Thursday, February 19, 2009

Syllabus Suggestions (part 1)

Spring quarter is fast approaching, and that means it's time for me to choose the books for my new crop of romance classes! I get to teach a pair of them next term: a "liberal studies" survey (i.e., it's not primarily for English majors) and an Honors senior seminar, which is supposed to be "interdisciplinary" in its approach, as there are Honors students coming from a variety of majors.

So--what should I teach?

1. Where to start?

I like to structure the survey historically, and students seem to like that, too. As a rule, I've started with The Sheik, and that's always gone well, but I've often thought about starting things much, much earlier (say, with Daphnis and Chloe) or back in the 19th century (say, with Pride and Prejudice), or a little earlier in the 20th century (with A Room With a View, for example, or with Grace Livingston Hill's The Finding of Jasper Holt).

The appeal of starting with a Greek romance or the Austen is that it would let me establish the deep roots of the genre. The Hill appeals to be as a way to place evangelical romance at the start of the tradition, in a way that would certainly make the scandalous nature of The Sheik particularly vivid to my students.

I've also gotten much more self-conscious about presenting The Sheik as the start of things when j. dixon's The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990 does such a fine job of introducing one to what was going on before it in the world of popular romance.

So, that's dilemma #1: where to start the class?

2. Early Texts, or Recent Ones?

Since I'm not going to drop The Sheik, although I may put something before it, the next question I face is how much weight to give earlier romance novels--which are historically significant, but often less engaging for my students--and how much to skew the class toward more recent authors and texts. My own experience as a reader was not at all chronological, since I started with recent work and went backwards, but that's not the most effective way to structure a class, I suspect. (Maybe someday I'll try that, but not this year.)

Here's how the dilemma plays out in practice. After The Sheik we'll turn to Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub, which was hard for some of my students, but is a perfect complement to the E. M. Hull novel before it. I also see now that Regency Buck is back in print here in the US. Should I teach that one instead? It would introduce my students to the Regency genre, while DC is set in an earlier period, but it lacks the delightful element of a heroine who shoots the hero, which is always so popular. The Grand Sophy is another option, although it's from considerably later in the century, 1950 as opposed to 1932 for Devil's Cub and 1935 for Regency Buck. Hmmm... Advice?

In any case, having taught Hull and Heyer, the next likely text would be Mistress of Mellyn, by Victoria Holt, back in print for the first time since I started teaching this class. I don't love it, as a novel, but historically it's certainly significant, a way to talk about Gothic romance and its centrality in the 1960s. (I've tried using Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? to teach the roots of romantic suspense, but it doesn't have the whole house element that's so crucial to romantic suspense, somehow.) Mistress of Mellyn will also make a fine set up for Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, which I always teach, and always teaches well.

That's four, maybe five novels, and brings us halfway into the quarter. Historically, though, we're only at 1972, and we only have five weeks left to cover romance since the 1980s. Hardly enough time to cover the major trends, authors, subgenres, etc., of the past three decades, even if I positively shoehorn books into the syllabus, as I did last fall. (13 novels in 10 weeks. The students were not amused.) On the other hand, if I want to slant the class towards more recent novels, which of these do you think I should cut?

Must run to a dentist's appointment--fun, fun!--but I'll post more about the classes when I can. All help, as always, appreciated!


  1. Hey Eric. Oh how I wish I could be taking a survey class of romance! In my not-so-humble opinion, I think you should start out with Cupid & Psyche because A)it is really short B)it lets you establish the long history of romance and C)did I mention it was short?

    Personally, I don't like Regency Buck as much as the Devil's Cub. If Venetia was back in print I would suggest that one as an alternative to DC that depicts the Regency period but has the same feel as DC.

