The Wandering Eye: Romance Characters Who Commit Adultery

The first romance I ever remember reading with a cheating heroine/hero was Jane Eyre. While plain, oh-so-shy Jane was falling in love with Rochester, he was hiding a deep, dark secret in the attic. His wife. Many readers are able to overlook the fact that Rochester was a cheater, and almost bigamist, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair this situation was to his wife. After all, we only know his side of it. Rochester said she was crazy, but perhaps she was just mad because she was imprisoned while her husband went after a younger woman. And in the end, Jane and Rochester get their happily ever after and Bertha gets killed in a fire.

When I later transitioned to reading modern romance novels, I realized that a cheating hero was pretty much par for the course, especially for books set in the Regency when many men kept mistresses. Readers see it again and again in books like Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas, The Marriage Bed by Laura Lee Guhrke, Your Wicked Ways by Eloisa James, Prince of Dreams by Lisa Kleypas, and many, many others. 

However, in most stories, generally the cheating goes on because the hero and heroine are separated, or the infidelity at least takes place before they fall in love. However, I just read a story where the heroine is married and decides to start an affair and the hero of the tale is her lover. In my review for Eliza Knight’s novella “Lady Seductress’s Ball” I claim that this plot may be “distasteful” to many readers and I stand by what I said. (Just check out the pages and pages of readers on the RT Forum that decry this type of behavior.) 

I ended up giving “Lady Seductress’s Ball” a 4 star review, in spite of the heroine’s behavior, because the author has a beautiful writing style that brings the reader into her world. However, there is nothing beautiful about what the heroine does. As a very young woman, Olivia Covington was married to the much older Earl of March. Because of the age difference, her husband has never been able to show her a good time in bed, which has Olivia dreaming about virile Tristan, Earl of Newcastle. Tristan and Olivia’s relationship starts out with stolen glances, then moves to kisses and finally the two engage in an erotic weekend at a country estate where orgies and other sex games are de rigueur. All of this goes down when March, Olivia’s elderly husband, is almost on his deathbed. 

Cold, Olivia. Cold.

Now, I don’t mean to be completely unsympathetic to Olivia. Women at this time rarely got to choose who or when they would marry and divorce was nearly unheard of, but it still rubs me the wrong way that Olivia would decide to leave her dying husband for a weekend of debauchery with the first handsome gentleman she finds. And to make her sin even worse, her husband is not even a bad guy. He doesn’t beat her or stifle her. In fact his only crime is that he is old. March doesn’t lock her up in the attic or anything (although, on second thought, maybe he should have). He is just an average Earl with a wife who has a wondering eye. 

What do you think about a romance hero or heroine who is married to someone else? Go or no go?