Sunday, September 5, 2010


The first time I ever showed a manuscript in progress to my mother, she read it through and handed it back to me with a question about my heroine: "Why," she asked, "isn't her mother calling her?"

The book was Mariana, and my mother, as usual, was absolutely right. I'd had my heroine, Julia, selling her London flat, buying a house in Wiltshire, and having all sorts of adventures, without ever once ringing her parents to tell them about it. In the real world, I knew, my parents would have had quite a lot to say if I'd done likewise. My father, an engineer (shown above with a rather more adorably younger version of me) would have made a close inspection of my newly-purchased house to test its structure, and my mother would have turned up ready to help with the cleaning and wallpapering.

In what amounted to a writerly epiphany, I realized that my characters weren't moving in a real world, where their actions were affected and determined by their families, as my own were. Reading the manuscript over again, even I began wondering why Julia's mother wasn't calling her, and I had to rewrite to account for it. (In the end, I had to send Julia's parents on holiday to New Zealand for part of the story, where they could have opinions but not change the plot..)

Since then, I've tried to take more care when writing so my heroines (and heroes) don't move in a vacuum. Whether the influence of family is positive or negative, it should always be there, even when the family members themselves are absent.

While planning for this post, I asked my mother whether she could think of any great romantic novels in which families played a vital role. It started an interesting discussion, and after considering and ruling out stories where the family was the focus of the story, like The Shell-Seekers, we settled on a book we both loved: Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic.

The heroine, Lucy, is in Corfu to visit her very pregnant sister, Phyl, and although Lucy manages to be Very Busy during her holiday, she can't simply go off and do what she wants when she wants without checking in with Phyl by phone, or giving some account of where she's been. By the same token, the hero, Max (one of my favourite of Mary Stewart's men, I must say), is himself restricted by the fact he's taking care of his recuperating father. Both characters move in a very real world, and their respective family members move the plot forward in very real ways.

What are your favourite families in romantic novels? Do share.

And be sure to check back again Thursday, when Julie Cohen will be making her first post!


  1. Interesting...I'm reading Du Maurier's THE KING's GENERAL at the moment and family is vital to the whole things but I can say that it is certainly not my favourite romantic novel. This summer I have been listening to Regency Buck by G Heyer with dd and family in the form of her brother plays a key role as does her dead father's choice of guardian ...maybe i need another cup of coffee before I can truly access my memory :-)


  2. Over the past few years, my stories have got much more family in them. I was always a bit frustrated writing shorter books, because the focus had to be so tight on the hero and heroine, and I always got sidetracked into their family relationships, and then I had to cut them back... It's good to be able to explore that aspect more in the longer books I'm writing now. Though I still wrestle with it.

    But to a certain extent, lack of family is part of some books' fantasy. Like how in children's literature, the parents often have to be absent in order for the adventure to happen, in other stories, the heroine has to be isolated for her to find her own strength and purpose.

    I love the family drama in Heyer's The Grand Sophy. And the family in Marian Keyes's novels about the Walsh sisters (Rachel's Holiday, Anybody Out There, etc). And the Bennets, of course.

  3. This is something I'm always struggling with. I usually end up editing the families out in some way - I have more than my fair share of orphans or heroes and heroines who are estranged from their families.

    Now, though, I'm writing something bigger. Wierdly, both hero and heroine are oprhans, but in hugely different circumstances, and the family relationships in the book - both blood and surrogate - are vitally important. It's a strange journey for me.

    Favourite families in fiction? Hmmm.

    I adore This Rough Magic - even the Corfiot (do I have that right?) brother and sister are brilliant. You're not wrong about Max, Susanna. Except he might just be pipped to the post by Richard Byron.

    I have to say I love the Wimseys in D L Sayers, and Mary Balogh's Bedwyns have a lovely complexity to them.

    Interesting post, Susanna!

  4. I think Georgette Heyer did families very well in most of her books, but my favourite has always been "Cotillion". There she has a group of cousins all hoping to inherit a fortune from a grumpy old uncle (who isn't as ill as they think he is), and this shows them all in their true colours. It's very well done and you really get to see the whole clan interacting with each other.

    I agree with Julie though, it can be better for the story if the hero or heroine are orphans or far from their parents, because then they have to fight harder to reach their goals without the backing of family.

  5. In so many novels the families have ruthlessly been eliminated. ;) I was just reading a book the other day where a character was being described and I thought - not another orphan! There had already been a number of characters with no family ties. In real life there usually are a plethora of relatives, but I can see how eliminating or not concentrating on family can help, especially when a character is to have no one to depend on or turn to so that she needs to turn to the hero whether she trusts him or not.

    I immediately thought of the Bennet family too - there's a family that is involved in every turn of the plot. And Darcy's family as well, with Lady Catherine and Georgiana, and Colonel Fitzwilliam. I have to agree about Georgette Heyer too. I was thinking of Frederica and her sister and brothers who play such a big part in the story.

    As for a modern story, I recently reread Susanna's The Splendour Falls and if it weren't for her cousin Harry, Emily would never have had an adventure at all. Family ties play a part in other character's motivations also.

  6. I read a post over on Nathan Bransford's blog (connecting to a thread in his forums, here) a little while ago discussing absentee parents in YA fiction. It seems the majority of YA stories either do away with the parents or place them at a distance (physically or emotionally) because most YA stories are about the teenager/child learning and growing and having to do things for themselves, rather than having a parent or authority figure do the things for them. It was interesting to see how predominant this is in the genre.

    By the time you get to adult fiction, the characters are older and already independent, and it's easier to let them have good strong relationships with their families. The first books that come to my mind for families playing a strong role are Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels. I'm sure there're many others among the books I've read, though.

  7. I'm with Julie on Marian Keyes writing of families, with their interferences and support, as being most realistic. But, on the other hand I'm not a big fan of books with huge cast lists, I find myself getting a bit cynical about the potential for 'sequel bait' (I hate sequels/prequels). My own books tend towards having 'family at a distance', perhaps because that is how I'm living my own life, 350 miles from my immediate family.

    Mentioning family is important, it grounds our central characters, gives them backstory. If they're orphaned then it better have one hell of an effect on the way they live their lives! A little sibling rivalry can also spice up a story, but too much family interaction can give the impression that the character can't stand on their own feet, or make a decision without a Greek chorus in the background.

  8. Seabrooke, I studied children's lit at uni and it's remarkable how much of it has absent or inadequate parents, for that very reason. From The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to The Cat In The Hat.

    A romantic(ish) novel that makes great use of family is I Capture the Castle. Love that one.

    PS Nobody has mentioned how adorable Susanna is in that photo! All together now: Awwwwwwwww....

  9. As I'm writing YA at the moment and have the heroine's parents having gone through a divorce. Her mother is in the book but instead of removing her, I have made sure that they are estranged and that the mother isn't acting like a parent.

    I agree with lots of the best books. Georgette Heyer with Frederica, The Grand Sophy and Arabella.

    Also completely agree with Anna on the Whimseys and the Bedwyns. And can I add Julia Quinn's Bridgerton family?

    And 'Awwww' to the adorable Susanna :-)