Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eros and Science

Following on from Eric's post about eros and my own about medical metaphors and the science of love, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the neurobiology of love because, although this topic is not directly related to the romance genre, both have something to tell us about how couples fall in love and form stable pair bonds.

Despite the fact that 'love has myriad variations [...] neuroscientists believe that the basic human emotions and motivations arise from distinct systems of neural activity, networks that derive from mammalian precursors' (Fisher 2006: 88). Fisher goes on to explain that she believes that romantic love is just one of
three discrete, interrelated emotion/motivation systems that all birds and mammals have evolved to direct courtship, mating, reproduction, and parenting. The other two are the sex drive and attachment [...] each interacts with the other two in myriad combinations to produce the range of emotions, motivations, and behaviors associated with all types of love. (2006: 89)
The 'three basic mating drives' (2006: 102) are as follows:

(1) 'The sex drive (libido or lust) is characterized by the craving for sexual gratification; it is often directed toward many partners' (2006: 89).*

(2) 'Attraction (the mammalian/avian counterpart to human romantic love) is characterized by increased energy, focused attention on a specific mate, obsessive following, affiliative gestures, possessive mate guarding, and motivation to win a preferred mating partner [...] In humans, the developed form of animal attraction is known as romantic love, obsessive love, passionate love, or being in love' (2006: 90). **

(3) 'Attachment is characterized in birds and mammals by mutual territory defense and/or nest-building, mutual feeding and grooming, maintenance of close proximity, separation anxiety, shared parental chores [...]. In humans, partner attachment is known as companionate love. Human attachment is associated with the above mammalian traits, as well as feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union with a long-term mate' (2006: 90). ***

The three usually interact, though in differing proportions at different times and for different people, however I have the sense that 'eros', as discussed by Eric, broadly overlaps with what Fisher terms 'romantic love'.

Fisher suggests that 'romantic love is most likely highly addictive' (2006: 100) and she also mentions that 'People fall in love with individuals who are somewhat mysterious, perhaps in part because novelty elevates the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine (2006: 102). Novelty can also increase sexual activity because the 'Increasing dopamine associated with romantic love can stimulate a cascade of reactions, including the release of testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire [...] In fact, elevated activity of dopamine generally increases sex drive, sexual arousal, and sexual performance in humans' (Fisher 2006: 103).

Unfortunately for individuals who crave the feelings created by romantic love, while 'Romantic love can be sustained in a long-term romantic relationship [...] it generally becomes less intense' (Fisher 2006: 99-100). A while ago I quoted from Esther Perel who noticed the problems caused by diminishing romantic love in relationships and proposed a solution:
A fundamental conundrum is that we seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner, at the same time we seek a transcendent experience that allows us to soar beyond our ordinary lives. The challenge, then, for couples and therapists, is to reconcile the need for what's safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what's exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.
It's often assumed that intimacy and trust must exist before sex can be enjoyed, but for many women and men, intimacy -- more precisely, the familiarity inherent in intimacy -- actually sabotages sexual desire. When the loved one becomes a source of security and stability, he/she can become desexualized. (2003)
Her solution is to retain mystery within a marriage/committed relationship because:
There is in the experience of love an experience of security, of predictability, of safety, a kind of grounding and anchoring. And eroticism thrives on something very different. It thrives on the unknown and the mysterious, on the unexpected. It's not what you want in a long-term, secure relationship. [...] Fantasies are rarely egalitarian, I can tell you that. Friendship is a different story. Best friends share everything, talk about everything. And when you're lovers, you want mystery. I've never in my life called my husband my best friend. (Salon, page 1 and page 2)
I wonder if the erotic, however one defines it, is inextricably linked to the issue of identity. Traditionally, the erotic ‘object’ is ‘the Other’, a mystery. That mystery and sense of difference, based on lack of intimacy and knowledge of the other, automatically preserved the distance between the two lovers. If we think about courtly love, the woman was often adored from a distance, or was obliged by society to strive to maintain a distance, which would lead to her lover thinking of her as cruel, distant, elusive and yet despite this (or perhaps actually because of it) desirable.

It seems to me that for centuries many people have defined themselves by contrasting themselves with an ‘Other’. While the differences between sexual, class, racial and religious groups have been emphasised and exaggerated, in-group differences have tended be minimised. Men, for example, have been associated with ‘masculine’ characteristics and behaviours, while women have been associated with the opposing ones. This automatically builds in a sense of difference and distance, and preserves identity, and in the context of romance I took a quick look at race (including the appeal of sheiks in romance) a while ago.

Quite how 'other' the Other can be varies, but if a sense of otherness underlies what's erotic, if it's a case of 'opposites attract', it is easy to see why intimacy and ‘domestication’ might lead to a loss of eroticism. They make the distant, exciting ‘Other’ seem dull, mundane, perhaps rather similar to the self and certainly not mysterious.

