Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Augusta Jane Evans - St Elmo (2 - Religion and Sexuality)

Augusta Evans' intention in writing her novel was clearly didactic. She intended to instruct as well as to entertain. The instruction is derived from the story of the tribulations which Edna undergoes but which leave her faith unshaken, from the bringing of St. Elmo back to Christianity (as discussed previously) and from Edna's own writings, which, like Augusta Evans' own, are highly didactic in nature, though mixed with an element of entertainment. Here are Edna's thoughts on authorship:
To write [...] for the mere pastime of author and readers, without aiming to inculcate some regenerative principle, or to photograph some valuable phase of protean truth, was in her estimation ignoble; for her high standard demanded that all books should be to a certain extent didactic, wandering like evangels among the people, and making some man, woman, or child happier, or wiser, or better--more patient or more hopeful--by their utterances. Believing that every earnest author's mind should prove a mint, where all valuable ores are collected from the rich veins of a universe--are cautiously coined, and thence munificently circulated--she applied herself diligently to the task of gathering, from various sources the data required for her projected work: a vindication of the unity of mythologies.
Edna's plan for her first novel is criticised by the influential Mr Manning, the editor of a magazine which has published a couple of Edna's essays:
" [...] Unless I totally misunderstand your views, you indulge in the rather extraordinary belief that all works of fiction should be eminently didactic, and inculcate not only sound morality but scientific theories. Herein, permit me to say, you entirely misapprehend the spirit of the age. People read novels merely to be amused, not educated; and they will not tolerate technicalities and abstract speculation in lieu of exciting plots and melodramatic denouements. Persons who desire to learn something of astronomy, geology, chemistry, philology, etc., never think of finding what they require in the pages of a novel, but apply at once to the text-books of the respective sciences, and would as soon hunt for a lover's sentimental dialogue in Newton's 'Principia,' or spicy small-talk in Kant's 'Critique,' as expect an epitome of modern science in a work of fiction."

"But, sir, how many habitual novel readers do you suppose will educate themselves thoroughly from the text-books to which you refer?"
Edna's reply is, I suspect, one which Evans herself would have given since she integrated discussions about science, religion and the role of women into her novel. Edna's first novel is intended to 'tear the veil from oracles and sibyls, and show the world that the true, good and beautiful of all theogonies and cosmogonies, of every system of religion that had waxed and waned since the gray dawn of time, could be traced to Moses and to Jesus' and the analysis of world religions is mixed with fiction:
To avoid anachronisms, she endeavored to treat the religions of the world in their chronologic sequence, and resorted to the expedient of introducing pagan personages. A fair young priestess of the temple of Neith, in the sacred city of Sais--where people of all climes collected to witness the festival of lamps-- becoming skeptical of the miraculous attributes of the statues she had been trained to serve and worship, and impelled by an earnest love of truth to seek a faith that would satisfy her reason and purify her heart, is induced to question minutely the religious tenets of travellers who visited the temple, and thus familiarized herself with all existing creeds and hierarchies. The lore so carefully garnered is finally analyzed, classified, and inscribed on papyrus.
Taking non-Christian texts and finding in them a prefiguring of Christian motifs and teachings is hardly a new endeavour on Edna's part. Very early in the history of Christianity typology emerged as a means by which to interpret the Old Testament and
Saint Augustine further enriched this complex and amazing system of thought by including non-sacred history. The history of Rome, the history of Greece, the history of Egypt, and the history of Persia, all these are also speeches by God. What is the spiritual meaning of these histories? That's right: the life and teachings of Christ. So: Coriolanus besieges Rome for three days. What's the spiritual meaning? Christ in the tomb for three days. (Hooker: 1996)
In addition to studying history,
The Church Fathers emphasized the universal presence of the Logos, the Word, the principle of divine self-manifestation, in all religions and cultures. The Logos is present everywhere, like the seed on the land, and this presence is a preparation for the central appearance of the Logos in a historical person, the Christ. In the light of these ideas Augustine could say that the true religion had existed always and was called Christian only after the appearance of the Christ. (Tillich 1963: Chapter 2)
People like Erasmus, the Christian humanist, or Zwingli, the Protestant Reformer, acknowledged the work of the Divine Spirit beyond the boundaries of the Christian Church. The Socinians, predecessors of the Unitarians and of much liberal Protestant theology, taught a universal revelation in all periods. The leaders of the Enlightenment, Locke, Hume, and Kant, measured Christianity by its reasonableness and judged all other religions by the same criterion. They wanted to remain Christians, but on a universalist, all-inclusive basis. These ideas inspired a large group of Protestant theologians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Tillich 1963: Chapter 2)
According to Wayne Jackson, 'this field of study [Biblical typology] has fallen into disrepute in recent years and this can probably be accounted for' partly because 'the extravagant speculations of earlier typologists have left a bad taste for the study in the minds of many; they feel it has been discredited'. Edna's scheme is more akin to Augustine's and while in her view the similarities between the various world religions suggests that they point towards Christianity, the revealed truth, her speculations could equally well be used to support very different arguments, such as (1) if religions which have been discredited shared some beliefs with Christianity, perhaps there is equally little truth in Christianity, for example 'Some critics of Christianity teach that the Christian religion was not based upon divine revelation but that it borrowed from pagan sources, Mithra being one of them' (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry), or (2) it could be argued that the similarities between religions suggest that perhaps there is no single way to God, but rather that all religions share insights into the Truth. However neither Edna nor Evans seem to consider these possible alternative interpretations.

One of the tensions created in the novel by Evans' merging of the didactic and the entertaining results from the way in which the marriage plot is combined with a need to redeem the sinful St. Elmo. Edna is clearly extremely sexually attracted to him, and although their physical relationship never progresses in the course of the novel beyond passionate kisses and embraces which, in general, are forced on Edna by the passionate St. Elmo, there is a great deal of sexual tension. Perhaps other modern readers won't agree with me on that point, but it seems to me that it would certainly have been felt by contemporary readers of St. Elmo. Without it, Edna's continuing refusal to succumb to St. Elmo would have little merit, and it is, in fact, presented as a struggle of immense proportions. She turns down a number of other suitors with little difficulty but St. Elmo, with his 'mesmeric eyes' is a rather different matter and I am sure that Evans Wilson intended readers to sympathise with Edna's dilemma as she makes her agonising choice not to become St. Elmo's wife, even though he tempts both her physically and spiritually, as when he suggests that her goodness would save him:
[St. Elmo] If I am ever to be saved, you, you only can effect my redemption; for I trust, I reverence you. Edna, as you value my soul, my eternal welfare, give yourself to me! Give your pure, sinless life to purify mine." [...]

[Edna] "No! no! I am no vicegerent of an outraged and insulted God! I put no faith in any man whose conscience another keeps. From the species of fascination which you exert, I shrink with unconquerable dread and aversion, and would almost as soon entertain the thought of marrying Lucifer himself. Oh! your perverted nature shocks, repels, astonishes, grieves me. I can neither respect nor trust you. Mr. Murray, have mercy upon yourself! Go yonder to Jesus. He only can save and purify you." (my emphasis)
Edna later explains a little more about the 'fascination' which he exerts: 'it is not love; for esteem, respect, confidence, belong to love. But I can not deny that he exerts a very singular, a wicked fascination over me.' Mr Hammond, the local minister, urges Edna to agree to a marriage, since then she will, as a good wife, have an immense influence over St. Elmo:
My dear little Edna, you are very lovely and winning, and I believe he would love you as he never loved any one else. Oh! I have hoped everything from your influence! Far, far beyond all computation is the good which a pious, consistent, Christian wife can accomplish in the heart of a husband who truly loves her. (my emphasis)
Again, I think, rather obliquely, Mr Hammond is alluding to the fact that St. Elmo feels considerably more than a simple delight in Edna's spiritual purity. Fekete Trubey states that
Edna’s relationship with St. Elmo is driven by the [...] erotics of domination and submission [...]. It is when St. Elmo is at his most brutal and misogynistic, demanding complete submission to his cruel will, that Edna feels the greatest desire for him. She finds him ‘‘handsomer than she had ever seen him,’’ for example, when he claims women know no useful facts, only obscure trivia (SE, 113) (Fekete Trubey 2005: 130)
And yet Edna resists her sensuality and even shuns the company of individuals whose use of language she deems indelicate:
Edna's abhorrence of double entendre and of the fashionable sans souci style of conversation [...] was not a secret to any one who read her writings or attended her receptions. [...]

She saw that the growing tendency to free and easy manners and colloquial license was rapidly destroying all reverence for womanhood; was levelling the distinction between ladies' parlors and gentlemen's clubrooms; was placing the sexes on a platform of equality which was dangerous to feminine delicacy, that God-built bulwark of feminine purity and of national morality.

