Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reclaiming Jane Austen

I'm currently at the Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting. This is a once a year event in October, when 500 Jane Austen fans get together to talk about all things Austen. I've been speculating this weekend that this is one of the only academic conferences in which we get together to talk about one book for an entire weekend. I'm not sure accurate that is, considering there's a Milton Society and a Burney Society and a Bronte Society, etc., but on a quick search, they don't seem to have conferences, or at least not such well-attended conferences.

This is my fourth JASNA AGM, with another three "super-regional" JASNA conferences, and there's nothing quite like performing in front of the JASNA crowd. As a presenter, it's almost unique and certainly gratifying to know that every person in that audience has read the book you're talking about, so you don't have to spend any time on plot summary. They've also thought about the book and question and answer sessions are sometimes my favorite part of my presentation, because I get to talk about like-minded people who are sincerely interested in what I've just said.

All that aside, when I suggest that Jane Austen is a romance novelist, the instinctive reaction I get is a cringe, followed by a grudging admission that they suppose I'm probably right. This is usually immediately followed by an insistence that Austen's works are so much deeper, so much more layered, so much better, so much more lasting than modern mass market romances. Those who know a little more quickly point out that Austen wasn't actually a best-seller in her own time, the implication being that if she didn't have mass market appeal when she published, then she can't be compared to popular mass market romance novelists of today.

On the other side of the fence, however, "it is a truth universally acknowledged" among romance critics that Jane Austen is a romance writer. How could she be anything else? Non-romance critics might label her genre the domestic novel or the courtship novel or might just label her "the best" and leave out genre classification, but she wrote romances. And although we all love to ascribe our beliefs to Austen's being, I think she'd proudly admit she wrote romances if she were alive today.

Jane Austen might be the female author least in need of reclaiming today. She's was canonized in about 1870 and has since been sometimes the only female in the literary canon and certainly the first female (besides perhaps George Eliot) to receive the treatment of whatever new literary criticism is currently hot. The feminists got hold of her in the 1980s and we've never let go.

But I now reclaim her for romance criticism. Jane Austen wrote mass market romances, which does not imply that she wrote simple books, but rather implies that modern popular mass market romance novels are as layered and textured as Austen's six novels and as deserving of consideration.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Femininity, Chivalry, Class and Patriarchy

I've been reading Kate Millett's Sexual Politics and I'd like to quote one passage which seemed particularly relevant to a discussion of the romance genre:
It is generally accepted that Western patriarchy has been much softened by the concepts of courtly and romantic love. While this is certainly true, such influence has also been vastly overestimated [...] traditional chivalrous behavior represents – a sporting kind of reparation to allow the subordinate female certain means of saving face. While a palliative to the injustice of woman’s social position, chivalry is also a technique for disguising it. One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level. Historians of courtly love stress the fact that the raptures of the poets had no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status. As the sociologist Hugo Beigel has observed, both the courtly and the romantic versions of love are “grants” which the male concedes out of his total powers. Both have had the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confining them in a narrow and often remarkably conscribing sphere of behavior. It was a Victorian habit, for example, to insist the female assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious but felt someone ought to do anyway. (Millett 1971: 36-37)
There are plenty of romance heroines who seem to possess 'impossible virtues': as Radway notes, 'the fact of her true femininity is never left in doubt. No matter how much emphasis is placed on her initial desire to appear a man's equal, she is always portrayed as unusually compassionate, kind, and understanding' (Radway 1991: 127). Sexually, the heroines of romance are very often virgins paired with more sexually-experienced men. Of course, a lot has changed in the genre since Radway wrote her Reading the Romance, and there are all sorts of different heroines, some more traditionally 'feminine' than others, and even Radway recognised that the romances did engage with the inequalities between the sexes in contemporary society by creating 'heroines in these female-sponsored fantasies [...who] explicitly refuse to be silenced by the male desire to control women through the eradication of their individual voices' (1991: 124). This could sometimes tip over into excessive 'feistiness' and a heroine so determined to do things her own way that readers might nowadays dub her 'too stupid to live', but nonetheless a heroine of this type was generally asserting her individuality, her right to think and act for herself in a male dominated society. That the heroines retain many aspects of femininity as traditionally defined (usually being in possession of exquisite beauty and a caring personality) does not mean that they should necessarily be read as repressive: there is nothing wrong with being caring and beautiful. One might, however, begin to question the cumulative effect of a genre which only featured such heroines, but fortunately the modern romance genre does provide us with other types of heroine. Heroines of the kind described above may not represent a total overthrow of sexual stereotypes, but one can see evidence of a struggle by the authors of romances to assert women's worth and to give them some sort of victory in a patriarchal society.

That victory is not infrequently framed in terms of her 'taming' of the hero:
With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman. (Krentz 1992: 5)
This could be read as an acknowledgement of the dangers that men pose to women in a patriarchal society, and, given that the heroine in romances with this type of plot is usually exceptional, as an acknowledgement that in the normal course of events many dangerous men remain 'untamed'. Doreen Owens Malek writes:
So what is the fantasy? Simply this: a strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman.
Why does this particular fantasy hold so much appeal for us? Because it dramatizes, colorfully and dramatically, a battle of the sexes in which the woman always wins. Women are weaker physically, perennially behind in civil rights, always playing catch-up ball with men. This type of fiction offers a scenario in which a woman inevitably emerges victorious. (1992: 74-75)
For me personally, winning the 'battle of the sexes' holds no appeal at all: I'd rather we all 'work together as a team', as Bob the Builder and Wendy would say, but clearly winning the battle is a fantasy that has appealed, and continues to appeal, to many woman, perhaps precisely because they have frequently felt oppressed by patriarchy in their daily lives. Krentz adds that
the heroes in the books undergo a significant change in the course of the story, often being tamed or gentled or taught to love, but they do not lose any of their masculine strength in the process. [...] The journey of the novel, many writers say, is the civilization of the male. (1992: 6)
Leaving aside the issue of whether the hero and heroine can be read as two aspects of the readers' own personalities which need to be integrated (see, for example, Barlow and Kinsale, in the same volume), if one reads the stories on a literal level they show the heroine's triumph over the hero. But the heroine has to accept the responsibility for 'civilizing' the male: in other words, she, as Millett observes, 'assume[s] the function of serving as the male’s conscience' and although the hero may be 'tamed' with regards to the heroine and any children she may have with him, he does not lose his 'masculine strength', so in many respects his behaviour is likely to remain the same in his interactions with other individuals (although if he was rakish this particular part ofbehaviour will cease permanently). If read as a recipe for challenging patriarchy, it suggests a case-by-case approach, with the woman putting herself at considerable risk in order to achieve this desirable end. It also suggests that in order to succeed the heroine must be exceptionally feminine. In addition, there may be issues of class involved.

As George Eliot noted in her 1856 essay on 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists', 'The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right'. Although this is not very often the case in modern romance novels, the heroines of historical romances still tend to be 'ladies', very often from aristocratic families. Even in modern, contemporary-set romances there is often a class element to the fantasy:
Harlequin romances allow their readers to experience the ideal rewards of capitalism, insofar as the novels are usually fantasies of financial empowerment as much as they are romantic fantasies. The standard Harlequin narrative, for instance, usually involves a middle-class woman’s relationship with a rich, single male—usually a businessman, wealthy rancher, or male engaged in some similar occupation. The inevitable marriage at the end thus also involves a marriage into wealth, or at least improved financial security. (Darbyshire 2000)
According to Pamela Fox
During the early decades of the twentieth-century in Britain, it was predominantly middle-class women who felt the daily strictures of (and protested against) romantic codes of behaviour. Working-class women were more typically denied access to those codes by their own cultural experience. Romance functioned as an emblem of privilege, was reserved for others. While the cinema and popular novels encouraged their diverse female audiences to identify with an array of romance heroines, working-class mothers made sure their daughters understood that romance was purely a fantasy with little relevance to their lives [...]. Unlike their middle- and upper-class counterparts, who frequently suffocated at the hands of father, brothers, guardians and mothers while playing out the real-life role of romance heroine, working-class women suffered chastisement or ridicule within their communities if they merely made attempts to try the role on. (1994: 141)
Of course, times have changed, as have romance heroines, but it's worth remembering that, as Millett says of the concept of chivalry (vis-à-vis women), 'the Victorian doctrine of chivalrous protection and its familiar protestations of respect, rests upon the tacit assumption, a cleverly expeditious bit of humbug, that all women were “ladies”' (1971: 73) and she quotes the words of Sojourner Truth, a freed slave:
That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place - and ain't I a woman?
Look at this arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me - and ain't I a woman?
I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? (Millett 1971: 72)
The triumph of the lady and the privileges she was accorded were limited and did not extend to her working-class sisters.

