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“Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies” by An Goris

Introduction

These are exciting times for popular romance scholars.[1] Over the last few years a number of interconnected developments—including the founding of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) in 2009 and of the peer-reviewed Journal of Popular Romance Studies in 2010, the increase of international conferences about popular romance (Brisbane (2009), Brussels (2010), New York (2011), McDaniel (2011), York (2012), Freemantle (2013)) and the funding of substantial academic grants by Romance Writers of America (RWA) and The Nora Roberts Foundation—have stimulated the increasing institutional establishment and recognition of the field of Popular Romance Studies. As the overall study of the representation of romantic love in popular culture gains academic ground, the scholarly examination of one of the genres at the epicenter of this emerging field—popular romance fiction—is in transition as well. The inclusive, genre-wide and generalizing approach that characterizes many older studies of popular romance fiction, including such foundational works as Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) and even some parts of Pamela Regis’ seminal A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), is slowly being replaced by a more focused and differential approach.

Such a differential approach to the study of popular romance fiction seeks to address not the whole of the genre (as older studies are wont to) but specific subparts of it. These studies are then based on more specified corpora of primary texts. Examples of such studies are recent work on romance subgenres (see e.g. Neal (2006), Fletcher (2008) and Betz (2009)), particular authors (see e.g. Frantz (2009)) and even individual novels (see e.g. Selinger (2012)). The findings and conclusions formulated in these studies are usually less general and wide-ranging than those often formulated in older romance studies. Slowly, the decades-old scholarly tradition of making very general claims about the popular romance genre as a whole is then being replaced by a more specified perspective in which the scholar seeks to address not the similarities of the whole, but the specifics of the parts of the whole. In this setup, the general claims of older studies often serve as a (normative) framework against which individual cases—of particular romance authors or novels, for example—are being tested. As will be illustrated in this paper, such a more differential approach to the study of popular romance leads to analyses that recognize (instead of obscure) the variety that exists within the genre and that are often more refined, nuanced, and sophisticated than before.[2]

The general claims about popular romance fiction that are taken to task in this paper have to do with the representation of romantic love—and, more particularly, of the mind and the body in love—in popular romance novels. Specifically, the paper investigates Catherine Belsey’s claim that popular romance novels offer a particular construction of the mind and the body in love that purports to resolve the (postmodern) tension between the body and the mind—the material and the immaterial—but eventually fails to do so. This recurrent construction, Belsey suggests, explains the massive appeal of the popular romance novel as well as the curious disappointment readers supposedly feel at the end of the happily ending romance tale (21-41). In this paper, Belsey’s general(izing) claims about popular romance novels are used as a framework to study the work of Nora Roberts, the single most popular romance author of our time. In particular, the paper analyzes the representation of the body and the mind in Roberts’ construction of romantic love on the basis of eight of the author’s novels. By investigating if Belsey’s claims about the irresolvable tension between body and mind hold true for Roberts’ hugely popular work, this paper develops a nuanced understanding of one of the core motifs in Roberts’ vast oeuvre that might shed some light on its immense popularity.

The General Claim: Mind, Body and Love in Popular Romance Novels

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the popular romance novel appear in the second chapter of Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (1994), the scholar’s theoretically sophisticated and wide-ranging study of the representation of desire in Western texts. In line with this work’s overall theoretical interests, Belsey turns to critical theory to try to explain the popular romance novel’s massive appeal. Her analysis focuses mainly on the representation of romantic love as a phenomenon that impacts both the body and the mind in popular romance novels. This dual conceptualization of love, Belsey notes, is in line with long-standing Western traditions of dual conceptualisations of identity and the self that originated with René Descartes and his colleagues of the Enlightenment. These thinkers put forth conceptualisations of the human subject as internally disjointed and divided along the line of the body and the mind that have held sway in Western culture ever since. Although Belsey notes that such dual conceptualisations have come to seem “natural and inevitable” (23), the notion that the self is internally disjointed remains a deeply unsettling idea in many ways. Popular romance novels, Belsey finds, capitalise upon this anxiety and this is the secret to their extraordinary appeal. In these novels, romantic love offers “a promise to bring mind and body back into perfect unity, to heal the rift of experience which divides individuals from themselves” (23). Such a promise, Belsey posits, strongly appeals to the contemporary reader.

However, Belsey is quick to note, fulfilling this central promise is easier said than done and herein lies the romance genre’s problem. Romances attempt to bridge the gap between mind and body by consistently connecting intense sexual sensations to moral and emotional feelings of commitment and love (23). This goal, Belsey elaborates, induces the genre’s rather specific representation of sexuality as “elemental, beyond control, majestic, thrilling, dangerous” (27)—a construction that is in part achieved by the stereotypical representation of sexual passion in metaphors of powerful natural phenomena such as a hurricane, a flood, a storm, an earthquake or a wave. While such extremely intense sexual sensations ensure the involvement of the body in the experience of romantic love, physical passion alone is not enough. Indeed, Belsey observes, for this passion to constitute true love, not only the body but also the mind has to be engaged: the rational, knowing subject is, in love, “required to speak, to assert his identity as a subject” (29).

It is here, Belsey claims, that the crux of the problem lies. Words spoken in the heat of passion are not to be trusted since this passion has explicitly been presented as “bewildering, transporting of consciousness, sweeping away all sense of the self, [which] precisely deflects subjectivity and consequently defers the moment of moral commitment” (29). Only the words that are spoken afterwards, “independently [from the bodily experience], once the knowing, willing subject is restored,” are the words that really matter (30, emphasis mine). But herein lies also the failure of the romance novel to live up to its promise of unifying mind and body. Inasmuch as the romance project hinges on words spoken in this separate, post-passionate context, it does not bring body and mind together, but rather enforces the distinctions between them. “To the extent that the aim was to dissolve the opposition between mind and body in a story of true love,” Belsey concludes, “the project signally fails in these instances” (30). This failure, Belsey finally suggests, explains why “the fantasy [romances] offer is a little disappointing” (31): romance novels consistently fail to live up to the promise that constitutes (at least in Belsey’s eyes) their biggest appeal.

The sense of disappointment Belsey speaks of is not, as such, identified or described by romance readers. To the contrary: in Janice Radway’s classic study, to which Belsey repeatedly refers, readers consistently identify positive emotions at the end of the romance reading experience and claim romance reading makes them feel good (60-66). Belsey does not consider these claims to be incompatible with her own conclusions, however. Instead she suggests that the frequent repetition of the romance reading act Radway observed likely confirms her hypothesis:

It emerged that the Smithton women were reading a great many romances. [ . . . ] Is it conceivable that this avid reading is an indication that the optimism created by romance is more precarious than it is possible to say? Perhaps the next romance is there to compensate for the disappointments engendered by the last? All we can be sure of is that readers of romance tend to crave more romance. A number of the Smithton women acknowledged an anxiety about whether they might be depressed by their reading [ . . . w]hat if the anxiety is precisely an effect of their extensive reading experience, a silent recognition of unconscious disappointment that the stories have consistently failed to resolve the divisions they depend on? (34-35)

Although Belsey formulates her ideas as questions, she quite strongly suggests that the repetition of the romance reading act is not, as readers tend to claim, primarily motivated by positive emotions, but rather by a sense of disappointment that readers might not be consciously aware of: a disappointment which is, in Belsey’s eyes, very likely a consequence of romance reading itself.