It struck me that the preservation of mystery advocated by Perel is, in some ways, the emotional equivalent of high mimetic love scenes between a perfectly beautiful heroine and the dangerous, mysterious hero she must tame. Dramatic conflict, big actions and big differences do ramp up the emotion and approach Frye’s ‘high mimetic’, which ‘seems to be connected [...] with [...] myth’ (Frye 2000: 51). What Perel describes isn't, however, the emotional equivalent of the earthy realism Angel and I were discussing in the comments attached to my post about food in Joyce's The Veil of Night. There I quoted from a post at Lust Bites, written by Nikki Magennis, who argues that ideal beauty may in fact be less sexy than the intimacy and variety of flawed individuality:
Really, all Beauty is fit for is preserving behind glass. It’s dazzling, sure, and we shrink before it. [...] 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.
What Magennis is doing perhaps, is redefining beauty so that it can include the beauty that differs from the ideal. Similarly Cristina Nehring agrees with Perel that difference is central to eroticism but suggests much less dramatic, striking solutions to preserving it:
We must be two before we can be one, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. To merge most passionately, we must first be defiantly distinct. The question becomes how to maintain such distinctness in a long-term relationship. [...] Too quickly we assume we understand the persons we love, and put them into categories. Because we know how they take their coffee or turn over in bed, we think we know their emotional or moral turbulences, their secret judgments, recurrent temptations. It is revelatory -- because re-estranging -- to encounter our closest companions in contexts unlike those in which we usually confer. The novelist Siri Hustvedt writes of the thrall that overcomes her when she sees her husband, Paul Auster, at a public ceremony. Many a tired husband is shocked when he suddenly sees his wife dance -- or flirt, or fight, or take command, or write a poem.
We all, as Walt Whitman said, contain multitudes. It is salutary to remember this, salutary to encourage this, salutary -- even -- to know this is encouraged, so that we remain unafraid to surprise.
This type of difference is one which is not destroyed by intimacy but may in fact even be enhanced by it. It’s perhaps about looking closely and seeing variety in the minutiae, glorious difference in the particular talents and abilities possessed by each individual. In recognising the difference which results from individuality, rather than from the contrast between archetypes, it perhaps becomes easier to find the erotic in the mundane, the small gestures, the tiny differences that persist even in intimacy.

  • Fisher, Helen, 2006. ‘The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice’, in The New Psychology of Love, 2nd edition, ed. Robert J. Sternberg & Karin Weis (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 87-115. A pdf of the paper (as well as pdfs of other papers by Helen Fisher) may be found at Helen Fisher's website.
  • Frye, Northrop, 2000. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, with a new forword by Harold Bloom (Princeton: Princeton University Press). First published in 1957.
  • Perel, Esther, 2003. 'In Search of Erotic Intelligence: Reconciling Our Desire for Comfortable Domesticity and Hot Sex', Utne Reader.

* I watched the Eurovision 2007 entries and Poland's entry, by The Jet Set seems to focus on the libidinal aspects of human relationships.

** Successful romantic love finds its expression in the song by Greece's Sarbel, in which the singer believes that his beloved, Maria, is unique and supremely desirable. Given her name and the setting/choreography, I can't help but wonder if this song is paying tribute to West Side Story (though without the tragic outcome). Fisher also goes on to describe the devastating consequences for rejected romantic lovers, and this situation is the one sung about by Finland's Hanna Pakarinen. Rejected lovers often feel rage as well as suicidal urges.

*** Mary Wells, singing 'My Guy', seems to me to be describing the comfort and closeness of companionate love.

Seeing as I've mentioned so many other Eurovision entries, I'd like to mention just one more. Bulgaria's Elitsa Todorova & Stoyan Yankoulov performed a song which made me think of the vampires and fallen angels which seems so popular in romance at the moment.

The picture is by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, from Wikipedia.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

In which Sarah is elevated to the peerage

Her achievement is proof of her persistence and attention to detail. And if any of us accidentally refer to her as the Baroness of the Baccalaureate I hope she'll forgive us.

Details of the ceremony can be found here, and the contest in which Sarah demonstrated her prowess is here.

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 Bartleby.com. 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).

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sandra writes a guest column

Sandra's written this week's At the Back Fence column at All About Romance. She's taken a look at the issue of 'lust-thought in romance'. Is there a point at which a love-story becomes a lust-story?

Having been trained as a medievalist, I'm still wondering whether everyone was really talking about 'lust' in the theological sense of 'The inordinate craving for, or indulgence of, the carnal pleasure which is experienced in the human organs of generation' (New Catholic Encyclopedia) which is considered one of the seven 'capital' or deadly sins or whether other people were using the term 'lust' as a short word to describe physical attraction.

The photo is of a woodcut depicting 'The influences of the planet Venus; from the block-book The Planets, Hiedelberg, 1470-75' and comes from the Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lydia Joyce - The Veil of Night (1: Home and Heart)

Lydia Joyce 'achieved bestsellerdom with The Veil of Night' (Publishers Weekly), her first published novel. Here are some reviews: an extremely positive one from A Romance Review, a fairly good one from All About Romance, and a not quite so positive one from The Romance Reader. You can also find an excerpt here.

As usual, this is not a review, and I may include spoilers. I want to focus on just one aspect of the novel: the imagery and symbolism of buildings.

The first chapter opens with the words
Graceless and sprawling, Raeburn Court was a pile of mottled limestone atop the bald hill. Lady Victoria Wakefield spied it while the coach was still some distance off, and she watched it steadily as they approached the park gate; after all, there was nothing else in the bleak landscape to catch her eye. As they drew near, the squat manor house grew only more blunt and ugly, its saw-toothed crenellations pierced by random, unbalanced spires stabbing the slate-gray sky. (2005: 3)
It would appear to match its master, Byron Stratford, Duke of Raeburn. The Court is 'sprawling' and when we first meet Byron he reclines at his ease, waiting for Lady Victoria's approach and later his signature 'sprawled across the sheet' (2005: 27), a word which appears again in another description of the house of which he is the centre: 'there was more unknown in the room behind her [where she has left Byron] than in all the rest of the sprawling, rotting manor house' (2005: 28).

