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:
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any ill-informed person makes the mistake of publicly condemning the feminist goals of the romance juggernaut by making outdated references to coercion on horseback.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.
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:
Week 8: THE SERPENT GARDEN
Week 7: RAVISHED
Week 6: SLIGHTLY MARRIED
Week 4: TEXAS DESTINY
Week 3: OUTLANDER
Week 2: INDIGO
Week 1: LORD OF SCOUNDRELS