Scarlett Peckham

PURVEYOR OF HISTORICAL ROMANCE NOVELS

Filtering by Category: #100Romances

#100Romances: A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME + Epistolary Love

This week my journey through romance's greatest hits led me to Sarah MacLean's regency novel A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME.

What I loved about this book is its love letters.

Each chapter begins with a letter from the heroine, Penelope, to the hero, Bourne, beginning when they are childhood sweethearts. In the beginning, Bourne writes back and their exchanges are sweet and adorable. Then he suffers a tragedy and abruptly stops responding to Penelope's letters. Eventually she stops sending them, but she never stops writing - until the very last letter in the book, when she loses hope and destroys her final missive. 

Rogue.jpg

Through these short notes we watch Penelope's heart get broken when Bourne disappears. We see her heartache fade into resignation when she stops sending the letters she pens and becomes engaged to someone else. We see her lose all faith in love, and in herself, when her engagement falls apart. And on Bourne's side we see the sensitive, kind and funny boy he was before he became the difficult man we are confronted with in the present day. 

The letters are overlaid with the plot brilliantly, so that when the characters are at their worst, we get to see them at their best at another point in time. And when they are at their most hopeless, we get to see that they will eventually find what they are looking for.

It's a poignant way of giving Penelope and Bourne more depth, and I loved the sense of intimacy it gave the book. Historical romance novels tend to be written in dual third-person point of view, so we don’t often hear the characters speak in first person, except in dialogue. And while this lends itself to the rich world-building that historical romance is known for, it can sometimes make the characters feel distant. 

Sometimes, it's nice to read someone pouring their heart out.

Next week we switch from lighthearted romps to UGLY CRYING with Laura Kinsale's FLOWERS FROM THE STORM.

PREVIOUSLY IN #100ROMANCES:

#100Romances: The Duke and I + This Is Not How To Get a Baby

The Duke and I.jpg

It is 2018 and we are, at long last, back to our favorite parlor game: reading the beloved romances of all time, and writing long, somewhat tortured essays about them!

Today's book is the 2006 regency classic THE DUKE AND I, the first installment in Julia Quinn's beloved Bridgerton series.

There was one thing I absolutely loved about this book and one thing I absolutely hated and they both concerned one rich, age-old topic:

The Getting of Babies.

Children, and whether or not to have them, is the central theme of this book, and the plot is fairly simple: Daphne Bridgerton wants to marry the nice boy she has fallen in love with (a charming, sweet Duke by the name of Simon), but he cannot have children and she wants to be a mother. She is sad about this conundrum but decides Simon is enough for her and marries him anyway, despite his misgivings about not being able to give her the life she wants. And then, a few weeks after they are married, she finds out that he actually can have children but doesn't want to. She becomes very angry at him for the verbal shenanigans that led to this misunderstanding, and they have several terrible fights about it and it nearly ruins their relationship.

The root of Simon's desire not to have a child is one we have seen in many a romance novel: he believes perpetuating the family name will vindicate the abusive father who tortured and rejected him. But if his reasons for avoiding parenthood are standard romance novel fare, his palpable sense of suffocation at the notion of becoming a father is not. 

This is the part that I loved.

Julia Quinn is beloved for her musical, witty, light-as-air dialogue, but a quieter gift of this book is the realism with which she portrays Simon’s inchoate dread at the thought of having kids. Daphne Bridgeton’s desire to have a child is treated just as sympathetically. Daphne comes from a large, loving family and keenly desires one of her own. It is her dream to be a mother, and the expected occupation for a woman of her station, and when Simon tells her, before they marry, that he cannot have children, she is heartbroken. She must make a choice that many men and women in our own modern age must make all the time: do I want this person, or a child, more? 

When Daphne chooses Simon, it is easy to feel that her choice comes with as much loss as joy. It is the stuff of Modern Love columns and dating podcasts and subtly observed literary novels set in certain parts of Brooklyn. I am a massive sucker for historical romance novels that look at modern problems through the lens of the past, and I was moved by this portrayal of two lovers genuinely wanting to preserve the other's happiness, but finding it impossible to reconcile their own ideals and visions of family with their partner's.

How, I wondered, would Simon and Daphne resolve this seemingly intractable problem? 

I knew they WOULD resolve it, of course, because that is the fun of a romance novel. The reader is guaranteed they will face this fundamental difference in values and find a way to both get what they want. 

