Too Much of a Good Thing? I’m Having a Hard Time Keeping Up with Liz Carlyle

In which I revisit a favorite author, try to review a recent book (A Bride By Moonlight), and get tripped up by complications and connections

There are many moods and phases meandering across the chronology of my years as a faithful romance reader. Maybe one of these days I’m going to plot it out on some kind of timeline, or “family” tree of subgenres and series.

The novels of Liz Carlyle fall into the post-Outlander, pre-JoBev, very Black Dagger Brotherhood phase when I was parenting twin preschoolers and basically stuck at home (or the playground) with them whenever we weren’t at daycare and the office, respectively. Hectic, exhausting days, but kids in bed early and evenings to myself for second shift chores, or ignoring the laundry, binge-watching episodes of Sharpe, and reading. (In case anyone’s wondering, this is the phase when I also read about 29 versions of the same book by Stephanie Laurens.) Sometime during this phase I picked up a copy of Carlyle’s My False Heart because of its (then) unusual cover and was utterly charmed by its unusual blend of smoldering romance, good conversation, artsy ambience, and eccentric domestic goings-on.

I fell easily into this Regency world, which has more of Chase than of Laurens, is angsty in the right ways, and is populated by memorable characters who pop up across her overlapping series. And I’ve been a faithful reader. I’m not an “auto-buy” kind of consumer, but I’ve kept up, and this winter I found a copy of her recent A Bride By Moonlight at my local used paperback shop. I’ve been trying to write this “review” post for weeks now and I think I’m stuck because it was somehow both predictable and confusing.  And “meh” reviews are always the hardest to write. To help organize my thoughts, sometimes I just start with the basics:

The Hero Ruthless police commissioner Royden Napier, known in his line of work as Roughshod Roy, he proves disarmingly and appealingly open, self-aware, and compassionate. He’s patient with human frailty and weakness in spite of having made his living as a crimestopper and prosecutor.

The Heroine Live-by-her-wits journalist and living-under-assumed-identity/ies expert Lisette Colburne, prime suspect in a murder that happens in another book in the series. She’s a survivor, so her impregnable fortress of bitterness is understandable, but becomes tiresome.

The Setting 19th century England (1840s). London (a little bit) and Burlingame, stately estate of Napier’s grandfather, Lord Duncaster, and also home to an odd lot of assorted family members he’s suddenly got to get to know, and get on with. Son of Burlingame’s exiled third son, Napier never expected to inherit title or house, and now he’s also been asked by his boss (an old friend of his grandfather) to discreetly investigate two possibly questionable deaths which have taken place in the ancestral home.

The tropes  Heroine with shadowy past, assumed identity/ies and guilty secret, Hero suddenly becomes heir to a title, Multiple mysterious deaths, Hero and heroine as detective partners, Weak and selfish elderly aunt and her dysfunctional family, Implied lesbian secondary characters, Hero who falls in love first and does not withhold, Virgin heroine who wants sex but not truth-telling.

Nope, it didn’t really work.  My thoughts on this book remain thoroughly inchoate and disorganized. But I’m coming to understand that for me the story itself felt disorganized, and it’s because there are maybe too many connections to other books, and too much plottiness. In trying to write about this book I’m also realizing it’s nearly impossible to write about a Carlyle novel without talking about multiple books, and I’m guessing this post will be as confusing to read as A Bride by Moonlight.

ABBM is the fourth novel in a sequence of books set around a group of friends/acquaintances loosely connected to the MacLachlan family first met in Carlyle’s engaging “Devil” and “One Little, Two Little…” series. The first two books in this “series” — and I hesitate to call it a series for reasons that will become clear — were One Touch of Scandal and The Bride Wore Scarlet, and these were billed as the start of a new and exciting HistRom series with paranormal elements. The paranormal element was basically a secret society, the Fraternitas, charged with protecting the Vateis — individuals with supernatural visions who are vulnerable targets for evil-doers because of their ability to see the future. Okay, I was willing to go along.

Just to review… I loved My False Heart, which I still consider a near-perfect “mysterious stranger in our midst” romance novel. Carlyle is an author I purposefully glommed at one point, she writes intricately connected books with strong world-building, and I’m familiar with her canon. Her “Never” series (Never Lie to a Lady, etc.) still stands as one of my all-time favorite HistRom trilogies, with echoes of Gaskell in its treatment of class, enterprise, and industry.

Even though I felt the Fraternitas (which by the second book had been rechristened, in England, the St. James Society) was entirely unnecessary — here was an author who was writing strong, compelling Regency and mid-19thc historicals and managing to build a web of connected stories WITHOUT relying on a secret brotherhood of superheroes — I enjoyed these newer books because they still featured the crisp dialogue and authentic characters with real problems, that I expect from Carlyle.

But. Don’t add secret societies and paranormal elements when it’s already hard to follow what’s going on!  But even though I’m pretty lenient about crazy plotting if the characters work for me, it’s got to hang together at least a little…. which brings me to the third book in this sequence – The Bride Wore Pearls.  Here, it was actually my favorite two characters from the previous novels, Lady Anisha Stafford, and Rance Welham, Lord Lazonby. These two each brought something intriguing and smoldering to their appearances in earlier books and I was so ready to immerse myself in their combined story. But their book was a mess. Jean Wan’s review for AAR says it so much better, and more hilariously, than I can. She gives it a D+. And she has history with Carlyle, much as I do. But this book is nearly impossible to follow, there are so many things you need to know from earlier books that it’s difficult even if you have read all the earlier books. My only point of difference with Jean is that I, pathetically I guess, still did care about Nish and Rance…. and here they are again as a married couple in A Bride by Moonlight.

But even a ruthlessly uxorious Lazonby isn’t enough to make things work. Something is still very wrong in Carlyle’s world. Here, the heroine has had so many identities, both in this book and the one prior, that I literally kept forgetting who we were talking about, when someone referred to one of her other aliases. The suspense element and the multiple overlapping secrets and mysteries have outgrown my capacity to follow or care, when I’d rather be following and caring about Napier and Lisette. It’s also possible I just have less patience with whodunits, as a very reluctant mystery reader, and the set-up here throws the two together as partners in solving a new mystery, even as Napier seeks to uncover the truth about Lisette’s pose as a (male) muckraking journalist in the mysteries from the previous books.

Once again, Lisette is undercover, and once again there’s just too much subterfuge. I was truly sad not to like this book more, especially since there are wonderfully and characteristically skillful renderings of numerous secondary characters. I couldn’t connect to Napier and Lisette as a couple — I found myself wanting him to get what he deserved, and be happy, and wanting her to stop being such a ninny and give it to him. He’s much more sympathetic, I suppose, and this is actually quite interesting in terms of discourses around the “unlikeable heroine.” But I am finding it difficult to dig in and deconstruct either the characters or what happens to them, because it all just felt too jumbled.

With My False Heart, Carlyle laid the foundation for her careful architecture of a world in which loving families and the refuge of knowing there’s a place in the universe where you truly belong, mean everything. Orphans and neglected children are made whole through the power of love, and are embraced, not just by their romantic partners, but by Carlyle’s powerfully affecting tableaux of domestic intimacy, even among the privileged and titled families at the center of her world.

Sibling relationships are especially powerful, for good or ill – I fell in love with brother/sister combos like Anisha and her Raju (ruthless Ruthveyn, from One Touch of Scandal), and Kieran and Xanthia Neville, orphaned heirs to a vast shipping fortune (Never Lie to a Lady, Never Romance a Rake). Issues of difference, religion, race, class – it’s all there, and the best of Liz Carlyle delivers complicated characters and angsty historicals you can dig into.  In A Bride By Moonlight, there should be more of the same – both protagonists are crossing over class lines, grappling with questions of duty, honor, and reputation, and overcoming painful losses. I don’t know whether the introduction of the woo-woo Fraternitas stole the mojo or what, but I couldn’t happily go along on their journey, because something isn’t working anymore. I can’t recommend A Bride By Moonlight, but I strongly recommend fans of “meaty” angsty historicals try the “Never” books — my favorite Carlyles and much less cluttered with confusing connected stories.