If we take Edmund Blair Leighton's painting 'Accolade' as a portrayal of the workings of chivalry, we can see that the woman, or rather princess, since she wears a crown and has her hair loose (which often, though not always, indicated that a woman was a virgin) and is dressed in white (another indication of purity, as in The Book of Margery Kempe), is knighting a young warrior. In the background stands another figure of male power, the priest. For the moment, the young princess is in control, holding a sword, while the knight, whose black eagle perhaps suggests his wild, strong nature, is on his knees before her, 'tamed'. The knight is a warrior, not a peasant, a monk, priest, merchant or physician, and he represents temporal power. Medieval society was, according to the three estates theory, divided into three classes, the oratores, bellatores and laboratores. The aristocratic, warrior class were the bellatores, in whom rested earthly, physical power, while spiritual power was in the hands of the priests, or oratores. The painting does indeed indicate a degree of female power, but at the same time, it's worth remembering that the laws of male primogeniture made female rulers rare (and non-existent where the Salic law on the issue was in effect), and that most women were neither ladies nor princesses.

  • Darbyshire, Peter, 2000. ‘Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia’, Studies in Popular Culture 23.1.
  • Fox, Pamela, 1994. 'The "Revolt of the Gentle": Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working-Class Women's Writing', NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 27.2: 140-160.
  • Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. 'Introduction', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 1-9.
  • Millett, Kate, 1971. Sexual Politics (London: Rupert Hart-Davis).
  • Owens Malek, Doreen, 1992. 'Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 73-80.
  • Radway, Janice A. 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Location, location, location

Over on the listserv we've been discussing settings and whether they affect sales. Location, as we all know, is very important when buying and selling property:
"Location, location, location," is a common and almost hackneyed phrase in real estate literature. Your agent may even throw it at you when you ask for advice about buying a home. However, what does "location, location, location," actually mean? Why repeat it three times?

Mostly, "location" is repeated to emphasize that it is extremely important to the resale value of your home. The idea is to buy a house that will appeal to the largest number of potential future homebuyers. A careful choice of location can minimize potential negative influences on future resale value, and maximize positive influences.
Writers, particularly writers of historical romances, have definitely been getting the message that the sales value of a novel set in Regency England (preferrably a desirable location in London, with easy access to Tattersall's, Bond Street, and Gunter's) is the most likely to appeal to the largest number of potential historical-romance buyers. Is it that other locations have fewer 'positive influences' than those provided by the lady patronesses of Almack's?

Our discussion began when Eric posted a notice about a conference to be held next year:
Colorado Springs 3-6 May 2007

We seek proposals for our panel on “Venice in the Literary Imagination” for the upcoming American Association for Italian Studies conference, taking place in Colorado Springs from 3-6 May 2007.

"Venice has loomed large in the imagination of writers from the medieval period to postmodernity. Papers which examine the city's literary significance might explore such areas as aesthetics, gender, identity, leisure, politics, or travel, or representations of the libertine, libro d'oro, Carnevale, political prisoners, the Rialto, or the terra firma. We welcome research on authors of all periods and genres." (more details on the panels proposed for this conference can be found here)
On the listserv we did come up with some examples of historical romances set, or partly set, in Venice, including Lydia Joyce's The Music of the Night, Claire Thornton's The Defiant Mistress and Susan Wiggs' Lord of the Night. I also found some pictures of Venice for those who'd like a closer look at the real estate in question, from the Royal Collection's online exhibition of Canaletto's paintings of Venice.

It's still the case, though, that settings such as Venice remain relatively rare in romance. All About Romance, for example, has a page devoted to 'special settings', and while they include Venice, they don't include Regency London, which is, presumably, all too common. There seem to be a variety of reasons why this might be the case. Is it that readers prefer the familiar setting of Regency London? Is it that, particularly for the writer of historicals, it's more difficult to find the source material on other locations (in a readily accessible language) in order to carry out the research? Is it that publishers think that historicals set in more exotic locations won't sell? Harlequin Mills & Boon have been acquiring Roman-era romances recently, however, so clearly some publishers are willing to take a chance with a more unusual location for a historical. Is it that some settings have negative connotations for readers? Hsu-Ming Teo's article, 'Romancing the Raj: Interracial Relations in Anglo-Indian Romance Novels' suggests that:
these love stories were symptomatic of British fantasies of colonial India and served as a forum to explore interracial relations as well as experimenting with the modern femininity of the New Woman. With the achievement of Indian independence in 1947, British interest in India as a locus for romance rapidly declined, thus demonstrating that these novels were never concerned with India but with British lives and British colonialism. [...] The colonial order was necessary for the production and sustenance of romantic fantasies. With its demise, the Anglo-Indian romance genre withered. These romances were never primarily about India but about the Englishness of love and the racialization of romance whereby white love stories were cast into dramatic relief against the background of an Orientalized India.
It's certainly true that some locations provide a touch of the exotic, whether it's the desert in sheik romances (and plenty of the kingdoms over which the sheiks rule are entirely fictional, as illustrated by this map), or, for Harlequin readers living in Eastern Europe in the immediate post-Cold War era, romances set in American locations, since for them America was 'a place which symbolizes the possible wealth and affluence that the capitalist system has to offer':
The novels are fantasies of the ability to transcend economic class, a world where women enjoy working in privileged positions in the economic system of capitalism and men are the masters of this system, the power figures who take care of those less wealthy than themselves. Lack of money is never a problem in the world of Harlequin romances, and romance itself is inseparable from an abundance of wealth and possessions. The appeal of such fantasies to readers living in emerging capitalist markets like Poland and Russia is obvious.(Darbyshire 2000)
I suspect that there are many factors affecting the popularity of certain settings, but it does appear that there is a greater variety in the settings of contemporary romances than in the historicals. As we've mentioned before, Harlequin Presents 'are set in sophisticated, glamorous, international locations', and there are certainly plenty of contemporary romances in settings from Ireland to the Australian outback.

Do you have any ideas about why the locations are more varied in contemporary romances than in historicals? Do you find certain historical settings and eras offputting?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Not-so-secret Children and Babies

Today I want to go, if not from the sublime to the ridiculous, at least from the Platonic ideal to the more prosaic reasons why children might be included in romances.

First of all, children may, as suggested in the Symposium, be the embodiment of a couple's love. However, although children can be read as proof of a couple's continuing love and affection (or at least, of an active sex-life), they may be indicative of little more than considerable fecundity and a lack of contraceptives. In Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy, for example, Lady Ombersley, a minor character, is described in the following terms: Twenty-seven years of wedlock had left their mark upon her; and the dutiful presentation to her erratic and far from grateful spouse of eight pledges of her affection had long since destroyed any pretensions to beauty in her' (1951: 2). Despite being referred to as 'pledges of her affection', it's clear that the children are not the result of the sort of romantic love one would expect the hero and heroine of a romance to feel for each other.

New babies, as well as being 'pledges of affection' may also serve to reinforce the depiction of a society undergoing change. According to Pamela Regis one of the essential elements of the romance genre is 'Society Defined' and 'Near the beginning of the novel the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed' (2003: 31). Regis also describes some additional 'accidental elements characteristic of the romance novel' (2003: 38) which occur towards the end of the novels and these include the wedding/dance/fete which demonstrates that 'Society has reconstituted itself around the new couple(s) and the society comes together to celebrate this' (2003: 38). If the hero and heroine have children together these can be interpreted as being among the first new members of this new, 'reconstituted' society, and a hope for the future.

From the point of view of the plot, children and babies can often provide a reason for a hero and heroine to meet or work closely together for the first time, or, in the case of many of the secret-baby books, to come back into contact with each other. Babies and children may be a source of conflict between the hero and heroine but they cannot simply walk away because the children have needs (for care, a home etc) which force the hero and heroine into close proximity and oblige them to work with each other.

