Has Romance Fiction Been Struck by Lightning? A conversation with author Cecilia Tan

Talking with award-winning author and RT lifetime achievement nominee Cecilia Tan about reading, romance, power, submission, feminism, and fantasy

Released on Tuesday, SLOW SEDUCTION is Book 2 of Cecilia Tan’s Struck by Lightning BDSM erotic romance trilogy that opened last year with SLOW SURRENDER.

Although I haven’t blogged much about this genre, I’ve read enough to have opinions about the difference between a book that, well… seduces me, past my preconceptions and maybe even past my comfort zone, and a book that ends up on my DNF list. SLOW SURRENDER was definitely one of the former. When I got to the end I was hooked, both by the story and by the manner in which it’s told. I heard on Twitter that Book 2 was coming out soon and I was curious to learn more about the author. Among other things, I was intrigued by her use of art history and of specific images (super-smexy mythological paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones). The more I learned about Cecilia Tan, the more I realized how interesting it’d be to ask her some questions about genre, fiction, and fantasy. She’s not a new author — she has a distinguished career in publishing as well as genre fiction —  yet with this trilogy she also becomes part of the “new” erotica trend that seems to be scorching its way across the romance genre.

Cecilia writes erotic fantasy and paranormal erotic romance and is the founder and editor of Circlet Press. SLOW SURRENDER, published by Hachette/Grand Central (Forever), has been nominated for RT’s 2013 Best Erotic Romance award, along with Cecilia’s nomination for a Lifetime Achievement Award. And she also writes serious, award-winning non-fiction about my favorite pro sport – baseball.

I asked Cecilia to pick and choose from among my many questions, and she has been incredibly gracious and responded to ALL of my (long-ass!) questions and musings.  I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the conversation, and I learned even more than I had hoped.  (Spoiler notice: slight spoilers regarding the ending of the first book, but nothing spoiler-ish from SLOW SEDUCTION here!)

Pamela: I’m a longtime romance reader (since my teens), and while I read quite widely in the genre, my preference is usually for historical romance, or sometimes paranormals. I rarely read contemporary romance. Yet something about Slow Surrender really grabbed me, and I’ve been trying to puzzle out what it was. What set this novel apart from formulaic BDSM “billionaire romances,” for me, was the depth of characterization of James and Karina. I was surprised to find myself returning to a perennial touchstone: Jane Eyre. Am I crazy, or is there a way to read the slow intense build between Karina and James — his steady advances and unnerving yet welcomed commands and encroachments —  as akin to the deepening emotional entanglement between determined, self-possessed Jane and mysterious, domineering, yet vulnerable Rochester? Who or what were your inspirations for Karina and James? 

Cecilia Tan: I love you forever for making the Jane Eyre comparison! I dreamt up James first, daydreaming on a young David Bowie: stylish, sexy, but distant and mysterious. These days I know Robert Pattinson is the thing, but the desperately sensual movie vampire of my teen years was David Bowie in The Hunger. Karina came into focus the second I sat down to write that opening scene where they meet, though. The perfect foil for James needed to be smart but not jaded, accomplished but not content, and sexually unrepressed but not fulfilled. Karina is not like any character I’ve ever written before.

Pamela: I do tend to see Jane all over the place! I especially thought of her risky fierceness and insistence on receiving her due, at the end of SLOW SURRENDER, when Karina seizes control by demanding from James a form of recognition in accordance with her authentic feelings of love and self-worth. And it was something that was very difficult for him to give up, and then he couldn’t live with it. It was hard to reach the end of the book and not see them together following the revelation of his identity, but – obviously – their story will be told in three novels. Do you think such stories are too big to be contained in one large novel, or is the serial telling of the story, with enforced waits between the books (for those who read as they are published) becoming part of the erotic romance format and reading experience? In other romance subgenres, a trilogy or series often tells the story of a different relationship in each linked book. This is largely because of the heretofore definitive convention that a romance novel must have an HEA, or a least a Happy For Now. Does the serially published format for erotic romance serve the story by structuring a seduction of the reader that is itself a slow surrender? 