Because one of the great pleasures of romance is trying to figure out the plot once the central conflict is established, I began to weigh various outcomes in my head as soon as these two kids tied the knot.

Here are a few potential solutions:

  1. A secret baby might show up on Simon’s doorstep, awakening his paternal urges just as he’s about to lose Daphne. 

  2. Simon's attempts at family planning (the ol' pullout method) might work imprecisely, resulting in an accidental pregnancy that will force him to face his fears whether he likes it or not.

  3. Daphne might start a school, or take in orphans, in an attempt to reconcile her longing for family with her husband's desire to remain childless, and find that this fulfills them both in unexpected ways.
  4. Simon and Daphne might talk it out and consensually come to an understanding of how they, as a deeply in love couple, will shape their family in a way that will leave them both satisfied. Together, they will decide to have a baby the old fashioned way

Spoiler Alert: None of these things are what happens. 

Instead, Daphne waits until Simon is drunk, sexes him while he is half-asleep, and physically forces him to ejaculate inside of her while he is too addled to get away. 

For those following along at home: GUYS, THIS IS NOT HOW YOU GET A BABY.

Sexually coercing a drunk person is not romantic. It is also not legal.

The book depicts Daphne's act as a rebalancing of power. Because Simon took advantage of Daphne's lack of sexual education to make her think he “can’t” have children, Daphne believes herself justified in taking advantage of his temporarily powerless state in order to conceive.

There is a long-running debate about whether or not Daphne is winsome or loathsome on All About Romance, and I am firmly a vote for team Loathsome. 

But I am also for team Missed Opportunity. Historical romance novels are often a way of interrogating our own modern culture, and it would have been interesting to see this very relevant problem resolved in a less troubling and more nuanced way.

In short, I wanted a happier ending.

Next week we will turn to a book I've been looking forward to rereading: Courtney Milan's THE DUCHESS WAR.

Until then, feel free to concoct ethical ways of getting or avoiding babies in the comments.

PREVIOUSLY IN #100ROMANCES:

#100Romances: Secrets of a Summer Night + Thoughts on #RomanceNovelsforHillary

Today in my attempt to read my way through the masterpieces of the romance genre I land on SECRETS OF A SUMMER NIGHT by Lisa Kleypas. And oh my, what a week to be reading this book. Because in the case of Romance Novels vs. Hillary Clinton, Secrets of a Summer Night offers compelling evidence on both sides of that old, fraught question: are romance novels really feminist.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let me explain: this book popped up in my reading queue just as Romancelandia erupted over some disparaging remarks about romance novels Secretary Clinton made in a Washington Post interview. To wit:

 Source: Washington Post

Source: Washington Post

Lisa Kleypas, always a thoughtful advocate for the romance genre, pushed back against this cliched view of romance novels in an op-ed. Pointing out that Secretary Clinton herself resembles a romance heroine, she defended romance for its message of female empowerment and long history of condemning restrictions governing women's behavior and rights.

Romancelandia vociferously agreed with her, most notably in a passionate HuffPo piece well argued by Maya Rodale, who started a brilliant Twitter campaign urging readers to suggest #RomanceNovelsforHillary. Readers suggested hundreds of feminist romance novels about kick-ass nasty women who were told not to go after something and persisted nevertheless.

It was an exciting time to be on Twitter, as it always is when any ill-informed person makes the mistake of publicly condemning the feminist goals of the romance juggernaut by making outdated references to coercion on horseback.

However, reading this book during the kerfluffle, I could not help but think that we did not spend enough time engaging with a larger point that HRC was making, and one that deserves our attention. 

When she says that our culture shows us endless examples of "men who are aggressive to women who love it," she is not wrong.

Romance novels can be just as guilty of this as movies, television, video games and comic books. And not just the old timey horse-abduction ones.

Secrets.jpg

Ms. Kleypas did comment on this briefly, writing "It is never a romance novel if it condones or normalizes abuse or makes a woman less than she is." And in spirit, I am nodding along with her. But in practice, I am not convinced this claim holds up to scrutiny any more than HRC's reduction of the genre to women being thrown onto horses. 

Secrets of a Summer Night is a fascinating case study because it supports both arguments:

  • It lines up with HRC's point about our culture's romanticization of male aggression.
  • It also lines up with Ms. Kleypas' defense of the genre as one that interrogates and condemns the mistreatment of women. 

As with our culture, it is complicated. As with our culture, two opposing things can be true at once.