During that first encounter Byron's 'presence filled the room' (2005: 24) in the same way that his house dominates the surrounding terrain, while his eyes match the colours of the landscape, 'brown or moss-coloured' (2005: 25). Joyce describes him in architectural terms:
The lineaments of his face were bold and strong - almost crude, as if he'd been blindly carved of stone - but they were no less attractive for a lack of patrician daintiness. How old he was she could not guess: certainly younger than the roughened skin of his face suggested. It was not marked with the scarring left by youthful blemishes but with a deeper weathering, as if he had stood barefaced to wind and sun for a score of years. [...]
His appearance was certainly unconventional, but it was also compelling (2005: 25, my emphasis)
Externally, then, Raeburn Court matches the appearance of its master. As for the interior, it parallels Byron's reputation:
Victoria took the opportunity to survey the room. The vast, unlit chamber stretched before her--the manor's original great hall, no doubt--its deep shadows scarcely pierced by the gray light filtering through the filthy mullioned windows, which trembled in their frames as another peal of thunder cracked overhead. Ancient, moldering tapestries flapped like living things in the steady draft flowing through the room, and enormous cobwebs fluttered against the black rafters in the dim recesses of the ceiling. (2005:7-8)
Such decay and neglect might seem to indicate Byron's immorality. He has a 'well-deserved reputation for being a dissolute reprobate' (2005: 12). Lydia Joyce provides the online equivalents of footnotes to the text, and one of those notes states that Raeburn Court,
has no "real world" model. I didn't like the traditional castle-ish construction so common in Gothics, so instead, I made it a mishmash of styles from many periods, which would give it a suitable spookiness without following the cliché too closely.
That unconventional 'mishmash of styles' might in architectural terms make the isolated Court not dissimilar to Byron who's 'a pariah not because of the acts he committed but because of the conventions he failed to keep' (2005: 4).*

Despite the apparent similarities between Byron and Raeburn Court, he only intends living there until the renovation of the Dowager House is complete. Victoria thinks it 'Strange that he should want to leave a house that seemed to suit him so well' (2005: 37), but Byron has reached the conclusion that it 'had been inhabited far too long by other men who had left their impressions upon it more indelibly than he could ever hope to. That was the secret of Raeburn Court, he had finally decided; it always made one feel a stranger' (2005: 72).

While the Court may resemble Byron's exterior appearance, it is the Dowager House which, as Victoria quickly realises, represents his inner life: 'She had the growing sensation that the house was a portrait of the duke, done in such precise detail that every idiosyncrasy in his nature was laid bare, if only she knew how to look at it.

Commenting on the Dowager House, Joyce admits that
I am an architecture freak. [...] Philip Speakman Webb [the architect] was part of the aesthetic movement in architecture that eventually birthed the Arts and Crafts style. In its early forms, it was simple and medievalist, though it had a number of characteristics that any Craftsman enthusiast would immediately recognize and appreciate. I wanted something that worked for Byron and spoke of who he was, and this movement really spoke to me. [click here for a short biography of Speakman Webb and links to photos of some furniture he designed]
The Dowager House 'speaks of who Byron is' because it combines the historical and the modern, making use of rich colours which are in keeping with Byron's connection with his lands:
She stood at the midpoint of a long, narrow chamber, once a hall, now divided by furniture and rugs into two distinct parlors decorated in tones of scarlet, purple, and umber. Like a Yorkshire sunset, she thought [...].
She crossed into the parlor [...] noting the heavy, simple lines of the furniture and the archaic paintings that hung on the walls. But the most striking feature was the narrow stained glass windows that flanked the fireplaces at the ends of the hall, four jewel-toned glowing pictures of slender, long-faced women with intricately draped robes and tumbling hair. [...]
"It is very different," she said. [...] "Most people would have made the house lighter, more delicate. This seems positively medieval." (2005: 86)
It is, literally 'positively medieval'. In Victorian medievalism
"[...] The Middle Ages were idealized as a period of faith, order, joy, munificence, and creativity [...] The Middle Ages became a metaphor both for a specific social order and [...] for a metaphysically harmonious world view. [...]" Chandler [...] convincingly shows us how the nineteenth turned back to the past as a way of criticizing the present and as a means to a better future. (Landow, quoting Chandler, 1973: 366)
I can't help but think that the stained-glass of the house (as contrasted with the covered windows of the Court) represent Byron's spirituality. He may appear evil to those who judge on appearances and he has 'behaved with the flamboyance of a born reprobate' (2005: 100) and encouraged all the 'mysterious rumors' (2005: 100) about him, but in truth it is simply the case that for him the seeing 'through a glass, darkly' (1 Corinthians 13: 12) is literal as well as metaphorical.

In addition, it becomes clear that Byron's medievalism extends to his attitude towards his tenants. The estate is in some difficulty as a result of the Industrial Revolution:
"I can't even find tenants for two tracts, and I've had to cut the rent on the others. There's not the money in wool there used to be, and the Raeburn flocks are poor at best. [...] Stoneswold and Weatherlea are half deserted because the weaving is all done in factories in Leeds. The weavers' families have all left or been reduced to menial labor."
Victoria realized that he cared - not just about property and income, but about the common villagers, too. There was perhaps something medieval in his concern, but if it was stained with feudal overtones, it had a certain chivalric element as well and was rather touching. (2005: 108)
While Byron's exterior appearance and his inner soul are symbolised by the two houses, Victoria, who owns no houses, nonetheless has a similarly deceptive 'façade of imperturbability' (2005: 10) which is later replaced by clothing which more accurately reflects her real personality. As far as society is aware, Victoria is what she appears to be:
she was fair [haired] and dowdy [...] austere to the point of severity [...] almost fiercely self-contained. [...] Every line of her bearing declared that she was a respectable old maid, from her tight, pale blonde bun and her prim, haughty smile to the hideously unflattering carriage dress. (2005: 11)
No-one apart from Victoria knows that her clothes 'had been marked by unrelieved austerity for fifteen years now, first from an excess of puerile anguish, then from self-abhorrence, and now partly from habit and partly from the intangible security such a uniform offered' (2005: 5). Byron, however, quickly notices that:
From the back, not even the awkward lines of her unflattering corset could disguise the grace of her lithe figure, the unconscious seductiveness in the arch of her neck.

The prim dress and severe bun angered him suddenly. He saw them thrust between them as a barrier, keeping him beyond her spinsterish defenses. (2005: 19)
The crinoline and corset are 'defences': the dress and crinoline forming the outer walls, while the corset is an inner barrier, all demonstrating the severe austerity of a medieval castle. Byron is sure that Victoria has chosen to 'lock herself' (2005: 22) within them and looks at her with a 'proprietary gleam [...] in his eyes, that of a lord surveying territory soon to be his' (2005: 40). He senses that which is hidden within her walls: 'the soul of the wind-mad woman who escaped the stifling parlors and drawing rooms of Rushworth Manor to gallop across the tenants' most distant fields' (2005: 22). What he doesn't realise is that Victoria has 'locked herself' within the citadel of her clothing because, 'There was no barrier, no stronghold of virginity to interrupt his entrance' (2005: 66-67).** What she had hidden within the fortress of her austere clothing was not her virginity, but her sexuality, and when Byron buys her new clothes 'there was a native sensuality that permeated the air about her now that she no longer imprisoned it behind walls of whalebone and black taffeta' (2005: 79, my emphasis).

