Friday, May 23, 2008

RWA Academic Research Grant: The State of Romance Scholarship

As a requirement to receive disbursement of the RWA Academic Research Grant, I had to write a description of the "State of the Scholarship" in romance criticism. I jump-started myself at Romancing the Blog, but took a while longer to finish the essay. I thought I'd post it here (slightly edited), to let y'all see the exciting times we have ahead of us in romance scholarship. So, without further ado:

The Future's So Bright, We'll All Need Shades

I can say without reservation that romance scholarship has never been better and the future is even brighter.

Since the early 1980s, there has always been a steady trickle of academic books and articles about popular romance fiction. Every year or two another book would be published or dissertation written that seemed either to excoriate or defend popular romance fiction. Recently, however, two noticeable changes have occurred in the publishing field. First, the trickle is now a steady stream of books and articles. And secondly, rather than the general tendency to hold one of two polar positions about popular romance fiction, current academic research into popular romance fiction has the critical mass now to be generally much more nuanced. It is generally accepted now that romances are worthy of being studied, as any cultural artifact is. As such, we recognize now that popular romance novels are themselves contested cultural artifacts, potentially reactionary and revolutionary at the same time. Current academic study teases out the different narrative strands of ideological influence in popular romance fiction, while respecting the texts, and while recognizing that the authors and readers that make up the romance community are knowledgeable, desirous, autonomous subjects.

One example of the critical mass of study is the exponential increase in a serious presence of popular romance fiction at academic conferences. The Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association, chaired by Eric Selinger and Darcy Martin, had ten panels at the PCA national conference in April 2008, up from no panels in 2006. Eric Selinger is organizing a one day invitational conference on popular romance and American culture to be hosted by Princeton University in April 2009 and the First Annual International Conference on Popular Romance will be hosted by the Queensland Institute of Technology in Brisbane, Australia in August, 2009, in conjunction with the annual conference of the Romance Writers of Australia. Additionally, a group of scholars hope to present two or three panels at the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America in July 2009, to demonstrate to the romance writing community what it is that academics actually do, and to emphasize the fact that we are fans of popular romance fiction as well as critics.

One thing the recent conference panels on popular romance fiction have demonstrated is the caliber of work being done, not only by full-time academics, but by graduate students. An Goris, Shruthi Vissa, Severine Olivier, Glinda Hall, Jayashree Kamble, Joanna Fedson, to name a few, are doing intensely theoretical graduate work on popular romance fiction that provide brilliant promise for the next ten years of academic study of romance. Goris is tackling formal genre theory in her dissertation, while Vissa and Kamble examined popular romance in light of postcolonial theory and racial and gender categories in theirs. Olivier uses sophisticated translation theory to examine European translations of romance novels, while Fedson provides much-needed analysis of inspirational romance. Hall's dissertation expands romance criticism into Heritage Studies, while Hsu-Ming Teo, a lecturer in Australia, is an historian. While the current crop of academic critics of popular romance fiction studied in other topics and then came to romance after they wrote their dissertation or well into their career (Pamela Regis is an Americanist, Eric Selinger is a critic of poetry, I am an eighteenth-century scholar, for example), the current graduate students are writing their dissertations on popular romance and will hopefully get hired with that specialty, raising the profile of popular romance as a legitimate topic of study across academia.

One thing I thought of after I sent off the document two days ago is the truly international status of romance scholarship. It's not solely grounded in the USA, but is strong in the UK, in Europe, and especially in Australia and the surrounding island nations. This international focus is particularly exciting, because the readership for romance is so international, that it's important that the criticism is as well.

Online romance communities are both cause of and contributing factor to the increase in quality academic work on romance novels. Reader blogs like Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books and Dear Author, communities like All About Romance, individual writer blogs like Jenny Crusie's Argh Ink, and joint author blogs like Fog City Divas and Goddess Blogs, to name just a few, all contribute to an intelligent, respectful, and analytical conversation about popular romance. On the academic side, there is an active Romance Scholar listserv for up-to-the-minute discussions of issues affecting romance scholarship, a continually updated bibliography of Academic Romance Scholarship on the Romance Wiki, as well as Teach Me Tonight, a joint academic blog about popular romance fiction.