That time-honored maxim, "Honi soit qui mal y pense," she found had been distorted from its original and noble significance, and was now a mere convenient India-rubber cloak, stretched at will to cover and excuse allusions which no really modest woman could tolerate. Consequently, when she heard it flippantly pronounced in palliation of some gross offense against delicacy, she looked more searchingly into the characters of the indiscreet talkers, and quietly intimated to them that their presence was not desired at her receptions. Believing that modesty and purity were twin sisters, and that vulgarity and vice were rarely if ever divorced, Edna sternly refused to associate with those whose laxity of manners indexed, in her estimation, a corresponding laxity of morals.
According to Hilary Hart, Edna becomes increasingly pure as she struggles against her physical attraction to St. Elmo: 'Her victories over her love for the Byronic St. Elmo seem to purify Edna, as evidenced by her increasing whiteness' (2004: 35).*

Brenda Coulter has written of the inspirational romance sub-genre that
In addition to the usual ups and downs of falling in love, the hero and/or heroine must overcome a spiritual obstacle, whether that involves finding God's salvation, learning to lean on Him, letting go of the past, etc.

Christian women find inspirational romance novels satisfying because they promote strong family values, emphasizing admirable qualities such as duty, honor, and integrity, all while delivering the guilt-free entertainment of a chaste romance story.
It seems to me that novels such as St. Elmo are the precursors of the modern inspirational romance, for though the modern romances may not include such large, undiluted passages devoted to theology as Evans' novel does, they, like St. Elmo, tend to be love stories with a very strong spiritual element and in which there is little or no depiction of sexuality, although sexual tension may be present. In addition, as we see in Brenda's description of the sub-genre, both have a didactic nature: they are, of course intended to entertain, but there is also a strong desire on the part of the authors to promote particular spiritual values. Faith, Hope and Love, the 'inspirational outreach chapter' of the Romance Writers of America has in its bylaws the statement that: "The purpose of Faith, Hope & Love, Inc., is to promote excellence in romantic and women's fiction that glorifies God and promotes biblical principles' (my emphasis). Evans and Edna might, however, view edgy inspirationals with a bit more caution. These novels are also written for Christian readers, but ones
who don’t necessarily want a conversion scene in every novel they read, yet who also don’t want to read about mainstream characters who live outside the reader’s value system. They are looking for a compelling, gritty novel about Christians who are flawed, tempted, imperfect and who willfully do things they know they aren’t suppose to do. Who have already accepted Christ and are wondering, "Then why the heck is my life so messed up?" They are looking for a character whose shoes they can slip on. Maybe even a novel that they can share with their non-Christian friend. (Deeanne Gist)
----* The whiteness is physical as well as metaphorical: 'Edna’s skin grows whiter as the book progresses so that by the end she retains almost no human coloring. Not surprisingly, Augusta Evans, who wrote St. Elmo, also authored the white supremacist novel, Macaria, or, Altars of Sacrifice'. (Hart 2004: 34)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Augusta Jane Evans - St. Elmo (1 - Women and Marriage)

Augusta Jane Evans's 'novels were popular on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, although during the Civil War her works made their way north only through the daring of blockade runners' (Fekete Trubey 2005: 125) and St. Elmo (1866) (an alternative, paginated, online edition is available here)
was her most popular book, setting new sales records that prompted her publisher, G. W. Carelton, to announce that a million people had read it within four months of its first appearance. At once a traditional sentimental novel and a scholarly exploration of female intellectualism, St. Elmo depicts its heroine, Edna Earl, at war with herself, struggling with the accepted limits of femininity. Her brilliant career as an author pits her very body against itself: in the act of writing, she masochistically neglects her body while striving to maintain her pious, self-abnegating character. Given the novel’s postwar context, it is fascinating that Evans couches her heroine’s struggle with the competing roles of wife and writer in the slippery terms of slavery and freedom. (Fekete Trubey 2005: 125)
St. Elmo himself became 'a cult figure who several decades later was to inspire Margaret Mitchell' (Cadogan 1994: 41) and 'Augusta Jane Evans's St. Elmo was considered as recently as 1947 to be one of the ten most popular novels ever published in the United States' (Kolba 1980: 38).

Although the novel was undoubtedly a bestseller, its quality was questioned. It was parodied in Charles Henry Webb's St. Twel'mo, or, The Cuneiform Cyclopedist of Chattanooga (1867). In one review written in 1902 the reviewer observed that 'There never was a book written more open to ridicule. And yet, when that inclination to ridicule comes we pause, half ashamed. For under all the pompous phraseology we feel that there was a story to be told; that not a line of it was penned that was not inspired by sincerity and a belief in lofty ideals' or, as a very much more recent reader from the Young Ladies Christian Fellowship puts it: 'Even though the Latin phrases went right over my head, I was able to grasp a little of the vastness of the author’s knowledge by her references to history and science I had never even learned. Strong characters, and the heroine’s refreshing perspective on life would make the book in and of themselves—but the story of love, trust, and forgiveness is one you will never forget'.

The term 'sentimental novel', which is used to describe St. Elmo refers to:
a popular form of fiction that gained popularity in America from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century (although there are still manifestations of it today). In general, sentimentalism is didactic in form, “artless” in style, sincere in its tone, melodramatic in its plotting, and addressed overwhelmingly to a female readership. Often, the term “sentimentalism” is used in two senses:

1. An overindulgence in emotion, especially the conscious effort to induce emotion in order to enjoy it; expressing a “sensibility,” or susceptibility to emotions and sentiments (as opposed to logic or reason).
2. An optimistic overemphasis of the goodness of humanity, representing in part a reaction against Calvinism, which regarded human nature as depraved. (Derek P. Royal)
In other words, many of these novels can be viewed as precursors of the modern romance novel.

St. Elmo is prefaced by a quotation from John Ruskin:
Ah! the true rule is--a true wife in her husband's house is his servant; it is in his heart that she is queen. Whatever of the best he can conceive, it is her part to be; whatever of the highest he can hope, it is hers to promise; all that is dark in him she must purge into purity; all that is failing in him she must strengthen into truth; from her, through all the world's clamor, he must win his praise; in her, through all the world's warfare, he must find his peace."
I'm not sure precisely where this is taken from, but the sentiments seem identical to those in Ruskin's essay 'Of Queens' Gardens', in Sesame and Lilies, which deals with the question of chivalry and the role of women. St. Elmo is Augusta Jane Evans' contribution to the debate about these issues, and it is one which was very important at the time:
Many of the historical changes that characterized the Victorian period motivated discussion and argument about the nature and role of woman — what the Victorians called "The Woman Question." The extension of the franchise by the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867 stimulated discussion of women's political rights. (from The Norton Anthology of English Literature online)
John Stuart Mill 'was the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century' (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and in his The Subjection of Women he argued for equality between the sexes and the extension of the franchise to women. Both ideas are ridiculed by St. Elmo, who declares that 'I am quite as far from admitting the infallibility of man as the equality of the sexes. The clearest thinkers of the world have had soft spots in their brains [...] and you have laid your finger on the softened spot in Mill's skull, "suffrage". That is a jaded, spavined hobby of his'. Edna too is appalled by the idea of women voting:
my study of Mill's philosophy assures me that, if society should be turned over to the government of his theory of Liberty and Suffrage, it would go to ruin more rapidly than Frederick's province. Under his teachings the women of England might soon marshal their amazonian legions, and storm not only Parnassus but the ballot-box, the bench, and the forum. That this should occur in a country where a woman nominally rules, and certainly reigns, is not so surprising, but I dread the contagion of such an example upon America. [...] I think, sir, that the noble and true women of this continent earnestly believe that the day which invests them with the elective franchise would be the blackest in the annals of humanity, would ring the death-knell of modern civilization, of national prosperity, social morality, and domestic happiness! and would consign the race to a night of degradation and horror infinitely more appalling than a return to primeval barbarism.
Evans therefore sides with Ruskin on the issue of whether or not women should be 'Queens' of the hearth and Edna's second novel, titled Shining Thorns on the Hearth, is dedicated to 'my countrywomen, the Queens who reign thereon'. Nonetheless, Evans vehemently argues that women can benefit from an education and can, as writers, have much to contribute to their society. Her criticism of duelling points to a conflict of values within patriarchy. As Johnson observes,
Ironically, the southern brand of patriarchy, characterized by a pervasive obligation to personal honor, vowed to protect white women but was undermined by the premier expression of such honor: the duel. In practical and theoretical ways, the code of honor also undermined the minimal legal protections upon which a woman might rely. The duel could deprive women of economic and protective benefits when male relatives died in duels. (2001: 16)
Johnson goes further and suggests that not only does Evans criticise the practice of duelling, but also that she 'presents duels [...] as metaphorical representations of masculine violations of legal, religious, and familial codes' (2001: 14-15).

Within the novel St. Elmo is the embodiment of patriarchy's destructive power, and he is reclaimed for Christianity and chivalry by Edna, who has, among other works, written a 'little tale [...] to portray the horrors and sin of duelling', while another of her articles causes a 'rejoicing wife' to write her a letter 'eloquent with thanks for the good effect produced by a magazine article on a dissipated, irreligious husband and father, who, after its perusal, had resolved to reform'. As the quotation from Ruskin suggests, Edna's mission with regards to St. Elmo is that 'all that is dark in him she must purge into purity'. At the time it was a common view of women's mission in life: 'Nineteenth-century Americans believed that women had a particular propensity for religion. The modern young woman of the 1820s and 1830s was thought of as a new Eve working with God to bring the world out of sin through her suffering, through her pure, and passionless love' (Lavender). As I've discussed earlier, this redemptive role is a frequent one for heroines in romance, and the heroine's purity is hightened by contrast with the hero's extreme depravity. St. Elmo is compared to Lucifer himself: when he observes Edna he 'looked at the kneeling figure locked so closely in his mother's arms, [...] over his stern face broke a light that transformed it into such beauty as Lucifer's might have worn before his sin and banishment' and later when Edna refuses his proposal of marriage she states that 'I am no vicegerent of an outraged and insulted God! [...] I shrink with unconquerable dread and aversion, and would almost as soon entertain the thought of marrying Lucifer himself. [...] Go yonder to Jesus. He only can save and purify you'. It is, however, his love for Edna and the efficacy of her reproaches which begins his conversion.