The more I started re-reading reviews of Carlyle’s books as I thought about this post, the more I realized she has a reputation for taking the connected books craze too far and driving readers crazy with it. For everyone who loves George Kemble (a gay decorator and “fixer” who appears in many books), there seem to be just as many people head-desking over trying to keep track of the connections. Almost everyone seems to agree that My False Heart is an amazing novel, and that the treatment of anti-semitism in Regency England in Never Deceive a Duke is unique and compelling. In many ways, I haven’t got much new to add to what’s already been said, but I decided to go ahead with this post because of what Liz Carlyle’s books have meant to me in the past.

ETA: Lest there be further Carlyle confusion resulting from this post, I should clarify that A Bride By Moonlight is not her most recent release. In Love With a Wicked Man (October 2013) is the newest addition to the Carlyle canon, bringing us the story of Ned Quartermaine, another character who has appeared in many previous books, and I seem to remember he’s not always such a great guy. I haven’t read any reviews (yet) as I’m considering whether to read it…. the set-up seems promising since it takes us out of London and evokes My False Heart by having the hero unavoidably trapped by circumstances at the country estate where he’ll meet the heroine.  Based on my early love of Carlyle’s oeuvre, I know if I see a copy at my local shop, it’ll be coming home with me!

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Big Fat Anniversary Post: Late Bloomer in Romancelandia

In which I do some Navel Gazing and contemplate a Paper Anniversary for my Internet “Relationship”

Gift for Boyfriend - Girlfriend - Anniversary Gift - Small Heart with Arrow - I Love You - Recycled Art - Love

Image credit: Folded Book Art by Luciana Frigerio via Etsy; these are gorgeous!

Sometime this month it’ll be the one-year anniversary of this blog. Is Paper still the traditional first anniversary gift? I hope so, because Internet. Ha. I write nothing on paper and nothing I write is ever printed. What lives here are transitory words that I write about books that I read. Admittedly, most of those are still on paper.

I thought about skipping the kinda sorta silly anniversary post tradition. But it’s been a milestone year for me in several ways, so I decided to try and organize some of my thoughts about this first year of Badass Romance. Once I started reflecting on the year in blogging, however, I couldn’t decide whether I feel more discouraged and overwhelmed, or energized and engaged. Depends on the day, I guess. Before I get to the part about being overwhelmed with the existential Why-ness of it all, I will indulge in a brief celebratory moment…

Happy Anniversary! I’m deeply grateful for friends new and old who love books and reading as much as I do, and who take the time to read my posts, share a comment or two, and perhaps also share in some of my other semi-addictive enthusiasms, from RevWar history to baseball to Sons of Anarchy and other serialized melodrama with intellectual pretensions. The blog was a sort of 50th birthday present to myself, but what it really unwrapped for me was an online party full of cool, thoughtful, funny people and ideas. You know who you are, but I think (I hope) I have most of my favorite blogs listed in the Blogs I Follow widget…

Favorite Posts? OK, here are a few, from the different ‘phases’ of Badass Romance’s rookie year:

  • Please Do Not Touch – an early effort at a review, with some art history thrown in
  • Pennyroyal Preacher Man – another early review-ish post, that ended up steering me towards the challenging novels of Patricia Gaffney, and related discussions
  • Never Say Die – ostensibly about Regency romance novels but really an excuse to post a lot of pictures of Sean Bean as Sharpe
  • Widow & Orphan – my love affair with Jane Eyre, and another excuse to post some great movie images (Toby Stephens & Ruth Wilson!)
  • A Subversive Regency – long-ass review of one of 2013’s most talked about historical romances
  • Scare Tactics – how about a little violence with your romance? representing a new focus for the blog, on the ways romance fiction uses (non-sexual) violence, whether there are limits to our tolerance for graphic episodes, and the eroticization of violent heroes

But. It’s overwhelming. I can’t believe I thought I’d manage a post a week. And I find it so much harder to write straight-up book reviews than my usual meandering, side-winding posts about one thing or another, usually book-related but rarely brief. I rarely have posts planned in advance and I never have them actually completed before the day they end up getting posted. I get weirdly anxious between posts when it feels like it’s been too long and I’m not inspired. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have time to read, let alone write a review or a post. So why the heck am I doing this….? (Apologies in advance that this post is going to be wicked long.)

The Blog is Dead As a late bloomer in so many aspects of life (see: first-time mom at 40), I suppose it really didn’t surprise me when I started a blog in 2013 only to discover that, according to a Harvard-certified media authority, and ensuing buzz all over the Internet, 2013 was the year the blog died as a dominant/relevant/exciting platform for the exchange of ideas.

More recently, and less provocatively, some internet and blogging pioneers reflected on the 20th anniversary of the blog and (of course) vehemently disputed the pronouncement of its death:

The people who say that are idiots. Blogging was never alive. It’s the people that matter. There will always be a small number who are what I call “natural born bloggers.” They were blogging before there were blogs, they just didn’t know what it was called. Julia Child was a blogger as was Benjamin Franklin and Patti Smith. (Dave Winer, interviewed for The blog turns 20: A conversation with three internet pioneers, by Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer, for The Guardian, January 28, 2014)

Blogging will persist the way other literary forms persist. I can imagine we’ll see articles about a resurgence in blogging in a few years, with people wondering if the post-Twitter generation now has a longer attention span. …. Is Twitter blogging on a micro-scale? Does it matter? What’s amazing is that we’ve seen the explosion of citizen access to tools formerly reserved for journalists and scribes. “Blogging as a specific online form might wax and wane. But blogging as a chance to exercise our voices doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – hurrah! (Justin Hall, interviewed for The blog turns 20: A conversation with three internet pioneers, by Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer, for The Guardian, January 28, 2014)

Because I also have a family road trip & photo blog that I do with my kids and which is followed by no one, other than the grandparents, family friends, and a bunch of spam followers, I had realized early on that it was hardly likely anyone would read my book blog unless I decided to “promote” it in some way. Some dear book group friends were there to read my first tentative posts, and for a while I toyed with the idea that I was just writing it for myself anyway… the blog-as-reading-journal. Well that was a total bunch of horse-shite (pardon my Regency), because I was reading and commenting on other people’s blogs and it soon became clear to me that it was so much more fun when my posts found their way out into the wider world to join the fast-flowing river of romance-oriented literary critique and commentary, and to receive feedback and questions from authors, reviewers, and other bloggers. So – Twitter. I had declined to join Facebook all these years (still haven’t) but I deigned to try tweeting.

I learned to follow intense 140-character conversations about books, feminism, sports, snowstorms, what-have-you. This opened my world up to lots of people who might be interested in my blog, and, even better, gave me all kinds of inspiration and ideas that helped shape what I wanted the blog to be about. Being on Twitter was invaluable for pushing me to really look around at lots of other blogs and writers and figure out what was and wasn’t going to work for me as a blogger. Within the first couple of months there was a whole kerfuffle about whether historical romance was “dead” – and that conversation was energizing for me, inspiring some of my favorite posts. And it was an early lesson in the fun-tastic Internet party game of dramatically pronouncing the death of something in order to generate discussion and debate.

Never Say Die Since I don’t know anything different, I guess I’ve been OK with “The Blog is Dead; Long Live the Blog” — the notion that blogging is fundamentally different from what it was when many of my favorite bloggers got started, 10, or 8 or so years ago. It’s not death, it’s evolution, but there’s still this kind of talk about how Facebook and Twitter have taken over the discussion space. Perhaps it’s true that the exciting and dynamic back-and-forth no longer happens in Comments sections on individual blogs, since people can quote and link blog content in their own timelines or tweetstreams, and then talk about it there. While I’ve been flattered and honored by the wonderful insights that have been posted here in Comments, I don’t kid myself that it’s really bucking the trend, since I have more extensive conversations and discussions on Twitter — or on a few romance/reading blogs with longstanding reputations for rich & challenging discussion (I’m looking at you, Read React Review, Something More, Vacuous Minx, Radish) — with many of the same people who have graciously commented here.

