Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rosy Thornton - More Than Love Letters

Rosy Thornton's More Than Love Letters isn't exactly a typical romance, either in form or in content, though it does have "a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" (Romance Writers of America's definition of a romance novel). Rosy herself describes it as "romantic comedy" but as the reviewer at Trashionista observed, it "manages to balance serious issues with being the funniest book I’ve read for a while". The Amazon reviews highlight the ways in which the novel combines comedy and tragedy, multiple perspectives (from characters who span the generations) and
was completely unlike any other 'chick lit' I have ever read, by turns satirical yet warm-hearted, serious and also farcical in the best and original sense of the word. The central story focuses on the unlikely, yet touching, romance between an MP [Member of Parliament] and a young woman called Margaret. The story also tackles issues, great and small, from homelessness and asylum seekers to dog fouling and unfair taxes. (Liz)
Over at AAR there's a thread about cultural differences, in which EllenB asked whether "romances accurately reflect the culture they're set in": this is a novel which felt very distinctively and realistically British to me. I also wrote recently about what readers bring to a novel and I was reminded of this when reading the reviews because although Margaret and her political activities seemed relatively normal to me, one reviewer felt that "I loved the heroine, Margaret, from the very beginning and although she might seem slightly bonkers, her passion and enthusiasm make her totally loveable". As a 24-year-old who regularly contacts her MP to raise issues with him she is a little unusual: according to a recent GfK NOP survey, "Only 11 per cent of 16-24 year olds have contacted their MP about an issue that concerns them. By contrast a third of 45-54 year olds (33 per cent) have contacted theirs". Climate change, however, one of the issues raised by Margaret, is an issue which concerns the vast majority of her age-group: "Over two thirds of the adult population (69 %), and three quarters (75 %) of 16-24 year olds think a climate law should be introduced that requires UK carbon dioxide emissions to be cut every year". She also campaigns on some very local issues (e.g. dog fouling in a local park) and some more unusual ones, such as VAT on sanitary products. As the Women's Environmental Network note, "Until comparatively recently sanitary protection was classified as a luxury item and taxed at the full VAT rate of 17.5%. Since January 2001 however, the tax on these products has been cut to a fairer 5%. They cannot be zero-rated due to a European agreement not to extend zero-rating to any products other than those already in place at the end of 1975" (WEN, pdf document). Margaret's view is that "they should be zero-rated" because "the charging of any VAT on sanitary towels and tampons is an unarguable example of sex discrimination" (1).

Of course, the fact that I know these things may be one reason why Margaret didn't seem particularly "bonkers" to me. Then again, as I'm a sandal-wearing, vegetarian Guardian reader, who regularly writes to her MP and knows plenty of people whose commitment to a variety of causes matches Margaret's, that reviewer might consider me just a little bit "bonkers" too. Which brings us back to the issue of reader perceptions and how they can differ from one individual to another. As this is an epistolary novel there is no narrator to shape the reader's perception, and so we must each fill the gaps between the texts in our own way, reaching our own conclusions about both the characters and the events which take place in the novel.

Rosy Thornton, a Bye-Fellow in Law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, may write that "Lawyers are famous for being unimaginative thinkers. Law is one of those subjects where you dissect things" (EADT24), but this is a novel which sets the reader thinking, and not just because of the various issues raised in the course of the novel, but also because of its form: it's "written as a series of traditional letters and emails - plus the odd extract from the minutes of meetings of WITCH: Women of Ipswich Together Combating Homelessness" (EADT24) which span the period from the 14th of September 2004 to the 21st of December 2005. The various texts (which are, as the title of the novel suggests, "more than love letters") ask the reader to assume the lawyerly role of questioning the texts presented as evidence, in order to draw his or her own conclusions. Characters are also readers, reading and responding to some of the texts included in the novel, though none of them are privy to all of the texts in the way that we are. We can compare the differing linguistic registers in which Margaret writes to her grandmother, her friend Becs, and her local MP. The attention to words and texts is shared by many of the characters, some of whom enjoy wordplay and many of whom make intertextual references to a wide variety of novels and television programmes, including The West Wing, What Katy Did, and Cora's "eclectic mix [...] everything from the Brontës to Mills and Boon. We have lots of the same favourites - like Lord Peter Wimsey, and Frenchman's Creek, and those Margaret Forster family histories" (48). Cora herself suggests that references which might be familiar to people in her age-group will not be understood by those in another: "I didn't want her to hear 'Stand Down Margaret'! We really used to hate that name, didn't we. But she's so young, I don't suppose she thinks of that association" (111), and yet Thornton suggests that perhaps we should not make such assumptions too quickly. Margaret has, in fact, already said of her name that she doesn't like the shortened form
Maggie [...] for me the only image that conjures up is documentary footage on TV from the 1980s, CND demos, or striking miners on picket lines, and that inevitable angry chanting: 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - out, out, out' (80)
Contemporary authors can still be inspired by novels written over a century ago (More than Love Letters is loosely based on Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South) and, conversely, the old, represented by Margaret's grandmother, may be in touch with contemporary popular culture:
What's 'The West Wing', by the way? Is it something I should watch, do you think? Would I understand it? I am so grateful that you started me off watching 'Friends'. I used to really look forward to my Friday evenings, and I was so pleased when Rachel decided not to go to Paris in the end. She and Ross make such a lovely couple, don't they? (26)
In its form More Than Love Letters reminds me somewhat of the video for JXL's remix of Elvis's A Little Less Conversation. This, like Thornton's novel, is a reworking of an original text/song. The video also includes a frame, so that we become an external viewer, regarding a viewer within the frame who is himself watching various dancers and singers responding in their own ways to Elvis's original song. Thornton places us in the position of the viewer, interpreting others' interpretations. In the JXL remix the dancers and singers, from different social, ethnic and age groups, each have their own responses to the song in a way which is not dissimilar to the manner in which each character in More Than Love Letters has his or her own reactions and interpretations of events. The reader is thus presented with a variety of characters, each the main performer in his or her own drama. In addition the lyrics of the song seem an apt reflection of Margaret's feelings. In general she would like "A little less conversation, a little more action please" from her elected representatives, including, eventually, precisely that sort of "action" implied by Elvis.

