Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lydia Joyce - The Veil of Night (2: The Food of Love)

No, not music or even the many foodstuffs which are allegedly aphrodisiacs. Many months ago Eric mentioned the way in which descriptions of food and eating take the place of sex in Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk. He also touched on the functions of food in Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me. Literary metaphors and imagery linking sexuality and food have a long history. For example,
The numerous images of food in [Shakespeare's] Troilus and Cressida and their association with love and lust have been remarked upon by many critics. Troilus himself passes from a giddy anticipation of "the imaginary relish" of consummation to the bitter discovery that "the fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics" of Cressida's pledge of love have gone to Diomedes. (Rowland 1970: 191)
The Veil of Night includes many descriptions of food and in general, as with other physical matters, this is dealt with in a very earthy, realistic manner. An example of this realism is the inclusion of the detail that the hero notices that the sleeping heroine has 'an endearing, commonplace hint of dampness on one cheek. Byron smiled despite himself at the thought that she could forget herself even in her sleep so much as to drool' (2005: 138). Although such prosaic details might not please some readers, Byron finds it 'endearing' and similarly the heroine, having seen that the hero is 'just a man, a mere man, tired and frustrated and approaching middle age' (2005: 166), realises 'that his moment of weakness - of reality? humanity? - had done nothing to stifle her desire for him' (2005: 167).

Some romances seem rather perfunctory in their descriptions of the more physical aspects of desire and the erotic, and although they may use somewhat euphemistic phrases, such as 'a scent that was uniquely his' to refer to the hero's body odour, they fail, at least in my opinion, to fully explore the physicality of their characters.* Maybe it's because many readers are somewhat squeamish and prefer a sanitised, more 'romantic' portrayal of such matters. Mary Reed McCall, for example, once commented that
Even in contemporaries, I've read more than one lovemaking scene that takes place first thing in the morning, before either h/h has used the bathroom or brushed their teeth. The reality of that is quite off-putting, but the fantasy of it, provided one doesn't focus on those little details, can seem romantic [...] each reader's threshold for sexual situations/realism is different, and it sounds like yours is fairly high on the reality side. Mine is pretty high, too, I think - though I do find myself glossing over, even as I'm writing lovemaking scenes, some things (i.e. my stories are set in the middle ages, when of course sanitation, deodorizing soaps, teeth cleaning etc aren't exactly high on the list of living conditions, and yet I don't make a point to have the h/h chewing on mint leaves right before they end up making love, or even always bathing directly beforehand - though I do admit to trying to work a bath in prior to a lovemaking scene whenever possible
Lucy Blue, quoted in the same At the Back Fence Column, had a rather different opinion:
About all those personal hygiene issues – people giving oral sex after conventional sex without stopping for a bath, etc. – again, it’s fantasy, so the writer may consider personal hygiene pretty much a non-issue to be ignored, like hairy legs in a medieval. But personally, I find it sexy, not gross, and not unrealistic – there are heroes out there that do that kind of stuff, and heaven bless them for it.
We've taken a look at the distinction between the high and low mimetic styles a number of times, so I won't repeat myself, but it seems to me that what Mary Reed McCall is describing isn't really at the low mimetic end of the spectrum: one can get more considerably more realistic, and that's what Lucy Blue appreciates.

In Lydia Joyce's The Veil of Night the hero touches the heroine's nose: 'No one had ever touched her nose with such delicate inquisitiveness before. It was strange and somehow almost more intimate than a flagrant caress' (2005: 40) and reviewers on Amazon had very strongly divergent opinions about this. For SusieQ, 'the whole line just made me laugh out loud. Her NOSE? I could maybe see a man touching a woman's BREAST with "delicate inquisitiveness", but...well, maybe I shouldn't go there!!'. Shereads, on the other hand, thought that this passage demonstrated one of the strengths of the novel: 'I disagree adamantly with the notion that touching a nose instead of a breast isn't erotic. In the right hands, tying shoelaces can be erotic. The fact that the love scenes veer away from a well-worn path is one of my favorite things about this book'.**

The scene is an interesting one, in which the couple are involved in verbal exchanges, eating and physical exploration. No-one could accuse Joyce of only going skin-deep. Instead she chooses to describe the way in which the heroine 'put a slice of roast into her mouth and bit down hard, her jaw muscles bulging slightly with the force of her anger' (2005: 41) and, later, she 'seemed to look through his skin, too, to the sinews that bound his muscles to their bones, to the surface of his brain where his thoughts were read as they flashed fleetingly across. Could she also see the hidden debility, the one no doctor could ever understand?' (2005: 43-44). Perhaps for some people this level of detail, of engagement with the physical, is unromantic, even repugnant?

