Scarlett Peckham

PURVEYOR OF HISTORICAL ROMANCE NOVELS

#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any ill-informed person makes the mistake of publicly condemning the feminist goals of the romance juggernaut by making outdated references to coercion on horseback.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!

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#100Romances: The Serpent Garden (is not actually a romance novel)

 Does this look like a romance novel? (Hint: NOPE.)

Does this look like a romance novel? (Hint: NOPE.)

Today's installment in my quest to read the most beloved romance novels of all time takes us on a weird detour to THE SERPENT GARDEN, a delightful work of Tudor-era historical fiction by the late, great Judith Merkle Riley. 

The Serpent Garden is a great book. But it is absolutely not a romance novel. 

The definition of the term "romance novel" can be controversial and confusing so before going any further let me define what I mean.  I tend to go by the Romance Writers of America definition: if it has "a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending," it's a romance novel.

Plenty of stories that don't LOOK like conventional romance novels actually ARE romance novels.

They don't even have to be books. For example, the foul-mouthed superhero movie Deadpool is 100% a romance novel. So is the freaky South Korean thriller The Handmaiden.

And plenty of stories that everyone thinks of as romantic are not actually romance novels.

It can be epic and star-crossed and squeeze your heartstrings with such violence you want to throw up, but if it ends badly, it ain't a romance.

Usually, when something is mis-classified as romance, it is because it fails the happyish-ending test. Think Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet - all great love stories, none of them romances.

But the Serpent Garden is not disqualified on the basis of its ending.

The problem is that its love story is not, to my way of thinking, central to the plot.

The story is mostly about Susanna Dallet, a young widow who, in trying to make a living by painting after the death of her husband, unwittingly finds herself at the center of a complex web of intrigue surrounding an apocryphal book of demonic secrets on which the fortunes of the royal courts of two countries, a battle between good and evil, and the outcome of an Opus-Dei like occultist conspiracy all ride.

Not that Susanna notices.

She's much more concerned with getting her colors right and not being exposed as the true artist behind a series of pseudo-pornographic religious paintings and finding clients who will actually advance her enough money to keep her household in vellum to realize that the future of two empires hinge on the raw material of her paintings.

Sure, yes, somewhere in there Susanna comes to rather likes this one fellow with sensitive eyes who comes to like her back. And sure, near the end of the book, after many misunderstandings and prolonged absences, they fall in love and marry. 

But that does not make this a romance novel.

What's confusing is that it is not in disguised as one either. 

Ms. Merkle Riley does not appear to have thought she was writing a romance novel. Her style is unmistakably literary - passages could be lifted and plopped wholesale directly into Wolf Hall and I doubt anyone would know the difference except Hilary Mantel. There are at least ten POV characters, whereas historical romances tend to have no more than three. There are no sex scenes. And it is much longer than your typical genre romance.

Sometimes, for the sake of amping up a book's potential commercial appeal, publishers will attempt to give the trappings of a romance novel to a book that is not really a romance novel. (See: the oeuvre of Curtis Sittenfeld.) But in this case, the cover boasts neither the pink of chick lit nor the pirate shirts and clenched embraces of historical romance. My copy has a Flemish-style portrait, exactly as you would expect from a work of historical fiction about a Flemish-style portraitist.

So is it the readers who have deemed this book a romance? And if so, why?

The most obvious answer would be that the romance arc is just SO GOOD that despite not being central it rises above the other aspects of the book and comes to define it.

But personally, I didn't find the love story particularly special.

Susanna's love interest, Robert Ashton, while a nuanced and sympathetic character, is not a particularly appealing romantic hero. He spends most of the book mistrusting Susanna for the mistaken belief that she conspired to kill her first husband. He is sulky and poor and slightly bad at his job, always getting himself sent away on long missions or getting lost at sea. He is not introduced until the second act of the book and is not around much, so our glimpses of his growing fondness for Susanna are few and far between. And when he does finally profess his love for her he prioritizes getting his boss' permission to marry her over putting a ring on it, to her consternation and, frankly, mine. (GET WITH THE PROGRAM, MASTER ASHTON.)

I really liked this book and would recommend it. It is droll and clever and full of interesting historical detail and wisecracking demons and great lines. It is kind of like Wolf Hall crossed with The Goldfinch

But a romance novel, it is not.

Next week we are back on solid ground with High Priestess of Historical Romance Lisa Kleypas' SECRETS OF A SUMMER NIGHT.

Until then, if you think The Serpent Garden actually *is* a romance novel, feel free to fight me in the comments. 

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#100Romances: RAVISHED + The timeless if dubious appeals of cave sex

Ravished.jpg

Now that Thanksgiving is over it is my great pleasure to return to our regularly scheduled spelunking through the ancient caves of romance. Today's book is RAVISHED, a regency romance by Amanda Quick from 1992 in which the heroine is deflowered in an underwater cave.

