Times have changed, thank goodness. It’s no longer acceptable for a man to grope a woman, or even to make suggestive remarks to her. Some still do, of course, but they know (I hope) that what they’re doing is wrong; that their behaviour is, to say the least, ‘inappropriate’.
It wasn’t always like this. As all the high profile court cases involving ageing soap stars and TV celebrities tell us, once upon a time things were very different. Men could get away with all kinds of abuses that would no longer be tolerated today.
And women of my generation will understand precisely how and why this happened. We will probably all, without exception, have had experience in our younger days of the men – sometimes even well-loved family friends – whose hands would wander where we didn’t want them to, whose kisses were not of the merely social kind. And if we’ve had no personal experience of the truly appalling things suffered by other women and girls, that isn’t because we didn’t know they went on. It’s just that no one talked about it, except in whispers. Often, if anyone was to be blamed, it would be the woman in the case, for leading the man astray, with the wrong clothes, the wrong looks, the wrong signals.
It was in this climate that I wrote my early historical romances for Mills and Boon. And it shows. In those days, explicit sex was ruled out for the Mills and Boon writer. But other things were seen as entirely normal, even desirable. In editing these early books for conversion to ebooks, I find myself having to soften the actions of my ‘heroes’ where at times they verge on abusive behaviour.
This is especially true of ‘The Chieftain’, just launched in the Kindle store. It concerns a young widow kidnapped and forced into marriage by a Highland Chieftain at the time of the 1745 rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). It is shot through with my love of the Highlands of Scotland, where we often spent blissful family holidays, and my fascination with a lost way of life whose traces were still just visible, if you knew where to look. But in its original version it is, from a present-day perspective, an uncomfortable read.
My first version of the story had a sniffy response from Mills and Boon. ‘The hero is far too nice,’ they said. ‘He needs to be a lot more menacing, especially in the early stages.’ So I made him a lot more menacing and the book was duly published. But I have always been more than a little uneasy about it. Nowadays, I know it just won’t do.
On the other hand, it’s a historical novel, dealing with a period when women had very few rights and most men certainly behaved even more badly than did those pathetic characters from the Seventies and Eighties with their wandering hands. The ‘new man’ was a dream for an unimaginable future. (If you want to see how truly terrible life really was for one wealthy, well-connected eighteenth century woman, read Wendy Moore’s compelling ‘Wedlock’.)
So, it’s a matter of balance. I’ve tried to keep the essential bones of the story intact, but I have rewritten several passages in the early chapters and a few further on. And in the process, I have looked into my heroine’s past. Isobel was always a widow as the book opened, having had an arranged marriage, never consummated, to a wealthy older man – a good and kindly man, in the original. Now I have filled out that past, showing how she really felt about her first husband, so as better to explain (I hope!) how she feels about Hector, when he carries her off to marry her. And Hector is now much less ‘menacing’. There’s even a bit more (consensual) sex.
I suspect that the Mills and Boon of today would much prefer this new version. I do, and I hope my readers will too.