Sunday, October 22, 2006

Location, location, location

Over on the listserv we've been discussing settings and whether they affect sales. Location, as we all know, is very important when buying and selling property:
"Location, location, location," is a common and almost hackneyed phrase in real estate literature. Your agent may even throw it at you when you ask for advice about buying a home. However, what does "location, location, location," actually mean? Why repeat it three times?

Mostly, "location" is repeated to emphasize that it is extremely important to the resale value of your home. The idea is to buy a house that will appeal to the largest number of potential future homebuyers. A careful choice of location can minimize potential negative influences on future resale value, and maximize positive influences.
Writers, particularly writers of historical romances, have definitely been getting the message that the sales value of a novel set in Regency England (preferrably a desirable location in London, with easy access to Tattersall's, Bond Street, and Gunter's) is the most likely to appeal to the largest number of potential historical-romance buyers. Is it that other locations have fewer 'positive influences' than those provided by the lady patronesses of Almack's?

Our discussion began when Eric posted a notice about a conference to be held next year:
Colorado Springs 3-6 May 2007

We seek proposals for our panel on “Venice in the Literary Imagination” for the upcoming American Association for Italian Studies conference, taking place in Colorado Springs from 3-6 May 2007.

"Venice has loomed large in the imagination of writers from the medieval period to postmodernity. Papers which examine the city's literary significance might explore such areas as aesthetics, gender, identity, leisure, politics, or travel, or representations of the libertine, libro d'oro, Carnevale, political prisoners, the Rialto, or the terra firma. We welcome research on authors of all periods and genres." (more details on the panels proposed for this conference can be found here)
On the listserv we did come up with some examples of historical romances set, or partly set, in Venice, including Lydia Joyce's The Music of the Night, Claire Thornton's The Defiant Mistress and Susan Wiggs' Lord of the Night. I also found some pictures of Venice for those who'd like a closer look at the real estate in question, from the Royal Collection's online exhibition of Canaletto's paintings of Venice.

It's still the case, though, that settings such as Venice remain relatively rare in romance. All About Romance, for example, has a page devoted to 'special settings', and while they include Venice, they don't include Regency London, which is, presumably, all too common. There seem to be a variety of reasons why this might be the case. Is it that readers prefer the familiar setting of Regency London? Is it that, particularly for the writer of historicals, it's more difficult to find the source material on other locations (in a readily accessible language) in order to carry out the research? Is it that publishers think that historicals set in more exotic locations won't sell? Harlequin Mills & Boon have been acquiring Roman-era romances recently, however, so clearly some publishers are willing to take a chance with a more unusual location for a historical. Is it that some settings have negative connotations for readers? Hsu-Ming Teo's article, 'Romancing the Raj: Interracial Relations in Anglo-Indian Romance Novels' suggests that:
these love stories were symptomatic of British fantasies of colonial India and served as a forum to explore interracial relations as well as experimenting with the modern femininity of the New Woman. With the achievement of Indian independence in 1947, British interest in India as a locus for romance rapidly declined, thus demonstrating that these novels were never concerned with India but with British lives and British colonialism. [...] The colonial order was necessary for the production and sustenance of romantic fantasies. With its demise, the Anglo-Indian romance genre withered. These romances were never primarily about India but about the Englishness of love and the racialization of romance whereby white love stories were cast into dramatic relief against the background of an Orientalized India.
It's certainly true that some locations provide a touch of the exotic, whether it's the desert in sheik romances (and plenty of the kingdoms over which the sheiks rule are entirely fictional, as illustrated by this map), or, for Harlequin readers living in Eastern Europe in the immediate post-Cold War era, romances set in American locations, since for them America was 'a place which symbolizes the possible wealth and affluence that the capitalist system has to offer':
The novels are fantasies of the ability to transcend economic class, a world where women enjoy working in privileged positions in the economic system of capitalism and men are the masters of this system, the power figures who take care of those less wealthy than themselves. Lack of money is never a problem in the world of Harlequin romances, and romance itself is inseparable from an abundance of wealth and possessions. The appeal of such fantasies to readers living in emerging capitalist markets like Poland and Russia is obvious.(Darbyshire 2000)
I suspect that there are many factors affecting the popularity of certain settings, but it does appear that there is a greater variety in the settings of contemporary romances than in the historicals. As we've mentioned before, Harlequin Presents 'are set in sophisticated, glamorous, international locations', and there are certainly plenty of contemporary romances in settings from Ireland to the Australian outback.