Set in Victorian England, Secrets of a Summer Night opens with a startling act of aggression. The hero and heroine, Simon Hunt and Annabelle Peyton, have just met in a line to buy tickets for a panorama show. Penniless Annabelle is short of funds and Simon, an incredibly wealthy and powerful industrialist, offers to loan her the money for a ticket. Despite misgivings about taking money from a stranger, Annabelle reluctantly accepts Simon's offer at her younger brother's urging. They go inside and as soon as the lights go out, Simon takes the opportunity of total darkness to abruptly, forcefully and intimately kiss Annabelle.

This is how Annabelle perceives the onslaught of Simon's kiss:

"She was too stunned to move, her hands in the air like butterflies suspended in midflight, her swaying body anchored by his light clasp on her waist, while his other hand cradled the back of her neck."

Reading this scene, my mind instantly flashed to another political figure: Donald Trump. In his infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" tape, he remarked on how he likes to kiss women without preamble or permission:
 

"You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait."

This is exactly what Simon Hunt does. And Annabelle, among other things, likes it. His embrace sets "her senses on fire." Awakened, she leans in for more.

To be clear, what happens in this scene is much more complicated and nuanced than one person being aggressive and the other person liking it.

Aside from being aroused, Annabelle is absolutely aware of the inappropriateness of Simon's act and is so shocked by it she initially can't move. By the time the lights come back on Simon has disappeared. She is left befuddled and ashamed by why she kissed him back rather than pushed him away.

This reads very realistically as a response to sexual aggression.

You can be physically aroused by something you did not invite or want. You can like a person who did something to you that you did not want. You can dislike a person with whom you had an intimate experience you enjoyed immensely.

In this case, Annabelle does not appreciate that Simon Hunt kissed her. But physically, she loves it.

The dynamic established in this scene charts the course for the rest of the book. Over and over, Simon acts aggressively, be it by ignoring propriety to be alone with Annabelle in ways that could harm her future, by harassing her to abandon her dreams of a proper marriage to become his mistress, and by making crude sexual double entendres about her body and his desire for her at every opportunity. Annabelle's responses range between being irritated to being deeply attracted.

But I think it is important to acknowledge that the book itself is making an argument. As readers, there is never any question that Simon's aggression is meant to be understood as alluring, not abusive.

We know this because Simon is rewarded for it. He is never required to learn a lesson or change his ways. Instead, he gets the girl.

We also know it because we are afforded glimpses of Simon's inner life. His acts of aggression are entwined with moments of incredible sweetness. He is by turns funny, protective, emotionally intuitive, very good in a crisis, and above all, nurturing. His best scenes are in the sickroom, when he deals with problems competently, discreetly, and with a touching eye for detail.

(For example, when Annabelle gets a snakebite walking in the country because she cannot afford appropriate footwear, he anonymously gifts her a pair of sturdy ankle boots. It is truly SO LOVELY of him.)

The romance arc of this book could therefore be reduced to a variation on Hillary Clinton's words: a man is very aggressive to a woman who loves HIM. 

It is not necessarily Simon's aggression that Annabelle loves, but Simon himself. Because Annabelle doesn't love this behavior from just anyone. 

Simon, the book argues, is permitted his aggression because he is The Right Kind of Man.

Similar behavior, when attempted by The Wrong Kind of Man, is a very different thing. We see this in the case of Lord Hodgeham.

Lord Hodgeham is another rude, rich, powerful and sexually aggressive male character who wants Annabelle to be his mistress. Lord Hodgeham's behavior mirrors Simon's. He catches Annabelle in several private locations and grabs at her. He comments on her body. He relentlessly tries to persuade her to sleep with him. 

One man is the hero and one man is the villain and yet they use similar means to go after the same thing: aggression.

The difference between Simon's behavior and Lord Hodgeham's, the text seems to argue, is the character of the men who exhibit it. Lord Hodgeham is old and corpulent and spits when he talks. Annabelle calls him a "swine". He makes her skin crawl. She has to push him off of her on several occasions. At the end of the book he attempts to sexually assault her mother, who has to stab him with scissors to fend him off.

He meets a bad end, and we rejoice, because he is a bad man.

A bad man who does many of the same things as the good one who gets the girl.

The implicit message here is that there are two kinds of sexually aggressive men: (1) handsome ones whose outward machismo is belied by their tenderness in the sickroom and skill in the bedroom; and (2) disgusting, vile, abusive ones whose predations are overture to far worse crimes.

