One of my favourite tropes in historical romance novels is what I call the blockheaded proposal: a gentleman proposing to his lady love so thoughtlessly that she inevitably rejects him. The granddaddy of these is, of course, Mr. Darcy’s offer of marriage to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, which he defends by stating that:
“Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? - to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?"
How could she possibly say no, right? Swoon.
So why do I like this trope so much? Because it sets the hero on the path to seeking that second chance, and the heroine on her own journey to reassess her perception of him. And for this to happen, there needs to be a transformation in the way each approaches the other, based on a renewed understanding of character. Because Mr. Darcy, after all, had logical explanations for Elizabeth’s accusations of his having foiled Bingley’s courtship of Jane and having left Mr. Wickham destitute. He just doesn’t see fit to share them, and it is this lack of transparency that hinders his own efforts with Elizabeth. He realizes this by the next day, and pens a long letter defending himself.
But, to his core, Darcy is a man for whom actions mean more than words, and who has no patience for social niceties and idle chatter. We see this in the way he handles the family scandal that eventually befalls Elizabeth. And because she has not understood his true nature yet, she believes that he has once more turned away from her, when in reality he’s protecting both of them as he makes arrangements for her youngest sister. At the same time, he has once again failed to make his behaviour understood to Elizabeth. The result is that what is to him merely the most efficient course of action to him seems like an act of mistrust and ruthlessness to Elizabeth. Happily, with Bingley’s return to Hertfordshire comes Elizabeth’s understanding that this is his way of making amends for his past treatment of Jane, and Darcy eventually gets his second chance.
Another author who does this kind of misguided proposal/second chance story very elegantly is Mary Balogh. In Slightly Dangerous, for instance, Wulfric stumbles his way through not one but two blockheaded proposals - one of them in two parts. The first time he approaches Christine, though, it is to offer her a position as his mistress, since his mistress of ten years had recently died. He is, of course, in love with Christine, but avoiding any thoughts of marriage. He claims that it would be a “position of considerable prestige” and that she would have respect and every material comfort she could want. Except, of course, that she would be shunned by the ton. Christine is a widow, and therefore not an innocent; she’s impoverished in part due to a quarrel with her in-laws, but she likes her simple life and is not lured by the promise of jewels and carriages. She’s also mad at receiving this proposal:
“There is a world of difference, ma’am, between a whore and a duke’s mistress,” he said stiffly.
“Is there?” she asked him. “Merely because a whore ruts in a doorway for a penny while the mistress performs between silk sheets for a small fortune? Yet each one sells her body for money. I will not sell mine, your grace, though I thank you for your kind offer. I am honoured.” (Chapter 6)
Wulfric repeats this offer once more during their final evening at the house party, after their tryst at the lake. Or rather, he was about to propose marriage, but Christine interrupts him and he doesn’t correct her assumption that he was once again seeking to make her his mistress.
A short time after the house party, Wulfric travels to Christine’s village, with a marriage proposal that has echoes of Mr. Darcy’s:
“I find myself unable to stop thinking about you,” he said. “I have asked myself why I offered to make you my mistress rather than my wife and can find no satisfactory answer. There is no law to state that my position demands I marry a virgin or a lady who has not been previously married. There is no law that states that I must marry my social equal. And if your childless state after a marriage of several years denotes an inability to conceive, then that is no prohibitive impediment either… I choose to have you as my wife. I beg you to accept me.” (Chapter 10)
There are two layers to this proposal. One, from Wulfric’s perspective, is a declaration of choice. He is, as he states, free to choose any wife he wishes, and he has chosen Christine. It is as close to a declaration of love as he can attempt at this point in his romantic development. Also, it underlines his sense of duty to his family and title; Wulfric entered into his ducal duties at a young age, and he sometimes has a difficult time seeing - and showing - the man underneath the mantle.
Unfortunately, it is this arrogant determination that comes through for Christine. The words she fixates upon are the ones with negative connotations for her own station: virgin, not previously married, social equal. All the things she is not, with a presumed barrenness thrown in for good measure. Thus, Christine sees his choice as a capitulation instead of a heartfelt desire to be with her, and she calls him on what she feels is the most hurtful facet of his personality:
“A husband with a warm personality and human kindness and a sense of humour? Someone who loves people and children and frolicking and absurdity? Someone who is not obsessed with himself and his own consequence? Someone who is not ice to the very core? Someone with a heart? Someone to be a companion and friend and lover? This is everything I have ever dreamed of, your grace. Can offer it all to me? Or any of it? Any one thing?” (Chapter 10)
Wulfric does not believe he can, and this of course is the obstacle he will have to overcome if he wants a second - or third, in this case - chance to court Christine. But he does accept the challenge, and sets about the monumental task of hosting his own house party and showing Christine the carefree side he’s had to bury since his adolescence. Christine, for her part, will have to regain her own confidence following a widowhood fraught with bad memories and a reputation she has never understood could be atributed to her. That Wulfric helps her face her own demons and restore her good name and family relations ultimately helps strengthen the bond between them.
One final example, also by Balogh, is in The Proposal, the first book of her new Survivor’s Club series. The unique aspect of this story lies in the fact that Hugo Emes, though now a titled man, belongs to the middle class both by birth and mentality. The hardworking son of an equally hardworking businessman, he has a poor opinion of the idle nobility, and handles his attraction to Lady Muir with a great deal of resentment. He could marry her, but he does not want their worlds to cross.
Unfortunately, he soon finds himself needing help for his sister Constance, who does want to enjoy her newfound status by attending some ton events and being presented to upperclass society. Hugo, practical man that he is, thinks that having Gwen as a wife would make for a perfect solution:
“I need a wife. A woman who is accustomed to the life of the beau monde. A lady."
“Did you really expect me to marry you merely because your sister wishes to attend a ton ball?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“Why did you come, then?” she asked.
Because I have not been able to get you out of my mind. Pride prevented him from saying any such thing. (Chapter 12)
Gwen eventually draws the truth from him - that his sister’s social life was not the only reason for the proposal - and invites him to court her while she sponsors Constance. And so the challenge is set. Hugo, of course, must overcome his insecurities and fear of losing his middle-class principles by joining the world of the nobility. He also as a good dose of survivor’s guilt to deal with concerning the events that earned him his title. For her own part, Gwen also has a suffocating web of traumatic memories to untangle herself from and make sense of. She feels reponsible for two deaths herself, and is also not always at ease in her social circles. How these two characters negotiate their pasts and find common ground defines that courtship that follows. They are, after all, not so very different.
There are many other novels we could discuss here: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, for example, where a high-handed “proposal” leads to the heroine shooting her suitor; or Stephanie Laurens’ Devil’s Bride, whose hero is not much better at expressing his wishes to marry. The titles I discussed in length here were recent reads that made me realize how much I enjoy this element.
The improper proposal trope is, as I mentioned, inevitably tied to the second chance trope, and for me this combination is irresistible. I especially enjoy it in historicals, where the rigid social rules make many of these relationships - and certainly the interactions they require - more of a challenge than in most contemporaries.