The interpretation of texts and reported actions, and the ways in which they can be misleading is in fact a theme of the novel. Richard Slater is an MP in the post-Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson world of New Labour so he discusses with his friend how to maximise his media coverage and spin it to his advantage; images in newspapers can be misinterpreted; journalists may juxtapose quotations to misleading effect. More benign examples of deliberate lack of clarity can be found in the minutes of WITCH meetings, which allow the truth to be read through the lines:
Mrs Robertson from number 27 has complained again about noisy male visitors late at night. Emily and Pat T. have spoken to Lauren once more about telling the boys to keep the noise down, and explained how vital it is for the future of the project that no money should change hands. (6)
Margaret's grandmother tells of the slight (and very well-meaning) deception she engages in with her home help:
Kirsty comes at nine o'clock, which is when she starts work, and that's fair enough, she has her own little ones to get up and fed and off to school first. But I feel so idle just sitting in bed until she comes, so sometimes I have a wash and a piece of toast before she arrives, and then hop back into bed when I hear the gate. Then I have to pretend to be hungry when she makes my breakfast later. (I can tell you, love, because I know you'd never say anything.) (25)
She also recounts a story from Margaret's past which involved a verbal misunderstanding:
The very first day you started nursery school, I remember I went with Mum to meet you at three o'clock, and the first thing you said when you saw us was, 'I've got a new friend and she's called Horatio.' It took us three weeks to work out what her name really was - though your mum said Carnation wasn't much better than Horatio! (24)
Misunderstandings and deliberate deceptions (which range from the benevolent white lie to the concealment of sexual abuse) abound and we, as readers, are at times amused and at times challenged by the mixture of truths and falsehoods.

  • Thornton, Rosy. More Than Love Letters. 2006. London: Headline, 2007.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Popular Culture and Respect

There's been a vast amount written and debated in the last week about the romance genre and the lack of respect it receives.1 I'm not planning on re-opening the debate with regards to suitable attire for romance authors because I'm sure anyone who's read all the posts and comments here, here, here and here will (a) have a good idea of the various standpoints on the issue and (b) have eye-strain.

I'd just like to observe that the study of popular culture is relatively new. Back in the late 1960s and 1970s when
Professor Ray B. Browne [...] founded the Journal of Popular Culture and the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in 1967, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at BGSU in 1968, the BGSU Popular Press and the Popular Culture Association in 1970, the Department of Popular Culture at BGSU in 1972 (Americana)
it was the case that
To the extent that popular culture was being examined back then, it was through the telescopic lens of history or with the long, cold tongs of the social sciences. But Browne insisted on also looking at contemporary material and applying to it the kind of close, comparative analysis that had previously been reserved for highbrow culture. (Salon)
As Catherine Morland once observed, history could be described as "The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all" (Austen, Mansfield Park). Nowadays, however, historians use a much wider range of source materials and have rewritten histories to include women, children and the lower social classes. This opening up of new areas of research and a new appreciation for previously neglected texts and objects has led to the creation of new collections such as the
Browne Popular Culture Library. The BPCL, founded in 1969 and dedicated to the acquisition and preservation of research materials on American popular culture (post 1876), is the most comprehensive repository of its kind in the United States. (website)
Such collections bring together these otherwise ephemeral resources in order to preserve them and make them accessible for academic study. The online databases at serve the same purpose. All of them are collections of works of popular culture from chapbooks to street art and from Canada to Eritrea.

Here's a link to a 'penny dreadful',2 The Illustrated Family Novelist, from the Revolution and Romanticism database, which contains the short story of A True Woman by Miss Minnie Young. [If you look below the page there's an option to 'view larger image', followed by [+] and [+] and if you click on that larger [+] you can read the text more easily and move forwards through the text using the arrows at the sides of the pages.]

