Friday, March 02, 2007

The Self, the Other and Love

For Valentine's Day the Romance Divas held an e-book challenge. Some of the resulting works were published online in the authors' blogs, so if a link takes you to an author's main blog page you might have to search for the entry on or around the 14th of February in order to find the free story.

I'd like to take a closer look at four of the stories that, in their very different ways, made me think a bit more about how love for oneself relates to love for the other. Should the lover be different from the self? Similar? A bit of both? The Biblical injunction 'thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Leviticus 19:18) seems to imply that you should love yourself, because unless you do, you won't be able to love others as much as they need to be loved. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) explains who Jesus considered to be a 'neighbour' and it suggests that some differences are unimportant when it comes to loving others. Of course that's not precisely the sort of love described in these short stories, but the underlying insistence on the link between love for oneself and love for others, and the ways in which love helps to overcome initial impressions of difference are present in both the Bible and these texts.

It was Elisabeth Drake's In Dreams of Mine which really got me thinking about the theme of love for oneself. It's contains blasphemy, references to incest, frequent use of obscene language and some lesbian sex, so it may perhaps seem rather odd to juxtapose it with the Bible, but I think if one reads some aspects of it metaphorically then the thematic similarities become more apparent. Caryn has very low self-esteem and she doesn't love herself. She's been in an abusive relationship and she mourns the loss of her twin. Caryn's love for her twin, and what happen with the intruder are the parts I read metaphorically as being externalisations of her need to learn to love herself. And a metaphorical reading is textually justified, quite explicitly so in the case of the intruder.*

Set in Chicago in 1893, Eva Gale's The Seduction of Gabriel Stewart again deals with learning to love oneself in order to be able to fully love another, and this story includes explict descriptions of sex. In accordance with the Passionate Ink Chapter of RWA's definition of an erotic romance, which is the sub-genre that Gale writes, this is a story 'about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction'. As the characters learn to love themselves by accepting their bodies and their sexuality, they are able to admit their deep love for each other. It also involves a challenge to Gabriel Stewart's understanding of his religion.** I seem to have got into the habit of giving warnings about the content of the free online reads, so here are some regarding this story: it includes fairly explicit descriptions of sex and quite a few typos. I know the latter can upset some people, but in this case I think one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

For reasons of space Grace Draven's Bathsheba's Lover has been split in two: Part 1 and Part 2. According to 'the Diva rating system, it's considered medium heat level and may not be appropriate for anyone under 18'. It's the story of how, 'On a sunny spring day Ann MacLeod celebrated her fiftieth birthday by getting divorced, going shopping and getting laid'. Again we have a character who doesn't believe that her body is attractive, certainly not to a younger man. But as the story develops we discover that they may have far, far more in common than she first thought. I've taken a quick look at ageism in romance in a previous post, so I won't repeat myself here, but I found it refreshing to come across this much older heroine. As in the story of King David and Bathsheba, David feels attraction at first sight; unlike the biblical Bathsheba, the newly-divorced Ann has no husband.

Imogen Howson's Meeting in Darkness is a paranormal, so the differences between hero and heroine go beyond even the social and economic. At first glance, they would appear to have nothing in common. Love, though, goes more than skin deep. And this story is chaste and won't even cause an adverse reaction in people who're allergic to felines.


* If I sound a little defensive about my metaphorical reading of this text it's because the last time I tried expounding on a metaphorical reading of sexual activities in romance novels both my husband and a friend of mine who'd come to visit looked at me incredulously, began to laugh, and variants on the phrase 'but if you look at it metaphorically' were forthcoming for the whole of the rest of the evening.
**The work is not anti-Christian. It is, however, against Gabriel's understanding of the role of sex within a Christian marriage. Nowadays there are Christian websites like this one, preachers like Jim Beam and a 'Vatican-sanctioned sex guide'. None of these were available to Gabriel. Portia, on the other hand, has reached the conclusion that 'she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was a woman who loved her husband, and was trying to find a way to make their marriage better'.


  1. Oh my, *blush*. I actually took The Seduction of Gabriel Stewart down so I could fix the typos. I'll get it up asap.

    If you want I'd be happy to discuss the story, right now my fingers are shaking though. :)

  2. I'm sorry I've made your fingers shake!

    I'd love to read what you have to say about the story. Was this a theme you were thinking of when you wrote it? How did you choose the setting? I looked up the Chicago World's Fair and found out a bit more about Ashea Wabe and it was really interesting to be able to see a photo of her in her costume. Which Seminary was it that Gabriel was involved with?

    It felt to me as though, despite the historical setting, Portia and Gabriel's problems were very real and relevant issues for many people today too.

    I didn't point out the typos to criticise you, and they didn't spoil my enjoyment of the story. It was just that a while ago there was a huge row over on one of the All About Romance boards which started when some people complained about the number of typos and other errors in edited and published romances that they'd paid for. Other posters then told them to stop behaving like pernickety academics and things escalated from there. I found it interesting that 'academics' had become a term of abuse. ;-) And the whole episode did alert me to how much typos can upset people. Of course, your story is a free gift, and it was very kind of you to share it with us, so no-one would have any grounds for complaint.

  3. Laura,

    Thank you so much for mentioning Bathsheba's Lover in your blog. And it's lovely to hear someone say they liked an older heroine. I'm 39, so 50 isn't that far away. I thought it might be nice to give a woman in that age range a little stage time in a romance.

  4. Hmm. I don't think Ann would agree with you; after all, David was 39, and Ann thought he was far, far younger than her. ;-)

    I didn't feel that she was 'old' because she was so full of life. There was nothing decrepit about Ann, and as a reader I could understand why David would be attracted to her.