Whether or not babies are intrinsically romantic, however, is another matter. For Kimber, children are on her list of things in the romance genre which are 'Not Romantic':
what could be less romantic than having to keep the sex quiet in case Junior wakes up in the night and comes down looking for a drink of water? Or when Little Susie gets a life-threatening fever or is kidnapped by the villain? Although better a son, since then your hero can effortlessly become the male role model/father figure that Young Master desperately needs.
The combined effects of dirty nappies, sleep deprivation, the baby's crying and the physical and emotional consequences of childbirth do not create the ideal circumstances for romantic interludes. Even if the baby is not the heroine's, she and the hero would still have to deal with the sleep deprivation, the nappies, crying, feeding etc. Babies in romance novels do tend to be remarkably easy to care for, but this is not necessarily unrealistic given that:
  • (a) some people have more help than others (for example, in historicals set among the aristocracy one might expect the heroine to have the help of a nursemaid or two)
  • (b) some people's experiences of this stage in a baby's life are better than others (some babies quickly sleep through the night and fall into a routine easily, for example)
  • (c) not all mothers experience negative physical or emotional consequences of childbirth.
Personally, however, I find the easy-care babies so often found in romances intensely irritating, but that's probably due to extreme jealousy on my part, because my baby was very far from the ideal in this respect.

Nicola Marsh is an author who used to think that children were 'contraception on legs', but after writing some romances featuring children, she changed her mind. In the comments on that blog post Fiona Lowe added that 'I reckon children are a GREAT way to showcase the softer side of our hero'. They certainly are seen to have that effect on the perception of Sophy, the heroine of Heyer's The Grand Sophy. Following Sophy's devoted nursing of her sick young cousin, Sophy's very conventional suitor, Lord Bromford, says that:
"[...] even Mama owns herself to have been moved by the devotion of Miss Stanton-Lacy to her little cousin!" [...] Lord Bromford, who had started to repeat O woman, in our hours of ease! [...] pronounced: "Any doubts that might have been nourished of the true womanliness of Miss Stanton-Lacy's character, must, I venture to say, have been lulled to rest." (1951: 224-225)
It's not simply that the ability to interact with children shows a 'softer' side, it's also that children, particularly young children and babies, are often considered innocent.
Around the enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, popular conceptions of childhood changed. Society adopted the idea of the "blank slate" and beginning life in a state of unconsciousness. Art reflected the transition: no longer vessels of psychological and sexual awareness, children became asexual, physically neutral, and psychologically unaware. The "Romantic child" was born. [...] No longer considered little adults in need of moral reform, children became icons of innocence and naivete onto which adults could project their own hopes, dreams, and ideals.
As a result of this belief in their innocence, the approval of children, like that of dogs and other animals, is often an indication that a character who may appear wicked, depraved, or merely lacking in conscience, in fact has redeeming features. For example, here's a short conversation from Heyer's Frederica, between Felix, the heroine's young brother, and the self-centered Lord Alverstoke, the hero, who has already met, and successfully dealt with Lufra, Frederica's very large and unruly dog:
before suffering himself to be led away by Charis, [Felix] took his leave of the Marquis, and said eagerly: "And you will take me to Soho, won't you, sir?"

"If I don't, my secretary shall," replied Alverstoke.

"Oh! Well - Well, thank you, sir! Only it would be better if you came with me yourself!" urged Felix.

"Better for whom?" demanded his lordship involuntarily.

"Me," replied Felix, with the utmost candour. "I daresay they would show you anything you wanted to see, on account of your being a - a second-best nobleman, which I know you are, because it says, in a book I found, that Marquises come directly after Dukes, so--"
In addition to this ability to bring out the best in adults, 'out of the mouth of babes and sucklings' can come forth truths that adults would either leave unspoken, or of which adults might otherwise remain in ignorance.

It has to be admitted that, on occasion, the children in romance can bear an unfortunate resemblance to those George Eliot mentions in her description of 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' (1856):
There are few women, we suppose, who have not seen something of children under five years of age, yet in "Compensation," a recent novel of the mind-and-millinery species, which calls itself a "story of real life," we have a child of four and a half years old talking in this Ossianic fashion -
"Oh, I am so happy, dear gran'mamma; -- I have seen, -- I have seen such a delightful person: he is like everything beautiful, -- like the smell of sweet flowers and the view from Ben Lomond; - or no, better than that -- he is like what I think of and see when I am very very happy; and he is really like mamma, too when she sings; and his forehead is like that distant sea," she continued, pointing to the blue Mediterranean; "there seems no end -- no end; or like the clusters of stars I like best to look at on a warm fine night [...]"
Luckily child prodigies are not the only, or even the most frequent, sort of child depicted in romance. There are plenty who are interesting characters in their own right, with their own particular flaws and quirks. For example Lou, the heroine of Jessica Hart's Contracted, Corporate Wife, says of her teenaged children:
'I’d like to be able to say that I had raised a couple of thoughtful, unmaterialistic, community-minded children who understood that the love and security you strive to give them mattered more than the latest brand of trainers or the newest computer game, but sadly they’re not like that at all!’
‘Oh?’ said Patrick, rather taken with the idea that Lou’s children weren’t the paragons he would have expected them to be. He found her attitude refreshing. He’d had to listen to too many mothers telling him how clever and talented and generally marvellous their children were.
‘They’re not bad kids,’ said Lou, ‘but they’re like all their friends. They want to be in with the in-crowd, to be like everyone else and to have what everyone else has. [...].’ (2005: 41)
In romances with more realistic portrayals of children, the hero and heroine's difficulties in caring for children and babies may provide an interesting source of discussion for the adults, revealing their own experiences of childhood. In Polly Forrester's Jewel Under Siege, for example, the hero is a Frank, on crusade, while Elena Rethel is a Byzantine merchant. Their ideas about child-rearing reveal much about the adults' different cultures:
'You'll spoil that child, if you haven't already.'
'Oh, but he's only a baby, my lord. Not even three years old, yet.'
'Time enough to be spoiled by rich food and an indulgent mother. Well-born Franks are sent from home at four to become pages. By then they're hardened enough to wait at tables and live with the hounds. That soon puts some character into them. Sink or swim.'
"I don't doubt it, my lord. Yet what sort of people raise their children among animals? [...]'
'People whose men are more than milk and water. Men who will fight for what they know is right, and will not dress in effeminate fashions [..]' (1990: 89-90)
The hero and heroine's attitudes towards children can be instructive in contemporary settings too, often giving clues about their own very different childhood experiences. In historical romances (of the non-wallpaper variety) attitudes towards childcare form part of the historical setting, reminding us that, in many respects, 'the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'. As Jo Beverley observes
The way we portray children and parenting in books can be interesting. I don't think we can help bringing some modern sensitivities to it, but I like to try to get within the thinking of the day. For example in one of my books, CHRISTMAS ANGEL, Judith and Leander fall into fights about the raising of her children. She wants to protect them from hurt while he believes boys sometimes need the cane. Speaking from his own experience, he claims to have preferred it to endless lectures and tiresome punishments such as writing out pages of the Bible. And he adds that as Bastian won't escape being beaten at school, he might as well learn to accept it with dignity. That, to me, is true to the times, but it bothered some readers.
There's a lot of variation in the way children and babies are portrayed, depending on factors such as the level of realism with which they are described, the historical setting and the ages of the children. Sometimes children seem to be included mainly for their cuteness factor, and because they provide a source of conflict or otherwise propel the plot forwards. At others, the children are well-developed characters in their own right.
  • Forrester, Polly, 1990. Jewel Under Siege (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Hart, Jessica, 2005. Contracted, Corporate Wife (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Heyer, Georgette, 1951. The Grand Sophy (London: The Book Club).
  • Regis, Pamela, 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Plato and Theoretical Musings on the Role of Children in Romance