Here's Margaret, our heroine, talking to Dr Harley, her secret admirer, about the song 'The Lorelei' [lyrics by Heinrich Heine (1823) and music by Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860)]:
[Margaret] "I don't think I sympathise very much with the story, or rather with the luckless hero. Wasn't the Lorelei supposed to be soulless?"
[Dr Harley] "Yes"
[Margaret] "And the fisherman flung away his life for such a being?"
[Dr Harley] "He wasn't the first man who has flung away his life for a woman without a soul."
[Margaret] "That is very likely; but I can't sympathise with such a feeling."
[Dr Harley] "He was in love?"
[Margaret] "He was infatuated."
[Dr Harley] "Are they not convertible terms?"
"Certainly not," she spoke with some scorn; and then, seeing the expression on her companion's face - he only spoke thus to try her - she changed her tone. "But some people are so fond of talking as if love and folly were synonymous."
"Because so many people act as if they were. Of course they are not. The highest love is subordinate to reason, to honour, and to duty. When man or woman sweep down these barriers it is generally through the weakness of their principles rather than by the strength of their feelings." (page 5)
Given her views on love and folly I have the impression that Margaret might well disagree with the comment in the Text in Transit: A Guide to Genre in Popular Literature database, in the item on "Comic Romance", to the effect that "Romance and relationships are inherently ridiculous".3

In comparison with history, the study of popular culture, that "vital area of study that offers new insights into our history, beliefs, diversity, emotional make-up, and socio-economic relations" (Portland State University) is still a relatively young discipline but already it has changed (revolutionised?) the way we think about what would once have been termed "low culture". Further study of both the romance genre as a whole and of individual romance novels will, I hope, contribute to a more nuanced approach to the genre, one which acknowledges the diversity of cultures, ideologies, and, yes, levels of literary merit, which are present in this huge and varied genre.

1 I would like to observe that "respect" is not synonymous with "respectability". The former, according to the OED can mean "a feeling of admiration for someone because of their qualities or achievements" or "due regard for the feelings or rights of others" whereas the respectable is what is "regarded by society as being proper, correct, and good" or is "of some merit or importance".

2 The term "penny dreadful" is not a complimentary one. Romances have suffered from similar labelling problems, with many described as 'bodice-rippers' despite the fact that they contained no descriptions of clothing being shredded. Kathleen Woodiwiss
became known as a pioneer of the "erotic historical" novel. She didn't appreciate it.

"I'm insulted when my books are called erotic," Woodiwiss said in a 1978 interview with Cosmopolitan magazine. "I write love stories, with a little spice." (LA Times)
3 Links to short descriptions of other romance sub-genres covered by the database, and a few examples of covers from each sub-genre, can be found here.

The painting is of Liberty Guiding the People, by Eugène Delacroix, from Wikipedia. She may perhaps also be considered the embodiment of popular culture. She demands respect, not respectability, and her bodice, while unripped, is revealing. It's a costume which, while suitable for an allegorical figure, would certainly not be considered normal, professional wear for an author.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

History, Her-story, and the Historical Romance

On the RWA's conference blog Roxanne St. Clair wrote that
It’s true, it’s true: the historical romance novel is alive and selling! In the words of a buyer from one of the major chains, historicals are “trending up” for the first time in a while. This is especially true of the bestselling authors of historical romance, and booksellers are closely watching the numbers of new and midlist authors in this sub genre, because increased sales from those authors is the sign that the trend is real and lasting. Terrific news for the hundreds of writers and millions of readers of the beloved historical.1
I've written about history in historicals before, but I just came across the current issue of Working Papers on the Web (Volume 9, December 2006), on the topic of Historicising the Historical Novel and apart from being interesting in its own right in its analysis of historical fiction, it also raised some issues which are equally relevant to historical romances. According to Chris Hopkins "for both authors and critics, the form of the historical novel seems unavoidably caught up in doubts, assumptions and debates about the nature and status of history and of fiction, about relationships between past and present". Gillian Polack questioned a number of authors of historical fiction and concluded that
writers who use the Middle Ages in their fiction are more likely to have an emotive link with the period or to consider it as a tool to enhance their fiction than to have a purely empirical approach. The 'facts' of the past are subsets of a dedication to bringing a higher truth to the public or to telling a story or to exploring a personal love for a place a time or a person.
This, and the fact that the novels are published by "publishers supposedly interested more in marketability than in the subjective emotive value of a texts [...] possibly gives the fiction writers' Middle Ages a stronger claim to being the mainstream Middle Ages in wider cultural terms than the scholarly Middle Ages". There are bound to be exceptions, of course, and Sharan E. Newman was one scholar who, irritated by the "wide gap between what scholars learn and teach about the Middle Ages and what the average person believes [...] decided to take another tack in presenting my research to the world: I wrote it into fiction".2

For the literary critic who wishes to analyse historical novels, it may be difficult to determine which historical inaccuracies are deliberate, intended to facilitate the plot, heighten the readers' enjoyment, make a point about contemporary society, or highlight a character's exceptional nature, and which are simply the result of a connection with the "mainstream" of popular knowledge/perceptions of the historical period in which her novels are set.

Carol Thurston studied "Fifty-six titles published between 1964 and 1981 by twelve publishers, of which approximately 87 per cent were published from 1976 to 1980" (37) all of which were what she termed "erotic historical romance novels" ( i.e. novels such as Kathleen Woodiwiss' 1972 The Flame and the Flower and Bertrice Small's 1980 Skye O'Malley). She found that
Most heroines have more education than other females of their time; more than two-thirds experience sexual intercourse before marriage and with more than one man (the range was 2-7 different men), and more than half were raped. One out of three became pregnant before marriage, married more than once, and posed as a man or boy at some time during the story. (37)

erotic historical romance heroines could be characterized as feisty women of integrity fighting for independence, equality and respect in a "man's world". [...] They show a strong determination to be accepted as individuals in their own right, not defined by marriage or family lineage [...]. In addition, heroines recognize that they have sexual needs as strong as those of their lovers and are not ashamed to seek satisfaction of those needs. (41)
Thurston notes that there is "strong evidence that changing social values in today's society have been imposed on these historical settings" (43) but she was not concerned with "the question of what the creator may have intended" because "ultimately the impression the reader is left with - what the reader thought was said and done, and by what kind of people - may be the more significant information" (35-36).3

