This Week In My Classes: A Study in Contrasts

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that teaching Lord of Scoundrels at the end of a term that has also included Bleak HouseAdam Bede, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a good way to bring home the truth of  Jennifer Crusie’s remark that a lot of great literature is really toxic to women. In romance fiction, as she points out, “you can have sex without dying horribly,” which is indeed, as she says, “a plus.”

Crusie isn’t the only person to emphasize this contrast between romance fiction and the parade of great novels in which women’s sexuality brings them shame, isolation, desperation, and even death, of course. In fact, the sex-positivity of romance is a recurrent theme in most of the books I’ve read about the genre, or at least in those that are as much (or more) about advocacy as about analysis. Here’s Sarah Wendell, for instance, in Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels:

One of the more empowering and, in my never-humble opinion, awesomely excellent things about sex in romance is that the woman is not punished or ultimately harmed for being curious or even assertive about her sexual needs. Even in the Old Skool days of forced seductions and other questionable scenes, the wages of sex were not death, ostracism, misery, poverty, and complete moral turpitude. Getting some didn’t mean giving yourself away — and it didn’t mean you were done for once you did the deed.

And here’s Maya Rodale in her Dangerous Books for Girls:

Romance novels came to provide a safe place for women to explore their desires, free from the risk of rape, guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, unplanned pregnancy, or regret. In contrast to so many other depictions of sex, from literature to porn to movies, romance novels are completely and unabashedly focused on the woman’s feelings and pleasure. And, most revolutionarily of all, romance heroines can enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.

These generalizations certainly wouldn’t hold up for all examples of a genre that goes back as far and ranges as widely as romance, and I think there are also some problems with arguments about romance that focus too much on sex — as if there’s no HEA for people who are asexual, for instance, or no such thing as sexual trauma that might complicate that “unabashed” focus on pleasure. Still, after following the tribulations of yet another tragic woman who learns that “the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings” — after Lady Dedlock’s forlorn fate, and Hetty’s wanderings, and now Tess’s catastrophes, it is a breath of fresh air to turn to Jessica and Dain. As Jess tells her appreciative grandmother after their first reckless, swoon-worthy kiss,

“If we had not been struck by lightning — or very nearly — I should be utterly ruined. Against a lamppost. On the Rue de Provence. And the horrible part is . . . I wish I had been.”

After Jessica and Dain are caught passionately embracing in the garden during Lady Wallingdon’s party, “though her face heated at the recollection, she refused to feel ashamed at what she’d done.” It’s not that Chase ignores the potential for scandal and worse from such a compromising event, but she writes her heroine out of the trap her desire has landed her in, and Jessica’s HEA builds on, rather than overcomes, her “unabashed” hunger for and pleasure in Dain’s “big and dark and beautiful body.”

And yet, while the overt and (ultimately) happy sexiness of Lord of Scoundrels is indeed “awesomely excellent,” it’s not entirely fair to set up modern romance fiction as the positive alternative to punishing Victorian fiction, which I think can actually be quite “sex positive,” albeit usually in a much more subtle, and sometimes perverse, way. For one thing, the women who pay such a high price for breaking society’s rules are very often portrayed as victims: the novelists direct our disapprobation not against them but against the world that treats them so cruelly for something so understandable or natural. Lady Dedlock should not have died cold and alone reaching for her lover’s grave: all the moral and emotional force of Bleak House is directed against that outcome. It’s true that the implication may still be that she has sinned, but she deserves to be forgiven and brought back into the loving embrace of her long-lost daughter, our moral exemplar. Eliot and Hardy make it particularly clear that their “erring” heroines are participating (more or less willingly, of course) in a natural process made shameful and dangerous by social codes, not because it is intrinsically wrong. If only some reconciliation could be made between flesh and spirit, between nature and law — so much shame and fear and violence could be avoided!

Still, these ruined women provide vivid and memorable (and sometimes uncomfortably aestheticized) spectacles of the price of unauthorized sexuality, so my case for the defense rests more on the importance placed on sexual attraction for the happy endings 19th-century novels do themselves provide. Over and over, after all, the unsexy match is rejected in favor of the one that promises that the heroine will “enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.” Think of Mr. Collins, Mr. Boarham, Mr. Casaubon, St. John Rivers, Seth Bede, Philip Wakem, Mr. Phillotson … there’s a long parade of obviously unsuitable suitors. Think, too, of the blushing (Dinah with Adam), the racing pulses (Anne Elliot with Captain Wentworth), the sweating horses (Stephen Guest visiting Maggie), the fixated gaze (Mr. Thornton and Margaret), the nearby lightning strike (Will and Dorothea) … so many signs in so many cases that the right match is the exciting one, that the happy ending (if it can be achieved) brings the promise of sexual satisfaction, if safely within the (constantly tested and expanded) boundaries of social acceptability.

