Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Origins of the Alpha Male?

During a workshop discussion on sex-positivity in romance at the recent New England RWA Conference, author Alyssa Cole mentioned in passing that a fellow writer (didn't catch the name) once told her that the term "alpha" had originated not in the study of wolves and wolf pack behavior, but rather from a far less lofty animal: the chicken. And not in studies of male roosters, bossing around a pack of obedient female chickens, but rather from the pecking order of chickens. Female chickens. Yes, that's right. Alpha hens, anyone?

After hearing Cole's claim, I couldn't help but be tickled by the image of a plethora of urban fantasy shifter chicks (of the feathered, rather than the human, variety) suddenly dominating the paranormal romance charts. But her statement also made me intellectually curious: I couldn't help but want to track down that chicken citation, to see if the great irony of hens as the source of alpha-ness in romance could possibly be true.

Zoologists have studied dominance patterns in chickens for more than 100 years, but I couldn't find any references to the term "alpha" in (my admittedly brief foray into) such work. A Journal of Genetic Psychology article from 1968 by Richard Gottier, "The Dominance-Submission Hierarchy in the Social Behavior of the Domestic Chicken," points to Norwegian Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe as the first to research dominance behavior in chickens. His dissertation dates from 1921, and was "introduced" into English in 1927, according to Wikipedia. But it is the colloquial phrase "peck order" or "pecking order" which seems to stem from Schjelderup-Ebbe's research, rather than the phrase "alpha male."

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of both "alpha" (in the sense of "designating a dominant individual, especially one dominant among others of its own sex in a mixed group of social animals") and its gendered derivative, "alpha male," to a 1938 article in the Journal of Comparative Psychology by one J. Ulrich. Unfortunately, a search of the journal's online listings reveals the animals analyzed in Ulrich's study are not hens. But their subject is almost as amusing, when set in the context of romance alpha maleness. The title of Ulrich's study? "The Social Hierarchy of Albino Mice."

Might the word or the term have appeared earlier than Ulrich? A Google Books Advanced search for "alpha male" between 1900 and 1930 brings up no further zoological citations, but does feature several references to the "Alpha Male Quartette" (otherwise known as the Rockefeller Bible class quartette), performing at a rally for young Baptists, for the Michigan Thresherman's Society, and the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet.


If anyone out there has any further information about the link between the phrase "alpha male" and chicken (or mice) research, I'd love to hear about it...


Photo credits:
Pecking order: Born Again Farm Girl
Albino mouse: Costume Shop


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Expanding the Romance Reader's View of History: Alyssa Cole's AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION

In the Author's Note at the end of her historical romance An Extraordinary Union, Alyssa Cole explains why she never expected to write any kind of historical romance, especially not a romance set during the Civil War:

When I first became serious about my writing, I decided that, although I loved reading historical romance, I'd best stay away from it. It would lead to too many feelings to untangle, too much unfairness to wrap up with a happy ending, given the kind of heroes and heroines I enjoy writing. (Kindle Loc 3677)

What led Cole to change her mind? Learning more about the history of African Americans, especially those "I'd never been taught [about] in the classroom—beyond the simplified stories of George Washington Carver loving peanuts and Rosa Parks being tired" (3677). Reading about the histories of real African Americans of the past, Cole discovered not only people who were active participants in the fight against slavery; she discovered a deep desire to share their stories with romance readers, many of whom had likely grown up with the same gaps in their knowledge of the past as she had. By "extending the tropes of the Civil War [romance] beyond 'brother fighting brother' and 'swooning southern belle,' " Cole found herself able to explore the histories of people those familiar tropes typically erase: those of a "darker hue."

The Virginia State capital in Richmond, which in 1861
 also became the capital of the Confederacy
The heroine of An Extraordinary Union is not a swooning southern belle, but a woman who gives every appearance of being a dutiful slave: Ellen Burns, a mute black woman enslaved by the white Caffrey family, whose patriarch serves as a senator in the recently-formed Confederate government. But readers know from the start that Elle is far more than she appears: an intrepid, sharp-tongued spy who uses her eidetic memory and her devotion to justice to ferret out secrets that will help the Union cause.

Born into slavery, Elle and her parents were freed by their white master after he inherited them from his father. So, too, was Mary Bowser, the African-American Union spy upon whom Elle is based. But unlike Bowser, who, after being manumitted, remained in the south working as a paid servant in the Richmond, Virginia household in which she was born, Elle and her family moved north to Massachusetts after gaining their freedom. Bowser became a spy as part of the network founded by her white employer, Elizabeth Van Lew, but Elle is part of a mysterious "Loyal League" run by a man named LaValle, a man whose race is not specified (at least not in this first book of the series). But Cole's story makes it clear that there are other blacks involved in the Loyal League's work. These small changes—far less improbable or jarring than most of the historical anachronisms found in many a historical romance—bring Elle closer to the "kind of heroine" Cole "enjoys writing": a resourceful, empowered, decisive woman who chooses to act in the face of oppression.