Belsey and the Evolution of Romance Scholarship

Although Belsey’s claims have found very little response in subsequent romance criticism, she puts forth a set of interesting, challenging and even provocative ideas. The notion that the popular romance novel’s massive appeal—a (seeming) conundrum that has confounded many a critic—has something to do with the texts’ complex relation to anxieties about self and identity that are typically associated with the (post)modern condition is a new, intriguing and valuable suggestion that certainly deserves further scrutiny. While Belsey’s discussion of the romance reader’s lack of awareness of her own negative response comes off as somewhat belittling, the suggestion that romance reading triggers a more complex reaction than straightforward happiness—and that this reaction might have something to do with the desire to read more romance—is fascinating nonetheless. Belsey’s study thus offers a number of suggestions that deserve further exploration.

Such further exploration is undertaken in this paper, but in line with the ongoing development in the field of Popular Romance Studies there is an important methodological difference between this study and Belsey’s. Notwithstanding the impressive theoretical suggestions the latter makes, Belsey commits an important methodological faux pas in her study by failing to adequately discuss the size, composition and selection of the primary corpus on which her findings are based. Moreover, since in the course of her discussion Belsey refers to no more than six romance texts, the (apparent) size of her corpus seems decidedly too small to warrant the genre-wide scope of her claims. The present study deliberately makes different methodological choices by first, focussing on the oeuvre of a single author and second, selecting novels from that oeuvre according to explicit, clear-cut principles.

Nora Roberts

This paper focuses on American writer Nora Roberts, who is widely considered the most popular and successful romance author of our time. Since her first category romance novel was published in 1981, Roberts has written more than 200 romance novels. A staggering 178 of these have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, on which the author’s novels have so far spent a total of 932 weeks (or 17 years). As the first (and only triple) inductee in RWA’s Hall of Fame and the recipient of a record-breaking twenty-one RITA Awards, Roberts is one of the most distinguished romance authors in RWA’s and the romance genre’s history. With more than 400 million copies of her books currently in print Roberts is, moreover, not only the top-selling romance writer, but also one of the bestselling authors in the world.

Remarkably, Roberts is also one of the most understudied authors in the world. Whereas the oeuvres of Roberts’ fellow bestselling authors such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and John Grisham are studied regularly, Roberts’ romance oeuvre has hardly drawn the academic gaze.[3] Barely a handful of studies on her work have been published; a monograph that takes on Roberts’ complete oeuvre does not currently exist.[4] In this regard Roberts does not differ from other contemporary romance authors—the author study remains an important lacuna in scholarship on this genre—but her status as one of the bestselling authors in the world makes the lack of studies on her work especially remarkable.

Perhaps one of the reasons scholars have been reluctant to take on Roberts’ oeuvre is its sheer size. Already counting more than 200 novels and increasing by an average of five new novels every year, Roberts’ body of work is simply colossal. It is also decidedly too large to subject to the close reading analysis on which this present study is based, so for the purposes of this study a selection had to be made. This selection takes into account a number of the most significant variables present in Roberts’ oeuvre—including year of publication, subgenre, part of series or standalone and original publication format—and eventually resulted in eight novels.

  Publication Subgenre Series / stand alone Original format
Irish Thoroughbred 1981 Contemporary Irish Hearts series Category
One Man’s Art 1985 Contemporary MacGregor series Category
Suzanna’s Surrender 1991 Contemporary/

Suspense

Calhoun series Category
Montana Sky 1996 Western/

Suspense

Stand alone Single title

(hardcover)

Morrigan’s Cross 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (1) Single title

(paperback)

Dance of the Gods 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (2) Single title

(paperback)

Valley of Silence 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (3) Single title

(paperback)

High Noon 2007 Suspense Stand alone Single title

(hardcover)

Although this collection of eight novels does not represent the full range of Roberts’ oeuvre—Roberts’ alter ego J.D. Robb is missing and the decade between 1996 and 2006 is underrepresented, to name its two most important shortcomings—the corpus is nonetheless fairly well-balanced and compatible with the practical constraints of a study like this one.

The Integration of Body and Mind in Nora Roberts’ Romance Fiction

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the pivotal importance of the representation of the body and the mind to the immense appeal of the popular romance genre open up interesting avenues of inquiry for the study of Nora Roberts’ work. As Belsey’s observations imply, the complex relation between body and mind plays a central role in Roberts’ representation of romantic love, which is indeed conceptualized as a dual force that impacts the body as well as the mind. While to a large extent Roberts’ romance novels follow the patterns of the genre insightfully uncovered in Belsey’s study, in one crucial regard Roberts’ novels deviate from this pattern. Whereas Belsey claims that popular romance novels consistently fail to realize the bridging of the gap between body and mind their conventional representation of romantic love promises, the analyses in this paper reveal that in Roberts’ romance fiction the unification of body and mind is always represented as successful. The potential implications of this observation for our understanding of Roberts’ popularity are addressed in the conclusion to this paper after the pattern that achieves this unification is described in more detail.

Divided Selves During the First Meeting

In Roberts’ romances, the process that ends with the complete and successful integration of the lover-subject’s body and mind starts with their explicit separation. Indeed, at the beginning of Roberts’ stories the division between the lover’s body and mind is repeatedly stressed in the narration. All first meeting scenes analyzed in this study emphasize the protagonists’ double, diverging response to each other: strong and immediate physical attraction is combined with a form of conscious dislike, irritation, or anger. Although this representation differs slightly from the pattern observed by Belsey—who finds that the division between mind and body is mainly situated in the heroine’s emphatic bewilderment over, lack of understanding of, or even full-out distrust of her body’s uncontrollable, explicitly sexual response to the hero (24-26)—the first meeting scenes in Roberts’ romances nonetheless systematically introduce, and emphatically stage, the basic dichotomy between body and mind around which the rest of the romance narrative essentially revolves.