    As for what you would cut, I guess that depends on what you are going to add. If you cut Mistress of Mellyn or whichever gothic you use then perhaps you should add in a contemporary paranormal or thriller. If you cut The Devil's Cub then you should probably add in a contemporarily written historical like Flowers from the Storm or Mr. Impossible. If you cut The Sheik I would add something like The Italian Boss' Virgin Mistress' Secret Baby or what have you since I think of those Harlequin Presents could offer similar content for discussion as The Sheik.

    Hope that was more helpful than not. And just as a side note, you could always teach Nine Coaches Waiting, now back in print, which has the castle, the dark stranger and other standard gothic elements in it.

  2. In case anyone's interested, there's an edition of Daphnis and Chloe (in an English translation) available online. I haven't read it yet, though. There's also a synopsis.

    Hull's The Sheik is also available, via Project Gutenberg.

    I can think of a possible alternative to the Grace Livingston Hill, if you're looking for a slightly older inspirational romance. I blogged about Augusta Jane Evans's St. Elmo a couple of years ago (Part 1 and Part 2), and it's a possibility. I think it might be interesting because the hero is a rake and there's a lot of discussion about duelling, so although it's not a regency, it would perhaps set up possible comparisons with Devil's Cub. And there's a possible racist/mysteries of the Orient angle to parts of it which might tie in with discussion of parts of The Sheik. It was also hugely popular, and had a parody written of it (as I mentioned in one of my blog posts) so there's a bit of secondary material that might be of interest too.

    (I've tried using Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? to teach the roots of romantic suspense, but it doesn't have the whole house element that's so crucial to romantic suspense, somehow.)

    I see Angela's just mentioned Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, which has "the whole house element" (as is apparent from the cover included on this page). It's got a sinister male relative who's acting as a guardian to a young and vulnerable male ward. Actually, that reminds me of Heyer's Sylvester (or, to give it its full title, Sylvester or The Wicked Uncle, which plays on that kind of storyline by having the heroine write a gothic romance. That might be a fun Heyer to look at if you wanted to spend a bit more time on the Gothic. It would also tie in with Austen's Northanger Abbey, which also has Gothic elements and metafictional discussion about them.

    I wonder if it would be an interesting exercise to send the students out at the end of the course to find a relatively recent Harlequin romance and see what elements they can find in it which remind them of ones present in the earlier texts they'll already have studied. There are plenty of romantic suspenses, inspirationals, regencies, and sheik romances to choose from. That might be a way to get the students to read a Harlequin (and Harlequin is an extremely significant player in the romance genre) while also giving them a bit of choice and encouraging them to take a bit of the initiative. In fact, this year is Harlequin's 60th birthday and they're giving away 16 free ebooks (in a wide variety of subgenres). Maybe the students could choose to study one of those? They're definitely widely available, so you'd have no trouble finding copies.

  3. I see someone already mentioned NINE COACHES WAITING as an alternative Stewart. There's a bit of a house element, as well as bonus? Orientalism, in THE GABRIEL HOUNDS.

    So far as Heyer goes, COTILLION is back in print, and you can't get much better than that as an example of Regency. It was published in 1953, originally.

    I guess Joan Aiken's a little too late, plus there's the complication of alternate history in her Gothics.

    For older stuff, GLENARVON? THE CASTLE OF WOLFENBACH? Something like that?

  4. Gotta start with Pride and Prejudice. I use it to introduce eight elements of romance, pert heroines, and brooding heroes.

    I'd second Venetia and have to say no to The Grand Sophy--it's not romance enough. I'd say go for Regency Buck. I think it might read better than Devil's Cub, especially with the romance. And it's actually Regency, unlike DC. But then, Sylvester would speak to Gothic as well.

    Don't forget The Scarlet Pimpernel, for a little bit Gothic, a little bit historical, a little bit suspense/mystery.

    As for modern books, I'd say go for one contemporary (Crusie? SEP? Nora?), one category, one paranormal (Brooks? Ward?), one erotic romance (m/m? BDSM? Get both and do Hill's Rough Canvas or Anah Crow's Uneven (short and perfect). Of course, one modern historical would be good, too, but if you're doing The Sheik AND a Heyer AND Woodiwiss, I don't see that you'll have the room.