Which brings me to my next reflection:  So maybe some of the really robust romance blogs ARE kind of bucking the trend? I mean there still does seem to be a lot of rich and lengthy discussion in Comments on the big blogs like DA and AAR, and, even better, on the individual blogs with thriving, well-established communities of thoughtful readers and writers. So maybe if I had to be so late to the party and start blogging in the year the blog died, at least I’m blogging about romance, which still has a flourishing and exhilarating blogosphere… right?  Or… wrong??

On the Wane? Because it turns out that not only is blogging (supposedly) kind of passe’ but maybe the online romance community — what some call Romancelandia (still? right?) — is also on the wane. Jessica at Read React Review posted recently about evolution in the romance blogging community, and she wasn’t the only one to describe the shifts in terms of a sense of decline, or fragmentation. Sunita helpfully framed this over at Vacuous Minx in terms of the loss of “pure” readers as the online community has become part of the romance industry “machine.” I actually think these two big shifts (in the nature of blogging, and in the cohesion / fracturing of the online romance community) are related, but it’s still all kind of forcing me to take a long hard look at what I’m doing, and why.

When “the waning of Romancelandia” came up on Twitter, I rather facilely posited that it might just feel that way to folks who have been part of it, operating as key actors &  insiders, for a while. Speaking as a newbie (to romance blogging, but not to romance reading) I suggested that when you are new to an online community it feels like a cohesive “thing” that you want to be part of, and for a time your very participation is an active engagement in the creation of community. But that once you’ve been inside for a while you start to see the divisions. Things you don’t like about other points of view become more apparent, sometimes conflicting opinions become more rigid, calcification occurs and you’re more aware that what looked like a community at one point now feels more like a very loose confederation of smaller sub-groups.

Maybe it feels like fragmentation, or silos or polarization. You become dimly aware that there are other communities talking about the same things your community talks about (books, ideas, films, whatever) but in completely separate places and spaces because they have come at the shared enthusiasm via other paths. And then there are the bizarre and exhausting flame wars – but I want to avoid that digression.

I still think the cyclical, and simultaneously clique-ish, nature of fan communities and online communities is true — it’s something that I have experienced in other fandoms. But as a theory that attempts to explain or mitigate the effects of shifts and evolutions in Romancelandia it’s also too reductive.

The Business of Book Blogging  I think there are (at least) two other major forces at play in the shifting landscape of romance bloggery. One is the publishing industry’s recognition and utilization of the blogger role, which, as Sunita and others noted, means that even reviewers and bloggers like me who really, truly, REALLY have no intention of becoming authors, nevertheless have an increasingly codified (and in some cases commercialized) role in the promotion of the genre and its products, via street teams, special blogger days at industry conferences, etc. And the role of book bloggers in keeping genre fiction, and romance, at the top of the publishing heap, is well established.

Nobody needs me to belabor this further – there are lots of places this point has been made by people with more experience across the years that romance blogging has become more professionalized  and commercialized (I use these terms very loosely — my understanding is that, unlike journalists or paid reviewers, very few people with individual book blogs actually receive or ever expect to receive financial compensation for the writing they do, regardless of insider status with publishers, ad revenues, or Amazon affiliate earnings). Since this is my personal “reflecting on blogging” post, I will add that I am still wrestling with my own conflicted feelings around various ways one can be “recognized” as a blogger, from my impulsive rookie decision that led to becoming one of Avon’s “Addicts” (though I don’t post the logo or do much else except read and review some of the books I receive) to my somewhat naive hope that I might occasionally receive free books (I had no idea how easy it was for anyone with a blog to get ARCs), to the direct interaction with authors who comment, re-blog, retweet, and sometimes re-purpose, one’s words about them. (I have been very fortunate in that all such interactions to date have been entirely flattering and positive).

Studying Romance But for me there’s another trend that’s affecting the online romance community, and this is the rise of academic and scholarly interest in our genre. I think about the theory that the romance community initially thrived online because there were so many people who moved back and forth across the lines between readers, reviewers, and authors — more (the theory goes) than in other genres. It was an inclusive, open space with fluid boundaries between and among roles.

Now I’m seeing a parallel blurring of the lines between readers, reviewers, and scholars. Academics (from any discipline, not just Literature) who read romance for pleasure now have more and better outlets for talking and writing seriously about the genre. There are numerous, some but not all new-ish, blogs that dig deep into questions about the genre itself, its conventions, tropes, trends, problems, and oversights – smart, thoughtful people (whether they are academics, or simply choose to write with more academic, analytical approaches) writing about romance in ways that are complex and challenging and offering more than reviews and recommendations of individual books (though they may still do this as well – here, I’m looking at you, Miss Bates Reads Romance, Love in the Margins, Reading With Analysis, Alpha Heroes, among others).

At the same time, people who have a formal academic role, eg. professors or Ph.D. candidates in Literature, Popular Culture, Media Studies, Womens Studies (etc, etc), who enjoy and/or are interested in romance, now also have opportunities to engage with the genre as a field ripe for exploration, study, and career-building. It’s another way in which readers who may have been ‘pure’ readers are now becoming something more, something different, as they seek to get published in journals, deliver papers at conferences, and position themselves as experts in a professional sense.

In many ways I love the explosion of more critical academic and/or formal writing about romance novels, both on independent websites and blogs and via academic associations or university-affiliated entities like IASPR and the Popular Romance Project. It is exciting and refreshing to see the outsider genre I have loved since I glommed Barbara Cartland novels in 7th grade treated with interest and respect, as the “badass,” literary phenomenon that it is.

Attention is being paid to romance’s status as the top-selling genre in publishing (this is also happening in mainstream media as well as progressive quasi-intellectual media), and also to the content, literary merit, authorship, and readership of specific novels and types of novels.  I often (semi-)joke on Twitter that if this kind of thing had been going on when I was doing my Ph.D., my entire career path might have been entirely different.

But… Do you sense the ‘but’ coming? I’m not even really sure what the ‘but’ is, because I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it. Something about my own ambivalence as a lapsed academic perhaps, and a feeling of discomfort around the edges of my fascination with romance scholarship. (I have a Ph.D. in History of Art and I work at a university, but I don’t teach or publish research myself and my department’s focus is social science research & policy).

Romancelandia has always enjoyed an incredible richness of experts when it comes to the deconstruction and analysis of texts and trends, but most of these voices have originated outside the academy and undertaken their interpretive work on an extracurricular basis. We have day jobs. Reading romance, and, maybe, writing about it, is a gift we give ourselves, or an obsession, or a habit…but whatever it is, it’s not usually a job (unless you’re lucky enough to work at RT, or Heroes&Heartbreakers, perhaps!). At the same time that I appreciate the ways in which academic interest is creating an expanded space for serious discussion of romance, there’s a part of me that wonders about the down sides of engaging with the academy — about hierarchies both actual and implied, and about elitism.

Should people participating in a conference at Princeton last year with romance authors and scholars be prefacing their remarks with “I’m only a reader, but…” as I have heard was common?  I suspect that many readers who spend a lot of time talking romance online may have academic credentials of one kind or another (there seem to be a lot of librarians and teachers in Romland, along with university types) but my sense is that there has been disinclination to cite these kinds of credentials when opining about one’s pleasure reading, even if it’s a discussion whose sophistication and intensity borders on a graduate-level seminar in literary criticism.

Romance is something we respond to emotionally, even if there is also an intellectual component. Even blogs which directly assert highbrow “smartness,” and have achieved thought-leader status in the industry as well as the reading community (Smart Bitches, Wonk-o-Mance) do so with an ironic edge, and steer clear of wonkery that is actually pedantic or overtly academic language or assertions. What is the relationship between “wonky” blogs, promo blogs, industry blogs, author group blogs, “squee” review blogs, etc? Surely there have always been diverse online neighborhoods within the loose confines of Romancelandia. Are our neighborhoods becoming more like silos? Is there less flow of people and ideas across perceived boundaries? People do choose where to get their news and information, in romance, as in everything else.