I realize that these examples of HEAs based on sex that is socially safe could be seen as missing the point — outside that boundary, after all, is still all that same old “guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, … [and] regret.” I guess I just want to complicate the implication of the romance advocates that we had to wait for romance fiction to open up a space for acknowledging, imagining, depicting, or even celebrating women’s sexuality. It’s not as if there aren’t bad examples in romance fiction too, after all, and even more to the point, it’s not as if it only counts as positive if the sexual aspect is made explicit. Romance heroines also still have to find a way, a place, to live in their world: it’s not as if the space they create for all that sexual assertion and exploration is outside society.

That doesn’t mean Lord of Scoundrels isn’t still refreshing, though, in both its frankness and its fun. “If you think I could not . . . make you eat out of my hand, if that’s what I wanted,” says Jessica to her obstreperous new husband, who so far has shied away from actually making love to her, “I recommend you think again, Beelzebub.” “I should like to see you try,” he responds — and by that point, so would we all.

6 Comments to This Week In My Classes: A Study in Contrasts

  1. Katy's Gravatar Katy
    April 1, 2017 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I like the idea of teaching a romance novel as a way to contextualize Victorian lit. I agree with you, though, that it’s hard to see historical romance novels as any kind of antidote to the slut-shaming, etc. of Victorian novels, except in the sense that our age is (to a degree) an antidote to the Victorian era. Because the heroines of these romances set in the Victorian era aren’t really Victorians, they’re modern-day heroines with a few Victorian trappings. The internal conflict, the religious guilt, all the social and psychological consequences of transgressive behavior, just aren’t there. Which means (as you point out) that the genuine celebration of women’s sexuality and women’s choice that you do see in Victorian novels has a lot more value than the anachronisms of historical romance. Jane Eyre, for instance, hesitating outside Mr. Rochester’s door, is having an entirely realistic struggle between desire and a combination of conscience and self-preservation, and it’s a struggle that I doubt the heroine of Lord of Scoundrels could fully understand.

  2. Katy's Gravatar Katy
    April 2, 2017 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your response. I’m kind of embarrassed by my post now. I’m sorry if I seemed to be claiming more knowledge than I actually have. My knowledge of historical romance doesn’t go very far. And you’re right, I was throwing around “Victorian” without thinking too much about whether I was consistently talking about that period.

    As for whether I’m better at interpreting what it was like to be a Victorian than a modern romance novelist – I don’t think I am. But I do think that a modern-day romance novelist (and again, my knowledge of this subject is pretty limited) is constrained by his or her audience to minimize considerations that would have been of overwhelming importance in the time that he or she is writing about. Of course fiction is fiction, regardless of the time period, and Victorians weren’t a homogeneous group that all thought and acted the same. But there’s one thing that I get from reading Victorian novelists that I’ve never gotten from historicals, and that is a sense of how completely people internalized Victorian ideas of morality, and how much guilt could accompany any effort to defy them.

    I’m thinking of the bit in Gwen Raverat’s memoir Period Piece where she writes about the strange rules and hypocrisies that governed propriety during her childhood, “For nearly seventy years the English middle classes were locked up in a great fortress of unreality and pretence; and no one who has not been brought up inside the fortress can guess how thick the walls were, or how little of the sky outside could be seen through the loopholes.”
    I feel (and again, this is just my instinctive sense) that the only way for modern-day romance novels to be “sex-positive,” in a way that modern-day readers can recognize, is by thinning the walls of the fortress.

    I agree – still thinking things out here – that it’s important to think about the things that couldn’t be written about in Victorian literature. And I agree that it can be valuable to do that in literature. But only if you’re writing in a genre that allows negative as well as positive consequences to socially risky behavior, and only if you don’t automatically see negative consequences as a sign that the author is punishing the character. I don’t really know enough about historical romance novels to know if that’s true of them.

    It’s not, honestly, that I want every historical I read to be like The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I’d much rather read a cheesy romance where everything ends happily. I just find it hard to see historical romances as sex-positive in a really meaningful way. But I also recognize that I’m generalizing about a genre that I haven’t read in depth, so if you have suggestions for reading, I’d love to hear them.

    Sorry about the long post, and I hope it didn’t come across as combative. I feel like my writing for some reason has a tinge of “WELL, ACTUALLY” about it, and I don’t mean it to – this is just how I sound.

  3. April 3, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure that historical romances are particularly sex positive – the heroine will either be a virgin having sex with the man she loves and will marry, which is acceptable, but there will be no significant messing around with anyone else. When there have been other men before the hero it generally seems to be a single other man, who will either have raped or abused her, been a much older and generally sexually unsatisfactory husband (however kind he may have been in other respects) or a youthful infatuation who has since died, though again he won’t have had any of the sexual skills of the hero. When a woman is sexually experienced to the point that she’s had a variety of satisfactory lovers she invariably seems to be a villainess intent on the downfall of the heroine.

    Reading Victorian fiction, and looking at those paintings that suggest you’ll end up dead in the river if you transgress always suggested to me that while this undoubtedly did happen, women and society were continually warned that it would happen because quite often it didn’t.

    the message still seems to me to be much the same – You might be able to have sex without dying horribly, but not with too many people if you want your HEA. I guess as the HEA invariably means marriage and probably children sex without commitment/love remains something for mercenary whores, not nice girls.

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