Friday, November 04, 2011

Insights Into the Taste and Manners of a Nation

John Ryley, writing about early nineteenth-century Leeds, commented that
Public amusements, especially those of the Drama are calculated to give us an insight into the taste and manners of a nation; in popular Tragedies, we trace the refinement of the passions; Comedies are often satires on existing follies and fashions of the times; and even Pantomimes generally exhibit caricatures of the frivolities of the day. (61)
Although Ryley focuses on drama, the idea that cultural works in some way respond to, or give insight into, the "taste and manners of a nation" is one that has been widely accepted. Here's what John G. Cawelti had to say about the issue in his Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (1976):
Certain story archetypes particularly fufill man’s needs for enjoyment and escape. [...] 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. (6)
Now maybe I'm going to be guilty of making some generalisations to go along with the assumptions, but it seems to me that although I have come across some romance heroes who are carpenters and builders, they're usually depicted as small business owners (even if these are one-person businesses). I don't recall having read a romance which featured a hero who worked in a foundry, down a mine, or on an assembly-line. The only janitor hero I've encountered is to be found in LaVyrle Spencer's Then Came Heaven (here's an AAR review which gives an overview of the characters and setting). I suspect this novel is one of the exceptions which proves the rule that romance heroes are generally not employed in the kinds of proletarian jobs which would be celebrated in socialist realist statues of the kind pictured above.1 I'm fairly sure that socialist realist art also has professions that the artists "cannot conceive in heroic terms."

Just out of interest, and because I want an excuse to include the following portrait, has anyone written a novel about a hero who's a tailor? I don't count The Tailor of Gloucester, as the tailor requires the assistance of some very compassionate and hardworking mice, and I'd consider them, rather than the tailor, to be the heroes of that story.

Romance heroines, in contrast to romance heroes, are not infrequently lowly members of the working classes (they may work as waitresses, secretaries, low-paid providers of care to infants and the elderly etc), but rather than setting up a workers' co-operative or joining a union, a downtrodden heroine will generally be freed from exploitation in the labour market by marrying her boss or some other male who will be able to support her and their children in relative comfort. Of course, many heroines do have professional jobs, enjoy their work and continue working after marriage, but they couldn't be romance heroines if they didn't give a higher priority to their romantic relationships and, often, children. In part that's due to the demands of the plot. After all, a romance wouldn't be a romance if the protagonists decided that their idea of "happily ever after" consisted of walking off into the sunset in opposite directions in pursuit of their careers. That applies to both heroes and heroines. However, I suspect the characterisation of heroines also owes quite a bit to social expectations of women, and character traits and behaviours which may be permissible, or even deemed admirable and/or sexy in a hero, may not be seen the same way if demonstrated by a heroine. Abby Green, in a description of her The Spaniard’s Marriage Bargain, writes that she
can’t remember exactly where the idea sprang from originally, but I know that I was thinking something along the lines of: what would be one of the most unforgivable things a woman/mother could do? For me, it would definitely be to walk away from her baby, or child.
Men seem to get away with doing that a lot easier than women in many cases, but for a woman to turn her back on her baby? It’s extremely hard to forgive, after all, women are all hardwired to be the nurturers aren’t they?
Well, of course we all know it’s never as black and white as that.
We may know it's "never as black and white as that" but judging by the characterisations of romance heroes and heroines a double standard does seem to exist around the issue.

It's not just characters who are affected by underlying social assumptions. As Cawelti observed, "for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them." This passage from The Seduction Business (1999) by Charlotte Lamb seems to me to reveal some of the settings "that have appropriate meanings" in romance:
The sound of his voice made her heart sing, but she was still afraid. When he'd begun making love to her in her bedroom the other night she had lost control within seconds; had been going crazy, burning up with desire as he touched her.
She wanted him now, in the cold light of day, in her office, sitting at her desk. It wasn't necessary to have moonlight, or music, or for her to have been drinking wine ... The desire she felt was constant, instinctive, deep. (157, emphasis added)
I think it would be safe to assume that the heroine is listing here some typical components of what might be considered the kind of truly "romantic" setting that is deemed particularly conducive getting a woman in a receptive mood for sexual activity. Phillip Vannini has observed that
Romantic love is one of the defining sentiments of our culture. [...] As production and consumption have expanded, mass communication has been transmitting to the public a visual idea of love as a spectacle. The romanticization of commodities occurs when media portray certain products and services as romantic. A cheap fast-food meal is not romantic, but the consumption of a candle-lit three-course meal at a French restaurant is. [...] Beside self-expression, romance allowed those who had learned to consume it properly to feel liberated from the drudgery of work. This is the image of the "date" as an outing to a restaurant, a movie theater, or a romantic getaway at the seaside or at a luxurious (and romantic) hotel. (171)
Again, I think there tend to be gender-related assumptions about the efficacy of romantic gestures and settings. The romance genre, and ideas about women's sexuality, have moved on since Germaine Greer wrote that "Flowers, little gifts, love-letters, maybe poems to her eyes and hair, candlelit meals on moonlit terraces and muted strings. Nothing hasty, physical [...] Mystery, magic, champagne, ceremony, tenderness, excitement, adoration, reverence – women never have enough of it" (173) but there is perhaps still a lingering impression that women need to be coaxed and wooed into having sexual feelings, or may be very occasionally overwhelmed by immense passion if they meet The One, whereas the common misperception, debunked by Snopes, is that "men think about sex every seven seconds" and, presumably, have no need of romantic music, wine, moonlight etc in order to get in the mood.

