Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Reading Like an English Professor (1)

A week or so ago, to kick things off, I posted the syllabus for my first course on Popular Romance Fiction. I noted at the time that the course hadn't exactly gone as planned, and the ways that it variously succeeded and failed have a lot to do with the topics we have posted about here ever since.

Just to refresh your memory, that first course was organized by topics and genres. We had a week devoted the two-part question "What is Romance, and Why Do People Say Such Nasty Things About It?"; after that, we spent two weeks on "Alpha Males and Bodice Rippers," two weeks on Regencies, a week on romantic suspense, a week on historical romances, and a week on a contemporary romance. In each unit, I tried to pair an earlier and a later example of the genre, and in the weeks on Alpha Males, we actually worked on three novels: The Sheik, The Flame and the Flower, and Emma Holly's Hunting Midnight, whose hero Ulric, a shapeshifting upyr, is quite literally the alpha male of his wolf pack.

As the course went on, I had to cut a number of books. It took much longer than I'd thought to set out some of the conventions of each genre and then to discuss each romance. On the other hand, we made some wonderful discoveries as we read. For example, as our first romantic suspense novel I had assigned Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk at the last minute, after giving it only a cursory reading. (The one I wanted to teach, Nine Coaches Waiting, turned out to be out of print.) When I walked in to class, the students were utterly baffled by it. Where, they asked, was the romance? After the sexually explicit texts they'd read for the past few weeks, Stewart's novel wasn't just tepid; it seemed positively repressed, and the relationship between our heroine, Charity, and the hero, Richard Byron, felt elusive at best and perfunctory at worst.

Now, I don't know about you, but I actually love reactions like this. They make me think on my feet, and they turn the class into a knowledge-producing, rather than a knowledge-transmitting, enterprise. I sent the class on a romance treasure-hunt, and within the hour, we had put together a delightful list of discoveries, spotting displaced romance in the setting (Troubadour country in the south of France), in the character's names (Charity, from caritas; and Byron from the poet, naturally, although they didn't know this coming in), in Charity's "mother-complex" toward Richard's son David, in Charity's visit to the Temple of Diana (where she meets Richard, rather violently--with this violence also a displacement of sexual interest), in the literary epigraphs to several chapters, in various code words and phrases (Richard, like Charity's late husband Johnny, tends to be, ahem, "dictatorial"), and, most of all, in the scenes of eating and drinking. Here's the turning point, midway through the novel, when Richard has finally caught up with Charity and forces her to have a meal with him, although she still suspects, in the best gothic fashion, that he is a murderer:
"All of it," urged Richard Byron. I obeyed him, and lay back against the deep cushions with my eyes closed, letting my body relax utterly to the creeping warmth of the drink and the smell of the food and wine and flowers. My bones seemed to have melted, and I was queerly content to lie back against the yielding velvet, with the soft lights against my eyelids, and do nothing, think of nothing. I was quiet and utterly passive, and the awful beginnings of hysteria were checked.

Still from that same dimensionless distance, I heard him speaking in French. I supposed he was ordering food. And presently at my elbow I I heard the chink of silver, and opened my eyes to see the big trolley of hors d'oeuvres with its hovering attendant.

Richard Byron said something to him, and without waiting for me to speak, the man served me from the tray. I remember still those exquisite fluted silver dishes, each with its load of dainty colours...there were anchovies and tiny gleaming silver fish in red sauce, and savoury buter in curled strips of fresh lettuce; there were caviare and tomato and olives green and black, and small golden-pink mushrooms and cresses and beans. The waiter heaped my plate, and filled another glass with white wine. I drank half a glassfull without a word, and began to eat. I was conscious of Richard Byron's eyes on me, but he did not speak. (173).
This description of the meal goes on for another page or two--it's as sensual as any love scene, but my students had overlooked it entirely, looking for something more literal.

The next time I taught my romance course, I made the first half of the quarter a chronological survey, from The Sheik (1919) to The Flame and the Flower (1972); only then did we break into contemporary authors and subgenres. This time, when we reached Mary Stewart, we could talk about it in terms of the sexual politics of the mid-1950s--what Charity, and Stewart, could and could not do openly in the text--and we had the chance to think more deeply about the novel's treatment of history, too. (Not to toss out spoilers, but the novel is set in post-war Europe, and there is an important plot thread involving the Holocaust.)