The first meeting scene between hero Grant Campbell and heroine Gennie Grandeau in Roberts’ 1985 category romance One Man’s Art is an example of this construction. Hero Grant is severely “annoyed” (264) when heroine Gennie shows up at his doorstep during a stormy night, disrupting his much-valued solitude and privacy. Roberts quickly adopts the hero’s point of view to emphasize that barely seconds after letting the heroine in he already “wished fervently he’d never opened the door” (263). Gennie, put out by Grant’s “unfriendly, scowling face” and rude and unwelcoming behavior, adopts an “icy tone” and remains “distantly polite, [ . . . ] frigid and haughty” (264), but privately “seriously consider[s] heaving her purse at him” (265). The narration of this immediate dislike and annoyance is instantly complemented with the narration of their physical attraction. Grant is “thrown” by Gennie’s “sea green, huge and faintly slanted” eyes (264) and “when the sight of her [ . . . goes] straight to his gut” he realizes she is “too beautiful for his peace of mind” (267). The unambiguous statement that Grant is “furiously annoyed by the flare of unwelcome desire” (268) makes the opposition between his mental and physical response textually explicit. Gennie is portrayed as equally attracted, experiencing a physical “stir” and “a thrill [of . . . ] anticipation” (269). Again, the body’s response is explicitly opposed to the mind: she is depicted as “catching herself” and internally lecturing that “even her imagination ha[s] no business sneaking off in that direction” (269). The division between body and mind, staged continuously throughout this first meeting scene, is once more explicitly narrated in the scene’s closing paragraphs:

He wondered what she would do if he simply got up, hauled her to her feet and dragged her up into his bed. He wondered what in the hell was getting into him. They stared at each other, each battered by feelings neither of them wanted while the rain and the wind beat against the walls, separating them from everything civilized. (270)

The parallel syntactic construction of the first two sentences (“He wondered . . . He wondered”) discursively reinforces the notion—made explicit in the narration—that within one person, one self, two opposing reactions are simultaneously ongoing; the physical, sexual response is represented as a force separate from the conscious self—indeed, Grant experiences it as “getting into him.” The opposition between mind and body is again stressed in the statement that both Gennie and Grant are “battered” by physical “feelings neither of them want.” The subsequent sketch of the violent natural setting in which these “feelings” occur explicitly underlines the distinction: the “civilized” mind is “separated” from the unruly, feeling body.

The Body As Marker of Sincerity

A fundamental aspect of Roberts’ representation of the divided self at the beginning of her romance novels is the emphasis on the mind’s inability to control the body in these instances. Roberts’ narrations consistently stress the passive, powerless position of the mental self who undergoes the sexual attraction, the invasive physical impact of the romantic other, but who emphatically lacks power over these bodily reactions and cannot stop them. This uncontrollability not only stresses the schism between body and mind that exists within the lover’s self at this early stage of the romance narrative, but is also an essential aspect of Roberts’ construction of the body as a site of (emotional) truth. In Roberts’ fictional universes the body consistently functions as a marker and display of (emotional) truth. Profound, heart-felt, sincere emotions instantly manifest bodily: faces pale in shock, fingers tremble from sadness, hands jerk in surprise, voices shake from anger and eyes are bruised, battered or smudged from emotional pain. Time and again, Roberts’ narrations stress that the mind—the conscious, thinking self—has no control over these physical manifestations.

Importantly, this emphatic lack of mental control implies an inability to consciously manipulate the body—in Roberts’ fictional worlds, when true love is involved, the body cannot lie. The uncontrolled body thus necessarily and certainly displays true, sincere, authentic emotion—and to say that the body displays these emotions means, in effect, that in Roberts’ romance fiction the body becomes a text that can be read in order to gain insight into one’s true emotional state, even when the novel at hand does not explicitly deploy textual metaphors. This “reading” of the body is undertaken by both the characters within the fictional world and the novels’ readers outside of it. Indeed, in an interesting doubling act, the novels’ characters, like the novels’ readers, become readers and interpreters who turn to the body-text to gain insight into their own or another character’s true emotions.

Roberts’ deployment of the body-text as a marker of sincere emotion is exemplified in a scene from the 1996 single title Western romance Montana Sky. The scene depicts the story’s heroine, Willa Mercy, in a state of profound emotional distress. She has just discovered the murdered and mutilated body of her long-time employee Pickles and faces the loss of her home, ranch and livelihood due to the murder. While throughout the novel Willa is usually characterized as an exceptionally strong and decisive woman, this is a point in the narrative where she reaches emotional rock bottom. In the following excerpt she is confronted with her two half-sisters, with whom she has a strained relationship, and experiences a range of conflicting emotions. Willa’s complex emotions—which include grief over Pickles, horror over the image of the mutilated body, guilt because she had words with the victim mere hours before his death, bone-deep fear of losing her home and livelihood and eventual extreme relief when she realizes the ranch is safe—impact her body, which instantaneously displays them.

Willa came into the kitchen, stopped short when she saw the women at the table. Her face was still pale, her movements still jerky. [ . . . ] She slipped her hands into her pockets as she stepped toward the table. Her fingers still tended to shake. [Her sister confirms the ranch is safe. . . . ] Because wine seemed like a fine idea, Willa crossed to the cupboards and took out a tumbler. Then she just stood there, unable to move, barely able to think. She hadn’t been able to fully consider the loss of the ranch. [ . . . ] But it wasn’t until now, until she knew [it was safe], that it hit her. And it hit her hard. Giving in, she rested her head against the cupboard door and closed her eyes. Pickles. Dear God, would she see him for the rest of her life, what had been done to him, what had been left of him? [ . . . ] But the ranch, for now, was safe. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” She didn’t realize she’d moaned it out loud until Lily laid a tentative hand on her shoulder. (110)

In this scene, Willa’s body clearly functions as a text displaying her emotions as both the characters within the fictional world and the novel’s reader outside of it interpret Willa’s emotional state of mind via the physical signs displayed by her body. Her pale face, jerky movements, shaking fingers, closed eyes and unconscious moaning are conventional physical signs of emotional upheaval. The pronounced contrast between her purposeful, controlled physical actions—“cross[ing] to the cupboards and tak[ing] out a tumbler”—and the purposeless, uncontrolled ones—“just [standing] there, unable to move, [ . . . ] rest[ing] her head [ . . . ] clos[ing] her eyes”—constructs and reinforces the interpretation of the latter as manifestations of and responses to profound emotions.

The character’s lack of conscious control over her body’s display is stressed multiple times in this short scene and ensures the sincerity of these emotions. It is clear that the characters in this fictional world are aware of their bodies’ truth-revealing and communicative potential: Willa attempts to hide her shaking fingers, knowing those bodily manifestations would reveal a depth of emotional turmoil she is uncomfortable displaying in front of her sisters. Lily’s supportive “hand on [Willa’s] shoulder” indicates, reversely, that not only grief but also support and comfort can be communicated solely by the body. The marked absence of language—dialogue—in this scene adds to its emotional impact as it constructs this world as one in which emotional truth can be read directly from and conveyed by the body-text, making emotional deceit and insincerity virtually impossible.

Sex: So Much More Than Just Sex

Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—which is pervasive in her texts and an important conceptual pillar on which her fictional worlds rest—implies that the body uncontrolled by the mind displays emotional truth. This notion puts another perspective on the function of sex in the representation of romantic love. Roberts’ texts emphasize the physical, natural, powerful and non-rational aspects of sex and sexual desire, which are represented as ultimate acts of the body as opposed to the mind. In the experience of sexual sensations “the body rule[s] the moment” (High Noon 222) and the thinking, rational, controlling self is temporarily suspended as the natural impulses of the body take over. This representation is frequently based on the association of sex with powerful natural phenomena and a lack of rationality and control on the part of the mental, conscious self. As Belsey notes, metaphors of powerful natural phenomena and disasters are often used to describe sexual sensations in popular romance novels, and Roberts indeed tends to depict sex in rather unimaginative and very conventional—even clichéd—metaphors. Sexual sensations are like a “flame [ . . . and] fire, in the blood, in the bone” (Valley of Silence 62), “long, liquid waves” (High Noon 312), “turbulence,” “a tidal wave” (Irish Thoroughbred 195; 129), “a rage” (Montana Sky 134), “a fever” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389), “a full-scale explosion” (One Man’s Art 306) and “liquid flames” (Dance of the Gods 96). Via these metaphors Roberts not only emphasizes the powerful, uncontrollable force of the sexual experiences—sex is literally and metaphorically depicted as a force of nature—but of course also inscribes the texts in the conventions of the romance genre.