Finally, the three larger romance-related projects I will be pursuing this summer (in addition to the three individual articles about romance I plan to write) reveal the ever-expanding scope of current romance scholarship. The anthology of academic essays I am editing with Eric Selinger, The Mind of Love: New Perspectives on Popular Romance, has just been accepted for publication by McFarland, for a September 1, 2008 delivery date and publication (hopefully in soft-cover) in 2009. While editing the volume, I am also working to launch the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR), attached to which will be the online, peer-edited Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS). Finally, Eric Selinger, Pamela Regis, and I will be working hard to complete a proposal for a Cambridge Companion of Popular Romance Fiction, which, if accepted, will provide a volume that will be marketed for classroom use across the English-speaking world, as well as providing the study of popular romance fiction much-desired academic legitimacy.

As an academic, it is literally a one-in-a-million chance to be able to build a field like this from the ground up, but that's exactly what's happening right now. The opportunity to be involved in that process, and to guide it to a certain extent, is both terrifying and exhilarating. But I believe that I and my colleagues are more than up to the task.

The image of the pink sunglasses is from

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Route From Here

Last week I was in the library, doing research, and it so happened that first I re-read Deborah Lutz's The Dangerous Lover, about "The dangerous beloved [who] hides a secret melancholy interiority that flashes out in passionate violence and rage" (2) and then turned to Julia Wood's article about how women in violent relationships seek to understand them through
western culture’s primary gender narrative, which prescribes and normalizes dominance and superiority for men and deference and dependence for women. Participants also relied on romance narratives – which entailed both fairy tale and dark versions – to make sense of violence in their relationships. (239)
Wood isn't writing specifically about romance novels (though the report here about her article seems to have misunderstood the term "romance narratives" and assumed Wood meant "romance novels"). Wood argues that "Humans rely on narratives to make sense of their lives" (241). These "Narratives are not strictly personal accounts, or stories; instead, they are decisively social, which is to say culturally constructed, sustained, reproduced, and sometimes altered" (241). We can think, for example, of Sternberg's theory of love as a story. According to Wood, "Narratives are most urgently sought when experience does not make sense" (242), such as when a partner becomes abusive:
Immersed in this incoherence, women search out a way to narrate themselves and their experiences. One option is to interpret a relationship so that it is consistent with the culturally favored romance narrative and the gender narrative that infuses it. Entirely compatible with the fairy tale view of romance, the primary gender narrative casts men as domineering, superior, and aggressive and casts women as subordinate, forgiving, loyal, and accommodating. (243)
An alternative narrative to which some of the women interviewed by Wood turned was
one that constructs violence as typical in romantic relationships. The dark script claims that it is normal for men to have ‘bad spells,’ [...] and it is normal for romantic relationships to be hurtful to women. The dark romance narrative also insists that abuse and unhappiness are not reasons to abandon the relationships because women are supposed to be forgiving and because they need men to be complete. (253)
In addition,
Framing both versions of the romance narrative were knowledge and acceptance of the primary gender narrative authorized in western culture. This gender narrative stipulates that it is normal/appropriate for men to be controlling and dominating, and it is normal/appropriate for women to defer and subordinate themselves and their interests. (247)
Lutz explains the figure of the dangerous lover ("The dangerous beloved [who] hides a secret melancholy interiority that flashes out in passionate violence and rage" (2)) in terms of understanding the self: "The dangerous lover narrative makes the [...] argument about ontology [...] that our 'true' selves reside in what is most strange and enemy-like, in the dangerous other" (x-xi). I have no doubt that this is a valid approach to the figure of the dangerous lover, but so is Wood's, and viewed through the analysis presented in Wood's article, the dangerous lover would also play a part in legitimising particular "romance narratives" which, in turn, can be used by some women to explain/legitimise their experiences within abusive relationships.

This sharp difference in possible readings re-echoed in my mind when I read Meriam's recent post about romance and politics:
I’ve always considered romance a bloodthirsty genre, rarely shying away from the gory details of a violent death or torture scene (recalling an early Nora Roberts’ thriller still makes me blanch). I’ve read romance novels that deal with rape and domestic abuse and child molestation. Blood and lust go hand in hand with love and romance. [...]