* Regarding the 'mishmash' of styles:
The first time he'd seen the building [...] he'd seen the hideousness of it, the sprawling wings of every imaginable age of architecture appended to the main mass of limestone at haphazard angles. Yet even then, it had called to him. Even then, it had whispered of secrets and darkness and ancient passions burned into the rock. (2005: 72)
** I touched briefly on the metaphorical aspects of virginity as depicted in romance in my post about metaphorical medicine and 'the sexual metaphor which casts woman as a castle besieged by suitors is a commonplace in the erotic literature of the classical world and Middle Ages (it is the metaphor that underpins the whole of the Roman de la rose)' (Foster Gittes 2005: 21).
  • Foster Gittes, Tobias 2005. '"O vendetta di Dio": The Motif of Rape and Retaliation in Dante's Inferno', MLN, 120.1: 1-29.
  • Joyce, Lydia, 2005. The Veil of Night (New York: Signet Eclipse).
  • Landow, George P., 1973. 'A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. By Alice Chandler. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970. pp. 278', Modern Philology, 70.4: 366-369.

I apologise for using the Foster Gittes, and Landow's review of Chandler's book. I could no doubt have found more authoritative texts dealing with these subjects, including Chandler's book, but as I'm blogging rather than writing an academic paper, I tend to use sources I can access via the internet.

The picture on the cover of the book is taken from 'a photograph of a famous mission in Arizona'.

The castle is Krak des Chevaliers, a '"concentric castle" in which each ward was placed wholly within another which enveloped it' (Wikipedia). It 'was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271' and is now a World Heritage site.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Melissa McClone - Blueprint for a Wedding

This is my first analysis of a novel with the theme of home is where the heart is, or perhaps, in this particular case, the heart is where the home is, since both Gabriel Logan and Faith Addison have ambitious plans for the
1908 Craftsman-style mansion - the stone-covered pillars, the multi-paned windows, the exposed beams the wraparound porch and the three dormers jutting from the long-sloping gabled roof (2006: 9)
that is the home in question. This isn't a review, so I'll be including plenty of spoilers. If you do want to read a review, there's one available from Romantic Times. I'm not sure why the reviewer felt that 'The characters' motivations don't always ring true', because they seemed understandable to me, but I suppose this is probably a matter where personal opinions will vary. A description and excerpt are available from Melissa McClone's website.

Conflict arises between Gabriel and Faith because both feel they have failed in their emotional lives and for each of them the house represents a last opportunity to succeed with at least part of their life-plans. Gabe
had once thought he had it all figured out. At eighteen, he'd marry his high-school sweetheart, by the time he was thirty, he'd have a minivan full of kids and be living in the Larabee house. Instead he was thirty-two with no wife, no kids and no place to call home [because he sold his house in anticipation of buying the Larabee mansion]. (2006: 12)
Gabe had made a plan and set out to achieve it. He'd married the girl of his dreams right after high-school graduation. Next on the list were children. But his wife hadn't wanted to stay in Berry Patch. He hadn't wanted to leave. So they'd divorced.
But he wasn't about to let his dreams die. [...] He had to remain strong, steadfast, to protect the house from Faith. (2006: 30-31)
Gabe's a builder and his plan which, appropriately enough, he thinks of as 'his blueprint for a perfect life' (2006: 31), is centered around his love for the mansion; his refusal to leave it behind was obviously a significant contributory factor in his divorce. As we shall see, the mansion stands in the way of his relationship with Faith too.

Faith (a movie star) also feels that she's failed and that the mansion is the only way she can achieve something worthwhile:
No one had divorced or even separated during the past two hundred years of her family's recorded history. Faith wasn't about to ruin the streak. She'd failed enough.
Broken engagements. Broken hearts. Broken promises. [...] That's why she'd sunk every penny she had into this B and B project. Renovating an old house had to be easier than finding her one true love. She might not join the ranks of her family who had found their soul mates, but she could certainly join them in their successful hotel business. (2006: 34-35)
The emotional intensity with which they both desire the house means that the story almost becomes a love triangle, with the house taking on the role of a lover for both the hero and heroine. The description of it contains personification: 'a grand lady [...] The most beautiful in Berry Patch, Oregon, and she was supposed to be his' (2006: 9). Gabe's grandfather 'had been obsessed with restoring it for as long as Gabe could remember. It hadn't taken long for him to feel the same way. Each time the bus passed by here on his way to school, his own desire had intensified' (2006: 29-30, my emphasis). When Faith gives Gabe the key to the mansion he thinks that
This wasn't the way he'd planned to get it.
He knew where Miss Larabee kept a spare hidden on the back porch. That's how his crew had gotten inside to take the measurements for the floor plan.
Now, to be given his own key ... but he couldn't forget, it was only temporarily his [...] he watched Faith insert her key into the lock [...]. [...] He wanted her to hate the house. [...] But he knew it wasn't going to happen. Anyone with half a brain would love the house (2006: 42)
Locks and keys have a well-known sexual symbolism: 'In early modern Europe, keys and the locks they penetrate, swords in scabbards, bolts in doors, pestles in mortars, leeks, parsnips, crosiers, apples, pears, figs, carrots, obelisks, and arrows were visual and verbal clues for sex' (Crawford 2007: 1). Freud was of the opinion that in dreams 'penetration into narrow spaces and the opening of locked doors are among the commonest of sexual symbols' (online, see below) and in fairytales such as Bluebeard a key may be 'a phallic symbol which is often emphasized in illustrations as overly sized. The wife is flirting with sexual knowledge and perhaps promiscuity by accepting the key from her husband'. In this context, one can read the passage about the keys in Blueprint for a Wedding as meaning that Gabe wants neither an illicit (using the spare key) nor a short-term relationship with the house. Now, however, he has to watch Faith taking possession of the house that Gabe loves and wanted for himself. And he knows that Faith too will fall in love with it.