I'm reminded of a couple of passages in C. S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress. The pilgrim has come to Zeitgeistheim, 'home of the Spirit of the Age which is Freudian reductionism' (from here) and the pilgrim is thrown into jail where:
Every day a jailor brought the prisoners their food, and as he laid down the dishes he would say a word to them. If their meal was flesh he would remind them that they were eating corpses, or give them some account of the slaughtering: or, if it was the inwards of some beast, he would read them a lecture in anatomy (1944: 61)
Reason then appears and rescues the Pilgrim and reassures him, but even she has to admit that 'Such pictures are useful to physicians. [...] there is truth mixed up with the giant's conjuring tricks' (1944: 71). Joyce, however, rather than dismiss this aspect of existence as being 'ugly sights' (1944: 71), seeks to uncover the beauty that may be found beneath the first impression of ugliness, the truth in the material and in the quotidian realities of daily life. Back to SusieQ, 'And who ever thought of ending a romance novel with the heroine's telling the hero she has her period? [...] Sure, they end up together, but...EWWW' and Shereads, 'It's simply true-to-life. A serving of reality on the banquet table of happily-ever-after. I'm always grateful when an author trusts her readers that way.'

Another meal they share is also described in somewhat unappetising terms:
He uncovered one of the dishes, revealing cold tongue, pallid boiled vegetables, and some sort of potatoes that looked grayish and unappetizing. But the smell that wafted out was at least wholesome, if not tantalizing. (2005: 107)
Joyce has said of one food item described in the novel that: 'I admit it. I hate English food. This isn't what the aristocracy normally dined upon, but there was such a great potential for horridness that I could not pass it up. The cook is dreadful, and she will be gently retired between the last chapter and the epilogue.' While this 'unappetizing' , if wholesome, food may not appeal to some, it is nonetheless welcome fare to Victoria and Byron; much as they may appear physically 'unappetising' at first glance to others, they are 'wholesome' for each other.

Though not the most visually appealing of desserts, the peach crumble they are served next is more obviously sensual, and Joyce has said that 'I decided that I'd been giving them enough terrible food that they deserved something good, and, well, this is what happened.' It's 'The best peach crumble north of Manchester' (2005: 110):
The cinnamon-rich syrup flowed onto her tongue, and when she bit down, the firm peach flesh yielded in a rush of juice. "Oh!" she said when she'd swallowed. "That's lovely." The taste of it lingered, sweet and enticing. (2005: 110)
Victoria may claim that she doesn't deserve 'Sympathy, kindness, compassion' (2005: 115) and Byron may respond wryly 'Heaven preserve us from our just desserts' (2005: 115) but they are literally and metaphorically going to get their 'just desserts': the succulent flesh of the peaches in crumble and the physical enjoyment and love they find in each other as they 'shrug [...] off the confines of ordinary existence to grab at the rich, sweet fruit of life' (2005: 118).

Whether we find this sort of romance romantic really depends, I suppose, on how processed and purified we like the food at our banquet to be. Do we wish to share the ambrosia served to the Gods, or will a thick broth prove more to our taste? Perhaps sometimes we crave one, and sometimes the other?
  • Joyce, Lydia, 2005. The Veil of Night (New York: Signet Eclipse).
  • Lewis, C. S., 1944. The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (London: Geoffrey Bles).
  • Rowland, Beryl, 1970. 'A Cake-Making Image in Troilus and Cressida' , Shakespeare Quarterly, 21.2: 191-194.
* Sweat may also glisten over muscles, usually the hero's. Heroines seem to sweat much less frequently, perhaps because according to the old saying 'horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, ladies glow'. Incidentally, 'A study of budgerigar sex-appeal has found the feathers on the crowns of both sexes emit a fluorescent sparkle that is invisible to humans but is an alluring signal to would-be lovers of the avian world' (The Independent).