For such a highly politicized genre (I think romance is all about the negotiation of power) romance is also a genre that tends to steer clear of overtly political stances, or straightforward social commentary.
Aoife responded that
The problem with introducing age-differences, political views, race and social commentary is that:

a) They are polarising. A significant number of readers are turned off by the inclusion of these in a genre they read for escape.
But what happens if, as is the case for RfP, "A lot of romances strike me as political, though I’m not always sure the author is aware of the strength of the subtext"? How then do you find "escape" when the texts you read present you with subtexts you find politically or culturally problematic? I also wonder if the fact that so many of them have been written by authors, and for readers, who live in a different cultural context from mine often makes those subtexts even more obvious (because less normal and comfortable) to me. As Jules Jones recently wrote,
The US and the UK have a lot of things in common, including (more or less) a language. But now and then you trip over something where the culture is so wildly different that people on one side or the other may not even be able to grasp how utterly different the other culture is.
Whatever the reason, I feel like I'm tripping over quite a few things in romances. I'm getting so sensitised to the many elements which I read as political but which for the target audience are presumably the "norm" or are aspirational elements, that I feel distanced from a lot of romances and am finding it more and more difficult to read them for "escape." Instead, I can't stop myself thinking about the subtexts of these romances.

I picked up Mary Balogh's No Man's Mistress recently, skipped to the back (I sometimes read the endings of romances first when I'm unsure of what to expect) and was horrified by this scene in which the hero, Ferdinand, punishes Kirby, the man who forced the heroine into prostitution:
Kirby merely covered his injured nose with both hands.
"I am a peaceable man," he wailed.
And so it was punishment pure and simple. And coldly and scientifically meted out. It would have been easy to render him unconscious with a few powerful blows. And it would have been easy to pity a man whose physical stature and condition gave him no chance whatsoever of winning the fight. But Ferdinand did not allow himself either the luxury of fury or the weakness of pity.
This was not for himself or for the spectators. This was not sport.
This was for Viola.
He had said he was her champion. He would avenge her, then, in the only way he could, inadequate as it was - with his physical strength.
She was his lady, and this was for her.
The spectators had grown strangely quiet and Ferdinand's knuckles on both hands were red and raw by the time he judged Daniel Kirby to be within the proverbial inch of his life. Only then did he draw back his right fist and drive it up beneath the man's chin with enough force to send him into oblivion. (332)
I'd call that torture. According to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as [...] punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, [...] when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
Technically Ferdinand is not acting in an official capacity, but the fact that this scene takes place in the presence of "fifty or so [...] chosen witnesses [...] By now there is probably no one in the ton who does not know. [...] Everyone knows that the villain who preyed upon you has been publicly humiliated and published" (344-45) means that in the world in which the novel is set, he is the instrument of justice. It's not an uncommon in romance novels for the hero to be cast as the defender of the heroine and the one who administers violence to those who have attacked her, but it's hardly unproblematic. As Elizabeth has observed
Men’s protection can be welcome, valuable, even life saving. Yet in the end, this chivalry reinforces the idea that women are only safe if under male protection. The flip side of this coin is that women outside of male protection are fair game, a threat that is often targeted in very particular ways at openly lesbian women. Either way, women’s voice in consent is lost. Ignored by this equation is the fact that sexual violence is a crime overwhelmingly committed by intimates and acquaintances.
Or as Wood puts it,
The established gender narrative defines women as needing men. Women are waiting to be rescued, waiting to have their lives and themselves completed by a man. [...] They are socialized to believe that their value and happiness depend on ‘catching a man.’ Women who accept the gender narrative that links their self-worth inextricably to having a male partner are at risk for believing that they must sustain romantic relationships, even destructive ones. (243)
I've always been aware of the variety that exists within the genre and I know that I cannot possibly read every single romance written, so even if I avoid the novels whose depictions of gender roles, violence or politics I find problematic, I can still find lots of romances to read and enjoy on an emotional level, and the ones that I find problematic may still provide fodder for thought and analysis. However, I'm not sure that a blog's the best place for me to do that analysis. I know that by "thinking out loud" as I'm doing in this post, I may offend some people (e.g. readers who loved Balogh's novel), and because a blog post is written relatively quickly, I won't have had the time or resources to put together all the evidence required to bring sub-texts to the surface and fully examine them. In addition, I think I'd prefer to focus on other aspects of the genre or individual romances which I find more enjoyable, but even with them I'm finding that I want to spend more time and exploring the issues and the novels in detail than is really desirable on a blog.

Looking back on my blog posts here, I've noticed that I've gradually been writing more and more in individual posts, and posting less frequently. I think I've now reached the point where I'll only write long blog posts occasionally, and spend more time writing full-length essays (in the hope that by the time I've finished them, there will be a suitable journal in which to publish them). I'll have to see if I can relearn the art of writing short blog posts on topics which don't ask to be expanded into essays.
  • Balogh, Mary. No Man's Mistress. New York: Dell, 2001.
  • Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.
  • Wood, Julia T. “The Normalization of Violence in Heterosexual Romantic Relationships: Women’s Narratives of Love and Violence.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18.2 (2001): 239-261.
The first painting is Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, from Wikipedia. Whatever the original meaning of it was, I read it as an individual looking forwards and spotting the issues which, although they're usually submerged beneath the sea of fog, sometimes partially emerge from it and hint at the amount of subtext that lurks below.

