Thursday, October 26, 2006

Femininity, Chivalry, Class and Patriarchy

I've been reading Kate Millett's Sexual Politics and I'd like to quote one passage which seemed particularly relevant to a discussion of the romance genre:
It is generally accepted that Western patriarchy has been much softened by the concepts of courtly and romantic love. While this is certainly true, such influence has also been vastly overestimated [...] traditional chivalrous behavior represents – a sporting kind of reparation to allow the subordinate female certain means of saving face. While a palliative to the injustice of woman’s social position, chivalry is also a technique for disguising it. One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level. Historians of courtly love stress the fact that the raptures of the poets had no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status. As the sociologist Hugo Beigel has observed, both the courtly and the romantic versions of love are “grants” which the male concedes out of his total powers. Both have had the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confining them in a narrow and often remarkably conscribing sphere of behavior. It was a Victorian habit, for example, to insist the female assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious but felt someone ought to do anyway. (Millett 1971: 36-37)
There are plenty of romance heroines who seem to possess 'impossible virtues': as Radway notes, 'the fact of her true femininity is never left in doubt. No matter how much emphasis is placed on her initial desire to appear a man's equal, she is always portrayed as unusually compassionate, kind, and understanding' (Radway 1991: 127). Sexually, the heroines of romance are very often virgins paired with more sexually-experienced men. Of course, a lot has changed in the genre since Radway wrote her Reading the Romance, and there are all sorts of different heroines, some more traditionally 'feminine' than others, and even Radway recognised that the romances did engage with the inequalities between the sexes in contemporary society by creating 'heroines in these female-sponsored fantasies [...who] explicitly refuse to be silenced by the male desire to control women through the eradication of their individual voices' (1991: 124). This could sometimes tip over into excessive 'feistiness' and a heroine so determined to do things her own way that readers might nowadays dub her 'too stupid to live', but nonetheless a heroine of this type was generally asserting her individuality, her right to think and act for herself in a male dominated society. That the heroines retain many aspects of femininity as traditionally defined (usually being in possession of exquisite beauty and a caring personality) does not mean that they should necessarily be read as repressive: there is nothing wrong with being caring and beautiful. One might, however, begin to question the cumulative effect of a genre which only featured such heroines, but fortunately the modern romance genre does provide us with other types of heroine. Heroines of the kind described above may not represent a total overthrow of sexual stereotypes, but one can see evidence of a struggle by the authors of romances to assert women's worth and to give them some sort of victory in a patriarchal society.

That victory is not infrequently framed in terms of her 'taming' of the hero:
With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman. (Krentz 1992: 5)
This could be read as an acknowledgement of the dangers that men pose to women in a patriarchal society, and, given that the heroine in romances with this type of plot is usually exceptional, as an acknowledgement that in the normal course of events many dangerous men remain 'untamed'. Doreen Owens Malek writes:
So what is the fantasy? Simply this: a strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman.
Why does this particular fantasy hold so much appeal for us? Because it dramatizes, colorfully and dramatically, a battle of the sexes in which the woman always wins. Women are weaker physically, perennially behind in civil rights, always playing catch-up ball with men. This type of fiction offers a scenario in which a woman inevitably emerges victorious. (1992: 74-75)
For me personally, winning the 'battle of the sexes' holds no appeal at all: I'd rather we all 'work together as a team', as Bob the Builder and Wendy would say, but clearly winning the battle is a fantasy that has appealed, and continues to appeal, to many woman, perhaps precisely because they have frequently felt oppressed by patriarchy in their daily lives. Krentz adds that
the heroes in the books undergo a significant change in the course of the story, often being tamed or gentled or taught to love, but they do not lose any of their masculine strength in the process. [...] The journey of the novel, many writers say, is the civilization of the male. (1992: 6)
Leaving aside the issue of whether the hero and heroine can be read as two aspects of the readers' own personalities which need to be integrated (see, for example, Barlow and Kinsale, in the same volume), if one reads the stories on a literal level they show the heroine's triumph over the hero. But the heroine has to accept the responsibility for 'civilizing' the male: in other words, she, as Millett observes, 'assume[s] the function of serving as the male’s conscience' and although the hero may be 'tamed' with regards to the heroine and any children she may have with him, he does not lose his 'masculine strength', so in many respects his behaviour is likely to remain the same in his interactions with other individuals (although if he was rakish this particular part ofbehaviour will cease permanently). If read as a recipe for challenging patriarchy, it suggests a case-by-case approach, with the woman putting herself at considerable risk in order to achieve this desirable end. It also suggests that in order to succeed the heroine must be exceptionally feminine. In addition, there may be issues of class involved.