Cecilia Tan: You hit the nail on the head here. I originally pitched just a standalone novel to publishers, but in the wake of 50 Shades all they were interested in was trilogies. Like “50” what they wanted was one long, complex story that goes for the length of three books. Having that much bigger canvas to paint on, I was able to do so many more things with their characters and with the way their love develops than I would have in a single novel. In a single novel it would have been more of a quickie “fairy tale” and honestly it would have been less realistic. By taking the time to develop the characters and the relationship I could put in what I felt was a more realistic and believable BDSM arc, too. I know BDSM is popular these days, but I wanted, myself, to have a chance to seduce the reader gradually and draw them in to more and more intense situations, just as James draws Karina into more and more complex bondage and sex games. It’s not just about more spanking or deeper submission. It’s about Karina’s growing awareness of how the give and take of power works between dominant and submissive partners. Hopefully any reader who is new to BDSM relationships will also have their awareness growing right along with her!

Pamela: You’ve received many awards across multiple genres, including career achievement awards. Is there anything that feels new or special about having SLOW SURRENDER nominated by RT for best erotic romance of the year?

Cecilia Tan: Yes, oh yes, oh yes. RT not only nominated SLOW SURRENDER for best erotic romance, they put me up for Lifetime Achievement in Erotica. I’m completely floored by both. I’m having a complete Sally Field moment over it. I am accustomed to toiling in obscurity, only really known within my niche. But apparently the folks at RT know their stuff and have been paying attention to what’s been going on in my corner of the world! I know it’s a cliche to say “it’s an honor to just be nominated.” But now I understand why people say that! It’s true!

Pamela: We’ve all encountered plenty of super-controlling heroes, in every romance subgenre. What’s interesting to me about the current popularity of erotic BDSM romance, and its acceptance and embrace by more mainstream audiences, is that in many ways the emotional dynamics are similar to what you’d find in a conventional romance with an alpha hero, but they are brought to the surface and made an explicit and sexual part of the fantasy. I know this is a question you must get asked a lot, in various different ways, but what are your thoughts on the enduring appeal of submission fantasies? In a conventional romance there may not always be sexual submission, but many classic and extremely successful novels feature heroes who take charge of the heroine’s life, her insecurities, her problems, in one way or another. Is it, as many have theorized, about a fantasy of letting go and letting a hero — once it’s been established that s/he is “the one” — fix everything? The fantasy of one’s every need being handled?

Cecilia Tan: Let me start by saying that the romance genre has a lot of hero types I would never want to “submit” to in real life: many of them seem like domineering assholes, frankly, and that’s not to even mention subgenres where the hero is an actual rapist. But I also recognize there’s a vast divide between what I think is valuable in a life partner (or play partner) and what works as fantasy fodder for most people. Let me get this out of the way: rape fantasies are okay. Tons of women have them and they shouldn’t feel ashamed or odd about it. There are so many reasons why those fantasies are powerful and rev our libidos. But what I found when I discovered real-life BDSM in my twenties was that there was a way to use role playing to combine that intense energy that comes from the rape fantasy (he’s tying me up and doing wicked things to me!) with a very powerful set of companion emotions, namely the dom being not only the tormentor but also the caretaker, the cherisher. That’s the emotional side of real life BDSM, and also the deeply romantic side! Which is a lot of what I explore in Slow Surrender and Slow Seduction.

Pamela: Right, of course not everyone who reads romance does like controlling heroes, and there’s frequently a tension between the appeal of an alpha badass and distaste for heroes who are domineering jerks, as opposed to dominant good guys. This is one of the most often-discussed themes in romance bloggery – I’m wondering where you see James in the context of the alpha/beta/alphabet soup of romance hero types?

Cecilia Tan: Coming from a real-life BDSM background as I do, and also from an erotica writing background, I approached James as a dom in the sense of he is a man whose sexuality is deeply connected to dominance and submission. This part of his personality is probably also related to the fact he’s something of a control freak, too, but as we learn more about him the reader should come to understand that part of his being a control freak now is making up for the times in his youth where he wasn’t in control. One of the points James makes to Karina is that although he can make the conscious choice to be less controlling, he can’t disconnect the part of his libido that just gets off on being the one in power. Fortunately, no one wants him to do that!

