In many romances, the heroine is torn between two loyalties. She initially identifies closely with her family. She sees the hero as an interloper. She sides with her wastrel brother or manipulative father, for instance, even when he’s doing things that impact her life negatively. Like selling her to the hero in marriage to wipe out a debt. Or gambling away the family estate. Or doing something criminal that would leave her holding the bag or in dangerously reduced circumstances. And many contemporary romances still contrive to use this plot situation, even in a time when most heroines have careers of their own and plenty of self-determination. Loyalty to their family drags them into a jam anyway. Think of the classic twins plot, in which the wallflower/nerd heroine has to pretend to be her glamorous model/actress sister. The heroine isn’t participating in the elaborate masquerade out of self-interest. She’s doing it out of family loyalty. Our story, “Shipboard Masquerade,” by Amanda Miles, is about a twin who enacts this classic storyline.
Exactly how the heroine changes her loyalties is an important dynamic in a romance. Sometimes, the hero smashes her loyalty to her family and forcibly drags her into his camp. This is most typical of historical romances or old-style contemporary romances in which the heroines are controlled by their families, either physically or through extensive emotional blackmail. They don’t have the independence to be able to view their families with dispassion. They identify closely with them, often irrationally. The hero sees the heroine’s family for what it is. He may choose to disillusion her about her family, or to demand that she forget her family, or he may pay them off. In historical romances this is often explicit; the rich hero literally gives an income to the heroine’s black sheep brother, or nagging mother, or avaricious father. The hero’s goal is to get the heroine to reassign her loyalties to him. But his efforts don’t succeed until the heroine actually switches her loyalties, and that has nothing to do with his paying off her relatives or forcing her to marry him, and everything to do with her willingness to commit to him completely. Usually, as long as she believes he does not love her, or that she does not love him, she won’t take this step.
The other method is for the hero to persuade the heroine. He opens himself up to her and reveals his admirable character or lovable personality, convincing her that he is worthy of her loyalty. But at various points in the story there will be tests of loyalty and setbacks. Our recently published story, “Love’s Redemption,” by Niambi Brown Davis, features a heroine who has been burned by previous loves and is reluctant to hand her faith to her new love. At a key moment, with evidence that perhaps the hero is a bad guy after all, she simply cannot make the shift. The hero has to prove his worthiness to the heroine before she finally gives him her loyalty.
Sometimes, things don’t work out. Loyalties don’t shift. An example of this from a classic Gothic novel would be The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott (1819), in which the heroine is so torn about the arranged marriage her family wants that she kills her husband on their wedding night. Her loyalty is still with the man she really loves (the story is better known today in its operatic form as “Lucia di Lammermoor”). Georgette Heyer’s April Lady, a Regency romance (1957) depicts a heroine whose marital problems all stem from her failure to shift her loyalty from her family to her husband. Certainly the loyalty conflict is most obvious in a story of an arranged marriage, but the plots of contemporary romantic suspense novels, especially secret agent tales, often pivot on the issue of where the characters have placed their loyalties.
Of course this works both ways. A hero with a mistress or girlfriend must give her up for the heroine. And, yes, his mother, too, must recede to second place in his family life. He must re-order his loyalties so the woman he loves comes first. Nowhere is the importance of switching loyalties better illustrated than in old Gothic romances. Numerous Gothic romances start with the heroine arriving at a new home as a new bride who scarcely knows her husband. He becomes a suspect during the mystery that follows. Because symbolically he’s usually under a curse, he has not given his own loyalty to the heroine yet. He leaves her alone to solve the mystery, to dodge the murder attempts, to discover his own family’s secrets, and more. By the story’s end, he finally proves his loyalty by saving her life, just as she has proved hers by identifying with his interests and solving his long-festering family problems. She is the person who discovers what happened to the wife who supposedly ran off with a lover, but who actually was murdered, for instance. Only when her husband (or husband-to-be) shakes himself out of his own former way of thinking and saves her at the end does he make the loyalty switch that turns them into a team.
This change of loyalties is crucial for the success of a permanent, committed relationship. (Let’s call it a marriage, shall we?) For a marriage to work correctly, both the woman and the man have to realign their loyalties to be loyal to each other first and foremost. They create a new unit, a new team. If they pull together, they get somewhere. If they remain torn between two loyalties without choosing, they are in lifelong hell. Proof of that is any advice column, with its readers desperate for help because their own spouses won’t stand up for them against in-laws, step-relations, bosses, friends, plain bad luck, or whatever. In romances, if not in real life, heroines and heroes learn to make the switch. That’s because so much is visibly at stake for them. But in real life, just as much is at stake. All the future years of their happiness and contentment are based on making a binding loyalty commitment and honoring it.