As George Eliot noted in her 1856 essay on 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists', 'The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right'. Although this is not very often the case in modern romance novels, the heroines of historical romances still tend to be 'ladies', very often from aristocratic families. Even in modern, contemporary-set romances there is often a class element to the fantasy:
Harlequin romances allow their readers to experience the ideal rewards of capitalism, insofar as the novels are usually fantasies of financial empowerment as much as they are romantic fantasies. The standard Harlequin narrative, for instance, usually involves a middle-class woman’s relationship with a rich, single male—usually a businessman, wealthy rancher, or male engaged in some similar occupation. The inevitable marriage at the end thus also involves a marriage into wealth, or at least improved financial security. (Darbyshire 2000)
According to Pamela Fox
During the early decades of the twentieth-century in Britain, it was predominantly middle-class women who felt the daily strictures of (and protested against) romantic codes of behaviour. Working-class women were more typically denied access to those codes by their own cultural experience. Romance functioned as an emblem of privilege, was reserved for others. While the cinema and popular novels encouraged their diverse female audiences to identify with an array of romance heroines, working-class mothers made sure their daughters understood that romance was purely a fantasy with little relevance to their lives [...]. Unlike their middle- and upper-class counterparts, who frequently suffocated at the hands of father, brothers, guardians and mothers while playing out the real-life role of romance heroine, working-class women suffered chastisement or ridicule within their communities if they merely made attempts to try the role on. (1994: 141)
Of course, times have changed, as have romance heroines, but it's worth remembering that, as Millett says of the concept of chivalry (vis-à-vis women), 'the Victorian doctrine of chivalrous protection and its familiar protestations of respect, rests upon the tacit assumption, a cleverly expeditious bit of humbug, that all women were “ladies”' (1971: 73) and she quotes the words of Sojourner Truth, a freed slave:
That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place - and ain't I a woman?
Look at this arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me - and ain't I a woman?
I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? (Millett 1971: 72)
The triumph of the lady and the privileges she was accorded were limited and did not extend to her working-class sisters.

If we take Edmund Blair Leighton's painting 'Accolade' as a portrayal of the workings of chivalry, we can see that the woman, or rather princess, since she wears a crown and has her hair loose (which often, though not always, indicated that a woman was a virgin) and is dressed in white (another indication of purity, as in The Book of Margery Kempe), is knighting a young warrior. In the background stands another figure of male power, the priest. For the moment, the young princess is in control, holding a sword, while the knight, whose black eagle perhaps suggests his wild, strong nature, is on his knees before her, 'tamed'. The knight is a warrior, not a peasant, a monk, priest, merchant or physician, and he represents temporal power. Medieval society was, according to the three estates theory, divided into three classes, the oratores, bellatores and laboratores. The aristocratic, warrior class were the bellatores, in whom rested earthly, physical power, while spiritual power was in the hands of the priests, or oratores. The painting does indeed indicate a degree of female power, but at the same time, it's worth remembering that the laws of male primogeniture made female rulers rare (and non-existent where the Salic law on the issue was in effect), and that most women were neither ladies nor princesses.

  • Darbyshire, Peter, 2000. ‘Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia’, Studies in Popular Culture 23.1.
  • Fox, Pamela, 1994. 'The "Revolt of the Gentle": Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working-Class Women's Writing', NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 27.2: 140-160.
  • Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. 'Introduction', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 1-9.
  • Millett, Kate, 1971. Sexual Politics (London: Rupert Hart-Davis).
  • Owens Malek, Doreen, 1992. 'Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 73-80.
  • Radway, Janice A. 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).


