Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Eric on the Black Dagger Brotherhood

Eric's at Romancing the Blog today with a post about J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series. He offers a male perspective both on the brothers and "the transition by which 'pretrans' vampire boys turn, overnight, into full-sized fighters." According to the glossary on Ward's website, transition is a
Critical moment in a vampire’s life when he or she transforms into an adult. Thereafter, they must drink the blood of the opposite sex to survive and are unable to withstand sunlight. Occurs generally in the mid-twenties. Some vampires do not survive their transitions, males in particular. Prior to their transitions, vampires are physically weak, sexually unaware and unresponsive, and unable to dematerialize.
Do join him (if you dhare). And yes, having read the glossary of terms on Wikipedia, I too have fallen victim to the curse of the redundant "h".

Friday, October 26, 2007

Barbara Cartland

Sandra recently discovered that her students, when shown a photo of the lady in question, were unable to recognise Dame Barbara Cartland, perhaps the most famous, and certainly one of the most prolific, romance authors the world has ever known. Sandra was truly shocked, as am I, for Cartland has no equal and was, in many ways, the embodiment of (and possibly the source of) many of the stereotypes about romance authors.

As Mary Cadogan has observed, Cartland's novels
underpin the traditional pattern of female fragility and male dominance [...]. The role of the raffish hero is simply to awaken the innocent heroine to broader and deeper areas of experience and passion. Luxuriantly named leading ladies - Magnolias, Darcias and Honoras - progress from fearing to fancying the men into whose arms they have been thrust. The novels are slim, with little space for the slow stop-go arousing of mutual understanding and ardour that the genre generally demands. Action abounds; the pace never slackens as heroines are trundled through chases and abductions and forced marriages until in the final clinches the high-flown assertions of devotion can be delivered, with supreme confidence by the male characters ('you have given me your heart, and I think too your soul'), and more haltingly by the heroines ('without your love the world is ... empty and dark, and I would rather ... die than go on living'). (197)
Here's an example of the type of hero and heroine Cadogan's describing:
He had for so long associated with sophisticated women who belonged to the raffish and rather fast set that surrounded the Regent at Carlton House that he had forgotten, if he had ever thought of it, that there were girls as pure and innocent as Alexia.
But in his soul he knew that this was what he had always wanted in his wife. [...]
"I love you, my darling!" he said. "I love you so overwhelmingly, so completely, that it is going to take me a lifetime to tell you how much you mean to me."
"I love you ... too!" Alexia murmured. "But there do not seem to be enough words in which to ... express it."
"I told you your vocabulary was limited," the Marquis said with a smile. (Problems of Love, 146-147)
The final kiss is often a moment of almost mystic intensity:1
She felt a sudden flame shoot through her body; she felt as if he drew her like a magnet into his keeping and that he would never let her go. She felt her lips respond to his and knew that this was a love which would never alter or grow less.
She felt him draw her closer still until they were one; indivisible - one heart, one soul, one love for all eternity. (Runaway Heart, 301-302)
Cartland died in May 2000, at the age of 98, but her legacy, including a bright pink website, lives on.

Here's part of the obituary which appeared in The New York Times:
Throughout her professional life, Dame Barbara possessed a most uncommon ability: she was able to turn out 50,000-word novels at the rate of two a month. During the 1980's, when she was hardly young, she routinely produced 23 titles a year. With all of it she still managed to live the good life in Camfield Place, her gracious 400-acre estate in Hertfordshire, with Twi-Twi, her Pekingese, and with her white Rolls-Royce ever at the ready, a pink mohair rug neatly folded in the back seat, there to keep guests comfortable when they were driven to her home from the station.

And although her name may not have been taken seriously by the more serious students of comparative literature or by the subscribers to literary supplements, about one billion copies of her 723 books were printed and sold in 36 languages. Bantam and Jove Publications were among her several American publishers.

She has appeared in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's best-selling author, breaking records for 18 years.
BBC Radio 4 recently aired a documentary about her, Encounters with the Pink Dame, presented by Liz Kershaw, but currently the link isn't playing the right programme so you may find yourself listening to a documentary about yuppies driving fast cars along London's motorways instead. However, if you'd like to listen to Speed, Greed and the M25, in which "James May uncovers the secret history of the M25 Road Race and looks back at the greed of the late 1980s as Porsche-driving city traders indulged in illegal contests of speed", you can either listen to it via the link for the Cartland documentary or find it here. There is in fact a tenuous connection between the two programmes, because in her younger days "Barbara Cartland came to Brooklands [a "race track, now marooned in the suburbs of Weybridge in Surrey"] because she was a gossip columnist [...] Brooklands was where all the gossip was. They used to call it 'the Ascot of motor racing'." (The Telegraph, 2006).
  • Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present. London: Macmillan, 1994.
  • Cartland, Barbara. The Problems of Love. London: Corgi, 1978.
  • Cartland, Barbara. The Runaway Heart. 1961. Long Preston, North Yorkshire: Magna, 2002.
  • Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. 1970. London: Paladin, 1971.

1 Germaine Greer, commenting sarcastically on a scene in one of Cartland's novels in which the hero kisses the heroine's hand, observed that "when handkissing results in orgasm it is possible that an actual kiss might bring on epilepsy" (178). Cartland does describe kisses as being so intense that they resemble other authors' descriptions of orgasm, or religious ecstasy.