In my previous post I examined a few of Plato's ideas about love, and how they might relate to the romance genre. In the Symposium, Socrates tells the assembled company about a conversation he had with Diotima, in which they discussed the nature of love. Diotima states that:
to the mortal creature, generation [i.e. procreation] is a sort of eternity and immortality,’ [...]; ‘and if, as has been already admitted, love is of the everlasting possession of the good, all men will necessarily desire immortality together with good: Wherefore love is of immortality.
Several weeks ago (unfortunately too long ago for the post to still be available online) Dick, a poster at AAR who believes that homosexual relationships are not suitable for inclusion in a romance novel, stated that: ‘I think that, in the case of romance fiction, the relationship of the h/h implies fruition’, i.e. in his opinion the lovers must be a hero and heroine, because homosexual lovers cannot create children together, and there is no possibility that they might do so. His statement did not imply that all romances must include one of those epilogues in which the hero and heroine appear, surrounded by their numerous progeny, but he did think that at the very least by the end of the novel there should be a possibility that the hero and heroine will one day have children together. This is, however, a very literal interpretation of fruitfulness, and one which also excludes older lovers (who were also discussed in the previous blog), the infertile and those who are childless by choice. It seems to me that this focus on children and childbearing could be very upsetting and offensive to many readers of the genre. Certainly a recent article by Lynn Harris, in Glamour magazine examined the emotional consequences for the infertile of a culture in which celebrity pregnancies and births are so prominently discussed and photographed:
“What we’re witnessing in our culture is a rampaging, almost hysterical fixation on pregnancy and babies and how having them will transform your life and allow you to reach nirvana,” says Susan J. Douglas, Ph.D., professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and coauthor of The Mommy Myth. “For infertile women, it’s like a giant megaphone of guilt and shame.”
Plato's Diotima argues that the offspring of the soul are the more worthy outcome of love:
souls which are pregnant —for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general.
I've got a few more ideas about the various roles which children can play in romance, and I'll take a look at them another day, but I wondered how other people felt about children. Are children (i.e. offspring of the hero and heroine, not adopted children, younger siblings etc) an essential part of the HEA in a romance? If not, do you expect to see some growth towards wisdom and virtue (i.e. 'spiritual offspring') in the hero and heroine as a result of their love for each other?

Friday, October 13, 2006

RWA Research Grant Competition

Around this time last year I found out about the Research Grant Competition sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. What did I have to lose? I applied--and, to my astonishment, I won!

The RWA grant deadline is coming up again: on January 1, 2007, to be precise. And although it's only open to US residents--about 64% of you reading this, according to tonight's SiteMeter statistics, although not you, Laura, the author of 99% of our posts!--I'd like to post this reminder, in the hope that someday soon they'll open the competition to international scholars as well.

Here's the core information; for the rest, including contact names and numbers, go to the RWA's formal announcement page.

Romance Writers of America Research Grant Program


• Amount: up to $5,000
• Tenure: March 1, 2007 through March 1, 2008
• Completed applications to be submitted to RWA in both email (RTF) and hard copy format.
• Decisions will be announced in February 2007

Romance Writers of America announces a Research Grant competition. The grant program seeks to develop and support academic research devoted to genre romance novels, writers, and readers. Appropriate fields of specialization include but are not limited to: anthropology, communications, cultural studies, education, English language and literature, gender studies, linguistics, literacy studies, psychology, rhetoric, and sociology. Proposals in interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary studies are welcome. The ultimate goal of proposals should be significant publication in major journals or as a monograph from an academic press. RWA does not fund creative work (such as novels or films).

The RWA’s review committee, consisting of academics with doctorates, will fund one or more grants up to a total amount of $5,000. Individual applicants may request up to the total amount. The research grant(s) are intended to support direct research costs associated with the project, including travel, but not equipment.

RWA retains the right to award less than a proposal’s budget, or less than the total amount designated for the competition, should the review committee so recommend.


The objectives of the program are:
1. To support theoretical and substantive academic research about genre romance texts and literacy practices.
2. To encourage a well-informed public discourse about genre romance texts and literacy practices.


The RWA Research Grant Program is open to faculty at accredited colleges and universities, independent scholars with significant publication records, and dissertation candidates who have completed all course work and qualifying exams. No candidate need be a member of the RWA. Candidates must reside in the United States. RWA cannot accept applications from international scholars at this time.

Criteria for Selection

Preference will be given to scholars with a distinguished record of research and publication. In addition, criteria for evaluation are:
1. The significance of the proposed research
2. The definition, organization, clarity, and scope of the research proposal.
3. The quality or promise of the candidate
4. Likelihood of timely completion of the proposed research


The application process is comprised of the following:
• A cover sheet itemizing name, address, phone numbers, email address, title of research project and total amount requested
• A narrative proposal of no more than four pages, double spaced
• Bibliography (no more than two pages)
• CV with publications list (no more than three pages)
• Two reference letters
• Itemized budget with brief explanations of all significant amount, not to exceed two pages

Please note, everyone, that although I won this grant competition as a tenured professor asking for help to write literary analyses, the winner the year before was a graduate student planning to do ethnographic research. Whoever you are, and whatever your approach, don't count yourself out--and if you know someone else who might take an interest, please do spread the word!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Plato in Dialogue with the Romance Genre

It all started out with an advert on the Washington DC Metro which was reported to the Smart Bitches. The resultant furore was reported by both The New York Times and The Washington Post, followed by comments on each article by the Smart Bitches and even more comments as the debate raged on. In the advert 'Greater Washington subway reading' material, epitomised by Plato's Republic, was being contrasted with 'average subway reading', represented by a romance novel. The implication was that Greater Washington's metro travellers, part of 'The nation's most educated workforce', of whom '45% have a bachelor's degree or higher', are well-educated people of the sort who read Plato, whereas less well-educated people read romance. For obvious reasons there were plenty of romance readers who took exception to this. For one thing, according to the RWA's statistics, 42% of romance readers 'have a bachelor's degree or higher'.

Inspired by all this controversy, I thought I'd take a look at the book which sparked all the outrage, namely Plato's Republic. It wasn't long before I came across an issue which, while dealt with only briefly in this passage from the Republic, is of vital importance to the romance genre. Cephalus, an elderly man, recalls
the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, --are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold. (Book I, Jowett translation)
In both the classical period and in the Middle Ages, love was often seen as a form of madness:
The disease of love, according to medieval physicians, is a disorder of the mind and body, closely related to melancholia and potentially fatal if not treated. In their view, however, lovesickness did not afflict everyone alike: the sufferer was typically thought to be a noble man. (Wack 1990: xi)
If lovesickness was generally thought to result in depression and melancholy in the Middle Ages,
that is not the way it is depicted in the majority of ancient literary texts. Lovesickness, displayed in a violent or manic fashion, receives descriptions in almost all of the periods of ancient literature.(Toohey 2004: 61)
There were, however, believed to be different types of love - eros, philia and agape, and for a more detailed discussion of Plato's ideas on love see, for example, this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In Plato's Symposium it is explained that
love is always directed towards what is good, indeed that goodness itself is the only object of love. When we love something, we are really seeking to possess the goodness which is in it. Not temporarily of course, but permanently. And from there Plato gives his first definition of love: ‘Love is desire for the perpetual possession of the good.’ [...] But although all things love, and all men are in some sense lovers, few recognise the object of their love, that which motivates their striving, that which underlies their every desire, that which will ensure ‘perpetual possession’. This object Plato calls the Good or absolute beauty. (Amir 2001)
We may recall that Frye wrote:
We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude
According to Frye, romances in the high mimetic mode come in for criticism because 'the interest in this sort of displaced myth “tends toward abstraction in character-drawing, and if we know no other canons than low mimetic ones, we complain of this.”' Could it be, then, that romances of this type, which are criticised for having stereotypical, unrealistic characters and plots, are in fact exploring love as the pursuit of 'the Good or absolute beauty'? To take as an example an old but important novel in the development of the genre, E. M. Hull's The Sheik, we find that the heroine, Diana Mayo (her very name recalls that of a goddess) is referred to as 'The divinity' (page 4) and one of her admirers exclaims that 'Beauty like yours drives a man mad' (page 7). In romances of the high mimetic type, the lovers are usually extremely beautiful/physically attractive, and intensely possessed of particular virtues (courage, in the case of Diana Mayo, humility and self sacrifice in the case of many other heroines, bravery in the case of many heroes). They are personifications of aspects of 'the Good' or 'absolute beauty'. Romances in the low mimetic mode, i.e. romances where the characters are more 'realistic' perhaps show how love can be compatible with daily living, without the lovers falling into the dangerous madness warned about by classical and medieval physicians.