  1. I should perhaps add that Leighton was, of course, not a medieval artist. His dates are 1853-1922 and:

    Edmund Blair Leighton was a painter of historical genre pictures, mainly of medieval times, but also regency. [...] Rather like Waterhouse, and Herbert Draper, Leighton the man has virtually disappeared. The reasons for the continuing popularity of the artist’s work are not difficult to understand, as they are similar to those in his lifetime, namely nostalgia for an elegant chivalrous past. Leighton was also a fastidious craftsman, producing highly- finished, beautifully painted, decorative pictures. (Victorian Art in Britain)

    Consequently his art perhaps says rather more about the Victorian ideal of chivalry than about the way chivalry was envisaged or practised in the Middle Ages. However, as Millett was discussing 'the Victorian doctrine of chivalrous protection', I felt Leighton's painting was appropriate as, literally, an illustration of what Millett was describing. I would assume, however, that Leighton would not have been unaware of at least some of the symbolism white clothing and unbound hair had in the Middle Ages and it seems likely that he would have been aware of the theoretical division of medieval society into three estates: it forms the basis for the division of the Westminster Parliament into the House of Lords (Lords Spiritual and Temporal) and the House of Commons, for more details on which see this Wikipedia entry).

    As an aside, Mills & Boon's cover art for The Regency Lords and Ladies Collection included Leighton's A Favour.

  2. Yet aren't the characteristics chivalry assigns to the man just as unrealistic as those it assigns to women? In Germany, a lot of medieval romances were written at a time when chivalry was already on the wane so they might interpreted as the attempt to hold on to an impossible ideal, or to re-create a golden past (and golden pasts, as we all know, are usually depicted in a way that has nothing to do with reality).

    The latter was most definitely something that drove the Victorian revival of the Middle Ages. In a time of social upheaval, it was so much easier to cling to "the days of old when knights were bold" -- and when genderroles were (or at least seemed to be) clearly defined. Yes, medieval images were used to reinforce a female ideal of passivity -- and as the century progressed (and more and more women began to clamour for more rights), artists obviously thought it necessary to make the women in their paintings more and more vulnerable (or they just killed them off -- dying or dead ladies floating down to Camelot, for example, were extremely popular): at the end of the 19th century the damsel in distress who was rescued by the knight in shining armour is usually stark naked. Or bound to a tree (Frank Dicksee, Chivalry, 1885). Or both (John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant, 1870). But this did not keep women for fighting for their rights.

    On the other hand, the effects of the chivalric ideal on men were much more disastrous: whole generations were fed stories of knights in shining armour fighting not only for the love and honour of a lady, but more importantly, for the glory of king and country. As a result whole generations believed that there was nothing more glorious than dying for your country. And naturally, when war finally broke out, all the young men flocked to the recruiting offices while war posters displayed all the symbols of chivalry and nationalism to encourage them. Yet the Great War did in nothing resemble a medieval tournament. And so it was on the battlefields of Europe that chivalry as a dominant code of conduct received its final deathblow. And even though knights and gallantry still abounded in literature, especially in popular literature, chivalry never again achieved this all-important role it had played in the Victorian age.

    In many ways, the Victorian medievalism is a total oddity, and several contemporaries already pointed out that the chivalric ideal was something that fell horribly short of reality. Such criticism, especially of the chivalric ideal of masculinity, can be found in Kenneth Grahame in "The Reluctant Dragon" or Anstey's "The Adventure of the Snowing GLobe". The latter also parodies the female ideal as depicted by the Pre-Raphaelites.

    If you're interested in Victorian medievalism, I can recommend Girourard's THe Return to Camelot. Joseph A. Kestner has worked on expressions of Victorian medievalism in art, and myself, I've written an article on the refuting of the chivalric ideal around 1900 for a collection ed. by Palmgren and Holloway, Beyond Arthurian Romances: The Reach of Victorian Medievalism.

  3. aren't the characteristics chivalry assigns to the man just as unrealistic as those it assigns to women

    Well, yes. Strict gender stereotypes oppress men too, not just emotionally but also, as you point out, in making them believe 'The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori' (Wilfred Owen). When you say that 'the effects of the chivalric ideal on men were much more disastrous' I wonder, is it that they were maybe more obvious? Women suffered economically, politically, intellectually and emotionally. It seems to me that it would be difficult to compare these chronic, intangible effects against the much more visible and easily counted piles of corpses.

    Thanks very much for the background on Victorian medievalism. As a medievalist I've noticed it (it would be hard to ignore the Pre-Raphaelites and neo-Gothic architecture) but not studied it.