The photo is of the cover of Tim Heald's biography of Dame Barbara Cartland. It shows her in one example of the type of pink dress that came to be almost her trademark.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gwyneth Bolton - Sweet Sensation

As usual, this isn't a review, and there will be spoilers. There's an excerpt from the novel here and very positive reviews from the Romance Junkies and RAWSISTAZ. The novel is the second in Gwyneth Bolton's “Hip-Hop Debutante” trilogy of novels which "all take common romance plots and give them a hip-hop remix. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me remixed the arranged marriage plot. And Sweet Sensation will add some flavor to the secret child plot" (from here). In the spirit of full disclosure I feel I should add that Gwyneth Bolton is the pen-name of Gwendolyn D. Pough, one of the Teach Me Tonight team and "an Associate Professor of Women's Studies and Writing at Syracuse University. Her research focuses on black feminist theory and the public sphere with an emphasis on Black popular culture" (from her bio). Gwendolyn is also a poet, like her heroine Deidre James who's "a former female rapper turned spoken-word artist", and you can read some of Gwendolyn's poems here and here. Sweet Sensation includes poetry and also draws on song lyrics:
the title Sweet Sensation comes from a old Stephanie Mills song. “Sweet Sensation… so sweet… a fantasy… love vibration… And I just want to let you know… That I'll never let you go…" [...] Anyway, the novel has a soundtrack of hip-hop love songs that I kept in mind as I wrote it.
You can find more details about all those hip-hop love songs here, at Gwyneth's blog.

Poetry and song lyrics all use words, and exploring the use of language and the impact of words is both a part of Bolton's own writing technique and a central theme of the novel. For example, here are the heroine's thoughts on the second page of the novel:
It's for the best. You can't change the past. Everything happens for a reason. You made your bed, now lie in it. The series of clichés ran through her mind, and not one of them made her feel any better.(2)
There may be some truth in clichés, but as noted in Wikipedia, a cliché is "a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty". Repetition, then, can affect the power of words. The tone in which they are spoken is also significant, as when Deidre addresses her daughter: "'Kayla, what are you still doing up?' Deidre hugged Kayla and tried to put a sternness that she didn't feel into her voice" (3). When things are going well in a relationship, the exchange of words can be what brings a couple closest: "She'd missed the late-night conversations they had after making love when they were in college [...]. She'd missed the way he listened to her, really listened to her, in ways that no one ever had before or after" (122). Perhaps because this is so, the withholding of words can sometimes be an even more powerful statement than using them: Flex interprets Deidre's failure to tell him about his daughter as a betrayal (15) and Deidre "didn't think things could get much worse than her daughter not speaking to her" (19). Deidre herself doesn't "talk to her father. She had dodged having to say more than two words to Dr. Howard James for years" (20).

The importance of public words provides a frame for the text, as the prologue opens with the words of one of Deidre "Sweet Dee" James's songs. Deidre has just returned from "Miami where she'd performed for the first time in eleven years. The performance had gone well. After years away from hip-hop, it amazed her that she was still able to grab a microphone and rock a crowd with such ease" (1). The performance pulls Deidre out of her "life of relative obscurity", and into the eye of both the media and the reader. The novel concludes with the a media report on a very much more personal performance/use of words: "last week super producer and former record label mogul, Flex Towns, married Deidre 'Sweet Dee' James in a small wedding ceremony" (214) and, just a page after Flex "grabbed the remote and turned off the television" (214), the remote is also turned off, metaphorically speaking, on the reader, as the novel ends.

Roughly at the centre of the novel, both literally and in terms of emphasising the main theme of the work, is Deidre's poem, "Word", about the power of language:
When I first heard
brothers on the block saying word
I got excited
I sensed we would be getting our power back again
There is power in the word
the strength of NOMMO1
was going to take us home
But when I tell you of this new coming strength
all you can say is
Word! [...]

In the '70s the word was spoken and black was beautiful again
We'd lost the knowledge
of our beauty for so long
And all it needed was to be spoken into existence
We spoke it and there was power [...] (115-116)
I imagine Deidre performing her poetry in a manner similar to Zora Howard, age 14, with her poem "Bi-Racial Hair", at the New York Knicks Poetry Slam.2 Zora's only a couple of years older than Kayla, Deidre's daughter, who is already able to demonstrate her own skill with words.

Some months ago an item appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution which caused some anger among romance readers. Leaving aside some of the most controversial statements, at the centre of the arguments on either side, both for and against romance, was the question of what effect the novels have on the reader. Shaunti Feldhahn stated that she
was concerned to learn that many romance novels are not as harmless as they look. In fact, some marriage therapists caution that women can become as dangerously unbalanced by these books’ entrancing but distorted messages.
In her rebuttal Diane Glass responded that
Romance novels are about entertainment, not the dissemination of seriously dangerous notions. I don’t think Harlequin readers believe they’re doing in-depth gender research or that Fabio is going to ride up on his white horse.
Deidre herself has decided that song lyrics are not "harmless":
It was hard trying to raise a girl who clearly loved hip-hop culture and rap music as much as she had when she was growing up. Deidre had never thought she would turn into the moral police and criticize the culture and the music, but some of the things she heard on the radio made her cringe. She did her best to filter and control what Kayla was allowed to listen to. (4)
So are words dangerous, or are they safe if they're just "entertainment"? The might of words is asserted in statements as diverse as: "the pen is mightier than the sword" and "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1 John: 1). Standing against them is the old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Of course words can and do hurt, yet Meaghan Morris suggests that
the lesson of the chant is not itself a lie, but a magical theory of language: 'saying makes it so'. The chant is an incantation, a spell that we cast at aggressors to keep the power of their words at bay. When someone pelts words at us to try to hurt our feelings, we block them with a ritual formula that vows they will never succeed. So, like all good spells, this formula 'means' something different from what it seems to say: 'names can never hurt me' means 'you can't hurt me; who cares what you think? your insults are powerless; you don't matter, and I am stronger than you are'.