The real-life Mary Bowser married a free black man just days before the start of the Civil War. But Cole chooses a completely different fellow to be Elle's partner in spying and in romance: a charming white Scot detective/spy, Malcolm McCall (based on the real life Pinkerton detective/spy Timothy Webster). McCall, sent to Richmond to ferret out whatever secrets he can, ingratiates himself with the Caffreys by putting forth a convincing performance as an aggrieved southern racist, and by wooing the selfish daughter of the house—"all's fair in love and secession," as Malcolm cheerfully tells himself. But it is really Elle to whom Malcolm finds himself drawn.

Though on the surface, Elle and Malcolm seem to have little in common, both have seen firsthand how tyranny can warp both the oppressed and the oppressor. Even so, Elle is more than reluctant to act on her own attraction to the engaging Malcolm. Dallying at all, and especially with a white man, will only distract her from her true purpose. But as the two share rumors and information, they also discuss the frustrations and fears their work, and the state of their country, engender, conversations that bring them emotionally closer. In perhaps their rawest exchange, issues of white guilt and black anger come to the fore, in a conversation that could as easily be held in 2017 as in 1861:
 
   
Timothy Webster, Union spy
 He'd always prided himself as a friend and ally to every man who sought equality, but was that true? Or had he imagined himself a savior instead?
     He shook his head, disgusted with himself. With everything. When he spoke again, his voice was a raw whisper in the silence. "You deserve to be outraged. All of your people do. Why you didn't set this country ablaze a hundred years ago is beyond me."
     Elle jumped to her feet, not very much taller than him even though he knelt and she stood. When she spoke, her fury was constrained in a voice that fairly dripped with annoyance at having to explain something very obvious to him. "Because, unlike you, we don't have the luxury of being outraged. If we rebelled and set half the country on fire, where would that leave us? You think that would make folks see us as more human?
     "Given the way they treat their slaves, maybe it would," he muttered darkly. "Maybe the only way for this country to be cleansed of its sins is to burn them away."
     "What, an eye for an eye?" she scoffed. " 'If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear?' What rubbish." She fixed him with a look that made him regret that the words had even crossed his mind, let alone left his mouth. "The blood of my people permeates the very foundation of this country. Even if everything from the Eastern seaboard to the furthest territory out West was razed to the ground, it couldn't make up for the injustice. And if you think that's what I'm fighting for, what every Negro putting their life on the line to stop the Confederacy is fighting for, then you've misunderstood everything. You've misunderstood me. . . . you can keep your outrage. All I can do is try to make a difference."  (1275-90)


Cole's novel is not without its flaws. The spy storyline tips into melodrama towards the final pages, when Elle and Malcolm uncover a Confederate plan to break the Union blockade of Richmond and rush to escape their suddenly suspicious enemies. And the requirement that a historical romance supply a certain number of sex scenes makes Elle and Malcolm's physical relationship happen a little too quickly to be quite convincing given the dangers of their positions and the importance of their work. But such flaws are minor in the face of the hopeful possibility that An Extraordinary Union just might open the minds of readers spoon-fed the falsities of "Rosa Parks was tired" and "George Washington Carver loved peanuts" to a far more complicated reality: that African Americans of the past can and did take active, and successful, roles in the fight against slavery and oppression.


Photo/illustration credits:
Confederate capital: U.S. Parks Service
Bowser gravestone & drawing: Substantial Music
Timothy Webster: Wikipedia








An Extraordinary Union
A Novel of the Civil War
Kensington, 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

RWA's President's Thoughts on Race and the RITA award finalists

I received the following email from Leslie Kelly, President of Romance Writers of America, in response to my blog post last week about the lack of diversity in the RITA award finalists. Her email said that I might share her response, as long as I shared it in its entirety. I am posting it below, along with my response to President Kelly.



Dear Jackie:

Thank you so much for writing. I read your blog post, and you raise some interesting points.

Diversity has been a huge focus for the RWA board for the past three years. We’ve been working steadily to improve our diversity efforts, both within our membership, and in the marketplace.