  4. Lots of really interesting stuff in this great post, Laura. (With Monica's post on RTB today, it's a great romance debate day.) I particularly liked the ideas on the popularity of women taming men in a romance. It made me think once again on the old topic of the alpha male, since I've never been fond of them. Much of the taming would not be necessary if the heroines were not always choosing semi-arrogant rakes who "required" it. But if the domineering alpha male represented a dominating patriarchy, then victory over this symbol would be a great unconscious catharsis.

    But then, here's another idea on the taming. If I am a woman locked away from the world in my country estate, living virtues of gentleness and docility (is that a word?), then what could be a more appealing ideal than a partner who was everything you were not allowed to be, i.e, traveling around the world, sailing the high seas, gambling, drinking, and doing whatever the hell they wish. However, since kindness and gentility are real virtues, the heroine then had to tame their crazy other half. I guess this is what you were alluding to when you discussed uniting two complementary halves, huh?

    In current pop culture, there are a lot of twists on this, however. There's a TV syndicated series in the U.S. called Relic Hunter. The protagonist is sort of a female Indiana Jones. She's the one who beats up the bad guys, leaps over snake-filled pits, and saves the world. And she has a sidekick who is a man about her age, but this man is a fairly good-looking, nerdy, librarian type. Think Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His job is to look in ancient tomes and do database lookups and of course provide comic relief. And then there is periodically romantic tension between them. These scholar sidekicks don't always end up with the heroine, but sometimes they do. There's a fantasy series by Mercedes Lackey in which two heroines go off on adventures, killing demons and what have you. One of the heroines is asexual. The other eventually marries a somewhat sickly, but kind and noble scholar. The point? Just as much as there is this concept of a battle between the sexes, there also seems to be a large yin/yang bit going on, where your partner brings all of the virtues you lack - no matter which virtues those are. In classic romances, the man is the rake and the woman civilizes him. In the current ideal of the fabulously beautiful adventurer heroine, the male is often the bookish one who represents home.

    A final thought on Millett's arguments about the frequent pretend-subservience of men to women in the chivalric era not actually increasing the status of women. My concern is not that this argument is wrong, but simply incomplete. Since she is studying gender roles in various societies, she quite rightly is looking at genders as groups. From that perspective, women as a whole were indeed still being kept from power. However, if you look at individual people, it seems far more complicated. When the chivalric male is doing the bidding of his lady, singing her praises, idolizing her, and being her servant, he is at that moment in time actually doing her bidding. I'm not saying just that there were exceptions to Millet's arguments; I am saying that right then right there the man is in fact doing the bidding of someone who is societally underneath him. As a whole, neither person is freely choosing the roles they are playing, but within the roles that society has given them, the male is actually performing appropriate servile functions.

    I'm not expressing it well, so I will try again:

    Chivalry can be viewed as a lie disguising a dominating patriarchy. It can also be viewed as an attempt to get around the dominating patriarchy - an attempt by men and women to bring more balance into gender roles. Let's say I am a male in a medieval chivalric society. I believe that men are naturally the dominant sex in certain spheres - only men can be priests, the father should run the household, etc. Women should obey their husbands, raise children.... Whatever represented patriarchy at that time. But at the same time, I am an individual male human being who might be genuinely fond of an individual female human being. What is a way that I can express that real love within my society? The chivalric virtues seem a plausible way to go about it. So, in the end, chivalry is both a mask of societal patriarchy and a temporary escape from that patriarchy.

    There we go. Finally figured out what I was trying to say.

  5. Lots of really interesting stuff in this great post, Laura. (With Monica's post on RTB today, it's a great romance debate day.)

    Thanks, Pacatrue. I've been over at RTB too - in fact, it was such a great romance debate day, I barely got off the computer. If anyone hasn't been to RTB, Monica's blog post is here and it's about whether it's right that books should be shelved and marketed according to what their author looks like, and whether niche marketing has its downsides.

    what could be a more appealing ideal than a partner who was everything you were not allowed to be, i.e, traveling around the world, sailing the high seas, gambling, drinking, and doing whatever the hell they wish. However, since kindness and gentility are real virtues, the heroine then had to tame their crazy other half. I guess this is what you were alluding to when you discussed uniting two complementary halves, huh?

