A Romantic Interlude – with Ruminations

dare-scotI’ve just finished two Scottish-themed romance novels — Sarah MacLean’s A Scot in the Dark and Tessa Dare’s When a Scot Ties the Knot — and they have enough similarities that the juxtaposition has provoked me to figure out why I enjoyed one so much more than the other, a question that quickly expanded, in my mind, to the more general question of why some romance novels work for me and others just don’t, including novels by the same authors. Of these two, for instance, I much preferred Dare’s, though I really enjoyed The Rogue Not Taken, the previous novel in MacLean’s “Scandal & Scoundrel” series, and I liked but didn’t love Dare’s most recent novel, Do You Want to Start a Scandal.

As so often when I ruminate on romance fiction, I ended up thinking that somehow things get more personal more quickly in this genre than in others, meaning not just that my romance preferences are about my personal taste but that my taste in romance writing is hard to separate from my feelings and beliefs about relationships — which in turn are likely to be influenced not just by principle but also by my personal experience. For me, these factors affect my reading habits as well as my evaluative judgments for romances in ways they don’t for, say, mysteries.

maclean-scotFor instance, I have mentioned before that I don’t always read right to the end of the HEA. This is partly because while I can enjoy the development of a romantic relationship, especially when it involves witty sparring and plenty of sexual tension, I don’t find unmitigated happiness (which is where, of course, romance novels always end up, sooner or later) that dramatically interesting. But it’s also because I don’t really believe marriage itself is necessarily a particularly blissful state. For both of these reasons, the rosier things get for the protagonists, the more disengaged I become from their novel. Thus I usually prefer romances that defer the protagonists’ happiness until the end of the novel, or very nearly. In a lot of Georgette Heyer’s novels, for example, hero and heroine don’t come joyfully together until pretty much the last page. That keeps things interesting! Our attention then is also less on how delightful they find each other and more on their learning about each other, and / or on wondering how they will ever discover how delightful they are to each other, or on how they will overcome the personal or social obstacles keeping them apart.

baloghI also often find with more recent romances that the protagonists get intimately sexy too soon and too often for my taste. I don’t think this means I’m prudish! No doubt it’s partly the result of many years spent reading Victorian novels, which are full of erotic undercurrents but have vanishingly few explicitly sexual moments. When feelings (and body parts) are usually kept covered, it’s that much more exciting when you finally get a glimpse! As well, I don’t think lust and love are the same thing, and sometimes — including in A Scot in the Dark — they get too quickly conflated. I suppose this is a variation on my preference for deferring their happiness, and it’s also about the sacrifice of tension involved. (I think there may also be some problems with realism — but I’m really not an expert on sexual mores during the Regency, so I may be quite wrong about what well bred men and young, “respectable,” unmarried women would get up to in their carriages without anxiety, shame, or repercussions.)

milan-countessA specific romance-reading preference of mine that I know is about me more than about the novels is that I have a fondness for bluestocking heroines, or at least ones with an intellectual passion, who have a lot more on their minds than romance. I love Dare’s A Week to be Wicked and Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy for this reason, and of course my favorite romance of all — so far — is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. Madeline in When a Scot Ties the Knot, with her passion for illustrating natural history, is a good addition to this collection. I also prefer more mature heroines, and I have a fondness for prickly ones, like Claudia Martin in Mary Balogh’s Simply Perfect. I find ingenues annoying and get bored easily by heroines who are too nice. It’s not hard to see that I appreciate romance novels that show women at least somewhat like me as lovable!

I find it interesting that I consciously reject such personal standards for most other kinds of books. For example, I have very little in common (I think!) with Dorothea Brooke, or with Becky Sharp or Esther Summerson (I hope!), though I love and admire their novels greatly, and I am quick to caution students against valuing literary characters more highly because they are more “relatable.” Am I being implicitly condescending towards romance fiction when I pick and choose favorites on these grounds? Or is it in the nature of a genre based on fantasies of intimate feelings (rather than, say, lessons in otherness and alienation) to offer more satisfaction when you can imagine yourself in it a bit more easily? There are good reasons to diversify one’s romance reading — but should “heroine type” one of the ways? It matters, I suppose, whether you are reading something “just for fun” or for other reasons, but I read plenty of fiction for no reason except my own interest and amusement, and romance is the only kind that affects me (or that I approach) in quite this way.

Learning to Read (Romance)

kinsaleThe other day while idly browsing the ever-changing array of titles on ‘special’ at Kobo, I happened across Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm for only $1.99. Not long ago, the same thing happened with Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. What serendipity — two of my favorite romances! The alacrity with which I snapped up both titles (hooray – no more waiting for library copies) was a reminder of how much has changed for me since my first forays into reading romance.