I don’t know if you are aware of this, but just within the past few years, RWA has:

·         Established a standing Diversity Committee
·         Released a public apology for a hurtful survey conducted more than a decade ago
·         Filled two open Board positions—by presidential appointment and with board approval—with traditionally underrepresented members
·         Established a Diversity Incident or Complaint form online
·         Established a Spectrum Grant that will fully fund the RWA 2017 conference for diverse authors. This year, three authors were selected from the dozens of applicants.
·         Scheduled a Diversity Summit at RWA2017 with authors and industry professionals to address issues of inclusivity in the industry
·         Written and will soon distribute a thorough survey to go to our members, addressing issues of ethnicity and sexuality

Since you are an officer of an RWA chapter, I’m sure you know there are no RITA “nominees” there are only “finalists.” Having nominees would mean RWA chose books through a nomination process, when, in truth, authors enter their books in the contest. The number of books entered definitely doesn’t equal the number of books published in a year.

As for your statistical comparison, I don’t think it’s particularly illustrative. Just because the racial breakdown of the entire population is xyz does not mean that same percentages would correlate to romance novels. I wish it did, since that would mean the industry was more inclusive of authors of all races, creeds and sexuality. It’s not there yet…but we’re working on it.

That’s why RWA is doing things like standing up for our authors of color when editors from major publishers make discriminatory statements at our conference. It’s why we apologize when we’ve made a mistake, why we founded the scholarship, why we formed the committee, why we provided a safe way for members to report issues or incidents, why we scheduled the survey, and why we’re hosting the summit.

The idea of surveying our members on the races/sexual orientations of the characters they write is interesting but at this time, we are more focused on the details of our members themselves. Knowing who we are serving is the first step in making sure everyone is represented and we’re doing the very best we can for all romance authors. Please be on the lookout for the survey, coming in the next month or so, and please encourage your chapter mates to respond.

While I’m writing, I must add, there is strict policy against self-promotion on any RWA-sponsored loop. Sharing a link to a personal blog—even one regarding a post that might interest other RWA members—could be seen as violating policy. We’d appreciate it if you keep that in mind when starting future threads.

Thanks again for writing.

Sincerely—

Leslie Kelly
RWA President


Note: If you wish to share this email, that’s fine, but please do it in its entirety. Thanks!



Dear Leslie:

Thank you for reading my blog post about race and the RITA finalists, and for writing back to me with your thoughts. My apologies for posting a blog link on the loop; since the blog was not promoting my books in any way, I thought it would not be a problem. In future, I will remember that no blog links are allowed on RWA loops.

And my apologies for using the term "nominee" rather than "finalist" in my post. I see how this usage might suggest (incorrectly) that the racial imbalance in the RITA finalists was deliberate on the part of RWA as an organization, rather than a result of the membership selecting finalists. I will edit my post and make a note of the error on my part.

Thank you for sharing the list of RWA's recent efforts to promote diversity in our organization. I was aware of most of these efforts, and applaud the Board's work in this regard. 

The only initiative I wasn't aware of was the upcoming survey on RWA members' ethnicity and sexuality. I am looking forward to completing it, and will encourage NECRWA's members to complete it as well. I hope RWA will share the results with the entire membership.

The statistical comparison that I offered in my blog post was not intended to suggest that RWA itself is biased, but to point to the larger issue of the industry as a whole not being inclusive. The suggestion with which I end the post—that the romance community is behind the children's literature community in collecting data about the racial and ethnic identities of its authors—is where I hoped to make a positive suggestion for a way to move forward, and for RWA to lead the way in such efforts.

A survey of the membership is a good first step. But a survey is a one-time event, and the issue of diversity is an ongoing concern. Has the Board considered including a question about race/ethnicity on its membership form, and on its submission form for the RITA awards? Such changes would be a concrete step toward collecting "illustrative" data, data that would provide solid facts to back up RWA's efforts toward diversity. And it would also allow RWA to track changes over time, to see if its many efforts toward fostering diversity in its membership are actually bearing fruit.

It would also be relatively easy to include a question on the RITA submission form, asking about the race/ethnicity of a submitted book's characters.

Thank you again for responding with thought and care to my post. I appreciate this opportunity to engage with you and with the Board about RWA's ongoing efforts to foster diversity in our organization.

Sincerely,
Jackie Horne


Note: I will be posting your response, and mine to it, on my Romance Novels for Feminists blog. Thanks!

