I've read a few romances recently which reminded me of Ros Ballaster's distinction between "didactic love fiction" and "erotic fiction." These books were most definitely "didactic love fiction. According to Ros Ballaster
The early eighteenth century [...] saw a split between female-authored pious and didactic love fiction, stressing the virtues of chastity or sentimental marriage, and erotic fiction by women, with its voyeuristic attention to the combined pleasures and ravages of seduction. (33)For Deborah Lutz
contemporary romance falls under Ballaster’s category of didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question). On the opposite extreme, the dangerous lover type falls under the rubric of amatory fiction. (2)However, given that Lutz also writes of modern romance that, "Contrary to all expectation, the dangerous subject appears in this form of didactic fiction" (3) it's probably best to think of the genre as one which exists along a spectrum, from the most didactic, which endeavour to teach the reader what to look for in a potential spouse, and how to achieve a happy marriage, to those in which the focus is really on the "combined pleasures and ravages of seduction" and in which the genre's promised "happy ever after," if it takes the form of marriage between the protagonists, may be less than convincing.
Some of the books I've been reading lately are vintage Harlequin/Mills & Boons and it's interesting to see the advice handed out by the ones which are at the "didactic love fiction" end of the spectrum.
In Jill Christian's The Tender Bond the heroine, Pamela Jane, has realised that she has feelings for both Dominic and his half-brother, Martin. She's engaged to the latter, but
He did not stir her to tingling excitement as Dominic did. Dominic roused in her the instinct to surrender, to give herself body and soul into the hands of a lord and master. He would dominate her, and there would always be a certain awe in her love, a desire for meek obedience. She would never, never win the upper hand with him.Christian's novel was first published in 1961, and the edition I read was published in 1981. Between these years Dobash and Dobash wrote that:
Martin would never seek to dominate her. She would be the tender wife-mother to him; she would guide and shape both their lives, and he would let her mold him into the pattern she wanted. He would come to her for comfort and courage, and she would kiss him gently and send him out into the world strong again.
Which was it to be? Wife-mother, queen of her home, the comforter, the lady; in the old meaning, the loaf maker? [scroll down this page a little to see the derivation of the term "loaf maker"] Or the wife by capture, the weaker vessel, her husband always in the ascendant; a man to love, honor and obey?
One could not obey if one did not honor. Was the reverse true also, that one could not honor if one did not obey? (157)
"Love, honour and obey", the phrase is now often deleted from the marriage vows, but still stands as confirmation of the fact that the woman enters into the state of marriage in a secondary, subservient position. This omission may reflect the current concern about the position of women in marriage and society, but it does not reflect a change in the reality of married life. The omission is a bow to the trendy new cause called 'women', but it is a superficial, cosmetic patch which has been placed upon the institution of marriage. An institution which has been blemished for centuries by a patriarchal structure and a hierarchal ideology which has institutionalized the subservience of one half of the population and deified and enshrined that relationship to such an extent that it is almost beyond question or scrutiny.As Lutz observed, didactic romance "attempts to represent a moral way of living [...] (depending on what constitutes the 'morals' of the particular time period in question)" (2), but even in any "particular time period" there are likely to be starkly contrasting moral opinions.
"Love, honour and obey" is the lot of women in marriage. Care for him, look up to him and do as he wishes - or else. Implied in that vow is the threat of rightful control over those who fail to obey; control may take the form of coercion. Thus, foundations of wife battering are written into the marriage contract. (403)
The passage I quoted from Christian's novel is one I found interesting because of the evidence it offers about attitudes towards femininity and masculinity. It is pretty clear from this and other parts of the novel that Christian believes women should both "love, honour and obey" their husbands and have maternal instincts. Pamela Jane's initial preference for Martin is explained by reference to these maternal instincts:
Up to this hour, the strongly marked maternal side of her nature had ruled her life. The instinct to serve, tend and heal had led her into nursing [...] Martin's dependence made an irresistible appeal to an instinct highly developed and active. To progress from nurse-mother to wife-mother was but a natural step, and one she could have taken with happiness if tonight had not happened.Dominic hopes and prays that "she would see for herself that a complete, truly feminine woman, with all the complex needs of her perfect body and lovely mind, cannot be satisfied forever by a perpetual child" (159).
