Reading the 100 Most Beloved Romance Novels: LORD OF SCOUNDRELS
I decided to read the 100 most beloved romance novels because I have always believed that the romance genre is doing something very important -- something that transcends mere entertainment -- but I couldn't put my finger on exactly what that "something" is. Rereading the first book on the list, Loretta Chase's LORD OF SCOUNDRELS, gave me a glimpse of one possible piece of the answer.
On the surface, LORD OF SCOUNDRELS is a regency-era retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and such an antically funny one that I laughed out loud reading it, even though I was reading it for the third time. It is so charming and fizzy and addictive that when I first read it in 2011 I bought seven more of Ms. Chase's books in nine days. That is a white-hot hours of the day to escapist fiction gobbling ratio, and when you factor in that I was also working sixty hour weeks at a corporate job, the power of Ms. Chase's fiction to make you choose reading it over basic things like sleep is unmistakeable. LOS is a broad, comic, romance tour de force, and it I have not made its lovable qualities clear enough here, I don't know, go consult the 1,686 (at this writing) Goodreads reviews for a second opinion.
Re-reading it this week, however (uh oh, do you feel the THEORY coming on) I think it is more than just a masterfully constructed piece of romcommery: it is also a pointed examination of the ways in which misogyny is intertwined with (heterosexual) courtship.
I'm sure you are now thinking: thank you, Professor Peckham, for blinding me with that hot take from lit crit 101. #ThatswhenIclickedclosetab, etc, etc, BAI.
Those of you who are still here, bear with me.
The book's heroine, Jess, is a clever spinster who desires independence, and the hero, Dain, is a boorish aristocrat who believes all women are opportunistic termagants after his money. (Cool guy.) There are hundreds of summaries of the plot online, so I'm not going to rehash it in detail here; it is safe to say they fall in lust, hijinks ensue, Dain is redeemed (kind of), and they live happily ever after. But the underlying story, IMHO, is about a couple negotiating gender, power, and privilege in a world defined by patriarchal constructs and colored with both blatant and internalized misogyny.
If you did not infer this from the title, Dain is quite literally a scoundrel. He is vulgar, abusive, sexist, unattractively blind to his advantages, and animated by a rage towards women that is hard to read in 2017. Were he living in 2017, this book might be called Lord of Fuckbois. What is interesting to note, however, is that the narrator and the heroine of the book are both aware of and appalled by Dain's misogyny, and determined to illustrate -- to him, sure, but also to us -- that it is wrongheaded, damaging and twined with self-loathing.
Every single page of this book crackles with reminders of the of gender expectations and limitations Jess faces, the risks of of defying these conventions, and most of all, the pernicious effects of the low place women have in the patriarchal system. Jess is aware that marriage makes her property, that her unapologetic desire for sex leaves her open to shaming, and that her happiness in her marriage will depend on her ability to overcome her husband's fragile self-worth and hostile beliefs about the female sex. Explicitly, Jess is battling the gender politics of England in 1828, where the book is set. Implicitly, the modern reader can see exactly how much and yet how little has changed.
Jess is a 19th-century heroine, but she is also defiant and modern in her viewpoints.
And Y'ALL: the battle she is fighting is as old as time.
Caveat emptor: This book was published in 1995, and predates current feminist conversations about consent culture and slut-shaming; there is a lot to unpack and not all of it has aged well. Reading it the week of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal, the very notion of loving a dude despite his flagrant misogyny -- of making it one's mission to cure him of it -- seems painful to me, rather than romantic. (An opinion I had obviously not yet evolved into having when I read it in 2011, interestingly, but I will save my "sometimes these books make us see what was going on in our culture in hindsight" for a lit-critty post you can ignore some time in the future.)
And yet, one thing is unmistakeable and, I think, admirable: the book is engaged in a pointed critique of gendered thinking. The work it is doing is not just that of entertainment. It is examining what it means to love, and search for a partnership with parity, while also being a woman in a society that grants power unequally between the sexes.
In a paper on romance and patriarchy published in 2011, Catherine Roach (a professor of culture and gender studies who also writes romances under the name Catherine LaRoche) makes an argument that I think gets to the heart of this: "Romance novels function as an antidote, as a way of pleasurably working through—in fantasy, in the safe and imaginative play world of fiction—the contradictory position of the heterosexual woman within patriarchal rape culture. This complex work...involves reconciling women to the limits and threats specifically posed to them as women by the culture, yet also teaching women to refuse to accept such limits and threats as normative and empowering them to expect or demand better for themselves."
So why is LORD OF SCOUNDRELS so beloved, I ask you? (And by you, sorry, I mean myself.)
On the surface because it is laugh-out-loud funny, because the hero's redemption is hard-won and ultimately sweet, because Ms. Chase knows how to twist tropes and crack wise like a master of the form, and because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader of romance will adore any book in which the heroine shoots the hero in his arm for being a dick to her.
But also, perhaps, because there is a freedom in interrogating and rejecting the worst of modern sexual politics if they are disguised as a rompish regency retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Reading the book this way, a different story comes into shape. Not the specific love story between Jess and Dain, but one about a tradition of women writing and reading about wanting things that are not allowed, and arguing that we should not be punished -- that we will, in fact, receive a happily ever after -- if we dare to insist on something different.
For a book with a lady in a ball gown on the cover, a book a woman might be laughed at for reading in public, it seems to me that is not just radical. It borders on the seditious.
OK, that's all I got.
NOTE, J/K: this was edited from my first iteration, because my brain is slow and I had a bunch more Lofty Ideas and Curse Words I wanted to type after I hit publish.
Next week I'm on to a book that has been in my TBR pile for ages, but that I've never read: Beverly Jenkins' INDIGO. In the meantime, if you have thoughts shout them out in the comments!