Friday, March 24, 2017

The white, heteronormative world of romance awards

Earlier this week, Romance Writers of America (RWA) announced their annual list of finalists for the RITA Award, which recognizes excellence in published romance writing. In 2017, the award is to be given in twelve different sub-genres, as well as an award for best first book. Out of curiosity, I checked out the Goodreads listing for each book, to see if I could tell from the book covers and descriptions how many finalists* featured protagonists of color. While book descriptions rarely specified the race or ethnicity of characters within, white characters were the norm on the covers of this year's RITA finalists. Out of the 85 distinct finalists, only 4 feature protagonists of color, with 3 of the 4 featuring POC falling for a white lover. An equally low number of books were written by authors of color: 4 (or perhaps 5 or 6; I was unsure of the race of several authors).

4 books depicted same-sex romances. 3 of those books featured white gay male characters, the fourth a lesbian couple, one white, one Indian-American.


85 Finalists
85 x 2 protagonists per book = 170 protagonists
5 protagonists of color = 2.9%

85 Finalists
4 (or perhaps 6) authors of color =  4% (or perhaps 7%)

85 Finalists
85 x 2 protagonists per book = 170 protagonists
8 non-heterosexual protagonists = 4%


US Census 2014 

White                                                                 77.5%
     Non-Hispanic White                                    62.2%
     (Hispanic White)                                          15.3%
African-American                                             13.2%
Indian and Alaska Native                                   1.2%
Asian                                                                   5.4%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander      0.2%
Two or More Races                                            2.5%



Williams Institute Demographic Study on Sexual Orientation

Americans identifying as lesbian or gay:         1.7%
Americans identifying as bisexual:                  1.8%
Americans identifying as transsexual:              0.3%



What's wrong with this picture? And what is RWA going to do about it?

The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tracking the number of children's books written and/or illustrated by African Americans since 1985, and since 1994, similar numbers for other ethnic and racial groups. Isn't it about time someone (RWA?) starts to do the same for romance?


* I used the term "nominees" here in my original post, which is incorrect; the RWA does not nominate books for the RITA award.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Experimenting with Sex: Ruthie Knox's MADLY

I know I'm always in for a feminist treat whenever I pick up a romance by Ruthie Knox. And there are many feminist moments in Madly, the much-awaited second book in Knox's New York series (books in which midwestern women find themselves, and love, in the Big Apple). Some are familiar Knox themes: sisterly solidarity; the sexism that can often hide behind the facade of the "good guy"; the roles that family expects their daughters to play, even after said daughters may have long outgrown them. But the one I want to write about today has to do with sex.

A type of sex, I would argue, that is rarely found in any romance novel, whatever the subgenre. Rather than the seamlessly perfect, always orgasmic, almost effortless sex that is the staple of romance fiction, in Madly Ruthie Knox celebrates sex that is experimental, messy, and, most surprisingly, not entirely successful.

First, a bit about Madly's story. Allie Fredericks, whom readers of the first book in the series met as she was calling off her engagement to her long-time boyfriend on the day of the wedding, is Madly's heroine. Despite the embarrassment (not to mention the thousands of dollars in nonrefundable deposits for caterers, venue, flowers, etc.) of Allie's last-minute dash from the altar, Allie's former fiancĂ© still wants to be friends. But Allie has more to worry about than whether her "Good Guy" ex is turning into her own personal stalker; Allie's mother has run off to New York on the eve of her thirtieth wedding anniversary. Mrs. Fredericks has disappeared like this several times in the past, but she's always come home again, and no one in the family has ever explained why. But Allie, by hacking into her mother's email, knows the reason (or at least thinks she does). Though impetuous Allie has no plan for how to accomplish it, she knows that it is imperative that her mother come home: "Because I dumped Matt, and my sister moved to New York, and I can't bear for even one more thing in my life to change" (Kindle Loc 403).

But Allie's spying goes awry in Pulvermacher's Bar, where Mrs. Fredericks is scheduled to meet an old flame. To help her hide from her mother, Allie dragoons an unwary fellow bar patron, a man with all the looks and style of James Bond, but, unfortunately for Allie, the heart (and lifestyle) of a stolid conservative financial manager. Too distracted hiding behind the pinball machine tippling whiskey and exchanging confessions about failed relationships with British ex-pat Winston Chamberlain, Allie loses track of her mother—and has no other clue about how or where to find her.

Except that Winston knows the identity of the man with whom Allie's mom was meeting. But since said man is a client, a quite well-off client with some hefty secrets of his own, Winston is not quite willing to help Allie track him down. What he is willing to do is help her find a place to stay for the night. And to share cold camomile tea and "ruthless therapeutic confessions about our failed relationships" with chatty, charming Allie (758). Confessions which lead to flirting, which lead to a jokingly-made bucket list of 10 sex things they've never done and could do together. To help them get out of their respective romantic and sexual ruts.

