Friday, June 30, 2006

Solidarity Among Novels

Romance readers and authors frequently comment on how little respect there is for their genre, and one way in which authors sometimes subtly counter this is to feature characters who read and discuss romance books. Sometimes the intertextuality is very clear, as when one novel is named and discussed in another. At other times, there is little more than an allusion to the genre of novel the character prefers. Here's one of my favourite examples of a character in a novel defending the merits of another novel (and women's reading preferences in general):

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France. [...] It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.” [...]

“I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly.”

“It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do — for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never–ceasing inquiry of ‘Have you read this?’ and ‘Have you read that?’ I shall soon leave you as far behind me as — what shall I say? — I want an appropriate simile. — as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!” (from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14, courtesy of the Republic of Pemberley's extremely useful set of searchable editions of Jane Austen's novels and letters)

In turn, modern romance authors sometimes include references to Jane Austen's works in their own novels and thus subtly lay claim to her as the 'mother of the modern romance novel'. Here's an example of an extended discussion of Sense and Sensibility from Claire Thornton's Gifford's Lady:
'I read your book,' he said abruptly. [...] 'The one you were reading in the lending library. Sense and Sensibility. I forgot to give it back to you the other day.'
'Really?' She looked up at him in suprise. 'Whatever for? I mean, why did you read it? I'm sorry.' She lowered her eyes briefly. 'I j-just wouldn't have thought you'd enjoy such a story.'
'It was ... educational,' Gifford replied. [...]
'Educational?' Abigail reminded him. 'The book, sir?' [...]
'It was,' he said, remembering the mixture of claustrophobia and frustration he'd felt when he read it. 'I'd never considered such a mode of living before,' he continued slowly. 'The boredom I spoke of - we have our petty grievances in the navy - but the trivial pointlessness of the lives that book describes! How can such an existence be tolerable?' He couldn't quite keep the horror out of his voice. [...] 'It was a woman's world', he said at last. 'The men had no substance. Two of them were entirely dependent on the whims of their elderly female relatives [...].' 'Even the men we were meant to view favourably were indecisive, ineffective -'
'You think the author was too harsh towards your sex?' Abigail asked.
'No, no.' Gifford started walking again. He was too restless to stand still. 'I said it was a woman's world. What I meant ... was that we were shown the world through a woman's eyes. If that's what it's like to be a female, I can only thank God I was born a man. [...] You have no choice, no genuine freedom of action. You must wait modestly to see if a man favours you. And if his conduct confuses you, you must appear unconscious and pretend indifference. Unendurable!' (pp.48-50)

Much, much later, Gifford remembers this discussion and finds in it the key to understanding Abigail's behaviour. The implication is that women's novels make sense of women's experiences and if, instead of dismissing them out of hand, a man takes time to read them carefully and respectfully, he may gain a greater understanding of women's lives and aspirations.

Eloisa James' latest romances are full to the brim with intertextual references:
the literature professor in me certainly plays into my romances. The Taming of the Duke [...] has obvious Shakespearean resonances, as do many of my novels. I often weave early modern poetry into my work; the same novel might contain bits of Catullus, Shakespeare and anonymous bawdy ballads from the 16th century. (from here)
and the implication is clear: romance readers (and authors) are not stupid and semi-illiterate, and they can and do appreciate the great classical authors. Her quotations from the love poetry and romantic comedies of the past also serve as a call for respect for modern romances which are, in many ways, their prose equivalents in their treatment of the power and pleasures of love.

Finally, and unfortunately I don't have any specific examples here, so I'm hoping I'll get some comments on this, there are instances where romance authors include references to works by other contemporary romance authors. I'm sure I recently read of a historical romance where one character is reading a book written by a novel-writing character created by another author. This sort of intertextuality is both an in-joke for readers of romance and an indication of solidarity among contemporary romance authors.