Perhaps it is the opportunity to exert and demonstrate the power of feminine virtue which, at least in part, explains the attraction that some women feel for a man in need of 'taming'. Certainly, it was a matter which puzzled the parodist Charles Henry Webb who wrote of St. Elmo:
How such a fellow could win the affections of refined and cultivated women, I can not understand. For I have tried original verses, and pet names, and bouquets, and gentlemanly behavior, and the sweet influences of modest and unpretending merit, all in vain. (24-25)
and here's one modern explanation:
The phenomenon of "women going for jerks" is a real one, but there is a very, very important thing missing from the usual understanding of it. It is, I believe, a product of women's enculturated fantasies that jerks really AREN'T jerks down deep in their most hidden souls. The usual La-La Land construct is that jerks are really powerful, confident, and misunderstood men that the Very Special Women Who Truly Love Them can bring into the Light. (Grey 2005)
Edna is indeed a Very Special Woman and she fulfils a wish expressed by St Elmo's cousin Estelle:
There is some terrible retribution in store for your libels on our sex! How I do long to meet some woman brave and wily enough to marry and tame you, my chivalric cousin! to revenge the insults you have heaped upon her sisterhood!
Edna demonstrates that she is a Very Special Woman in a variety of different ways. She is intellectually talented and determined to succeed as an author, despite the prejudices that stand in her way. Early on one character, a Mr Wood, states that 'The less book-learning you women have the better', but his wife swiftly responds with words which silence him:
"I don't see that it is any of your business, Peter Wood, how much learning we women choose to get, provided your bread is baked and your socks darned when you want 'em. A woman has as good a right as a man to get book-learning, if she wants it; and as for sense, I'll thank you, mine is as good as yours any day; and folks have said it was a blessed thing for the neighborhood when the rheumatiz laid Peter Wood up, and his wife, Dorothy Elmira Wood, run the mill. Now, it's of no earthly use to cut at us women over that child's shoulders; if she wants an education she has as much right to it as anybody, if she can pay for it. My doctrine is, everybody has a right to whatever they can pay for, whether it is schooling or a satin frock!"
Later, when young Edna, the heroine, pursues her search for knowledge, her guardian, Mrs Murray, tells Edna's tutor
"I think the child is as inveterate a bookworm as I ever knew; but for heaven's sake, Mr. Hammond, do not make her a blue-stocking."
"Ellen, did you ever see a genuine blue-stocking?"
"I am happy to be able to say that I never was so unfortunate."
"You consider yourself lucky then, in not having known De Stael, Hannah More, Charlotte Bronte, and Mrs. Browning?"
he then proceeds to explain to the young Edna what is meant by the term 'bluestocking':
"A 'blue-stocking,' my dear, is generally supposed to be a lady, neither young, pleasant, nor pretty (and in most instances unmarried); who is unamiable, ungraceful, and untidy; ignorant of all domestic accomplishments and truly feminine acquirements, and ambitious of appearing very learned; a woman whose fingers are more frequently adorned with ink-spots than thimble; who holds housekeeping in detestation, and talks loudly about politics, science, and philosophy; who is ugly, and learned, and cross; whose hair is never smooth and whose ruffles are never fluted. [...]" [...] "The title of 'blue-stocking,'" continued the pastor, "originated in
a jest, many, many years ago, when a circle of very brilliant, witty, and elegant ladies in London, met at the house of Mrs. Vesey, to listen to and take part in the conversation of some of the most gifted and learned men England has ever produced. One of those gentlemen, Stillingfleet, who always wore blue stockings, was so exceedingly agreeable and instructive, that when he chanced to be absent the company declared the party was a failure without the blue stockings,' as he was familiarly called. A Frenchman, who heard of the circumstance, gave to these conversational gatherings the name of 'bas bleu,' which means blue stocking; and hence, you see, that in popular acceptation, I mean in public opinion, the humorous title, which was given in compliment to a very charming gentleman, is now supposed to belong to very tiresome, pedantic, and disagreeable ladies. Do you understand the matter now?"
Resolute and confident in her own abilities, Edna ignores the advice in her first rejection letter from an editor (yes, there are metafictional elements to this novel):
Burn the enclosed MS., the erudition and archaisms of which would fatally nauseate the intellectual dyspeptics who read my 'Maga,' and write sketches of home life-descriptions of places and things that you understand better than recondite analogies of ethical creeds and mythologic systems, or the subtle lore of Coptic priests. Remember that women never write histories or epics; never compose oratorios that go sounding down the centuries; never paint 'Last Suppers' and 'Judgment Days'; though now and then one gives the world a pretty ballad that sounds sweet and soothing when sung over a cradle, or another paints a pleasant little genre sketch which will hang appropriately in some quiet corner and rest and refresh eyes that are weary with gazing at the sublime spiritualism of Fra Bartolomeo, or the gloomy grandeur of Salvator Rosa.
During her long reverie, she wondered whether all women were browbeaten for aspiring to literary honors; whether the poignant pain and mortification gnawing at her heart was the inexorable initiation-fee for entrance upon the arena where fame adjudges laurel crowns, and reluctantly and sullenly drops one now and then on female brows.
Edna's intellectual and moral qualities are coupled with extreme beauty and she shows an affinity for children which makes them love her. She receives many offers of marriage and as the embodiment of Evans' (and Ruskin's) ideal of femininity she offers an alternative to the caricature that St. Elmo paints in his description of intellectual women:
Without doubt, the most thoroughly ludicrous scene I ever witnessed was furnished by a 'woman's rights' meeting,' which I looked in upon one night in New York, as I returned from Europe. The speaker was a raw-boned, wiry, angular, short-haired, lemon-visaged female of very certain age; with a hand like a bronze gauntlet, and a voice as distracting as the shrill squeak of a cracked cornet-a-piston. Over the wrongs and grievances of her down-trodden, writhing sisterhood she ranted and raved and howled, gesticulating the while with a marvelous grace, which I can compare only to the antics of those inspired goats who strayed too near the Pythian cave, and were thrown into convulsions. Though I pulled my hat over my eyes and clapped both hands to my ears, as I rushed out of the hall after a stay of five minutes, the vision of horror followed me, and for the first and only time in my life, I had such a hideous nightmare that night, that the man who slept in the next room broke open my door to ascertain who was strangling me. Of all my pet aversions my most supreme abhorrence is of what are denominated 'gifted women'; strong-minded (that is, weak-brained but loud-tongued), would-be literary females, who, puffed up with insufferable conceit, imagine they rise to the dignity and height of man's intellect, proclaim that their 'mission' is to write or lecture, and set themselves up as shining female lights, each aspiring to the rank of protomartyr of reform. Heaven grant us a Bellerophon to relieve the age of these noisy Amazons! I should really enjoy seeing them tied down to their spinning-wheels, and gagged with their own books, magazines, and lectures!
Unfortunately some of these stereotypes about intellectual women, particularly feminists, persist, but such views are in the minority and nowadays women scholars are not warned of dire consequences should they persist in their studies, unlike Edna, whose success is won at great personal cost. As Mr Hammond warns her:
The history of literary females is not calculated to allay the apprehension that oppresses me, as I watch you just setting out on a career so fraught with trials of which you have never dreamed. As a class they are martyrs, uncrowned and uncanonized; jeered at by the masses, sincerely pitied by a few earnest souls, and wept over by the relatives who really love them. Thousands of women have toiled over books that proved millstones and drowned them in the sea of letters.
How many of the hundreds of female writers scattered through the world in this century, will be remembered six months after the coffin closes over their weary, haggard faces? You may answer, 'They made their bread.' Ah, child! it would have been sweeter if earned at the wash-tub, or in the dairy, or by their needles. It is the
rough handling, the jars, the tension of the heartstrings that sap the foundations of a woman's life and consign her to an early grave; and a Cherokee rose-hedge is not more thickly set with thorns than a literary career with grievous, vexatious, tormenting disappointments.
In the nineteenth-century it was thought by many that education, and particularly the rigorous intellectual activities which Edna pursues, could damage a woman physically:
Physicians saw the body as a closed system possessing only a limited amount of vital force; energy expended in one area was necessarily removed from another. [...] A young woman [...] who consumed her vital force in intellectual activities was necessarily diverting these energies from the achievement of true womanhood. She would become weak and nervous, perhaps sterile, or more commonly, and in a sense more dangerously for society, capable of bearing only sickly and neurotic children (Smith-Rosenberg & Rosenberg 1973: 340)
Edna develops heart troubles (literally as well as metaphorically due to her love for St. Elmo) and is prone to fainting fits which greatly alarm her friends. Her doctor warns her that if she does not stop writing she may die at any moment. Edna will not stop, however and it is only after St. Elmo has reformed (she has saved him spiritually), and the two have been married, that he puts a stop to her writing career (thus saving her physically). Edna accepts his decree without demur, because he is her husband. As we have seen previously, both Edna and Evans herself were opposed to women's suffrage and while acknowledging and celebrating women's talents, they believed that these should remain in the service of a woman's husband (should she have one):
Jealously she contended for every woman's right which God and nature had decreed the sex. The right to be learned, wise, noble, useful, in woman's divinely limited sphere; the right to influence and exalt the circle in which she moved; the right to mount the sanctified bema of her own quiet hearthstone; the right to modify and direct her husband's opinions, if he considered her worthy and competent to guide him; the right to make her children ornaments to their nation, and a crown of glory to their race; the right to advise, to plead, to pray; the right to make her desk a Delphi, if God so permitted; the right to be all that the phrase "noble, Christian woman" means.
But not the right to vote; to harangue from the hustings; to trail her heaven-born purity through the dust and mire of political strife; to ascend the rosta of statesmen, whither she may send a worthy husband, son, or brother, but whither she can never go, without disgracing all womanhood. (my emphasis)
That a wife can 'modify and direct her husband's opinions, only if he considered her worthy and competent to guide him' is an indication of how unstable a wife's power can be. Given the immense power that a husband will have over her, the Christian woman who aspires to be a Queen of the Hearth must be careful when deciding who to accept as a spouse. Edna rejects St. Elmo because
Surely you would not be willing to see me marry a man who scoffs at the very name of religion; who wilfully deceives and trifles with the feelings of all who are sufficiently credulous to trust his hollow professions [...]! What hope of happiness or peace could you indulge for me, in view of such a union? I should merit all the wretchedness that would inevitably be my life--long portion if, knowing his crimes, I could consent to link my future with his."
As Mr Hammond has earlier told another suitor of Edna's,
Edna Earl will never coax and persuade herself to marry any man, no matter what his position and endowments may be. She is not a dependent woman; the circumstances of her life have forced her to dispense with companionship, she is sufficient for herself; and while she loves her friends warmly and tenderly, she feels the need of no one. If she ever marries, it will not be from gratitude or devotion, but because she learned to love, almost against her will, some strong, vigorous thinker, some man whose will and intellect masters hers, who compels her heart's homage, and without whose society she can not persuade herself to live. (my emphasis)
It would seem, then, that Evans adheres strictly to St Paul's words on the matter of husbands and authority: 'the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God' (1 Corinthians 11: 3) and his injunction 'Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers' (2 Corinthians 6: 14).