Is it possible that as more formal channels for critical discourse around romance reading have evolved in and around the online community, such expressions have inadvertently contributed to divisions by introducing challenging questions and themes that some readers aren’t interested in engaging with when choosing or reflecting on their pleasure reading? Yes, there are problematic books, and people who either do or don’t want to read them. But for every person who is interested in interrogating and contextualizing her own choices in reading material, I feel certain there are more people who just want to read what they want without over-thinking it or being questioned in any way. I guess I am trying in a clumsy roundabout way to figure out if there are ways in which academic or “wonky”  incursions into the online romance community are perceived as a negative development and, if so, where, and for whom?

I have been mulling over the potentially distancing effects of studying romance readers as a “population.”  There’s the danger of “talking down” to or about romance readers, which is something that always made me (and there were critics, I think) uncomfortable about Janice Radway’s pioneering book, Reading the Romance, the 30th anniversary of which will be celebrated with a special session at the upcoming Popular Culture Association annual meeting later this spring.

And at the same time there are all the blurred lines. It’s tricky if, as seems to be the case, many of the academics in the field are also readers and consumers of the genre. A few prominent academics are also authors, “stars” like Mary Bly (Eloisa James), or publishers — certainly romance insiders. But it’s not any easier for voices from “outside,” whether they’re unschooled pundits like Tom Ashbrook or academics who are interested in, but not devoted to, the genre.

Even an academic initiative which is much newer and more expansive than Radway’s limited focus group, such as the Popular Romance Project’s ambitious and inclusive website, can seem to reinforce the divide between the examined and the examining – and, really, who is to say which group has the deeper understanding of what is going on when people read romance? Perhaps these scholarly undertakings simply seem irrelevant to the majority of readers who have plenty of more emotionally engaging forums in which to discuss what they’re reading and thinking.

Copping to my own wonkery It’s quite possible I’m actually over-thinking this development myself, out of my own ambivalence and love/hate relationship with the academy. And I’m sure I am oversimplifying as I try to informally “map” the current landscape of Romancelandia and figure out which territories are connected by a lot of bridges and which ones are more like isolated valleys. I’m curious about the diversity of opinions and voices within the generic category I tend to think of as “wonky” for lack of a better term.  “Academic” is both noun and adjective, after all, and it’s especially interesting to consider whether formal scholarly efforts and informal yet equally “academic” critical voices, are talking to each other or talking around each other?

I guess I really have more questions than answers when it comes to understanding the effects of such contributions and interventions in the romance reader/blogger community, and I’m very curious what others think.  Do you still think of Romancelandia as a thing anyway, anymore? Is it more commercial, or was it ever thus, for book blogging?  Is it getting more wonky, or does it seem that way to me because of where I’m choosing to go?

What about the subgenres – is there more fragmentation of discussion as people segment themselves as Urban Fantasy or  Contemporary or HistRom readers? Do we all think of ourselves as romance readers, whether we’re from the home counties of Category and  Inspie or the frontier of BDSM erotica? Where do you see bridges (or tunnels?) and where are the canyons or mountains that make it hard to get from one region to another?

I realize I haven’t really answered the “why I’m blogging” question, but the best answer I can come up with is that I’m really still finding it appealing to ask such questions and explore multiple ways of answering them.

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Image credit: Folded Book Art by Luciana Frigerio via Etsy; these are gorgeous!

Romance 101: Can romance novels turn non-readers into booklovers?

A conversation about teaching, reading and romance with @RomanceProf Jessie Matthews

In the romance reading community we frequently talk about “converting” people. What we usually mean is getting friends or relatives who don’t read romance — and may even disdain romance — to open minds, to discover and enjoy romance novels. We talk about which books to put in the “conversion kit.”  For those who care about such things, there can be immense satisfaction in converting friends or relatives from uninitiated book snobs to romance aficionados.

But what about people who don’t like to read (fiction) at all?  My good friend and fellow romance reader Jessie Matthews teaches “the basics” of reading romance to undergraduates at George Mason University and many of her students arrive at the course not having read a novel since they were last required to in high school.  To get an idea of how she builds the course and chooses the required reading, check out Jessie’s recent star turn in this video and this one for the Popular Romance Project.

ENGH-202-Banner Liotard

Jessie’s course website banner, featuring Jeanne Etienne Liotard’s painting of Marie Adelaide of France (1753), now in the Uffizi, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about my lifelong relationship with the romance genre and the ongoing conversation about how we define what is or isn’t a romance novel, along with musings about how the genre is evolving (younger readers, New Adult, erotica, etc.), I thought it’d be interesting to talk with Jessie about what happens when her reluctant-reader college students meet up with some of the best and/or most widely-discussed novels that romance has to offer.

The truth is I’ve actually been begging Jessie to “visit” Badass Romance since the beginning. Without her cheerleading, pragmatism, and feedback, I’d never have gotten over the hump from thinking about a romance & book blog to actually starting a romance & book blog. Never mind that I had been writing nothing but grants and university administrative wonkery for my dayjob, for nearly two decades. Jessie is one of the true-blue book friends whose encouragement helped me rediscover my love of writing about reading. From the time we met — 10 years ago in an online fan community of booklovers — we have always had the kind of big, exhilarating discussions that get us both excited to read more and do more with our shared love of reading romance.

Jessie jumped in and persuaded her department to support a literature course about romance novels; she’s now a regular at the academic conferences that focus on our genre. It took me a little longer to get around to doing something about romance, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun with the blog and many new friends in the romance twitterverse.  And it is a long-awaited treat and tremendous delight to have Jessie join me to chat about her groundbreaking course.

Pamela: Your course isn’t actually called Romance 101, but are there ways it is kind of like a (mini?) survey course? My (totally guesstimating) sense is that there actually aren’t very many undergraduate courses that teach romance novels in such a concentrated way. At the graduate and post-doctoral level there has been a real explosion of scholarship about romance fiction, from dissertations to documentaries, journals and conferences. But this is using romance fiction to teach undergraduates the fundamentals of textual analysis and composition. What made you decide to try framing a college literature and composition course around the history of the romance novel?

Jessie: I teach best when I am teaching literature that fascinates me, and romance fiction fits that bill. I like the genre’s diversity, its history, and the questions it generates, such as why are romance novels so popular, and, in some circles, still so widely disparaged? But I chose to teach romance novels for a general education literature course, the one–just one–required literature course for undergraduates at my university, to see if studying the genre could change student attitudes toward literature overall.

So many of my students are resistant to anything literary because “literary” equals “difficult” and time-consuming. They proudly boast that they don’t read novels, hate poetry, and rarely, if ever, see a play. I wanted to see if I could change that “group think” and get students reading fiction (as well as poetry—we do a bit of that as well) by choosing a genre whose outsider status in the academy might make it less threatening, and a genre that focuses on a topic that is of great interest to college students: intimate relationships. I guess you could call this a pedagogical bait-and-switch, but so far it has worked.

Pamela: How did you pick the books for the syllabus? Had you read them all when you started out?

Jessie: Aaagghhh!! Choosing texts! It’s the love/hate moment of designing the course. I begin my course planning with maybe 20 novels in mind, all of which I have read and want to teach, and all of which I feel have much to offer my students. Then reality sets in, and I remember that my students will read no more than five to six novels in a 15-week semester, and my buzz vanishes: I know it’s time to get down to business and make the hard choices. In the end, choosing what to teach boils down to novels that are good ambassadors of the genre, novels that showcase a range of literary elements, and novels whose context offers a productive area of exploration for students. Romance fiction offers an abundance of riches for each of these criteria, and having to choose only a few is one of the great drawbacks of teaching the course.

GMU Bookstore 50 Shades Display Feb 2013

George Mason University Bookstore, Feb 2013

The first time I taught the course, I aimed for representation and some points of connection (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary), but I learned that students dig more deeply into the literary aspects of the genre if there is an element that unites all the novels. So the next time I taught the course, I organized it around a theme. I used the Byronic Hero as the focus, and that made it easy to move from Jane Eyre to The Sheik to Rebecca to Fifty Shades of Grey. (This also made it possible to sneak in a little Byron and give my students at least some exposure to poetry). I would have called it the “Badass Hero” course, but you beat me to the punch on that title!