    Yes, here's part of what Linda Barlow had to say:

    The romance heroine is the primary aspect of feminine consciousness, the character with whom the reader is most likely to identify. She is engaging and likable, a genuinely sympathetic character. If she does more reacting than acting, more responding than initiating, this is hardly a surprise since it is with this aspect of femininity that most women are comfortable (1992: 47)

    The romantic hero is not the feminine ideal of what a man should be. The romantic hero, in fact, is not a man at all. He is a split-off portion of the heroine's own psyche which will be reintegrated at the end of the book [...] If the heroine's primary role in the myth serves to encourage us to cope with our fears, the hero's is to provide us with the means of facing and accepting the angry, aggressive, sexually charged components of our personality that we have been taught to associate with masculinity (1992: 49)

    I really don't know if she's right, because (a) romances can be interpreted in various ways (b) there's a lot of variety in romances, and not all of them are like the ones Barlow's describing. The genre has changed since 1992, but it's always contained a range of different stories and (c) I wasn't taught these things about masculinity and femininity as a child, so this argument isn't one that resonates with me, though it may well do for other people. I suspect it's the same with the 'taming' - I wonder if that's got more appeal for women who've felt oppressed by men/threatened by men, and/or have been brought up experiencing/believing in a 'battle of the sexes', but again that's not something that I've experienced to any great extent, so it's not something that would resonate with me as I read a romance.

    These scholar sidekicks don't always end up with the heroine, but sometimes they do.

    You still don't get so many romance heroines like this, though, do you? I've not read many (though there are some) romances with 'lady-rakes'. Things are changing, though. If the genre had a mixture of women and men taking the 'alpha' role, that would change the message that the genre sends as a whole (though I prefer to read one book at a time, rather than trying to work out the message being sent by the entire genre, because I'm not at all sure there is one, unified message being sent by the genre on issues like this one). And as I said, I do think the genre is changing and there's more experimentation with what a heroine can be and do - there's more leeway to create heroines who are not always 'nice', gentle, caring etc. Crusie makes the point that having the hero and heroine as opposites (whether it's an alpha hero with a traditionally feminine heroine, or vice versa, with the hero taking on the 'feminine' role) can have its pitfalls and suggests a couple of possible alternatives:

    Early romances often cast the hero and heroine as antagonists, the I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-love you story. As the genre grew more sophisticated, this plot began to look as dumb as it sounds. [...] Making both the heroine and hero protagonists and giving them a strong antagonist to defeat together not only allows for that fight-to-the-death ending, it fosters the relationship because people who struggle together against a common enemy in pursuit of a common goal form a strong emotional bond. (Emotionally Speaking)

    or you can have characters who are 'opposites on the surface, but they love because they're twin souls at heart' (Five Things).

    She's not saying that romances with the hero and heroine as opposites, who are antagonists, stuck in a love-hate relationship will always fail - but she does think it's hard to make their final ending believable. Of course, that could be because she's writing a different sort of story, which isn't supposed to be appealing to myths/integrating the reader's psyche.

    When the chivalric male is doing the bidding of his lady, singing her praises, idolizing her, and being her servant, he is at that moment in time actually doing her bidding.

    It's complicated, though, because even as he appears to being'doing her bidding' he may be doing things she hasn't asked him to. The 15th-century Spanish sentimental romances involved male characters acting out the rituals of courtly love. And in one case the lady is put at great risk, is accused of impropriety and imprisoned. This is despite the fact that she never asked to be loved, didn't love her admirer and asked him to stop pestering her. In the end she's freed, but because she asks the lover to stop contacting her, he dies/commits suicide by not eating any more. That's Diego de San Pedro's Cárcel de Amor. In Fernando de Rojas' Celestina the language of courtly love is used to seduce the virgin heroine. She expects to be treated courteously, but in fact once she's allowed the hero access to her, he promptly strips her of her clothes and has sex with her (she's not averse to this, and when it ends in tragedy, she commits suicide).

    In many ways, the courtly love version of chivalry is akin to the flattery that a courtier would pay a ruler in return for favours of some sort. In fact, there are poems in praise of Queen Isabel of Castile which use phrases that are common in courtly love poems. Anyway, the point is, if this is the case, is the lover really serving selflessly, or is it a bit of a con, with the lover tricking the lady into thinking she's getting something. Have you read Crusie's Welcome to Temptation? The Dempsey's are a family of con men and women, and their technique is:

    One: Make the mark smile.
    Two: Get the mark to agree with you.
    Three: Make the mark feel superior.
    Four: Give the mark something.
    Five: Get what you want and get out.