Plato told stories, relating his ideas through the characters of Socrates and his interlocutors. Socrates is depicted using simple examples in order to approach philosophical truths, such as when he asks 'When horses are injured, are they improved or deteriorated?' during the dialogue regarding justice. It seems to me that this is not totally dissimilar to the way that romances, rather than discuss relationships or love in the abstract, ground their investigation into the causes and effects of love in a particular situation, so that it may be more easily understood by the reader.

I'd also like to take a closer look at old age, which was where we began when I quoted from the Republic. Do 'the passions relax their hold' in old age? And is this what is portrayed in the romance genre? I think it very often is, in the sense that the majority of romances portray young lovers. Sandy Oakes, for example, states that 'a romance works best when the experience is new—the younger hero and heroine falling in love for the first time'. But passion at an older age is not simply an issue affecting the characters within novels: it is also an issue which affects the perception of the romance readers, as explored in a recent At the Back Fence column at AAR, where Robin Uncapher commented that 'It’s not only younger people who find the idea of an older reader disconcerting. It’s all of us, including those of us who have passed that 40th birthday'. Michelle Buonfiglio articulated the unease that older readers can feel when they realise that they are feeling an attraction to a character who is much younger than they are: 'is it just plain creepy to think guys who are 10, 15, 20 years younger than I are sexy as hell?'. And although many romances only show passionate, romantic love between younger characters, there are some which feature older characters. Michelle mentions Candice Hern's Just One of Those Flings" which has as its hero 'an alpha younger man who's crazy about an older woman. Our heroine's got to convince herself that his attraction to her is real, not some fetish; that her desirablity transcends her age'. Age is also an issue in Jessica Hart’s Contracted: Corporate Wife. The heroine is divorced, and the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl and an eleven-year-old boy:
She was attractive enough, but she had to be at least forty-five, and it showed in the lines around her eyes.
That cool, composed look had never done anything for him, anyway. He liked his women more feminine, more appealing, less in control. And younger. (2005: 6).
Patrick, the character making these observations, is himself ‘in his late forties’ (2005: 10). His opinion of Lou begins to change when she smiles:
Lou smiled up at the barman as he materialised out of the gloom, and Patrick’s hand froze in mid-tap as he felt a jolt of surprise. He hadn’t realised that she could smile like that.
She never smiled at him like that. [...] Not the warm, friendly smile she was giving the barman now, lighting her face and making her seem all at once attractive and approachable. (2005: 10)
The double standard, which generally leads people to consider an age-gap more appropriate if the man is the older of the couple, is directly challenged by Lou:
The boy was clearly trying to impress Lou, Patrick thought disapprovingly, watching his attempts at banter. She had only smiled at him, for heaven’s sake. Anyone would think that she was hot, instead of nearly old enough to be his mother. Just what they needed, a barman with a Mrs Robinson fixation. [...] Patrick glowered at the barman’s departing back. ‘Thank God he’s gone. [...]’
‘I thought he was charming,’ said Lou, picking up her glass.
She would.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve got a taste for toy boys!’
‘No – not that it would be any business of yours if I did.’ [...]
‘You don’t think it would be a bit inappropriate?’ he countered.
Lou stared at him for a moment, then sipped at her champagne. ‘That sounds to me like a prime case of pots and kettles,’ she said coolly. (2005: 11)
As Lou observes, Patrick’s girlfriends ‘look a good twenty years younger’ than him (2005: 12). She also acknowledges that ‘She was a middle-aged woman and it was well known that you became invisible after forty’ (2005: 12). Of course, this being a romance, Patrick eventually loses his arrogance and after that evening he starts to think of Lou in a new way.

Jennifer Crusie is another author who has written a romance about a heroine who is over forty. In Anyone But You, a forty-year-old heroine is paired with a thirty-year-old hero. The heroine's attempts to make her body into the ideal of female beauty are shown to be futile; this is not a novel in the high mimetic mode. Instead she realises that 'I wanted to give him a perfect body, and all he wanted was mine' (2006: 218).
  • Amir, Lydia, 2001. 'Plato’s Theory of Love: Rationality as Passion', Practical Philosophy, November 2001, Volume 4.3: 6-14.
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2006. Anyone But You (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Hart, Jessica, 2005. Contracted, Corporate Wife (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Toohey, Peter, 2004. Melancholy, Love, and Time: Boundaries of the Self in Ancient Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).
  • Wack, Mary Frances, 1990. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The ‘Viaticum’ and its Commentaries, University of Pennsylvania Press, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Jessica Hart - Mistletoe Marriage

Jessica Hart's Contracted: Corporate Wife won the Romantic Novelists' Association Romance Award 2006 and her Christmas Eve Marriage won a RITA in 2005, in the Best Traditional Romance category.

Mistletoe Marriage has not, as far as I know, won any awards; the one reader review at is lukewarm, describing it as 'pretty standard fare for a Harlequin romance', while at the Romantic Times the reviewer's final comment that the novel 'triumphs over its oft-used premise, finding some lovely, genuine emotional levels' may be read either as damning with faint praise or as an accurate summary of the novel's main strengths. In my opinion Hart's novel makes use of traditional plot and character contrasts in ways which query some of those traditions, much as Austen uses contrasts in Sense and Sensibility to critique aspects of Romanticism, or, in Emma, contrasts the furtive romance between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, with the long-standing friendship, which changes to romantic love, between Emma and Mr Knightley. Among the fairytales I know, Mistletoe Marriage reminds me of the story of Snow White and Rose Red. In the version told by the Brothers Grimm there are two sisters:
one was called Snow-white and the other Rose-red. They were as good and happy, as busy and cheerful, as ever two children in the world were, only Snow-white was more quiet and gentle than Rose-red. Rose-red liked better to run about in the meadows and fields seeking flowers and catching butterflies [...] The two children were so fond of each other that they always held each other by the hand when they went out together, and when Snow-white said, “We will not leave each other,” Rose-red answered, “Never so long as we live,” and their mother would add, “What one has she must share with the other.”
Sophie, the heroine of Mistletoe Marriage reminds me of Rose-red:
Sophie's hair [...] was a bit like her personality - wildly curling and unruly [...] At first glance her hair was a dull brown, but if you looked closely you could see that there were other colours in there too: gold and copper and bronze where it caught the light.
The quirkiness of Sophie's personality was reflected in her face. Vivid, rather than strictly pretty (2005: 7)
Like Rose-red, Sophie loves the countryside, whereas her sister Melissa, 'In spite of growing up on a farm [...] had never been a great one for getting her hands dirty' (2005: 26) . Melissa is more like Snow-white: 'She was sweet and fragile and helpless, and few men were immune to her appeal' (2005: 14) with 'her hair like spun gold and her violet eyes and that smile that made the sun come out' (2005: 26). These sisters are also devoted to each other: Sophie makes a 'sacrifice' that 'few sisters would have made' (2005: 16), breaking off her engagement to Nick when she realises that Nick and Melissa have fallen in love, and Melissa truly appreciates this and 'was [...] bound up in guilt about what she called 'stealing' Nick' (2005: 53).

In the fairytale the sisters have a playmate, who also calls himself their lover, and who is a bear:
They tugged his hair with their hands, put their feet upon his back and rolled him about, or they took a hazel-switch and beat him, and when he growled they laughed. But the bear took it all in good part, only, when they were too rough, he called out,

“Leave me alive, children,
“Snowy-white, Rosy-red,
Will you beat your lover dead?”
The bear first makes his appearance in the winter, the season in which Mistletoe Marriage is set. Bram, the hero of Mistletoe Marriage gives hugs which are
incredibly comforting [...] when he held you enclosed in those powerful arms you felt safe and secure, and insensibly steadied. He didn't need to say a thing. You could just cling to his strong, solid body and feel the slow, calm beat of his heart and somehow let yourself believe that everything would be all right (2005: 5-6)
Bram, like the bear, is not an exotic creature: 'He had never lain on a tropical beach under a leaning coconut palm and he didn't want to. Give him a hillside and a gorse bush in bloom any day' (2005: 19). His name, 'Bram', is, therefore extemely appropriate since according to one baby-naming website the name is 'of Scottish, Irish and Gaelic origin, and its meaning is "bramble; a thicket of wild gorse'.

