We just don’t see that kind of romance anymore, do we? The ones with 36-year-old heroes and 17-year-old heroines? (Okay, maybe we still do in historical romances. It’s been a long time since I read any, so let me know.) I remember that as the age difference in Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, a novel based on Russell Thorndike’s smuggler character. I was totally grossed out at the very idea of a teenager being with an old guy like that. Patrick McGoohan’s portrayal of the character for Disney made it more palatable, since he was young and handsome, not the implied old codger of 36. Then I learned that it used to be common for men to spend their youth making a place in the world, and only later look to marry. When they did, they chose the young, fresh-faced girls. Most of the older women were already married, and the rest were already losing their teeth. Also, girls were considered far more biddable. A widow might have money and property, but she also had a mind of her own by then.
The cover of My Love, My Enemy (classic romance title!) by Jan Cox Speas depicts a grown woman and a rather dour man. But this story is about a spunky teenaged heroine who has a romance with a grown man, thirtyish at least, during the Regency period. And it’s actually a rather light-hearted tale, well worth checking out in used book stores. True, the hero talks more sense to her father than he does to the heroine. But that was the historical reality, and it also was common enough in contemporary romances not so long ago. Today we don’t see that kind of marriage much in our culture or in romances. Girls have better things to do than just hang around the house waiting for a daddy figure to show up. Parents send them to college and help launch them into careers, not into complete economic dependency on an older man.
Women still do marry significantly older men, but usually it’s a trophy wife situation or a marriage of elderly people who happen to have a big age gap. Neither situation is typically seen in romances today, although they may show up in mainstream bestseller fiction. The fact that nobody writes or publishes such themes as romances suggests that they simply are not a fantasy most women hold. They may fantasize about wealth and good looks, but part of the package is also youth, or at the very least, sexy maturity. There have been many romantic suspense stories involving hard-bitten cops and serious-about-their-career female DAs, and retired secret agents and scientists, and the like, none of whom are exactly young anymore. But a big age gap is rare. And a hero over age 50 is rare unless the heroine is nearly the same age.
In real life, although most teenage girls in our country are not being sold into marriage with much-older men anymore, plenty are having sex (and babies) with boys their own age or a few significant years older. (That’s another unequal situation, though slightly less icky since both people involved are often below the age of consent.) What we don’t see are a lot of teen marriages or teen love relationships that continue into adulthood, or fictional depictions of same. We see serial relationships instead. And while there are some teenage romance novels, they don’t generally end in marriage. We definitely don’t have contemporary romances aimed at adults anymore that feature teenage heroines. In romances written for adult women today, the heroines are in their twenties or even their thirties, and sometimes older.
But the topic of teenage love is not ignored. The reunion storyline is based on a frustrated teenage relationship that comes to fruition when the hero and hero meet up as adults. Typically, the heroine was a lovestruck teen and the hero was just old enough to have scruples about getting involved. He either attempted to discourage a relationship, or refused one that she unwisely tried to force, or he managed to completely disguise his own interest in her through outright hostility. Years later, meeting as adults, none of these issues apply, and they can finally act on their sexual attraction as well as explore who they are as people in a way their mental inequality did not allow before. Even so, they are never far apart in chronological age, only in experience and maturity when they first met.
Another version of a teenage love in adult romances today this is the story that pivots on memories of a prom night consummation of a teenage romance. After prom night, as the characters recall once they meet again, they broke up or were parted. But they had been age equals at the time, and it was their youth and their divergent paths that usually parted them. (Also meddling or downright hostile relatives.) By the time they meet again, they’re both mature enough to recognize that they hadn’t been ready for marriage at age 18. Again, these romances all take place between equals in maturity, not between an adult man and a teenage girl.
Even when heroines today are marrying very rich men in otherwise extremely unequal matches such as The Tycoon’s Bartered Bride (I made that one up) and contemporary romances of that ilk, the hero and heroine have only a small age difference. They may be separated by life experience, cultural differences, and wealth and power, but the worldly hero isn’t taking advantage of the innocence of a young, inexperienced girl. Romance heroines today mostly are adult women. No more old guy, young girl, ick.