The rational subject’s lack of control in the physical sexual experience is further emphasized in Roberts’ narration by her representation of sexual desire and sensations as a near-violent force that seems to attack the body. Descriptions such as “desire [ . . . ] pierced through him” (Morrigan’s Cross 43, emphasis mine), “each separate scent slammed into his system, pumping through his blood, roaring through his head,” “dozens of sensations knifed into him, all sharp and deadly” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389; 429, emphasis mine), “the stab of desire [ . . . ] left a nagging ache,” “it rocket through him, fierce and fast,” and is “an assault on the system” (One Man’s Art 304-5, emphasis mine) systematically invoke the semantic field of violence and thereby stress the uncontrollable nature of this desire.[5] These descriptions also serve to represent the subject’s experience of sexual desire as an external phenomenon which does not seem to originate within the (conscious) self. The gap between body and mind seems wider than ever in these passages.

This dissociation between body and mind is reinforced by the recurring and explicit associations of sex with a lack of rationality; physical sexual sensations are repeatedly represented as causing the mind to “turn off” (Valley of Silence 141). Here are two exemplary passages:

He brushed his thumb over her nipple, watched the shock of pleasure flicker over her face. “Turn that busy mind off, Moira.” It was already as if mists clouded it. How could she think when her body was swimming in sensation? [ . . . H]er mind misted over again as his hands, his mouth, slid like flaming velvet over her body. [ . . . ] She was nothing but feelings now, a mass of pleasures beyond any possibility. [ . . . ] His hands simply ruled her until she was a hostage to this never-ending need. Half-mad she struggled with his shirt. (Valley of Silence 141)

But right at the moment, with her back up against the door and his mouth hot on hers, thinking wasn’t part of the equation. [ . . . ] His hands dove into her hair, skimmed over her shoulders, molded down her body with such purpose and skill that any idea [ . . . ] went straight out of the window, and kept on flying. [ . . . ] With her mouth under assault and her blood flashing from comfortably warm to desperately hot, her body ruled the moment. [ . . . ] The sensations careening inside her flew too fast, too high for [ . . . ] any hope of sanity. (High Noon 221-22)

Physical sexual pleasure is explicitly presented as causing a temporary suspension of the self’s rational capacity: Moira’s mind is “clouded” by “mists” and “misted over” due to the hero’s sexually arousing touches; “thinking [isn’t] part of the equation” in these scenes as rational thoughts go “straight out the window and [keep] flying.” Again, the sexual body is presented as the opposite of the rational, thinking mind: “how could she think when her body was swimming in sensations?” During sex the self is then reduced to “nothing but feelings, a mass of pleasures” and the “body rule[s] the moment;” the rational self is temporarily suspended in this act and, the love scenes stress over and over again, overpowered by the natural body that for an instant overtakes and occupies the entire self. This hyperbolic representation of sex—Roberts projects the feelings surrounding the orgasmic moment to all sexual sensations—emphasizes and exaggerates the uncontrollable nature of sex and, by extension, the body.

Whereas Belsey interprets this representation of sexuality as indicative of how body and mind are and remain separated, my reading of Roberts’ use of these topoi recasts them as a pre-condition for the authenticity of the true love that is later realized in the complete unification of body and mind. This interpretation builds on Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—an interpretive strategy that constructs sexuality as undeniable physical proof of the authenticity of an as-yet mentally unacknowledged emotion. This interpretation of sex is further supported by other, explicitly non-sexual manifestations of the body. Indeed, the bodies of Roberts’ lovers/protagonists do not exclusively respond to the other in a sexual way, but also experience and display strong non-sexualized reactions. These are diverse and range from the small and seemingly unremarkable—an “uneven beat of [the] heart” (Irish Thoroughbred 43), hands that naturally “belong” (One Man’s Art 328) together, a “quick hitch in [the] gut” upon seeing the other cry (Montana Sky 65), a throat snapping shut when being “wooed” (Dance of the Gods 90), and the natural “fit” of each other’s bodies (Montana Sky 115)—to more elaborate physical responses.

In the following brief scene from the 1991 category romance Suzanna’s Surrender, for example, hero Holt’s body experiences and displays his strong emotional response to heroine Suzanna at a time in the narrative when he has not yet consciously realized or acknowledged his feelings for her (let alone openly confessed them to her). Holt’s body displays as-yet-unspoken feelings of affection and love, but this display is clearly not sexual:

[Holt] rubbed a thumb over the line between [Suzanna’s] brows in a gentle gesture that surprised them both. Catching himself, he dropped his hand again. (Suzanna’s Surrender 421)

Again the conscious self’s lack of control over this bodily act (“catching himself”) is stressed; the body, disconnected in these acts from the mind, displays and reveals an emotional truth the rational, conscious self has not yet acknowledged. While the overwhelming sexual response then generally dominates the protagonists’ physical reaction to one another, such non-sexual physical manifestations confirm what the emphatic uncontrollability of the sexual acts already indicate, namely the existence of an as-yet linguistically unacknowledged emotion of which these bodily manifestations are both the physical trace and proof.

The Meaning of the Body

Although these physical manifestations and reactions are an essential part of true love, they do not suffice: as Belsey remarks, for popular romance novels the difference between love and lust lies in the complete involvement of the mental self (28-29). In Roberts’ novels as well, true romantic love comes into being when not only the bodily but also the mental self is involved in the phenomenon. This mental involvement consists, as Belsey already indicates, essentially of language: the lover speaks about love, in doing so asserts his/her identity as a subject and involves his/her complete self in the romantic love he/she speaks of. However, whereas Belsey posits that it is in this speaking that the dichotomy between mind and body is reconfirmed and reconstituted—the words have to be spoken “independently” from the body (Belsey 30)—I claim that in Nora Roberts’ romances in this speaking of love the gap between body and mind is definitively bridged.

In a fictional world in which the body functions as a text the physical manifestations of love have double significance: they offer the unquestionable physical proof of love’s truth by making it tangible, anchoring the immaterial to the material, and they signal and display this truth to be read, interpreted and linguistically realized. Still, Roberts’ representations of romantic love consistently make the point that without the active intervention of the conscious, thinking, speaking self this physicality is and remains mute. It is only when the thinking, speaking subject intervenes with the transformative act of interpretation that these otherwise meaningless physical manifestations become significant and meaningful, in the etymological senses of both words. This transformative act, the “making” of meaning and sense, takes place in language; physical reality (the body) is “put into words” and thereby transformed from meaning-less to meaning-full. As long as love is only apparent in the body and remains consciously, rationally and linguistically unacknowledged, it remains without meaning, regardless of how materially real and true the bodily manifestations prove it to be. It is in this transformative process of making the meaningless physical truth meaningful that the gap between body and mind—emphatically staged at the start of the romance—is bridged in Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love. This bridging takes place in three successive stages.

