"Top 100 Romances Poll." Chase's beloved novel opens with a prologue that succinctly recounts hero Sebastian Ballister's life as a child and young man. The contempt in which Ballister père holds his second wife, the seventeen year-old daughter of an Italian nobleman, a seemingly placid girl who turned into a "dormant volcano" after their wedding, and later, the son who reminds him of said wife, goes a long way toward creating reader sympathy for the Sebastian of the later book. Without this prologue, readers would be hard-pressed to sympathize with the surly, insulting, and decidedly misogynistic adult whom they meet in the opening pages of the actual novel, never mind view him as a swoon-worthy hero.
The prologue, however, has become increasingly rare in more recently-published historical romance, whether due to readers' disinterest, or to editors and agents' assumptions about readers' disinterest, it is difficult to say. But I for one am a fan of the prologue, and always perk up when I spy the word when I crack the cover of a new romance. Prologues allow authors to push beyond the unobjectionably nice, easily "relatable" heroes and heroines less adventurous readers admire, giving us insights into the vulnerabilities of a protagonist who will do almost anything during the course of the actual story not to reveal his or her soft underside, to either his or her love interest or to the reader.
Like Chase's Sebastian Ballister, Thomas's Felix Rivendell, the Marquess of Wrenworth, also has his character forged in the furnace of his parents' disastrous marriage, a forging readers are invited to witness during the book's prologue. Unlike Sebastian's parents, who parted ways early in his childhood, Felix's parents remained together until their deaths. Felix thus had a front-row seat to the travesty of their union, a drama performed not via shouts and screams, but with "icy rage" on the part of his mother, who'd been forced to wed against her will, and "quiet despair" on the part of his father, who thought he'd been marrying "the sweet wife of his dreams" but instead found himself shackled to a woman bent on making him "rue the day he'd first laid eyes on her" (5, 4). Used as a pawn in his mother's power plays, never able to console his father for the love he'd never gain from his wife, Felix finds himself inexplicably devastated by his parents' deaths during his seventeenth year, still yearning for love even after living through years of their antipathy.
|The Victorian era's true "Ideal|
Gentleman": Prince Albert
As this is a romance, readers know from the start that Felix's latter pledge is bound to be broken. But it is his former promise that makes the breaking of the latter so fascinating. Unlike the notorious Lord Dain, who needed a woman to see beyond his menacing exterior and love the vulnerable man within, Felix needs a woman who will see beyond his gloss of perfection and be drawn to him for his less than admirable qualities. Surprisingly, though, said qualities do not need drawing forth. Thomas once again works against trope, having Felix become fascinated by the rather unexceptional debutante Louisa Cantwell precisely because she seems already to see beyond his polished exterior to the far more cynical, amoral creature that lies beneath. And that insight urges him to shed the skin of the "Ideal Gentleman," and act "as a far worse man than he had ever been" (38).
That Felix, too, begins to see his own self-absorption, and to move beyond the limitations imposed upon him by the dysfunctional examples set by his parents, proves that Louisa (and via proxy, the reader), is right not to settle, no matter how much sympathy the story of a lover's early life difficulties moves us to extend. A lady who makes her own luck is a lucky lady indeed.
What are your favorite romance prologues? Do they follow the "explain the roots of the hero/heroine's later bad behavior" model? Or do they use the prologue for other purposes?
Prince Albert (1841) by Charles Brocky: Royal Collection Trust
Hale-Bopp Comet: Wikipedia
Sherry Thomas, The Luckiest Lady in London