In the fairytale the two sisters encounter a very grumpy dwarf, who expects them to rescue him, but who gives them no thanks for their efforts. Finally the bear kills the dwarf:
“I am a King’s son,” he said, “and I was bewitched by that wicked dwarf, who had stolen my treasures; I have had to run about the forest as a savage bear until I was freed by his death. Now he has got his well-deserved punishment.” Snow-white was married to him, and Rose-red to his brother
Bram was once engaged to Melissa, but the engagement was broken off. What Sophie and Bram come to realise is that a bear is really much, much better off with a woman who loves the countryside, and what Sophie needs to learn is that beneath the surface of her beloved friend the bear is an extremely attractive man. I'm afraid that Melissa, in Jessica Hart's story, falls in love with someone who is more like the dwarf, but disguised as a prince, and while both of the sisters fall in love with him, Sophie (whose name means 'wisdom') is the one who recognises Nick for what he is: a grumpy, self-centered man who selfishly puts others to great trouble (at one point in the story he needs to be rescued, rather like the dwarf in the fairytale). Bram metaphorically 'kills' the dwarf when Sophie's love for Nick dies.

Jennifer Crusie has said that romance is 'a genre that relies heavily on the tradition of the tales even while requiring their revision for reader satisfaction' (This Is Not Your Mother's Cinderella: The Romance Novel As Feminist Fairy Tale) and on this blog Sandra has examined the way in which 'romance fiction employs various elements of fairy tales'. It seems to me that even if Jessica Hart was not deliberately re-writing the story of Snow-white and Rose-red, her novel can be read as a reworking of various elements that are common in fairytales (two sisters, prince in disguise, grumpy dwarf, marriage). Sophie's friend Ella says 'So what if it's not a fairy tale? Make your own fairy tale' (2005: 101), and that is what Jessica Hart does for Sophie, by reworking the fairytale and questioning many conventional ideas about what's romantic. Bram, for example, chooses a ruby engagement ring for Sophie, rather than a conventional diamond one. This reinforces the colour difference between Sophie (redish hair) and Melissa (blonde) in a way which changes the fairytale to suit Sophie:
It was perfect. Cinderella must have felt the same uncanny sense of rightness as the glass slipper had been slipped onto her foot. The ring sat on Sophie's hand as if it had been made for her finger. [...] 'It's different, isn't it? But that's what makes it special.'
'Like you.' (2005:116)
It is Melissa who has a beauty that in most fairytales would make her the heroine and, like fairytale heroines, 'it was hard to get past her beauty to the person underneath' (2005: 106): 'Melissa was someone to be adored, so fragile, so lovely, that you feared she might dissolve into a dream if you reached out for her' (2005: 112).* Nick is the epitome of tall, dark and handsome: 'Nick was a dream come true [...] with his good looks and his glamour and his smile that made her go weak at the knees' (2005: 97), he has 'dark good looks [...] daredevil arrogance' (2005: 126) and is 'Alpha man incarnate' (2005: 126). Nick and Melissa fall in love in the most romantic of ways: 'He saw Melissa. He took one look at her and fell [...] in love with her' (2005: 14) and 'Melissa fell in love for the first time when she saw Nick [...]. She looked completely bowled over. She couldn't take her eyes off him' (2005: 15). But, despite all this perfection and the way they seem to be the most romantic of couples, they are not the hero and heroine of this particular fairytale romance, and in fact there are shown to be problems in their marriage. Slowly, the illusion of perfection that surrounds them, and unquestioning acceptance of the conventional trappings of romance, are peeled away. Sophie compares Bram's common-sense proposal, made for practical reasons, across the kitchen table, with Nick's (prior to him meeting Melissa): 'Nick had arranged a romantic restaurant, candlelight, soft violins playing, even a rose... Didn't that indicate a lack of imagination on his part?' (2005: 97). Nick's choice of ring was equally conventional: Bram asks, 'disparagingly', 'I suppose Nick bought you a diamond?' and Sophie replies 'He did, as a matter of fact' (2005: 120). Nick later insists that diamonds are 'what a real engagement ring should be' (2005: 132), while Melissa realises how well the ruby ring suits Sophie. The point isn't that diamond rings, or proposals made over candle-lit dinners, are intrinsically unromantic, but rather that all of Nick's choices show a lack of thought about Sophie's personality. Instead of choosing what will appeal to her and showing his love and understanding of her through his choices, he simply follows convention.

Bram observes that 'You can make anyone believe anything if the trappings are right [...] It's all about appearances' (2005: 120), but Sophie isn't interested in appearances. She says that 'Surely the important thing is that Bram and I are marrying each other [...] The rest of the wedding stuff doesn't really matter, does it?' (2005: 103). Even though she says this before she falls in love with Bram, her feelings about the details of the wedding don't change. When she adds that 'I'm sure no one will care what our wedding is like' (2005: 103) her mother sighs at her 'naivety' and replies 'You've always been such a romantic' (2005: 103). Sophie, then, is a true romantic because her interest is not in the usual outward signs of love such as the white wedding dress or the diamond ring, which, because of their conventional nature, may not best suit the particular bride or her circumstances. Sophie would rather have a
dress so stunning that it had been given the window to itself. Cut low over the shoulders and close around the waist, it fell in a flurry of chiffon layers in gold and copper and bronze and red. It glowed like a flame, so warm and so vibrant you could almost hold out your hands and warm yourself on its richness and its colour.
Sophie took one look at the dress and fell in love with it. Now, there was a dress to be married in - a dress that would make you feel joyous and sexy and vibrant. Surely the way you should feel when you were getting married. (2005: 107)
The dress matches the colour of her hair, and again made me think of Sophie as Rose-red, the imagery used to describe it matches that used to describe Sophie's love for Bram, as well shall see. This dress suits Sophie's vibrant personality, and Bram recognises that and buys the dress for her. Sophie's mother, on the other hand, insists that Sophie 'look the perfect conventional bride' (2005: 109), so on her wedding day Sophie wears the dress her mother's chosen for her, but on that occasion she barely cares what she's wearing: she turns up wearing 'black rubber boots, liberally splattered with dried mud, that peeked out from beneath the ivory silk' (2005: 185). When her mother complains, Sophie declares 'I'll get married in my socks' (2005: 186), which is what she does. For Sophie, then, the conventional trappings of romance are hardly important at all: 'Bram was everything that she needed. Her best friend. Her lover. Her husband.' (2005: 186).

Sophie's feelings about Nick remind me of the discussions we've been having here about mystery, power imbalances, risk and the erotic:
Being with Nick had never felt safe [...] There had always been an element of risk in their relationship. [...] She had never been able to relax completely with Nick for fear that she would lose him. Even when she had been at her happiest it had felt as if she were on [the] point of exploding with the sheer intensity of it all. It had been a dangerous feeling, but a wonderful one too. Loving Nick had made her feel electric, alive. (2005: 25)
With Bram, however
This wasn't the desperate, dramatic love she had felt for Nick. In the very fibre of her being Sophie knew that her love for Bram was deeper, truer, stronger than that. Loving Nick had been a firework that had exploded in her world in dazzling colours, only to fizzle out without trace. [...] Loving Bram was a flame that had glowed steadily deep inside her, growing so slowly that she hadn't even noticed until it burned in every part of her (2005:161-162)
  • Hart, Jessica, 2005. Mistletoe Marriage (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).
* As Crusie notes, fairytale heroines tend to lack personality, though they are always beautiful:
Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she'd ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she'd ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she'd ever wanted because she had really small feet.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Having it all?

Since it's the weekend, I thought some of you might like an online free read. This one's by Jenny Haddon, who's published by Harlequin Mills & Boon as Sophie Weston. Alice, the heroine, says that:
Some time in the sixties, some damn silly woman wrote a book saying women could have it all. Love. Family. High powered career. Great sex. And her own choice of hair colour thrown in. Women have been breaking their backs to do it ever since. And I'm here to tell you, it can't be done.'
She's got a point - to do things well takes a lot of time and commitment, and there are only 24 hours in a day. How many of us can be beautiful at all times, successful in a career and marriage, and also succeed as a Good Mother and a Domestic Goddess? I'm not sure anyone could do all that without at least some help. But, on the other hand, maybe Alice can have more than she thought she could.

Here's Jenny Haddon's short story - The Edward Lewis Gambit.

What do you think - can we have it all? Can we have more than we think we can? Do you prefer a fairy-tale ending where the heroine does get it all? Or do you prefer a more realistic ending where she has to make compromises, or get help from others? Or am I just being defeatist in not believing one can have it all?