Do you have any ideas about why the locations are more varied in contemporary romances than in historicals? Do you find certain historical settings and eras offputting?


  1. One of my theories about historical romance settings is that they provide a shadow mirror to real life.
    For example, the gothic was hugely popular during a period when women's desires were busily being repressed. Victorian historicals about new women who challenged the status quo were popular during the 1970s.
    The resurrgence in the Regency to took about the same time as the Internet revolution. Both were periods of upheaval in society.
    It remains to be seen if the Roman period (in particular the end of the Republic) strikes a chord with readers. It is a time when a Republican super power was struggling to come to terms its identity on the world stage...
    I also do think there are certain myths about what publishers are looking for.
    With historicals, Harlequin Mills and Boon's programe has a backbone of Regency and Westerns but they are also looking for the strong innovative time periods. The emphasis is on delivering the romance that the readers demand.

  2. The relationship between location/historical setting and a modern novel is quite complicated. For example, if a novel is using the history as wallpaper, then it may be that a particular period is chosen for reasons such as (a) corsets are sexy/gleaming leather riding boots are a turn-on (b) that's what everyone else is writing and it sells. But even when the history is treated with more care, the author is likely to be picking and choosing which aspects of that society to emphasise. As you say, the Regency can be seen as a 'period of upheaval in society', but when there's little mention of changes in industry and transport, or of the Napoleonic wars, then what one gets instead is an impression of a highly stratified society, in which there were very strict rules of behaviour. Similarly with the Victorian period, some authors will focus more on the clothing, the 'upstairs/downstairs' divide and 'Victorian morality', whereas others will try to show the seamier side of 'Victorian morality', and yet others will find the technological change, or the imperialist aspects of the Victorian period of more interest. As someone who's studied the Middle Ages, I find a lot of medieval romances (and the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites) somewhat misleading, because they give such a different impression of the Middle Ages from the one I have (that's not to say that my view is correct, of course ;-) ). And it's interesting to see how modern literary critics have used medieval texts. For example, in Spain, under Franco, the Poema de Mio Cid was interpreted by some critics in the light of their wish to create a sense of 'Spanishness' (see here, for example) and much of the work done on the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, during Franco's regime also reflected this wish on the part of Spanish historians. Mussolini, of course, had his own particular take on the Roman Empire.

    So yes, I think you're right: certain historical periods do give contemporary authors a chance to explore certain ideas/themes, and in a way this can tell us as much or more about the feelings of the contemporary authors as it does about the history of the period in question. Then again, can one ever have an entirely objective view of history? I think not - even at the time people had different views of what was going on.

    With regards to Venice, I can't think of it the same way after reading Death in Venice. Instead of romance, I think of cholera.

  3. I am in favor of romances set almost anywhere in any time frame that is interesting. I would love to see more romances set in Venice or Rome or Milan... However, the difficulty may be that, as your writer stated: "romance itself is inseparable from an abundance of wealth and possessions." In the upper classes of Italy, as far as I know, protocol for women was quite stringent. Women were carefully protected and marriages were arranged. It doesn't lend much room to the strong-willed, rebellious, free-thinking heroines we have grown accustomed to in romance. I imagine that's why Susan Wiggs' love story involved a would-be courtesan. I actually read "Lord of the Night" and think I liked it, because Wiggs is a pretty good writer, but I'm getting its plot mixed up with another novel set in Venice which was atrocious.

    Anyway, despite the restrictions on women, English society was still a tad freer for women that its Catholic counterparts, where women are still bound by religious beliefs and superstitions. You might say that Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon was the best thing that happened to womankind before the 20th Century. Perhaps we really owe that lascivious bastard a debt of thanks!