Authors can certainly use history to make points about contemporary society and politics. Lisa Hopkins' paper on Dorothy Dunnett explores the ways in which
during the course of the novels she develops a vision of the historical novel as neither Scottian nor nostalgic but a manifesto for the future of Scotland, in which it is seen not as a small and geographically isolated northern country but as a lively and thriving part of a wider European culture.
Yet it is also true that, as Alison Light observed of the historical romances she read as a teenager,
The class politics of many of these novels are often difficult to tease out. Even if we wanted to, they cannot merely be read off from content, not least because many of the settings deliberately pre-date modern class references or terminology and are thereby mystified. (66)

The study of popular fictions will always founder on the rock of ideological purity, clung to in political desperation. Not least because the identifications which all literary texts offer are multiple and conflictual, even irreconciliable. [...] What's clear is that the capacity to fantasize which novels encourage, is notoriously unbiddable, and that for those of us who judge novels by their messages, moral, social or political this has always been a mixed blessing. (69-70)
Nonetheless, Light observed that there was a special focus on women's lives:
historical novels gave me a history I could appreciate. The focus within them is ultimately upon individuals, but especially upon femininities, upon women's lives and loves, their families and their feelings. What the novels manage is to give the concerns of the so-called private sphere the status and interest of history. (59)
In most historical romances the politics of a historical period are rarely foregrounded,4 and this often makes it still more difficult to "tease out" the class politics. Nonetheless, as was the case with the novels read by Light, women and their concerns and interests are placed at the centre of historical romances and, as Thurston found, they may use the historical context to present on a magnified scale some of the challenges which face modern women.

Medieval settings are perhaps more overtly threatening to a heroine, because she may be married off against her will by her father, or abducted by an enemy knight. The armed power of the male characters may present a very clear threat, but it is one which the heroine can be shown to overcome, perhaps through her own mastery of "masculine" skills and/or through courage, intelligence and lateral thinking. In Isolde Martyn's short free online story, Heart of Gold, the Demoiselle Madeleine de Bellegarde-sur-Cher demonstrates all these qualities and abilities. The story shows us a couple who are well-matched, both in archery and in their mental abilities (both are described as "too clever"), and the archery takes on a symbolic as well as a literal meaning.

We can contrast this medieval story with another by Isolde Martyn, A Loving Matter, set in a very much later historical period (it's very short, so I'm not sure if it's set in the Victorian period or slightly earlier). I wonder if the associations readers have of this period, at least in part due to reading "trad Regencies" is that this was a time of strict social conventions. Women in this period run the risk of becoming inspid or spiteful, and in the face of the challenges posed to her autonomy and success the heroine tends to respond with intelligence, witty repartee and a willingness to bend the rules at least a little. Both in the Regency, where the rules governing entry to Almack's were determined by an all-female committee, and in the Victorian period, when Britain was once more ruled by a Queen, the social rules and the threat to an independent-minded heroine may come as much from women as from men. In Martyn's story their presence may only be inferred, but what is more than clear is that the hero himself poses no threat.

I'm aware that I'm generalising wildly about romances set in both these periods but I think it's fair to say that each historical period has a particular "flavour" for readers5 which allows authors and readers to explore issues related to women's roles, femininity, masculinity and male/female relationships in a different way.

Eloisa James, for example, has compared the Regency and Georgian periods:

The Regency period is great fun to write about in part because of the codes that governed the behavior of men and women regarding marriage, courtship, adultery, etc. It’s a challenge to create characters who are historically accurate (or reasonably so) and still engage the sympathy of thoroughly modern women. It’s also a challenge to design the courtship of two characters who are not supposed to be private together or even kiss.
I started thinking about the Georgian period because there were so many fewer strictures. Basically, society was a lot wilder.
Jo Beverley concurs with this characterisation of the Georgian period, describing it as "a bawdy, amoral age, especially for the rich. It seems inevitable, therefore, that my Georgian romances have erotic elements" and she contrasts this with the early Middle Ages, in which
They had the arts, yes...but most people, even the nobles, were working hard for food, shelter, and security. In my medieval books, therefore, sex is fairly simple. Gentle at times, even playful, but down-to-earth. I don't think most people had time or energy for decadence!
----1 According to Jane at Dear Author the situation may not be quite so promising: "Tommy Dreiling, the buyer for Barnes and Noble, [...] said that the trends are similar to those reported at Borders. [...] Historical romance sales were author driven, meaning that some authors like Sabrina Jeffries, were selling tremendously well but others were not".

2 Here is a list of some of the more common 'myths about the Middle Ages'.

3 There, are, of course, problems involved in determining what 'the reader' thinks or feels about a text given that reader perceptions differ.

4 I discussed politics in contemporary romance novels here, and an example of a historical romance which devotes considerable space to an exploration of the politics of the period is Carola Dunn's Crossed Quills.