The second painting is "Chivalry" (1885) by Sir Frank Dicksee, from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sampler of Short Stories in Several Sub-genres

Laura Vivanco

Over at the Smart Bitches, someone's got an unusual request:
The course I'm designing is primarily on the *rhetoric* of the romance (and just plain romance itself)--how it's talked about, portrayed in the media, presented in bookstores, used in advertisting, etc. However, in order to give my students a better sense of the genre as a whole, I'd like to give them reading assignments from the primary source material.

[...] Are there anthologies of diverse short romance fiction out there? Anthologies that have samples from paranormal, suspense, regency, contemporary, even inpsirational? Are there anthologies that incorporate multi-ethnic, interracial, or basically anything other than all-white, all the time romances? If not, can the Bitchery recommend some short stories that I might build into a coursepack for my students? I'd like a diverse sampling from across the genres.
I'm a little concerned about copyright issues, but it occurred to me that problem could be avoided if the students were introduced to a range of online short romance stories. So far I've come up with the following list, some of which I've discussed on this blog previously, but quite a few of which I haven't:

Jo Beverly's The Christmas Wedding Gambit (historical with white, English, heterosexual, aristocratic protagonists)

Jennifer Crusie's Meeting Harold's Father (contemporary, American, heterosexual protagonists)

Lynn Emery's A Darker Shade of Midnight (contemporary romantic suspense paranormal with African-American, heterosexual protagonists)

Eva Gale's The Seduction of Gabriel Stewart (historical erotic inspirational romance, heterosexual white American protagonists)

Matthew Haldeman-Time's Ten Weird Things (contemporary with white gay male American protagonists)

Georgette Heyer's The Black Moth (full-length historical romance with aristocratic, heterosexual, English protagonists)

Monica Jackson's The Choice (paranormal contemporary with heterosexual African-American protagonists)

Jayne Ann Krentz's Congratulations, You've Just Won (contemporary, heterosexual protagonists)

Mercedes Lackey's Balance and its sequel, Dragon's Teeth (fantasy, heterosexual protagonists)

Bettie Sharpe's Ember (erotic romance reworking of a fairytale, paranormal, with heterosexual protagonists)

Linnea Sinclair's Silent Run (which she describes as "futuristic", with heterosexual protagonists) and Tales from the Second Chance Saloon: Macawley's List (science fiction with heterosexual protagonists)

Deborah Smith's Sweet Hope (contemporary, white American heterosexual protagonists)

I think this list includes stories from most of the major romance sub-genres, and includes a variety of different kinds of protagonists. Do you know of any others you'd add to the list? Or if you can think of a print anthology, maybe you could add your suggestion to the comments at the SB's site.

The sampler is from the Museo Vasco, Bilbao and the photo of it can be found at Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Penguin: (Millenia) Black and White

Over the past few months there have been quite a lot of discussions both here and elsewhere about the way in which romances featuring black protagonists, written by black authors, tend to be placed in "AA romance" lines, and are often shelved in the "AA section" rather than the "romance" section. During those discussions mention has been made of non-black authors who've written romances featuring black characters, and whose romances didn't get treated in the same way as the romances written by black authors and featuring black protagonists. Although Millenia Black isn't a romance author, her experience highlighted the importance of the race of the author, not simply the race of the characters, in determining the ways in which a book will be marketed and shelved. In addition, once her publisher became aware that she was black, they expected her to write about black characters. As a result, Millenia Black (the pen name of Nadine Aldred) brought a lawsuit against Penguin (a pdf of the complaint she filed can be found here, via On Point). As summarised on one blog written by a "best-selling author [...] trapped in the shadows [...]. Me and every other author of color in the publishing industry":
In or about September of 2002, plaintiff Aldred self-published her first novel, entitled The Great Pretender, under the pen name Millenia Black. The work of fiction centers around the topic of ­marital infidelity, and contains an additional subtle component, in that all of its subject matter and characters are devoid of racial characteristics. [...] Aldred is not described by race anywhere in the self-published version of The Great Pretender and neither does her photograph appear. [...]

In the latter half of December 2004, and as a direct result of the successful marketing of the self-published edition of The Great Pretender, Penguin became interested in Aldred’s current and future work. [...]