Yes, people: CAVE SEX. It's a thing.

If you think it's not a thing, consider the popularity of candlelit luxury hotels built into prehistoric grottos. Consider the enduring mystique of the "bonkers books about horny cave people" by Jean M. Auel. Consider that time the entire internet lost its mind over Jon Snow and Ygritte having cave sex on Game of Thrones. (I will pause here for the uninitiated to spend a few minutes with this precious cultural artifact It's ok. The heart wants what the heart wants. And apparently, the heart wants cave sex.)

Now I can already see you peering at me down your quizzing glass and saying "but Scarlett. This book is about a bluestocking spinster who falls in love with scarred and unfairly wronged man while solving the mystery of a smuggling ring and warding off the malign advances of no less than three dastardly villains! Why would you focus on this one, isolated incident of cave sex?"

To which I can only repeat: CAVE SEX.

What is it about caves that make them so compelling as a backdrop for our sexual imaginations?

One can only posit that a nostalgia burns deep in our troglodyte DNA. After all, prehistoric humanity dabbled in cave-dwelling, and ergo cave-mating, and in places like the Sassi di Matera, kept it up well into the 1950s. The walls of caves were also some of the earliest canvasses for erotic romance. Before there was Marquis de Sade, before there was Hugh Hefner, before there was Amanda Quick, there were the walls of La Marche.

But is cave sex actually appealing? 

Sure, caves are private and look cool in candlelight. But the are also uncomfortable, poorly lit, prone to tidal fooding and frequently smell of damp. They are filled with rock formations that could fall down on you, narrow openings that could leave you trapped. The same privacy that makes them appealing to covert lovers makes them appealing to drifters and packs of wolves. 

Which brings us to Ravished. For what I found very interesting about the cave sex in this book is that Ms. Quick is quite clear-eyed about all of these dangers. 

Allow me to set the scene, for it is a very good scene. Our heroine, a super-nerd named Harriet who is obsessed with fossils and a touch too-stupid-to-live has found herself, at the cusp of nightfall, at the mouth of a partially underwater cave just as the tide is coming in, pursuing a man she believes is endangering her paleontological dreams by using the cave as a hiding place for stolen goods. Yada yada yada, the tide rises and she gets trapped in the cave overnight with our hero, a man named Gideon who is, conveniently, dying of lust for her.

You read that right. It begins with CAVE FORCED PROXIMITY.

Can I get a YASS on the combination of those tropes? Never let it be said that Ms. Quick does not know what's up.

Anyway, given that virginal Harriet will be compromised by spending the night in a cave with a dissolute nobleman, and will have to marry him come morning, she and Gideon decide to go ahead and consummate their burning passion. The scene is set with all the attention to atmospheric detail one could want. We have glittering stolen jewels dancing in the light of a lantern. We have a pallet made from abandoned sacks and a blanket made from the hero's coat. We have the fiery furnace of Gideon's tawny gold gaze. We have what passes for enthusiastic affirmative consent in 1992. 

And then we get to the realities of the situation. 

You see, this book keeps it real about cave sex. And cave sex is maybe just a little bit unpleasant, you guys.

Especially virgin cave sex.

It is so bad, in fact, that Gideon pauses halfway through and is like "yeah, actually, maybe not." At Harriet's urging he continues anyway, but the scene concludes with this stirring excerpt, which is literally presented in the book without comment:

cavesex.jpg

Veteran romanceheads will recognize that this is a hilarious way to end a sex scene. Normally, after a heroine is deflowered in a carefully-constructed romantic mise-en-scene, she spends the next several paragraphs, if not pages, thinking to herself how transcendent it was, how it made her feel feelings she never imagined both inside and out, how the hero just remapped her entire body with the power of his intuitive bedroom skills and raw physicality.

Here, the chapter just...ends.

Later, after many more mutually enjoyable acts of copulation have taken place in beds, Harriet finally admits to Gideon that the cave sex was kind of just... all right. "It was not unpleasant," she assures him, in the time-honored feminine way of conveying something was in fact very unpleasant without hurting anyone's feelings. "One must make allowances for the uncomfortable bed we shared, I suppose. I do not imagine a rock floor conducive to lovemaking."

There you have it, folks. Rock floors. Not conducive to lovemaking.

To go back to the question that animates this project: what are we getting from our beloved romance novels? 

What conclusions can we draw from the presence of dispiriting cave sex within them?

In the case of Ravished we are getting the bells and whistles of sexy fantasy. And we are also getting the winking acknowledgment that some fantasies might be more comfortably left to the romance novels. At least unless you are willing to go to the trouble of bringing along an air mattress.

Next week I will finally be reading THE SERPENT GARDEN by Judith Merkle Riley, which will be our first foray into historical romance set before the 19th century.

Until then feel free to leave your own favorite examples of rock-adjacent erotic mishaps in the comments.

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