She had not even suspected the existence of another woman within the kernel of her personality. A woman whose instinct was for a man of power, stronger in mind, body and character, a ruler, a king to whom she could submit joyfully.
Dominic had held out a hand to that other woman, wakened her and led her forth, like a king plucking a beggar-maid from the crowd. [...]
The words of the stately old prayer book came to her mind. "To love and to cherish." That was the man's promise. "Wilt thou obey and serve him, love, honor and keep him?" That was the woman.
Those old churchmen knew human nature through and through. They understood it long before psychology was thought of. They knew a man in love would want to cherish, that a woman in love needed to obey.
But they'd overlooked one thing, those men of old time. That not all human creatures have the same needs, the same nature. Sometimes it is the woman whose love is fulfilled by the promise to love and to cherish. There were men who needed to lose themselves in the strength a woman possesses, to love and to honor, serve and obey as a man obeys his queen. (157-8)
The impasse is broken due to the scheming of Isabel, who wants Martin for herself. Isabel explains that
" [...] Martin will never be more than a big handsome schoolboy. His wife will have to be the man about the house, make all the big decisions, carry all the final responsibility. [...] You're an ordinary girl; you've got ordinary desires, ordinary needs and feelings. Martin's type wouldn't satisfy you six months. [...] I'm not an ordinary woman. I'll never be a little, adoring wife. [...] At my wedding there'll be no such words as 'obey.' In the old days, I could have been a queen." She smiled as if seeing a picture of herself, a cruelly satisfied expression that reminded Pamela of a fed tiger in a zoo. "I should glory in possessing and ruling Martin, and he'd glory in obeying."and
Pamela shuddered. "It's horrible, like the spider and the fly."
"A lot of insects eat their husbands. I don't find that disgusting. I find it interesting. [...]" (176-77)
[Isabel] " [...] Can't you see - I'm concerned for him! I love him."Pamela recognises that
[Pamela] "Love? It sounds more like hatred."
[Isabel] "You wouldn't understand. What do you know of a love that will compel, use force to get what it wants? [...] I can make him eat and like the food that's best for him. He'll thank me in the end."
[Pamela] "You can't force a man to love you."
[Isabel] "Martin will love me because I do force him. He'll love me because I'm strong and completely ruthless [...]" (177-8)
It is true, what Isabel says. He is a handsome boy and I love him as a boy, but that isn't enough to last us through the long years. [...] She is cleverer than I thought, that Isabel. It's she who has the eternal fountain to offer him, with her strange, possessive - and to me, terrible - love. She was right to be concerned about his future with me. (180-81)In her acknowledgement that Isabel is right, and that "not all human creatures have the same needs, the same nature," Jill Christian may be showing some tolerance for individuals like Isabel and Martin but it's nonetheless the case that female dominance and male submission are depicted as reversing gender roles in an unnatural (not "ordinary") manner that seems repellent and "terrible" to "ordinary" people. The submissive man is described as less than a real man: he is a "boy". The submissive woman and dominant male, on the other hand, are considered to be the norm.
In addition, the dichotomy between dominance and submission within marriage leaves no space for equality. Christian does allow for the possibility of very temporary shifts in roles. Pamela Jane, who feels she has "two women" inside her, "the one desiring to uplift and comfort, the other needing to surrender and accept sweet defeat with joy" (170) is going to be given the opportunity to "uplift and comfort": "It came to her that Dominic needed the mother-woman in her perhaps even more than Martin. He, too, was lonely, frustrated and vulnerable; he had his wounds of the spirit" (171). This temporary granting of power to the "feminine" woman is, however, couched not in the language of dominance and submission, but that of service, which is hardly threatening to traditional gender roles.
The authorial commentary on the action and the particular lessons the novel seeks to convey to the reader, may make the didacticism of this particular romance difficult for a 21st century reader to miss, but contemporary romances can also be highly didactic. I'm planning to put up a post about one of them next week. [Edited to add: A few other things have come up, but I promise I will get back to this topic.]
- Ballaster, Ros. Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
- Christian, Jill. The Tender Bond. 1961. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1981. [First published by Mills & Boon under the title Nurse to Captain Andy.
- Dobash, R. Emerson & Russell P. Dobash. "Love, honour and obey: Institutional ideologies and the struggle for battered women." Crime, Law and Social Change 4.1 (1977): 403-15.
- Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.