On information and belief, defendants’ employee and agent, Kara Cesare, who was assigned by Penguin to be Aldred’s editor, asked plaintiff’s agent, Sara Camilli, whether she had ever met Aldred in person and whether Aldred was black or white. Camilli responded that Aldred is black.

For its version of The Great Pretender, Penguin revised the original cover art by superimposing two non-white women over the image of the burning weddi­ng bands. Penguin published and marketed The Great Pretender using the revised cover art.

Plaintiff objected to the use of false racial identifiers on the cover art of The Great Pretender, but Penguin published the work as such over Aldred’s objections.
Millenia Black then wrote a second novel:
The Great Betrayal focuses on marital infidelity and family secrets. As initially written by Aldred, The Great Betrayal’s characters are described as ­white.

After reviewing the manuscript, Penguin demanded that Aldred re-write the characters so as to render them African American or race-neutral.

Thereafter, Penguin showed Aldred its intended cover art, which portrayed an unmade bed with the face of an African American woman and the back of an African American man superimposed above it.

On information and belief, Penguin intended to classify and style The Great Betrayal as African American fiction/literature, based solely on plaintiff’s race and without regard to the subject matter of the book.
Today (link via Monica Jackson's blog) Millenia Black posted that she is "very pleased to share that the matter has now been resolved to my satisfaction through an agreement, the terms of which can never be discussed."

That's the second time in recent months that Signet (a division of Penguin Group USA) has taken action to rectify an unethical situation. The other involved Cassie Edwards:
Romance writer Cassie Edwards and publisher Signet Books have decided to break up after allegations emerged in January that in she lifted passages in several of her books from other sources.

"Signet has conducted an extensive review of all its Cassie Edwards novels and due to irreconcilable editorial differences, Ms. Edwards and Signet have mutually agreed to part ways," the publisher said in a statement Friday.

"Cassie Edwards novels will no longer be published with Signet Books. All rights to Ms. Edwards' previously published Signet books have reverted to the author." (Hillel Italie, via the Smart Bitches)

And to celebrate the result of the Penguin's deliberations (I imagine it standing, as in the photo above, staring into the water while trying to decide what to do) here are two free online reads that are, at least in part, about justice.

The first is A Darker Shade of Midnight, by Lynn Emery, a paranormal romantic suspense story set in Louisiana.

The second, much shorter story, Tea with a Stranger, is by Isolde Martyn and begins in Port Jackson, Australia, in 1796.

The photo of the pensive-looking penguin was taken by Jerzy Strzelecki, and I found it at Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sandra Schwab - Bewitched

The response of reviewers to Sandra Schwab's Bewitched has ranged widely, from an A- at The Good, The Bad, The Unread, where Sandy M. stated that Schwab's "books are always innovative," through a 4-star review at Romantic Times where Kathy Robins rather intriguingly declared that it "captures the aura of the Regency," to a D at AAR, whose Cheryl Sneed felt that the language in which the book was written was anachronistic:
At times it is very modern in tone and I felt like Schwab was channeling Chandler Bing when Sebastian says things like, "I am so going to break your heart." And then there's Sebastian's favorite expletive: "heck." Heck?! This seemed so out of place that I had to look it up. First recorded use: 1865. But more than the historical inaccuracy is that this is so not how an English nobleman, a rakish man about town, would choose to express himself when perturbed.
One might, of course, feel that the anachronisms are innovative. You can read two long excerpts, of the whole of the prologue and first chapter, and see what you think. Sandra herself has written that "the prologue for Bewitched opens with a panorama of the English Midlands, which was inspired by Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott.'" That poem, first published in 1833, "recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources" (Wikipedia) but reflects Victorian attitudes towards women.

One can perhaps see parallels between Schwab's Victorian-influenced Regency setting (with medieval, and even more ancient elements) and the Victorian period's medievalism which, as Sandra has observed, created a "romanticized version of the Middle Ages."

If the Victorians' Middle Ages was a romanticised and idealised version of the past rather than an accurate recreation of it, Schwab's novel, which draws on Victorian sources and is clearly marked as unreal by the inclusion of magic, has a similar approach to history. Many of the details are historically accurate, but the end result is like a fruit punch which takes the Regency period as its basic ingredient, passes it through a modern sieve and then mixes it with a good dollop of magic and a splash of Victorian spirit.