    Oh, I wish I could do this. Have fun.

    OH! I had great luck teaching Emma Holly's Fairyville. M/m, menage, erotica, paranormal. It had it all and it's a really fun read. Great book!

  5. Wow, I love that you are considering either Devil's Cub or Grand Sophy (my 2 fave Heyers--my daughter is named Sophie after Sophy), but I agree that TGS isn't romance-y enough.

    I like the Cupid/Psyche idea.

    I had luck once teaching Strange Bedpersons, one of Crusie's categories. The "Cinder-Tess" aspect made for a nice meta-discussion of fairy tale and romance novels. Bet Me would also work but is, obviously, longer.

    I am getting such an urge to reread Mary Stewart now. :) It's been 20+ years!

  6. Thanks, everyone! I need my own copies of more of these--it looks like a trip to the library (or the bookstore!) is in order, at the very least for some alternative Heyers and for 9 Coaches Waiting. I want to teach them books they'll really enjoy, first & foremost, and if I don't get excited for them, who will?

    As for the more recent texts, I haven't read Fairyville, Sarah, but I was thinking of doing Menage this time around, swapping it in for "Natural Law." Some of my younger undergrads found the first half of the Hill hard going, so I'd like to swap in something a bit less intense (even if the emotional payoff is, likewise, less powerful).

    I'd really, really love to do a non-BDSM m/m or f/f romance, or maybe one of each. My students will have enough challenge shifting gears to the gay / lesbian plot, I suspect, without adding anything else provocative to the mix. I really enjoyed Matthew Haldeman-Time's "Off the Record," but I'm not sure whether my bookstore will be able to order up a self-published text. The SF plot in "Offworld" complicates that one, as it would be my only SF romance. Hmmm... Suggestions?

  7. Oh! And I've just realized that the Smart Bitches' book on romance fiction is due out in the second or third week of class. Maybe I should use it as a guide, somehow? (Hard to do without an advance copy to peek at as I plan, hint, hint....)

    I could also do a full class on recent books, starting in the 1990s. Did that last summer for my graduate students: the oldest book in the mix was "Flowers from the Storm." That solves the problem of literary history neatly enough, although it still means I have to choose somewhere to start. A really good early Nora Roberts, maybe? But which?

  8. All I've got as recs are e-books. MHT's OTR is my favorite, of course, but K.A. Mitchell's Collision Course is fabulous (m/m), mostly vanilla but with an amazing spanking scene that totally works for the characters, as is Lorelie James' Rough, Raw, and Ready (m/m/f full triad), but they're both ebooks (which I think is worth a discussion all by itself, but that's just me).

    If you can't/won't do ebooks, Fairyville is just fabulous. It's a lot of fun. There are two couples, one m/m well-established, working through their issues, and one m/f. The first sex is m/m--very hot. There are a couple (more?) of menage scenes. It's paranormal (one of each couple is a fairy, in the paranormal sense!) and well-written. Much more fun than her Menage, in my estimation, and it gets at the m/m interest, too. So I'd totally go for that instead of Menage.

  9. Oh, please! Email SB Sarah. She'd TOTALLY send you an ARC. She's probably hyperventilate at the thought of being an assigned course reading. And it's a marvelous book (having an ARC myself!). Perfect for an overview book for the course.

  10. Thinking through it, if you can swing the ebook, go for the Mitchell. Wonderful gay romance, with great great spanking scene. Otherwise Fairyville.

  11. Eric, do your students have to do in-class presentations? I will use presentations in my romance class in winter to add a bit more depth to the course, e.g., we won't read a gothic novel, but when we'll discuss gothic romance, there'll be a presentation on the gothic novel. Similarly, a presentation on Bridget Jones and on Me and Mr Darcy will widen the scope of the Austen-Heyer-Regency discussion.