I want to emphasize, however, that there are many, many ways to organize a course like this.  Since my department requires that the class focus on context as well as literary analysis, I could have chosen romance novels that focus on activism (see Kelly’s recent post about social activism in the romance novel). I could also focus on a specific social issue, such as women and body image, where novels Jennifer Cruisie’s Bet Me and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had to Be You would work quite well. I’ve thought about designing a course around a specific subgenre, such as romantic suspense or paranormal romance. Of all the romance subgenres I have taught, these two have generated the most interest in students.

In the end, choosing the novels to teach in my course makes me more aware of what I couldn’t include and how those omissions will affect my students’ grasp of the genre. For example, I am always asking myself if “representation” is even possible in a undergraduate course like mine. Have I really taught the romance novel if I haven’t taught a Regency by Heyer or a Harlequin? I can’t really say yet that students finish my course with a good grounding in the genre. All I can say is that they enjoy the reading experience and liked having their assumptions about romance novels overturned.

Pamela: I was fascinated when you told me virtually none of your students fell for Lord of Scoundrels. Can you share a little bit about your students’ reactions to an iconic historical romance novel like that? And Jane Eyre — how did they fare with my beloved Jane and Rochester? Did they actually read the book or was this one of the ones where students “movie-d” the assignment?

Jessie: Literature challenges my students primarily because of its heightened use of language. Why spend so much time untangling the words in a poem or a novel when you can get the “quick and dirty” about it from Sparks Notes? I want them to grapple with the language, but I needed a way to seduce them into the work first so that I could show them why it’s worthwhile to do so.

Because romance novels end happily (a criterion that is becoming more flexible when assessing romance series), they get painted with a broad brush as formulaic and trite, but romance readers and scholars know that isn’t true; romance fiction is very diverse, including its use of language (even Jane Austen and Helen Fielding differ), so I knew I could introduce a range of texts that represented various literary elements and rhetorical moves, and even literary theory (we cover post-structuralism in Dark Lover) in a way that would gently coax students into the world of literature.

Pamela: OK, I’m guessing they didn’t fall head over heels with Jane and Rochester… But do you think over the several years you’ve been teaching this course, any of your students have become romance “converts”? Have you spawned any serious fangirls or fanboys? Are they aware of and/or participating in the online romance community?

Jessie: So few men take my romance novel course, and of those who did, all but one took it because they thought it would be easy, or it was offered at the time they needed, or they just wanted to meet some women. None of them has become a convert to the romance genre.

But I always have a few women in my course who become enamored of some book and begin reading other romances. When I assigned a Nora Roberts novel, a great many of my students began reading her work. They find her writing compact, her plots appealing, and the characters easy to “relate to.” But I don’t see obsession in those who read Roberts; I see comfort in knowing what Roberts will deliver.

Then there are my “bitten” students who fall in love with a series like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I’ve assigned Dark Lover and Lover Eternal and had plenty of women in the class finish the novel in two days rather than the two weeks I allow for it. Once they’ve embraced the world of the Brothers, they go on to complete three or four books in the series before the semester ends. I can see in their faces that look of obsession, and it’s these students who head to online communities. They come to class telling me facts about the brothers, their shellans, and Ward herself, all gleaned from online communities, and I hear them sharing those facts with each other before class begins. I love hearing them become fluent in the vocabulary of that series (“Because he’s her hellren, that’s why!), but what fascinates me is seeing the joy they experience in becoming an expert about the books. More than a few of them have come up to me several semesters after our course ended to tell me things like, “Hey–The King is coming out in April! Are you going to read it?”

Pamela: I love that. I hope they find their way to some other great series with badass worldbuilding — maybe the steampunk romances of Meljean Brook, or the intense and erotic dystopian Beyond series by Kit Rocha…

I could ask you at least a dozen more questions, but we’ll stop for now since this did turn into yet another longish post. I hope I can convince you to come back for another chat — as you know, I’ve got several topics in mind and I am very keen to get your take on the intersections and exchanges going on between the romance reader/blogger community and academic scholarship about the genre and its readers.  To be continued!

Jessie-Matthews-Romance-Bookshelves-Web

in the office of the romance professor

Defaulting to the Duke: A funny fairytale romance and seeing through and around titles

Making an exception for ROMANCING THE DUKE by Tessa Dare

I keep thinking I’m done with dukes. I read a great deal of historical romance but, like many others, I feel poor old England’s been duked to death with a surfeit of fictional aristocrats. I guess I did also make an exception for Sarah MacLean’s “Killer Duke,” but only because he suited my purposes so well as an example of the “brutal” hero with a violent way of life that is both redeemed and eroticized.

Now along comes an over the top romantic cliche’ of a duke from Tessa Dare: He’s brooding, surly, half blind, and living in sulky squalor at gloomy, bat-infested Gostley Castle. Oh, and he’s also a shining example of the once and forever popular Duke of Slut archetype, with an apparently near-constant cockstand (whenever the heroine is present) and delightfully dirty repartee. (My thanks to @PennyRomance, @IsobelCarr and @SmartBitches for the assist with Duke of Slut research!) He’s joined by our equally predictable heroine, a penniless, writerly spinster who believes she’s inherited said castle and arrives just in time to save him from himself, and turn the keep into a home. It’s book one of Dare’s new “Castles Ever After” series. (The series title alone should tell you this is either saccharine silliness, or it’s going OTT).

I know it sounds too predictably ridiculous, but this book. Cracked. Me. Up. And when I was done laughing, I realized there’s also a lot going on here, some of it very cool and clever.

The Setting Regency England, the aforementioned Gothic ruin of a castle:

‘To Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight, I leave the property known as Gostley Castle.’ Is it pronounced like ‘Ghostly’ or ‘Ghastly’? Either one seems accurate.

Yet Another Duke Ransom William Dacre Vane, Duke of Rothbury

“So while I read, you’re just going to lie there. Like a matron reclining on her chaise longue.”

“No. I’m going to lie here like a duke, reposed in his own castle.”

Yet Another Penniless Spinster Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight

“Oh, but this gift isn’t the same as an ermine. This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

The Tropes Clever Spinster Left In Poverty By Thoughtless Male Relatives; Wounded, Jilted Duke Doesn’t Trust Women; Loyal & Trustworthy Manservant Aids & Abets the Course of True Love; Female Friendship Where We Might Have Expected Rivalry (absolutely love that she pulled this off!); Spooky, Ruined Castle with Super-Romantic Turret Bedroom; Evil, Scheming Lawyers; Charming Band of Admiring Ordinary People become Main Couple’s Team Romance.

Romancing_the_DukeTruly Madly Deeply Romantic Comedy Romancing the Duke (Avon, January 2014) captivated me in ways I absolutely did not predict. Dare is a master at taking the tired and trite and refashioning it as something that’s somehow hilarious, sweet, and deeper than it seems at first glance. She succeeds because she’s so entirely willing to go over the top in a direction that is two parts farce and two parts sizzle, and she does it without taking anything about the enterprise too seriously. Her light touch results in a thoroughly enjoyable romance and a very satisfying, faux fairytale HEA.

So I’m glad I didn’t let my Put Away Your Dukes policy keep me from reading this. I have been a fan since Dare’s first trilogy, especially Goddess of the Hunt. I just had to google to find out what that trilogy was called, and I’m a little bemused to find …  The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy ..?? But that’s the thing about Dare — she’s always winking at the reader, and with the Spindle Cove series she impressively balances compelling love stories with fun and frothy ensemble romcom.

I do have a few quibbles. It really is a feat to strike the right balance between breathless comedy and compelling romantic tension, and there are a few wrong notes for me. I don’t love horny girl virgin lust-think, especially in a historical romance. This was the chief reason I really didn’t like the Spindle Cove cross-class romance novella that consisted almost entirely of a well-bred young lady ogling and lusting after the hardworking, hard-bodied village blacksmith. And there’s a bit too much of it here, with Izzy’s inner panting about Ransom’s buckskins and boots. I’m sure this actually says more about me and my own internalized heteronormative perspectives on male vs. female maturity and sexuality than about the writing. I can handle the hero’s inner horny adolescent in most cases, especially when it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Somehow it doesn’t work for me in reverse, maybe because with this type of heroine it comes across as more clueless and breathless, instead of lusty and funny. Mostly, thank goodness however, there’s a lot of snap-crackle-pop dialogue that’s plenty lusty and funny.