I’ve written here before about my early adventures in reading romance novels. One thing I’ve learned since that first post is how annoying such pieces about “discovering” that romance fiction is not trash are to long-time romance readers, and fair enough: what other genre, after all, prompts confessional conversion narratives of this kind, as if elaborate excuses and self-justifications are needed for enjoying them? Of course, there is something unique about the disdain in which romance fiction is held, as my own experience since then has frequently reminded me, but I get, now, why this oft-told tale gets old — and it’s not (or not exactly) what I wanted to write about this time. Instead, I want to have a go at answering the more specific question Jackie Horne (of the blog Romance Novels for Feminists) asked in a comment on my review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved. “I remember reading your initial rather negative thoughts on LORD OF SCOUNDRELS,” she wrote; “what made you change your mind about it?”

I suppose the answer is a subset of the larger “learning to love romance” narrative, but I’ve been thinking that it’s also about reading more generally. I often remark in my classes that we need to learn how to read particular kinds of texts well, whether they are Shakespearean sonnets or Victorian multiplot novels. Whether we manage to do so depends on both our willingness (something the coercive aspects of literature classes takes care of, more or less, but which outside of that context is usually up to us) and on our ability — on our access to information about and models of better reading, including the conventions and tropes and forms that provide the internal logic and the governing standards for the genre. Our success also depends on the expectations we bring with us, and whether we can revise or even discard them if we realize they don’t fit the reading at hand. And it also depends on our motivation: sometimes it just won’t seem worth it, and really, most of the time there’s nothing wrong with that.

lighthouseoupI have read some things badly that I know I could learn to read better — Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, for instance, or more recently, To the Lighthouse. One of these I don’t expect to try again, though I might surprise myself; the other I hope to grow into. There are some books I haven’t even tried because I imagine (wrongly, perhaps) that I would be unable to read them well without a lot of support — Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance. There are whole genres I haven’t learned to read yet: science fiction, for example, which I would like to read some day, and horror, which I am entirely unmotivated to explore. These are just personal decisions, not absolute judgments of any kind; they are based on my own inclinations, taste, and priorities. It’s not always up to me, and when I have to figure out how to read something well, for professional or reviewing purposes, I pretty much buckle down and get it done — or at least I figure out a way to read it that makes sense to me.

crusieFor me, romance is an interesting in-between case. I had no external obligation to get anywhere with it. But my curiosity was roused by following discussions about it among other readers who clearly enjoyed it and found interesting things to say about it. I think what stood out the most is how often they talked about reading romance in terms of pleasure — which is not to say the conversations didn’t get critical, or didn’t address complicated topics. But it seemed like for a lot of people reading romance (and talking about it together) was really fun, and that was enticing. Given that my early experiments in the genre were not very successful, I might not have tried again, FOMO notwithstanding, if it weren’t for those other readers both challenging and encouraging me — and finding, before I’d soured on the project, some romances that were easy for me to like. That line crossed, I pretty rapidly got better at reading in the genre. This is not to say I have any special insights about it: just that I have acquired a reasonable working awareness of important conventions and styles. Because I’ve also now done some reading about romance, and have followed and even contributed to a lot of informal and formal discussions about it, I also have a decent, if still somewhat superficial, understanding of the history of and cross-currents within the genre. I don’t like every romance novel I try any more than I like every mystery novel I pick up, but in both cases I feel equipped to read them, if that makes sense.

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsGetting back to Lord of Scoundrels, the problem I had with it at first is that I thought it was ridiculous: melodramatic, overwritten, heavy-handed. I still think it is some of these things, some of the time — but I experience them quite differently: as playful, as tongue-in-cheek, as intertextual, as sexy. Now I enjoy the novel’s wit in a way I couldn’t before, because then I was too distracted by my initial negative reactions; now I appreciate its strong-minded heroine, not just on her own merits but because I have met more of her literary sisters. I can’t remember exactly the sequence that brought me back to Lord of Scoundrels in a more receptive frame of mind: my 2012 progress report notes that “I have yet to read a ‘historical’ that I really like” and mentions Heyer’s Sylvester in particular as a failure — and Sylvester, too, is now a favorite, though not nearly as much as Venetia or Devil’s Cub. (Jessica and Mary Challoner would get along just fine: they could compare notes on the beneficial effects of shooting alpha males in the shoulder — a link between the novels that I’m sure Chase makes quite deliberately.)

It turns out that my answer to Jackie’s question can’t be very specific after all. All I know for sure is that once I mocked Lord of Scoundrels, while now I thoroughly enjoy it. Somehow, in the intervening years, I learned how to read it…and next term I hope to teach 90 first-year students how to read it (and enjoy it) too!

Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

new-austenI feel as if I should begin with a disclaimer: this post is just a preliminary attempt to sort something out for myself that I am sure has been discussed a lot already! I know it’s not a new question, but it is a new one for me to be thinking carefully about — and that’s what my blog is for, not for presenting absolutely finished position papers but for exploration. So don’t jump on me if, for you, this is old news or already a settled question! Instead, tell me what you think, since one thing I’m hoping will come from writing a little about this question here is that I’ll get some leads and ideas for how to think about it better, or where to read more about it.

I’m puzzling over whether Austen is a “romance novelist” (and I’m going to keep the scare quotes, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit) because I’ve begun doing research in preparation for the romance unit in next year’s Pulp Fiction class (another disclaimer: it’s just a first-year writing class organized around a fairly imprecise definition of “pulp,” so I’m not going to get very ambitious about the theoretical or critical grounding — I just need to sort out some terms and frameworks for talking about our one or two readings in the genre).*

One much-cited scholarly work in this field is Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), so that’s one of the first ones I took out of the library to read. It’s generally very helpful, and it’s also thought-provoking, for its tone as much as its argument. It is certainly less rah-rah than some of the more fannish books I’ve peered at about the genre (such as Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (very ably reviewed at Open Letters by Jessica Miller). It still differs from most academic criticism I’ve read, though, in being very openly a work of advocacy: it includes a chapter called “In Defense of the Romance Novel,” for instance; it declares that its purpose is not just to historicize or analyze the genre but to “refute” negative critical perspectives on it; and it includes many celebratory claims on behalf of romance fiction — just for example, “the romance novel is … about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

RegisNot that there’s anything wrong with that! Lots of (maybe even most) critical work is at least implicitly advocating on behalf of its specific topic — whether for its underestimated importance to literary history or for its political efficacy or for a right understanding of its aesthetic properties. Romance is a special case, too: as pretty much everyone I’ve read who writes about romance says at some point, it seems to call for overt special pleading simply because it is so routinely dismissed and its readers and writers so routinely shamed. If Regis seems at times to protest too much, it’s probably just that she knew her choice of subject would be met with skepticism, if not derision, and not just by her academic colleagues. (I expect that more recent scholarship is less defensive, as genre fiction and popular culture more generally have become increasingly familiar parts of the academic landscape. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz’s collection New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, which came out in 2012, is also on my reading list; I’ll be curious to see if I’m right that the tone has changed.)

Regis’s book is built on a particular (but also very general) definition of romance novels: “a romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” She expands on that definition by offering a specific list of structural features — “the eight essential elements of the romance novel” — including “the meeting between heroine and hero,” “the barrier to the union of heroine and hero,” and “the betrothal.” Then, using this definition, she tells a history of the romance novel (as she has defined it) through exemplary texts, starting with Pamela then going through Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreFramley Parsonage, and A Room with a View. It’s not until Chapter 12 that she turns to what she calls “the popular romance novel” — to, that is, all of the books I think most people actually mean when they use the term “romance novel.”

At the end of her discussion of A Room with a View, Regis comments that “it would be [Forster’s] only romance novel.” In a way, then, I could just well have called this post “Is E. M. Forster a ‘Romance Novelist?'” (or Bronte or Trollope or Richardson). As far as I’ve seen, though, it’s really just Austen among these canonical authors who comes up repeatedly in the romance context, and it’s Pride and Prejudice that Regis uses to illustrate her outline of the “eight essential elements.” So I’ll stick with her as a test case for how or whether we want to define “romance novel” as broadly as Regis does.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinRegis is completely right that by her definition, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel. But here’s the thing: to me, that suggests she’s using the wrong definition. First of all, it’s too broad to be interesting (even her list of canonical “romances” hardly seems to hang together in a meaningful way, outside a very bare skeletal similarity). It also seems anachronistic, in the same way that calling The Moonstone a “mystery” does: there wasn’t really such a category at the time (that’s not really the kind of book Collins himself thought he was writing), and applying our current terms so absolutely means losing sight of the genealogy of our modern genres. Books can be closely related in kind (or, as Regis sets it up, in structure) with being the same kind exactly.

