Grace Livingston Hill wrote sweet, rather unexceptional ‘inspirational’ romances, with one unique ingredient: all her stories feature pretty clothes, wanting to dress up in pretty clothes and clothes as a vehicle for emotional fulfilment. In her books, dressing up is not a sign of sinful vanity, but something wholesome and natural, one of the feminine virtues and a necessary ingredient of a happy marriage. She is also a connoisseur of fine lace – I can tell, since I’m one myself and we recognise each other even across centuries. 

In Marcia Schuyler, published originally in 1908, the pretty clothes are made for our titular heroine’s sister Kate, as she’s about to get married. The book opens with a mouth-watering, sensual description of minute stitches and delicate fabrics. Marcia admires the fine things in Kate’s trousseau just as she admires the groom-to-be David, not enviously, just happy to see her capricious, beautiful sister to get what’s best in life. But oh! At the very last moment, Kate escapes with her secret lover, leaving her groom just hours before they are supposed to be wed. Marcia, David and the reader are all equally dumbfounded that David ends up marrying Marcia instead of his absent bride-to-be – it just sort of happens and we will accept it, just to get the story started. Maybe this kind of stuff happened all the time in 19th century America, who knows? 

Marcia gets the trousseau and the husband, but neither are truly her own. The emotional pivot is the moment when David decides to buy a new, own bonnet for Marcia. He recognises her need to have a wardrobe of her own – emotionally intelligent – and ventures outside his comfort zone to buy one – a small but meaningful sacrifice to signal he’s about to become Marcia’s beloved. 

Both the groom and the accidental bride are pleasant, agreeable people, trying to make the awkward situation bearable for each other. If one were to be accidentally married, or let’s say stuck on an deserted (though well-stocked) island, or just roommates, either of these two would be quite nice to share the predicament with. Marcia feels some distress over her sister’s shameful conduct, but does not wallow in it in excess, and David comes to terms with his betrothed’s betrayal with perfectly balanced amount of angst. Not so much he’d come across as prone to dramatics and not so little he’d appear cold-hearted. 

Marcia is the perfect companion: sweet-natured, unselfish, supportive and intelligent. She embodies all the feminine virtues, including natural pretty looks and girlish enjoyment of dress. The only criticism which applies is that in her complete innocence she’s helpless when encountering her foes (vengeful village girls, lusty men, critical in-laws). Any trace of aggression, even for self-preservation, would compromise her perfect meek and innocent girlishness. But she does not need to be able to stand up for herself. Her goodness and unselfconscious beauty charm less gifted but good-natured girls to act as her allies and protectors. Her childhood friend Mary Ann would lay herself down for Marcia to walk over if necessary, and neighbour girl Miranda who takes a liking to Marcia as soon as she sees her, becomes the third protagonist. Where Marcia is passive and reactive, and as such embodies the perfect feminine ideal of the time, Hill acknowledges the necessity of a more active approach in Miranda. Miranda has none of the charms of Marcia – she’s ugly, lacks all aesthetic refinement, is disobedient etc. But her heart is in the right place and when the necessity arises, she acts decisively. Marcia and Miranda are two sides of a coin, the adored and the adorer, the helpless and the helper. Helpless Marcia would end up molested if left on her own, not so well brought-up Miranda spies and even lies to find out if Marcia is in danger and then heroically sweeps in to save her from the advances of the story’s secondary antagonist, Hill’s typical lusty man Harry Temple. As her reward, she gets to kiss sleeping Marcia on the cheek. Apparently Miranda got her very own book, I’ll definitely read it to find out if she ever got a chance to express her girl love!

A remarkable portion of western romance books describe a situation akin to arranged marriage. Two people are thrust together, not due to personal choice but external circumstances, and during the storyline develop a romantic bond. It is a bit strange how the lack of choice is considered as a great premise for love, especially considering how very atypical and actually difficult it is to end up married to a complete stranger in Europe or US in the last two hundred years. Romance writers have to come up with the most absurd plot twists to produce these arranged-marriage-like situations. Think as I may, I haven’t yet figured out what makes this set-up so popular. It seemingly goes against the whole ideology of romantic love, where the only thing that matters is the feeling of the love-pair for each other. But there must be some hidden pay-off, some emotional fulfilment in this scenario. What is it? Will I ever find out? Is it going to be in any way useful if I do solve this riddle?

Follow our heroine Auroora Lamminlaine on her quest to figure out the entire human experience from early 20th century romance novels for more exciting insights!