5 Whether or not this "flavour" is historically accurate is an issue I'll have to leave to historians to determine.

  • Light, Alison. " 'Young Bess': Historical Novels and Growing up." Feminist Review 33 (1989): 57-71.
  • Thurston, Carol. "Popular Historical Romances: Agent for Social Change? An Exploration of Methodologies." Journal of Popular Culture 19.1 (1985): 35-45.

The paintings are both by Edmund Blair Leighton. The first is "Stitching the Standard" and the second is "A Favour", and both are from Wikimedia Commons. In 1897 Gleeson White, "a writer and journalist on art" wrote that Leighton's paintings were "the pictorial equivalent of light literature, of belles letters, of graceful novels".

Sunday, July 15, 2007

2007 RITAs and Golden Hearts

The list of RITA award winners is now up at the Romance Writers of America's newly revamped website.

The list of winners of Golden Heart awards (for authors of as yet unpublished manuscripts) is also up there and one of the winners is Bronwyn Clarke.

I'd like to congratulate all the winners, but I'm giving a special mention to Bron because she's a fellow romance scholar. She's completing a PhD at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia and her 'research project will explore internet communities of romance readers and writers and their perspectives on the genre'. You can read more about her research here and if you'd like to help Bronwyn with her research please read this page and then fill out a response to her survey and comment on her research blog (not all of the posts are related to the research; some are more personal, so you may have to do a little bit of scrolling to find the questions).

The photo is from Wikipedia.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Puss in Boots

As I'd posted about musketeer-style hats in my previous post, my mind turned to the other accessories, particularly the boots, and having found this illustration I decided to write a post about Puss in Boots (the fairytale, not any of the meanings given in the Urban Dictionary). I know Puss in Boots is not a romance, but as Sandra pointed out, 'romance fiction employs various elements of fairy tales' and shoes turn up quite a lot in romance and chick lit. Shoes and boots can be very sexy, as LustBiter Gwen Masters explains:
My closet revels in boot ecstasy. [...] I love leather that slips all the way up my leg, teases around my knee, and stops at an almost indiscreet place, high up on my thigh. I love the way those clicks announce my presence, like a whisper of invitation to any man who might be within earshot. I love wearing them with a longish skirt and watching others wonder – just how far up her leg do those naughty boots go? [...]

Most of all, I love the way those boots make me feel: Slip them on, and I’m seductive hell on heels.
Puss in Boots makes a brief appearance in the lyrics of Honor Blackman1 and Patrick Macnee's 'Kinky Boots' and after that and Gwen's description, it's difficult not to think of the sexual connotations of the word 'pussy'. Bruno Bettelheim's explanation of the symbolic meanings of female footwear in fairytales does nothing to dispel these verbal associations:
To the conscious mind, an object such as a slipper is just that - while symbolically in the unconscious it may [...] represent the vagina, or ideas connected with it. [...]
In "Cinderella" the pretty, tiny foot exercises an unconscious sexual appeal, but in conjunction with a beautiful, precious (for example, golden) slipper into which the foot fits snugly. This element of the "Cinderella" story also exists all by itself as a complete fairy tale [...]. This tale tells of an eagle that absconds with a sandal of the beautiful courtesan Rhodope, which it drops on the pharaoh. The pharaoh is so taken with the sandal that all of Egypt is searched for the original owner so that she may become his wife. (1991: 268-269)
Getting back to Puss, the objection may be made that Puss is a male cat. That's certainly true in many versions of the tale, including Charles Perrault's, but not all. As Heidi Anne Heiner notes,
Puss In Boots is the most famous of the animal helper tales. It is classified as tale type 545B by Aarne-Thompson. Tales of 545A have a female as the central character while 545B has a male. The female character appears most frequently in oral versions of the tale, while Charles Perrault has made the male character the more common in the literary versions (Thompson 1946). Many modern scholars do not use the gender differences in their classification of the tales and rely primarily on the 545B designation for similar tales with either gender.
In modern popular culture cats often seem to be female, or associated with the feminine. Catwoman is female, and as Irina Slutskaya's 2005 skating Catwoman performance indicates, is a character who's well aware of her sexual allure. In Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds all the musketeers are dogs, but the villainess, Milady, is a cat and one, moreover, who is 'beautiful, even to other species'. The term 'sex kitten' has made it into Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary and we also have terms such as 'catfight', 'kitten heels' and 'catsuit'.

How many romance heroines are Puss in Boots characters? Maybe she appears more often in chick lit? Puss in Boots is intelligent, knows how to accessorise, and has a good job. She's aware of her own sexuality and can take care of her own needs (she buys her own boots or otherwise receives them as a consequence of her job, not because of some male's gift) and sometimes she gets her man. In the Norwegian version of the fairytale, Lord Peter, which is, sadly, bootless, our cat wins her hero and there's even a very obvious point of ritual death2 when Cat demands that
'"you must cut off my head [...]" [...] 'He cut off the Cat's head, but there and then she became the loveliest Princess you ever set eyes on, and Lord Peter fell in love with her at once.

1 Honor Blackman, who played the part of Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger, had a boot and catsuit wearing role in The Avengers.