These are already debatable objections, of course: labels are always more or less arbitrary, and we redefine and recategorize things all the time based on new theories and approaches. So here’s another reason I don’t think I like Regis’s approach: I think that insisting that Austen writes “romance novels” indistinguishable in kind from today’s “popular” examples has inapt and potentially unwelcome consequences. For one thing, if this means that Austen and, say, Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase are doing the same thing, it seems to me to follow that Austen is doing it better (because much as I like Lord of Scoundrels, if it’s really an apples to apples comparison, I’d certainly consider Pride and Prejudice the better novel). Georgette Heyer? Fun, but not as artful or incisive or thematically rich as Austen. Balogh? Don’t even try. Lump them all in together, that is, and a hierarchy emerges that’s almost inevitably to the disadvantage of all the not-Austens.

Regis herself would disagree, I think — and others no doubt would too — that we can or should differentiate on the basis of literary merit in quite this way. Some would disavow the whole notion of literary merit, in fact, but Regis seems happy enough making evaluative claims. In her chapter on defining the romance novel, she uses Katherine Gilles Seidel’s Again as an exemplary case alongside Pride and Prejudice, claiming that it is a “complex, formally accomplished, vital romance novel” that makes nonsense of the idea that popular romances are just “hack work”:

Seidel incorporates the eight essential elements of romance, and two of the three incidental ones, in a manner so masterful that it leaves no doubt as to the vitality of the form in contemporary hands.

“Masterful,” no less! I’m only a couple of chapters into Again (which I dutifully rushed out to get), so I can’t be sure, but if it’s anywhere near as good a novel (qua novel) as Pride and Prejudice, I haven’t seen the signs, even though I’m enjoying it fine so far — which is exactly why my intuition is that Regis is coming at this question in the wrong way. We have to be able to acknowledge the differences on terms that don’t set contemporary romance novels up for failure.

scoundrelsAlternatively, you could argue (as I have seen done) that romance, like all genres, comes in both “high” and “low” — or literary and popular — versions.** There’s still a kind of hierarchy, but now you’re separating out those who “transcend the genre” (to use the phrase Ian Rankin hates when applied to crime fiction) from those who happily take their place within it. No direct comparisons are called for, then, and Heyer or Chase (or choose your preferred exemplars) get considered more or less on their own terms. I still think the larger category (the one being subdivided into high and low forms) conflates too many different kinds of things, and the end result can be condescending — it implies, or could, that the serious stuff is going on in some sense over the heads of both readers and writers of the popular incarnations of the genre, or that those who really take themselves and their work seriously will aim at that transcendent kind. But at least this approach doesn’t pretend all novels organized around love and marriage are the same kind of books.

I can see that, strategically, it serves Regis well to define the “romance novel” so that she can include Austen. That way the aura of Austen’s literary prestige can be shared with the popular writers who are the ones who actually need defending. (There may be some circles in which Austen is still shrugged off as a trivial miniaturist, but her iconic cultural status is surely beyond doubt.) But it could just as well backfire if it sets up the wrong expectations: yes, the plot structure of a contemporary popular romance is likely to resemble that of Pride and Prejudice, but if you expect to be reading the next Jane Austen, aren’t you almost certain to be disappointed? Maybe another way to think about it is that Austen is not celebrated because of how she incorporates the eight essential elements of romance (never mind the many “incidental” ones) but for other reasons, and so what Regis is doing is not thoroughly defining a category but encouraging a vast category error. Instead, wouldn’t her defense be more convincing if her definition were narrower — if it were based, not on 18th- or 19th-century marriage plot novels but on, well, actual “romance novels”?

Ay, there’s the rub, though, right? Because how do you define them? Where do you draw the lines? I sometimes say to students in my mystery class that genres and subgenres are themselves fictions, but useful ones, and that while it’s true you can’t perfectly define them, often enough you know them when you’re reading them. I think, too, that with the popular genres we’re familiar with today, while it may be difficult to pinpoint their exact beginnings, eventually the time comes when it is possible for someone to say “I’m going to write a detective novel” (or, even more specifically, a police procedural, or a feminist revision of hard-boiled detective fiction) because that is now a recognizable literary form, with a tradition and conventions of its own. Similarly, just because the margins around a genre are fuzzy doesn’t mean there’s no center. As Regis points out, “formulaic” is usually a pejorative term but all fiction is in fact driven to some extent by formulas; works that clearly belong to a particular genre just embrace and employ them in a more conspicuous way. Though intention is a tricky business, I might go so far as to say that what we now call “genre fiction” is defined by precisely that kind of knowingness on the author’s part (which is also an invitation to the knowing reader): this is the game I’m playing, I know the rules, I use or subvert them at my will, this game board is where I feel at home, my teachers and role models are the ones who showed me how it’s done so that now I can do it my way.

So by my definition, Jane Austen is not a “romance novelist.” Pride and Prejudice definitely has a crucial place in the history of the romance novel (as The Moonstone does in the history of the detective novel), but it’s part of the genre’s origin story, and that’s not what we’re talking about today when we talk about “romance novels.”