“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”

“Oh, there’s a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.

Blind to Love? And then there’s the disability theme here. I’m not sure what I think about the blindness of the hero. Ransom’s visual disability, which is partial and recent — due to an injury sustained in a fight over a woman — is a major plot hinge.  There are a couple of minimal glimpses of self-pitying “you deserve better than me” nonsense, and there’s Izzy’s oddly swoony realization that he’s “overcome” his affliction through intense concentration on mapping the castle and its furnishings by feel. Plus the part about his refusal to eat in front of anyone, which causes a train wreck of a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get Ransom to “accept” help.

On the up side, there’s a whole back-and-forth theme running through the novel, about who, exactly, is “saving” who.  She’s penniless and fainting from hunger as the novel opens, and he picks her up in his strong arms and revives her in dashing romance-hero style. At the end of the story she is saving him emotionally, from himself  and his wounded isolation. He’s saving her, emotionally and sexually, from an oppressive and repressive public image as “England’s Storybook Girl” (more about that anon). She’s also, with his permission, “rescuing” him from the aspects of his disability he truly cannot overcome without aid (she reads and scribes for him), and which almost lead to a disastrous end (his lawyers have been skimming funds and selling property out from under him, while he’s been moping around ignoring his mail).

It’s frankly hard for me to tell whether all this comes across successfully as part of the ironic exploration of over-used romance conventions, or merely re-produces an unwelcome set of disability dynamics. Unlike other disabilities, blindness also works as an easy metaphor in romance — he can’t see her, but in the end, when he acknowledges his love for her he’s the only one who really sees her… for who she is… her inner beauty…. etc etc. I did like the fact that neither his blindness nor Izzy’s “plainness” are reversed in order for them to love or to HEA. And the question of Izzy’s appearance remains open-ended, which is also refreshing — there is no cheesy miracle recovery enabling Ransom to see her with his eyes and tell her, and us, that she’s really actually a paragon of beauty.

The Enduring Appeal of Gothic Tales Overall, I think the first half of the novel is cracking good fun and I loved the blend of frankly bawdy banter with burgeoning awareness between Izzy and Ransom of each other’s isolation and deep loneliness. In spite of the apparent effervescence, there are difficult emotions surfacing and real shadows lurking — poverty, neglect, exploitation.

Things decelerate and get more sentimental after they start having actual sex and figure out that someone is out to steal the duke’s fortune and title by having him declared incompetent. The final section of the story is a bit like a caper, as they join forces with Duncan (the trusty manservant) and Abigail (the friend from the village) and a roving band of enthusiastic LARPers, to prove the lawyers are defrauding the estate and the duke is neither insane nor unfit.

And yet in spite of the sentimentality, this is where I really got hooked. It was the nutty LARPers that did me in. You see, our heroine, Izzy Goodnight, is not just any old penniless, bookish spinster.  She’s a celebrity.  She has a dual identity as both the inspiration for a leading character in England’s best-selling serialized fairytale, and the daughter of its wildly famous author (recently deceased). The Goodnight Tales are the 19th-century equivalent of, say, a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings phenomenon, set in the fictional world of Moranglia, and featuring a princess in a tower, a dark brooding hero, and a Shadow Knight villain. Izzy is ambivalent about her public image as “England’s precious innocent.” She lusts, she’s pissed off at the injustice of her financial situation (her male cousin got everything), and she’s more steel than satin, with a hidden history of strength and unheralded accomplishment. Yet she is never cynical, and neither is this novel, in spite of the element of farce.

The existence of a massive Moranglian fandom, complete with LARPing knights and maidens, could easily have been the big joke here. Ransom is amused and mocking at first, while Izzy drops into character (“Good Sir Wendell, please be at ease. I’ll come thither anon!”) to welcome the clankingly costumed Knights of Moranglia and Cressida’s Handmaidens, who’ve tracked her down on the way to a re-enactment and encampment.  The “fancy-dress fools” are figures of fun, but in the end, it’s a shared belief in doing the right thing – sheer old-fashioned honor and loyalty – that forge bonds of trust and mutual respect between the ill-tempered duke and his newfound fans.

“Make up as many stories as you wish. Just don’t make me the hero in them.”

Of course the Moranglians, like the reader, can see plainly that he’s the romance hero — I loved how cleverly and yet simply Dare accomplished all this, without over-writing or over-thinking it.

“Even if you did read my father’s stories, I doubt you’d enjoy them. They require the reader to possess a certain amount of…”

“Gullibility?” he suggested. “Inexperience? Willful stupidity?”

“Heart. They require the reader to possess a heart.”

There are knowing winks and nods to medieval romance from Lord Tennyson to Laura Kinsale, but the meta-story is an unabashed appreciation and celebration of gallant deeds and happy endings.

“You don’t have to admire my father’s stories,” she said. “But don’t disparage the readers, or the notion of romance.”

Defaulting to the Duke? I so appreciate a book that can make me laugh, even as it’s teasing out something fundamentally important about the nature of fiction and fandom, romance and reading. I don’t even mind so much about the surfeit of dukes anymore, at least not in the context of a book that’s thoughtful and genuine. I recognize Euro- and Anglo-centric romances about white aristocrats offer a privilege-reinforcing fantasy for some readers. There’s no doubt the genre will be better off as we see more and more historical romances about other kinds and colors of people.

Bitch Media published a great interview with the Love in the Margins team from last week that provided an interesting foil – and rich array of other options – as I pondered the pros and cons of the mainstream dukely regency, which has become such a dominant default in the genre.  I’m still ambivalent about it overall. But a cleverly told fairytale is always welcome, and who wants to live in a world where readers are disparaged for the books they enjoy — as long as those readers, and the writers of such books, are willing to interrogate their choices?

ROMANCING THE DUKE is available from Avon in the usual formats and places. I received a copy from the publisher as part of the Avon Addicts program, in exchange for an honest review.

THE ANNOTATED TBR: Winter Reviews & Recommendations

Here’s another round-up of books from my TBR — women of endurance, breaking down gender & war is hell

Some of these are actually sitting on my shelves and some are on my mental list, waiting to be purchased or checked out, depending on the relative levels of my patience and my budget.  The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of my reading aspirations.

HILD by Nicola Griffith  reviewed by Natalie over at Radish Reviews  A historical novel that shatters conventional wisdom about the lives of ordinary women is based on the life of a medieval saint who lived at the court of King Edwin in 7th centrury England? With strong female communities plus a focus on material culture (textiles and tapestries)? Yay!  Back in my own Dark Ages (college) I studied English medieval architecture, and even read me some Venerable Bede, and I still harbor a lingering fascination with the “strange but true” tales of anchoresses and abbesses and other female acts of virtue (or vice) deemed important enough to find their way into the written record.  Natalie has mentioned this book on twitter often enough that it’s pretty much topping my wishlist right now. And then there’s the reviewer at NPR who says this book shatters the myth that women of the middle ages were too oppressed to make interesting subject matter for historians. I’m curious to see for myself how this work of meticulously researched historical fiction might “read” like fantasy. For some reason I want Hild to look and act a little bit like Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, but since I haven’t read this book yet I should probably refrain from ‘dream casting’.

REVOLUTIONARY by Alex Myers I am eager to read this not because of a particular review, but because once I saw it reviewed a couple of places, it just sounded like a book I need to read. RevWar history is one of my side obsessions. I live less than a mile from the path Paul Revere’s horse trod out to Lexington on April 19th, 1775  and last summer I tracked down the grave (in Blacksburg, Virginia) of an ancestor who served as a private in a Maryland regiment and, according to family lore, witnessed the surrender of the British at Yorktown. This novel tells the story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who hid her gender and fought as a man in the American Revolution. Alex Myers himself has experience living both male and female lives; he was recently interviewed by The Daily Beast about the book, and his life as a female-to-male transgender person. Of course this seems to be a big part of the buzz around this book, but it’s really not the main reason I’m interested in reading it. I am always on the hunt for a well-told Revolutionary tale and I’m hoping this one will soon have a place of honor on my Best Of Minutemen shelf.