    Despite being undoubtedly conservative, it seems to me that the variety of locations in contemporary romances by Harlequin/Mills & Boon serves as a vehicle for the independent women to travel the world and declare "I will not be your slave, your property, your sex object" to a succession of chauvinistic men -- before finally succumbing to be a wife and mummy, of course.

    A talented writer would be able to work within the social structures of the pre-Modern Italian city states (I read one a long time ago set in Milan, but I can't remember the name of it), but I think it's easier to write and to sell what everyone else is writing about, so we'll have to wait. Though a great deal of Loretta Chase's "The Lion's Daughter" was set in Albania. That was interesting! It didn't really get into a lot of Albanian history, but that touch of the East gave it a very exotic feel. A must-read! (If you have an interest in medievals that feel more authentic, try Roberta Gellis' Magdalene la Batarde series.)

  4. In the upper classes of Italy, as far as I know, protocol for women was quite stringent. Women were carefully protected and marriages were arranged.

    I don't know in which period Susan Wiggs' book is set, but I think you could say almost exactly the same thing for aristocratic women in England. For example Antonia Fraser, in her The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England writes 'During this period, the emotion we should now term romantic love was treated with a mixture of suspicion, contempt and outright disgust by virtually all pundits. From the Puritans in their benevolent handbooks of domestic conduct to the aristocrats concerned to see that society's pattern was reproduced in an orderly fashion, that tender passion which has animated much of the great literature of the world [...] received a hearty condemnation. [...] Only briefly at the court of Henrietta Maria did the cult of Platonic love (imported from the Queen's native France) hold sway' (1984: 27). Amanda Vickery, in her The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England writes that 'We should be suspicious of the entrenched argument that the eighteenth century saw the substitution of the arranged marriage with the romantic betrothal [...]. It may be that the titled elite [...] developed more of a taste for the sugar-frosting of romance on their political and dynastic alliances, but love hardly carried all before it. Nobles who threw away All For Love remained the deluded exception, for as the wits put it 'Love in a cottage? ... Give me indifference and a coach and six.' (1998: 40-41) and 'A little more romance in the aristocratic drawing-room was hardly a social revolution in the making. Nor did genteel matchmaking suddenly become a thrilling free-for-all either. The propertied did all they could to ensure that their children planted their affections in prudent soil. (1998: 44)

    Anyway, despite the restrictions on women, English society was still a tad freer for women that its Catholic counterparts, where women are still bound by religious beliefs and superstitions. You might say that Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon was the best thing that happened to womankind before the 20th Century. Perhaps we really owe that lascivious bastard a debt of thanks!

    I think that there was huge variation between social classes and between different countries, regardless of religion. For example, France, which was a Catholic country is mentioned above in the quote from Fraser, and one can hardly ignore the importance of intellectual French women in setting up literary salons, where intellectual life flourished. Their circumstances would be dramatically different from those of peasant women in France, Spain or Italy, who would have laboured in the fields/with the animals alongside their menfolk. And even in the 19th century in England aristocratic women were chaperoned (and might have been called 'blue-stockings' if they showed interest in intellectual matters). So I'm not at all convinced that one can make a simple, unambiguous distinction between Catholic and Protestant countries on this issue - the situation is far more complex than that, with different standards for female behaviour in different regions, states, social classes, and eras. One might also take a look at legal systems and the rights they afforded women. In colonial America, for example:

    the specific legal and cultural rules that set the boundaries in which women were supposed to live varied among different regions. It mattered if a woman lived in a colony controlled by a common law system (as in England) or a civil law system (such as that of Spain). When travelers from the United States later encountered Spanish-American law, they scornfully dismissed it as inferior to Anglo-American law. Yet civil law systems were far more protective of women's property than the common law system was. This may not seem to fit the common perception of Spanish law and culture as being particularly patriarchal; it may seem contrary to the assumption that Spanish men expected to exert authority over wives and continued to control children until marriage. And it may not seem consistent with the perception of English law as being more individualistic than Continental European legal systems. Nevertheless, a comparison of women's lives under two different colonial legal regimes shows that women gained tangible benefits from civil law systems that they did not enjoy under common law. (Rosen 2003)