If the heroine does compromise in some areas of her life, in which areas should it be? Obviously, this being romance, she can't give up on love, but what about children? or career? or household chores?

And in general in romance, does the hero get to 'have it all'? If he does, is this realistic? If it is, is this at least in part because when a man has it 'all', he's not expected to be a Domestic God, and because the role of a Good Father is less strenuous than that of a Good Mother? For a man does 'having it all' include having a wife who'll take over the domestic chores and household responsibilities, whereas a woman who wants to 'have it all' is expected to perform all the traditional feminine roles in addition to succeeding in her career?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

'Green is the new red': the sci-fi romance subgenres

According to Deidre Knight, romance author and literary agent:
the fact that aliens are the new vampires hasn’t quite hit the telegraph wires just yet. Trust me: Green is the new red. Translation? Aliens (green) are the new vampires (red/blood.)
I'm certain that Deidre Knight knows far, far more about current and forthcoming trends in romance sales than I ever will, but even I've begun to notice that science fiction romance seems to be gaining popularity. AAR, for example, recently published an interview with Susan Grant, who's been writing 'alien romantic comedy'. It isn't just about aliens, though. According to Linnea Sinclair
there are three subdivisions: science fiction romance, romantic science fiction and futuristics. Some books cleanly and clearly fit in one category; others straddle the fence. To make matters worse, many readers don't even realize there are subdivisions. Futuristics is the term most commonly used by readers.

Technically — and pun intended — futuristics are the least technical of the three types. Futuristics — as I've seen them defined — are books in which the science fiction setting is the least stringent requirement. I've seen futuristics referred to as historicals in spacesuits, in the sense that the story could as easily be placed on a pirate ship sailing the Atlantic as on a starship cruising the space lanes. You could probably relocate the action to a different "era" or remove the science fiction elements and the story would still stand. [...]

Romantic Science Fiction is the opposite end of the spectrum. There, the romance plot is very much a sub plot and the HEA (Happily Ever After) requirement may not apply. You could also remove the romance element and the story would still stand.

Science Fiction Romance (which is where I think my books fall) is the middle ground: it's a novel in which the balance of the science fiction elements and the romance elements are nearly equal. If you were to remove either the romance element or the science fiction element, the story would fall apart.
Corinna Lawson's interview with Linnea Sinclair was a follow-up to Corinna's original article on 'Science Fiction and Romance: A Very Uneasy Marriage'.

I'm rather behind the times: I've only recently come across a couple of Dorchester's Love Spell Futuristic Romances from the early 1990s, but I see that they're currently acquiring futuristics:
FUTURISTIC - Futuristic Romances are set in lavish lands on distant worlds but must be believable to today's reader without an overabundance of explanation. Avoid science-fiction-type hardware, technology, etc.
'Believable' isn't the first adjective that would spring to my mind if I was trying to describe 'lavish lands on distant worlds', but suspension of disbelief isn't difficult for a reader to achieve, if the author's world-building is consistent.

The science fiction romance sub-genre would seem to me to offer the opportunity to explore some of the issues arising from current scientific knowledge in a way similar to that in which, in the early nineteenth century,
British drama reflects its linkage with the culture's preoccupations with science and medicine. Science did, in fact, take form in the theatre, where production strategies were shaped by the machinery of staging enhanced and encoded with scientific discoveries. [...] Techno-gothic is an ideologically charged and melodramatic structure in which disturbing issues and forbidden experiences characteristic of gothic are recontextualized by the period's pursuit of science. Techno-gothic drama is, in fact, a product of the Romantic revolution in science. A hybrid genre, techno-gothic drama constitutes an incipient "science fiction"—theatrical, and therefore fictive, representations of science. While we often think of the period's fiction writers as originators of science fiction, and some scholars point specifically to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, I argue that roots of Romantic science fiction are also located in its techno-gothic drama written by women before 1818. (Marjean D. Purinton, 2001)
Of course, Purinton is writing about 'Romantic' in terms of the Romantics, not 'romance fiction', but it seems to me that there may be parallels here, because science fiction romance offers authors the opportunity to explore the boundaries of modern science, along with the threats it may pose, and the opportunities it may offer, in the future. In addition, as Purinton observes of these nineteenth-century dramas, authors were able to
appropriate staged science as techno-gothic drama, specifically charged with scientific ideology, to challenge the roles and afflictions assigned to women by medical and scientific discourses that sought to keep them subordinate to men.
In a futuristic or science fiction setting, the author is set free to create alternative societies, bound by different rules from our own, perhaps with different gender roles and different marriage structures.

So, how do you feel about futuristics and science fiction romance? Tired of vampires and ready for new frontiers? Wary of gadgets and characters which unusual names and habits? Appalled or thrilled at the thought of what an alien might be able to do with strange powers and unique appendages? And what does a romance between different species mean in terms of the traditional happy ending which features the happy couple surrounded by plenty of off-spring?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Betty Neels: "Discovering Daisy"

This is the first Betty Neels I’ve ever read, and I think I was fortunate to find this particular novel, since various reviews agree that it’s one of her best (see the review here by Mary Lynn and here (the 2003 review by ‘a reader')). It also seems to include some of Neels’ most common themes, which suggests that a fair amount of what I have to say here might also apply to other novels by Neels. According to the short biography available at the Harlequin site:
It is perhaps a reflection of her upbringing in an earlier time that the men and women who peopled her stories have a kindliness and good manners, coupled to honesty and integrity, that is not always present in our modern world.
The Wikipedia entry notes that in her stories ‘A character will often have an expertise in antiques’.

In Discovering Daisy the characters who appreciate antiques are also courteous and caring, which may reflect the author’s belief that such character traits were seen as old-fashioned, but, like the antiques, are nonetheless extremely valuable. The characters with little respect for antiques are also rude and prone to lying.

Daisy Gillard, the heroine, works in her father’s antique shop:
her nut-brown hair tumbled around her shoulders. She was an ordinary girl, of middle height, charmingly and unfashionably plump, her unassuming features redeemed from plainness by a pair of large hazel eyes, thickly fringed. (1999: 6)
Her clothes (I’ve mentioned the importance of clothing as an indicator of personality in a previous blog entry) are, when we first encounter her, ‘a quilted jacked and tweed skirt, very suitable for the time of year but lacking any pretentions to fashion’ (1999: 6) and she wears her hair tied back under a headscarf. Daisy is clearly a ‘sensible, matter-of fact girl’ (1999: 16) who adapts herself to her humble circumstances without drawing particular attention to herself or wishing to do so.

This alone is enough to give one a clue to the theme and imagery of the book, but I was far too caught up in the story to notice until the day after I’d put the book down and was wondering which books to write about for the blog. Daisy, of course, as the title of the novel makes clear, is going to be ‘discovered’, because she’s like one of the antiques that are sold in her father’s shop.

As the story begins Daisy is in love with Desmond, who has ‘superficial charm, bold good looks and flattering manners’ (1999: 8), but only temporarily, since not long into their relationship he accuses her of being ‘a spoilsport, prudish’ (1999: 7) when she refuses to go with him and his friends to a nightclub in Totnes. Totnes, it has to be said, is not a place I’d ever consider a hotbed of vice and depravity, so one has to assume that either Desmond’s friends are particularly offensive, or Daisy is very old-fashioned, or both. The final break with Desmond occurs after he proposes a trip to ‘a nightclub in Plymouth’ (1999: 14). Plymouth has a considerably more varied nightlife than Totness, as the local visitor information website reveals:
When the sun goes down, it's time for bright lights. International cuisine or traditional cooking, fine wine or real ale - it's up to you. Then, choose from a West End preview at the Theatre Royal, a concert or comedian at Plymouth Pavilions, or the latest blockbuster at one of our mulit-screened cinemas. Try your luck at the casinos, or simply enjoy the myriad of bars and clubs until the early hours.
It is not the sort of place to appeal to Daisy, and Desmond quickly replaces her with Tessa, ‘A pretty girl, slim and dressed in the height of fashion, teetering on four-inch heels, swinging a sequinned bag, tossing fashionably tousled hair’ (1999: 14). When Daisy first meets the hero, Jules der Huizma, he has a fiancée, Helene, and she too is thin and fashionable:
she was considered a handsome woman by her friends; very fair, with large blue eyes, regular features and a fashionably slender figure, kept so, as only her dearest friends knew, by constant visits to her gym instructor and the beauty parlor. She was always exquisitely dressed (1999: 52)
The contrast with the practical, old-fashioned clothing worn by the slightly plump Daisy could hardly be greater. For Neels and Jules the obvious prettyness of someone ‘in the height of fashion’ is no real match for the solid worth of a practical, old-fashioned girl. In fact, the slenderness and the fashionable clothes worn by Tessa and Helene are perhaps intended to be understood by the reader as an indication of their vanity.

