A guest post by Rose McConnachie. *Warning – contains spoilers.*
The first historical romance I ever read was The Flame and the Flower, by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. To brutally summarise, the plot followed thusly: 16 year old, beautiful, slightly Irish heroine Heather (orphan, raised and abused by a cruel ugly country aunt and spineless uncle) is sold into what turns out to be sexual slavery in the sweaty fleshpots of LONDON.
She escapes one rape attempt maidenhead intact, but is mistaken for a prostitute by some salty sea-dogs looking for some fanny for their newly-docked captain. Here, she meets the truly massive ‘hero’ of our piece, the improbably named Captain Brandon Birmingham (from the Carolinas or somewhere).
He assumes she’s a hooker, and needing no further encouragement, promptly rapes her – an action subsequently justified by the fact he thought her being paralysed with terror then attempting to run away was some kind of sexy role play.
He does say sorry, that he didn’t realise she was a virgin, and that it’ll be easier next time… which he then demonstrates by RAPING HER AGAIN. She eventually runs away, as you would – but is brought back when it turns out she is pregnant. Birmingham is forced to marry her, which he doesn’t like because he doesn’t like being made to do things against his will – and has no sense of irony.
However, in spite of all that pride and rape they gradually fall in love and eventually manage to have consensual sex, which is heartily enjoyed by both parties. So that’s alright then.
And why am I telling you all this? Well, at one time this novel was apparently one of the most significant of the historical romance genre. This is in part because it has juicy descriptions of proper sex in it (thankfully not till it gets consensual), though admittedly couched in such convoluted prose you’d be forgiven for missing the actual action.
Woodiwiss set the tone for countless other novels of this sort and, unfortunately, along with the colourful similes for genitalia went the assertion that rape is basically a reasonable dramatic start to a loving relationship. Due to a penchant for charity shop swivel stands and anything with a dramatic clinch on the cover, I have since read many, many more examples of this ilk.
In this example – even putting the rapes aside (and I never thought I’d write that sentence) – Brandon Birmingham is verbally and mentally abusive throughout, but it’s supposed to be okay because he is only doing it because he loves her really and doesn’t know how to show it. It’s like Pride and Prejudice, only written in crayon by an idiot, and with more cartoon emotions and sexual assault. Rather than a gradually developing tale of love between equals, it’s basically a convoluted exploration of Stockholm Syndrome.
Surely every girl likes to think that if someone had a stab at sexually assaulting her, she’d kick them manfully in the balls until they burst. Either the attacker or the balls, whichever hurts most.
In historical romance the female protagonist is often put in this situation, and in the most fun ones, she takes the opportunity to teach some lessons about taking no for an answer, though usually the author skips the part with the testicular rupture. You know the hypothetical scene: “Let me go!” “I likes a girl with spirit!” “HIYA” “Urgh! My balls!”
Administering a swift pelt of sexual justice, we would sprint off, maybe leap onto a horse, save some orphans and found a refuge and a counselling service for victims of sexual violence. But in novels such as The Flame and the Flower, somehow the situation gets twisted round. Suddenly the assault-er is having a go not because he is the type of terrible, woman hating f*ck you hear about on the news, but because he is so very attracted to her. This means narratively she can’t do anything to stop it, but that’s OK because eventually they’ll fall in love anyway.
It’s a horrible suggestion which reminds me of the idiots who think that rape can’t happen inside a marriage – except in this case, it’s more like sure, it can happen, but he’ll probably feel guilty about it later so it’s basically ok. I think society already makes too many excuses about abuse of women by their partners for romantic fiction – essentially a woman’s genre – to get in on the act too.
Most of the most truly offensive novels of this nature were written in the seventies and into the eighties, until eventually, I like to think, feminist thought reached a saturation point where readers no longer wanted to have heroines whose destiny was to fall in love with their rapist, and authors no longer wanted to write about it. Historical romance as a genre still thrives, and that’s ok! There is plenty of room in my life for one for pirates, Napoleonic lust and corsetry. Just not so much of the excusing sexual violence guys and gals, yeah?
If you enjoyed this post, please come back on Monday, when Rose looks at the effect of romance on young ladies.