** Byron touches Victoria's nose again later on, when he asks her to trust him by telling him her secret: 'Raeburn traced the line of her nose, resting his finger briefly on its tip' (2005: 103). There is a tenderness in this touch, and while the nose is is a sensual organ, it is also a part of the face which is not usually touched by strangers, or focused on by others, so there is a strange intimacy to the gesture.

The image of the muscles of the pharynx and cheek is from the 1918 edition of Gray's Anatomy, available at According to Wikipedia this and other images from the 1918 edition are in the public domain because the copyright has expired. It seems appropriate given the descriptions of the act of eating, and Victoria at one point says that in revealing her secrets to Byron she's 'spread myself out bare for you, like an eager cadaver on an anatomist's table' (2005: 214).


  1. I like the more earthy descriptions, myself. But I think trying to write about flesh, bone, blood and sweat --all of it-- honestly is more of a highwire act than using santized key phrases to represent complex passions. And when the earthy descriptions go wrong, they go *really* wrong. The balance between the erotic and the disgusting can be delicate. And it's different for everyone, so I can see how writers might rather use the key phrases, instead of taking the risk.

    I've been corrupted, though. When I was about thirteen or fourteen, sexual curiosity got ahold of me. Like lots of kids my age, I went to the Internet. I found an erotic website with the most amazing pictures and read two essays there. The pictures were good as far as they went, but the essays formed the foundation for my preferred sexual aesthetic.

    Even back then, I wanted to be a writer. So the first essay I looked at was "How to Write Sex Scenes: The 12-Step Guide" by Steve Almond.

    ". . sometimes sex is funny. . . . Don't be afraid to portray these comic aspects. If one of your characters, in a dire moment of passion, hits a note that sounds eerily like Celine Dion, duly note this. If another can't stay hard, allow him to use a ponytail holder for an improvised cock ring. And later on, if his daughter comes home and demands to know where her ponytail holder is, well, so be it."

    "Do not allow real people to talk in porn clichés. . . Most of the time, real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as, "I think I'm losing circulation" and "I've got a cramp in my foot" and "Oh, sorry!" and "Did you come already? Goddamn it!"

    "It is your job, as an author, to direct us. . . to the more inimitable secrets of the naked body. Give us the indentations on small of a woman's back, or the minute trembling of a man's underlip."

    ". .steer clear of announcing orgasms at all. Rarely, in my experience, do men or women announce their orgasms. They simply have them. Their bodies are taken up by sensation and tossed about in various ways. Describe the tossing."

    "Real sex is compelling to read about because the participants are so utterly vulnerable. We are all, when the time comes to get naked, terribly excited and frightened and hopeful and doubtful, usually at the same time. You mustn't abandon them in their time of need. You mustn't make of them naked playthings with rubbery parts. You must love them, wholly and without shame, as they go about their human business. Because we've already got a name for sex without the emotional content: it's called pornography."

    I can't begin to tell you how moving I found hairtie cockrings, sweet pussyfarts, foot cramps and circulation issues, being "taken up by sensation and tossed about," and the idea of loving people as lovers, so vulnerable and beautiful.

    On one level, it was just a short, kind of self-congratulatory article by an erotica writer. But to thirteen/fourtee year old me, it was a revelation.

    At the end of the article, he mentions the Song of Songs. My experience of Christianity sure changed after I sought that book of the Bible out! ;)

    The second essay was "The Flesh is Sad" by Noelle Oxenhandler.