The first items on their shared list—a thirty-second hug (the length a hug needs to be for oxycontin to release into your system, Allie informs Winston); blowing gently on a neck; spending an hour kissing, keeping one's hands over clothing—are not difficult to accomplish, even with a relative stranger. And as days pass while Allie continues her search for her mother, Winston is coming to feel "like someone she could know without the things that made him Winston infringing on anything that made her Allie" (821). But some of the later items on their mutual bucket list don't turn out to be quite as big a turn-on as the list-writers had originally imagined. Or at least, they don't upon first try.

Especially because, as Winston later realizes "everything he'd written on the list was there for a reason. Not simple, bucket-list, I've-never-done-this-before reasons, but deeper ones that had to do with how he'd been hurt in his marriage, or how he'd hurt his wife" (1635). And the same seems equally true for Allie. For example, during their attempt at item #4 ("everything but"):

     He licked the slickness of her inner thighs, then worked inward bit by bit, savoring her strange and peppery flavor and how soft, how incredibly and unforgivably soft, she felt against his tongue. And then a rougher texture near her clit that he rubbed his tongue over, slow drag after slow drag with two fingers inside her that made her fling her arms wide and clutch at handfuls of sheets and finally turn her face into the pillow and shove it up over her head, her eyes covered, her breath coming fast as she said, "I don't think I can."
     "Do you want me to stop?"
     "No!" The word came out like a sob, urgent and full of feeling.
     "Okay. But I'm going to need more direction."
     "You're doing perfect. You feel . . . there aren't words, but it's so good. I just don't know how to make myself come like this. There's nothing to focus on, or push against, and I'm on my back like a stupid turtle—"
     He kissed her hip bone. Her stomach. Worked his way up to her neck, behind her ear, her cheek, which was when he noticed her eyes were full of unshed tears.
     She was trembling.
     "I can stop," he said. "There's nothing we need to get to. We could put on clothes and watch a film."
     This made her eyes overflow, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. "I don't want to watch a film, not right now, I just—I don't know what I want. I want to know how to come." She turned onto her side, facing him. He rested his hand at the dip of her waist.
     "I suspect you do know how."
     She hid her face in the bed. "I don't want to have to figure it out, I want to have been doing this for years already, and I'm angry that I wasn't." She lifted her face to him. "I'm so mad, Winston."
     "That seems reasonable. Would you like a cuddle?"
     "No. A cuddle is the last thing on earth I want."
     But she didn't look as angry as she wanted to sound. She looked terribly sad. So he put his arm out, and she tucked herself against his side, her face in his neck.  (1742)


While Allie and her ex had sex on a regular basis, it was never the kind of exploratory, experimental sex in which she and Winston are engaging. And as the two begin to discover, it's not just a lack of experience and familiarity with a particular sexual act that can stand in the way of achieving pleasure via its use, but also the emotional scars one carries with one from other past sexual experiences.

This scene doesn't end with "failure," though. Instead, after talking—not just about Allie's inability to reach orgasm, but also about some of the emotional baggage they're both shlepping around—Winston comes to understand that "it didn't hurt more to admit how much it hurt in the first place. It didn't hurt more to unravel. And once you'd unraveled, you could look around and think, a bit. Discover" (1805).

And try item #4 on the list again. Or skip #4 entirely, and go straight to #5.

But even after the success of #5, not every item on the remaining list goes smoothly for Allie and Winston. They try new things, back away from some, try things that went wrong again, just to see if things might be different at another moment in time, another emotional state of mind.

Experiment. Acknowledge your own feelings, and listen to the feelings of your partner. Be willing to try again, or try something different, if your first attempt goes awry. Or give it all up for a while and connect with your partner on another level than the sexual. These are the expectations Ruthie Knox asks romance readers to have about sex with a loving partner, expectations far different from the "I've never felt like this before with anyone else/this is so amazingly perfect" kind of physical/spiritual intermingling that has become the staple of the majority of sex scene in romance books not just of the past, but of the present, too.

Which is the better fodder for a romance reader's fantasy? First-time perfect? Or try and try again?

As for me, I'll take the Knox version, every time.


Photo credits:
Sex Bucket List: Pinterest
Love never fails: We Heart It
Fall Seven Times: Deborah Tindle











Madly
Loveswept, 2017

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Lack of Diversity in Historical Romance

In case you haven't heard about it yet, there's a thought-provoking opinion piece over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about the dearth of people of color (POC) in historical romance. "The Diversity Thorn: Ethnic Identity, History, and Historical Romance," by new-to-romance reader and gender scholar Asha Ganesan, opens with a bold claim:

Historical Romance (HR) has a major diversity and accuracy problem. The problem stems from assumptions that have been passed down through the lineage of HR (though these assumptions are not exclusive to this genre). The assumption is that branding a story "historical romance" includes some representation of "historical accuracy." It does not.