  5. I'm glad you read her that way. I don't think of her as 'old' either. However, many of the romance stories out there limit their heroines' age ranges to 20s and 30s, with a few in their 40s. Even you mentioned it "was refreshing to come across this much older heroine."

    And I'm thrilled you understand why David was attracted to her. I had hoped to get that across to the reader.

  6. I wonder if we don't have so many older heroines in the genre because (a) once a woman begins to develop a few wrinkles some people won't think of her as beautiful (but if a man has them they 'add character'). Certainly in films there are far more older-man/younger-woman pairings than vice versa (b) many romances feature couples who, by the epilogue, have demonstrated their fertility (which perhaps represents life, growth, the perpetuation of love). A heroine in her 50s is not very likely to produce a large brood with her hero.

    But we do have far fewer teenage heroines in the genre nowadays, and there are some examples of romance couples who don't choose to have children, so maybe we'll get more heroines who are considerably over 35. I imagine that romances about geriatric love in a nursing home are probably not going to be hitting the shelves any time soon, if only because readers might worry that these characters won't have much time to enjoy their HEA, but characters in their 40s, 50s and 60s could have decades of good health and happiness ahead of them.

  7. Laura, don't be sorry. :) I didn't expect the story to be well recieved, and to have you blog it was a happy surprise. And thank you for not letting the typos ruin it for you. I should have it back up tonight.

    Older heroines, what a good topic. Personally (I'm 35) as I get older I like my heroines to age with me. I have a hard time relating to the younger set as fiction characters. Hollywood seems to be exploring this too. Is it a Baby Boomer influence? Maybe the Dove commercials that make us realize a silver haired model is stunning?

    Robin Schone's Scandalous Lovers is supposed to have an older ensemble.

    As for the other questions, there is never a straight path to a setting. At least not for me. :)

    I picked the Chicago World's Fair because it coincided with belly dancing coming onto the scene in America. My research on a contemporary had me researching Samba, and from there I surfed to belly dancing. Research on another historical for corsets revealed that belly dancing was scandalous because of the lack of bindings and the movements of the body. So it was all kind of serendipitous. For Gabriel I needed to have a hero who would be most conflicted about his sexuality and the problems a belly dancing wife would bring about, so he was drawn in the opposite direction as Portia. I didn't have a Seminary for him per se, but prior I had read about certain Christian movements, such as Sylvester Graham, a Presbyerian Reverend and his followers.

    So it was a bit of 'all together it made a story'. And yes, it is relevent to people today. Or at least I hope!

    Thanks again for the shout, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  8. I should have it back up tonight.

    Eva, I'm still getting the story when I click on 'Free Read Now!' on this page. Not sure if that's because you've already fixed it or because it's cached or for some other reason.

    I didn't expect the story to be well recieved

    Why not? Because of the setting? Or because the hero isn't a rake/sexually confident? I have the impression that neither are very in common in romance, and it felt to me like you were exploring new territory geographically and emotionally, which I liked.

  9. My Bad. I'd asked that the story be taken down, but it wasn't. The nit picked version is going up tonight. :)

    I thought the religious thread would be misconstrued. I was very thankful you said it wasn't offensive with the ** tag.

    My being gobsmacked with your linking caught me offguard and I forgot to post about your actual topic! But, I've been thinking about it all day.

    I've come to the conclusion that it's a loaded answer, dependant on what a person's persepctive is. So, I can only answer of the question in terms of my relationships and how I've changed as I've gotten older. I can see that the more I've accepted myself, and embraced my faults it's released me to have deeper relationships, and to love people more.

    My husband and I have been talking about this too. We have pepople in our lives that cannot admit that they are fallible. Not on a surface level, but in a level as accepting yourself as a human with foibles. They hold onto perfection with such severity that they they only let people in so far, because to allow another person to see faults, when you can't even acknowledge them is shattering. I thought of it as a bridge that they cannot bear to cross for fear, and not being able to get to the other side they can't look back and go, "Hey, that wasn't so bad."

    Maybe fear prevents us from loving ourselves and that renders us incapable of forming honest loving relationships. So to me, you can love without loving yourself, but it may not be as fulfilling as you want it to be.

    Boy, can I ramble.

  10. Hey! You're not rambling any more than I was. So if you're rambling, I am too.

    I think you're right that 'you can love without loving yourself' to a certain extent, but if someone has a barrier of fear or self-hatred between them and other people, it's bound to have some effect on intimacy. Just thinking about the people you mention who 'hold onto perfection with such severity that they only let people in so far', it does seem likely that they're motivated by fear (perhaps that if they're not perfect, no-one will love or respect them) but the effect can be to make others back off because they make other people feel inadequate, imperfect and unlovable.

    Re religion, I've done a post on sin and redemption and I think that's a theme that's present in a lot of romances. There are the inspirational romances, of course, and then there are the paranormals and it's hard for me not to think about the theology when confronted with vampires, ghosts, demons and witchcraft. Seeing as this is a blog post linking to free online stories, I'll mention another one, Samantha Hunter's Twist of Fate. [She writes Blazes for Harlequin, so it's fairly explicit]. It's set in Salem and one of the major plot issues is that the heroine is a witch and the hero doesn't want to believe in witchcraft. It's got passages like this one:

    the main rule of witchcraft was to harm none. [...] For the first time, the real power and responsibility of being Wicca weighed on her [Gwen], and she found it staggering. (Chapter 11)

    So I really do think that a lot of romances deal with religion or religious/theological issues. Obviously, though, some do it in more depth than others, and there are some very, very different perspectives out there.

  11. Just coming in late to say thank you, Laura, for mentioning Meeting in Darkness.
    I think you deserve the title 'Ideal Reader'--you're so good at picking up on small details and subtext that, as writers, we like to put into our stories but which we don't necessarily expect people to notice!
    Fascinating post, as well. Thanks again!
    Imogen Howson