As Johnson observes, for many readers' Evans' championship of women's literary ambitions sits awkwardly alongside the final authority of the husband:
The aspect of St. Elmo that most puzzles and disturbs critics is Edna's ultimate capitulation to St. Elmo in marriage. Although Evans is keenly aware of the abuses of a patriarchy without Christian reform, she ultimately argues for a more gentle version of masculine control. The simultaneous advocation of patriarchy and the recognition of its potential threat to women creates an ambivalence in St. Elmo that is jarring to modern readers. In the final scene of the novel, as Edna finally submits to St. Elmo in marriage, St. Elmo clearly dictates the terms of their relationship:
"Today I snap the fetters of your literary bondage. There shall be no more books written! . . . and that dear public you love so well, must even help itself, and whistle for a new pet. You belong to me now, and I shall take care of the life you have nearly destroyed in your inordinate ambition" (365). Edna's literary ambition has become "inordinate," only because St. Elmo's threat to her has been diminished and the patriarchy of her personal world has been reformed. (2001: 25)
As a result, 'Although Edna has in some sense tamed St. Elmo into compliance
with codes of law, family, and Christianity, in the end she simply allows him to preside over a reformed patriarchy that offers some protection to women' (Johnson 2001: 26).
  • Cadogan, Mary, 1994. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present (London: MacMillan).
  • Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll & Charles Rosenberg, 1973. 'The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America', The Journal of American History, 60.2: 332-356.
  • Fekete Trubey, Elizabeth, 2005. 'Emancipating the Lettered Slave: Sentiment and Slavery in Augusta Evans's St. Elmo', American Literature 77 (1): 123-150.
  • Johnson, Bradley, 2001. ‘Dueling Sentiments: Responses to Patriarchal Violence in Augusta Jane Evans’ St. Elmo’, The Southern Literary Journal, 33.2: 14-29.
  • Kolba, Ellen D., 1980. 'Stories for Sale', The English Journal, 69.7: 37-40.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Thoughts for the Day

This morning as I was reading some 'flash fiction' I was reminded of the BBC's Thought for the Day programme. At 7.45 am, from Monday to Saturday on BBC Radio 4, speakers from a variety of different religious faiths give a very brief talk which, they hope, will give the listeners something to think about for the rest of the day. I'm still thinking about these short flash fictions, and I thought I'd share them with you. They're not really romances because they're too short to show the development of a relationship, but they are romantic and optimistic in their endings. One could maybe be labelled 'paranormal' and the other possibly 'science fiction', but only in the very loosest of senses. The first, Goddess by Jon Hansen, involves, as you might expect from the title, a goddess. The second, A Clockwork Break by Shawn Scarber includes some clockwork (again, as might be expected from the title), but the object could not be built using current technology.

Sarah's been blogging about paranormal romances and whether, as Eric suggested, this sub-genre 'lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading'. I couldn't help but read Goddess this way. It seemed to ask questions about what it is that we fall in love with when we love someone and it seemed appropriate in the context of our recent discussion of how romances span the range from the mythic/paranormal to the mundane. All love may seem divine, but there's more than one kind of divinity, just as there's more than one kind of love, and which kind of love brings the most contentment to the individual?

A Clockwork Break also provides us with contrasts, this time between the mundane mechanical production line and the mechanical object created not to serve capitalism, but out of love and imagination. One seems to imprison, the other sets the characters free.

I hope you enjoy them too.

Oh, and they're both written by male authors. I didn't actually realise this until I read the mini-biographies at the end of each story but I thought I should mention it given that Sarah's discussion was also about heroes created by women writers.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Paranormal Romances: Better than X-Ray Vision for Critics!

I'm going to start this post the way I started my last one:

In my post on the definition of paranormal romances, Eric asked:
I wonder whether paranormal romance lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading. That is, does the "paranormal" part of the world correspond in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself--and, by extension, to the worlds of desire and love?
And once again my answer for Eric is an unqualified "Hell, yes!"

I've been thinking about this a lot more. Paranormal romances, evidence to the contrary, are not really my "thing." My "thing," for what it's worth, is romances with strong masculine perspective. Not necessarily the perspective of alpha males, but rather just lots and lots of the story told from the hero's point of view.

I know why this is and have actually published on it. My basic point in my article is that some women (I definitely include myself in this group) read romances in order to watch the hero fall in love, because we want to see that he's feeling the same emotions, the same pain and heartache and joy that we feel when we fall in love. We want to see ourselves (the feminine) and our emotions reflected in the alpha representative of patriarchy.(1) We also want to see the alpha male recognize, understand, and truly believe that he can't live without the heroine and without her love.(2) (This is why Susan Elizabeth Phillips' books are so powerful, in my opinion--the heroine comes to the realization that she can live without the hero, but the hero's big realization is that he absolutely can't live without the heroine--but that's another post. Or a future article.) And this need or desire doesn't have to be consciously recognized or understood by the reader by any means. But the sharp increase in the hero's perspective, especially during initial sex scenes and the final reconciliation scene, as well as the focus on masculine communities (brothers, SEALs, vampires, football players) in best-selling series are, I argue, not coincidences.

Some paranormal romances, I have figured out recently, don't need to mess around with alluding to these theoretical underpinnings of the romance. They can make them theoretical overalls that are immediately available for the critic's use and enjoyment without needing to search hard for them. They are metafictional to the nth degree and almost point neon signs to the reason for the reader's enjoyment of the romance.

Take, for example, Laura Kinsale's Uncertain Magic. The heroine is psychic and can read the mind of everyone around her. This is represented as a curse, not a blessing and the unhappy romantic fates of Roddy's female ancestors who also had the gift are explicitly described. When Roddy meets Faelan, an impoverished Irish Lord with a reputation as a madman and murderer, she cannot read his mind. She uses her incredibly large dowry to buy his proposal and marries him, convinced this is her only chance at happiness. The story is told entirely from Roddy's perspective, and because she cannot read Faelan's mind, neither can the reader. Kinsale herself says:
until the very end, the entire story is told solely from the heroine's point-of-view. Initially, I chose this technique to emphasize Roddy's inability to "read" Faelan's mind, but after I completed the manuscript, I realized what a powerful narrative technique it can be.
When Roddy finally breaks through Faelan's mental walls in the last few pages, his thoughts are almost like crack for the reader (I tried to think of a more professional way to say that, but "crack" really conveys the addictive, high-inducing nature for the reader of finally reading Faelan's thoughts).