Or at least, that’s what I think so far! Now I feel that I may have taken a long time to say something nobody else will find surprising or controversial at all — but we all have to work through things on our own when we’re learning, right?

*Can you tell from these disclaimers that I have learned just how engaged, informed, and opinionated many romance readers and writers are?

**A belated additional point: Also, one era’s “popular” version may well become a later era’s “classic” or literary version (cue obligatory Shakespeare reference).

Weekend Miscellany: Reading and Watching

SweetDisorderIt’s a busy time at work, with papers and midterms piling up a bit, so it’s still a bit quiet over here at Novel Readings.

I have been doing some extra-curricular reading, but the serious stuff has been for reviews, which I don’t usually anticipate with commentary here. I’ve been filling in the interstices with some light reading, mostly romances. I’ve been trying out some more recent “historicals” to see if I can find more writers among the many, many there are to chose from that I can reliably enjoy. I have had pretty mixed success with historicals up to now: a lot of them seem really thin and formulaic, and only a few authors so far (notably Cecilia Grant and, sometimes, Loretta Chase) have become personal favorites. I read Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder and quite liked it (I’d read her In For  a Penny before, and liked it too). Then, encouraged by having mostly liked My American Duchess, I also read another of Eloisa James’s, Any Duchess Will Do, and I enjoyed it as well, enough that I’ll probably keep poking around in her vast back catalog. Both of these books, however, did add to my sense that, for me, the pacing, or maybe the balance, is off in a lot of modern romance novels: when the hero and heroine have sex fairly early on, instead of as the culmination of their developing relationship, the book becomes (again, for me) too much about their lusty goings-on and the romantic tension is lost. Other forms of angst are typically introduced, something to tear them apart before they can finally have it all, but I usually find that angsty part tedious and the final resolution belated. This is one reason I often skim the last third of these books: the fun part seems to be over before then. In contrast, I just reread Heyer’s Venetia and it seemed to me perfectly balanced: just sexy enough, just tense and surprising enough, and just charming enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

longviewThe “literary” book I’ve been reading “for fun” is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, which I bought after my book club read and enjoyed The Beautiful Visit and, in the same week, Hilary Mantel coincidentally published a persuasive essay about Howard in which she singled out The Long View as exceptional. It is very good of its kind, I think, and yet I am bogged down about half way through it because right now that “kind” feels claustrophobic. It’s an emotionally intense, scrupulously nuanced examination of an unhappy marriage — well, it’s unhappy when the novel begins, but because of the novel’s ingenious backwards-chronological structure, the relationship is building towards happier beginnings. Howard’s prose is wonderful and the psychological, social, and sexual complications of the couple’s life together are exquisitely, if painfully, drawn, but the novel feels airless to me: it doesn’t seem to be offering me any sense of the broader view of their life — of its impersonal contexts. The novel feels too personal, too minute, and it makes me restless for a narrative, or a narrator, that looks around and draws connections between these small complicated lives and the bigger world they’re set in. I may be missing ways in which Howard’s subtleties do exactly that, and of course since I’m not finished the novel yet, I can’t say whether things change in it, either. But my boredom (shocking! but true) with the novel got me thinking about the books that have really excited me lately and they have tended to be books with wider scope, often (though not always) historical: Dunnett’s King Hereafter, Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Is it because I already live a narrowly personal existence (and spend enough time scrutinizing the complex nuances of marriage on my own behalf) that right now I want fiction that does something, goes somewhere, else? Or maybe it’s just that when I’m busy and distracted, I lack the patience for novels that are all about the finely-wrought sentence and the emotional minutiae of daily life.

happy-valleyAlso, when I’m busy and distracted, the lure of television is very strong! And, conveniently, Netflix recently dropped two tempting series — the fourth season of House of Cards and the second season of Happy Valley — both of which we’ve now seen. In retrospect, I’m actually kind of sorry I watched House of Cards. After the third season, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see any more of it, and this season will almost certainly be my last. The show is just so unpleasant: the people are loathsome; the acting is … well, it has its moments, but mostly it’s uninspiring; the plot is absurd; and the show overall is so cynical, not just about the world it depicts but also, I think, about what its viewers want or will tolerate. I did admire the color palette and cinematography, but otherwise, it’s a show that made me feel bad about myself for wanting to see what would happen next. Happy Valley, in context, though very grim in its own way, is brilliantly acted and tells stories about richly human individuals trying to bring some sense and order into their lives, with a protagonist whose anger and toughness are offset by compassion and a strong, if often thwarted, desire for justice. Even the crimes, horrific as they are, come out of contexts that are believable and morally complicated. It’s also almost absurdly refreshing to see women play prominent roles without having to look like stick insects and wear ridiculous stiletto heels.