Ganesan goes on to argue that since HR is often as much, if not more, fantasy than realism, authors cannot use the defense of "I'm being historically accurate" to justify not writing characters of color into their historical works:

If we are capable of suspending reality when it comes to our handsome rake alpha not being even slightly physically affected by his debauchery and we are willing to overlook the deus ex machina in many of our favourite books (twin-swapping? Windfall? He wasn't a commoner after all?), is it really too much to ask to make one of the MC's lover an African woman? To make his wife Asian? To have a character be a cunning Indian businessman—villain or hero?

I appreciate Ganesan's goal—to push writers to write, and publishers to publish, more HR featuring characters of color. But I think we have to go a little further than just pointing out the logical fallacy that lies behind most traditionally-published (and a lot of independently-published) HR if we want the ethnic and racial landscape of HR to change.

My thoughts here take a few twists and turns. To start, I'm going to go counterintuitive: by arguing that Ganesan's claim that all historical romance features no historical accuracy is not accurate. Some HRs use their historical settings as little more than backdrops, yes, an excuse to feature pretty ballgowns, lavish jewels, and beautiful estates. Others, though, are deeply invested in what it was like to live in a particular historical moment, how daily life at a particular place and at a specific year or period in history influenced how the people alive then thought, felt, and especially fell in love. Some HRs are almost pure fantasy, while others balance on the line between historical romance and historical fiction.

Do you think that readers tend to prefer books on one or the other end of this fantasy/accuracy spectrum? I know I do, and many readers I know do, too. I don't know this empirically, but it's my hunch that readers who prefer the "wallpaper" HRs, the books that use the past as a pretty set piece rather than as opportunity to explore human difference as well as similarity, are also the ones who prefer their romances to feature only aristocratic protagonists. And that readers who prefer the other end of the spectrum enjoy romances with characters from all different social class positions.

In large part, the fantasy of aristocratic HR is a fantasy of escaping our social class: I may live a middle or working-class life, but when I read HR with dukes and duchesses, viscounts and viscountesses, I can fantasize that I live a life of wealth and ease. Crossing class lines (earls marrying governesses, or, even far less likely, dukes wedding serving girls) is an especially potent fantasy, one that's been a part of Western culture for as long as we've been telling versions of the Cinderella story. Such romances diffuses class tensions by allowing the economically underprivileged to fantasize about joining the ranks of the privileged, if only for the short while the book we are reading lasts.

But there's a second, usually unremarked-upon fantasy that the aristocratic wallpaper HR also allows: a fantasy of living in an all white world. Because the English nobility was almost exclusively white during the periods in which HRs are most popular. By asking for story after story of dukes and marquesses and earls and their ilk, readers not only get stories of rich, powerful men, but they can also get books with all-white characters, all without having to specifically ask for this.

Readers who want to "escape" by reading HR, then, might not just wish to escape the hardships of their own working lives (a class escape). They might also harbor a wish to escape the increasingly difficult-to-ignore fact that American, and much European, life now is inescapably not all white (a race escape).

Such readers may be unconscious of this desire. Or they may not wish to express it openly, for fear of being labeled racist. But the aristocratic HR, by its very nature, caters to such a desire, whether it wishes to or not.

How much does that fantasy of an all-white world, a world without racial strife, appeal to you, consciously or unconsciously, when you read or write historical romance? I'm asking myself this question today, and urging other white readers and writers to do the same.


Illustration credits:
Two Regency white ballgowns: The Miniature Historian
Contemporary white ballgowns: This is Glamorous








Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Walking the Historical Gender Tightrope: Lisa Kleypas's DEVIL IN SPRING


    (TRIGGER WARNING: rape scene in excerpt #1)

    "Don't," she choked, yet still the strange undreamed-of caress continued while she lay under him like a block of ice. It deepened, intensified until he was stroking the snug, shrinking tenderness of her virgin flesh, watching her stiff expression curiously. He continued until two wavering tears of humiliation wound their way down the sides of her face, yet still he did not appear satisfied with her response.
     "When are you going to stop?" the words fitfully issued from her lips, and Rand's mouth thinned. He discarded all efforts to make the act more pleasurable for her.
     "You would prefer a fast-paced finale? I'll endeavor to oblige you," he said, and before she could take another breath he thrust into her, hard and demanding, rending her feminine softness without restraint. Rosalie cried out in surprise and pain, her body arching sharply into his in immediate reaction. The disembodied feeling returned as he stared into her dazed face. Rand whispered something, a trace of some undefinable emotion in his tone. He remained unmoving as Rosalie endured the uncomfortable sensation of being filled, too much and too deep. He held her face between his hands, but she would not meet his eyes or accept the touch of his mouth. She had not wanted to be possessed by him, neither did she want his consolation. Patiently he let her adjust to the feel of his body, allowing the first shock to wear off before he began to ease in and out of her with exquisite care.   (Lisa Kleypas, Where Passion Leads, 1987)