The first stage consists of a remarkable discomfort, unease and even fear the protagonists experience over (some of) their physical reactions. Montana Sky hero Ben, for example, is “unnerved” (115) by the way Willa fits in his arms, Irish Thoroughbred’s Adelia finds her physical “awareness” of Travis “disturbing” (47), Blair, in Dance of the Gods, feels “wary” (48) about kissing Larkin, Holt and Suzanna both “resent and fear” (Suzanna’s Surrender 383) the intensity of their physical attraction, and Morrigan’s Cross’ Hoyt “fears” (82) the intensity of his desire for Glenna. This resentment and fear is all the more remarkable because it is often connected to physical and sexual sensations that are essentially pleasurable (exceptionally so even). The lovers’ marked unease then indicates a consciously unarticulated awareness on their part that the intensity of their bodily response is a sign of an otherwise as-yet-unacknowledged emotional truth: they are falling in love. The concept of love—that is, the signifier ‘love’—remains strictly unarticulated by the protagonists in this stage of the story, however.

The second phase in the bridging of the gap between mind and body by making meaningless physical truth meaning-full via interpretation and linguistic actualisation consists of a rudimentary linguistic acknowledgement of the physically enacted emotional truth. This elementary linguistic acknowledgement takes place in the use of the explicitly vague and generic term “something” (sometimes “it”) to refer to the phenomenon that in a later stage will be acknowledged as true love. Roberts uses this word in this way multiple times in all the novels in this study; a few examples:

[S]he had tapped into something inside him he hadn’t known was there—and was still more than a little uncomfortable with. Finding it, feeling it left him as vulnerable as she. (Suzanna’s Surrender 470)

 

I feel for you. You stir something in me. Yes, it’s difficult, and it’s distracting. But it tells me I’m here. (Morrigan’s Cross 127)

 

There was longing in him for her, which he thought as natural as breath. But there was something tangled with it, something sharp that he didn’t recognize. (Dance of the Gods 100)

 

Still, there was something inside her, something she couldn’t quite see clearly, or study, or understand. Whatever it was made her uneasy, even nervy around him. (Dance of the Gods 212)

“Something” is an interesting choice of words: on the one hand it signifies a rudimentary linguistic actualisation of the physically manifesting truth, which is at this stage in the story still unnamed and thus unsignified; “something” changes this and brings the uninterpreted, mute physicality into the meaning-full, human world of language. On the other hand, however, “something” is a word that essentially means nothing. It is so vague and generic that in the act of naming it signifies not-naming; even as it puts into words—signifies, linguistically actualises—a physical reality, it refuses to assign it actual, concrete meaning. Still, this use of “something” signals the beginning of the bridging of the gap between mind and body as it starts the mental naming process of a bodily experienced truth. It does not, however, fully bridge the gap; the lack of concrete meaning makes the transformative act of interpretation and signification incomplete.

The gap between body and mind is fully bridged in the third phase: the actual use of the word “love” in naming the physical and emotional phenomenon the protagonists are experiencing. This first conscious naming takes place in the protagonist’s initial, introspective realization or acknowledgement that he/she is in “love” with the other. It is one of the most important moments in the romance novel and its representation as an isolated, crystal clear moment poised in time and place reinforces its perceived significance.

Why did he always send her into a flutter? she wondered. Why did her pulses begin to race [ . . . ] whenever she looked up and met those marvelous, blue eyes? [ . . . ] She’d lost. She’d lost the battle, and though she fought against it, she was in love with Travis Grant. (Irish Thoroughbred 78)

 

Love. He’d managed to avoid it for so many years, then he had thoughtlessly opened the door. It had barged in on him, Grant reflected, uninvited, unwelcome. Now he was vulnerable, dependent—all the things he had promised himself he’d never be again. (One Man’s Art 408)

 

He glanced toward her and felt the punch low in his gut. [ . . .] When his palms grew damp on the wheel, he looked away. Not falling in love, he realized. He’d stopped falling and had hit the ground with a fatal smack. (Suzanna’s Surrender 442)

 

Love. His heart ached at the word so that he pressed his hand to it. This was love then. The gnawing, the burning. The light and the dark. Not just warm flesh and murmurs in the candlelight, but pain and awareness in the light of day. In the depths of the night. To feel so much for one person, it eclipsed all else. And it was terrifying. (Morrigan’s Cross 247)[6]

In these scenes, the most crucial step in the bridging of the gap between mind and body is taken: the physical materiality of the body—already rudimentarily signified by “something” but still lacking true meaning and thereby a place in the ordered, comprehensible, signified human world—is transformed into a signified linguistic entity and irrevocably takes on meaning. The gap between mind and body is then completely bridged in these scenes since these words are not spoken independently from the body, as Belsey would have it, but are to the contrary both a linguistic, mental actualisation of the bodily experience which cause further bodily repercussions. Indeed, the use of the word love impacts the body. Body and mind are intimately connected; the self is unified.

From Love to True Love Via “I Love You”

Although in the initial linguistic actualisation of love the gap between the lover’s body and mind is bridged, the love that is realized here does not yet qualify as the utopian true love around which popular romance novels conventionally revolve. The discourse that is used in the initial realization scenes tends to signal that something is still amiss. In the examples cited above, for instance, love is considered a “lost battle”, it “aches [ . . . ] gnaws [ . . . ] burns,” brings “pain” and uncomfortable “awareness;” and is explicitly “uninvited, unwelcome,” “terrifying,” and “fatal.” The semantic fields of battle and violence which are systematically invoked in thinking about love in this stage of Roberts’ romance narratives are discursive traces of an underlying problem: the lover has not yet freely, rationally, actively chosen this love. Instead, this love is a physically proven truth, a fait accompli, a material fact the existence of which the lover can no longer ignore or deny, but to which he is at this point essentially subjected. In other words, the lover lacks agency in love.

That the lover’s agency and volition, his free and active choice to accept and embrace love, is crucial to Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love is something that is established repeatedly in the narratives in this study. Roberts’ lovers tend to make a clear distinction, for example, between the physical manifestation of sexual desire and other bodily signals of love on the one hand and the choice to accept and want those desires and manifestation—to want, in other words, romantic love—on the other. Morrigan’s Cross’ heroine Glenna Ward pointedly formulates the central dilemma Roberts’ lovers/protagonists face in this regard when after her first, fiercely passionate kiss with reluctant hero Hoyt, she muses: “He wanted her, there was no question of that. But he didn’t choose to want her. Glenna preferred to be chosen” (Morrigan’s Cross, 83). The signifier “want,” here a reference to sexual desire, and “choice,” here a reference to the innately human capacity of free will, explicitly differentiate between the desires of the body and the mind in play in this scene and the entire romance. The heroine’s explicit assertion that she “prefer[s] to be chosen” indicates the importance of the lover’s conscious volition in the matter of true love. In deliberately choosing to accept and actively embrace love—a love that has been constructed as both physically and emotionally overwhelming—the lover takes on agency in the experience and finally completes the realization of true love.