Pamela: In exchange for letting go and letting the hero dominate and protect her (physically, sexually, and/or sometimes financially — as in the feudal and chivalric tradition that says “you are under my protection”), in heteronormative romance the heroine frequently becomes guardian of a sort for the fragile and/or closed-off emotional life of the hero. Early in their relationship, Karina glimpses James’s vulnerability, and she has clear moments of revelation about her power to affect him deeply, to alter his emotional state and intrude upon his very private mental landscape. Is Karina the more powerful person in the relationship? Or is she just more able to live in the moment, less cynical, with less to lose? 

Cecilia Tan: Part of the magic, the alchemy, that makes BDSM partnerships work is that both partners are equally “powerful.” That doesn’t mean the two partners are the same, of course. Within the exchange that goes on between them the ways that power can be exerted are different for each. Karina doesn’t realize how much power she has, nor does she realize how much of what she does have comes from the fact that James follows the same rules of honesty and scrupulous behavior that he holds her to. Mutual respect is a huge piece of what binds them together. But you’re right that Karina being less jaded means she has fewer qualms about exerting force when necessary. She doesn’t realize she has the power to break his heart.

Pamela: At the end of SLOW SURRENDER and beginning of SLOW SEDUCTION, Karina and James are apart and she must search for him. Does Karina’s emotional self-awareness and transparency, in contrast to James’s inability to open himself up, suggest a traditional gender dynamic in terms of who is responsible for doing the emotional work in the relationship? Will we see this shift in book three, when it appears James will have to win her back? I’ve only read the short synopsis of what you have planned for the final book, but the hero as pursuer, ready to grovel to get the heroine back, is a perennially favorite trope!

Cecilia Tan: I cannot wait for everyone to be able to read book three, because that’s where of course all the threads are going to come together. All the lessons that Karina learns, both while she’s with James and while she’s separated from him, are going to be necessary to make it all work out. And it’s important to me to show that James, as a real man who loves, has no reservations about “groveling” if that’s what it takes. In the BDSM community we sometimes get doms who start to believe their own fantasies to the degree that, for example, if they drop something and it goes under the couch, they can’t kneel down to retrieve it, because “doms don’t kneel.” Ahem, pardon me, dude, but you’re not in a scene with the couch or with the TV remote you just dropped. You won’t lose your dom card if you get it yourself, I promise, and you’ll still respect yourself in the morning.

Pamela: I appreciated how SLOW SURRENDER blends romance conventions with the erotic BDSM content in a way that amplifies the impact of the emotional storytelling. James has a hold on Karina which she expresses through allowing him the use of her body, while Karina’s hold on James is mysterious and interior, but equally powerful. In fact, at the end of Book 1, James is more devastated by the impact of their bond than she is. The explicit kink is emotionally authentic. He’s very inaccessible to her, and to the reader, while she is nearly entirely open and available, to us as well as to James. Many romances today offer both hero and heroine POV – what influenced your decision to let this romance be told entirely in Karina’s voice?

Cecilia Tan: Well, we have the problem that if I told people what was going on in James’s head, it’d give away the mystery too soon. I wanted to keep him mysterious. Karina falls for him despite not knowing a lot about him and I wanted the reader to be on that rollercoaster ride with her instead of watching from the sidelines because they know more than she does. It’s more fun if the reader knows exactly what Karina knows. I did have a little fun after the book was done, though. I wrote a bonus scene from James’s point of view and sent it to readers who helped promo the book, who tweeted me photos of seeing it in stores or recommended it to their friends. James’s head is a very interesting place to be.

Pamela: And what about feminism? Again, a question that gets asked a lot. But I think it’s very interesting that BDSM novels I’ve read seem often to address feminist questions directly. In the case of SLOW SURRENDER, measured exploration of the heroine’s thought process and agency in choosing/discovering a sexually submissive role occurs throughout, in first-person reflection and in conversations Karina has with her friend and roommate as well as with James. I was impressed with how these reflections were woven into the story organically, rather than tossed in to assure the reader that the kinky sex she’s having is consensual, and that she’s not a complete doormat. How important did you feel it was to explicate these distinctions? Was the horrible art history professor who sexually harassed female students including Karina, in exchange for academic advancement, a foil or exemplar of the abuse of an unequal power dynamic?