OK, that gets me about caught up! Now, back to the next book I’ll be reviewing, if I can just get it all read, and then to Hard Times, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class tomorrow. Now there’s a classic that still has something to say “for these times.”

Recent Reading: Romance, Reykjavik, and Relatives

In among my other recent chores and challenges I’ve read a few things chosen primarily for their likely distraction value. I don’t have a whole post’s worth of comments on any of them but I thought I’d round them up here, just to sort out my impressions of them.

juliejamesFirst, two romance novels: Julie James’s Suddenly One Summer and Meredith Duran’s Fool Me Twice. I really liked Suddenly One Summer. It’s more subdued than her others, but for me that was a plus. I still find it mildly annoying that all of her main characters are so relentlessly gorgeous, but the heroine’s anxiety issues in this one were both realistically and sympathetically conveyed, I thought, and I liked that the story line overall focused less on overcoming cynicism (which is often the core problem in James’s other novels) and more on taking risks and learning to trust. Fool Me Twice, on the other hand, ended up a ‘DNF’ for me. It was my first Meredith Duran, and the problem I had with it is the same I’ve had so far with the Courtney Milan novels I’ve tried: for me (and obviously others respond very differently) there was just too much of it. What I’ve found so far is that the longer and more ostensibly complex a romance novel gets, the more judgmental I get about whether it’s really a very good novel, rather than just an enjoyable read, and in these cases, I started finding the books tedious. With Fool Me Twice, I just couldn’t believe in either main character, and yet the novel went on and on about them. I am going to give Courtney Milan another try: I’ve been on the library waiting list for The Suffragette Scandal for a while and my turn just came up. And maybe there’s a Duran that would suit me better: I’m open to suggestions.

jarcityFollowing up on recommendations from both Miss Bates and Dorian, I’ve just finished my first Arnaldur Indridason mystery, Jar City. (When possible, I always prefer to start at the beginning of a series, even if it might not be the best of the bunch, because that way I’m not missing any pieces.) It took a while to get going, and at first I thought it was a bit too blandly reminiscent of Henning Mankell: is it perhaps an effect of the translations that so many of these northern crime novels sound so much the same? I got drawn in by the case, though, which proved genuinely interesting in ways that seemed quite original to me: I did not expect the story to unfold the way it did, or the motive for the crime to be quite what it was. It provoked some good questions about what counts as justice, but also about families, genealogies, and data — specifically, in this case, data about our genetic inheritance, which is going to be an increasingly pressing ethical issue, I expect. I didn’t get much of a feel for Erlendur himself: he didn’t seem terribly distinctive as a character. But I’ve got Silence of the Grave ready to read next, and maybe as I get to know him I’ll see him more clearly.

trollopeFinally, after being disappointed in Joanna Trollope’s Balancing Act, I decided to reread her earlier novel Marrying the Mistress, which I remembered thinking was excellent (and which I had been thinking of as also fairly recent but which turns out to be from 2000). I can’t quite put my finger on what makes Marrying the Mistress so much better — but it is. It is structurally very similar: it takes a family with a complex and carefully balanced set of relationships and changes the dynamic by introducing a dramatic change, in this case the husband-and-father’s decision to leave his wife of 40 years in order to marry the much younger woman he’s been having an affair with. It’s a cliched scenario but Trollope makes it feel very specific to these people, at this moment in their lives. She also plays in unexpected ways with our sympathies and with her characters’ loyalties; she discovers, for us, ways in which getting what you want, or what you think you want, might be very different than what you expect, as well as ways in which unwanted change, change that’s unkindly forced on you, might be right, and liberating, as well as painful. She’s very savvy about family loyalties and how people push and pull at each other. It’s not a very happy book, but it’s definitely a book about love.

I also read The Girl on the Train last week — but I’m going to be writing about that for an Open Letters feature so I won’t say more about it here.

Georgette Heyer: Romantic but not Sexy?

heyer cotillionI’ve just finished Cotillion, which is one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels so far. Like The Grand Sophy (which was the one that helped me finally “get” why people enjoy Heyer so much), it’s laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also very sweet. I was so pleased with the resolution to the romance plot, which turns on its head the expectation that the dashing rake will settle down under the influence of a good woman — or just that the dashing rake is in any way the best marriage prospect. Sure, he’s the sexiest one . But this time sexy just means  trouble — and in fact, so far I haven’t read another Heyer that is as explicit about someone’s rakish behavior, including his intention to make a beautiful young innocent his mistress (or one that is as blunt that this young girl’s mother will happily prostitute her daughter if she can’t score a rich husband for her). In this one respect, Cotillion is not just one of the funniest Heyers I’ve read but also, in the interstices, one of the darkest.