Lovers in Roberts’ popular romance novels take on the necessary agency in the declaration of love, which is constituted by uttering the deceptively simple words “I love you.” The communicative nature of the declaration of love distinguishes it from the earlier, interior linguistic realization of love. In uttering the words “I love you,” the lover openly declares his love to the other and transforms the status of his love from private to public. As love becomes a shared knowledge between the lover and the beloved, it also becomes part of the world outside the self and, consequently, requires a place within that exterior world. The successful declaration of love signals the lover’s free will to assign love that place in the world, to freely and completely accept the potentially overwhelming experience and give it a meaningful place in his reality, as we can see in this example of a successful declaration scene:

I love you. [ . . . Y]ou’re my breath, and my pulse, my heart, my voice. [ . . . ] I’ll love you even when all of them stop. I’ll love you, and only you, until all the worlds are ended. So you’ll marry me, Blair. And I’ll go where you go, and fight beside you. We’ll live together, and love together, and make a family. (Dance of the Gods 313)

The lover first re-establishes the truth of the love-phrase by explicitly referencing the body and then places his declared love in the meaningful, recognizable socio-economic and cultural order of the world by tying it to the culturally conventional institutions of marriage and family. In this way the lover takes on agency in the experience of love as he performs the choice to accept and embrace the potentially overpowering natural phenomenon and places it in the meaningful world of culture. The subject’s cultural placing of love in the conventional entities of marriage, home and family checks love’s natural, potentially uncontrollable power and transforms it into a steady and strong basis for the protagonists’ lives together.

Although the successful declaration of love that completes the realization of true love is always constituted, in Roberts’ popular romances, by the phrase “I love you,” the words alone are not enough. “I love you” is only successful as a declaration of love when it performs the lover’s volition to place love in the cultural order and to make romantic love into the foundation of the culturally conventional entities of marriage (a lifetime spent together), home and family.[7] That simply speaking the words “I love you” does not constitute the successful declaration of love becomes clear when we look more closely at one of the few unsuccessful declarations the corpus of this study includes. In One Man’s Art, for example, the protagonists declare their love to one another for the first time about halfway through the novel, but these declarations are ultimately unsuccessful (the relationship still falls apart afterwards). A closer reading of the scene reveals the problem:

[Hero Grant:] “I feel like someone’s just given me a solid right straight to the gut. [ . . . ] So now I’m in love with you, and I can tell you, I’m not crazy about the idea.” [ . . . ]

[Heroine Gennie]: “If you’re in love with me, that’s your problem. I have one of my own because I’m in love with you.” [ . . . ]

[Grant] “We both would have been better off if you’d waited out that storm in a ditch instead of coming here. [ . . . ] I’m in love with you, and damn it, I don’t like it. [ . . . ] I love you [ . . . ] I don’t like it, I may never get used to it, but I love you. [ . . . ] You make my head swim.” (405-7)

Although both hero and heroine speak the conventional words of love—words which are, moreover, explicitly connected to the body, so the material truth of this love is not in doubt—the characters do not perform the free choice to accept that love. Grant’s repeated assertion that he “does not like” being in love with Gennie signals his lack of agency in the experience. The love he speaks of is the one over which he has no control and in which he makes no choice; it is the powerful, dangerous, potentially overwhelming kind of love which has not yet been brought into the cultural system—love without a place in the conventional cultural order. This unplaced love, though physically real and linguistically declared, is a “problem” to which neither character, in this stage of the story, has the solution. This problem is solved in the final scene of the novel when the protagonists’ declarations of love lead to a marriage proposal and, implicitly, the perspective on a shared home and family (492-98).

As a successful declaration of love, the phrase “I love you” then works in a very particular way in Roberts’ romance novels. Declared under the appropriate circumstances and conveying a particular set of meanings, the declaration realises—actualises, makes real—true love and thereby literally changes reality. Indeed, it is precisely in saying the words that true love is realised: the declaration “I love you” performs true love. “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in all of Roberts’ romance novels, but this functioning is especially clearly illustrated in the paranormal romance Morrigan’s Cross, in which the story’s paranormal setting is used to explicitly depict the reality-changing impact of the declaration of love.

“I love you.” She saw his eyes change. “Those are the strongest words in any magic. I love you. With that incantation, I already belong to you.”

“Once I speak it, it’s alive. Nothing can ever kill it. [ . . . ] I love you.” A single beam of light shot out of the sky, washed over them, centred them in a circle of white. (249-50)

“I love you” is considered an “incantation,” “strong [ . . . ] magic[al]” words which perform the belonging to each other that romantic love implies. This scene emphasizes the power the spoken love-word has in Roberts’ romances: once love is spoken, it is “alive. Nothing can ever kill it.” The words, moreover, not only have an immediate effect on the body (“his eyes change”), but also literally change reality (“A single beam [ . . . ] white”).

This performative speech act, which can only be realized by a lover whose body and mind are harmoniously unified within the self, completes the lover’s journey and often heralds the beginning of the romance novel’s (in)famous happily-ever-after ending. The unification between body and mind—between the order of the material and of the immaterial—that is ultimately achieved in the experience of true love in Roberts’ romance novels turns these happily-ever-afters into epistemologically very appealing fictional universes. In these implied fictional worlds the radical insecurities that are part and parcel of the (post)modern condition are overcome and replaced by epistemological certitudes. These are worlds in which the self is unified, the body displays truth and the truth can be spoken. In these worlds true love not only exists, but becomes the epistemological, emotional, cultural, and economic foundation on which all else rests. These are, in short, the massively appealing fictional worlds that Belsey claims the popular romance novel promises but fails to deliver.

Conclusion

If Nora Roberts succeeds where, at least according to Belsey, other romance authors fail, is this success then the secret to Roberts’ unprecedented popularity? According to the terms set by Belsey’s older study, this would be the logical conclusion indeed. If Belsey is right in claiming that the massive appeal of popular romance fiction lies in its promise to unite mind and body and if Nora Roberts is the only author to actually consistently achieve this fictional unification, the logical outcome would be that it is Roberts’ mastery of this particular construction of romantic love that underlies her exceptional popular success.[8] This suggestion is certainly intriguing and deserves further scrutiny in future work. But for the moment methodological rigor—of a kind that is characteristic of the further maturation of the field of Popular Romance Studies discussed in the introduction to this paper—urges caution in an attempt to avoid hasty conclusions.

A number of questions in fact remain open. While it is, for example, clear that this construction of romantic love recurs in Roberts’ romance novels, it remains unclear whether it is specific to Roberts’ work. Comparative analyses of other authorial romance oeuvres are necessary to determine the wider occurrence of this pattern. If the construction turns out to be specific to Roberts, further sociological or anthropological study of the reception of these novels is necessary to substantiate Belsey’s theory-based claim that it is precisely this particular representation of romantic love that determines the massive appeal of Roberts’ oeuvre. If the construction is not specific to Roberts’ oeuvre, it is possible that this study points towards an important wider historical shift in the romance genre. It is imaginable, for example, that the representation of the body and the mind as it was recorded by Belsey is a textual reflection of a particular cultural moment of anxiety about female sexuality. In the more than two decades that have passed since the publication of the novels used in Belsey’s study, this cultural anxiety surrounding female sexuality has lessened. Roberts’ representation of romantic love might in fact be a textual trace of this wider socio-cultural evolution. Further study is necessary to substantiate such speculations.

