Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sin and Redemption

Yesterday Sarah commented that 'Persuasion is my favorite *Austen* [...] but I still think P+P makes a better ROMANCE'. Of course, I could just have asked her why she thought that, but I didn't. Instead I sat around pondering the comment, and as I was also reading Mary Jo Putney's Thunder and Roses, of which Putney has said ' I love all my stories, but must admit that for pure romance, it's hard to beat Thunder and Roses', some ideas began to appear.

As Eric noted not so long ago, there is a
deep, deep link between all the various genres of romance--the link that makes all romance "inspirational," I suppose, even if it isn't all exactly Christian. That's a topic I'll try to come back to as the year goes by.
I hope Eric does have time to come back to this. It was touched on briefly by Rev Melinda, a poster at the joint blog to which Putney contributes, who said that
romances in general often deal with issues that could be viewed as "spiritual" if not religious—love, death, meaning, trust, betrayal, redemption, self-sacrifice, reconciliation, cruelty, kindness, generosity of spirit—and did I mention LOVE [...]?
So as Putney added, there is therefore 'at least an implicit element of spirituality in most romances' and in some, as in Thunder and Roses, it's quite explicit: 'In my book, Clare’s spiritual dilemma is her secret belief that her faith is not what it should be'.

I'd also love to read Sarah's explanation of why she thinks Pride and Prejudice is a better romance than Persuasion but in the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on romance and religion.

It's impossible not to notice that a lot of romances have titles which refer to theological concepts and beings including: sin (An Invitation to Sin, One Little Sin, Lady of Sin, Lord Sin, etc) ; wickedness (When He Was Wicked, Your Wicked Ways, Wicked Widow, Ways to be Wicked, etc); temptation (Welcome to Temptation, Slightly Tempted, My Fair Temptress etc); devils (Devil's Cub, The Devil's Bargain, Devilish, etc); angels (Angel in a Red Dress, Angel in My Bed, Kiss an Angel, etc). Pride and Prejudice, of course, has one of the seven deadly sins in its title, and the hero of Thunder and Roses is known as 'Old Nick' and is part of a group known as the 'Fallen Angels'. In this context, Persuasion seems a very mild title, and while it does include a misunderstanding between the hero and heroine, a bit of caution and timidity on her side, and a bit of misunderstanding and pique on his, it can't compare with the very much stronger disagreement between Darcy and Elizabeth, and the sin of pride.

It would seem that as well as having at a hero who is strongly associated with sin/wickedness, it helps if a romance also has at least one evil villain or villainness. Pride and Prejudice has the wicked Wickham who lies, cheats and seduces; Persuasion has Mr Elliott, who admittedly has been instrumental in the downfall of Mr and Mrs Smith, and makes Captain Wentworth jealous, but he hardly reaches the level of depravity attained by the hero's first wife in Thunder and Roses.

The actions of villains often create the tormented/tortured hero so beloved of many romance readers. Robin Uncapher has observed that
If you read many historicals you will be hard pressed to find a hero without a terrible hurt in his past. They all seem to have at least one, but I don't think that they are all tortured. To this reader, "tortured" reflects the way the hero deals with the problem. A tortured hero tortures himself. He may be wracked with guilt. He may be bitter or angry. [...] A hero I see as not tortured, is one who is mentally healthy, often in spite of the awful things that have happened to him.
What they all have in common, according to Robin Uncapher, is 'a terrible hurt'. Darcy has Wickham's betrayal to deal with, Putney's 'Old Nick' has a past full of misery and betrayal, but Captain Wentworth's biggest emotional trauma is only a postponed engagement and, as he discovers, his (very minor) pride and misunderstanding are the causes of it:
a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady [Lady Russell, who persuaded Anne not to marry Wentworth years before]? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England, in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?"

"Would I?" was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.

"Good God!" he cried, "you would! It is not that I did not think of it, or desire it, as what could alone crown all my other success; but I was proud, too proud to ask again. I did not understand you. I shut my eyes, and would not understand you, or do you justice. (Chapter 23)
and as a man who describes himself as having 'been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards', he gives no indication of either great suffering or a tormented soul.