In her recent lightning review of Kinsale's novels, Candy, one of the Smart Bitches summarizes the issue of perspective in Uncertain Magic:
I missed having Faelan’s perspective, but because of the way the story is structured and because so much of the plot hinges on solving the enigma of why Faelan’s mind is closed off, it has to be told only from Roddy’s POV.
This is where the X-Ray vision comes in. If romances are, fundamentally, about the reader's access to the hero's thoughts and emotions, Kinsale's use of the paranormal gift of mind-reading in Uncertain Magic makes this theme overt.

I've already discussed Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou as meta-romance, but I think it's worth adding a snippet of what I said in the comments to that post:
Because all romance heroes, are, of course, created by women. They're "reincarnations" of women in the image of what we wish men could be. And Declan's unique status [as a reincarnated woman] unveils that aspect of romance novels, but still gives us our HEA.
Just as Faelan does.

Then there's a new paranormal romance anthology out called Over the Moon. Angela Knight's contribution, "Moon Dance," is about a female werewolf whose father insists she marry an abusive werewolf to preserve her aristocratic werewolf line. She refuses and runs away to seek protection from a "bitten" rather than "born" werewolf who is a cop and obviously alpha. After they first have sex, she muses in the morning:
All her life, she'd dreamed of a man like him. Then again, she supposed every red-blooded woman in America had dreamed of a man like Lucas Rollings--body by God, face of an archangel, a protective streak a mile wide. Who wouldn't want somebody like that by her side?

But there was more to him than great abs and an Alpha male growl. She remembered the vulnerability in his eyes when he'd described his abusive childhood. He'd gone out of his way to assuage her guilt and convince her he admired her for her battle against Stephen and her father.

When she thought about it, that little confession of his was pretty unusual all by itself. Most Alphas would rather eat glass than admit they'd ever been anyone's victim. It ran against the whole persona. (67-68)
First of all, werewolf stories make overt the fact that the heroes of romances are alpha males. And while Elena desperately needs the literal protection of Lucas' alpha status, she is also looking for a vulnerability in her hero that she (and the reader) recognizes because she feels it as well. Elena literally seeks Lucas out to solve her problems, a trait of male-male dialogue practices, but just as important to the success of their relationship is the fact that he can also empathize with her, a trait of female-female dialogue practices.(3)

Later, Lucas and Elena "spirit link." As they both change to were-form, their spirits mingle and link forever, to the extent that if one of a spirit-linked pair dies, so does the other. This process is told from Lucas' perspective:
Touching her mind was like laying naked in warm sunlight after a cold winter. His spirit unfurled with a hungry desperation, enfolding her and bringing her close.

Just as she enfolded him. Together...

, a voice said deep inside him. This is what I was looking for all along.

The alpha male, in his pure form, is desperate for connection to the female, desperate to be enfolded within her, and this is what he has been looking for all along. The male is not complete without the intimate connection to the female, and this is a powerful concept for the reader.

Virginia Kantra's contribution to Over the Moon is "Between the Mountain and the Moon." (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!) Unbeknownst to the heroine, she is the child of a father who spent fourteen years in the Fey kingdom in the Appalachian Mountains along the Appalachian Trail until he was saved by the heroine's mother. The fey Queen who was defeated by the heroine's mother is looking for revenge and chooses to enact it against the heroine. The Queen uses her own son, Rhys, who is himself half-human, although his father "left" when Rhys was eight by abandoning his human emotions and becoming full fey.

When Rhys and the heroine, Caitlin, have sex (she's a virgin and doesn't have an orgasm!), rather than Caitlin being enchanted and therefore destroyed by the sex as was Rhys' intention, Rhys' finds himself reeling from the emotional energy of their coupling:
Instead, she had destroyed him. Challenged him. Not merely sexually--he might have coped with that--but emotionally.

He could barely forgive her for that.

Or himself. (133)
The hero--that representation of inscrutable patriarchy--finds himself stunned by the emotional importance of what he meant to be not only a one-time, casual sexual encounter, but one that was meant to devastate the heroine instead, while the heroine remains relatively untouched.

Later, Caitlin casually touches Rhys' arm:
Rhys tensed. He couldn't help himself. The sidhe did not touch except in the formal figures of the dance or the equally deliberate moves of sex. Every time Cait touched him, she breached the walls he'd learned to construct to protect the sniveling, abandoned, eight-year-old child within. (144)
Rhys' traditionally masculine defenses of emotionlessness and casual sex are systematically threatened by his heroine. He finds himself helpless in the face of the artless acceptance of the heroine.

And in the end, it is Caitlin's love for Rhys that literally saves him from being torn apart by the Wild Hunt. She confronts the Hunter King who was once Rhys' human father, finally begging him, "Please . . . You were alive once. You were in love once. Please. Let him go" (182). It is the King's memory of the human love he felt for a woman that eventually saves his son, Rhys, from Rhys' mother's vengeance.

All because of the love of a good woman.

Paranormal romances bring to the forefront the theoretical foundations of the appeal of the romance. While these foundations are present in most "mundane" romances, paranormal romances make them overt, make them--in fact--the major plot point on which the salvation of the hero depends.

(1). This summary is the quick and dirty version, without the discussion of Foucault's theory of confession. See my article, "'Expressing' Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power," in Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36.

(2). This last argument actually comes from my article, "'If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more': Direct Dialogue and Education in the Proposal Scenes," in Talk in Jane Austen. Eds. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos-Gregg. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002. 167-182.

(3). See Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation).

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My Romance Class (chapter 2)

Well, we had our second meeting last week in DePaul's Senior Seminar on Romance (SSR, for short). I kicked things off in Watcher mode, reminding my students that they'd spent several years and thousands of dollars learning to be English majors, and that after all of that training they really should be able to say more interesting things about a book, about any book, than anybody else. Most of their posts to the class website, however, sounded like the posts they might have done in high school, I continued, and from now on I expected better. I then reassured them that my colleague teaching the Senior Seminar on Ulysses was giving his students the same lecture this week--and in fact he'd written me an email to that effect the night before.
We then opened Bet Me to page 1, chapter 1, and read:
Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men. She looked into the handsome face of the man she'd planned on taking to her sister's wedding and thought, Those days are gone.
"So," says I, "what can you do with that?"
The conversation that followed focused initially on the idea of this book as a "fairy tale": a story that alludes, syncretically, to many, many fairy tales, rather in the mode of Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods, which Crusie mentions explicitly in chapter 9. (It is Min's and Cal's favorite Sondheim, we learn in the opening pages of that chapter; it seems also, tidily enough, to be the musical that Quinn's high school will put on in Crazy For You. I smell a paper topic!) The proliferating, even overwhelming number of fairy tale references in the novel seemed to convince some of the more skeptical students that this was, if not a High Modernist text, at least a self-consciously crafted one: an impression that was reinforced when we turned to the ways that the events of the novel bear out not only Bonnie's sense of love as a fairy tale, but also Cynthie's contrasting empiricist account of the "four stages of love."
Some lovely insights emerged from this latter discussion, notably a glimpse of the novel's symmetrical model of amorous psychology. In it, hero and heroine serve as compensatory replacement parents for the failed (or simply critical, pessimistic, and belittling) parent in each other's lives. Cal rebuts and replaces Min's mother; Min, Cal's father. We also honed in on a lovely passage in which we glimpse the source of Min's unconscious "assumption" about what sort of partner / relationship is right for her: namely, the relationship she witnessed, as a girl, between her grandparents, and saw modeled for her in the art-object of the Mickey and Minnie snow globe:

When he was gone, Min walked over to the snow globe and wound it. It began to tinkle the first bars of "It Had to Be You," and she looked into it, and tried to get her breath back. The dome was heavy and perfect, sitting atop a black art deco base, and inside silver glitter and tiny silver stars swirled as Minnie beamed out at her, happy to be in Mickey's arms, and Mickey beamed at Minnie.

Maybe that's what I loved, she thought. That she was so happy and he thought she was wonderful. Plus there was that swirling pink dress Minnie was wearing and the great pink shoes to match. Well, the shoes were a little plain. Min tipped the globe to see, and the glitter and stars swirled again as the song slowed down and ran out.

Just as Harry's assumptions about love have been shaped by Cal and Min, Min's were shaped by her grandparents, and by this associated (metonymic) representation of them. Perhaps by implication the novel itself serves, or could serve, as a model for the reader? A thought worth pursuing, I think.
Our discussion ended before we came anywhere close to finishing the novel last week, so I've asked students to come back to it this week, with particular attention to Bonnie's defense of articulating your HEA, mid-novel, and to the two love scenes that frame the text: the first when Cal "forces" Min to eat a Krispy Kreme doughnut, and then the actual sex scene near the end. We'll see how that goes!
My main goal for tonight, though, is to make sure that my students all "get," and can begin to deploy, the ideas in our secondary texts: selections from Northop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and from Bruno Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment (one of the inspirations, evidently, for the Sondheim musical!), first of all; and then, for this week, selections from Pam Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel and Janice Radway's Reading the Romance. At the risk of boring you, let me post here some of the study questions I sent my students over the weekend. I'd love to hear any reactions you have to them, since many would help with other romance novels as well--or so I hope (grin).
Bet Me as a "Fairy Tale"

Crusie's opening and closing sentence signals the genre. So what do our secondary texts tell us about fairy tales?