Cecilia Tan: Oh the art history professor is definitely there to be a contrast to consensual BDSM. He’s a lecherous snake who has been abusing his students for decades. Every time I turn around I feel like I see another newspaper article about someone like him being exposed, too. And the thing is he’s so obvious, but what’s less obvious is all the injustices Karina, just for being female, has to put up with all the time. Everything from catcalls as a waitress to her mother’s expectations for her demeanor and dress to the way her ex-boyfriends assumed she would act for them. It turns out the only place she feels valued and appreciated for being female and a unique human being is in the back of James’s limousine. It’s like James warps reality around him, because when she’s alone with James all of society’s unwritten rules go out the window and James’s rules take over. It takes her a while to wrap her head around that: the guy who ties her up and does wicked things to her is the person who values, rather than devalues, her the most? How can that be? It can only be true in a world where feminism that supports a woman’s right to sexuality is ascendant.

Pamela: Karina’s a struggling grad student, in a field that’s not exactly lucrative, so getting involved with an older man who’s wealthy and well positioned has the potential to provide obvious advantages. But here’s where I found myself tripping up a little. I recently realized that I find myself more bothered by the ways in which billionaire doms always seem to take it upon themselves to make sure the heroine meets the right people or gets the right breaks, to ensure her successful career, than by gratuitous acts of sexual dominance (OK, gratuitous sex in a book is never a good thing either, but this other thing is more bothersome, in a way!). James introduces Karina to the director of the Tate Museum, a move that both impresses her and provides a material career advantage. She arrives at their meeting expecting to be sexually dominated but instead (or in addition) she is presented with a professional networking opportunity. My own feeling is that letting the hero tie her up becomes a more feminist act than letting the hero step in and whisk away professional, financial or legal problems (which happens a lot in historical romance, for example).  Do you think these interventions are part of the story in order to demonstrate that the hero has respect for her work and her role in the world apart from him? Or do they undermine autonomy and represent another form of control? Perhaps both, or something else entirely? 

Cecilia Tan: What’s so interesting about your question is that the almost coincidental introduction of Karina to the curator in SLOW SURRENDER becomes the jumping off point for the sequel, and exactly how much influence James has, or doesn’t, on her career prospects becomes a big issue by the end of the book. Karina herself struggles explicitly with being unsure whether she has done things on her own merits or whether James has rigged the game for her, and she’s angry at him when she thinks he does.

Pamela: While on the topic of Karina’s career, I’m so interested to know what influenced your choice of art history as her professional field? Your use of the Burne-Jones painting in SLOW SURRENDER provides an intriguing image for exploring the power dynamics of a relationship between a “king” and a “beggar maid,” where she is both available and exalted, and he is both mighty and humbled (just to suggest one of any number of possible interpretations!)…

Edward Burne-Jones - King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid - Google Art Project.jpgCecilia Tan: I picked Karina’s thesis topic completely on a whim. “Pre-Raphaelite Art, sure, sounds smart!” I only knew the slightest stuff about the Pre-Raphs myself. The main thing was when I was making the notes for her character and for the book I basically thought to myself, okay, the characters have to have at least one thing they can talk about when they are not having sex or processing the relationship, one subject they can discuss which is neither sex nor their relationship. Art seemed like a natural thing to choose. And the Pre-Raphs, I just pulled that out of thin air. I had no idea that I was going to find all these fantastic parallels between Karina and James’s BDSM relationship and Pre-Raph paintings. So that was coincidence number one. And then number two I went to England for a conference, I had a single day in London on my way through, and what turned out to be on display at Tate Britain? First ever giant retrospective collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. I had already written the beginning of Slow Seduction, where Karina gets hired to work a special exhibition. To arrive there and discover it was real and actually happening? Blew my mind.