AncillaryJustice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie   reviewed by Janine Ballard at Dear Author This is pretty far outside my usual territory, but Janine’s review grabbed my attention since she loved it so much and I consider her the right kind of tough critic. Also, she’s read Outlander and is willing to entertain a deconstructionist conversation about whether or not it’s a romance, so when she talks about falling “headlong” into a novel it makes me think something pretty interesting must be going on. So even though this is science fiction, and the protagonist is an artificial intelligence who may or may not be female, it sounds like this is a novel about relationships, loyalties, and the construction of gender, and I am happy to have a hold request for this book pending at my library.

THE SHATTERED ROSE by Jo Beverley  I’ve been thinking a lot about JoBev recently, thanks partly to Janet Webb, who is a fellow appreciator and fans the flames of my Malloren/Rogues obsessions.  I’ve read nearly all of Beverley’s canon, but none of the medievals. When I posted about Lucien hitting Beth in An Unwilling Bride, the ensuing discussion revealed that The Shattered Rose also involves jealous anger and violence between hero and heroine.  Because Beverley can always be counted on to be challenging, even in the context of an engaging and absorbing romance, I’m very curious to see how this plays out in a medieval setting, especially with the story told from the hero’s POV.  A brief review and summary are here, at The Romance Reader.

THE OUTCASTS by Kathleen Kent I just feel like reading something western.  Also, Kent is the author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Heretic’s Daughter, both of which rank among the most beautiful and haunting historical novels I’ve read in decades. Possibly ever. Set in and around Puritan Andover and Salem in the years prior to the witch hunts, the former is so achingly romantic I reviewed it as a romance even though it is so not a Happy Ever After story. It was a beautiful HFN, though. Sigh. But on to Texas, and a book that sounds possibly even more menacing — a ruthless prostitute on the run from the law (after escaping from a brothel where she was a virtual prisoner).  In the Salem novels Kent’s portrayal of frontier justice and hard women chafing in the cages society places around them was breaththaking and I found I quite liked her female protagonists’ rough edges. Since the Dallas Morning News did not seem to like her very much, I’m very curious about Lucinda, and what happens when she runs into a Texas Ranger tracking a murderer. I’m a little afraid I may not like her, I’m not sure it’s going to be romantic, and I’m definitely not betting on an HEA, but I am definitely going to read this book.  

In fact, several of these books are making me think about female characters who are unsympathetic in one way or another. Since I haven’t yet read them, I can’t speak to their likeability but sometimes unlikeable heroines are actually my favorite kind.

Happy reading!

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).

Of Marriages and Mallorens: A Backhanded Look at Jo Beverley’s Feminist Brides (and still more violence)

AN UNWILLING BRIDE and SEDUCTION IN SILK: forced marriages, feminist rhetoric, and another violent hero

I’m a huge Jo Beverley fan. Beverley has pretty much everything I’m looking for in historical romance: characters with depth and humor, solid and convincing historical settings with just the right amount of intriguing trivia concerning manners and material culture, intricate world-building and interrelated stories across multiple books, richly imagined and not-too-cheesy dude groups, a dash of bromance, strong well-read heroines, a lovely long backlist to explore, and a willingness to test the conventions of the genre. Beverley’s novels can be fun, and funny, but they are not light. I could go on and on but there’s already a wonderful summary of the best of Beverley here @ Janet Webb’s “Jo Beverley Appreciation” for Heroes & Heartbreakers.

I thought I had read pretty much her entire backlist, or at least all the Rogues (Regency-era) and Malloren (Georgian-set) novels, but a funny thing happened last October right after I read Seduction in Silk, which is the newest book set in the glittering Georgian world of the Mallorens. I was pondering this novel’s explicit discussion of feminist issues regarding marriage, property rights, and the legal status of women, when Liz @ Something More blogged about throwaway uses of the word feminist in romance fiction, and wondered about a “strain of resistance” to the appearance of feminist language, or principles, in the genre. ErinSatie identified a counter-example drawn from the historical romance subgenre — Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride:

…the entire novel is straight-up structured to question the appeal of alpha men from the perspective of a feminist heroine who has to deal with the worst flaws of one.

It’s not the most emotional romance novel, but it’s tight, well-structured, thoughtful. A romance writer at the top of her game grappling with a troubling aspect of her own work and profession.

At that point, I jumped in with an incoherent comment, and subsequently realized either I’d somehow skipped book #2 in the Company of Rogues series, which was 1992’s An Unwilling Bride, or I wasn’t remembering it very well. It turns out I was confusing it with the first in the series, An Arranged Marriage (1991). Of course I was excited to uncover a ‘hidden’ treasure – a heretofore unread novel from the Beverley canon. I read Unwilling Bride last week, and it compelled me to revisit Seduction in Silk.

Love, Honor, and Obedience Both these books contain a similar forced marriage premise, and feature somewhat unlikeable and rigid spinster heroines who read Wollstonecraft and/or make use of feminist rhetoric to mask the unsettling realization that the hero’s appearance in her life has revealed she may actually have emotional, romantic, and sexual needs. Which of course this man, whose presence has been thrust upon her, can and will meet.

In each case the emotional journey of the couple involves actual conversations with each other (and each of them with various friends and relations) about the meaning of matrimony and the effort involved in the crafting of domestic harmony. Beverley’s characters explicitly discuss how to arrange their lives together to allow mutual interests and individual identities to thrive and prosper. She is masterful at weaving such conversations (not just in these two books) into the narrative and giving voice to feminist concerns about the marital state, property rights, masterful husbands, and the appeal of the badass alpha, without breaking the character of her Georgian and Regency period settings. This is partly accomplished through the liberal use of bluestocking heroines who read Wollstonecraft, but is also due to careful research and excellent dialogue.

From Seduction in Silk:

“There is no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to Miss Mallow.”

“That is for her to judge.”

“Unreasonable woman! There’s no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to her, because I’ve promised that after the vows are said I will leave her completely to her own devices.”

Genova cocked her head. “That does remove many objections. However, before the law you would still be her master.”

“As Ashart is yours.”

“A factor that weighed with me, I assure you. Love is the very devil.”

Keeping Her In Line  Both these books were absorbing, satisfying reads — the kind of reading experience where you find yourself musing about the characters and their interactions or conflicts when you’re not actually reading. Yet my satisfaction with the two HEAs was decidedly dissimilar. Seduction in Silk left me pleased and content, but was more memorable for its strange subplots than for the actual relationship, which ended up being rather bland in spite of a rather explosive beginning.

An Unwilling Bride left me unsettled and (almost) unwilling or unable to believe in the HEA.  Yet in a way I love this book more for its edginess and willingness to more deeply interrogate the historical romance enterprise itself — what does it mean (both for the heroine and for the reader) when the HEA involves submitting to marriage with no legal protections? How to balance the pleasures of a period setting with the tolerances and interests of contemporary romance readers in the post-feminist era? Some historicals leave legal matters offscreen except when needed as plot device, but Beverley’s characters directly converse about essential everyday questions related to the status of women.

From An Unwilling Bride:

“How do you keep her in line, then?”

…. “In what line?”

It was a challenge and Lucien reacted by stiffening. “Within the line of appropriate behavior.”

Nicholas’s warm brown eyes became remarkably cold. “I’ve never stayed within that line myself. Why should I try to impose it on anyone else?

“She’s your wife, damn it.”

Nicholas shook his head. “She’s Eleanor. I never wanted to become the guardian of another adult human being and God was good and granted me a wife able to accept freedom…”

Both these novels present heroines facing tough choices and harsh consequences if they refuse to accede to the marriage that’s been arranged. Yet although Claris Mallow, a country rector’s daughter struggling to raise and educate her younger brothers (Seduction in Silk), faces much more precarious economic circumstances and hardship, Beth Armitage’s experience as the titular Unwilling Bride in the earlier novel feels both harsher and more emotionally precarious.