     Tearing her gaze from him, Pandora quivered with frustration. "Why can't I own my business the way a man would, so no one could take it away from me?"
     "I won't let anyone take it from you."
     "That's not the same. It's all convoluted. It's compromised."
     "It's not perfect," Gabriel agreed quietly.
     Pandora paced in a small, tight circle. "Do you want to know why I love board games? The rules make sense, and they're the same for everyone. The players are equal."
     "Life isn't like that."
     "It certainly isn't for women," she said acidly.
     "Pandora . . . we'll set our own rules. I'll never treat you as anything less than my equal."
     "I believe you. But to the rest of the world, I would be legally nonexistent."
     Gabriel reached out and caught lightly at her upper arm, interrupting her pacing. There was a ragged edge to his calmness now, like a hem that was coming unstitched. "You'll be able to do the work you love. You'll be a wealthy woman. You'll be treated with respect and affection. You'll—damn it, I'm not going to plead like a street beggar holding out his cap. There's a way for you to have most of what you want—isn't that enough?"
     "What if our situations were reversed?" she shot back. "Would you give up all your legal rights and surrender everything you own to me? You'd never be able to touch a penny of your money, except by my leave. Think of it, Gabriel—the last contract you'd ever sign would be our marriage contract. Would marrying me be worth that?"
     "That's not a sane comparison."
     "Only because in one case, a woman gives up everything, and in the other, a man does."
                                (Lisa Kleypas, Devil in Spring, 2017)


I've always had a reading love/hate relationship with the romances of superstar Lisa Kleypas. Kleypas writes some of the smartest, and at the same time sweetest, banter between potential heterosexual lovers in the romance field. Her historicals are well-researched, if rather American-values-centric (she finds entrepreneurial men of far more interest than life-of-leisure aristocrats, even though the bulk of her historicals are set in England, not the United States). She is especially good at capturing class differences, and the rapidly shifting class boundaries of British Victorian society. And her characters are well-drawn, each with his or her individual personalities and quirks, rather than just cookie-cutter imitations of the stars of her earlier books. 

But many of her novels also feature some pretty hard to stomach (at least for a feminist) depictions of alpha-hole masculinity. She began her career writing Old Skool bodice-rippers, complete with initial sex scenes between her protagonists that qualify as rape, not only by today's standards, but by those of the times in which they were written (as in the above excerpt from 1987's Where Passion Leads, a novel notably not included on the book list on Kleypas's web site). And even while her female leads are rarely push-overs, they do often end up in peril and danger—threatened, kidnapped, attacked—and thus in need of rescuing by their dashing male counterparts. Strong and devoted, yes, but Kleypas's male characters all too often step far over the line that keeps protective from becoming controlling.

Which was why I found Kleypas's latest, Devil in Spring, so interesting. The third book in her Ravenels series, DiS focuses on the awkward, socially-inept Ravenel sister, Pandora, whom Kleypas indicates in a video has what we today would label ADHD. It's a rather benign depiction of the disorder; all in Pandora's family circle find her inability to sit still, her restless energy, and unconventional manners charmingly appealing. As does the man labeled "a cynical rake" by the book's flap copy, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent:

He hardly recognized himself in his reaction to her. She was full of life, burning like sunflowers in the rime of autumn frost. Compared to the languid and diffident girls of London's annual marriage mart, Pandora might have been another species altogether. She was just as beautiful as he remembered, and as unpredictable.  (70)

In truth, Gabriel is not a rake at all; he's just been tarred by the rake's brush because he looks so much like his father (the truly rakish hero of Kleypas's earlier Devil in Winter [2006]). Though his offer of marriage to Pandora came about through an accidental compromising (he helped her escape from where her dress was caught in the openwork of a garden settee, which led to the ripping of said dress and the appearance of impropriety), perfectly correct Gabriel finds himself immediately drawn to the unpredictable (and young) Pandora.