The range of personality traits embodied in heroes and heroines, and the aspirational aspect of romance reading, shape the types of settings, characters, and outcomes we tend to find in the genre. Some jobs, some social groups, some settings, are not ones that are seen as socially desirable. They're not aspirational. Ancestral mansions and white picket fences are aspirational, ballgowns and candle-lit dinners are romantic, strong rich men are desirable, virginal-yet-sexy-and-beautiful-yet-not-vain women are aspirational, but men who stack shelves in supermarkets and non-white women are generally not considered aspirational. At least, having read quite a lot of romances, that's the impression I'm left with.

Black heroines can, of course, be found in the African-American romance sub-genre, but they're not at all common in romances aimed at non-African-American readers. I wonder if this is because while black women are expected to be able to identify with a black heroine, and it's thought understandable that a black heroine can represent an ideal for a black woman, it's somehow not expected that a white women would find it easy to think of a black woman as the embodiment of an ideal she should aspire to. I could be wrong about that, but I'm offering it up as a hypothesis. It was certainly the case that in the nineteenth century
people sometimes spoke of civilization as if it were itself a racial trait, inherited by all Anglo-Saxons and other "advanced" white races.
Gender, too, was an essential component of civilization. Indeed, one could identify advanced civilizations by the degree of their sexual differentiation. [...] Civilized women were womanly - delicate, spiritual, dedicated to the home. And civilized white men were the most manly ever evolved - firm of character; self-controlled; protectors of women and children. In contrast, gender differences among savages seemed to be blurred. Savage women were aggressive, carried heavy burdens, and did all sorts of "masculine" hard labor. (Bederman 25)
This stereotype does not seem to have entirely disappeared:
According to essayists in “Critical Studies in Media Communication,” one of the things that reality television producers tend to do is to choose contestants, manipulate situations and use editing to reinforce racial stereotypes.
In an October 2008 issue devoted to the subject, theorist Robin Boylorn argued that black women are recruited and their content edited to conform to images through the history of movies and television. One predominant stereotype is the black woman as “aggressive, loud, rude and pushy. Other negative images include divas, hoochies, weepers, waifs, antagonizers, shrills, welfare queens and freaks.” (Cummings)
1 I haven't done a comprehensive search for art and literature celebrating "plumbers, janitors, or streetsweepers" but I have come across a reference to a work in the American social realist style, which perhaps challenges a few preconceptions about which jobs are heroic:
Cesare Stea's 1939 relief Assembling for a sewage-disposal plant in Queens [...]. It shows four men working together on a length of sewage pipe. Their shirtsleeves are rolled up and their pants are tight, so that their muscular frames are accentuated. [...] Such an image is clearly meant to celebrate the New Deal's emphasis on putting Americans back to work, and its egalitarian rhetoric. (Anreus, Linden & Weinberg 121)
The first image is a cropped version of William Bell Scott's painting, Iron and Coal, which can be seen in its entirety at The Victorian Web. The photo of the "construction and industry statue on the Green Bridge, Vilnius [...] Lithuania" is from Wikimedia Commons, though again, I've done a bit of cropping. The third image is Giovanni Battista Moroni's The Tailor,
The portrait is a late work, probably around 1570, and the most famous of Moroni's portraits [...].
The colourful costume of the tailor is contrasted with the black material marked with chalk lines that he prepares to cut. Most of the sitters in Moroni's later portraits are dressed in black in the Spanish fashion that persisted into the following century. The tailor's head, lit from above to the left, dominates the painting, the eyes, as in the majority of Moroni's portraits, looking directly at the spectator with shrewd appraisal. (National Gallery)
I found this particular photo of the painting at Wikimedia Commons.


