Romance Tropes: Too Poor to Marry

Recently, I’ve been revising my first novella and I’ve been very…irritated with it.  At times, I’ve considered just renaming it Nice People Being Boring: A Novella and letting it rot for eternity on my hard drive.  But thanks to some kind words from my critique partner and a complete rewrite of the ending, I’m beginning to love it again.  And it’s still titled The Farmer Takes a Wife, although I haven’t yet decided if I love it or hate it.

But in the process of trying to figure out exactly what I needed to change about this novella, I began to think about the trope that lies at the heart of it–Too Poor to Marry.  In this trope, the hero loves and wishes to marry the heroine, but can’t afford to do so.  It’s a trope that you hardly ever see in a contemporary, and even then, it seems to be rarer in historicals, as well.  Of course, it makes sense–if you’re reading a romance for escapism, what better way to escape than with a billionaire hero?  After all, who doesn’t wish to not have to worry about money?

Thinking on stories that I have read featuring Too Poor to Marry heroes, I realized that some of my favorite stories, ones that stick with me long after I’ve read them, feature this exact trope.  Courtney Milan’s first novella, This Wicked Gift, has it, and it remains my favorite of hers, even with all the other amazing works she written since then. Stef Ann Holm wrote a wonderful Christmas story (set in California!) called Jolly Holly that I still love to read at the holidays.  And there’s the touching and tragic American Pie by Margaret St. George (aka Maggie Osborne) featuring newly arrived immigrants in NYC in the 1890s. (Dear Author review here)

So why is this trope like catnip to me?  I came up with this analogy to try to explain it.  A billionaire hero can buy you a boulder.  He can buy you the biggest boulder in the world.  But a poor man can only bring you a pebble.  But if his love is true, he’ll bring you a pebble everyday.  And he’ll do this day after day, for weeks, months, even years.  And after a time, he’ll have brought you a pile of pebbles just as big as the boulder the billionaire would have bought for you.

There’s something so deeply romantic about that, a man working day after day, year after year to win his lady love.  And of course, there’s the forerunner of them all–the Biblical story of Jacob and Rachel.  Jacob works seven years before he is allowed to marry her, but ends up married to the wrong sister instead.  So he works another seven years for her.  It’s not really a romance in the modern sense, it is still a romantic tale.

In my little novella, the hero gets the girl, without having to work seven years and does not end up accidentally married to her sister.  (You’d think that Jacob might have noticed that mistake before the wedding night.)  And out of all the heroes I written about or thought up, this guy is one who deserves his happy ending the most.

7 responses to “Romance Tropes: Too Poor to Marry

  1. Miss Bates loves Too-Poor-To-Marry, nor is she surprised that it would be part of a romance about immigrants. A lot of sacrifices there for family and such, including accepting arranged marriages in the interests of family. Now that too might make for an interesting romance: an arranged marriage foiled. Hope to have a chance to review your novella (despite recent snark) soon! (Miss Bates also loves Lavyrle Spenser’s MORNING GLORY with its hero too poor for anything really.)

  2. Too poor to marry is not only great from a plot perspective — it’s a real, though surmountable obstacle, not a Big Misunderstanding — but it makes so much sense in a historical context. I guess it rarely comes up because romance novels are so obsessed with the travails of rich folk. The one thing I’ve never seen in a romance novel that was actually very common in the US in the 18th and 19th C was to marry but not set up a separate household for a while until the couple had enough money to marry.

    • Hmm, I didn’t know that marrying without setting up a household was common–I have heard about the converse, setting up a household without marrying first, because visits from a priest were so infrequent. You took care of all your sacramental business when the priest came around–marriages, baptisms–and carried on with setting up a house and having babies in the meantime.
      And yes, I agree that too poor to marry is a great plot device that could be used more. Maybe when we start to see more American-set historicals, we’ll see it more?

      • I don’t think marrying without setting up a separate household was common after the antebellum, but it was very common in the Colonial and Early Republican periods. I found out about it reading Laurel Ulrich’s amazing book A Midwive’s Tale.

  3. Just put both of these on hold at the library!

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