We learn that language is powerful, and we can do things to each other with words; that language is a social bond, as flexible as it as forceful; and that meaning depends on how we use language in all the varying situations of life. From its singsong cadence, we also learn something obvious that language moralists forget when they call some words good and others irredeemably bad: there's a lot more to language than names. The powers of language, written or spoken, include rhythm, tone, accent, pitch, and rhyme as well as reason. Much more than a way of describing things and trading information, language is a relationship between people. However routine or perfunctory most everyday contact may be, we touch each other with words.
Deidre is a skilled user of words who is extremely aware of the ways in which the "powers of language, written or spoken, include rhythm, tone, accent, pitch, and rhyme": "She spoke her words with such rhythm and flavor that he could have sworn he heard music, but there was no music playing" (117).

The novel raises questions concerning how much words can hurt and how much they can heal. Words may take the place of physical violence, as is the case with a "battle rap" (37) or "free-style battle" (115, 160-164):
Battle rap is a style of hip-hop that stems from the quest to be competitive within the culture. Although, battle rap is sometimes directed to anonymous rivals or used as a forum to sharpen one’s lyrical swords, it could be utilized in calling out detractors when made specifically for an individual.

Braggadocio is the crux of battle rap. Battle emcees focus on boastful lines and self-glorifying rhymes about one's proficiency or level of success, accompanied by verbal insults hurled at the other party directly or subliminally. Battle rappers often go as far as researching the dirty past of an opponent in order to dig up some self-injuring facts. These are then incorporated into the rhymes to downgrade the opposing party. (Adaso)
Sometimes, however, words can lead to, or accompany, violence, as when Deidre, as a child, "lived in a constant state of fear. I remember all the arguments. For years you simply yelled and made her cry. [...] Then I guess yelling wasn't enough. I remember the two times you hit her" (177). Or, outside the family, when "disrespect" is followed by a shooting. Stacks, Flex's enemy is released from prison and, after an angry conversation with Divine, a close colleague of Flex's, thinks: "All the exchange showed him was the level of disrespect that had been allowed to grow and fester since he'd been out of the game. Flex was going to have to be hit and hit hard" (106). It's not long before an old friend of Flex and Divine's, "Rapper Louie 'Loose Eye' Jones was gunned down" (110) and Flex "knew that Stacks was behind it somehow" (111).

This close relationship between verbal and physical conflict finds a parallel in the France inhabited by Cyrano de Bergerac, in the play by Edmond Rostand, in which Cyrano, who quite literally has a rapier-sharp wit, can, as demonstrated in this performance, duel and compose poetry simultaneously: "While we fence, presto! all extempore/ I will compose a ballade." (36, Project Gutenberg English translation).3

Cyrano's aggressive poetry in that scene is a means by which he can reject the judgements of others and impose on them his own assessment of his importance. Rap can be used in much the same way: "As a former rapper known for being good at free-styling, she knew it was a powerful weapon" (42) and Deidre's "battle rap" at the time she first began her career similarly challenged those who sought to define her by labelling her a "trick":
So, all y'all punks can just
Kiss what I twist
I'm Sweet Dee, niggas
Not your average trick! (36)
Yet, Cyrano will always be defined, at least partly, by the size of his nose and Deidre "would tire of bitch and ho being substitutes for woman" (38).

As that would be a somewhat negative note on which to end this post, I can't resist including a link to this love poem performed by Benjamin Zephaniah. He's got a beautiful voice and it includes the line "It's the truth I'm telling you, poets don't lie."

  • Bolton, Gwyneth. Sweet Sensation. Columbus: Genesis, 2007.
  • Morris, Meaghan. "Sticks & Stones & Stereotypes." Australian Humanities Review 6 (1997).

1 "The Kiswahili word, NOMMO, is difficult to translate, but the concept is that of a seed. The Word (play, song, dance, etc.) is a seed planted through the senses into the mind of the observer." (NOMMO Performing Arts Company)

2 In case that link breaks, here's a link to Howard performing the same poem at the 2006 Urban Word NYC Annual Teen Poetry Slam (link from Angela).

3 The original French text of the ballade accompanying the duel can be found here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Stretched but Back in Action

Yes, Sarah's at Romancing the Blog and talking about this quote from Margaret Atwood: “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

So if you'd like to discuss your preferences for what goes between the "X met Y" and the "and so they lived happily ever after", please head over to Romancing the Blog.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Loretta Chase - Miss Wonderful (an addendum)

I think maybe we need a soundtrack for this post, so here it is. It's Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero.

In a previous post I wrote about Loretta Chase's Alistair Carsington, an acclaimed war hero. Alistair and Mirabel's thoughts on what makes a hero can perhaps be read as being somewhat metafictional:
"I am tetchy about being made out to be [a] hero," he said. [...] "Others did as much and more [...] My actions were nothing extraordinary. There were men who'd been with Wellington for years, who acted with surpassing courage and gallantry. If you knew their stories, you would understand how demented it seems to me to be singled out as the hero." [...]
"I suppose this is the price one pays for having a forceful and exciting character," she went on. "You attract the press. The newspapers made you famous, not solely because of your deeds - though you are entitled to be proud of them - but because you made a grand story." (220-221)
A romance hero becomes a hero not just because of his courage or other interesting and/or valuable qualities. He's also got to be someone about whom the romance author can make "a grand story."