UPDATE: I finally tracked down the book I mentioned. On her webpage, Julia Quinn says of her novel, Romancing Mr Bridgerton that she includes, via:
Lady W's columns: Michael Anstruther-Wetherby, brother of Honoria, the heroine of DEVIL'S BRIDE by Stephanie Laurens!
In the first chapter, Penelope is reading a book called MATHILDA by S.R. Fielding. This is from DREAMING OF YOU by Lisa Kleypas, one of my all-time favorite romance novels! The heroine is a novelist, and MATHILDA was a huge bestseller.
[In case anyone's wondering why there's a deleted comment in the comments section, it's because I was playing around with blogger. I couldn't get the formatting I wanted when I put the quotes in a comment, and then I realised it would be simpler just to update the original post. But now, of course, it looks a bit odd to have a deleted post. Of course, I realise it also looks pretty odd to footnote my own post in this way. I'll get to grips with blogging soon, I hope.]


  1. I'm sure I recently read of a historical romance where one character is reading a book written by a novel-writing character created by another author.

    Do tell us the title and the author when/if you remember! That sure sounds intriguing. And is such a neat idea!

    In Rebecca Winters' MANHATTAN MERGER, the heroine not only reads romance novels, but also designs covers of romance novels. At one point she gives a spirited defence of the genre. In addition there are also several references to P&P.

    Julia Ross often includes references to Dorothy Dunnett's books in her novels, and THE SEDUCTION is dedicated to the Dunnett -- "Lymond will remain forever unequalled." Indeed!

    As you probably know, I love including intertextual or intermedial references in my own novels: e.g., in The Lily Brand Drake & Justin read Radcliffe, and Mr Foscolo's story is an episode from Pratchett's Witches Abroad. In my next novel I have my merry way with German Romantic literature and gothic novels, and there will also be a reference to Whispers of the Heart, one of my favourite Ghibli films. :)

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  3. I believe Krentz and Cameron and some of the Seattle area writers were using each other's books a while back, but I don't remember which ones.

    I tried once, using Mary Jo Putney's SHATTERED ROSE as a title on the heroine's night table, and my editor deleted it, saying it just a "little too cute."

    Lovely site you have here, thank you!

    Patricia Rice -- historical writers with an attitude

  4. Georgette Heyer has some of her heroines read romances as an aspect of their personalities, and in Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle the heroine is the writer of a "horrid" (in the Jane Austen sense) romance.

    Heyer herself seems to have had a somewhat negative attitude to her own trade, referring to herself and fellow writers disparagingly as "inkies", so her use of a taste for gothic fiction as an indicator of character is probably not a straightforward mark of solidarity.

  5. Thanks for pointing that out Stephen. You're right - intertextuality can be used in ways other than as an invocation of a respected author or a show of support for the genre.

    There are no doubt romance authors who write not because they love romance and feel unshakeable devotion and loyalty to the genre, but for other reasons. Heyer, of course, didn't just write romance. I wonder how she felt about her mysteries?

    We were discussing Fiona Hill/Ellen Pall on the listserv. On her website she distinguishes between her 'Regencies', her 'mysteries' and her 'literary novels'. And she doesn't sound particularly proud of her Regency romances. For example, she says

    Soon—alarmingly soon—writing Regencies was the only thing I really knew how to do. I continued to read Dostoyevsky and Proust, Forster, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor. I began to try, between contracts, to write nongenre novels.

    She continues:

    I added mystery subplots. I slipped minor figures from early books into later ones. I caricatured my friends. Yet the formula closed around me like a boa constrictor.
    It took me 10 years, in the end, to wriggle out of that grasp

    I expect that it's because she's left romance that she's being so open about her feelings towards the genre, but it does suggest that there may be others still writing who have ambiguous or even negative feelings towards their own romances and towards the genre in general, and you're quite right to point out that those attitudes may also surface via intertextuality.

  6. Diane Farr sets one of the scenes in one of her novels at a ball that originally takes place during one of Georgette Heyer's novels. I don't remember which novel for either of them, but I remember the scene, because I thought, "What a cheek!" ;)