From Frye, we can place it on a ladder of genres, one step below myth; it is part of romance, broadly speaking, and in it we expect to find certain things, among them a displaced retelling of mythic archetypes and a set of characters and events playing out in a world where “ “the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended” (33, my emphasis).

52: “We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back.”
Given this placement of romance between myth and mimesis, what sorts of action, event, or character might we expect to find in Bet Me? Do we find them? Examples?

What else can we say about this genre of fairy tale / romance, from Frye? Two key terms: design and desire.

We know that romance is nearer the overt design pole of literary art; that is, it’s a genre in which the element of design, which is to say authorial desire, is visible. In realism, this element is supposed to be more or less invisible, so that it seems to us that events are simply happening as they do in real life; in naturalism, events are playing out according to some theory of “the way things are.”

Thus on 136: “Myth, then, is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other, and in between lies the whole area of romance, using that term to mean…the tendency…to displace myth in a human direction and yet, in contrast to ‘realism,’ to conventionalize content in an idealized direction.”

And this, on 139: “This affinity between the mythical and the abstractly literary illuminates many aspects of fiction, especially the more popular fiction which is realistic enough to be plausible in its incidents and yet romantic enough to be a ‘good story,’ which means a clearly designed one. The introduction of an omen or portent, or the device of making a whole story the fulfillment of a prophecy given at the beginning, is an example. Such a device suggests, in its existential projection, a conception of ineluctable fate or hidden omnipotent will. Actually, it is a piece of pure literary design, giving the beginning some symmetrical relationship with the end, and the only ineluctable will involved is that of the author.
What would be some examples of Crusie’s “pure literary design” in the novel? (There are many; let’s find as many as we can.) What versions of (incarnations of, names for, examples of) this “ineluctable fate or hidden omnipotent will” do we see at work in the novel, and where?

In romance we see a “tendency to suggest implicit mythic patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience,” while in what we call “realism” the tendency is to “throw the emphasis on content and representation rather than on the shape of the story,” although if we step far enough back from the text, we can often see the “mythopoeic designs” that structure the material (139-40).

What would be some examples of mythic patterns (archetypal ones, say) suggested in this novel?

In romance, as in myth, we find a tendency towards “abstraction” in the characters (good guy / bad guy, etc., as opposed to inwardness and believable psychology).

Thus “138: the interest in this sort of displaced myth “tends toward abstraction in character-drawing, and if we know no other canons than low mimetic ones, we complain of this.”
Any examples of this, in major or minor characters? Can we address any objections to the novel as “unrealistic” through this idea—or through the idea of “design”?

We will also find characters who are in some way “idealized,” that is to say, associated with (although not literally) gods, goddesses, natural phenomena, etc.

Thus on 138: “The central principle of displacement is that what can be metaphorically identified in a myth can only be linked in a romance by some form of simile: analogy, significant association, incidental accompanying imagery, and the like. In a myth we can have a sun-god or a tree-god; in a romance we may have a person who is significantly associated with the sun or trees.”
How does Crusie establish these associations for us for her characters? Give examples!

But the notion of desire does not simply mean that the actions and characters are determined by the authorial desire for a design in the text. It also means that in such stories we can see human desires playing out in relatively overt and unfettered forms, one step removed from myth (in which anything can happen). Says Frye, in myth and romance actions occur “near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136), and romance more specifically “is the nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream”: a form with a “perennially child-like quality” signaled by “its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space” (186).

What desires does this novel articulate, or what wish-fulfillment dreams? Do we see in it this “nostalgia” for an imaginative golden age?

When we are dealing with a quest romance this proximity to wish-fulfillment allows us to read the romance psychologically, as well as mythically. “The quest romance has analogies to both rituals and dreams…. Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality. […] Translated into ritual terms, the quest-romance is the victory of fertility over the waste land. Fertility means food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood, the union of male and female” (193-4).

Can we read Bet Me as a quest romance, for both Cal and Min? Does that quest involve a search for “fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality”? Is there, in this novel, any “victory of fertility over the waste land,” with fertility meaning “food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood,” and sexual union? What to make of Cal and Min’s desires not to have kids, then?

Now, if we’re thinking about fairy tales in terms of psychology, we’re heading into Bruno Bettelheim country. What can we find in him that’s of use?

From Bettelheim, we learn something about what fairy tales teach: a message that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence—but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” Fairy tales confront us with “basic human predicaments” such as “death…aging, the limits of our existence, [and] the wish for eternal life (8). “Fairy tales intimate that a rewarding, good life is within one’s reach despite adversity—but only if one does not shy away from the hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity. These stories promise that if a child dares to engage in this fearsome and taxing search, benevolent powers will come to his aid, and he will succeed” (24)

Compare that passage (above) to this, from Crusie’s essay “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella”:
Theme is the spine of the story; rip that out and the whole plot puddles at your feet. And theme in fairy tales is very consistent. As Luthi has argued, the fairy tale introduction of “once upon a time,” or in the Breton, “once there was, one day there will be,” means that “what once occurred, had the tendency continually to recur,” and that the fairy tale theme is for all time (47). Propp has shown the universal fairy tale theme to be that if you have a lack in your life and you quest for an answer, you will be rewarded. And Pace in his discussion of Levi-Strauss has noted that behind the idea of Cinderella's social mobility is “the belief that there is an innate justice within the social system and that wrongs will eventually be righted” so that even though the Grimm's Cinderella is pretty much a passive wimp, she succeeds anyway because good triumphs and the world is a just place (254). These thematic aspects are present in Ross's story because, in romance, there is an underlying certainty that love really does conquer all, that (to paraphrase Pace) there is a belief in a kind of innate justice within the emotional system of human beings.
Also, consider this passage from Crusie:
The generic fairy tale theme is embedded so strongly in the structure and motif of the genre that it has already become obvious in this course of this paper: society is emotionally just and good, and therefore a woman will be rewarded with unconditional love if she remains true to herself (and her culture's concept of a heroine). This becomes evident thorough a cursory survey of the romance genre over the past thirty years. Early heroines were active in their plots but passive in relationships with the heroes. Rape romances were common in the seventies, inspired by the success of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower , but these romances, as distasteful as they seem today, actually reinforced the romance theme. For although the hero initially rapes the heroine through a misunderstanding, her innate strength and courage force him to love her unconditionally, thereby making the heroine the powerful secure figure at the end of the story. Today, rape romances are anathema at publishing houses because our culture now recognizes that there is no misunderstanding that will excuse rape, but this shift shows only that society's perception of what is acceptable in a hero and heroine have changed, not that the theme of romance has changed. The heroine still achieves security and unconditional love simply because of who she intrinsically is because her society is part of an emotionally just universe. The romance genre has planted its roots firmly in the universe of the fairy tale.
How might these descriptions of the core “theme” and “message” of fairy tales illuminate Bet Me? Detail the parallels.

Fairy tales are not about morality so much as about “assurance that one can succeed. Whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is also a very important existential problem” (10).

Does Bet Me show this issue of “assurance” in action for its characters? Does it inculcate a “belief in possibility” in this way? How might we factor in this passage from Crusie’s essay “Romancing Reality”:
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, one of the biggest names in romance today, experienced that empowerment after she was already successful. She writes that, as a best-selling novelist and happily married wife and mother, she sat down after a tense time in her life to relax with a stack of category novels. &She goes on to say that “I didn’t have to read for long before something magical happened. I felt better. Calmer. In control.” She writes that the novels did not offer the fantasy she thought romance novels would, “that of a wonderful man or a glamorous, fulfilling career. I already had those things.” Instead, she writes that the “fantasy” they gave her was “one of command and control over the harum scarum events of my life--a fantasy of female empowerment” (55). This is a beauty of a fantasy, especially since it’s not fantasy at all. Phillips already had command and control, and to this day she remains one of the most empowered women I know. The romance fiction she read simple reminded her of her own capabilities, thereby reinforcing her own experience of reality.
Bettelheim says that fairy tales will be “unrealistic,” for a reason: “In a fairy tale, internal processes are externalized and become comprehensible as represented by the figures of the story and its events. […] The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner processes taking place in an individual” (25).

Specifically, “in the tales’ content, inner psychological phenomena are given body in symbolic form.” We don’t take everything literally; rather, “the fairy tale offers fantasy materials which suggest to the child in symbolic form what the battle to achieve self-realization is all about, and it guarantees a happy ending (36, 39).

What would Bet Me look like if we read it this way, with every character and event the externalization of an internal process, the working-through of ambivalences and desires?

The tales offer “fantastic symbolic images for the solution of problems,” although “the problems presented in them are ordinary ones: a child’s suffering from the jealousy and discrimination of his siblings, as is true for Cinderella; a child being thought incompetent by his parent, as happens in many fairy tales….” (40). They offer symbolic narratives about the internal process of growing up: “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fairy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence” (73).

What sorts of real problems, symbolic victories, and unreal truths might this novel be said to offer?

