empowerment, and her ability to “strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest” (Selinger).
Aside from supporter, another key role of the hero in a GND romance is witness to the heroine’s goodness and integrity. In Talk Me Down, the hero Ben Lawson testifies that “He did know her. Knew her pat, who she’d been born and raised to be, knew her parents and friends. He knew the honesty in her eyes and the truth in her passion” (Dahl). As the English Proverb goes, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been” (Matejicek). The hero has the quality of knowing, or having an idea of, who the heroine was earlier in her life and, therefore has the power and insight to direct her in where she is going in the future. And from then on, refuses to let her shy away.
In conclusion, we see the versatility of the GND trope. As a work in progress, she is a compelling, dynamic character. Her imperfections on the page make her even more relatable to the everyday female reader. And her manifestation of new heroism, as seen in her potential, ambition, and career-oriented aspirations, appeal to today’s postfeminist attitude of female empowerment and gender politics in America. Lastly, resembling a heroine rooted in the historical context of the new millennium, the GND is greatly defined by the growth of networks and relationship-connectivity within her romance. The hero helps propel the heroine from who she is to who she can and should be. And she carries with her the message that heroism should not be a solitary path. Through all of the aforementioned, the GND captures this centuries-long literary transformation from a ‘wispy, ephemeral girl, sitting around waiting for the hero’, to the intelligent, strong, raw-emotioned 20th century heroine (Regis).
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