Another feature shared by both Pride and Prejudice and Thunder and Roses is that the hero is redeemed/'tamed' as a result of his association with the heroine and in many romances the importance of the heroine is saving the hero is demonstrated in a scene in which he has to 'grovel' or beg her forgiveness. Here is Darcy, for example:
I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing -- to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. (Chapter 58)
Anne Marble writes that 'many fans read romances with tortured (or even "alpha heel") heroes because they want to read the "grovel" -- the part where he apologizes to the heroine and redeems himself in her eyes' and she's written more about 'redemption romances' at All About Romance, where she quotes from one of the readers of the board who had defined the core of this sort of romance as being 'about someone who for whatever reason has behaved badly in systematic fashion - has been a bad person, and by the end of the book has been redeemed'. Marble notes that 'heroines don't get to be redeemed as often as heroes. In fact, heroines tended to be the saviors rather than the saved'.

The most famous humbling scene in the New Testament is probably St Paul's, which takes place on the road to Damascus, and the idea that it is precisely those who are the most sinful who should be the focus of attention and redemptive efforts is at the core of the New Testament's message:
[the] scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?
And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5: 30-32)
In Catholic theology, the Virgin Mary is sometimes described as a 'co-redemptrix'. The term is often misunderstood, and it does not imply that she took over Christ's work or was equal to him, but rather that 'she suffered WITH the Redeemer in his act of saving us' (Vidal, 2001). The romance heroine also often suffers greatly and she may bear some resemblance to the Victorian 'angel in the house'. For the Victorians 'the ideal of femininity was encapsulated in the idea of a "woman's mission", which was that of playing a model mother, wife and daughter. Women were also seen as moral and spiritual guardians' (Nead 2004). Perhaps these female role models contribute to the scarcity of romance heroines in need of redemption?

The hero's redemption is complete when he acknowledges his love for the heroine. As John states, 'love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God' (1 John 5: 7). Of course, John was probably not thinking of love as depicted in romance novels, but as Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote in his first papal encyclical, Deus Caritas Est,
eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized
With regard to the romance genre, some readers would appear to prefer stories in which the hero is sinful and inflicts suffering on the heroine because the greater his sin, the more powerful her redemptive work is shown to be. However, as the plentiful examples in this At the Back Fence column demonstrate, even among these readers there are limits on how much they will accept with regards to both the hero's behaviour (and, consequently, whether or not they believe he really has been redeemed) and the heroine's virtue (which, in extreme cases might be described as naivety) .

Not all romances are like this, but I wonder if this type is seen as a 'better ROMANCE' because it has come to be seen as the essence of what a romance story should be, both by romance readers and the general public. Is this the sort of storyline that those who mock the genre expect to find within the covers of a romance novel? And is their mockery due to a lack of belief in the hero's redemption? Or is it that these stories simply seem so extreme and incredible to them that they cannot believe in the heroine's exemplary virtue and love for the hero? I do have some sympathy for this point of view since, as noted above, many romance readers themselves would consider some heroes in this type of romance to be bullies, while their heroines may sometimes be designated TSTL (Too Stupid to Live).

But could it be that what really motivates some of these critics' scorn for the genre is their lack of belief in True Love? Scrooge declares that Christmas is 'Humbug' because 'What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough. [...] I live in such a world of fools [...]. What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money [...]?', and I think many people look at romance readers and think us fools for not paying enough attention to the divorce statistics.* Maybe, then, some of the criticism of romance is due to its 'inspirational' nature which irks these non-believers.

Literature often requires some suspension of disbelief, but is enjoyment of the romance genre dependant on a sort of faith?

* Stephanie Coontz suggests, however, that 'Throughout Europe and North America, divorce rates rose hand in glove with sales of romance novels'. I'm not sure what evidence she has for this, but her argument is that divorce rates rose precisely because of an increase in the belief in love as the basis for marriage because 'once marriage was based on love, people began to wonder if it wasn't better to be single than to marry or stay with someone you didn't love'.


  1. I know it's just a footnote to your column, but I can't help ranting about that Coontz quote. I'm sure you could make the same argument for the sales of mystery novels, self-help books, and cookbooks. As well as the sales of computers, birth control, slurpees, and adult diapers.

    All she's really saying is that as soon as people have a choice, they can't help wondering if the grass is greener on the other side. So why not get a divorce (or change shampoo brands, or live in a different state, or get that masters degree instead of having kids right away), since the cost of changing one's mind is so low?

    I just feel like all these doomsday articles about the "death of marriage" are based on premises which, if not necessarily false, are certainly unexamined. For example, Coontz's statement that "For millenniums [sic], marriage was a stable social institution precisely because it had little to do with love and intimacy."

    What does she mean by "stable social institution"? Stable for whom? One could easily argue that society is more stable now that women are empowered to own property, vote, have careers, and time births. I think she really just means "ossified" or "unchanging." So I take the gist of her article to be "things used to not change so much, now they do."

    Welcome to the modern era, Stephanie, where stuff changes. A lot.

    Grrrrr. [/end rant]

  2. Coontz is a historian, and in her book on marriage she takes a very, very long view, and looks at many different cultural practices, including polygamy and other multi-partner arrangements, which leads her to conclude that 'all these examples of differing marital and sexual norms make it difficult to claim there is some universal model for the success or happiness of a marriage' (Coontz, Chapter 1). I also don't think she's equating stability and happiness, because in her book she says that

    Most unhappy marriages in history share common patterns, leaving their tear-stained—and sometimes bloodstained—records across the ages. But each happy, successful marriage seems to be happy in its own way. And for most of human history, successful marriages have not been happy in our way. (Coontz, Chapter 1)

    In another book, this time on families, I get the impression that she does examine many common assumptions:

    Without minimizing the serious new problems in American families, Coontz warns that a consoling nostalgia for a largely mythical past of "traditional values" is a trap that can only cripple our capacity to solve today's problems. [...] Fascinating facts abound: In the nineteenth century, the age of sexual consent in some states was nine or ten, and alcoholism and drug abuse were more rampant than today ... Teenage childbearing peaked in the fabulous family-oriented 1950s ... Marriages in pioneer days lasted a shorter time than they do now. (Coontz, About the Way We Never Were)

    Getting back to romance novels, I think if one looks at early predecessors of the modern romance such as Pamela and Evelina it's clear that just because a novel is recognisably a romance doesn't mean that it includes the view that romantic love is the most important criteria when choosing a marriage partner. So I think one has to look very closely at what romance novels actually say about the institution of marriage, as well as about love. I suspect that the same changes which have affected people's expectations of marriage have led to changes in the way marriage and love are depicted in romance, and it will have been a two-way process, with societal norms influencing the genre, and the genre in turn helping to shape expectations concerning marriage. But I haven't any evidence to support that - it's just that I doubt this is a one-way process, and I'd be dubious if anyone suggested a causal link whereby romance novels forced society to revise its expectations of marriage. I know we think the genre is important, but I don't think it's quite that influential (and it's also not that monolithic in the messages it sends).

  3. Great entry! I'm glad you linked back to it on your most current entry.

    As both reader and writer, I love the stories centered around redemption - particularly the hero's redemption. It's not so much for the grovel scene as it is for that sense of hope--the idea that we can all rise above our conflict, either through some life-changing situation or through the love and devotion of a partner.

    One thing I've definitely noticed in a lot of romance is that while the hero is the one redeemed, it's the heroine who does an awful lot of sacrificing for that redemption.

  4. while the hero is the one redeemed, it's the heroine who does an awful lot of sacrificing for that redemption

    That's my impression too. When redemptions happen, they mostly happen to heroes.

    I have come across a heroine who was a 'lady-rake', in Nicola Cornick's Wayward Widow and she was redeemed thanks to the hero's love, and there's Heyer's Bab Childe in An Infamous Army but yes, heroines in need of redemption aren't at all common. I wouldn't include the heroines who've been prostitutes in this category because the ones I've read about were all more in need of rescue than redemption (because they'd been forced into prostitution and what had happened to them was not depicted as being due to any moral failing on their part, unlike the rakishness of many of the rakes).

    There are also a few rakes who, while they're willing to change when they find True Love, don't feel any particular guilt about their previous lifestyle, so aren't looking for redemption. Miles Calverleigh in Heyer's Black Sheep's like that, and Coco in Judith Ivory's Sleeping Beauty falls into that category too. But again, I think this is quite rare.