A second guest blog from Rose McConnachie – on subjugation, syphilis and Twilight.
In my previous guest post, I ranted about the inherent confusion in the romantic fiction world between abuse and wooing. In this post, I hope to rant about some other stuff.
The most basic summary of a classic historical romance novel is basically the following: young woman (usually aged between 16 and 19), from difficult circumstances but probably ‘well-born’, falls in love with/is fallen in love with by an older, more sexually experienced man (probably wealthy, aristocratic and powerful). There will be some struggling, maybe some kidnaps or duelling, but eventually, marriage and a future of life of upper-class ease, truest love, and ceaseless sexual pleasure beckons. But why the disparities in age, wealth and power, that inevitably set the woman up as the weaker of the two players?
The primary advantage to the disproportionate age of the key protagonists is largely sexual. One of the characters has to have some kind of sexual awakening, but they can’t both be complete novices, and what self-respecting 35 year old woman wants to have sex with a 16 year old male virgin? (Apart from Caroline Flack). No one who wants that can be expecting much by way of reaching new pinnacles of ecstasy.
And anyway, practically speaking she can’t be a middle-aged serial shagger; in the days before sexual liberation and reliable contraception she’d probably end up with syphilis and a string of kids by thirty – probably with a prolapsed uterus into the bargain. That would put a cramp in any romantic bodice-wrenching. And she’d probably wet herself every time she laughed. (side note: I have read an historical romance where the concept of contraception was raised, presumably as a nod to the combination of biology and probability that is so usually absent in these novels. Sheep-gut condoms and vinegar douches do not sit easily with throbbing sexual imagery…)
He however, can have had a care-free youth, knobbing identity-free women without a care in the world for bloody years, avoiding the clap by picking only the best brothels and maybe rinsing off the sheep-gut occasionally. If he’s sired any bastards along the way, he’ll have skipped off into the night sufficiently anonymously that they won’t interfere with the storyline. If he’s the right kind of romantic hero he’s used these opportunities to learn how to reliably find the clitoris and is thusly capable of delivering devastating sexual pleasure, but has so far only done so for recreational lusty purposes rather than because of truest love.
Then he meets this new her, who is, by virtue of her sexual purity, definitely free of venereal disease. He doesn’t even need to have a word with her pimp or check her teeth for mercury poisoning. She too is capable of delivering devastating sexual pleasure, because unlike the bawdy house whores he is used to, she has an innate sexual instinct unencumbered by cynical guile or artifice. And she has a tight vagina. The latter is invariably referred to in the sex scenes, and he is always gasping about it.
Why the historical context? First reason is probably purely sartorial; the clothes are much more fun, and what girl doesn’t like a bit of dress up, even in her imagination. But I also think it is to amplify the vulnerability and isolation of the female protagonist, and to easily slot them into a social framework where women were automatically subjugated. This has twofold character narrative benefits; firstly, it gives the young woman something to rail against, she can legitimately strain her bosom against repression and injustice. Who doesn’t want to do that? I know I do, and in a corset, it’s probably more satisfying.
Second, you can’t be accused of rampant sexism if the character, by virtue of her historical context, is automatically conditioned to be inferior to men. You can put the character into unthinkable positions, where she is treated appallingly by more powerful male characters as standard. The benefits of starting her off in this lowly situation is obvious, in that it gives the author the opportunity to develop the character through struggles that will define her, and when she eventually gets to her happy ending, it’ll be all the more worth it.
However, it also gives you artificially low expectations of your happy ending. In most of these books, the story comes to a neat end with a blissful marriage, more good sex, and often a bun in the oven. The historical context neatly nips in the bud any suggestion of career or education, as wealthy women didn’t tend to do that in them days. Maybe I’m being unfair, but is it really enough, after 80,000 words of drudgery/sexual violence/kidnapping with but a soupcon of scintillating sex thrown in, for the heroine to be satisfied with a ring on her finger and a finger in her ring?
(Apologies for that last bit, it’s obscene and uncalled for, but I literally couldn’t stop myself from writing it.)
The only modern British woman who has lived anything akin to this plot is Kate Middleton, and you’re stretching it a bit to swap a threatened assault by ‘sinister gypsies’ with ‘paparazzi’. She is not an everywoman, no matter what the Daily Mail thinks. My point is, women can be exceptional, and if you’re going to write a fairytale why not write one with some teeth in it and things that a girl can aspire to, other than a wedding and fertilisation. Women were exceptional two hundred years ago; think Curie, Austen, Wollstonecraft. They all had sex, too. Except Austen, but it’s not like she didn’t have the opportunity; she knocked back three proposals. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t had a bit of youthful bloomer-bothering with a stable lad as a free-spirited lass.
This disappointing trope has most recently been used to massive money-making effect in the Twilight series of novels and films. Young Bella, a slightly dispossessed teen in a new town, yet to make any friends, falls head over heels for the brooding Edward, who has a raging hard on for her blood (the age difference in this case is 87 years incidentally, as Edward is 104). Twilight doesn’t have any sex parts in it, because Stephanie Meyer “doesn’t think teens need to read about gratuitous sex”. Just throat-ripping. Young people are obviously likely to run into supernatural scenarios and get caught up in a war between vampires and werewolves, so these novels are practically a public service to what teens ‘need to read’.
In the Twilight series, after a lot of angsting, a fair whack of mortal peril, and piles of proof that abstinence is tricky, how does she end up? Married and pregnant. And a vampire. Aside from that last bit, this is awfully like the most disappointingly low-expectation ‘happy’ endings of clichéd romance novels.. Her romantic development is over with the first boyfriend she ever has, she gives up everything, including friends, her parents and her education, for him.
In conclusion, I’m off to write a historical romance. My female hero (why the fuck not, heroine is a stupid word) will not be satisfied until she has educated herself, cured a disease and discovered an archipelago, and forwarded the cause of social justice, and will only be satisfied with a life partner who respects her as a free-willed individual.
And who can reliably find the clitoris.