    She talks about how "between lovers. . . absence engenders a kind of cellular grief, a grief that is deaf and blind to all but its need to breathe in, breathe out, to smell, to touch the body of the other." She shares two journal entries from a broken relationship with a man who seems to have been falling into mental illness. She knows that the relationship between them is toxic, but "But my body aches for him. I've been unable to sleep and have great difficulty swallowing. I'm growing thinner and thinner, and as I move about the world, I feel small and painfully singular. Above all, I have the sensation that there is too much air on and around my skin. The entire surface of my body feels exposed.
    Exposed. Like a baby left on a mountaintop. Oedipus. All of a sudden, it hits me. Isn't it strange that Oedipus, who was destined to enter the most devastatingly proximate of relationships — incest with his mother — began life lying utterly alone, on a bed of rock under a huge sky?"

    Before finally letting the relationship go, she finds herself at his house: "We make chitchat for a while, and then I tell him, I need you to hold me. We go into the bedroom and lie down on the bed. He puts his arms around me. It's clear to me that he's not in good shape. There is something dark and slack in his face — a deeply self-estranged look in his eyes that has grown all too familiar.
    Hold me harder, I say.
    In my mind, I'm berating myself. Backslider, I say. If one or two people I've confided in could see me, they'd be aghast. They know the oracle has spoken clearly to me: would Oedipus, having grasped the truth, slip back into bed with his impossible love? Yet, here I am, back in the lair with the beast. He begins to rant, in a particular way that he rants in his paranoid states. "The dogs . . . " he begins. "They're at my heels. The spears. They throw spears at me when I'm down. . . . "
    I used to try and reason with him, but I won't anymore. Let him rant, I say to myself, pressing even closer to him, my face against his neck, the top of my head under his chin.
    He smells right.
    He smells right.
    His is the only skin in the world through which I want to breathe."

    To this day, when I'm reading, I look for the shadow of the feelings those two essays brought out in me. I don't care if the h/h are old, disabled, chubby, or plain. If they feel those things, if they share this magnificent, ridiculous striving together, if their partner's is "the only skin in the world" they want to breathe, I'm moved beyond any description of "naked playthings with rubbery parts."

  2. Ah. Please pardon the misspellings!

    Also, thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I've added it to my TBR pile and am happily awaiting the opportunity to devour it! ;)

  3. Thanks for those essays, Angel, I liked them.

    I think trying to write about flesh, bone, blood and sweat --all of it-- honestly is more of a highwire act than using santized key phrases to represent complex passions. And when the earthy descriptions go wrong, they go *really* wrong.

    I think you're right. It must be difficult to get the balance right between realism and what will disgust a reader. I know that some readers don't even like heroes with mustaches or beards, and that can put them off a novel, so if there are 'squicks' even at that level, then realism about sexual organs, body hair, sweat etc must be even more likely to put some people off, even if it's done in a way which conveys the characters' emotions and appreciation of each other.

    the idea of loving people as lovers, so vulnerable and beautiful

    That's what I really liked about the concept of this type of writing. It's not that it focuses on the repellent in order to create disgust: it accepts the mundane, the physical in all its variety and reveals it to be beautiful in its own way. That seems really quite subversive in the age of airbrushing and the beauty myth. There was a post about this at Lustbites, by Nikki Magennis:

    Sexy is about revealing our real self, gloriously flawed. It’s not about struggling to erase all the signs that show one is human in the pursuit of a mathematically perfect ideal. [...] No one can stay beautiful and make love. [...] when I’m writing, I look for the things that are ‘wrong’ about a character. All the ugliness that makes a character (or a person) unique and fascinating and memorable, also makes them real enough to fall in love with.

    Jenny Crusie's dealt with this issue in Anyone But You, where the heroine compares her body to the images she sees of the 'perfect' bodies and it makes her so insecure she refuses to take her padded bra off, lest the hero see her less-than-pneumatic breasts.

    As Max, the gynecologist brother of the hero says,

    Forty is when they start rethinking plastic surgery [...]. They look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their own perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over. [...] And if you tell them their bodies are normal and attractive, they think you're being nice. [...] Sometimes, I swear to God, I'd like to set fire to the fashion industry. They're screwing with my women's heads." (2006: 158)

    Crusie, Jennifer, 2006. Anyone But You (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).

    Please pardon the misspellings!

    I didn't even notice them! I've probably made some of my own. But then again, we don't have to be perfect, do we ;-)