  1. With reference to the Greer quote, the pattern of gift giving from man to woman is apparently hard wires according to Dr. Helen Fisher in Why We Love. The patterns, closely observed in monogamous voles (yes, really) are supposed to hold true in humans of all cultures, and the gifts represent the ability to provide both essentials and some luxuries.

    In reading Fisher it seemed clear to me that the courtship and mating patterns, mostly driven biochemically by hormones, could well be a formula for successful romance novels.

    And, I assume, would work as well if the hero was a tailor and the heroine a CEO.

    Jo :)

  2. Magic, Champagne, candlelight - bring it on! I agree that heroes and heroines do (in the main) follow certain patterns, but in my own books I try to bring them together at the end as partners, in a union beneficial to everyone. As a writer of historical romances I have to bridge the gap between the society I am writing about and the modern reader. Yes, I know that hygiene was not as much a priority in the 18th century as it is today, that most people had shockingly bad teeth (if any), but readers want healthy, sweet-smelling heroes and heroines (and I suspect that this was true in other centuries, too. The fact that Cromwell is famous for wanting to be painted "warts & all" shows this was not the norm.)

  3. The monogamous voles turned out not to be monogamous:

    By traditionalist standards, prairie-vole couples may enjoy the ideal relationship: the rodents form lifelong partnerships — a highly unusual practice in mammals. Males help raise the children; females help build the nest. As for their sex life, let's just say it far exceeds the efforts required for procreation.

    But the respectable public behaviour of North American prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) may hide a bed-hopping double life. Paternity tests published last week indicate that the animals touted as paragons of monogamy frequently cheat on their partners (A. G. Ophir et al. Anim. Behav. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2007.09.022; 2008).

    I wouldn't deny that gift-giving and nest-building are frequently part of animal mating displays. However, humans create culture, and so the ways in which we express our feelings and needs can vary greatly. In The Culture of Giving: Informal Support and Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos writes that:

    The role of gifts as tokens signalling the marriage bond, demarcating stages in courtship and demonstrating goodwill, sentiment and reciprocal obligations between couples intent upon marriage was evident in many matrimonial cases that were brought before the ecclesiastical courts. As research has indicated, an immense array of gifts was exchanged between couples - gloves, handkerchiefs, trinkets and rings, but also cakes, fish, books and a wide variety of clothing, metal commodities and personal goods. This range of gifts suggests not only variations in levels of resources, but also the value attached to gifts offered as a sign of personal bond and attachment. (153)

    In research carried out in 1949 Marvin R. Koller noted how patterns of gift-giving changed for three generations of Ohio women:

    Gift exchanges between men and women in each generation during their courtship give some measure of male-female role differentials. The returns uncovered over two hundred different types of gifts of which the women received the greater share in all generations. This finding suggests the strength of the belief over the past sixty years that the woman is the one whose favor is to be won. Several grandmothers appended a note to the effect that they resented any notion that they courted men. "On the contrary," wrote one grandmother, "men court women, not vice versa."
    Close examination of the gift exchange lists reveals, nonetheless, an increasing number of gifts given to the men by the women during their courtship. The grandmothers gave gifts to their men rarely. The second generation women, however, began to give gifts to their men more frequently and, by the third generation, the young women were in many cases giving more gifts to the men than they received in turn.

    So patterns of behaviour, and the nature of the gifts given, can change over time.

    Koller, Marvin R. "Some Changes in Courtship Behavior in Three Generations of Ohio Women." American Sociological Review 16.3 (1951) 366-370.

    Krausman Ben-Amos, Ilana. The Culture of Giving: Informal Support and Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

  4. The blurb of Eva Illouz's Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism declares that she "unravels the mass of images that define our ideas of love and romance, revealing that the experience of 'true' love is deeply embedded in the experience of consumer capitalism" and in the book itself she argues that this is due to:

    the romanticization of commodities and the commodification of romance [...]. The "romanticization of commodities" refers to the way in which commodities acquired a romantic aura in early twentieth-century movies and advertising imagery. The "commodification of romance," on the other hand, concerns the ways in which romantic practices increasingly interlocked with and became defined as the consumption of leisure goods and leisure technologies offered by the nascent mass market. (26)
    Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley, California: U of California P, 1997.

  5. Interesting, Laura. Thanks for that.

    I do think the gift-giving/receiving is hard-wired, however, and therefore works in romances where we're often dealing with old brain instincts instead of current realities, in both contemporary, historical, and futuristic novels.

    Women have traditionally given gifts indicating their contributions to the match, such as needlework or baking. Of course the big one is nursing and nurturing. If a heroine can do some of that for the hero during the book it'll ring bells. The hero nursing the heroine, not so much. He'll get points, but not in the same way as he does by protecting her or providing necessities.

    All my opinion, of course,