I think there's an extent to which, as Cawelti observes, culture affects the qualities which are thought to make a character sufficiently heroic to create "a grand story." Certainly
general plot patterns [such as "boy meets girl, boy and girl have a misunderstanding, boy gets girl"] are not necessarily limited to a specific culture or period. Instead, they seem to represent story types that, if not universal in their appeal, have certainly been popular in many different cultures at many different times. In fact, they are examples of what some scholars have called archetypes or patterns that appeal in many different cultures. [...] But in order for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them. One cannot write a successful adventure story about a social character type that the culture cannot conceive in heroic terms; this is why we have so few adventure stories about plumbers, janitors, or streetsweepers. It is, however, certainly not inconceivable that a culture might emerge which placed a different sort of valuation or interpretation on these tasks, in which case we might expect to see the evolution of adventure story formulas about them. (5-6)
This isn't to say that each culture will only have one type of hero, but it does suggest that in certain periods, there will be noticeable "types" that exist and then, with the passing of time, either change somewhat or fall out of fashion.

Recently Maverick, posting at Romancing the Blog, said that she looks for a hero who's "richer than Croesus," "arrogant and dominating," "sometimes just this side of abusive", and, before he meets the heroine, "promiscuous." Bonnie Tyler, in the lyrics of her song states that
He's gotta be strong
And he's gotta be fast
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight [...]
He's gotta be sure [...]
And he's gotta be larger than life
Taken to a parodic extreme, this type of strong, aggressive hero can perhaps end up as Stella Gibbons' Seth Starkadder:
Standing with one arm resting upon the high mantel [...] was a tall young man whose riding-boots were splashed with mud to the thigh, and whose coarse linen shirt was open to his waist. [...] His voice had a low, throaty, animal quality, a sneering warmth that wound a velvet ribbon of sexuality over the outward coarseness of the man. (38)

Meriam, the hired girl, would not be in until after dinner. When she came, she would avoid his eyes, and tremble and weep.
He laughed insolently, triumphantly. Undoing another button of his shirt, he lounged out across the yard to the shed where Big Business, the bull, was imprisoned in darkness.
Laughing softly, Seth struck the door of the shed.
And as though answering the deep call of male to male, the bull uttered a loud tortured bellow that rose undefeated through the dead sky that brooded over the farm.
Seth undid yet another button, and lounged away. (42)
Mr Neck, a film producer, who wants to find "a second Clark Gable [...] I want a big, husky stiff that smells of the great outdoors, with a golden voice. I want passion. I want red blood. I don't want no sissies, see? Sissies give me a pain in the neck, and they're beginning to give the great American public a pain in the neck, too" (182) finds precisely what he's looking for in Seth:
A silence fell. The young man stood in the warm light of the declining sun, his bare throat and boldly moulded features looking as though they were bathed in gold. His pose was easy and graceful. A superb self-confidence radiated from him, as it does from any healthy animal. [...] He looked exactly what he was, the local sexually successful bounder. (184)
He's not the only possible type of hero (or attractive anti-hero), but he's certainly a very popular one. Alistair, despite his war record and his string of love affairs, isn't really that kind of a hero, but with his romantic and military reputation, his appearance (he's tall, dark-haired and has a "hawklike profile" (2)) and as a possessor of the "deep Carsington voice, which emotion - whether positive or negative - roughened into a growl" (2), it's not surprising that other people immediately think he is.1
  • Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
  • Chase, Loretta. Miss Wonderful. 2004. London: Piatkus, 2006.
  • Gibbons, Stella. Cold Comfort Farm. 1932. London: Penguin, no publication date given.
1 Alistair, as he points out, "never was" a rake and though "The difference between me and a libertine will seem a mere technicality to you" (121) it is in fact significant. Whereas a rake or libertine is "a man who behaves without moral principles, especially in sexual matters", able to seduce women without moral qualms, Alistair's problem is that, far from callously advantage of women's weaknesses, he acts as he does because he "fell in love quickly, deeply, and disastrously" (3). Unlike a rake or libertine, he is not a man who needs to be "tamed" or reformed.

The picture is of the cover of Loretta Chase's Lord Perfect. I've included it because it illustrates very nicely the way in which heroes tend to be depicted. As Kalen Hughes recently observed regarding the shirt in the Regency period:
One very important thing to note: it does not open all the way down the front (regardless of what is depicted on countless romance novel covers)! It has a partial neck-opening from the collar to about mid-chest. So the shirt had to be pulled on/off over the head.
Cover artists, however, often seem to be convinced that romance heroes must resemble Seth Starkadder, with open shirt and indolent, lounging pose.

[A companion post by Kalen, on how to dress/undress a Regency lady, is available here.]

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Academic's Not-Very-Secret Baby

Yesterday Sarah gave birth to a baby boy. And I know this hasn't really got anything to do with the romance genre, but I wanted to blog about it anyway. Congratulations, Sarah!

The painting is by Sir William Quiller Orchardson, via Wikipedia, and is titled "Master Baby."

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Loretta Chase - Miss Wonderful

Loretta Chase's Miss Wonderful has been reviewed here, here, and here and there's an excerpt here. As usual what I'm going to say is not a review and will include plentiful spoilers.

