Our Romantic Heritage: The Guardian/Ward Trope
Author Jill Kemerer talks about how the classic guardian/ward trope has dated, and how it affected her as a young reader of romance.
Picture this: A hot, rich thirty-something hero suddenly finds out he’s been appointed guardian for his best friend/military buddy/business partner’s seventeen-year-old daughter.
Are you instantly thinking, ooh, this is a love story!?
Since I spent my teen years devouring vintage romance novels published by Harlequin and Mills & Boon, I would immediately assume the scenario was indeed a romance. Most of the books I read back then were contemporary Harlequins published sometime in the late sixties through the mid-eighties. And the guardian/ward trope was extremely popular.
These romances usually featured an orphaned, seventeen-year-old heroine. The typical hero would whisk this almost-woman away to his world—she was always forced to move—and instead of sympathizing with her understandable confusion on having to relocate, he would regard her as immature and bothersome. However, he also found her very attractive. All that fresh, dewy skin, lips that hadn’t been kissed, long hair and toned limbs were too tempting for him to ignore.
The heroine rarely had any life choices, and if she did, they were cruddy. She had no skills (let’s face it, she was barely out of high school), money, or options, so she went along with the hero’s demands. And even if he annoyed her with his high-handed ways, he was ruggedly handsome and wealthy, therefore he could be forgiven his ruthlessness. By the end of the book, she had matured and was thankful for the financial security and protection of her guardian/soon-to-be-husband.
As for the heat level, don’t worry, these stories were squeaky clean.
My favorite book in this genre is Man of Power by Mary Wibberley. It’s a guardian/ward story with a twist on the Cinderella tale. The heroine, Sara, is determined to live life on her terms. Yes, Morgan is her guardian (and rich and gorgeous and over thirty), but he also asks her to pretend to be his fiancé, making it a fake engagement story. What I liked most about Man of Power, besides the sharp, amusing dialogue, was Sara’s assertive qualities. She’s a feisty, relatable character, and Morgan was more sympathetic and caring than most guardian heroes.
Reading all those guardian/ward romances disturbed and compelled me as a teen. Maybe it was a hot, rich man taking charge of the girl’s life that appealed to the younger me. The coming-of-age theme definitely was inspiring. The best stories showed clear growth on the heroine’s part. But I’ve got to admit even then, I was grossed out by the age difference.
As for now, no matter what way I slice it, the contemporary guardian/ward trope wouldn’t work today. It’s creepy!
If you’re looking for vintage contemporary guardian/ward romance novels, Michelle “Romance Lover” has a great round-up on Amazon Listmania!
Have you ever read the guardian/ward trope? Do you like it? Only in certain circumstances? Do tell!