Clearly while their love is directed at the house, Gabe and Faith's relationship is going to be in trouble. Faith wants to convert the mansion into a B&B and has made 'glitzy, glamorous and thoroughly modern changes to the remodeling plans. [...] Gabe didn't like the notes or her' (2006: 29). Faith's 'glitzy, glamorous' plans parallel the glitzy, glamorous life she's been leading as a famous movie star. Now, however, she plans a change of career and so she's able to leave glitz behind both professionally, personally 'She wore no makeup, not even lipstick' (2006: 20) and in the remodelling when she agrees with Gabe that the objective is 'to have the place look as if I've never been there and all the work I've done look as if it's been there forever' (2006: 48). Continuing the metaphor of the house as a woman, one can perhaps think of the remodelling as a makeover for a still-attractive woman. As Gabe says, 'The house has good bones' (2006: 59) and he can see it's potential:
"You might not see it, but it's there. Beneath the ugly interior and the horrible remodeling [done by previous owners] and all the snakes and lizards."
When he spoke, his voice had an almost reverent tone, and his eyes softened. Faith felt a tugging on her heart. One day she hoped a man would look at her like that. (2006: 60)
Faith's original plans would perhaps be more like extreme plastic surgery, completely changing some of the original features:
"I want a romantic, fantasy bathroom," she explained. "Marble, double Jacuzzi tub, two-person shower, pedestal sink, gold or brass fixtures."
"Sounds Victorian."
"Yes. [...] The bedroom will match. A brass bed. Lace curtains. Antiques." [...]
His lips thinned. "This house isn't a Victorian. [...] Each room is a piece of the whole and needs to be consistent." (2006: 66)
Gabe has a much less radical makeover in mind: he wants to preserve the original structures, carefully cleanse the skin and then apply some light, natural-looking makeup, '"Craftsman has clean lines, natural materials, warmth," he explained. "Whereas Victorian is ornate, ostentatious, overdone."' (2006: 68). [For comparative purposes, here are pictures of the interior of a Victorian-style B&B, and here are some restored Craftsman-style interiors] Faith eventually decides to keep the Craftsman style, and she joins the rest of the crew in working on the house:
He [Gabe] liked having her around and helping with the work. Her touches made the house better. Faith wanted to turn it into a B and B, but she'd made the house a home. She admired every step of the process and exclaimed over every detail. She'd been an apprentice, interior designer and cheerleader all rolled into one. (2006: 183-184)
The mansion and the remodeling work become a metaphor for the work that Faith and Gabe must both do on their relationship.* The ideas with which they begin the story are their 'blueprint for a perfect life', and these, like the mansion, require remodelling to preserve some of the original features of the plans but also ensure that the final outcome will suit their new needs. As Faith and Gabe work together both literally and metaphorically they learn to compromise in order to find solutions which are acceptable to both of them:
"All we've done on the house is compromise."
It was true. She thought back to that first day. "Victorian versus craftsman."
"Sage-green paint versus celadon."
A smile tugged at her lips. "Drapes versus blinds in the bathroom."
"Compromising wasn't always easy, but by doing it we created something wonderful together." (2006: 225)
Gabe himself makes the comparison between this working relationship and his non-functioning marriage: 'With my marriage, it wasn't like that. I had this idea of the perfect life and pulled Lana into it, never asking what she wanted out of life herself' (2006: 225). As they cooperate on the remodelling, their plans for both the mansion and their lives become more and more similar so that, despite a few crises on the way to finding true love, by the end of the novel they have a 'Blueprint for a Wedding'. They can combine their skills, their ability to work together:
"Home improvement shows are popular. We could take what we both like to do and do a remodeling show together."
She loved the idea. "You'd have to leave Berry Patch to do that."
"Being with you is more important than any town." (2006: 249)
and this compromise demonstrates that their relationship is more important to both of them than the mansion which had previously been the object of their desire.

  • Crawford, Katherine, 2007. European Sexualities, 1400-1800, New Approaches to European History, 38 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Excerpt available here.
  • Freud, Sigmund, 1913. The Interpretation of Dreams, online, quotation from Chapter 6 (part 2): The Dreamwork.
  • McClone, Melissa, 2006. Blueprint for a Wedding (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).

* Gabe and Faith's relationship is depicted as one of equals. This perhaps first becomes apparent as they become symbolic suitors and competitors for the right to determine the mansion's future but is shown much more clearly when, during the remodeling, Faith is both Gabe's employer, and his 'apprentice' whom he instructs in various building techniques, including the correct way to use a nail gun. Gabe may be a builder, but he's not a macho builder. In fact, his employees in the firm include his sister Kate, who draws up the designs and plans for the work and another sister, Bernie, who's a 'master carpenter [...] Almost as good as [...] My oldest sister, Cecilia [... who] hung up her hammer to follow in our father's footsteps and become a farmer' (2006: 84). It's also Faith who asks Gabe to marry her because 'I haven't had much luck the other way around. I thought I'd try something different" (2006: 249). Also, although Faith has dreams throughout the story of a knight who will rescue her because she is 'lost and cannot find my way home' (2006: 240), and eventually recognises this knight as Gabe, 'her one true love' (2006: 240), when she wakes she doesn't sit passively waiting for rescue: 'She could wait for her knight to find her, or, Faith smiled, she could rescue him herself (2006: 244). She arrives in front of the mansion just as Gabe is about to set out to find her. Gabe is prepared to be thought of as 'Mr Faith Starr', while Faith will 'settle for Mrs. Gabe Logan' (2006: 250) and the two then elope not in Gabe's truck, but in the rather more speedy jet plane that Faith has borrowed from her family's firm.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Home Is Where the Heart Is

Laura Vivanco

The romance genre has been accused of a frivolous attention to the details of homes and home décor. Radway finds that ‘descriptive detail [...] characterizes the mention of domestic architecture and home furnishings in romantic fiction’ (1991: 194) and concludes that ‘The genre’s characteristic attention to the incidental features of fashion and domestic interiors clearly serves to duplicate the homey environment that serves as the stage for female action in the “real” world’ (Radway 1991: 195).