Pandora's game, too, is all about shopping...
circa 1898
But Pandora has no wish to marry; she has already begun plans to develop the board game she invented into a commercial product, with the help of her department-store-owning brother-in-law. As she explains to Gabriel

"As things stand now, I have the freedom to work and keep my earnings. But if I marry you, everything I have, including my company, would immediately become yours. You would have complete authority over me. Every shilling I made would go directly to you—it wouldn't even pass through my hands. I'd never be able to sign a contract, or hire employees, or buy property. In the eyes of the law, a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband. I can't bear the thought of it. It's why I never want to marry." (90)

Not a passage you'd be likely to find in a Kleypas novel from the 80s. And not a pronouncement that Gabriel hears without being taken aback: "The little speech was astounding. It was the most transgressive talk Gabriel had ever heard from a woman. In a way, it was more shocking than any of his mistress's most salacious words and acts" (90). Unlike many a current-day historical romance author, Kleypas does not ignore the gender norms of the social milieus in which she sets her stories. Pandora's desire is transgressive, shocking, revolutionary.

Gabriel's attraction to Pandora, though, is such that he is willing to offer her as much legal concession for her grievances about losing her financial rights as he possibly can, given the laws at the time. But as their conversation (quoted above) reveals, those concessions are not the same as granting Pandora legal control. And those concessions are not at all satisfying to Pandora: "It wouldn't be ownership, but it would have the appearance of it. Rather like wearing a tiara and asking everyone to pretend she was royalty, when they all knew it was a sham" (155).

But only two scenes later, after a trust-building exercise Gabriel engineers, Pandora has completely changing her mind:

In that moment, Pandora realized it would kill her not to have him. She might actually expire of heartbreak. She was becoming someone new, with him—they were becoming something together—and nothing was going to turn out the way she'd expected. Kathleen [her sister-in-law] had been right—whatever she chose, it wouldn't be perfect. She would have to lose something.
     But no matter what else she gave up, this man was the thing she couldn't lose. (165-66)

And only a few pages later, she and Gabriel are off on their honeymoon. Pandora's transgressive feminist desires have been abruptly recast as an immature girl's unwillingness to compromise, the need for heterosexual love held forth as the most important thing in Pandora's (any girl's?) life. This is, of course, a love story; given the laws on Married Women's Property of the period (as Kleypas points out in her Author's Note), there is no way that Pandora can both be married and be a business owner. But the speed of Pandora's about face is more than a sign of her impetuous personality; it suggests a deep need to paper over the obvious tension between the desire to be a wife and the desire to be a business owner that Kleypas points to so well earlier in the book.

Chapters 15 to 23 of DiS, which take place after Pandora and Gabriel's wedding, focus little attention on Pandora's former wishes. Instead, she is thrust into a "lady in peril" plot, when, while she is out searching for a printer for her board game, she inadvertently comes across a Fenian plot against the crown. I groaned when I read the first of these chapters; was Pandora's capitulation to marriage just the first of many capitulations to follow, ones that would make her even more of a conventional historical romance heroine than she had already become?

But Devil in Spring concludes its lady in peril plot with a rather more progressive ending than I had expected. Unlike the storylines of many of Kleypas's earlier books, Pandora's husband cannot and does not rescue her. In fact, it takes another woman, not Gabriel, to save her life.

After his wife's recovery from her brush with danger, Gabriel, like many a over-protective Kleypas hero before him, wants to keep his lover safe under lock and key. Rather than make this clash of "who will be in control" into a big, black-moment showdown between Pandora and Gabriel, though, Kleypas chooses to resolve their conflict in keeping with the comic tone of the rest of the book. Pandora's doctor counsels her that her husband has experienced a shock, too, and that he needs time to recover. When Gabriel insists on that the doctor issue his wife a prescription to calm her, the doctor scribbles the following and hands it to Pandora:

Enforced bed rest might not be so bad if you could do it here...
Take one overwrought husband and administer compulsory bed rest. Apply as many embraces and kisses as necessary until symptoms are relieved. Repeat as needed. (252)

Though Pandora does temper her controlling beast/husband with cuddles and sex, ultimately Gabriel has to accept that Pandora can and will continue to risk herself, even in the face of his absolutely forbidding it. What else should one expect from a lady who has, after all, gotten a special dispensation to have the word "obey" stricken from the wedding vows?

No, Kleypas may not be the most overtly feminist of romance writers. Yet Devil in Spring points to some of the continuing tensions of historical romance, at least historical romance like Kleypas's, that wish to take history, and history's gender norms, seriously: the need to create heroines who come across as "empowered" to contemporary readers, but who also exist within the constraints of the social mores of their times.


Photo credits:
Playing Department Store: Pinterest
Victorian bed: Victoriana Magazine








Devil in Spring
The Ravenels, book #3
Avon, 2017