The description of the way in which Amy and Fox savour the taste of an alcoholic beverage they consume reminded me of a scene in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland:
she found a little bottle on it, [...] and round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words `DRINK ME' beautifully printed on it in large letters. [...] It was all very well to say `Drink me,' but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. `No, I'll look first,' she said, `and see whether it's marked "poison" or not' [...] However, this bottle was not marked `poison,' so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast,) she very soon finished it off. (Chapter 1)
Fox and Amy's drink isn't marked as "poison" either, so they drink and:
A wave of red rolled towards him. Cinnamon and clove enveloped him in their mingled scent as the punch flowed into his mouth and exploded on his tongue. Wine and cinnamon and clove and a dreadful bitterness. And salty like tears. He grimaced and put his glass down. [...] He took another cautious sip. The bitterness was still there, if somehow muted. In fact, it tasted better now. (45)
Like the drink which causes Alice to shrink, the punch that Amy and Fox consume has a very unexpected side effect (it seems extremely apt that the novel was published under Dorchester's Love Spell imprint). There is an echo of this scene later in the book, when a non-magical punch is prepared while Amy plans to tell Fox the truth about their earlier drink (217). Here's the description of Admiral Reitz preparing punch:
a special punch ceremony was held at Rawdon Park [...] the whole family assembled at a table in the drawing room. Admiral Reitz, it appeared, would act as the Master of Ceremonies. The children skipped from one foot to the other with excitement. "Feuerzangenbowle, Feuerzangenbowle," [....] The door opened and Ramtop, the butler, appeared, carrying an enormous pot filled with fragrant, steaming red wine. [...] Admiral Reitz made a bow in Amy's direction - "what we need for it is this: dry red wine boiled with orange slices, sticks of cinnamon, and cloves. A pair of tongs" - he picked up the item from the tray - "long enough to be laid across the top of the pot, and a sugarloaf." He took the white cone and wedged it into the tongs before he put them onto the pot. "And then, the most important ingredient: rum." (214-15)
Schwab's Admiral Reitz, like Carroll's Alice, is a real person placed in a fictional world.1 As we are told in the author's note, "Bernhard Reitz is one of the leading critics in the field of British theatre [...] and he always serves Feuerzangenbowle at our annual Christmas parties at his house." Schwab also mentions there that "he is known to have reacted adversely to the suggestion to stage a performance of in-yer-face theatre (which usually includes a certain amount of violence, rape, exploding trash cans and the like) in his sitting room." In Bewitched the performance takes place elsewhere:
The admiral, coming to the table [...] "[...] have you heard of the latest theatrical scandal, Rawdon? [...] It has come to my ears that a certain nobleman, who shall remain unnamed, chose to have a production staged in his private theater [...] what if I tell you that the aforementioned production involved some ... um ..." He coughed delicately. "Flinging off of clothes?" [...] Underneath his mustache, the admiral's lips twitched. "And not only that. There were also some monkeys involved, or so I've heard. To top it all, a rubbish can was blown up onstage. Followed by a potted apple tree." [...]

Shaking his head, Lord Rawdon took a fortifying sip of coffee. "I must say, this sounds quite in-yer-face." (111-12)
In the course of her research for her PhD thesis Sandra's been working on Sir John Tenniel's illustrations, including those of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. One secondary text she acquired on the subject,
Frankie Morris's ARTIST OF WONDERLAND, [is] a book on the life and art of John Tenniel. It has already turned out to be a great find: one of the most exciting things, imo, is that Morris argues that many characters in Tenniel's illustrations are simply children or adults in costumes instead of a "real" rabbit or a "real" Duchess with a really big head.
The almost bewildering number of animal metaphors Schwab uses to describe the human characters reminds me of Tenniel's illustrations, and their occasional metamorphoses may recall those of the baby in Alice in Wonderland who turns into a pig. The Admiral's "short, grayish blond moustache and dark suit lent him a faint resemblance to a sea lion - an uncommonly lean sea lion. One who wore a white and green striped shirt" (92). I imagine him looking a little like Tenniel's illustration of the walrus. The hero of the romance is Sebastian "Fox" Stapleton. He "stretched lazily, like a great cat before it goes on the prowl" (6) and he can look "like a big, fat tomcat that had just devoured a particularly tasty mouse" (16) but Amelia, our heroine (also known as Amy), believes that he is "as cold as a fish" (7). Amy herself, whom Fox admits is "lovely [...] in the way of a plump, golden partridge" (40), or perhaps "a quail" (42) is his prey. The predator will find himself trapped: an observer seeing them together states that "the Fox was stepping up to the bait in the trap" (39). Amy is also described as the worm that attracts the cold fish: "the fish has caught the worm" (39) and others are keen to ensure that "the fish is truly hooked" (40). Amelia is not, however, an entirely defenceless creature, for Fox imagines she would be capable of "peck[ing] [...] the poor chap to death with her sharp retorts" (41) and he observes her "Snapping and yapping like a rat terrier" (42).