So what do these tales do? First step is to take internal confusion and ambivalence and sort it out into a set of distinct, clear-cut characters: “When all the child’s wishful thinking gets embodied in a good fairy; all his destructive wishes in an evil witch; all his fears in a voracious wolf; all the demands of his conscience in a wise man encountered on an adventure; all his jealous anger in some animal that pecks out the eyes of his archrivals—then the child can finally begin to sort out his contradictory tendencies. Once this starts, the child will be less and less engulfed by unmanageable chaos” (66). This splitting is all about turning chaos into order: “As he listens to the fairy tale, the child gets ideas about how he may create order out of the chaos which is his inner life. The fairy tale suggests not only isolating and separating the disparate and confusing aspects of the child’s experiences into opposites, but projecting these onto different figures” (75).

How might all of the secondary characters in this novel “sort out” the chaotic and ambivalent parts of the reader’s self? Can we take Min (and maybe Cal) as versions of the reader, then?

In particular, these stories seem to sort out ambivalences about Mom and Dad—and maybe especially Mom? See 69: “The typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well. It is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother, who is viewed as a different person. […] The fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her—a guilt which would seriously interfere with the good relation to Mother” (69).

Where do we see such ambivalence about Mother in this novel? How does it play out for Cal and for Min? Is a symbolic “splitting” visible?

Note Bettelheim’s description of the daughter’s relationship with the mother as represented in fairy tales:
In a girl’s oedipal fantasy, the mother is split into two figures: the pre-oedipal wonderful good mother and the oedipal evil stepmother. […] The good mother, so the fantasy goes, would never have been jealous of her daughter or have prevented the prince (father) and the girl from living happily together. […] The little girl can love her real father all the better because her resentment over his failure to prefer her to her mother is explained by his unfortunate ineffectuality (as with fathers in fairy tales), for which nobody can blame him since it is due to superior powers; besides, it will not prevent her from getting her prince. A girl can love her mother more because she puts out all her anger at the mother-competitor, who gets what she deserves—as Snow-White’s stepmother is forced to put on “red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped dead.” (114-115)

We might particularly expect to find this splitting take place in terms of the parents’ opinion of their child: See Bettelheim on 135: “Almost every child is convinced that his parents know better about nearly everything, with one exception: they do not think well enough of him. To encourage this thought is beneficial, because it suggests to the child that he should develop his abilities—not to do better than the parent, but to correct the parent’s low opinion of the child.
In respect to excelling the parent, the fairy story frequently uses the device of splitting him into two figures: the parent who thinks little of the child, and another figure…who gives him sound advice on how to win out…. The parent is thus split into his doubting and supporting aspects, with the latter winning out.”

Can we read Bet Me in terms of this “girl’s oedipal fantasy”? What changes do we need to make to the fantasy in order to have it match Bet Me? If we read the book this way, is Cal Dad, or Mom?

Finally, consider this passage from “This is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella” about romance novels and fairy tales:
“That is what all the romance revisions of fairy tales accomplish: they take the general elements that resonate from all fairy tales and recast them using just enough concrete detail from the original tales so that the reader can recognize the tale that's being reworked. The reading of the recasting becomes tremendously satisfying because this time, the reader isn't left out of the story anymore; now it's about her.”

Can we use this to describe not only what Crusie does with fairy tales in Bet Me, but how she does it? What “concrete details” are used, and how have the stories been revised so that the reader can feel that the story is now “about her”?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Romance History - Guidelines

I've posted about publishers' guidelines for romance before but, as we all know, the romance genre has changed over time, and one can see that if one compares modern guidelines with those of the 1980s. Kassia Krozser posted the story of how she got hold of these old guidelines, as well as a bit of a bit of background about the upheavals that were going on in romance publishing at the time. Now she's posted the guidelines themselves, over at the Romance Wiki.

You can see the following guidelines:
  • Dell's Candlelight Ecstasy Romance Guidelines Circa 1980 - They advise authors to 'Avoid the use of formula plot devices such as a marriage of convenience between the protagonists, or amnesia'. Clearly some things haven't changed that much in over 20 years, as novels with these plots are still written (and although such plots may be described as 'formula', authors still manage to give such old plots new twists).
  • Gallen Books Guidelines Circa 1980 - the heroine must be 'beautiful [...] Instinctively, she knows how to dress well, can carry off almost any fashion. She may choose to wear very casual clothes, but descriptions of pretty clothes are important'. The Silhouette Romance guidelines (see below) also state that 'Her outfits are described in detail'. We've discussed fashion in romance novels already and Radway's criticisms of the many descriptions of the heroine's clothing date from this period (Reading the Romance was first published in 1984). Like the 'formula plot devices' mentioned in the Dell guidelines, I think descriptions of the heroine's clothing can seem tired and clichéd if badly written, but take on new depths of meaning when handled by a skilled author.
  • Second Chance At Love Guidelines Circa 1980 - this is a letter to authors warning them not to use 'devices which we feel have been sadly overworked'. These include some professions for the hero and heroine which are relatively rare today, while others remain much more common. I've not seen many heroes or heroines who are travel agents, for example, but there are still plenty of heroes who are architects and heroines who are journalists, writers and artists.
  • Silhouette Desire Guidelines Circa 1982 - I was amused by the warning that 'The plot should not consist of a series of chance encounters, coincidences or filler scenes in which nothing substantial happens.' I can't imagine that many romance authors would set out to write a novel with 'filler scenes' or a plot based solely on 'a series of chance encounters' and coincidences. If someone did, it would be unlikely to impress readers who, as Anne Marble observes, 'often refuse to swallow coincidences. If the plot hinges on a huge coincidence at a crucial moment, don't be surprised if readers get upset. Even little coincidences can rile nerves if they happen too often'.
  • Silhouette Romance Guidelines Circa 1980 - In the Galen guidelines authors were told that 'The heroine's parents may be living, but, if so, are not capable of giving her the full support she needs'. In the Silhouette Romance guidelines the heroine 'is usually without parents or a "protective" relationship. [...] A brother is permissible, but she is often in the position of caring for him, rather than vice versa--he may be weak, crippled, or uncertain as to his morals or future'. This is a feature of romances which was noted by Ann Douglas: 'As the story opens, the heroine has usually lost a parent, a home, or both, making her especially vulnerable' (1980: 26). Ann Rosalind Jones, writing in 1986, suggests that this may be beginning to change: 'let me offer a summary of a typical romance plot, as it's been stabilized in the genre and is still used by older writers. The heroine, a virgin in her early twenties, is set in a social limbo: her family is dead or invisible' (1986: 198). I wonder if the absence of family in these romances was in any way linked to the popularity of 'the modern "gothic" romance, a genre that enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s' (Radway 1981: 141). We can, of course, still find plenty of romance heroines who are orphaned or have parents who are absent for other reasons, but they are not nearly so frequent as they were in the past.
  • Silhouette Special Edition Guidelines Circa 1980 - A matter of craft/style which has changed considerably since the 1980s is point of view. Nowadays readers often know what the hero is thinking, but that was not so often the case in the past, unless he revealed his thoughts in conversations with other characters. As noted in the comments at the top of this entry at the Romance Wiki, the Silhouette Special Edition guidelines were somewhat unusual in what they have to say about point of view: 'A Special Edition is always written in the third person, but it is the heroine's point-of-view which shapes the novel' but 'The narrative may sometimes include the hero's point-of-view in order to more fully develop his character and the plot'. In the Silhouette Romance guidelines authors were informed that, 'Though the point of view of a SILHOUETTE BOOK is usually omniscient--i.e. the author can get in anyone's head, she chooses to remain almost completely in the heroine's'. One consequence of the use of heroine-only point-of-view was that it tended to make the hero's motivation somewhat mysterious. According to Ann Barr Snitow
    Since all action in the novels is described from the female point of view, the reader identifies with the heroine's efforts to decode the erratic gestures of "dark, tall and gravely handsome" men, all mysterious strangers or powerful bosses. [...] He is the unknowable other [...] She, on the other hand, is the subject, the one whose thoughts the reader knows, whose constant reevaluation of male moods and actions make up the story line. (1983: 247-248)
    As Anne Gracie observes,
    In the past, the dominant romance convention was that romance used only the heroine's POV. This was because it was believed that most readers identified only with the heroine.

    When authors began to include the male POV -- entering the hero's mind -- readers loved it (to publishers' amazement!) and the dual POV became pretty standard.
  • Douglas, Ann, 1980. 'Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman', in The New Republic, August 30, volume 183, pp. 25-29.
  • Jones, Ann Rosalind, 1986. 'Mills & Boon meets feminism', in The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, ed. Jean Radford (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), pp. 195-218.
  • Radway, Janice, 1981. 'The Utopian Impulse in Popular Literature: Gothic Romances and "Feminist" Protest', American Quarterly, 33.2: 140-162.
  • Snitow, Ann Barr, 1983. 'Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different', in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 245-263. First published in Radical History Review, 20 (Spring/Summer 1979): 141-61.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Horror and the Paranormal

Today I was reading a historical set in England in 917 A.D.. That might not seem to have anything at all to do with the paranormal romance genre as recently discussed here by Sarah (both in terms of the definition and in the context of Nora Robert's Midnight Bayou). And yet, Sarah was asking:
How does the normal woman respond, for example, when she finds out her lover is a vampire/werewolf/witch? How does a normal man respond when he finds out he's not normal when he comes into his previously latent powers or is turned into a paranormal monster?
and elsewhere Magess thought that
It’s probably pretty difficult to make people afraid of vampires now. Oversaturation. I doubt you could really make them afraid of werewolves either.