Radway’s analysis of home furnishings fails to acknowledge that descriptions of homes and domestic interiors are not simply a colourful backdrop, but may reveal much about the personalities and interests of those who live there. Coward has noted that photographs of home interiors
turn up in all sorts of magazines, not just the specialist home magazines. One common mode is sneaking glimpses of the rich and famous [...]. Indeed, more than all the writings about the love-lives of these personalities, ideal-home writing seems to unearth the most intimate form of revelations. (Coward 1984: 64)
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice one reads of Pemberley that:
It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something! (Chapter 43, my emphasis)
Not only is Pemberley naturally handsome (as one may assume Darcy is) and an indicator of Darcy's wealth, it also reflects his character as it is described by his housekeeper. The house is 'neither formal nor falsely adorned' and Darcy, when there, is
"[...] the best landlord, and the best master [...] that ever lived; not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men." (Chapter 43)
The interior expresses the same personality in more detail. Like Darcy, the rooms are handsome, elegant, rich but not ostentatious:
The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings.
"And of this place," thought she, "I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcomed to them as visitors my uncle and aunt. But no" -- recollecting herself -- "that could never be: my uncle and aunt would have been lost to me; I should not have been allowed to invite them."
This was a lucky recollection -- it saved her from something like regret. (Chapter 43, my emphasis).
Clearly the interior decorating has an emotional effect on Elizabeth, and not simply because of its beauty, but also because of what it reveals about its owner’s character: it demonstrates that Darcy is rich, but also that he differs from his imperious aunt, Lady Catherine, the owner of Rosings. While the ‘splendor’ of Lady Catherine's surroundings is indicative of her pride, Darcy’s more elegant surroundings reflect his elegance of mind and perhaps suggest that his pride is moderated by other personality traits. When Elizabeth later jokes that it was after seeing Pemberley that she fell in love with Darcy, I'm not sure that there isn't an element of truth to this:
Will you tell me how long you have loved him?"

"It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." (Chapter 59)
One can find many other examples in Austen's writing where character is revealed in the details of a person's choice of home and furnishings. I'll give just one more example. In Persuasion the Elliot's have had to move out of their ancestral home because they can't afford to live in it and it's been rented byAdmiral Croft whose comments on the décor of Sir Walter Elliot’s dressing-room give further proof of the latter’s vanity:
I have done very little besides sending away some of the large looking-glasses from my dressing-room, which was your father's. A very good man, and very much the gentleman I am sure; but I should think, Miss Elliot" (looking with serious reflection), "I should think he must be rather a dressy man for his time of life. Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from oneself. (Chapter 13).
I believe that homes and home furnishings can, and often do, perform similar functions in many modern romance novels, for example Jennifer Crusie's said of her forthcoming collaborative novel, Agnes and the Hitman, that 'Agnes’s plot is that she discovers somebody is trying to take her house, the symbol of her security, from her, and she fights like crazy'.

In my next couple of posts I'd like to focus on two novels in which a house plays an important role in the development of a romance. In each case, the home/house is both a physical object and one with symbolic, emotional meanings. Neither of the homes in the novels I'll be blogging about symbolise security, as Agnes' home does, and what I found particularly interesting was that in each novel the house served very different functions.
  • Coward, Rosalind, 1984. Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today (London: Paladin Grafton Books).
  • Radway, Janice A., 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press).
Photos courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. The first is of the interior of Chanler House (1915), Tuxedo Park, NY, designed by Russell Sturgis. The exterior can be seen here. The second photo is of the dining room of Robie House (1910), Chicago, IL, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The exterior can be seen here. I have included these photos because although the two rooms must have been built and designed relatively close together in time, the atmosphere created by the design and decor is very different in each.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Robyn Amos - Promise Me

Laura Vivanco

On Wednesday, as multiple firestorms raged in the online romance community, I was reading Robyn Amos's Promise Me and I couldn't help but notice similarities between the plot of the novel and the twists and turns in the online controversies, although a lot of what's been going on recently in real life has been far stranger than fiction. The issues of respect and control seem to be at the heart of both, and both draw attention to the narrow boundary between the personal and the professional. For anyone who isn't aware of the multiple (but related) controversies, please see my summary below, where I've included comparisons with some of the situations in this novel.

I'm not going to write a review of Promise Me, and the only one I could find was this one, which is short. However, there are a couple of reader reviews at Amazon and a long excerpt. I've done my best to avoid giving spoilers, but I can't guarantee that what follows will be spoiler-free, because it isn't, and I should perhaps also add that because I'm only going to look at certain aspects of the novel, what I'm about to write may perhaps give the impression that Promise Me is a very issue-orientated, serious novel. It isn't. It is about respect but it's also funny (at least, I thought so, but you might want to take a look at the excerpt to see if it appeals to you) and when I was thinking of some way of explaining how the combination worked, I came across this*, which gives me the same feeling, and I think it's also something that's conveyed by the cover of the novel.

Cara's personal and professional lives, and the personal and professional lives of those around her, are inextricably linked, and what happens in one area affects their responses in the other. A.J.'s professional life has been affected by his personal experience: 'As Capital Consulting's president, he welcomed responsibility. He never shirked a duty, and he never let anyone down. He knew how to handle pressure (2007: 11). Cara recognises that 'he needed so desperately to prove he wasn't like his father, he felt responsible for the world' (2007: 139). Cara ends up working with A.J., and says that: 'If we're going to work together, I expect you to treat me with respect' (2007: 103). Her sensitivity to the issue had just been increased by learning that her friend Ronnie's boyfriend, Andre, has split up with Ronnie by writing a devastating review of her culinary skills (Ronnie is a chef): 'Now, Ronnie not only had to cope with a broken relationship, she had to do damage control on her professional reputation' (2007: 100).