Force vs. Persuasion  The most obvious reason for the different tenor of the two relationships is the contrast between heroes Lucien de Vaux, daredevil rakehell with violent tendencies who treats his unwilling bride with a mixture of hostility and detachment for much of the book (until he suddenly falls in love with her and becomes overprotective and jealous), and Peregrine Perriam, amiable charmer and beta hero who eventually wins his bride over with a combination of practicality, directness, and silken luxuries. Both couples are forced to the altar by external circumstances involving adultery (by parents or other relatives) and inheritance, and much of the eventual romance takes place after each couple has tied the knot.

(Spoilers beyond this point, especially for An Unwilling Bride)

Lucien and Beth are the 1992 Regency couple from An Unwilling Bride. At their best they are swapping erudite quotations and bantering about books, while engaged in a very public show of courtship and endless social events at the very highest level of London society. I loved that they discovered shared enthusiasm for competitive quoting that offers them a safe space for exchanging ideas and genuine opinions.  But at their worst they withhold and dissemble so much that they constantly offend and resent one another, and there is a terrible lack of trust between them which only becomes more disturbing when Lucien’s violence erupts and he strikes Beth.

That’s right — this is a 1992 RITA winner in which the hero backhands the heroine across the face in an uncontrolled jealous rage. I’m still wrestling with my mixed responses to this book, which I was love love loving right up to this point. Beverley dropped clues to Lucien’s barely-contained violence along the way, which I thought were interesting in and of themselves — it’s clear Beth found him physically intimidating but she was also coming to understand and love him. But I wasn’t expecting to spend the final chapters preoccupied, as are both characters, with Beth’s bruised face and whether or not I can believe in (a) Beth’s immediate forgiveness or (b) Lucien’s redemption and vow that it will never happen again.

As for Perry and Claris of last year’s Seduction in Silk, they too must cope with the emotional fallout of a violent episode.  This time, however, the gender dynamic is reversed and it is a pistol-wielding woman who expresses deep rage and frustration by shooting her would-be suitor at point-blank range. Fortunately, trusty maidservant Ellie had loaded the weapon with powder but no shot. Perry is unharmed, but Claris is undone by the realization that she has almost killed a man. And truthfully, the whole episode, indeed the whole novel, is played for laughs to a much greater extent than Lucien and Beth’s story. Where Beth appears clever but helpless, and even makes her own situation worse with several strategic errors that plant the seeds of mistrust, Claris comes off  as wacky but not without resources.

Not all feminist brides are created equal Although they share the same views about the disadvantages inherent in submitting to marriage, Claris and Beth respond differently because their circumstances are so different. Beth, with only a spinster aunt and the school where they teach to call home, capitulates early in the novel and internalizes her anger at being manipulated into marriage, becoming ever more isolated and fragile in her sudden ascendance to the rigors of public life in a ducal household. She does assert her autonomy by choosing to help a downtrodden former student seeking refuge (which secondary plot leads to all manner of mayhem and more violence, including the bloody death of a villain who did terrible things to Nicholas Delaney in the previous book in the series). But overall, she just seems entirely overshadowed by Lucien and his confidence, physical presence, powerful allies, and warm circle of friends.

With my other Beverley couple of the week, it is Claris who overshadows Perry. She’s got a motley household to manage, a warm and quirky assortment of family members, and an agenda — to see her younger brothers educated as gentlemen. The two of them also have a convoluted curse plot to unravel, and a manor house to save. As a younger son, Perry has made his way in the role of diplomat and courtier; he puts others at ease and blends into the background, leaving center stage to pistol-packing Claris and her starchy, self-interested grandmother, Athena. Claris doesn’t want to marry because she fears loss of independence and she has a genuine fear of the risks of child-bearing, but she’s also got strong motivation to marry since it will improve her economic situation sufficiently to ensure her brothers’ futures.

Perry is being forced into the marriage by the terms of an unlikely will, but he sets out to win Claris’s acceptance directly, resulting in a narrative of seduction and pursuit that is tart and tangy and not at all unpleasant. Among other things, he brings her well-chosen gifts including fruit and silk (he’s receiving mentoring from Ashart and Genova, an iconic Malloren-world couple). This is all very witty and charming, and asked the right questions about submission, autonomy, and identity, but it wasn’t nearly as challenging as Lucien and Beth’s story.

Violence in Romance With Lucien and Beth, Beverley forces the reader to look right into the heart of a marriage, which has now become a love match, where the husband has legal authority over his wife, and listen in when he struggles to rationalize his belief system in the context of his abhorrent behavior.

“Yet you threatened to beat me. Twice.” She didn’t mention it, but the blow which marked her face hovered between them.

They walked a little way in silence before he responded. “I suppose I consider force appropriate on occasions, but I have no excuse or justification for what happened tonight.” Thoughtfully he added, “It worries me considerably.” After a moment he continued, “As for my threats, I threatened to beat you – although I don’t know whether I could do such a thing – when you seemed about to bring scandal into the family. If it helps, I’d threaten to beat a man in the same situation, and be more likely to do it. Does that make you more equal, or less?”

“I don’t know,” said Beth, frowning. “It’s late and I’m tired. That must be why you can justify violence to me. It can’t actually make sense.”  (An Unwilling Bride)

The rest of the novel focuses on Beth and Lucien working together to rescue Clarissa, the imperiled former student, from a forced marriage, along with Lucien’s badass former mistress (she and Beth become friends and allies) and several other Rogues and their wives. There is more violence, and even worse the implied violence and misery of the life Clarissa would have been sentenced to — virtual enslavement to an evil husband who is known to be a sexual sadist and rapist. I think it’s interesting that this secondary plot surfaces quite graphically in the final chapters of the novel. Is Beth so determined to help Clarissa because she wishes someone had done the same for her when she was facing the blackmail threats which resulted in her own unwanted marriage? She had no way of knowing what kind of man Lucien would turn out to be.  Or does she see Clarissa’s situation as completely different from her own, given that by this point in the story she and Lucien have fallen in love and she has succumbed to the physical and intellectual attraction she had for him from the start? Still, on what basis does she trust that his blow was a one-time mistake? I kept wishing that Nicholas and Eleanor had got wind of it, with perhaps some severely man-to-man, and mano a mano, consequences being meted out. And then I can’t believe I’m wishing for more violence to balance the scales!

In the end I almost always prefer a romance novel that makes me think, or even pushes against the limits of my comfort zone. An Unwilling Bride does both these things, and boldly raises many more questions about the appeal of the romance genre, and historical romance in particular, than it answers. Does the HEA justify the means, even if vows are forced?  Where do we draw the line when it comes to an unwilling woman? OK for her to be forced to the altar, an act with far-reaching legal repercussions, as long as the hero doesn’t force her sexually until she consents?  Is she merely reluctant and skittish and ripe for falling in love? Or is the forced marriage trope a common theme because it provides narrative space to explore various ways in which a woman may be taken against her will, from the emotional shock of falling in love, to the social requirement of marriage, to the surrender to desire?

What about the vulnerability of falling in love with someone who will have legal authority over you once you marry him? Seduction in Silk echoes some of these questions, but the sharp edges are blunted — it’s a much more comfortable read. Which begs the further question — was Beverley seeking to make readers uncomfortable with the earlier book? Does having the hero actually hit the heroine force us to examine our own willingness/unwillingness to engage with the badass hero fantasy? Can you believe in the HEA if there has been violence between the hero and heroine? Was this just much more common in the 80’s and early 90’s than I am remembering? Are there any other romances you have enjoyed where the hero strikes the heroine in anger (to distinguish such acts from those in BDSM romance where the violence is consensual and ritualized)?

Seduction in Silk and An Unwilling Bride are available in the usual formats and places. An Unwilling Bride was recently released as an e-book. I purchased both books at my local used paperback shop.