Pamela: I’m kind of making a hash of this line of questioning, with that art historical side trip, but I guess what it boils down to is — do post-feminist readers need to be assured, and frequently re-assured throughout the text, that the heroine in a BDSM novel is an intelligent, rational, independent woman, in order to engage with the fantasy of submission? Do we require her to have a professional identity which expresses her agency and independence? It’s interesting that many heroines seem to have creative jobs like filmmaking or poetry, which don’t require them to have a mundane 9-5 work schedule that might interfere with availability for a partner’s needs. If we look for a strong female protagonist with a professional identity, then why do we so frequently find someone whose career is either nascent or floundering until her lover intervenes?

Cecilia Tan: I don’t think this is especially BDSM romance novels, though there is sometimes a higher pitch of moral panic over them than other romances. But I think even bog standard vanilla romances struggle with the paradox. We want a heroine who doesn’t NEED a man so that when she decides she WANTS a man, the love can be seen as pure and not crassly motivated.

Pamela: With erotic romance gaining more mainstream readership, are there aspects of the way you tell stories that have changed? 

Cecilia Tan: Honestly, I never thought I would be writing Romance with a Capital R. The romances I attempted to read in the early 1980s put me off the genre so thoroughly I thought I would always be too feminist, too explicitly sexual, and too kinky for the romance genre to handle. And in fact that’s what I was told by publisher after publisher throughout the last 20 years. Then “50 Shades” happened and all the publishers went, “wait, what? how did this totally weird thing come out of the blue?? how did we miss it?” Well, they missed it because every time an author like me had come knocking previously, they’d slammed the door in our faces. Even when all the major houses suddenly launched “erotic” imprints about ten years ago, when Spice, and Avon Red, and half a dozen others came along? My agent had meetings with all of them and then came back to me and said, “Well, this one says they want something that pushes the envelope… but they think threesomes are too weird. This other one thinks maybe a threesome would be okay, but BDSM would be beyond the pale.” And so on. They had no idea what they were doing or what women wanted to read in erotica, so they all pretty much failed. Harlequin shuttered the Spice line because they thought the erotica fad was “over.” Not even two years later, “50 Shades” arrived. So the thing that has changed the most for me is that the doorway to mainstream romance is suddenly wide open. I used to write a lot of erotic short stories. Short stories are like one night stands, though, while a novel is a whole affair and a trilogy is a whole relationship!

17727475Pamela: With this second book of the trilogy, a rival for Karina’s affections and obedience is introduced. The string of pearls is broken apart on the cover of the book! This also reminds me of Jane Eyre – who spends a large section of that novel ‘in the wilderness’ and almost marries another. Is Karina’s journey in SLOW SEDUCTION primarily a quest to locate James, or is it, as Jane’s was, also a voyage of self-discovery? (With the Red Glove Society training program in place of the school where Jane worked on the moor…?)

Cecilia Tan: It gets to be both! Karina gets to explore her sexuality more, and explore BDSM in a way that will make her a more confident and competent partner if and when she and James get together again. But she wouldn’t have likely jumped into the situation she does with the BDSM society if it weren’t an opportunity to search for James. As James tells Karina again and again in the book, forget about “or.” Embrace “and.” Both things are true.

Pamela: Finally – a question about baseball. Do you keep these aspects of your writing career very compartmentalized? Does your distinguished career and expertise in writing about a professional sport inform your fiction writing in any way? I just knew there was great crossover appeal between romance fiction and baseball, and you are living proof. I know you are from New York, but you live in the Boston area, so, hey, how about those 2013 Sox and their horrible beards?!

Cecilia Tan: I keep the baseball nonfiction pretty separate, not because I think the baseball people can’t handle my erotic writing but because it’s such a wholly separate world and a completely separate career. I did write one baseball-themed romance, The Hot Streak, a few years back, which brought it all together, though! As for the Red Sox, they’re more fun when they’re losing, honestly. They’re a great source of drama. Baseball is supposed to be like a soap opera: it’s on every day. When everything is going right for the Red Sox, they stop being interesting!