Now, is Madam, Will You Talk? of historical significance? Possibly--it's Stewart's first novel, and she has been credited with creating the modern genre of romantic suspense. Is it a teachable text? Absolutely; in fact, it taught my students not only about the history of romance fiction, but about a number of literary techniques, from allusion to symbolism. (Few were English majors; most needed this education, or at least these reminders of long ago high school coursework.) Would I put it in "the canon" of romance fiction, were there to be one? Well, it's not on my list of "transcendent romances," but I do find it awfully interesting. Is that good enough?

P.S. Here are two of the paper topics I used the first time I taught Madam, Will You Talk? Feel free to borrow and transform them, and let me know how it went!

Paper topics on Madam, Will You Talk?

1. In class, we explored some of the ways that this novel displaces its “romance”—at least as far as this means sexuality, desire, passion, and so on—into various other plot elements, activities, code phrases, epigraphs, settings, and so on. Write an essay that elaborates this idea into a full-blown argument. Demonstrate that, despite one’s initial impression, this is a pervasively “romantic” romance novel, albeit in a far more subtle way than we see in, say, The Flame and the Flower.

2. Romance novels are famous for delivering, by the end, the beloved “HEA”: happily ever after. How, though, can the novelist pull this off when her novel is filled with crime, death, and tragedy? Write an essay on the final chapters of Madam which shows how they pull off this remarkable challenge, allowing us to feel that the chaos and sadness that the novel begins with, in both private and public worlds, have been replaced by coherence and at least a promise of joy. (You may want to keep in mind an idea from romance author and critic Jennifer Crusie, who has said that the happy endings of romance novels best also be understood as endings that give us a sense of “emotional justice.")


  1. Nine coaches waiting is available from Amazon in a new edition - a bit late for your course, perhaps, but if you do it again, it's there.

    Mary Stewart is one of those authors who make people want to write romance. I was at a writers' conference a few years back, and when asked why they wrote romance, a significant proportion of writers said, 'Because of Nine Coaches Waiting.'

    I was interested in the idea of Mary Stewart creating the modern genre of romantic suspense. I would have said that it was created by Daphne du Maurier with Rebecca.

  2. Being semi-flippant here, does the passage quoted suggest that the road to a woman's heart is through her stomach?

  3. Thanks, Amanda! Good news about Nine Coaches Waiting, although I'll have to reread it now and see whether I think it will teach quite as well as Madam. Poor me. Now if only someone would re-issue "Mistress of Mellyn"!

    As for whether Stewart or du Maurier invented romantic suspense, maybe I'll let Pam weigh in. I probably got the idea from her book to begin with.

    As for the road to a woman's heart, I couldn't possibly comment (grin).

  4. Now if only someone would re-issue "Mistress of Mellyn!

    Oh, yes indeed! That was an enormous influence in me, I haven't read it for yonks but somehow feel as though I could recite entire sections of it...

  5. You're in luck - Harper Collins are going to reissue Victoria Holt's books. My favourites were The Shivering Sands and The Silk Vendetta.

    A bit of Victoria Holt trivia - she was commissioned to write her Gothics because the publishers saw that Rebecca had never been out of print and they wanted to capitalise on its success.

    I have a Gothic called Stormcrow Castle coming out at the end of this year / start of next year. You can see the cover sketch here:

    I just love Gothics!

  6. Good news all around, then! I've wanted to teach a proper Gothic in my course, and now I have plenty of options. Great!


  7. Mary Stewart's books certainly were a major influence in my reading interests, although I believe Holt's MISTRESS OF MELLYN was the first modern romance I read. (Modern as opposed to, say, JANE EYRE or PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, both of which were seminal experiences.)

    Stewart's MADAM, WILL YOU TALK? is one of my favorites of her oeuvre, others being NINE COACHES WAITING and WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT. Oh, and THE IVY TREE, which was the very first Stewart book I read, and my first experience of an unreliable narrator. I loved it then, and still loved it when I re-read it some years later. It's been at least 25 years since I last read it, however--I wonder whether I'd still see it in the same light?

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. Who knows, perhaps I'll write an essay for myself using your discussion suggestions. Good to think about these things.