Cara is a fitness trainer, a profession she committed to as a result of her ex-fiancé, Sean's, behaviour which made her feel she 'needed to do something just for me' (2007: 84), and there are a number of instances where the fitness training, and Cara's opinions about it, can be considered as metaphors concerning the relationship issues Cara has to deal with.

The novel as a whole could be read as a re-examination of the ideas behind the phrase 'the personal is political', though in this case it's more 'the personal is professional (and vice versa)'. That this is the case is hinted at in the opening lines of the novel: "Control is the most important thing," Cara Williams instructed her sixteen-year-old client. "You need to control your body throughout each movement. Wendy, are you paying attention?" (2007: 7). Wendy's problem is that she isn't in control of either her exercise routine or her personal life, and Cara tries to encourage her in both these areas:
I've been trying to help her with that by forcing her to do things on her own. That way, when she accomplishes something, she knows it came from her and not me. She's made incredible progress in such a short time. Unfortunately, I'm afraid when she goes home, her parents undo all my hard work [...] They push her too hard. I think she feels inadequate because she can't live up to their high standards. They need to ease up and let Wendy figure out who she is for herself. (2007: 32-33)
Cara recognises Wendy's problem because it's one she has experienced herself:
Control - something Cara felt she'd finally attained. She'd worked so hard, and now her dreams finally seemed within reach. Everyone had thought she was crazy when she'd quit a promising career in the computer field to become a fitness trainer. Her father had been livid. To this day, he constantly reminded her that he thought she'd made the biggest mistake of her life - next to breaking off her engagement to Sean Ingram. (2007: 24)
Cara's analysis of male 'protection' of women is not totally dissimilar to that of Crusie's heroine in Crazy for You: both critique the way in which women are reduced to childlike status by the language of male 'protection' and unfortunately A.J., the hero, despite his appreciation of Cara, lapses into this patronising language at one point: Cara [...] started paying attention to the words he was using. Sweet. Cute. These were words for small animals and children' (2007: 206). Another problem is that in some ways A.J.'s
"[...] attitude reminds me of my father's. I'm seven years older than my brother, and he was a lot less sheltered than I was."
"That's probably because boys and girls need different things growing up."
Cara rolled her eyes. "That's chauvinism."
"It's not chauvinism. It's reality. More things can happen to girls, so you have to be more careful with them."
"That's ridiculous. Why do girls need more protection?"
"Because they're more vulnerable to rape or assault."
"And who is going to rape and assault them? Other women?"
"Of course not, but-"
"That's right. It's men who put women in danger. So, how much sense does it make to keep a tighter rein on women because men can't control themselves? It seems to me that if we forced the same moral codes on boys that we do on girls, maybe the girls wouldn't be in danger in the first place!" [...]
A.J. shook his head. "There's nothing I can say. I've never thought about it that way before [...]." (2007: 34)
Both Ronnie's boyfriend, Andre, who is 'so possessive. He barely let Ronnie breathe on her own, yet he didn't know the meaning of the word faithful' (2007: 15) and Cara's ex-fiancé, Sean, are men who seek to control the women in their lives. Sean
had always been caught up in those traditional male/female roles. When we went out to dinner, he had to pay. He couldn't stand the idea of me treating him. When we stayed in, I was supposed to cook. [...] At first I thought it was something we could work through together. You know, eventually he would learn to respect my independence, and we would find a happy medium. That's what happens when you love someone, right? But instead the opposite happened. [...] I fell into his routine. Letting him take care of me. It was so easy to do that I didn't even see it coming. At first, I felt safe and protected, but I woke up one day and realized I was Sean's fiancée and nothing more. I had no identity. [...] So then I started to take care of Sean. Doing the kinds of things for him that he'd been doing for me. He couldn't stand it. It wasn't masculine to lean on a woman for anything, in his opinion. A man always has to be in control. [...] he didn't respect me (2007: 83-84)
What both A.J. and Cara both have to learn is a way to find a balance in their lives, so that both are equals in a 'partnership where we work together and share things' (2007: 212). Given the way in which Amos has intertwined the personal and the professional, it's significant that the language used here is one drawn from the professional sphere. What Cara wants in her personal relationship has perhaps been prefigured in an event which took place during Wendy's lessons at the gym when Cara was trying to encourage Wendy, who'd been working-out on the treadmill. It wasn't until A.J. helped Cara that Wendy began to make real progress:
A.J., slicing his arms back and forth, taking tiny steps, was pretending to run at top speed on his treadmill, then he slowed down and pretended to run in slow motion like an action shot from a movie. [...] He was distracting Wendy from her workout - or was he? She glanced at the monitor and found that, not only had Wendy exceeded her goal speed, but was maintaining the higher speed comfortably. (2007: 30)
By the end of the novel Cara and A.J. are able to challenge each other and also work together. Each, with the help of the other, succeeds on a professional level and improves his or her relationships with other family members.