Alistair, the hero of Miss Wonderful, is someone who had
always been particular about his clothes. Perhaps, of late, he devoted more time and thought to his appearance than previously. Perhaps it kept his mind off other things. The fifteenth of June, for instance, the day and night he couldn't remember. Waterloo remained a blur in his mind. He pretended he did remember. (6)
and "He was sure Gordy [his best friend] knew or at least suspected that something had gone awry with Alistair's brain box" (9). As is the case for Lydia Joyce's heroine, Victoria, clothing is a defense and a mechanism by which the character can exert control over his or her life. In Alistair's case the protection he seeks is not against a perception that he might have loose morals, but a defence against the possibility that others might realise that he has a screw loose. Precise and controlled though he may be in his dress, the excessiveness of his interest in it is apparent in his expenditure on such items. As his father observes, "For what he spends on his tailor, bootmaker, hatter, glovemaker, and assorted haberdashers [...] I might furnish a naval fleet" (2).

This excess invites comparison with Mr Oldridge, Mirabel's father. Mr Oldridge's extreme devotion to the study of plants is diagnosed by Alastair as "monomania [...] Alistair was familiar with the malady. He had an evangelical sister-in-law and a cousin obsessed with deciphering the Rosetta stone" (29). Monomania was a condition identified by the French psychiatrist Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol "in the first decade of the nineteenth century. [...] Monomaniacs were sick persons whose mental behaviour appeared perfectly healthy in all outward respects but one, a single flaw neatly localised" (Boime 80).1 Alistair's own monomania ensures that he is almost as easily distracted by Mirabel's bad fashion sense as Mr Oldridge is by botanical thoughts. In his turn, Mr Oldridge quickly becomes aware of Alistair's mental health problem, though of course he frames his description in terms related to his own monomania: "he put me in mind of a cactus" (37) and
"I knew something was wrong. It is like the cactus spines. [...] I strongly suspect Mr Carsington also suffered a head injury without realizing. I have heard of such cases. That would explain, you see."
"Explain what?"
"The cactus spines." (40)
Later, Mr Oldridge clarifies that "My botanist's instinct told me your attire was armor of some kind. [...] Cactus spines" (317) and he reveals that it was as a result of trying to understand Alistair that he recognised his own ailment:
"I have not attended much to business," the old man said sadly. "It was remiss of me. The great Dr. Johnson suffered from melancholia, you know. A strange ailment, indeed. How ironic that one should read about it in order to understand a young man, only to discover it in oneself." (301)
Perhaps I recognized your difficulty because it was something like my own [...] I did not retreat from the world on purpose after my wife's death. The thing came upon me, like a sickness or a pernicious habit, and I could not break its hold upon me. I found myself wondering if your grievous experience at Waterloo had a similar effect upon you. I retreated into botany, and you [...] into the arcane science of dress. (317-18)
However, although both have mental health problems, Mr Oldridge's is depression, whereas Alistair is suffering from what we would nowadays term post-traumatic stress disorder. At first the "cactus spines" are the main indication that something is amiss. One of the criteria for diagnosing PTSD is "Persistent efforts at avoidance of the memories and numbing of general responsiveness by adjustments in behavioural and cognitive patterns with emotional blunting" (Gabriel and Neal). The progress of his disorder resembles that of Case number 4 described by Gabriel and Neal, who was able to appear relatively unaffected until an incident occurred which triggered the memories and "forced him to re-experience the initiating trauma. His nightmares, insomnia, poor memory, fatigue, and irascibility became worse, and he developed headaches, musculoskeletal aches". It is during a walk with Mirabel that Alistair falls into Briar Brook and "got your brain knocked about your skull" (108) and this forces him to relive the horror of battle. Dr. Woodfrey diagnoses "symptoms of a fatigue of the nerves" (111).

In the cases of both Alistair and Mr Oldridge the mental health problem and its symptoms are related to love, a fact which may recall the ways in which other romance novelists afflict their characters which diseases caused by, or metaphors for, love.2 Mr Oldridge's monomania came on after the death of his beloved wife; Alistair's romantic tendencies have been stifled by the onset of PTSD: "He'd avoided women until his leg was healed and working, more or less. Since then ... Well, he wasn't sure what had held him back. He'd been numb or not fully awake in some way" (132-23). One of the symptoms of PTSD is that "You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships" (National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) and Alistair's return to mental health is caused, at least in part, by his deepening love for Mirabel.3

Rosario, in her review of the novel, writes that
Miss Wonderful was a keeper until the last part, where a suspense subplot kicked in, out of the blue, and took over much of the story. Not only wasn't this needed to provide conflict, because there was more than enough tension between Alistair and Mirabel due to the canal, it didn't fit in well with the tone of the rest of the story.
It seems to me that the suspense subplot enables both Alistair and Mirabel's father to overcome their mental health problems. The climax of this subplot takes place down an air shaft which formed part of an old mine. The airshaft, a dark "hole, a ragged shape, only a shade darker than the surrounding darkness" (307) down which Mr Oldridge falls, can, I think can be read as symbolising the mental health problems of both Alistair and Mr Oldridge, much like the Slough of Despond in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress). In Bunyan's book the Pilgrim is not alone in his fall into the Despond, and his companion escapes first. The Slough in Bunyan's work represents the despair created by the sense of shame and guilt the Pilgrim feels about his sins but in other, less religious contexts, it has been used to allude to depression.