As the scholarly study of popular romance fiction enters its fifth decade, transformations in the practice of this scholarship are in full swing. While these transformations necessarily imply a certain degree of distancing or separation between older and younger generations of romance scholars, the discussions in this paper illustrate the continued relevance of older studies to the present generation of popular romance scholars. Although we might be inclined to reject many of these older studies because of their (over)generalizing approach to the genre (see e.g. Selinger (2007)), this paper has shown how such general claims continue to be valuable as they provoke new and interesting analyses of the genre. The future of the study of popular romance fiction lies neither in the outright rejection of older claims nor in the uncritical acceptance thereof, but in our ability to use the powerful tools we find in earlier work to further our growing understanding of this complex and evolving genre.

Works Cited

Belsey, Catherine. Desire. Love Stories in Western Culture. Cambridge (U.S.A.): Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S.G. “Darcy’s Vampiric Descendants: Austen’s Perfect Romance Hero and J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood.” Persuasions 30.1 (2009): n. pag. Web. March 14 2012.

Goris, An. “Response to Pamela Regis: Matricide in Popular Romance Scholarship?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Lennard, John. Of Modern Dragons and Other Essays on Genre Fiction. Humanities-Ebooks, 2007. Ebook.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Print.

Olivier, Séverine. “ “Femme, je vous aime…”? Nora Roberts, une inconnue sortie de l’ombre dans l’univers sentimental.” Belphégor 7.2 (2008) n. pag. Web. 4 May 2010.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

—. “Complicating Romances and Their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 145-54. Print.

—. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?”  Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Roberts, Nora. Dance of the Gods. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

—. High Noon. London: Piatkus, 2007. Print.

—. Irish Thoroughbred. 1981. Nora Roberts. Irish Hearts. New York: Silhouette Books, 2000. 9-205. Print.

—. Montana Sky. 1996. New York: Jove Books, 1997. Print.

—. Morrigan’s Cross. London: Piatkus, 2006. Print.

—. One Man’s Art. 1985. Nora Roberts. The MacGregors Alan-Grant. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books, 1999. 249-498. Print.

—. Suzanna’s Surrender. 1991. Nora Roberts. The Calhoun Women. New York: Silhouette Books, 1996. 361-506. Print.

—. Tonight and Always. 1983. Nora Roberts. From the Heart. New York: Jove Books, 1996. 1 – 166. Print.

—. Valley of Silence. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

Selinger, Eric Murphy. “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance).” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 33-46. Print.

–. “Re-reading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48:2 (2007):307-324. Print.

Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Print.

Valeo, Christina. “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 229-240. Print.


[1] This paper could not have been realized without the help and support I received from Professor Eric Selinger; I thank him most cordially for his feedback. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers who reviewed earlier versions of this piece and provided many valuable suggestions.

[2] For a more extensive discussion of the development of the study of popular romance fiction and the relation between older and more recent studies of the genre see Regis (2011) and Goris (2011).

[3] That vastly less scholarly attention is paid to Roberts than to other contemporary bestselling author of genre fiction is indicated, for example, by data in the academic databank JSTOR which stores bibliographical information about scholarly articles. Several sample searches of JSTOR in September 2010 and September 2012 resulted in 599/800 hits for the search term “Rowling” (“Harry Potter” gave 607/1064), 1158/1449 for “Stephen King”, 213/264 for “John Grisham”, but barely 11/17 for “Nora Roberts” (three of these articles are about a different Nora (Ruth) Roberts and none of them are actual studies of the romance author).

[4] The most important academic discussions of Roberts’ oeuvre are by Pamela Regis (“Complicating Romances” and Natural History 183-204), John Lennard (2007), Séverine Olivier (2008) and Chris Valeo (2012). A first academic monograph on Roberts is currently being prepared by the author of the present paper and is expected to be published by McFarland in 2014.

[5] Given the popular romance genre’s infamous history with rape, an important distinction has to be pointed out here: while Roberts unabashedly emphasizes the violent force of the desire within the self, this violence does not translate into any kind of forced sexual interaction. Choice and free will are of paramount importance in Roberts’ romance fiction and the texts never leave any doubt that the protagonists fully consent to all sexual interaction they have. There is, arguably, one exception in Roberts’ entire oeuvre: in Tonight and Always (1983) the hero comes very close to raping the heroine. Although she eventually “stop[s] struggling … soften[s] and surrender[s]” (142) to him, it can be debated if this is consensual sex or so-called “forced seduction.”

[6] For similar scenes in these and other novels in this study, see: One Man’s Art 348, Susanna’s Surrender 431, Montana Sky 426, Dance of the Gods 228 and High Noon 282.

[7] The idea that “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in popular romance novels has been developed and discussed much more extensively by Lisa Fletcher in her ground-breaking study Historical Romance Fiction; see in particular pp. 25-48.

[8] The keen reader notes a logical inconsistency here because Belsey in fact suggests that the disappointment readers supposedly feel over the failed unification of mind and body drives the desire to read more romance. From this perspective, Roberts’ exceptional success is inexplicable according to the terms set out by Belsey.

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“Jennifer Crusie’s Literary Lingerie” by Laura Vivanco

Jennifer Crusie has stated that “the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86) and this is certainly true of the lingerie she depicts in her own novels. Lingerie plays a significant role in many of her romances from Sizzle, “the first book I wrote even though it was published as my third” (Crusie “Sizzle”), through to Bet Me, which she has described as her “last classic romance” (Jorgenson). Its functions and symbolism vary: in Bet Me sexy underwear is advocated as a way to catch a husband but in Anyone But You a padded bra forms a barrier to intimacy; lingerie deceives and is discarded in Tell Me Lies but speaks eloquently about its wearers’ sexual desires in Crazy for You.

If, as Alison Lurie has argued, “clothing is a language” (3) then the words uttered by underwear are surely among the most intimate for although “such garments have had a utilitarian function the fact that they may have also served an erotic purpose is frankly recognized as a social phenomenon” (Willett & Cunnington 11).[1] In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

[m]arried women began to assume the role of sexual partner; reproduction and sexuality were no longer so closely connected because of altered moral attitudes and the availability of contraception. A number of women underlined their more liberal morality by, among other things, wearing decorative and seductive underwear. (Thesander 105)

Lurie has observed that “Often […] it is not until we see this private costume that we have a real clue as to its wearer’s erotic identity” (246). By describing the lingerie choices of her heroines Crusie can therefore convey important information about their sexuality which might not be apparent from their outerwear.

The cut, fabric and colour of a particular item of lingerie all play a part in shaping its meaning. Tell Me Lies opens as “Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers” (1). The design of this particular set of underpants, intended as “a plant, something so shocking Maddie would have to confront Brent” (332), emphasises the purpose it serves: “black lace crotchless” (23) underpants are supremely functional only in the context of a sexual relationship. The statement they make about Brent’s adultery is given additional force by their fabric and colour.

