Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Dangerous Lover

That's the title of Deborah Lutz's recent book (full title The Dangerous Lover; Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative ). The central thesis of the book concerns the dangerous lover, and it seems to me that what Lutz has to say about this character type illuminates the discussion we've been having about risk, eroticism and romances which function on a mythical level. There's a synopsis and a link to a pdf of the introduction and first chapter available, but to give you a flavour of what the book's about, here are some quotations:
Standing always under the sign of longing is the dangerous lover—the one whose eroticism lies in his dark past, his restless inquietude, his remorseful and rebellious exile from comfortable everyday living. His ubiquity marks him as always central to what we mean when we talk about existence and the modern self. (2006: ix)
Caught up in an everyday world of all that appears closest and most familiar to us, we believe that our existence can be explained by what we know well. But ontologically, our most authentic selves lie in what is most mysterious and strange — what appears to be furthest from us. Confronted with authentic being, we feel a sense of terror in the face of the unknown. The dangerous lover narrative makes the same argument about ontology—that our “true” selves reside in what is most strange and enemy-like, in the dangerous
other. (2006: x-xi)
The romance heroine finds her most authentic self at the heart of what seems at first most foreign and outside her way of being—an arrogant, hateful other. Romance moves always toward discovery and approaching the impenetrable: what is uncovered is authentic existence in the uncanny other; at the very heart of what appears to be not ours comes what we must fully own as ours. (2006: xi)
In her study of early romance genres (from 1674 to 1740), Ros Ballaster creates two categories of use here: didactic love fiction and amatory fiction. [...] Ballaster’s category of didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question). On the opposite extreme, the dangerous lover type falls under the rubric of amatory fiction. Amatory fiction cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally, nor does it play out in a socially sanctioned realm. The anarchical rebelliousness of the dangerous lover narrative — its moments of frozen inarticulateness — undercut a didactic project. In its aestheticization of failure, dangerous love has its foundations in the finitude of being, on the edge of silence, in fragmentation, and in disintegration. Dangerous love plays with the outside — of possibility, life in society, happiness. (2006: 2)
On some level the dangerous lover hides in myth; he retreats from present being into being an other from the past. And to love a dangerous lover is also to step into the fantasy of mythology and its truth, seemingly frozen yet always shifting. To retreat into myth is to step out of the present and re-create a past, larger than life. (2006: 4)
His seductiveness can be located here: the one who loves him can grasp the power of impossibility; she can make the world possible by being, herself, the plenitude, the immanent meaning of existence for him. The hero’s belief in his brilliance, his superior, misanthropic position above all others and their run-of-the-mill lives, is so very believable to the heroine that to change this decimation to plenitude becomes her reason for being. (2006: 5)
The dangerous lover narrative exemplifies, in its movements and its central concerns, the angst of being itself. The unfathomable mystery of existence in the world and the longing it perpetuates—the longing to fully be, to be sure what to do with the world that surrounds us—is the same desire the heroine of the romance has for the dangerous beloved. This is the desire to desire; it is desire per se. (2006: 20)
Oh, and she mentions Laura Kinsale's essay in Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women in one of the endnotes:
As has been argued about Jane Eyre, often the heroine’s search to read the hero is a search for her own dark depths, her perhaps angry, sexual, insane, powerful, and free side, expressed by the hero, her double. To some extent, the dangerous lover always acts as a placeholder for desire. An investigation of this would be another historical trajectory entirely, one that waits to be written. An analogy is Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, which charts the ways Jane’s anger and sexuality are expressed through Bertha as her double. Also, Laura Kinsdale [sic] discusses the hero as double for the heroine in contemporary romance in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. (2006: 96)
I did have some relatively minor quibbles about the book, which I mentioned on the Romance Scholar listserv, but these were about small details, not about the central thesis of the book, which is interesting and, I think, very relevant to the discussions we've been having lately.


  1. Thanks for posting all these excerpts, Laura! They whet my appetite. (Deborah, has your publisher sent me a review copy yet?)

    I just finished reading a couple of the novels in the new "Spice" line from Harlequin--M. J. Rose's "Lying in Bed" and "Tease," by Susanne Forster--and I'm struck by how much each of them asks us to read it in light of this search for some authentic self that can only be found in "what is most mysterious and strange." The latter, the Forster, fails for me, because I could never escape the quotidian while reading it. Every costume & scenario had me actually picturing it, and mostly I snickered. (The ones at the S & M club, I mean. There was one that I really liked, but it lacked the trappings, thank God.) The Rose I'm still thinking over. She's an author I have deeply mixed feelings about, and need to read more of to sort them out, I suspect.

    The "amatory" vs. "didactic" distinction Ros Ballaster draws sounds very useful! I look forward to reading with it in mind. (I wonder how many books out there these days try to be the former, only to end up the latter. Maybe that's a third category altogether!)

    More soon,

  2. Ros Ballaster's distinction is drawn between the two types of early eighteenth century romance - I'd be fascinated to see if it still holds true for the twenty-first century.

  3. I suspect that the distinction might be more difficult to make nowadays, though from what I understood of Kinsale's comments it sounded like it might still stand. Lutz, summarising Ballaster, describes the category of didactic love fiction as 'romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question)'. And Lutzi is quite right that it does depend on the 'morals' of the particular time-period. Nowadays you could have a romance which is didactic about the sexual aspect of relationships, and both the author and readers might well consider that to represent a 'moral way of living'. I doubt that would have been the case in the eighteenth-century (though I might be wrong).

    I'd be very interested to read it if someone did decide to tackle the project. They might find they had to subdivide the 'didactic' romances, depending on what they were didactic about. And given that romance, as defined by the RWA, is about 'emotional justice'

    Romance novels end in a way that makes the reader feel good. Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice -- the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. (RWA)

    it could be argued that all romances are didactic. So that would leave out erotica (as opposed to erotic romances). If that were the case though, it wouldn't help with a classification of romances. On the other hand, what Kinsale said maybe suggests that for some authors romance doesn't necessarily have to include emotional justice. But I've been misunderstanding what she said quite frequently, so I might well be wrong about that too ;-)