Mr Oldridge falls in first, which is fitting as he's been depressed for many more years than Alistair: "after her [Mirabel's] mother's death fifteen years ago, he had grown increasingly preoccupied with plant rather than human life" (26). The result is that Mirabel manages the large "estate and all her father's business interests" (42) and she says that "I have considered engraving [...] as his epitaph: 'Sylvester Oldridge, Beloved Father, Detained Elsewhere.'" (17). The literal "detention" caused by his abduction parallels the emotional "detention" he has been in for fifteen years, and it jars him out of his depression, as he explains to Mirabel:
"A great deal passed through my mind between that time [immediately after Caleb Finch's death, when Mr Oldridge found himself alone in the hole] and your arrival. Nothing on earth is so dear to me as you. I am heartily sorry that I've been like a stranger to you, and that it wanted the recent series of shocks to bring me to my senses." (314)
Not only this, the abduction gives Mr Oldridge the opportunity to put right one of the key problems he failed to resolve for Mirabel: "At the time of Finch's dismissal, Mr Oldridge had been sunk in the lowest depths of the melancholia from which he'd only recently begun to emerge" (255). Due to Mr Oldridge's deteriorating mental health, Finch, his "incompetent - and possibly dishonest - estate manager had made chaos of estate affairs and in a few years nearly destroyed what it had taken generations to build" (82). Finch now believes that "Eleven years ago, Miss Oldridge had committed the hateful crime of making him stop righting matters for himself with her father's wealth. She had dismissed him without a reference, saying he was incompetent" (126-27) and the suspense sub-plot involves Caleb Finch's attempt to get revenge on Mirabel, who had sacked him. Caleb abducts Mr Oldridge and attempts to murder him: "Caleb Finch was holding a knife when we fell," he said. "On impact, it might easily have entered my body instead of his" (314). Having thus disposed of Caleb, whom he should have dealt with himself many years before, Mr Oldridge can literally and metaphorically emerge from the dark hole of depression into which he had sunk.

In the course of the novel Mr Oldridge also makes reparation to Mirabel for the other major problem he caused her: for his sake "She'd given up [...] her one chance at love, because the man she loved was not ready to relinquish his hopes and dreams to make a life with her here" (82). Alistair "had a growing suspicion that some sort of communication had passed between Oldridge Hall and Hargate House prior to his arrival in Derbyshire last month" (331), "'I was lured there,' Alistair said. 'On purpose. They set a trap, the two of them. My father saw the opportunity, and he took advantage. [...]' " (332). Mr Oldridge, by playing a crucial role in bringing Alistair and Mirabel together, provides Mirabel with a new fiancé to replace the one she lost when she had to devote herself to caring for Oldridge Hall.

Alistair's experience in the hole is different. Alistair's mental health problem began after Waterloo. Although he cannot remember how he behaved during the battle, others consider him to be a hero. Alistair, however, cannot accept this description of himself:
"you are the famous hero."
His mouth twisted. "I merely contrived not to disgrace myself during the short time in which I fought."
"You are far too modest. You risked your own life several times, to save others."
He gave a short laugh. "That's what men who don't think do. We plunge in without considering the consequences. It hardly seems right to call sheer recklessness 'heroic.' [...]" (83)
His fall into Briar Brook while out walking reactivated his memories. Now he does not fall, but instead makes a deliberate choice to descend into the hole. This choice, and his actions there, give him the opportunity to prove to himself and Mirabel that he truly is a hero not simply a survivor. This time, he does consider the consequences and still chooses to "plunge in", risking his life to save another's.

The experience of being down the hole also makes Alistair confront the horror of battle:
"We'll fetch a rope and have you out in a trice."
"I fear it is more complicated than that. [...] Caleb Finch fell on top of me. He is ... dead."
Nausea welled up. Alistair took a deep breath, let it out. He remembered. The mud. The cold, stiffening body keeping him down. The stench. He thrust the memory away.
"In that case, I'll come down to you, sir," he said. (307)4
and "As he went lower, he became aware of the smell that wasn't wet earth. It was all too familiar. Blood. And excrement. The smell of sudden, violent death. [...] He wanted to retch , but he wouldn't let himself" (309).

Having ensured Mr Oldridge's safety, it is then Alistair himself who is in mortal danger: "The hole was caving in, and he was going to be buried alive" (311). Mr Oldridge, as in the matter of Alistair and Mirabel's love life, offers indirect help, "We've run the rope through the stirrup leather. The horse will pull him out. I'll guide the animal" (311), while Mirabel, "At the top of the hole [where] the blackness lightened to dark gray" (310) and with her hand outstretched, is to "assist Mr. Carsington" (311) .

Reliving the trauma of seeing the aftermath of violent death, and once more being in mortal danger himself, enables Alistair to emerge from the hole emotionally healed, able to live without his protective clothing. He's been helped by Mirabel who, literally and metaphorically, brings him out of his darkness into the daylight (or, when they make love, takes him into a darkness of pleasure rather than pain: "they fell together into a sweet, cool darkness" (340).