The former might be a bit fresh but they make us weak in the knees and are worthy of our hand in marriage. The latter make us recoil in fear and disgust and deserve a sewing scissor to the shoulder blade.

When it comes to aggression, books like this one implicitly argue that character is the thing that matters. It is not the aggressive action we should judge, but the spirit and intentions of the man who deploys it to get what he wants.

The trouble with this way of thinking, as we are learning so painfully this year, is that the Lord Hodgehams of the world rarely conceive of themselves as one-dimensional villains.

The Simon Hunts don't always see they have acted badly by being aggressive, because our culture tells them the problem is not the aggression but the Lord Hodgehams.

And the Annabelles must deal with the aggression from the good Simons and the bad Lord Hodgehams either way.

The burden is on the Annabelles to process the aggression, decide where it falls on the continuum from sexy to predation. To navigate all this and hope to come out unscathed.

We have long ascribed to a myth that there are two forms of male aggression: aggression by villainous men who mean harm, and aggression by virtuous ones who don't.

What would be more restful for the Annabelles, you might argue, is to transfer the definition of morality onto the act itself rather than onto the soul of the actor.

To say that the aggression itself is the problem.

This tolerance of aggression among the seemingly well-intentioned is, I think, at the root of what Hillary Clinton was complaining about. And it is everywhere in our culture, not just in romance novels.

"It's very common," HRC said in her interview "for a man who is accused or confronted [with sexual assault or coercion] to say, 'Oh, I thought it was mutual. I thought that she was with me on this.'”

Rewrite a character like Simon Hunt for the year 2017 and a familiar type of man comes into view. One who thinks of himself as an ally to women, a feminist, a "good dude". One who repudiates men like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. Who probably owns a pussy hat.

And who, if he once or twice slept with a very junior employee or a really, really drunk girl, might have assumed it was fine because 'she seemed into it'. Or if, once or twice, he needled a date to hook up with him so relentlessly she ultimately gave in just to get him off her back, probably thought he was just successfully flirting.

He might even be one of those charmingish, rather nice guys most of us know who have mentioned feeling sickened at the outpouring of #metoo stories, because he sees himself reflected. Because for the first time, behavior that used to be open to interpretation - that used to be debatable depending upon one's intentions - is being redefined for what it is: aggression.

This is a long way of saying that I think Lisa Kleypas and Maya Rodale and Hillary Clinton are all absolutely right.

Hillary indeed has the kick-ass, fighting spirit of a romance heroine.

Romance novels are, indeed, at their best, incredibly feminist and empowering.

And romance novels do, indeed, at times reflect a society that has for centuries told itself a story about what a certain kind of man should be able to get away with.

One last word: I do not mean to pick on Simon Hunt or The Secrets of a Summer Night or Lisa Kleypas. This is just one example of millions, inside the romance canon and out.

Ms. Kleypas has written plenty of heroes who are PC-sensitivity gods as well as being hunky dreamboats, and this book was written in 2004. A lot has evolved in our understanding of these issues in the last thirteen days, let alone the last thirteen years.

Furthermore, the notion that male aggression can be sexy is a subject for a whole separate area of study. A quick glance at Goodreads shows that the prevailing opinion about Simon Hunt is not that he is transgressive but that he is dead sexy. And I am 100% at peace with that. 

I do not believe that romance novels need to be instruction manuals about how to live or that our fiction and fantasies need to policed. As one of my personal heroes, the marriage counselor and psychotherapist Esther Perel, recently said in an interview on Fresh Air:

"Eroticism is not always politically correct." 

But I think we need to acknowledge that more is going on in in the love story of Simon and Annabelle than a straightforward female empowerment narrative. Centuries of acculturation to male aggression are being reflected in her desire for Simon as well as her occasional frustration with his forcefulness. And this is not something to decry about romance novels.

It is something to look at closely in our culture and poke at and ask why is that, and what does it mean?

Romance can be and often is incredibly feminist. But that is not all it is. It's also a mirror of our fantasies and fears and power dynamics and biases and hopes and dreams, and those things are complicated.

In conclusion: Romance is complicated. That's what makes it powerful.

I am indulging in a brief hiatus of this project for the holidays so I will be back in January with thoughts on Julia Quinn's classic, "The Duke and I."

Until then feel free to air your thoughts on alpha male aggressions, feminism or the romance novels we should buy Hillary Rodham Clinton in the comments!

PREVIOUSLY IN #100ROMANCES: