This Week In My Classes: A Study in Contrasts

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that teaching Lord of Scoundrels at the end of a term that has also included Bleak HouseAdam Bede, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a good way to bring home the truth of  Jennifer Crusie’s remark that a lot of great literature is really toxic to women. In romance fiction, as she points out, “you can have sex without dying horribly,” which is indeed, as she says, “a plus.”

Crusie isn’t the only person to emphasize this contrast between romance fiction and the parade of great novels in which women’s sexuality brings them shame, isolation, desperation, and even death, of course. In fact, the sex-positivity of romance is a recurrent theme in most of the books I’ve read about the genre, or at least in those that are as much (or more) about advocacy as about analysis. Here’s Sarah Wendell, for instance, in Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels:

One of the more empowering and, in my never-humble opinion, awesomely excellent things about sex in romance is that the woman is not punished or ultimately harmed for being curious or even assertive about her sexual needs. Even in the Old Skool days of forced seductions and other questionable scenes, the wages of sex were not death, ostracism, misery, poverty, and complete moral turpitude. Getting some didn’t mean giving yourself away — and it didn’t mean you were done for once you did the deed.

And here’s Maya Rodale in her Dangerous Books for Girls:

Romance novels came to provide a safe place for women to explore their desires, free from the risk of rape, guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, unplanned pregnancy, or regret. In contrast to so many other depictions of sex, from literature to porn to movies, romance novels are completely and unabashedly focused on the woman’s feelings and pleasure. And, most revolutionarily of all, romance heroines can enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.

These generalizations certainly wouldn’t hold up for all examples of a genre that goes back as far and ranges as widely as romance, and I think there are also some problems with arguments about romance that focus too much on sex — as if there’s no HEA for people who are asexual, for instance, or no such thing as sexual trauma that might complicate that “unabashed” focus on pleasure. Still, after following the tribulations of yet another tragic woman who learns that “the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings” — after Lady Dedlock’s forlorn fate, and Hetty’s wanderings, and now Tess’s catastrophes, it is a breath of fresh air to turn to Jessica and Dain. As Jess tells her appreciative grandmother after their first reckless, swoon-worthy kiss,

“If we had not been struck by lightning — or very nearly — I should be utterly ruined. Against a lamppost. On the Rue de Provence. And the horrible part is . . . I wish I had been.”

After Jessica and Dain are caught passionately embracing in the garden during Lady Wallingdon’s party, “though her face heated at the recollection, she refused to feel ashamed at what she’d done.” It’s not that Chase ignores the potential for scandal and worse from such a compromising event, but she writes her heroine out of the trap her desire has landed her in, and Jessica’s HEA builds on, rather than overcomes, her “unabashed” hunger for and pleasure in Dain’s “big and dark and beautiful body.”

And yet, while the overt and (ultimately) happy sexiness of Lord of Scoundrels is indeed “awesomely excellent,” it’s not entirely fair to set up modern romance fiction as the positive alternative to punishing Victorian fiction, which I think can actually be quite “sex positive,” albeit usually in a much more subtle, and sometimes perverse, way. For one thing, the women who pay such a high price for breaking society’s rules are very often portrayed as victims: the novelists direct our disapprobation not against them but against the world that treats them so cruelly for something so understandable or natural. Lady Dedlock should not have died cold and alone reaching for her lover’s grave: all the moral and emotional force of Bleak House is directed against that outcome. It’s true that the implication may still be that she has sinned, but she deserves to be forgiven and brought back into the loving embrace of her long-lost daughter, our moral exemplar. Eliot and Hardy make it particularly clear that their “erring” heroines are participating (more or less willingly, of course) in a natural process made shameful and dangerous by social codes, not because it is intrinsically wrong. If only some reconciliation could be made between flesh and spirit, between nature and law — so much shame and fear and violence could be avoided!

Still, these ruined women provide vivid and memorable (and sometimes uncomfortably aestheticized) spectacles of the price of unauthorized sexuality, so my case for the defense rests more on the importance placed on sexual attraction for the happy endings 19th-century novels do themselves provide. Over and over, after all, the unsexy match is rejected in favor of the one that promises that the heroine will “enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.” Think of Mr. Collins, Mr. Boarham, Mr. Casaubon, St. John Rivers, Seth Bede, Philip Wakem, Mr. Phillotson … there’s a long parade of obviously unsuitable suitors. Think, too, of the blushing (Dinah with Adam), the racing pulses (Anne Elliot with Captain Wentworth), the sweating horses (Stephen Guest visiting Maggie), the fixated gaze (Mr. Thornton and Margaret), the nearby lightning strike (Will and Dorothea) … so many signs in so many cases that the right match is the exciting one, that the happy ending (if it can be achieved) brings the promise of sexual satisfaction, if safely within the (constantly tested and expanded) boundaries of social acceptability.

I realize that these examples of HEAs based on sex that is socially safe could be seen as missing the point — outside that boundary, after all, is still all that same old “guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, … [and] regret.” I guess I just want to complicate the implication of the romance advocates that we had to wait for romance fiction to open up a space for acknowledging, imagining, depicting, or even celebrating women’s sexuality. It’s not as if there aren’t bad examples in romance fiction too, after all, and even more to the point, it’s not as if it only counts as positive if the sexual aspect is made explicit. Romance heroines also still have to find a way, a place, to live in their world: it’s not as if the space they create for all that sexual assertion and exploration is outside society.

That doesn’t mean Lord of Scoundrels isn’t still refreshing, though, in both its frankness and its fun. “If you think I could not . . . make you eat out of my hand, if that’s what I wanted,” says Jessica to her obstreperous new husband, who so far has shied away from actually making love to her, “I recommend you think again, Beelzebub.” “I should like to see you try,” he responds — and by that point, so would we all.

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6 Responses to This Week In My Classes: A Study in Contrasts

  1. Katy says:

    I like the idea of teaching a romance novel as a way to contextualize Victorian lit. I agree with you, though, that it’s hard to see historical romance novels as any kind of antidote to the slut-shaming, etc. of Victorian novels, except in the sense that our age is (to a degree) an antidote to the Victorian era. Because the heroines of these romances set in the Victorian era aren’t really Victorians, they’re modern-day heroines with a few Victorian trappings. The internal conflict, the religious guilt, all the social and psychological consequences of transgressive behavior, just aren’t there. Which means (as you point out) that the genuine celebration of women’s sexuality and women’s choice that you do see in Victorian novels has a lot more value than the anachronisms of historical romance. Jane Eyre, for instance, hesitating outside Mr. Rochester’s door, is having an entirely realistic struggle between desire and a combination of conscience and self-preservation, and it’s a struggle that I doubt the heroine of Lord of Scoundrels could fully understand.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      This is a very thought-provoking comment – thank you.

      You seem to assume that no historical novel (romance or not) can avoid a kind of self-defeating or undermining level of anachronism. It is always true, of course, that historical fiction represents an interaction between the present and the past — between present perspectives and what we know (or think we know) about the past. I’m not going to argue that there aren’t plenty of romance or historical novels that do offer up characters whose sensibilities are essentially and anachronistically modern. But I don’t see why you think you can understand and explain Jane Eyre’s struggle between desire and conscience but a historical novelist couldn’t have a similar idea about what’s “realistic” for the time period and incorporate it into her fiction if that was a priority. The heroine of Lord of Scoundrels is as made up as Jane, after all: what goes into her point of view is determined by what her author puts there. (A small point is that she’s not actually a Victorian heroine, chronologically.) Perhaps you are just assuming that romance novelists don’t put that level of thought or research into their historical reconstructions — but that hardly seems like a fair assumption. I think Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm might be a more interesting test case for this than Lord of Scoundrels, actually.

      A further complication is taking our idea about what is “realistic” from fiction. We know that in the 19th century people’s sexual desires and sex lives (since that’s what we’re talking about here) had many dimensions that could not be represented in “polite” fiction. Is it anachronistic to write fiction about the period that isn’t similarly constrained?

      I’m not actually teaching these books in the same class, though the juxtaposition has certainly made me wonder about how or when I might be able to give that a try.

  2. Katy says:

    Thanks for your response. I’m kind of embarrassed by my post now. I’m sorry if I seemed to be claiming more knowledge than I actually have. My knowledge of historical romance doesn’t go very far. And you’re right, I was throwing around “Victorian” without thinking too much about whether I was consistently talking about that period.

    As for whether I’m better at interpreting what it was like to be a Victorian than a modern romance novelist – I don’t think I am. But I do think that a modern-day romance novelist (and again, my knowledge of this subject is pretty limited) is constrained by his or her audience to minimize considerations that would have been of overwhelming importance in the time that he or she is writing about. Of course fiction is fiction, regardless of the time period, and Victorians weren’t a homogeneous group that all thought and acted the same. But there’s one thing that I get from reading Victorian novelists that I’ve never gotten from historicals, and that is a sense of how completely people internalized Victorian ideas of morality, and how much guilt could accompany any effort to defy them.

    I’m thinking of the bit in Gwen Raverat’s memoir Period Piece where she writes about the strange rules and hypocrisies that governed propriety during her childhood, “For nearly seventy years the English middle classes were locked up in a great fortress of unreality and pretence; and no one who has not been brought up inside the fortress can guess how thick the walls were, or how little of the sky outside could be seen through the loopholes.”
    I feel (and again, this is just my instinctive sense) that the only way for modern-day romance novels to be “sex-positive,” in a way that modern-day readers can recognize, is by thinning the walls of the fortress.

    I agree – still thinking things out here – that it’s important to think about the things that couldn’t be written about in Victorian literature. And I agree that it can be valuable to do that in literature. But only if you’re writing in a genre that allows negative as well as positive consequences to socially risky behavior, and only if you don’t automatically see negative consequences as a sign that the author is punishing the character. I don’t really know enough about historical romance novels to know if that’s true of them.

    It’s not, honestly, that I want every historical I read to be like The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I’d much rather read a cheesy romance where everything ends happily. I just find it hard to see historical romances as sex-positive in a really meaningful way. But I also recognize that I’m generalizing about a genre that I haven’t read in depth, so if you have suggestions for reading, I’d love to hear them.

    Sorry about the long post, and I hope it didn’t come across as combative. I feel like my writing for some reason has a tinge of “WELL, ACTUALLY” about it, and I don’t mean it to – this is just how I sound.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      No worries – I too am just thinking these questions through. I feel constrained somewhat because so much of what I (think I) know about 19th-century sexuality actually comes from the period’s fiction, not from historical or (auto)biographical sources. I do think, though, that it was possible not to be consumed by shame about sexuality IRL — for instance, one life I do know something about is George Eliot’s, and while she certainly suffered from those same judgmental attitudes, still she had more than one sexual relationship outside of legal marriage including one that lasted over two decades and seems to have been sexually very satisfactory. One place I go when I want to review some of the ways historians of sexuality talk about the period is Lesley Hall’s website:

      http://www.lesleyahall.net/sexvict.htm

      I think you’re right that romance fiction may be constrained in some ways from whatever the complicated realities of the 19thC were by the necessity of the “HEA” as a convention of the genre. In Lord of Scoundrels, there’s a scene in which our lovers are discovered passionately embracing and the likelihood that this will ruin the woman is a key plot point — but she brazens her way out of it in a fairly delightful but perhaps not very plausible way. She also has a conveniently shocking and liberated grandmother (representing the greater license of an earlier era) who is given credit for her unusually frank and happy attitude towards sex. Historical realities are recognized but not allowed to work as limitations, if that makes sense. It’s a form of fantasy, in that respect. But particulars really do vary a lot, even within the “things have to work out happily” rule. I mentioned Flowers from the Storm and I’ve also been thinking about Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened as another one that doesn’t blithely assume people “back then” thought about sex the same way we do, but works hard to recognize moral and other struggles.

      Still, I do often find myself wondering with some of the sexier kinds of historical romances today just how far beyond the bounds of realism it is to have well bred, unmarried women have quite so much (and quite such good) sex — in carriages, in gambling hells, in secluded alcoves outside ballrooms, etc. My original point was more that given the parade of miserable women in classic novels, suffering for daring to be sexual beings, it is a welcome change (however unrealistic) to be in a fictional world where it’s OK. That is clearly about us (or me, anyway), not about them: it’s not about historical accuracy but about what we (I), today, might want to read, at least some of the time.

      I know that romance writers themselves think about this quite a lot. Mary Balogh has a blog post about whether historical romances have gotten too sexy, and Maya Rodale has blogged about it too. I expect other people who are better read in romance (or about it) could point us both to some other discussions of how to balance a modern interest in representing women’s sexuality positively with the demands of historical realism.

  3. I’m not sure that historical romances are particularly sex positive – the heroine will either be a virgin having sex with the man she loves and will marry, which is acceptable, but there will be no significant messing around with anyone else. When there have been other men before the hero it generally seems to be a single other man, who will either have raped or abused her, been a much older and generally sexually unsatisfactory husband (however kind he may have been in other respects) or a youthful infatuation who has since died, though again he won’t have had any of the sexual skills of the hero. When a woman is sexually experienced to the point that she’s had a variety of satisfactory lovers she invariably seems to be a villainess intent on the downfall of the heroine.

    Reading Victorian fiction, and looking at those paintings that suggest you’ll end up dead in the river if you transgress always suggested to me that while this undoubtedly did happen, women and society were continually warned that it would happen because quite often it didn’t.

    the message still seems to me to be much the same – You might be able to have sex without dying horribly, but not with too many people if you want your HEA. I guess as the HEA invariably means marriage and probably children sex without commitment/love remains something for mercenary whores, not nice girls.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I don’t think that to be “sex positive” the novels have to completely overwhelm the negative aspects of the historical setting — wouldn’t a world in which anything goes, sexually, really be a problem for whatever degree of realism is aimed at? I guess I just meant something more limited: within historical constraints (and sometimes, to a point, pushing well against them), some historical romances, like Lord of Scoundrels, happily embrace sexual pleasure as a desirable and acceptable part of their heroines’ lives, and that’s a nice change from the relentless-seeming gloom and doom of novels like Tess.

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