It got me thinking, though, that while Jack’s sexiness is set up as a particular kind of problem in Cotillion, due as much to his particular character as to the behavior itself (he’s quite the smug amoral rascal, is Jack), I have found Heyer’s novels generally much more romantic than sexy: in the ones I’ve read (still a relatively small sample, I realize), there’s been really no perceptible acknowledgement of desire, little of the frisson of physical attraction. And I’m not thinking just in comparison to other more contemporary Regency romance novelists I’ve read (Mary Balogh, for instance, whose books are both much less funny and much more sexually explicit, or Cecilia Grant, whose books conspicuously up-end conventions), but in comparison to 19th-century novelists including Jane Austen (the obvious comparison) or George Eliot.

I’m thinking, for instance, of the intensity of the scenes between Anne and Wentworth in Persuasion. Remember when he helps get her naughty nephew literally off her back?

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. . . .  neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.

Persuasion-coverAFOr, a bit later, when he assists her into Admiral Croft’s carriage:

Yes; he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She was very much affected by the view of his disposition towards her, which all these things made apparent. This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. He could not forgive her, but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.

She’s so overcome with her feelings that “Her answers to the kindness and the remarks of her companions were at first unconsciously given.”

Or the equally intense encounters between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, when for all their hostility they can hardly take their eyes off each other? Their deliciously awkward encounter at Pemberley is quite erotic enough without a wet shirt: “They were within twenty yards of each other, and so abrupt was his appearance, that it was impossible to avoid his sight. Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush.”

And speaking of blushing, what about Dinah, in Adam Bede? She can’t be in a room with Adam without becoming suffused with feeling: “It was as if Dinah had put her hands unawares on a vibrating chord. She was shaken with an intense thrill, and for the instant felt nothing else; then she knew her cheeks were glowing, and dared not look round.” The details of Arthur Donnithorne and Hetty’s affair may have been specified to what some contemporary readers found a shocking degree, but we know what they do (and what consequences it has), not what they feel in the moment.* It’s impossible to miss, though, that Dinah’s attraction  Adam is both physical and nearly irresistible.

millflosspaperbackAnd speaking of physical attraction, what about Stephen and Maggie in The Mill on the Floss?

 Who has not felt the beauty of a woman’s arm? The unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled elbow, and all the varied gently lessening curves, down to the delicate wrist, with its tiniest, almost imperceptible nicks in the firm softness. A woman’s arm touched the soul of a great sculptor two thousand years ago, so that he wrought an image of it for the Parthenon which moves us still as it clasps lovingly the timeworn marble of a headless trunk. Maggie’s was such an arm as that, and it had the warm tints of life.

A mad impulse seized on Stephen; he darted toward the arm, and showered kisses on it, clasping the wrist.

Are there “mad impulses” in Heyer? There may be, but so far I have yet to detect any such erotic undercurrents. More, I have sometimes felt mildly uncomfortable at the romantic resolutions precisely because the relationship considered as a sexual relationship seems inappropriate given the heroine’s youth — not just in years, but in outlook and behavior. This was most conspicuous to me in The Corinthian, but I had a similar reaction, if milder, to Sylvester, and even to Cotillion — where things are not improved in that respect by Kitty’s openly thinking of Freddy as a big brother pretty much until they finally kiss. Even Esther squirreling away Alan Woodcourt’s flowers in Bleak House seems more like an adult awareness of sexuality than anything I’ve read in Heyer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m not complaining: just observing, and then wondering what, if anything, the novels’ aura of innocent fun might have contributed to their enduring popularity. Unlike the 19th-century novels I’ve quoted, her novels surely would not “bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.”

I’ll be interested to hear from those of you who’ve been reading Heyer longer than I have. Do you think I’m right that her novels give us love but little or no desire? Might it be Heyer, not Austen, who fits G. H. Lewes’s remark that “there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot”? Or am I missing something (see fn below!), or have I just not read the sexy Heyers yet?


*This is arguably not true. It hadn’t occurred to me until I read the notes to the Broadview edition of Adam Bede, for instance, that in this scene after he kisses Hetty in the woods, we may be meant to understand that Arthur has an erection:

Arthur too was very uneasy, but his feelings were lit up for him by a more distinct consciousness. He hurried to the Hermitage, which stood in the heart of the wood, unlocked the door with a hasty wrench, slammed it after him, pitched Zeluco into the most distant corner, and thrusting his right hand into his pocket, first walked four or five times up and down the scanty length of the little room, and then seated himself on the ottoman in an uncomfortable stiff way, as we often do when we wish not to abandon ourselves to feeling.