2 Pamela Regis identified the point of ritual death as one of the 'eight essential elements of the romance novel' (2003: 30):
The point of ritual death marks the moment in the narrative when the union between the heroine and hero, the hoped-for resolution, seems absolutely impossible [...]. The happy ending is most in jeopardy at this point. In coining the phrase "point of ritual death," Frye has noted how often, "comic stories ... seem to approach a potentially tragic crisis near the end" (Anatomy 179).
The heroine is often the target of ritual death (Regis 2003: 35).
  • Bettelheim, Bruno, 1991. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London: Penguin).
  • Regis, Pamela, 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Illustration of Puss-in-Boots by Gustave Doré, from Wikipedia.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Kathleen Woodiwiss (1939-2007)

Michelle reports the news of her death at Romance: By the Blog.
From the dream of the dust they came
As the dawn set free.
They shall pass as the flower of the flame
Or the foam of the sea.
(from Marjorie Pickthall, "A Saxon Epitaph")

More anon--

Feminism & Popular Culture Conference (1)

My fellow musketeers are rather busy at the moment, so I've put on my musketeer hat and in the spirit of 'one for all' I'll give a very brief summary of their papers (I'm sure they'll come along later to discuss them in more detail) and then tell you a bit more about my own.

The 20th annual Feminist & Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) Conference, on the topic of Feminism and Popular Culture, was held at Newcastle University from June 29th to July 1st 2007. I was only there on the 30th of June, but both An and Sandra were there for the whole conference so will be able to give an overview of it.

An began the session on the romance genre with her paper on 'voice' in the romance genre, examining handbooks or guides to writing romance. While these guides acknowledge that writers must be aware of the genre's conventions, they also encourage each writer to develop her or his own distinctive voice.

Sandra continued by looking at the ways in which the heroines of modern historical romances are not damsels in distress who wait passively for rescue.

I concluded the panel with my paper, titled Feminism Revisits Mills & Boon: Second and Third Wave Contexts and Struggles in Two Mills & Boon ‘Lines’. I had to condense my findings for the conference, and I'm going to condense them yet further here, because there simply isn't space, so I apologise in advance if I appear to be making sweeping generalisations without offering any textual evidence for my claims.

I picked up on An's point about the way that romances vary. This variety is evident even within individual lines. These authors are not like the members of the Top Secret Drumcorps who you can see here, performing at the 2006 Edinburgh Military Tattoo, all marching in step, producing a near-identical product.* One cannot, therefore, assume that all the novels, even within a line, have precisely the same tone or that all the authors share similar attitudes. Thus while I found many romances which could be considered feminist, and while the authors I corresponded with identified as feminists, there were a few novels which were anti-feminist in tone and yet others where feminist issues simply didn't arise in the course of the story.

That said, I think one can find parallels between the social and economic contexts in which many heroines of the Mills & Boon 'Modern' / Harlequin Presents line find themselves, and society as critiqued by Second Wave feminists. One could characterise the line as being one where there is conflict between men and women, creating an impression of a battle of the sexes, or, in the words of the Harlequin guidelines:
With its focus on strong, wealthy, breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes who are tamed by spirited, independent heroines, the central relationship in a Presents novel is a provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict, emotional intensity and overwhelming physical attraction.
In the cases where the hero is sexist, he is generally brought to acknowledge the error of his ways and he apologises to the heroine. By the end of these novels she has achieved sexual fulfillment, equality within marriage and the freedom to pursue her career should she wish to do so. In the novels where the hero is not a sexist but the heroine has been oppressed by another man (possibly a dictatorial father or an abusive/controlling former lover) she overcomes past hurts and fulfills her potential.

The second line I looked at is the 'Romance' line and the heroines of this line find themselves in a context which more closely resembles those in which Third Wave Feminists have reached adulthood.** In this line heroes and heroines are much more likely to be presented as equals from the start: the guidelines state that the novels must be 'About a hero and heroine who are equal (they need each other; their strengths and weaknesses balance the other's)'. An issue which arises not infrequently is that of combining work and family obligations (for both men and women) and as the UK's Equal Opportunities Commission recently stated,
The reality is that unless women can combine work and caring roles successfully, they are unlikely to reach the top in great numbers. What’s more, all women will continue to experience a thin veneer of equality, that cracks as soon as they have children or take on caring responsibilities. Far too many workplaces still follow a long hours, inflexible model of work. This has never worked well for women and is increasingly out of date for the ever-growing number of men who say they want to be more involved at home. (2007: 6)

  • Equal Opportunities Commission, 2007. Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain? 2007. Available online as a pdf.
  • Baumgardner, Jennifer & Amy Richards, 2000. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
* Yes, I'm mostly including these drummers because their uniform resembles that of the musketeers (they even perform a 'battle scene' while drumming), and because their level of skill is quite astonishing in its precision, but I also think that their uniformity contrasts with the immense variety of sub-genres and voices to be found in the romance genre.

** See, for example, the prologue of Manifesta , in which the authors, both Third Wave Feminists, note that they were born in the 1970s, 'a decade that would change dramatically the lives of American women' (Baumgardner & Richards, 2000: 3) and describe what 'a day without feminism' would be like. The first few pages of this prologue can be read online here (click on 'excerpt'). One summary of the differences between the three waves of feminism is as follows:
The first wave of feminism was concerned with giving women the rights of citizenship. The second wave worked towards equality under the law in pursuing equal opportunity everywhere. As Baumgardner and Richards explained in Manifesta, third wave feminism is still pursuing second wave goals, but third wave feminists are a generation reared within the privileges of feminist accomplishments, such as Title IX, Roe vs. Wade, the outlawing of gender discrimination, a continuing front on domestic and sexual abuse, and a lexicon created, sustained, and evolving to theorize gender.