Other characters are also compared to animals. Fox's servant sometimes looks at him "like a wounded doe" (29). A mysterious stranger has "movements as graceful as a cat" (13). Amy thinks that Fox's friend Drew, "With his curly blond hair and soulful brown eyes [...] reminded her of an overlarge puppy dog" (23) and when in love he "spout[s] the most nonsensical notions that would do any March hare proud" (16). Isabella Bentham observes that "all men sighed over Amy like a herd of dimwitted mooncalves" (11) and Isabella's mother had "what would have been a kind smile if her eyes hadn't glittered like a mad ferret's" (24), although Drew describes her as a "jabbering magpie" (31) . During a society event "the hum of voices rose and fell as if the guests had turned into a swarm of bees" (42). No wonder Amelia concludes that "all of London was filled with the strangest people" (24-25) and we, the readers, can imagine them in all their animal strangeness in a similar fashion to the way in which Alice's sister imagines "the strange creatures of her little sister's dream" (Chapter 12).

Part of the action of the novel is described in chess terminology:
Stapleton will want to go and visit his family soon. [...] thanks to our little intervention, he won't be able to stand even the thought of being apart from the object of his lovesickness for too long. [...] You should make sure your daughter accompanies them. [...] And then we shall make our Sicilian Dragon breathe fire.
Bentham looked at him blandly. "Dragon?" he asked.
The man looked him up and down. "Not a player of chess then." (52-53)
Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass "is loosely based on a game of chess, played on a giant chessboard with fields for squares" (Wikipedia).

Another connection between Bewitched and the Alice stories, though perhaps a rather tenuous one, may be made via Alice's fall down a rabbit hole:
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well. Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next. [...] suddenly, thump! thump! down she came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over. (Chapter 1)
Goldschmidt suggested that "The fall down the rabbit hole was a symbol of sexual penetration, the doors surrounding the hallway represented female genitalia" (Leach) and William Empson
thought it all came down to wombs:

the salt water {of the pool of tears} is the sea from which life arose; as a bodily product it is also the amniotic fluid ... The symbolic completeness of Alice's experience is, I think, important. She runs the whole gamut: she is a father in getting down the hole, a fetus at the bottom, and can only be born by becoming a mother and producing her own amniotic fluid... (Leach)
Leach may state that these are "historically baseless womb-analogies" but they have indubitably helped to shape the reception of the text, which has long been perceived to have sexual undercurrents. Schwab's novel, being a romance, can be quite explicit about sexuality and sexual symbolism, and it ends, rather than begins, with a scene set in the "womb of the Earth Mother" (305), through which the characters seem to have "slipped through the web of time into the pagan past" (306) and in the epilogue one might think of them as having arrived, to quote the words from Alice in Wonderland, "upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over."

One other issue which attracted my attention while reading the novel was the apparent doubling of some of what Pamela Regis would describe as the "eight essential elements of the romance novel" (30). There would appear to be two points "of ritual death," an element which Regis describes as marking "the moment in the narrative when the union between heroine and hero, the hoped-for resolution, seems absolutely impossible" (35). In the first of these scenes the heroine must literally "die first, if only in ritual" (211) and there is then a second, longer period later in the novel during which Amy again comes close to death. It's also possible to think of the characters as falling in love twice and thus undergoing two "Declaration" (34) scenes "in which the hero declares his love for the heroine, and the heroine her love for the hero" (34), and undergoing two betrothals, scenes in which "the hero asks the heroine to marry him and she accepts; or the heroine asks the hero, and he accepts" (37). This doubling perhaps reflects the way in which the world of the novel exists on two levels, one more normal and rational, and the other magical.

There may also be a doubling of one of the "accidental elements characteristic of the romance novel" (Regis 38). Cheryl Sneed commented that the "There is a 120 page section, right in the middle of the book, in which Amy and Sebastian are sickeningly, treacly, blissfully in love" and "all is sweetness and light, which, frankly, was mind-numbingly boring." It occurs to me that this central section, in which the hero and heroine are blissfully in love and surrounded by the hero's loving family (including cute nephews and a niece) who are gathered together to celebrate both the hero and heroine's engagement and Christmas, is not dissimilar in tone to that of many epilogues. Regis has written that the "Wedding, Dance, or Fete" is one of the three "accidental elements" and is a scene which demonstrates that "Society has reconstituted itself around the new couple(s) and the community comes together to celebrate this" (38). The celebratory tone that usually accompanies the "Wedding, Dance, or Fete" is one which characterises this section of the novel. The true epilogue of the novel in fact includes much less "sweetness," though its function of demonstrating that society is "reconstituted" is made quite explicit: "they walked on into the reborn world."

  • Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The Millennium Fulcrum Edition 3.0.
  • Carroll, Lewis. Alice Through the Looking-Glass. The Millennium Fulcrum Edition.
  • Leach, Karoline. "Tony Goldschmidt and the Freudian Influence." The Victorian Web. Adapted with permission of author and publisher from the opening chapter of Karoline Leach's In the Shadow of the Dreamchild. London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1999.
  • Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
  • Schwab, Sandra. Bewitched. New York: Dorchester, 2008.

1 The real people whom Carroll placed within his fictional world are described here. It is perhaps interesting to note that both Carroll and Schwab are incorporating elements of their academic life into their fiction. Both also include text from other fictions in their own work:
In the Victorian Era children had to learn many moralizing poems by heart. Carroll altered some of these (once very familiar) verses for the Alice books, of course to the amusement of the Liddell sisters. Unfortunately these poems are hardly remembered nowadays, so the fun of the parody has disappeared for the greater part. (Lenny's Alice in Wonderland site)
For her part, Schwab includes excerpts from a number of poems (including John Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci) and The Horrible Histories of Mayence. This is "a fictional book, yet the direct quotations are all taken from an 1824 edition of The Seven Champions of Christendom" (Author's Note). [The entire text of Richard Johnson's The Seven Champions of Christendom is available online and in pdf via Google Books.] Schwab has quoted from this text, but changed the names of the characters. I think one can safely assume that she has given them the names of members of "Team Reitz" to whom she dedicated the novel, with the hope that they would "enjoy your adventures as bold knights and fair maidens!"

Fox notes how some of the events in The Horrible Histories recall events that have happened recently to him, Amy and the other characters: "It seemed fantastical, as if the characters of a book had stepped out of their story and into the real world" (293). In Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass the relationship between texts and reality is a little different, since Alice steps into a world inhabited by characters from nursery rhymes, such as Humpty Dumpty and the Lion and the Unicorn.


The illustrations for this blog post include Evelyn de Morgan's The Love Potion, from Wikipedia and John Tenniel's illustrations of the Drink Me scene in Alice in Wonderland, via Wikimedia Commons. I also think there's some similarity between Jessie Willcox Smith's version of Alice (1923) and Annett Louisian, on whom Schwab based her description of Amelia Bourne.

Friday, May 02, 2008

A Winning Collection

Elizabeth Litchfield, a reader of this blog, has won the 2008 T. Kimball Brooker Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting, awarded by the University of Chicago Library.
The competition is based on the care and judgment by which the student has shaped the collection. Monetary value and number of books are not critical in determining a winning collection. Primary consideration is given to discrimination and judgment in building the collection around the collector's interest.
Elizabeth's essay about her collection is titled "A Library of Love: Challenging the Social Order One Couple (or Threesome?) at a Time" and includes a list of the books in it, and some very interesting observations about a selection of them.

Elizabeth writes that her
work with Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention here on campus has interested me in how romance communities are struggling with questions of sexuality and violence within the framework of the courtship plot. I collect romances that take up themes of sexual violence, either by explicitly challenging paradigms of male power in the intimate realm or by uncritically incorporating partner violence into the courtship. I also seek out romances that challenge heteronormativity or that struggle with incorporating ambiguous sexualities into the courtship plot. These books are windows into how communities of women are struggling with questions of identity and power under the cover of pink typeface and floral covers.
In addition, she includes many "cross-genre works and books of genre fiction that reference the romance. I am always delighted when I find a covert romance hiding in another section of the bookstore, and reading these romances with a curious and critical eye yields fascinating stories."

On her blog Elizabeth adds "The sweetest part of the whole deal? Displaying eight books (including this one) in the Reg for eight weeks." I'm sure Sandra will appreciate the honour.

Congratulations, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth's new blog, Reader, I Married Him, already includes posts discussing masculinity and the problem of chivalry (with reference to Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had To Be You and Robyn Carr’s Virgin River books) and racism in the romance genre.

The photo of Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago is from Wikipedia.