This is prefigured in their first meeting when Alistair sees Mirabel
racing up the terrace stairs, skirts bunched up to her knees, bonnet askew, and a wild mass of hair the color of sunrise dancing about her face.
Even while he was taking in the hair--a whirling fireball when a gust of wind caught it--she darted across the terrace. [...] He opened the door, and she irrupted into the drawing room in a whirl of rain and mud, taking no more heed of her bedraggled state than a dog would.
She smiled.
Her mouth was wide, and so the smile seemed to go on forever, and round and round, encircling him. Her eyes were blue, twilight blue, and for a moment she seemed to be the beginning and end of everything, from the sunrise halo of hair to the dusky blue of her eyes.
For that moment, Alistair didn’t know anything else, even his name, until she spoke it.
“Mr. Carsington,” she said, and her voice was clear and cool with a trace of a whisper in it.
Hair: sunrise. Eyes: dusk. Voice: night.
“I am Mirabel Oldridge,” the night-voice went on.
Mirabel. It meant wonderful. And she was truly--
Alistair caught himself in the nick of time, before his brain disintegrated. No poetry, he told himself. (17, emphasis added)
If Alistair's being poetic, his poetry is not totally dissimilar to Byron's She walks in beauty, like the night -
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.
It is Mirabel who brings Alistair forth from darkness into an emotional daytime, a glorious sunshine from the north who turns his mind from horrible recollections of war to thoughts of love. In Shakespeare's Richard III
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag'd war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now,--instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,--
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber (Act 1 Sc 1)
At their very first meeting, Mirabel turns Alistair's thoughts away from the winter of his discontent:
Derbyshire was not where Alistair wanted to be at present. [...] In mid-February [...] The landscape was bleak shades of brown and grey, the weather bitterly cold and wet.
But Gordmor's - and thus Alistair's - problem lay here, and could not wait until summer to be solved. (15)
to her own beauty: "He could not allow his thoughts to linger, even for an instant, upon any matter how lovely her skin or how warm her smile, like the first warmth of spring after a long, dark winter..." (17, emphasis added), "She smiled then, and his heart warmed as though it basked in summer sunshine" (90, emphasis added). She may be from Darbyshire, rather than York, and her beauty speaks to him of spring rather than winter, but she too turns Alistair's thoughts from war to love and capering "nimbly in a lady's chamber".
  • Boime, Albert. "Portraying Monomaniacs to Service the Alienist's Monomania: Géricault and Georget." Oxford Art Journal 14.1 (1991): 79-91.
  • Chase, Loretta. Miss Wonderful. 2004. London: Piatkus, 2006.
  • Gabriel, Roger and Leigh A. Neal. "Post-traumatic stress disorder following military combat or peace keeping." British Medical Journal 324 (2002): 340-341.
  • Meyer, Stephen. "Marschner’s Villains, Monomania, and the Fantasy of Deviance." Cambridge Opera Journal 12.2 (2000): 109–134.

1 According to the Stanford School of Medicine website,
Time changes all concepts. "Obsessive-compulsive disorder" is no exception. [...] In his 1838 psychiatric textbook, Esquirol (1772-1840) described OCD as a form of monomania, or partial insanity. He fluctuated between attributing OCD to disordered intellect and disordered will. After French psychiatrists abandoned the concept of monomania in the 1850s, they attempted to understand obsessions and compulsions within various broad nosological categories.
Stephen Meyer similarly notes the ways in which terminology has changed while the symptoms described remain broadly the same:
The symptoms that Esquirol describes in his case histories of monomaniacs: increasing delusion centred around a fixed idea, lack of fever or other physical signs of disease; the ability to reason on topics unrelated to the delusion, etc. are hardly new. Earlier writers, however, saw these symptoms as indications of another disease, the disease of melancholia. [...] the idea that too great a concentration on a single idea could lead to insanity stretches back at least to Roman times, and was particularly associated in the works of many authors with melancholia. In his Anatomy of Melancholy (first edition, 1621), for instance, Robert Burton develops the idea of ‘love-melancholy’, a kind of mental disease growing out of an erotic fascination. The association between obsession and melancholia was widespread and consistent: in his Dictionary (1755) Samuel Johnson defined ‘Melancholy’ as ‘a kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object’. Esquirol’s ideas were thus not completely original; nevertheless, by singling out the idea of ‘fixed delusion’ as the primary cause of a separate disorder he refocused the discourse surrounding insanity. (114-115)
It is perhaps worth noting that Miss Wonderful is set in 1817 and so in making his diagnosis Alistair is at the cutting edge of psychiatry. According to Boime "the term 'monomania' soon filtered down to the non-medical French intelligentsia and entered the literary mainstream by the late 1820s" (80). Meyer notes that "In her book Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century Jan Goldstein cites numerous examples to show the broader dissemination of the idea of ‘monomania’ in early nineteenth-century public life. By the late 1820s, she writes, ‘the term had already percolated down to the nonmedical . . . intelligentsia and been incorporated into their language’. " (113).

Alistair's malaise is also described as "melancholy": "He'd hardly noticed his state of mind, it was so familiar, this melancholy. Then she'd burst into the room and he'd thought his heart, in pure joy, would burst from his chest" (156). Lord Gordmor's sister diagnoses Alistair's condition as "a pernicious melancholia at the very least" (209).

2 Mirabel also describes love as a form of mental illness: "You make me deranged" (242).

3 Alistair thinks that it was "typical that after nearly three years of apathy toward the fair sex, he should choose now" (133), but the reader knows that this is not a matter of choice, or the mere result of the passing of a suitable length of time, but a direct consequence of Mirabel's effect on Alistair. From the very first moment they met "the sight of her had lightened his heart" (221). Up until that moment, however, his "emotional blunting", the result of his PTSD meant that although in the past he was someone who "fell in love quickly, deeply, and disastrously" (3) more than two years had passed since both the last love affair and his return from Waterloo. His father observes that he has "stayed out of [love] trouble only because you were incapacitated for most of that time [...] Meanwhile, the tradesmen's bills arrive by the cartload. I cannot decide which is worse. For what you spend on waistcoats you might keep a harem of French whores" (6). What his father does not know is that Alistair's "incapacitation" is mental as well as physical.