Pamela: I like it when the Sox win! But it’s true, when I first moved to the Boston area back in the 80s, the era of the Curse, all the drama and heartache were what pulled me in.  Thank you for bearing with all my questions and visiting with Badass Romance during your release week. I can’t wait to read SLOW SATISFACTION and find out how you’re going to pull everything together!

SLOW SURRENDER and SLOW SEDUCTION are available in the usual formats and places. I received an e-ARC of SLOW SEDUCTION from the publisher via NetGalley. I purchased SLOW SURRENDER as an e-book.

The Burne-Jones paintings included in the post are two sections of the Perseus Cycle/Perseus and Andromeda (1885 & 1888) and King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid (1884).

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Betty(s) and Barbara(s): heroines of the ’70s, reading romance, nostalgia, and feminism

I just finished reading a romance novel from 1973 that made me nostalgic even as my eyes were rolling back in my head. This nostalgia is sort of fluid and rippling around several different stones in the river of my recent – and not-so-recent – reading. Apologies in advance for what I know is going to be a rambling and impressionistic post.

In 1973 I turned 10, which is the age my daughters are now (yes, twins). They have Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. At 10, I was still deep in Oz books and Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales. I was about two years away from reading my first category romance novels, but by 8th grade my reading log was brimming with Barbara Cartland titles.  There wasn’t nearly as much YA romance then as there is now. I loved Patricia Beatty’s YA historicals, and she sometimes introduced an age-appropriate romantic figure for her spunky heroines. Here is perhaps my favorite book from 1973. But barely two years later I read both Gone With the Wind and Jane Eyre during the summer before 8th grade, and the die was pretty much cast: leaving aside questions of comparative literary merit between these two iconic novels, I was looking for romantic tension, Eyre-ish happy endings, and historical settings. I read my way steadily through Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy, along with Anya Seton and Norah Lofts. And in the ’70s I read hundreds of category romances.

At the time I wasn’t aware of category romance as a particular product distinct from single title romance, but I liked knowing what to expect, along with the fact that the supply seemed endless — akin to Nancy Drew mysteries, but I wasn’t turning into a mystery reader, I was turning into a romance reader. I gravitated to Regencies, and I also read Heyer. I still like books that are part of series, but I haven’t read a category romance in decades, mainly because I look for longer, denser historicals. So it’s been a long time since I read a book like this that reminded me of the simplicity and purity of a Barbara Cartland.

Winter of ChangeI could almost hear Angela Lansbury singing A Tale As Old As Time in the back of my head as I was reading WINTER OF CHANGE, by Betty Neels (Mills & Boon, 1973; Harlequin re-release 2001). The hero isn’t a beast, but it was enchanting and refreshing to revisit the kind of romance novel that takes me on a short, sweet, straightforward emotional journey with an old-fashioned style couple. It made me feel sort of sentimental, even though Neels’ story is much more astringent than saccharine.

It was Liz over at Something More who first mentioned Neels to me when we shared our mutual admiration for the tweedy, shabby mood of Barbara Pym’s wonderful novels. And indeed I found this Neels romance did evoke Pym-ish gentility with its focus on mundane aspects of domestic arrangements and its understated approach to passion and emotion.

Interestingly, it was in the 70’s and early 80’s that Pym’s novels enjoyed their greatest popularity, as Salon noted last spring. And indeed that’s when I was enjoying ’em – as a much younger reader, curiously fascinated by Pym’s dissatisfied middle-aged couples, lonely spinsters, and generally deflated Oxbridge atmosphere.

But back to Betty and WINTER OF CHANGE: Distinguished Fabian van der Blocq is older, much more experienced, socially and professionally powerful. Mary Jane Pettigrew (yes, she’s really called Miss Pettigrew) is a classic ingenue – clever, petite, hard-working, modest and unassuming — one of those brave-girl-in-the-big-wide-world characters. Not much happens plot-wise — she’s an orphan, raised by her grandfather who is dying. They meet when Fabian, nephew of said grandfather’s dearest friend, is appointed guardian of her inheritance. They are at utterly different stages of life, and she resents his having any control over her affairs. They observe and admire each other, but privately, so that for much of the book when they are thrown together they spend their time being diffidently polite or openly antagonistic to each other. Mary Jane in particular becomes almost petulant, and entertains another suitor in a foolish gambit to get Fabian’s attention that, predictably, ends badly.

