The Old School Historical Where the Hero Makes the Heroine Go on a Diet
[CW: threatened sexual assault/kidnapping/dieting/body shaming]
The star of my first #historicalhistorical post comes to me courtesy of my grandmother’s house. She has always lived by the ocean, so her shelves are filled with 40 years of abandoned beach reads. Most of the romances are Westerns from the 80s, but I found this one lone regency, The Rake’s Protégé (1985) by Barbara Hazard, on her shelves last summer.
The thing that really blew me away about this book were the scenes where THE HERO FORCES THE HEROINE TO GO ON A DIET. I don’t know if this was a trope in 70s and 80s historicals (maybe someone who knows the old school historical better than me can answer that question??) but I had never seen it before and it. was. wild. For me personally, there is nothing less appealing than a hero who wants his love interest to slim down...and thinks its NBD for her/him/them to be hungry!!
In The Rake’s Protégé, the context around these dieting scenes only brings up more questions for me than answers. If we take the Regency romance as a tool to expose the injustices of nineteenth-century hierarchies that still undergird society today, then the book has a classic wager set-up that does this work well. Anthony Hawkins, Earl of Bredon, makes a bet with his friends that he can turn a servant girl into a high-society lady. Anthony and his friends choose the eleven-year-old Anne Ainsworth, a random orphan kicking around the Bredon manor, as the candidate for this experiment. She is whisked off to live in the country with a respectable vicar to train for her debut. Of course, when it comes time for the bet to be settled, Anthony sees Anne—now nearly eighteen years old—and instantly becomes smitten, resolving that once the bet is over he will make her his mistress. However, many things conspire to keep this pair apart, including Anne’s understandable resistance to becoming Anthony’s mistress after her adolescence spent in a vicarage. She eventually rebels against Anthony, who she deified as a child for rescuing her from orphanhood, but now comes to despise him when they reunite and she realizes that he is an unrepentant asshole (see aforementioned dieting scenes!!). Once Anne escapes his clutches, Anthony chases after her as she tries to discover the story of her real parentage. In the final climax, Anne is captured by one of Anthony's rivals in the original wager. He wants to get rid of Anne so that she cannot make her debut—the financial consequences of losing the bet will ruin him—and, on top of that, he plans to sexually assault her. Bredon saves her from his rapist ex-friend and they finally have their HEA.
For this reader, however, all of these events—which I found largely well-plotted and engaging—pale in comparison to the truly bonkers dieting scenes!!!! This focus on dieting begins early in their reunion. When Anthony meets Anne again, he finds her extremely beautiful but with one flaw:
“He noted she was shapely, although his connoisseur’s eye deplored her slightly overabundant charms. A sharp reduction in her food intake would take care of that, he told himself, and if that was the only fault she had, he could count himself fortunate indeed” (48).
Once he takes her back to his manor, he introduces the diet, although not before setting her in front of an elaborate dinner with a million different dishes. Like any sensible human, Anne resolves that “she must try a little of everything.” Unfortunately, the Earl chooses this moment to introduce his diet plan, “his cool gray eyes…surveying her plate”:
“I see you have a hearty appetite, Anne,” he remarked.
Anne saw that he had taken only a slice of the salmon and a small spoonful of peas, and that he had ignored the white sauce with dill which she had spooned so generously over her fish. She had also agreed to a slice of oyster pie, some duchesse potatoes, and the carrots glazed with honey.
For a moment she felt embarrassed, but then she smiled. “It all looks so good, m’lord. I wanted to sample everything. It is true I have a good appetite, and I do enjoy my food.” [Editor’s Note: ME TOO GIRL!!!]
The earl’s eyes raked her shoulders and breasts. “Obviously,” he murmured, signaling Midler to refill his wineglass.
Anne felt a flush begin in the pit of her stomach and spread upward, and she put down her fork….
“You must forgive me for pointing it out, Anne, but you are much too heavy. Our society ladies all strive for a willowy look, for that is the vogue now. I do not think in your present state that you could be considered willowy by any stretch of the imagination.
Anne felt her throat grow tight with incipient tears, and she lowered her eyes in confusion.
“Poor poppet,” the earl continued, his deep voice warmer now. “Do not look so distressed! But before we go up to town, you must learn how to curb your appetite. I shall delay sending for the dressmakers until you have lost the weight that is necessary. You see, my dear Anne, I want you at your best when you meet the ton. It will make you look like a princess at the least, to say nothing of being…mm, more appealing, shall we say?”
Poor Anne! I felt so bad for this girl when I read this scene. She just wants to enjoy her dill sauce! Let her have it, you monster! I can forgive a lot in a hero, but shaming a girl for enjoying a sumptuous dinner is definitely NOT one of these things. This behavior is truly unforgivable and not even the best grovel in the world could ever bring it back for me--say what you want about Christian Grey and his controlling nature, but he is always encouraging Ana to eat. Instead, Anthony is the worst incarnation of the Stern Brunch Daddy that I can imagine.
Eventually, after Anne commits to the “reducing diet,” Anthony realizes that she is getting TOO THIN and he demands that she stop and I guess then she does? But it seems like this weight loss is maintained across the story.
Which leaves me wondering about the meaning of this dieting trope. The dieting element is very intentional and even highlighted in the title page summary: “He put her on a near-starvation diet to give her the slenderness that fashion decreed.” And, yet, I’m not sure what the reader is supposed to take away from this part of the text.
Is the diet and subsequent weight loss supposed to be part of the overall aspirational trajectory for Anne as a romance heroine? She not only finds love, but reaches her “ideal” weight? This reading would make the book pro-dieting, which not only would be a real bummer but also doesn’t feel completely authentic to the book itself. Hazard definitely wants us to sympathize with Anne in the above scene, for instance.
Maybe that reading doesn’t acknowledge enough the work that romance novels are often doing to respond to and dismantle misogynistic aspects of culture. By putting this dieting trope in her romance, is Hazard representing yet another aspect of toxic masculinity that Anne triumphs over in taming Anthony?
I’m curious to hear what others think about this trope/if there are any examples of this trope in old school historicals that people know of. Comments welcome below!