4 Once again, one can see clearly that Alistair's experiences parallel those of Mr Oldridge. During the Battle of Waterloo, Alistair was trapped under dead bodies (147) and had to be rescued: now it is Mr Oldridge who is in that position. The two may also be alike in the intensity of their romantic love:
"Your father loved her very much," he said.
She nodded. [...]
"If she was at all like you, I can understand your father's shutting himself off from the world for all these years," he said. "It is only a few days since last I saw you, yet to me it has seemed a dark and wearisome eternity." (224)
"Researchers have long noted that women tend to be drawn to men who are a lot like their fathers, for better or worse. [...] Now a new study from Europe suggests that the attraction doesn't stop at personality" (Allday, San Francisco Chronicle June 2007). It is not mentioned whether Alistair and Mr Oldridge also resemble each other physically, but recent research has found that women "who had close relationships with their fathers as children tend to be attracted to men who look like them when they grow up" (Henderson, Times Online June 2007).

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Thursday Thirteen on Mills&Boon Novels

Given last week's BBC Radio 4 programme on Guilty Pleasure -- 100 Years of Mills&Boon, I thought it only fitting to dedicate this week's Thursday Thirteen to some of my favourite Mills&Boon novels. You can read the results here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Buying, Borrowing and Keeping Romance Novels

It seems to be survey time in Romanceland.

Linda Esser (Assistant Professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies at the University of Missouri) has observed that "There are only two academic libraries in the U.S. with romance fiction research collections. The collections romance fiction readers are creating may be how these titles are preserved." In effect, all of us who have "keeper shelves" are librarians of our own personal collection of romances.

Linda and her colleagues at the University of Missouri, Denice Adkins (Associate Professor) and Diane Velasquez, would be very grateful if romance readers could answer the following questions:

• What are your preferred sources for the romance fiction you read?
• Why do you choose these sources rather than or in addition to public libraries?
• Do you keep all or some of the books you read? How do you decide which books to keep?
• What do you see yourself doing with your personal library of romance fiction books in the future?

If you'd like to help them with this survey, please email your answers to Linda Esser at . More details about the project can be found below. The survey raises an important issue for all of us who care about the genre and want to ensure that the novels that comprise it are not lost to posterity (or, at least, do not become very difficult for scholars and readers of the genre to access).

All About Romance is holding its Top 100 Romances Poll:
Throughout the month of October we are polling for your top 100 romances. This is the fourth time since the inception of AAR that we have conducted this poll. We invite all romance readers to participate in this poll - to do so, simply provide us with a list of your top 100 romances, in ranked order. It is not necessary for your list to include 100 titles, but you may include up to that amount. In order for the results of this poll to be as valid and representative as possible, we need as many romance readers to vote as possible.
You can submit your ballot of up to 100 romances, in ranked order, here.

The UK's North West Libraries’ Reader Development partnership Time To Read, in partnership with the Romantic Novelists' Association, is holding a Pure Passion poll. They'd like people to vote for their favourite novel from a list of 20 romantic novels. The romances on the list include Phillipa Ashley's Decent Exposure, Nicola Cornick's Deceived, and Liz Fielding's Reunited:Marriage in a Million. Readers outside the UK are eligible to vote but can't be entered into a prize draw. You can cast your vote here.


In addition to being academics, Linda Esser, Denice Adkins and Diane Velasquez are:
romance fiction readers who are interested in finding out more about readers like ourselves. What began as a conversation over coffee has turned into a project that has taken on a life of its own. We’ve explored public librarians’ attitudes toward romance fiction and its readers on both state and national levels with research funded by a grant from Romance Writers of America.

Of course, the more we’ve found out, the more questions we have. We’ve reached the point where we need answers to several of these questions from romance readers. We are interested in romance fiction readers as both consumers and conservators of the genre. From what we’ve found, romance fiction readers do not depend on public libraries for their books. We would like to better understand where romance fiction readers acquire their books, why they prefer particular sources, and what they do with their books after reading them. We appreciate your time and consideration.

Informed Consent:
The University of Missouri requires that research involving human subjects include an informed consent to ensure that participants’ rights are protected. As is customary, pseudonyms will be substituted in all data for all names of persons, public libraries/public library systems, cities, towns and counties. Every effort will be made to adequately disguise the participants’ identities and specific geographic location in any published materials or presentations. The print-outs of any responses will remain in the direct physical possession of the researchers. Relevant portions of the transcripts will be deleted upon request of any participant who decides to withdraw from the study.

Participants have the right to withdraw from the study at any time, no questions asked.

Refusal to participate, or withdrawal from the research project, will have no impact on the participant.

Do not hesitate to call, write or e-mail a member of the research team if you have questions or concerns about this research study.

We ask that you give permission for the results of this research to be used in professional presentations at national conferences and printed in professional publications. If you have questions your rights as a research subject, you may contact the University of Missouri Institutional Review Board Office at (573)882-9585 .

Denice Adkins
Linda Esser
Diane Velasquez
303 Townsend Hall
School of Information Science & Learning Technologies
University of Missouri-Columbia
Columbia, MO 65211