The image is a cropped version of Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun's Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782 (from Wikipedia). Given her achievement in becoming a member of 'the prestigious and almost entirely male Académie Royale' (The Getty Museum), hers is a suitable image to accompany a post about feminism. I also liked the hat which, though not strictly a musketeer one, is similar in style.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Three Musketeers ...

... went to a conference and heroically fought for the honour of romance fiction. :) And here we are: An Goris, Laura Vivanco and Sandra Schwab.

Conference write-up of the juicy bits will follow soon.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes

Jennifer Crusie posted recently on her blog Argh Ink that fifty copies of The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes were being given away to people who promised to review them on their blogs. So I sent in my name and this blog and about a week later received a wonderful envelope from Saint Martin's Press in the mail, so here I am, reviewing the book.

Except, well, I'm a literary critic, not a book reviewer. So there's going to be more analysis than review, although I guess the two overlap here and there. But do watch out for some spoilers.

Links to reviews can be found here on the UMF website blog and an excerpt is here.

The premise of the novel's construction is that it's one novel (NOT an anthology, but a full-length novel) written by three authors, Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer, and Anne Stuart. Each author wrote one of the sisters' stories (like Crusie's collaboration with Bob Mayer, in which she writes all the scenes from the womens' perspective, and he writes all those from the mens' perspectives), and the three story-lines were interwoven into one master narrative. Dreyer wrote the scenes from the perspective of Dee, the oldest sister, and (I assume) Danny, Dee's hero. Stuart wrote those from the perspective of Lizzie, the middle sister, and her hero, Elric. Crusie wrote the scenes of Mare and her hero, Crash. I've never read Stuart or Dreyer before, but I certainly recognized Crusie's signature writing style in Mare's scenes. There are also the scenes of the sisters' aunt, Xantippe and her "evil minions" Maxine and Jude. I don't know who wrote those or if they were pure collaboration.

For a Crusie novel, this cast of nine characters (with a few extra very minor characters like a discarded fiance, Mare's boss and co-worker, and a waitress making it thirteen) is actually pretty small. Crusie has said that her normal cast of characters averages about seventeen characters. So compared to her other books, it was easy to tell the characters apart and to understand their relations to each other (unlike Fast Women when I had to draw a family tree to figure things out). On the other hand, with three main love stories in 391 pages, every single page counted and you had to pay very close and strict attention to every scene. You couldn't take a break and skim through the scenes of secondary character interaction, as I know I sometimes do, because there were no scenes of purely secondary character interaction. It's a book that's much better read in one or two sittings (and easily done) rather than trying to read it with too many interruptions, because there is so much symbolism, so much to keep track of (magic: Dee's is green smoke, Lizzie's is purple fog, Mare's is blue sparks) from scene to scene that it's better to try to do it all at once. In a house with five children, one pregnancy, two dogs, and a husband home for the summer, I didn't manage that "no interruptions" thing, so I got confused now and then. For example, Mare and Crash separate for a short time in the time scale, but a long time narratively, and then pick up their conversation almost exactly where they left off, and I had to flip back a long way to figure out exactly when and where they did leave off, because there had been too much story piled in between their two meetings for ME to keep track of (others might not have the same problem).

The time scale of the book (48 hours) and the consequent speed of the romances didn't bother me as it does in some books, especially paranormal ones in which the characters are each others' One True Love, like they are in this book. The magic that brought the couples together was such a strong part of the narrative that it was very believable to me that two of the three couples would fall in irrevocable love in two days (Mare and Crash had a history) and I could absolutely believe in their Happily Ever After, despite the packed nature of the narrative. I also believed in the character transformation and growth of all six of the main characters (except maybe for Elric, Lizzie's hero, but he was too delicious to care much that he didn't change a lot), which was refreshing and unexpected for such a relatively short examination of each couple individually (as in, each couple probably received the length of a novella for their story). The motivation of the villain wasn't just that she was evil and nasty. She was evil but vulnerable in a way that was totally believable and actually made you sympathize with her now and then, which was also refreshing.

What fascinated me about the book was the interweaving of the characters' story-lines and the differences between the placing and pacing of the eight elements of a romance. As I mentioned in my previous post, "Pamela Regis has brilliantly delineated the eight necessary narrative events that make a romance a romance: society defined, the meeting, the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, the point of ritual death, the recognition, the betrothal." (For clarification, the recognition represents "the new information that will overcome the barrier" [Regis 36], and the betrothal represents the characters' commitment to a happy future together, rather than just a legal marriage, so marriage of convenience plots still have a betrothal scene at the end, even though the characters are already married.) There's also the optional elements of the scapegoat exiled, bad characters turned to good, and the wedding/dance/fete representing the happy union. Each of the elements, and any or all (or none) of the optional elements, can be depicted in any order, together or separate. For example, the meeting and the attraction often happen together in romance novels. And the general consensus is that better romances locate the barrier and recognition in the characters and their relationship, rather than in external problems. So, in romantic suspense, there might be an external reason keeping the characters apart or a mystery that needs to be solved for the purpose of the larger narrative, but there also needs to be internal or inter-character conflict as well to make it a good romance novel, rather than just a good novel.

