The “marriage of convenience” plot in historical romance might focus on an arranged marriage, but more typically, shenanigans are involved; the couple marries to save the heroine from ruin at the hands of a dastardly plotter, or to ensure the hero or heroine receives an inheritance, or because money is needed to avoid disgrace by covering the transgressions of a family member. Occasionally, though, the plot is as simple as a man of good fortune being in want of a wife, as in Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage.
As a reader, I don’t particularly care how the marriage happens, so long as it happens quickly, so the real plot of the novel can begin. What I enjoy about this plot is that the hero and heroine are forced to work together and create a meaningful relationship out of nothing. There may be an attraction between the two before the marriage, or one character may harbor a secret passion for the other, but once they are married, their fate is inescapable. They must make a life together or forever live unhappy.
The potential tensions in a marriage of convenience are myriad. Given a historical setting, the woman is potentially in grave danger once she places herself under the legal protection of a man. Depending upon marriage settlements, she might lose both money and property in the bargain. She gives him rights over her that could lead to her death. The hero has more social freedom to seek a lover outside marriage, if needed, but at the same time, any child his wife bears within the marriage is assumed to be his own, so he risks someone else’s child inheriting his property. If his wife is barren or he abandons her, his property might go to a distant or hated relative.
Less dramatically, the heroine of the novel might be a virgin or might not, but regardless, sex with her new husband is an integral part of their marriage. If they are new to each other, all the tensions of a “first time” apply; if they were previously friends or acquaintances, having sex with each other will still be alien territory. For example, there’s a scene in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night in which the heroine watches the hero while he sleeps. They’ve known each other for years, been friends and worked together, but this is the first time she’s been sexually attracted to him and admits it to herself. After that point, everything between them changes, and nothing; it’s a fascinating tipping point.
Similarly, the tipping point between friends and lovers is often key in a marriage of convenience plot. When will it happen? And how?
It’s an old plot, but a good one.
And it might be reappearing in a different form in paranormal romance. Check out Crystal Jordan’s guest post on paranormal mate bonds.