    Maybe this is a rather cynical take on chivalry, but I can see certain parallels there with the behaviour of the courtly lover/the pose of chivalrous behaviour. The lady is praised, made to feel superior, given certain 'privileges', but in return the con man/courtly lover gets something.

    If the lover is really doing the bidding of his lady, what does she ask him to do? It seems to me that some of the more routine 'services' the man provides, such as opening doors, pulling out her chair for her, calling a cab etc are ones that she doesn't specifically ask for, and which cast her in the role of a weak/childish individual who needs to be protected. Or he might send flowers, pick up her handkerchief, escort her to a ball and refrain from flirting with other women. Some of those things might be done 'at her bidding' but it seems to me that a lot more are ones that the lover chooses to perform. I'm not sure if this is a good parallel, but if someone chooses to pay a dominatrix for her services, who is really in charge? Seems to me that it's the one who chooses the woman, pays for the service and can call a halt to the proceedings at any time he chooses. And women only had the right of refusal of a proposal of marriage, they couldn't actively ask for that.

    am an individual male human being who might be genuinely fond of an individual female human being. What is a way that I can express that real love within my society? The chivalric virtues seem a plausible way to go about it.

    I think there were always alternatives which involved less role-playing. I've read of instances of medieval husbands and wives who cared very much for each other, trusted each other and depended on each other. In fact, courtly love was often thought to be incompatible with marriage. And although the Victorians would have thought chivalry didn't end when the couple married, I'd imagine that a man's behaviour towards his wife would be rather different from when he was courting her.

    Sorry, very long reply.

  6. And here's an example of Victorian chivalry, explained by John Ruskin, in his essay 'Lillies of Queen's Gardens':

    chivalry, I say, in its very first conception of honourable life, assumes the subjection of the young knight to the command--should it even be the command in caprice--of his lady.'

    This subjection begins to sound rather less like a relinquishing of free will when Ruskin clarifies that

    'it ought to be impossible for every noble youth--it IS impossible for every one rightly trained--to love any one whose gentle counsel he cannot trust, or whose prayerful command he can hesitate to obey.' (from Project Gutenberg).

    So the man is not putting himself at any risk morally, since he chooses a lady who will only ask him to do things which are right and proper to do. In other words, he chooses a lady who will act as his moral conscience.

    The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman's power is for rule, not for battle,--and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise; she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office, and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation. The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial;--to him, therefore, must be the failure, the offence, the inevitable error: often he must be wounded, or subdued; often misled; and ALWAYS hardened. But he
    guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her [...] This, then, I believe to be,--will you not admit it to be,--the woman's true place and power? But do not you see that, to fulfil this, she must--as far as one can use such terms of a human creature--be incapable of error? So far as she rules, all must be right, or nothing is. She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise--wise, not for self-development, but
    for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side: wise, not with the narrowness of insolent and loveless pride, but with the passionate gentleness of an infinitely variable, because infinitely applicable, modesty of service
    (pages 36 and 37)

    So, the wife has to be ('as far as one can use such terms of a human creature') 'incapable of error' 'enduringly, incorruptibly good', capable of endless 'self-renunciation' and full of 'modesty of service'. Seems to me that the 'service' performed by the chivalrous male is far less onerous on a daily basis than this perpetual self-abnegation, and the constant risk of failure which would be entailed by the women being even the tiniest bit less than 'incorruptibly good'. And, of course, the whole picture of the wife as goddess of hearth and home completely ignores the lives of all the working-class women who did have to go out and do 'rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial'.

  7. Flitting from duty to duty today, with no time for an extended comment, but I must say, the irony of John Ruskin giving anyone advice about love is too sad, too delicious, to miss.

    As Helena Michie retells the famous story in "Looking at Victorian Honeymoons" (

    "In her testimony at the annulment trial Effie reported that John finally admitted to feeling "disgust" for her body. John testified that although Effie's "face was beautiful, . . . there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked [passion]." Critics have, of course, had a field day, a honeymoon, with these comments. Luytens argues early on in her accounts of the Ruskin marriage that, since Ruskin had never seen any other naked woman the "circumstances" might be common "to any mature woman" and that, since the famous draperies were pulled to the shoulders, he might be thinking of armpit hair. Luytens later amended her account, partly in response to other Ruskin scholars, to acknowledge that Ruskin had at that point seen erotic pictures."

    Ah, chivalry.