I may just be being equally obtuse about the sexiness in Heyer — there may be signifiers I’m just not attuned to.

My First Romance? L. M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle

bluecastle1

Once upon a time I had never read a “romance novel” — or so the story went. There’s a way in which that was absolutely true: I had never read anything marketed or labeled explicitly as a “romance novel” (a Harlequin, say). As with all literary labels, though, “romance” isn’t really that precise:all around the territory of the card-carrying Harlequin-style “romance novel” there’s a vast borderland populated by everything from chick-lit to Victorian marriage-plot novels, all of which have at least some key elements in common with romances, even if it’s only a structural similarity. I had certainly read a lot of books from that more nebulous territory before I ventured into the heartland, but (partly because I didn’t know, or think, much about what made something a “romance novel” instead of some other kind of novel, and partly because I hadn’t read any self-identified “romance novels”) I hadn’t recognized any of them as romances.

I just reread Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, which is why I’ve been thinking about how (and, a bit, why) we make these distinctions. I haven’t read The Blue Castle in over 30 years; though it was a favorite of mine long ago, our family collection of L. M. Montgomery didn’t move east with me, and the only ones I’ve restocked are the first two in the Anne series. I happened across The Blue Castle at the Women for Music book sale last weekend and grabbed it right up. And as I reread it, what I kept thinking is how similar it is to so many of the romances I’ve read in the last couple of years, particularly Mary Balogh’s: I can totally imagine the entire plot transplanted to one of her Regency settings. In fact, aren’t there one or two that are very similar? But asked about my recollections of it, I would never have said it was a romance: though I remembered the falling-in-love plot, it’s the heroine’s journey of self-discovery that has stayed with me all these years. (Of course the two things frequently go together, as they do here and in many of the romances I’ve read.)

The funny thing was that this time, though the whole of The Blue Castle was intensely familiar to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting all of its familiar scenes (it’s almost eerie, isn’t it, how you can reread something you used to know well and not even know how much you remember about it, but then at each moment find yourself thinking “oh yes, this is what happens”?), it also struck me as familiar in a different way: as exemplary of a particular formula. “Formulaic,” of course, is the derogatory term other people (who me? never! OK, sometimes…) use for genre fiction. Being formulaic is perhaps the defining quality of “genre fiction,” the way that we know it isn’t “literary fiction.” (Getting past the use of “formulaic” as a judgment is actually one of the key things I work on in my mystery fiction class. First of all, another word for “formula” is “convention,” and all literary works rely to some degree on conventions. And second, once there’s a formula, you can mess with it in interesting ways, and that’s its own kind of challenge, especially because readers get very savvy about formulas — which makes them hard to surprise and impress.) The Blue Castle read like a romance this time — which is not a criticism, but just a recognition that my reading has always been more promiscuous than I thought — or that labels are less useful. It also looked like a romance this time: look at that cover! The one I grew up with is below — quite a contrast.

bluecastle2The Blue Castle is a great example of a book written for the tortoise market, which is probably why I loved it when I was around 13 and moping about being undesirable the same way as Valancy does through the first half of the book. (Count me among those who have no nostalgia for their teen years.) Much older and somewhat less self-critical now, I still enjoyed her Cinderella-style transformation into someone joyful and confident in her own beauty and sure of her own values — and yet what I liked best about it is that unlike Cinderella, Valancy is the agent of her own transformation. I also liked the lyrical nature writing in the novel, which is linked in the plot to the books of Valancy’s favorite author and [spoiler redacted!], so that the descriptions, which are usually filtered through Valancy’s emotions, draw all the elements of the novel together. I’ve never been to the Muskoka region of Ontario, but Montgomery made me wistful for it in a dreamy kind of way, as a place I’ve never seen and yet somehow know intimately:

The stars smouldered in the horizon mists through the old oriel. The haunting, persistent croon of the pine-trees filled the air. The little waves began to make soft, sobbing splashes on the rocks below them in the rising winds . . .

October — with a gorgeous pageant of colour around Mistawis into which Valancy plunged her soul. Never had she imagined anything so splendid. A great tinted peace. Blue, wind-winnowed skies. Sunlight sleeping in the glads of that fairyland. Long dreamy purple days paddling idly in their canoe along shores and up the rivers of crimson and gold. A sleep, red hunter’s moon. Enchanted tempests that stripped the leaves from the trees and heaped them along the shores. flying shadows of clouds. What had all the smug. opulent lands out front to compare with this?