  5. It's also interesting to note of Italy that:

    although the official political status of women remained unchanged, the Settecento, often referred to at the time as the Century of Women, witnessed an unprecedented number of women penetrating and attaining power in arenas historically dominated by men. As elsewhere in Europe, upper-class women presided over salons, those liminal spaces where public power, intellectual prestige, and domesticity converged. Yet, in contrast to women's strictly limited access to official centers for intellectual exchange elsewhere in Europe, many women in Italy secured institutional authority. Female intellectuals were inducted into the most prestigious literary and scientific academies. A number of women such as Newtonian philosopher and physicist Laura Bassi (1711-78), legal scholar Maria Pellegrina Amoretti (1756-87), and Newtonian scientist Cristina Roccati (1734-1814) were awarded university degrees. An elite society of women also won university teaching positions. Bassi held the chair of experimental physics at the Bolognese Institute for Sciences, while her contemporary Anna Morandi Manzolini (1717-74) conducted lessons in anatomy and dissection as Chair of Anatomical Design at the University of Bologna. Mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-99) and classics scholar Clotilde Tambroni (1758-1817) were also granted honorary appointments to the University of Bologna.

    Messbarger, Rebecca, 1999. 'Reforming the Female Class: Il Caffè's "Defense of Women"', Eighteenth-Century Studies 32.3: 355-369. Quotation taken from pages 360-361.

  6. A number of women such as Newtonian philosopher and physicist Laura Bassi (1711-78), legal scholar Maria Pellegrina Amoretti (1756-87), and Newtonian scientist Cristina Roccati (1734-1814) were awarded university degrees. An elite society of women also won university teaching positions.

    I did not know that. History is a fascinating subject, isn't it? Still, I imagine these women were safely married to men who allowed this sort of thing. It would be interesting to find out.

  7. Laura Bassi had the support of Pope Benedict XIV and she married quite a few years after she was appointed professor:

    She was appointed professor of anatomy in 1732 at the University of Bologna at the age of 21 and two years later was given the chair of philosophy. Her teaching opportunities were restricted in her early years, giving only occasional lectures. In 1738 she married Giuseppe Veratti, a fellow academic with whom she had eight children (some sources say more.)

    I've not been able to find so much on Maria Pellegrina Amoretti and Christina Roccati, but I get the impression that it was their fathers who were instrumental in ensuring they received this level of education. According to Paula Finden's 'Translating the New Science: Women and the Circulation of Knowledge in Enlightenment Italy', Configurations 3.2 (1995): 167-206, these learned women were 'Often trained by their fathers to take their place in the conversational world of learning that emerged in the eighteenth century' (1995: 172) since 'Italian humanists [...] viewed the erudition of their daughters as a means of further publicizing their own learning' (1995: 175). As a result

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, almost every Italian city with some pretension to culture lay claim to at least one scientifically learned woman. Such women were celebrated in poetry, portraits, and the travel narratives of the French and the English who, while perceiving themselves to be infinitely more modern than the Italians (after all, they enjoyed the fame of Descartes and Newton), nonetheless acknowledged that Italy produced more learned women than any other region in Europe. (1995: 170)

    Re Anna Morandi:

    Morandi-Manzolini married the physician Giovanni Manzolini in 1740 and from him learned how to make splendid anatomical preparations employing a specially prepared wax substance. These preparations imitated nature with a rare perfection, especially the female reproductive organs. She soon surpassed her husband in technique and became far more famous. After his death in 1755, she became a member of the Institute of Bologna and of many foreign scientific societies. In 1758 Manzolini-Morandi obtained the chair of anatomy at Bologna.

    Maria Gaetana Agnesi had a father who was a professor of mathematics, and 'She was recognized as a child prodigy very early; spoke French by the age of five; and had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and several modern languages by the age of nine'. She never married, and 'It seems that her father was the inspiration for her interest in mathematics. When he died, Maria gave up any further work in mathematics'.