    (The Mary Luytens book that Richie cites here is either Millais and the Ruskins [New York: Vanguard Press, Inc. 1967] or The Ruskins and the Grays [New York: John Murray, 1972].)

  8. Have you ever read Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found in Saragossa? It's sort of like The Decameron meets post-modern meets Englightenment rationalism, and it's up there as one of my 5 favorite books. It's set largely in 18th century Spain, (thought written in French by a Polish nobleman in the 19th century) and many of these chivalric ideals come to play in a variety of manners. One of the few truly bad guys acts in many of the ways that you describe. There is a woman, Elvira, he sets his sights on, and he expresses it by secretly playing ballads by her window once all her other suitors have disappeared. Elvira enjoys these approaches and begins to stay up late until the mystery singer has played his song. But then things begin to change. The singer stays close enough to start causing trouble, but never states anything. Putting all the details aside, he ends up destroying Elvira's life because he has these rules in his head about what their relationship should be, and he is going to enforce these ideas of love, no matter what it does to the person he supposedly loves.

    In another story, a person we do like who is perhaps the main narrator of the novel, "the gypsy chief," ends up devoting himself to a haughty, but beautiful woman. He continues to always serve her, always waiting for some more genuine connection that it isn't clear he ever really receives.

    Anyway, there are so many different versions of chivalric love in the novel that it's quite fascinating.

  9. No, I've not read it. I hadn't even heard of it before. I looked up the description on Wikipedia, and it's got a strange textual history (which complements what sounds like some interesting juxtapositions of stories within a story):

    The first several 'days' of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa were initially published apart from the rest of the novel in 1797, while the stories comprising the Gypsy chief's tale were added later; the novel was written incrementally, left in its final form (although never exactly completed) at the time of the author's suicide in 1815. The novel as a whole was written in French, but sections of the original text have been lost. The integral version of the work, based on several manuscripts, is published by renowned French publishing house José Corti. Existing translations of the novel are based on a Polish translation of the original French novel.

  10. Yes, it's textual history is quite complicated and the McLean translation I have periodically references alternate versions of days. It's one of those books that is exceedingly rich with a little something for everyone. I found this link which concentrates on the mystical side of the book. In truth, there's a lot more in the work than early 19th century "orientalism".

    As Wikipedia mentions, there are some 100 stories in the book. Some are as short as a couple pages and never finished. Some could be novellas are on their own. A story could be anything from a brief erotic horror story (there is one where a young derelict man has taken up with a prostitute who returns later as a ghost to humiliate the family) to high adventure (one character travels to Mexico where he falls in love with a descendant of Montezuma and ends up fighting for Native Mexican rights and freedom) to simple burlesque comedy (at one point the gypsy chief as a boy ends up dressed as the young bride-to-be of the viceroy going to marry him unless he can find a way out of the predicament which doesn't get him killed).

    It has an amazingly tolerant, rationalist view of the world with main characters being Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, none of whom are condemned for their religion, by the narrator at least. And in the end, for all the supposed mysticism, it's not clear Potocki accepts the supernatural at all as anything real. The work is a frame story extraordinaire in that sometimes you can have stories within stories within stories. I think Potocki hits 5 levels deep once, bringing one of the characters to take out pen and paper to keep track of things. This, coupled with the fact that the stories will reference one another, sometime 200 pages earlier, transforming what you thought you knew about the earlier characters, turns it from a story collection into an integrated work.

    Well, I think I am moving rather far afield from Romance novels, so I'll stop. However, there are so many tales of Spanish chivalry that in this entire discussion, it is Potocki's presentation that I am thinking of. Since I can't help but proselytize for the book, here's the link to it on Amazon. I would hope a university library would have it as well.

  11. I would hope a university library would have it as well.

    I'm sorry to have to dash your hopes, Pacatrue, but there aren't very many UK university libraries with a copy, and certainly not the one near me.

  12. Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart is a brilliant modern representation of courtly medieval love that goes wrong. Ruck dedicates himself to the "service" of a lady he's seen only once and is very much disappointed with her actual nature when she insists that he actually serve her in truth, rather than in theory. It's one of my favorite romances because it has incredible scenes of forced "service" and is brilliant researched. I never read medieval romances, because their concept of love is too modern, but I think Kinsale manages to get closer to "reality" as much as we ever can in historical romances than anyone ever has.