Clearly this is a novel in which the issues surrounding control and respect are explored through a variety of different relationships. The way in which this is achieved may lack subtlety for some readers (given that this was a criticism levelled at Crusie's Crazy for You**, it's almost certainly one which would also be made of this novel) but it's not didactic, inasmuch as there is recognition that the solutions which work for Cara and A.J. may not be ones chosen by other people, perhaps for valid reasons:
"[...] I blame my mom for not taking a stand with my dad. [...] If she really does want to work at the bridal shop, she should do it. Instead, because my father is 'the man of the house,' she goes along with what he wants. When there's a problem, it's his duty to solve it. He never treats her like her opinion is worth anything."
A.J. hugged her closer. "Cara, you have to remember they're from a different generation. Just tell me one thing. Are they happy?"
Cara blinked. "Yes. The years only seem to bring them closer," she said, her voice taking on a tone of wonder.
"Then maybe you should accept that the choices your mother makes are right for her, even if they're not right for you." (2007: 166-167)
As Cara says, 'everyone has an idea of what their ideal relationship should be. To me, love is mutual trust and sharing. [...] I need to know that I can contribute as much to this relationship as I can take from it' (2007: 214). But as she's learned, not everyone will have the same ideal. Cara's statement about the fitness CD-ROM she's creating also applies to relationships: 'One thing I hate to see in this field is a diet or workout schedule that claims it's right for everyone' (2007: 67).
  • Amos, Robyn, 2007. Promise Me (New York: Kimani Press).
* The lyrics for R.E.S.P.E.C.T are available here.
** Robin said of Crazy for You that she felt it was 'one of those books that's so obviously issue-oriented that at times I felt like I was reading a treatise on sexual politics rather than a novel that portrayed those complex relationships'.

The background is that on Friday the 27th of April Karen Scott posted a rather critical review of an ebook. There were a number of comments made, including one allegedly posted by Kathryn Falk, CEO of Romantic Times. Karen then responded to this comment, quoting it in full and confirmation that it was indeed written by Falk was posted here, except that when the Smart Bitches talked to Falk, she said 'Someone took my words but that isn’t me'. According to GalleyCat, 'Susan Edwards, the media relations director for Ellora's Cave', the publishers of the ebook which received the critical review, said that 'I can not confirm for you that Kathryn wrote that blog commentary, though I have no reason to doubt that she did'. And in yet another development two supposed co-signatories of Falk's said that they had nothing to do with the comment that was posted.

Here are a few quotes from that comment posted in Falk's name on Karen Scott's blog:
I am proud of any woman who writes erotica and gets published. I know how tough it is. [...] This has been the situation since I started up in 1981. That is why I have been so supportive of e-publishing women and will continue to be.

it wasn't the men who attacked me in this business (with the exception of one crooked literary agent!!) but the women. [...]

It will set us back years if we are portrayed as a bunch of jealous females baring their claws, upsetting our colleagues, and seemingly approving of a small group of savagely narcisstic [sic] women who can't stand to see other people succeed.

We know what to do: support our editors and publishers, support our booksellers and authors, or -- if you can't say "nice" -- say nothing.
The villainess in Promise Me, Angelique, doesn't support other women: 'Her type cozied up to men in order to get what they wanted, but other women were competition. The first order of business with her kind was eliminating the competition' (2007: 46). However, Cara's female friends aren't uncritically supportive: rather, they challenge her and question her decisions so that she has the opportunity to think them through in a context which is both critical and supportive.

According to the comment, Falk had just returned from the Romantic Times Convention in Texas (April 25-29 2007) but despite the calls for greater support for female authors, it seems that at least one female author at the Convention was not given much support, because her novels are male/male romances. Laura Baumbach's account of how her promotional material was removed by the management of the hotel at which the Convention was being held can be found in full here and she writes that 'Sharon denied RT involvement but they certainly didn’t do anything to support an author attending their conference. Instead they willingly, immediately consented'.
A.J., on the other hand, supports his client and makes Angelique apologise to Cara because 'I won't let her personal whims affect Capital's customer service reputation' (2007: 68). It remains to be seen whether the Hyatt will take action against the manager of their Houston hotel but in a comment which appears to be from Carol Stacy of Romantic Times (and which appeared in the comments thread in response to Baumbach's account of events), Stacy says that
Regarding RT's Policy to not review m/m books in RT) [...] My decision to not review these books has nothing to do with being homophobic. Some of my best friends are gay and in fact several attend our convention and have been friends for years and I love them dearly. My decision is based on my "print" readership and the fact that the majority of my "print readers" are not interested in m/m books at this time
The phrase 'some of my best friends are ...' is one that's been satirised on Black People Love Us! (for the background on this website see this article and this explanation of 'contagious media') which, like the following quotation from Amos' Promise Me, points out the absurdity (and underlying prejudices) of
People trying to prove just how 'down with the bros' they are. Inviting me to shoot a couple of hoops on the weekend or saying things like 'How 'bout that new Ice-T CD,' and trying out their versions of the latest homeboy slang. I guess I like basketball and rap music as much as the next guy, but when they assume that's all I like, I can't resist the urge to stretch the truth a little."
Cara smiled, "What do you mean?"
"Well, one guy was really ticking me off. He said come over for a fried chicken dinner, and we can shoot hoops afterward, and my son has the new L.L.Cool J album."
"What did you say?"
"I said I'm trying to lay off fried foods, golf is my sport of choice, and who is L.L.Cool J?"
Cara burst into giggles. "How did he react to that?"
"His mind was boggled. [...]" (2007: 193)
And racial issues were raised by the Convention too. Seressia Glass wondered whether it was the subject matter of her novels or her own skin-colour which affected readers' responses to her books.

As if all this weren't enough to demonstrate that respect, support and/or the lack of it is a big issue this week, the Smart Bitches received an email, in response to some critical comments they had made, in which the emailer stated that the SBs clearly
have nothing better to do than to trash people they dont even know, [and] probably all look like fat disgusting hairy looking men! [...] I would love nothing more than to throw you bitches in the trunk of my caddy and dump you in the weeds somewhere off the Belt Pkwy! But instead, I will pray for you.
Even if, as it appears, this was a troll impersonating someone else, it does reinforce the impression that Romanceland this week is not a place in which either the milk of human kindness or honey are flowing in abundance. And to conclude with a post which brought the debate about respect and how the genre might gain it into the area of reviews and literary criticism of romance novels, on the 2nd of May Kassia Krozser said that 'Romance authors constantly whine about lack of respect. They complain about lack of column inches. They decry the fact that their work is referred to as “bodice rippers”'. She suggests that one solution might be for some (not all) authors to consider writing reviews.