Neels and Jules, then, are like the connoisseur of antiques, able to assess the value of the precious antique beneath its initially unprepossessing surface. Whereas the fashionable Desmond and his new girlfriend, ‘left [the antique shop] without buying anything’ (1999: 22), and the even more fashionable Helene says she dislikes all of Jules’ antique furniture (1999: 63), Jules is ‘interested in old silver’, like Daisy’s father (1999: 19) and purchases several items from the antiques shop. Daisy herself perhaps resembles a ‘Dutch painted and gilt leather screen, eighteenth-century and in an excellent condition – although the chinoiserie figures were almost obscured by years of ingrained dirt and dust’ (1999: 29). Daisy’s external appearance is not immediately attractive, but what lies beneath it is. The uncertainty facing the screen also reflects Daisy’s: ‘there was always the chance that it would stay in the shop, unsold and representing a loss to him. But on the other hand he might sell it advantageously’ (1999: 30). While Daisy’s father in no way wishes to sell her, her alternatives are to marry (and this is thought unlikely) or remain in the shop. The screen is purchased by two Dutchmen and taken to Amsterdam. Daisy too, once she marries Jules, will go to live in that city.

To return once more to clothing, the description of Desmond’s clothing seems intended to reinforce our impression of his lack of old-fashioned morals: ‘He dressed well, but his hair was too long’ (1999: 8) . Disapproval and suspicion of men with long hair unites indviduals from very different ends of the political and religious spectrum and presumably Neels is among their number. The conflict between Daisy and Desmond's value-systems reaches a head when Desmond obliges Daisy to change her image to suit his wishes. Instead of her sensible tweeds, he wants her to wear ‘a pretty dress – something striking so that people will turn round and look at us. Red – you can’t ignore red...’ (1999: 9). Indeed you can’t ignore red and, as Alison Lurie has observed:
bright scarlet and crimson garments have traditionally been associated both with aggression and with desire. The red coats of soldiers and fox-hunters, the red dresses worn by “scarlet women” in history and literature, are obvious examples. (1992: 195)
Daisy buys the dress, but when she takes it home and tries it on she ‘wished she hadn’t bought it; it was far too short, and hardly decent – not her kind of a dress at all’ (1999: 10). The moral implications of this item of clothing are stated quite explicitly here, and Daisy’s values must have been learned from her mother, who takes an identical view of the dress: ‘that lady thought the same. But Mrs Gillard loved her daughter [...]. She observed that the dress was just right for an evening out and prayed silently that Desmond, whom she didn’t like, would be sent by his firm [...] to the other end of the country’ (1999: 10, my emphasis). And whereas Desmond ‘made a great business of studying the dress. “Quite OK,” he told her’ (1999: 11) Jules, the hero, has a negative reaction to it which mirrors that of Daisy’s mother. He thinks that ‘that dress was all wrong’ (1999: 13) and his assessment of Daisy as ‘prim’ (1999: 13) makes her not an object of his scorn but of his consideration, and leads him to ask if she is similar to him: ‘ “Are you like me? a stranger here?”’ (1999: 13). Although Jules may mean this literally (he is a Dutchman in England), it is true that emotionally they are both strangers in the bustling ball-room. At one point Jules declares that ‘I am coming to the conclusion that I am not a socially minded man’ (1999: 51), in the sense that while he enjoys his work as a doctor, he prefers to spend his leisure time quietly rather than with large numbers of other people. Daisy and Jules’ courtship will take place in the open air and at quiet but picturesque locations of historic interest, far from the crowded places favoured by Desmond and by Helene.

Daisy shows love, respect and affection for her parents and other older people, including the hero’s mother and an elderly antique dealer in Amsterdam, and she is willing to learn from the older generation. Jules der Huizma similarly shows respect and care for his mother and Daisy’s parents. The Sister at the hospital at which Jules works thinks of him as ‘such a nice man, and always so courteous and thoughtful’ (1999: 49). In this Daisy and Jules are contrasted with Desmond, Tessa and Helene, who respect neither older people nor old-fashioned politeness. Instead they seek constant novelty, pleasure and excitement, Desmond with his friends in Totnes and Plymouth and Helene with her jet-setting friends and constant round of parties: ‘Helene is in no hurry to marry; she leads a busy social life – she will be going to Switzerland to ski, and then some friends of hers have invited her to go to California’ (1999: 75). Desmond is rude: on the evening of the dinner-dance he kept Daisy ‘waiting for ten minutes, for which he offered no apology’ and he criticises her hairstyle (1999: 11). Desmond’s fashionably-dressed friend new girlfriend Tessa is also rude, telling Daisy that she’s ‘too mousy to wear red’ (1999: 14). Helene too is lacking in courtesy: she ‘hadn’t wasted much charm on her future mother-in-law [...] and barely suppressed her boredom when she visited with Jules’ (1999: 92).

The fashionable, fast-living characters are also likely to lie. Unlike the truthful Daisy, ‘who if she made a promise kept it’ (1999: 10) and who only tells a small ‘fib’ (1999: 103) because she doesn’t want to outstay her welcome at Jules’ mother’s house, Desmond tells lies: ‘he had called her darling, and kissed her and told her that she was his dream girl, but he hadn’t meant a word of it’ (1999: 17). Helene also lies and is dishonest in other ways (but to go into that would be a huge spoiler, so I’ll not give any details).

Neels thus uses descriptions of clothing and attitudes towards antiques to indicate which characters have high moral standards and which do not. Those who value antiques, are the ones associated with old-fashioned virtues such as honesty and courtesy, whereas those who do not like antiques are portrayed as dishonest, rude and vain.

It is perhaps worth noting that although Neels’ ‘work is known for being particularly chaste’ (Wikipedia), there are some kisses and the way both hero and heroine approach food may be a subtle indication that they are not lacking in physical passion, much as Eric observed is the case in Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk?. When Daisy eats at the restaurant during her night out with Desmond she hardly pays any attention to her food, she ‘chose a morsel of whatever it was on her plate and popped it in her mouth’ (1999: 12). She also eats little in the house of two elderly Dutch gentlemen to whom she brings an antique and whose other furniture is ‘antique, but not of a period which Daisy cared for’ (1999: 35). Clearly they pose no threat to Daisy’s virtue: ‘the meal didn’t live up to its opulent surroundings’ (1999: 36) and a later, more substantial dinner, is ‘Good solid fare’ (1999: 37). Daisy’s enjoyment of another meal, in a hotel, indicates her friendliness and reflects how at ease she feels with the company:
She went downstairs presently, to the small dining room in the basement, and found a dozen other people there, all of them Dutch. They greeted her kindly and, being a friendly girl by nature, she enjoyed her meal. Soup, pork chops with ample potatoes and vegetables, and a custard for pudding. Simple, compared with the fare at Mijnheer van der Breek’s house, but much more sustaining... (1999: 38-39)
It is, of course, with Jules that she derives the most pleasure from food, and he masterfully chooses her meal for her:
He didn’t ask her what she would like to eat. ‘This is a typical Dutch meal,’ he told her. ‘I hope you’re hungry.’
She was, which was a good thing, for presently a waitress brought two large plates covered by vast pancakes dotted with tiny bits of crisp bacon. She also brought a big pot of dark syrup.
Mr der Huizma ladled the syrup onto the pancakes. [...]
Daisy ate all of it with an enjoyment which brought a gleam of pleasure into Mr der Huizma’s eyes. (1999: 99-100)
While not overtly sexual, the use of the words ‘enjoyment’ and ‘pleasure’, and the way in which the hero introduces the heroine to this Dutch speciality, and then takes delight in watching her response to it, is distinctly sensual.

  • Lurie, Alison, 1992. The Language of Clothes (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.).
  • Neels, Betty, 1999. Discovering Daisy (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon). This is a book published in the Enchanted line.