Neels, a former nurse, was known for her hospital-set romances, and there are medical situations in which both Mary Jane and Fabian learn about each other through observation of interactions with patients and relatives and with their shared vocation of healing. Yet the barriers imposed by the guardianship remain firmly in place. Mary Jane refuses to admit, even to herself, that she’s in love with the tall, dark and remote surgeon, though it’s evident to the reader throughout. Fabian is actually quite thoughtful and even tender at times, but he feels honor-bound to refrain from getting involved with his ward because of their age difference (he’s 40ish; she’s 22).  He pivots from complimenting her appearance and noticing her preferences with genuine concern for her well-being, to antagonizing Mary Jane with his control of her affairs and remote detachment.

Of course it’s harder to know what he actually thinks about her because the entire book is written from her POV.  This contributed to my sense of nostalgia — transpose the setting to Regency London and it could have been a Barbara Cartland duke and his ward. They seesaw back and forth between “chance” encounters where their delight is obvious, and separations and second-guessing where the young heroine in the pangs of first love despairs of ever catching his attention in that special way. Since we never get inside the hero’s head, it’s all about the chaste and unconsummated minuet of anticipation as played out in the heroine’s inner dialogue, until the final few pages when circumstances threaten to part them forever–unless love is finally declared.

The ending is brief and almost matter-of-fact; the tension is romantic but far from sexual. So the reading experience gave me a sense of nostalgia for the romance reading I did as a young teen. And yes, I realize it’s only my own filter that so distorts the brisk and efficient Betty Neels as to make this book seem to have anything to do with a Barbara Cartland flight of fancy. Since Neels has a lot more of Barbara Pym than Barbara Cartland going on, it’s as I’ve applied a some kind of rosy regency Instagram effect to the whole thing. Neels in her own right has immense nostalgic as well as immediate appeal, as the Bettys of The Uncrushable Jersey Dress have brilliantly documented. But I am a first-time Neels reader, and she’s making rather a complicated impression.

Within the confines of the novel itself, WINTER OF CHANGE’s early ’70s setting gave me a different flavor of nostalgia.  It’s long enough ago to almost feel like a historical.  Except, not. It’s a primary text for a historian of the 70s. To start with the good — in spite of the slightly downtrodden, mousy  way that Mary Jane is described (and describes herself), the first chapter sets her up as an early ’70’s career gal in a way that reminded me a bit of Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore. She drives a Mini, watches her budget but saves for expensive shoes and handbags, has a good education, and earns a respectable living in a profession that maintains her position as a member of a privileged social class. Yet she’s clearly not totally on her own, living as she does in the nurses’ residence at her hospital with a loose group of friends but emotionally isolated without family or other primary relationship(s).  It’s an idealized, semi-autonomous kind of That Girl! independence: Marlo and Mary had their own apartments but constantly hovering parents, neighbors, and boyfriends.

On the flip side, there’s no denying that any vaguely mod, second-wave-feminist elements of Mary Jane’s situation and character are heavily outweighed by the entrenched sexism Neels’ novel reflects.

As I was reading, I started keeping track of all the places and times where Fabian thinks for Mary Jane, makes decisions for her, and takes care of her needs in a way that is both delightfully thoughtful and totally high-handed. Yes, he’s legally her guardian, but why is this romantic? If they met some other way, Fabian would have to pursue Mary Jane much more actively; what’s interesting about the guardianship is that it makes explicit that his role is to guard and protect — and direct — her like a parent.

One way to look at this may be simply to chalk it up to the alpha hero convention in romance. Guardianship gives Fabian legal rights to go along with his romance-y alpha motivations to protect and possess the heroine by manipulating Mary Jane’s circumstances. I don’t know (or remember) enough about the genre in the ’70s to say whether alphas were as normative and popular then as they have been in later decades.  Certainly controlling alpha heroes have been around in romanceland since, well … forever. So Fabian isn’t really all that remarkable, except that meeting him 40 years after he was written means I’m bringing a lot of baggage along for the read.