  12. Sandra, I haven't had the survey students do presentations; only the seniors in my seminar. The survey has 40 students, and I'd rather keep the reins more tightly in my hands.

    Sarah, I'll go check out the ebook you mention. AND contact SBSarah. Who knows?

    Re: Crusie, I've often wanted to teach a category (Manhunting or Anyone But You had been on my mind, but the Cinderella Deal does have all that great metafictional stuff). Trouble is, I can only teach one, and Welcome to Temptation always brings such a smile to my students' faces....

    More anon!

  13. Pamela by Samuel Richardson is a real template for boss/secretary type relationships where the heroine undermines the alpha male's status in this case by just saying no, again and again and again....

    Gothic - Northanger Abbey and maybe extracts from Mysteries of Udolpho or Lewis's Monk?

    Wuthering Heights for the first serious bad boy archetype plus Gothic/elements of supernatural see below for vampire romances and Charlaine Harris connections.

    Trollope - Anthony and then Joanna for psychological realism in heroines and then an update on the Brit Aga-saga.

    Prisoner of Zenda for unattainable true love - actually Anthony Hope is a well of great romances.

    I think Venetia, Frederica, Sylvester and Arabella are the uber-Regencies of Heyer's output. I was surprised that some students found Devil's Cub hard - how exactly? Too slow?

    An interesting contrast would be to look at something like some of PG Wodehouse's standalone comic romances, e.g. Full Moon. He and Heyer are virtual contemporaries. These could lead neatly into comic contemporaries, e.g Rachel Gibson.

    If you are doing modern categories, I think it would be interesting to explore some of the cultural tropes - if you compare US writers with UK and Australasian ones, frex, e.g. Macomber, with Carole Mortimer or Penny Jordan, Sharon Kendrick and emma Darcy.

    How about a vampire historical perspective - Polidori, Stoker, Rice, Hamilton, Harris and Meyer...

    And what about looking at Woodiwiss and Gabaldon together? Apart from which, Lord John deals with m/m. But reading Outlander took me back to reading Shanna and Flame and the Flower for the first time not because of plot/characterisation so much (I think Gabaldon is a heap more competent as both researcher and writer, but Woodiwiss is such fun) as setting.

    sigh, what fun to think about romances...

  14. Oh oh I forgot to mention my favourite same sex writer Sarah Waters - Fingersmith ---- sooooo romantic, and f/f with big big nods to Wilkie Collins and gothic/melodrama modes.

    My favourite Mary Stewart is thunder on the Right, I love the romance in that novel, although it is very suspensey.

    And I can't not mention Eva Ibbotson. Magic Flutes or Countess Below Stairs. Sigh.

    Sorry to bang on.

  15. Bang away, Madeleine! I'm all ears, or drums, or eardrums--whatever the right metaphor would be. I'd never heard of Sarah Waters. Does "Fingersmith" have an HEA, or is it more romanTIC, but not not romance as such? Clearly I need to get it myself and take a look; the reviews and description are great.

    Also, if any of you know the Kushiel books, do you think I could do the third one (Kushiel's Avatar) on its own? That book just _haunts_ me, and I've rarely reacted so deeply to a fantasy romance. But I don't have the time, in a 10 week quarter, to teach the first two for set up. Anybody read that one first, and remember what that was like?

  16. Oh my goodness, I don't think I've ever seen The Finding of Jasper Holt referenced ANYWHERE ever before this. When I moved up from the kiddie library, my librarian pointed me in Grace Livingston Hill's direction. I devoured them, pretty much. I lost a lot of love for them as I grew up, but I still have my copy of TFoJH. It's a lovely story.

    Regarding Heyer, I never could stand Devil's Cub, personally. I've had really good luck recommending Black Sheep to newbies, though.

  17. Re Fingersmith

    I did feel it was a proper romance with a proper HEA, the heroines end up together and the villains get comeuppance, but it is ambiguous.

  18. I'd veer away from Regency Buck if only because it really isn't a romance in the usual sense; because of the demands of the mystery plot, the hero has to appear a plausible candidate for villainy until very nearly the end. The other Heyers you've mentioned do a much better job of actually portraying a growing relationship (especially Cotillion).

    Of course I don't know how this fits into the goals of your course. What do I know, I'm only a

    -- passing Firedrake

  19. You know, Firedrake, that very aspect of Regency Buck might make it good for the class. There's something echt Gothic about having the hero "appear a plausible candidate for villainy until very nearly the end," so the novel could introduce elements of both subgenres. Will reread it and see what I think.

  20. Oh, some of this discussion makes me feel very old! Devil's Cub was the first romance novel I read. Not just of Heyer's, but of any romance. I had a very ambiguous feeling about it: fascinated but frightened by the idea of the aggressive, unlikeable hero. I eventually read all of Heyer, and had a similar feeling about Regency Buck, while loving the introduction to the Regency world it provided. I can't imagine a survey course on romance that didn't include at least one of these titles.

    Surely the "is he/isn't he" plot (a villain? the hero? a potential lover?) an essential element in the development of the romance novel? I even used it in my own novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, as it seemed the perfect way to introduce an alpha male "gay" hero for the m/m/f story. When a (male)reviewer said of Andrew, the story's hero, "there were times I just wanted to get into it with him," I knew I had succeeded.

    I'd also be curious to know why students have a hard time with DC.

  21. Eric, if you're thinking about a good early Nora Roberts, I have a few to recommend, depending on what you're looking for (and what's easily available nowadays):
    - Irish Thoroughbreds (1982), Robert's first book, which has a nice mix of the traditional gender roles and narrative genre conventions in the early 80s - strictly heroine POV, hero is a mystery until the end, virginal, displaced heroine seeking her place and identity in the world, Marriage in Name Only plot, etc - and Roberts' typical feisty heroine, who knows and speaks her own mind (in spite of the conventions).
    - Dance of Dreams (1983) about two dancers in a New York company. Again interesting from a gender perspective as the hero is a Russian ballet dancer but still explicitly male; like Irish Thoroughbred this novel combines 80s genre conventions (virginal heroine, age difference between hero and heroine, prevalent heroine POV) with what was to become Roberts' trademark personal style.
    I have a few other suggestions if you'd like, but I particularly recommend these because I think your students will still enjoy them while also getting a good idea of dominant genre conventions at the beginning of the 80s.

  22. Thanks for the Nora suggestions, An. I have a horrid teaching day today (meetings, then class, then grading & prep, then a night class), but tomorrow I'll pick up the Irish book & maybe also Loving Jack for comparison. I'd like to bring her into the mix this year--haven't taught her yet!

  23. Eric, have you read Heyer's "Bath Tangle"? I'm currently reading it and I'm thinking about putting it on the syllabus instead of "Regency Buck": it's a Regency, the heroine is even more unconventional than the one in "Regency Buck," and at the end there's a speech by the hero which reveals that he sees their relationship very much as a partnership. (And it makes a nice contrast to Cartland's A Hazard of Hearts, where the heroine is also called Serena, but is a typical can't-speak-in-whole-sentences Cartland heroine, poor thing.)

  24. Wow.. All I have to say isssss bravvvvoooo! Honestly, most people look @ life and really see that there is just sooo much to accomplish that they don't even know where to begin. And then, years down the line they end up regretting not taking the first steps to help them excel in their career. But you, you are the definition of true efforts and really, I think you got to where you want to be by 'planning'
    Planning is something that sounds so simple, but while in Oxford, we learned that if you want to make it big in life just like those wealthy people, you have to A) Start Young (and) B) Plan ahead
    And literally planning ahead got me to where I want to be in life with a six figure income and I bless every day that I live, really. All I have to say is kudos to another individual that lives his life successfully like I do :)