What DOES count as horror now?
Is there real horror in the paranormals where the hero or heroine is a 'monster'? I don't know, because I've read hardly any paranormals, but my initial reaction to the thought of vampires and werewolves is far, far closer to one of horror and fear than one of delight or attraction.

To get back to the historical romance, Helen Kirkman's A Moment's Madness, the 'monster' here is not at all paranormal - he's the heroine's berserker husband:
one day someone argued with him, just our neighbor, over nothing it seemed. That was the first time I saw it, his rage. The noise ... like a wolf howling, and the spit flying from his mouth and the look in his eyes. Like one possessed. Possessed with the wolf's spirit. He had such strength when he was like that. He did not seem to feel any pain himself, whatever anyone did to him, and there was nothing he could not do and nothing he would flinch from doing to someone else (2004: 283)
and later she sees a wound he has inflicted, 'Wolves tried to tear people's throats out. It was what they did. Ragnar was, had been, the spirit of a wolf' and feels the 'sheer repulsive horror' (2004: 286) of it. Ragnar is not the hero, and although he's not actually a werewolf, it made me wonder if the type of horror his behaviour evokes is ever felt in paranormals by the human lover of a paranormal creature.

So my questions are:

(1) how much horror is there, in general, in paranormal romances in which the hero and/or heroine is a paranormal being such as a werewolf, vampire or demon?
(2) if there isn't very much horror (either felt by the reader or the human partner) is this because the creature has already been 'de-fanged' by the author? In other words, how often does the world-building include a paranormal creature as a hero or heroine where he or she still possesses all the evil or inhuman characteristics which made such creatures terrifying in myth and folktales?
Kirkman, Helen, 2004. A Moment's Madness (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou

In my post on the definition of paranormal romances, Eric asked:
I wonder whether paranormal romance lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading. That is, does the "paranormal" part of the world correspond in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself--and, by extension, to the worlds of desire and love?

My quick answer to him was,
Eric, yes, absolutely. I'm reading Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou and it's doing exactly that in ways I think I'm going to blog about when I've finished it.

So here I am to fulfill my promise. Rethinking my ideas, I don't think Eric and I are talking about exactly the same thing, but here we go anyway.

Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou.

I'm not very good at summarizing plot. The above link takes you to the Barnes & Noble site for the book, with its plot summaries. Suffice it to say that Declan, a rich Boston lawyer, quits everything and buys a house in New Orleans, Manet Hall, that he has always been drawn to. There he falls for Lena, a bar owner and descendent of a previous inhabitant of the Hall. Interwoven in Declan and Lena's story is the turn-of-the-century story of Abby, the bayou servant who marries Lucian, the heir of Manet Hall, and bears him a child (Lena's ancestor), but whose rape and murder by Julian, her husband's twin, is covered up by her husband's mother. Ghosts haunt the house, although it's never 100% defined whose ghosts (Abby, Lucian, Lucian's mother, certainly; Abby and Lucian's daughter as a baby, maybe; potentially Julian, Lucian's brother, the one who rapes and murders Abby). The ghosts want the house to remain abandoned and/or filled with unhappiness, and try to get their way by slamming doors and producing cold spots and apparitions of rooms as they once were. When the ghosts get particularly mad, they can throw crockery. But Declan and Lena, of course, refuse to be driven away.

It's definitely a paranormal by my definition. The hero and heroine, each with their own baggage, are attempting to establish (or desperately trying to avoid establishing, in Lena's case) an intimate, sexual relationship. It is explicitly stated, however, that in order to achieve their HEA, they have to resolve the hauntings in the house. So the final tension of the novel is firmly grounded in the paranormal, even if neither of the characters is particularly paranormal themselves.

The crux of the hauntings is the fact that Abby's rape and murder are unknown and unacknowledged. Julian rapes and murders her in the nursery, in front of her child, in a jealous, drunken rage. His mother walks in just as the deeds are done and becomes the brains behind the cover-up. When Abby's husband Lucian comes home the next day, rather than trusting Abby's fidelity, he eventually believes his mother's claim that Abby left him to run off with her lover, leaving him with her bastard child. He never knows what happens to her and finally commits suicide by walking into the bayou, already dead inside of a broken heart.

In a move that Kirkus Reviews (from the B&N website) calls "an unconvincing twist of gender and reincarnation" (more about those awful reviews in a bit), it is Declan, not Lena, who is the reincarnation of Abby. While he works to refurbish the house, he dreams that he is Abby, living through the experiences of falling in love with Lucian, pregnancy, child birth, and finally not only the rape and murder, but also the cover-up and the hauntings. Declan's connection to Abby, the fact that Declan IS Abby, if firmly grounded in the corporeal. He is much more Abby than Lena is Lucian because he relives the female bodily traumas of childbirth and rape. Although it is Lena who suggests that he is Abby, rather than Lucian, Declan accepts the reincarnation much more easily because he is forced to because of the experiences of his body.

While one can speculate that Roberts probably "meant" the reincarnation twist to be merely a way to perk up the tired reincarnation plot, or, as Publisher's Weekly puts it, merely a way to "giv[e] her faithful readers a little extra thrill," I'm interested in the literary and theoretical repercussions of that choice, especially as they relate to gender and the reader's experience, whether or not they were consciously "meant."

The house is haunted because the ultimate violence against a woman has been erased from history. The secret died with her murderer and his collaborator. No one else has ever had knowledge of it. Justice has not been served and the house is therefore haunted until it is. But the justice is not that of a courtroom and a murder conviction. Rather, the justice Abby's ghost demands is the trust of her beloved. Lucian did not believe in her love, in her fidelity, or in their relationship. Neither did he love and protect their child after her disappearance as he had promised when she was born. Rather, he took her back to Abby's bayou relatives (where she had a contented, fulfilled life). It is Lucian's distrust, his emotional abandonment of Abby and their child, that Abby's ghost cannot forgive. For Declan and Lena, reincarnations of Abby and Lucian to achieve their happy ending, the star-crossed lovers must resolve the issue that kept them apart in a past life in order to come together in this life.

The modern hero and heroine, then, cannot attain their happy ending until the enormity of the crime against Abby--the ultimate crime of violence and power possible against a woman--has been uncovered, lived through, and acknowledged by a man. It would not be enough for Declan to be a reincarnation of Lucian, because the whole point is that Lucian was not present during the rape and murder and could not save Abby. Rather, a man must experience the devastating results of a woman's rape and murder. And although Abby-through-Declan receives Lucian-through-Lena's apologies and remorse and in turn forgives him, freeing the house of its ghosts, this occurs only after the alpha male hero has literally become a woman by experiencing that which only a woman could experience (childbirth and rape), and has acknowledged their power.

Midnight Bayou, then, demonstrates an alpha male recognizing and acknowledging that a woman's experience is necessary for full truth in and full understanding of any situation. It is not enough that the hero merely know this intellectually; he must experience and acknowledge the primacy, the necessity of a woman's experience.

While that is my "official" analysis of the novel, there are a couple of other things I'd like to cover. Both reviews (PW and Kirkus) mention the "predictable" nature of this romance, but one can almost imagine them calling every romance predictable.

The implications of these statements is that the narrative closure should NOT be predictable, that the reader must be reading for something other than the happy ending, so the reviewer will try to figure out what elusive quality the reader enjoys other than the happy ending. Kirkus comes up with "Agreeably credible lovers and a neat piece of home-restoration compensate some for the hokey hauntings on the bayou," as if this were a written version of "This Old House," rather than a romance where Declan's renovations of Manet Hall are certainly interesting, but rather get in the way of what I'm really looking for, which is, of course, exploration of his relationship with his heroine.

I've long been interested in establishing a blog rather like the Smart Bitches, but for Chick Flicks. I'd love to be able to read reviews of romantic comedies that review the movies on the basis of their status AS romantic comedies, rather than on the basis of their status as NOT being Schindler's List. I want to know if a film is a good or bad romantic comedy, not whether it is an Important or Ground-Breaking Film.

In fact, reader reviews of Midnight Bayou on the B&N site express disappointment that the happy ending is not extended further. Declan finds a ring for Lena in an antique store in New Orleans, but is never given the opportunity to give it to her. While she asks him "We getting married or what?" on the last page and he responds enthusiastically, "You better believe it," and while she gives him the necklace and charm that represent the "key to her heart," the issue of the engagement ring is not resolved, and readers noticed. Not only do they count on the happy ending, but they are disappointed when they do not get ENOUGH of it.

Why do "predictable" happy endings automatically make books less worthy of being read? Why is "boy and girl live HEA" the predictable part, but the actual unpredictable achievement of that HEA (Declan becoming a woman) mentioned with even more scorn by the reviewers than the HEA itself?

Questions for the ages, I guess, but this is why romance reader websites are so common on the web and why they're such strong communities. We've had to fight back against "official" brush-offs from reviewers and we review the romances AS romances, coming from the axiomatic stance that romances are worth reading because of their HEA, and exploding from there. And I think that's a Very Good Thing (TM).