Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Exploring the Possibilities of the Prologue: Sherry Thomas's THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON

It's conventional wisdom that agents and editors frown upon romance manuscripts that open with a prologue. Some suggest prologues slow down the action; today's readers, raised on the quick cuts of television and film, want a fast-paced read, and have little patience for wading through a prologue. Others argue that most prologues aren't really prologues at all, only incorrectly named opening chapters. Still others assert that prologues simply present backstory, backstory that would be more enticing to the reader if doled out in small, tantalizing bites during the course of the present-day action rather than extruded in one large, undigestible chunk at story's start. An editor or an agent who comes across a manuscript with "PROLOGUE" written in bold letters at the top of page one is most likely to shudder and toss the misguided pages into the "reject" pile.

Yet in many a classic historical romance, the prologue serves an important narrative function, a function vital to a reader's engagement with the story's protagonists. Take for example Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, voted yet again #1 in the 2013 All About Romance "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.

One author who has refused to give up the prologue is Sherry Thomas. Her historical romances Not Quite a Husband (2009), Beguiling the Beauty (2012), and Tempting the Bride (also 2012) all include prologues that give us insight into characters who might otherwise strike readers as less than worthy of their time and emotional investment. But the prologue of her latest book, The Luckiest Lady in London, does something a bit more complicated. Thomas not only deploys the "prologue as establisher of sympathy for the unlikable hero" trope but also inverts it, allowing us to see the complicated person behind the spotless persona Thomas's adult hero constructs for the consumption of his fellow members of late Victorian society.

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
In response to his difficult childhood, though, Felix takes the opposite tack from Chase's Sebastian. Rather than become a hellion, the new Marquess of Wrenworth becomes a paragon. In ironic tribute to a mother with all the reputation but none of the spirit of a good and pure woman, Felix adopts the persona of the "Ideal Gentleman," admired alike by both male and female members of high society. And in tribute to his father, he vows never to repeat the mistake that left the man a powerless victim—"loving with all his heart and soul" (8).

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).

How much leeway should we grant those whose upbringings deprived them of affection, of love, of the example of giving rather than taking? The traditional prologue asks us to be tolerant, to grant badly-behaving heroes (and occasionally heroines) allowances that without prior knowledge of their childhood difficulties we might otherwise not offer. Yet Thomas suggests that such allowances have the potential to be far too one-sided, especially when it is a woman who is required to grant them. Declaring one loves often serves as the climax of a romance novel, but when Felix finally tells Louisa "I love you," it's in a last-ditch effort to save their relationship after her discovery of a particularly selfish and appalling act he took in order to prevent her marriage to another. Louisa is wise enough to recognize that his declaration is just another manifestation of his self-absorption, all about his feelings and nothing about hers. She may sympathize with his difficult early life, but she does not allow such sympathy to blind her to her own needs.

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?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Prince Albert (1841) by Charles Brocky: Royal Collection Trust
Hale-Bopp Comet: Wikipedia

Sherry Thomas, The Luckiest Lady in London
Berkley, 2013


  1. I like prologues; in fact, I dislike epilogues! The prologue in this book did definitely make Felix more likable as he was rather cold to Louisa. I could understand him better and root for him and his relationship. I like a little bit of perspective that prologues give.

  2. I love prologues too, for the same reason. I've been thinking about prologues (and fashbacks, their also maligned cousins). Back story is revealed through internal monologue or conversation but it doesn't always work well. Firstly, if a past event is crucial, it's often more powerful told "as it happens" - the emotions are stronger. Secondly, the writer may wish the reader to know something about a character who will never reveal it himself. Lord of Scoundrels is a perfect example. It would be entirely out of character for Dain to ruminate on his sad childhood or tell anyone else about it. The prologue is the only way Chase can get that story across, as well as building sympathy for him, as you rightly point out.

    1. Miranda:
      As a published author, have you ever been asked to cut a prologue from a manuscript you submitted?

    2. No. In fact, my editor suggested I add a prologue to The Wild Marquis. I had written the back story (the heroine's husband's murder) as a newspaper report. Just the facts, ma'am. I rewrote to tell the events leading up to the murder in his POV, giving a glimpse of a secondary character (very secondary since he was dead) and of the marriage in his eyes (also not possible later since he was very dead.)

    3. I've been amused by Regency romances lately so I pulled up the ebook of The Wild Marquis. I'm so glad you mentioned it! Strong hero, strong heroine, interesting plot and multiple subplots plus all those books! I have no idea how you intend to redeem Iverley, but I'm looking forward to seeing if you can. Count me a new fan. -- Elisabeth

  3. How lovely of you, Elisabeth. And what a nice bonus for me for commenting on Jackie's always entertaining blog. Sebastian Iverley may be my favorite of all the heroes I've written. I'll be interested to hear what you think :)