Jackie suggested recently at Romance Novels for Feminists, that in the wake of 50 Shades we are experiencing another wave of uber alpha heroes, noting the “obsessive” alpha tendency in particular. There are probably way more than 50 shades of obsessive when it comes to romance heroes, so I guess my feeling is that the most direct and obvious result of the 50 Shades phenomenon is the kinky billionaire hero.  And here’s where I wend my way back to Fabian and Mary Jane. No, there’s no kink. There’s no sex.

But it’s a lot like a Billionaire/virgin D/s dynamic, without the BDSM. He’s so much wealthier than she is, and even when she attains financial security, it’s simultaneous with losing control of her own affairs. She stops working — he even makes the phone call to her (dowdy, of course) female supervisor and charms the beleaguered Hospital Sister out of requiring Mary Jane to give her month’s notice! Definitely shades of (Christian)Grey. Fabian then tells her what kind of clothes to purchase for her new life and whisks her to his home in Holland to serve as private nurse to his uncle.

He’s not obsessive — Mary Jane does return to her home alone (at this point they are both stupidly pretending they’re not in love with each other). She gets to make her own mistakes – almost. Fabian intervenes to save her, then disappears again leaving behind some achingly romantic Christmas gifts – almost as if he is waiting for her to grow up. She, of course, has no gift for Fabian because she’s too busy being snippy at him for rescuing her from a bad situation she was too blind to realize spelled certain disaster.

But regardless of their lack of intimacy or proximity, Mary Jane’s life is unalterably changed by her removal from her profession to an entirely domestic and social sphere. She’s expected to live in the manor house she inherited, do good works in the village, and marry well. Predictably, she gets frustrated, bored, and “headstrong” — in her own naive way (this is when she takes up with an entirely unsuitable suitor). It’s as if she’s a trapped housewife, with Fabian in control from afar. I kept thinking about The Feminine Mystique (another Betty) — and wondering if things would get any better – or just stay the same, or even get worse – once she inevitably married him. The book ends with a restrained yet believable HEA when Fabian basically pulls an “of course I love you, silly, and we’re getting married.” As a romance, the novel works. On one level, I was satisfied, and happy for both of them. But there was something that didn’t quite sit right. Perhaps, unlike a Pym novel, the book is just not powerful or compelling enough to transcend its vintage setting. I can’t escape the feeling that Mary Jane is 5, or maybe 15, minutes from Diary of a Mad Housewife — or Valley of the Dolls (easy access to pretty pills!) Or a Bell Jar experience.

So – is there any point to this meander down nostalgia lane? Somehow, reading this rather unremarkable romance from the ’70s brought me back to adolescent romance reading and mod heroines, and then around the long bend to 2013 and billionaires tying up virgins.  In spite of the length of this post, I’m left with still more questions.

Is Fabian “worse” than a Christian Grey-type hero because though he wouldn’t dream of striking her, he takes control of her life without Mary Jane’s consent? At least Anastasia got to negotiate her contract, and she kept working. (I did read all three of the E.L. James novels, and I rather choosily read other erotic romance from time to time.)

Would it make a difference if Neels had written sections from the hero’s POV? Maybe the relationship wouldn’t feel so unequal if we could get inside his head and hear how Mary Jane affects Fabian. (I do plan to give Neels another chance to captivate me – next up: ESMERALDA. I have the sense that it’s not any one Neels book that wins you over, it’s her body of work — and I’m ready to read on.)

If Neels were writing today, would she be writing billionaire doms and submissive virgins (who work in hospitals)?

I’m curious to hear what others think about Betty (Neels), for those who’ve read her, and also what about the Barbaras? I sometimes think I am the only person who ever actually read a Barbara Cartland romance. Or is willing to admit it.

Finally, just because I was curious, I looked up their dates —

Betty Neels (1909-2001)

Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

Barbara Cartland (1901-2000)

Barbara Pym (1913-1980)