***This is where the spoilers really start, so be warned!!***

The narrative of The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes as a whole led up to the scapegoat being exiled; that is, the climax of the novel was the optional element in a romance of the showdown between the sisters and their murderous aunt, Xantippe. She was suitably "exiled" and the denouement after the showdown depicted each couple going on their way, happy and secure in their relationship with their respective hero. No weddings/dances/fetes represented the happy unions, and, to be honest, they weren't needed. Despite the time it took to locate the narrative tension in the showdown, however, each couple also had either an internal or inter-character barrier to overcome, or sometimes both: Danny didn't believe in magic and Dee couldn't have sex without shifting; Lizzie couldn't control her power but Elric quickly veered from trying to take it from her in order to keep the universe safe to teaching her how to use it properly; Mare had to overcome her feelings of abandonment by Crash because he left five years ago as well as her own feelings of inadequacy. The weaving of the conflicts, internal, inter-character, and external, was brilliant. If I were doing a more in-depth analysis, I'd have to draw a chart detailing the elements of the romance and in what order they occured for each character and each couple and when in the narrative they occured in relation to the other story-lines. This is probably what Crusie, Dreyer, and Stuart had to do (I didn't read the blog, so I'm not sure), and, excuse my language, but must have been a bitch to accomplish. But Crusie, Dreyer, and Stuart absolutely managed it. It's a brilliantly plotted book and, while being dense, the story-lines work almost seamlessly together.

For example, interestingly, the first sister to receive a declaration was the last to achieve her recognition. Mare and Crash admit their love for each other almost immediately, but Mare is left (or leaves herself--it's just ever so slightly contrived) in suspense about Crash's true motives for finally coming to find her until the denouement. Both Dee and Lizzie, on the other hand, get their declaration of love from their heroes much later than Mare does, but are both secure in their hero's love and their HEA before the showdown. Dee and Danny have the most conflicts to overcome (Dee's shapeshifting, Danny's dislike of magic, Dee's feelings of responsibility for her sisters, Danny's double life), and to me, their HEA seems the most solid and real as a result because somehow they actually had time to work through it all in a realistic manner. Lizzie and Elric seemed to have the least conflict, either internal or inter-character, to get through, but there was a huge imbalance of power between Elric's magic and experience and Lizzie's lack of control and inexperience that was overturned at the end when Lizzie learned to control her enormous power, prompting Elric to say to Lizzie, "Remind me never to get you too pissed off at me" and lamenting the fact that although "I'm usually the one in control," he wasn't any more. This switch somewhat made up for the lack of conflict, but then, Lizzie and her power were the center of the external conflict with Xantippe, so less conflict between her and Elric probably made sense. This is just a sampling of the analysis that could be performed on this deftly plotted book, and I think this would be a wonderful novel to choose to do an in-depth analysis of the effect of the placement of the elements of a romance, precisely because of the interconnectedness of the narrative(s).

I have to end saying I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I'm actually looking forward to reading it again to capture the many layers of the stories, because I know I missed stuff.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Romance Novel Sermon

omance novels aren't usually the subject of sermons, but they were on the 17th of June 2007 at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. In the past I've posted about the theme of sin and redemption in the romance genre, and in that post I included a comment by Rev. Melinda. Now Melinda's posted a sermon in which she says that
romance novels, like so much other human art and expression—and indeed, like so much of our spiritual writing and faith life--and like our Bible passage for today, come to that—these novels deal with eternal and essential questions like “What is love? Do you love me? Do you know me? Am I worthy? Am I lovable? And how can I best reveal and express my love?”
I'd encourage you to go and read the whole of the sermon, but I'm going to quote from some of the passages in which she examines three common romance plots in order to discover what their underlying spiritual message. The first plot concerns the
powerful, handsome, wealthy Duke [who] falls in love with the mousy, intellectual, poverty-stricken, unsuitable governess—and sometimes she’s even in disguise—a woman no one else notices or thinks attractive. He sees her, though; he looks past the surface, sees through her disguise, thinks she is beautiful, and falls in love with the woman she really is.

I think this plot speaks to our overwhelming need to be seen for who we really are and loved anyway—even if we believe that “real, revealed self” is unworthy, or inadequate, or unlovable.
The second is about
the wild, frightening, tortured hero with dark secrets [who] meets a young sweet innocent woman who, against all reason, trusts him and believes in him. He saves her from disaster, and in turn he is changed and saved by her love.

Doesn’t this speak to us of our abiding hope that that that no matter what our dark secrets, sins or deficiencies, we can be loved enough to be forgiven, redeemed and saved?
and finally
In a marriage of convenience, the hero and heroine are forced to marry, usually at least one of them reluctantly and grudgingly. Along the course of the novel they encounter adventures, disasters, trials, and situations that require them to help, care, and support one another. Strangely enough they fall in love by the end of the book. Maybe because they’ve learned how to do loving things, and in the doing of love they’ve learned to embrace one another in love. [...] Love is not only a feeling. Love is a doing. Love isn’t something that happens to you. Love is something you do for others. It’s an active pursuit, a work of faith. And it’s revealed in your acts of service, your acts of kindness, your acts of mercy, your care for those around you who are in need.

The initial letter 'R' is an illumination in the Winchester Bible (1160-75), from the Web Gallery of Art. I hope it's alright for me to use the image, as it's for an educational purpose, this being an academic blog.