C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, commenting on the introduction and widespread adoption of coloured underwear, observe that “For centuries ‘white’ had been recognized as a symbol of the chaste ‘pure mind’; it has no emotional tone. It represents the antithesis of erotic colours” (236). In Crusie’s Crazy for You Bill, the anti-hero, associates “Plain white cotton” with a muted sex life and he would prefer to think of Quinn, the heroine of the novel, as “clean, white, plain, good” (218) with underwear to match. He rakes through her lingerie drawer, hating all the items which are neither “plain” nor “white,” until at last he finds a pair of underpants which although not “plain white cotton, they were lacy and brief, bikini pants—not the kind that really covered her up, […] were white” (218). White cotton underwear has similarly chaste connotations for Maddie, the heroine of Tell Me Lies: she “stripped off her white cotton underpants and dropped them on the floor. Nobody committed adultery in white cotton underpants” (99). Lace is clearly more daring than cotton, which is why, when asked if she has “anything sexy or fun in your whole wardrobe” (23), Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, claims to own “some white lace. Sort of” (23). Her friend Jane’s response, “You may already be too old to wear pink lace. Mentally you’re already in gray flannel long johns” (23), suggests that the wearing of “gray flannel long johns” would symbolise a total renunciation of sexual activity. It also indicates that white lace is not as “sexy or fun” as pink lace.[2] The sexiness of pink lace does, however, depend on its shade: Lurie observes that “As more and more white (purity, innocence) is added, the sensual content diminishes and finally disappears” (196).

Later in the novella Emily buys some pink underwear and its “sensual content” is evident from its lack of pallor: it is not a light, innocent, girlish pink, but a “hot-pink” (18), a “wicked pink lace” (73) which she wears when she wants to try something a little “kinky” (73). It seems to assert a strong, sexual femininity with a symbolism more akin to that of red. Red brings to mind danger, heat and red light districts: “bright scarlet and crimson garments have traditionally been associated both with aggression and with desire” (Lurie 195). In Sizzle ruby-red, in combination with black, is used in the packaging of a perfume which indicates that the wearer has “a little bit of devil” (89) in her. Black is less aggressive than red, but neither childlike nor pure: “white suggests innocence, black suggests sophistication” (Lurie 188). In Sizzle when “Emily thought about Richard. Sex with Richard” (33) she almost immediately decides “I need some black lace underwear” (33). On top of the black lingerie she wears “her best short black dress” (34) and then “congratulat[es] herself on how sophisticated and adult she looked” (34-35).

Here Emily’s outwear transmits roughly the same message as her underwear but this is not always the case, for as Martin Scott has observed,

[i]f our clothes, our outer image, mediate between us and the world, then our underwear mediates between us and our clothes; we define our relationship to our outer image by what we wear under it, the interior fashion only we and a chosen few know about. This would be the case with the corporate lawyer who wears red satin bra and panties under the painfully gray dress suit […]. Underwear reminds us that there is a level the outer world does not fathom, and does not even dare admit exists.

In certain circumstances a woman’s lingerie can therefore serve as an undercover protest or a reminder of aspects of her personality which cannot be expressed openly. In Crazy for You Quinn’s underwear contrasts with the image presented by her work clothes. Bill, her ex-boyfriend who has broken into her house, knows that it expresses a sexuality that he “does not even dare admit exists”:

Quinn’s underwear. My secret life, she’d called it. Absurd colors, screaming pinks and metallic golds and acid greens and—

He plunged his hands into the drawer, into the lace and the satin and the silk—“I have to dress like a dockworker to teach art,” she’d said once, “but I can be all dressed up underneath”—all the stuff he didn’t really like, not really, all those weird, bright colors, that wasn’t how he wanted Quinn, bright and hot; his Quinn was clean, white, plain, good—he clenched his fists around the vile stuff […].

He threw the underwear back in the drawer as if it were unclean, contaminated, it contaminated her, he wanted to rip it up, shred it, burn it so it never touched her again. (218)

Bill is evidently threatened and disgusted by Quinn’s lingerie: it asserts her longing for an exuberant, varied sex life.

In Manhunting the heroine’s outerwear also presents a contrast to her lingerie: “She put on some of the new lacy underwear Jessie had picked out for her, and then covered it sensibly with beige shorts and a white sleeveless blouse” (47). Looking at her “dressed in those blah colors” (54) Jake concludes that “There was no heat in her” (54). He changes his mind, however, when a somewhat tipsy Kate shows him what lies beneath the “white sleeveless blouse”:

It was really hot in the sun, but could she go topless? Noooo. And why? Because she was female. Life was sexist. And really, really unfair. She looked over at Jake, cool and comfortable and shirtless, and decided to strike a blow for women everywhere. This is for all the hot women, she thought, and took off her blouse. She was wearing a peach satin and white lace bra […]. It covered, she reasoned, a lot more of her than a bikini top. She felt much better. […]

So much for sexless. Jake shook his head as he watched her […] there must have been something about Kate he’d missed, because he hadn’t pegged her as a satin-and-lace type. Plain white cotton would have been his guess. (56-57)

Kate’s inadvertent verbal double entendre, “hot women,” parallels the unintended message her lingerie sends to Jake. He is correct in his reading of Kate’s bra; by the end of the novel he will have received abundant proof that she is not sexless. Nonetheless, her intentions here were feminist rather than flirtatious and the scene therefore demonstrates that, as Lurie warns, “If a complete grammar of clothing is ever written it will have to deal not only with […] dishonesty, but with […] ambiguity, error, self-deception, misinterpretation, irony and framing” (25).

The feminist bra-burning of the 1960s provides a particularly noteworthy example of the reframing or deliberate misinterpretation of underwear. The feminists whose actions led to the coining of the term “bra-burners” did not, in fact, set fire to any bras, but they did include them in a group of objects which were chosen for disposal during the protests against the Miss America beauty contest:

Bras were only one of many items that were tossed into a “freedom trash can” on the boardwalk in Atlantic City on September 7, 1968: also included were girdles, high heels, cosmetics, eyelash curlers, wigs, issues of Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Ladies Home Journal. (Dow 130-31)

It was the bras, however, which caught the imagination of the media and this was no doubt due in large measure to the sexual connotations of underwear.[3] As with Kate’s display of her lingerie, the feminists’ disposal of their bras was not interpreted by viewers in the way the women had intended: “Bra-burning, it was implied, was the desperate bid for attention by neurotic, unattractive women who could not garner it through more acceptable routes” (Dow 129).

Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, is never considered attention-seeking or unattractive but her underwear also becomes a site of conflict between feminism and patriarchy. The novella opens as she is being informed by her boss, George, that henceforth her budget will be controlled by Richard Parker; she observes that “I’m working for narrow-minded patriarchal creeps” (7). George, who is “short, fat and balding” (5) and leans “back in the chair while I stand at attention” (5), is literally and metaphorically the unattractive face of patriarchy whereas Richard is its most seductive one:

The door at the other end of the conference room opened, and Richard Parker came in, tall, dark and serious. And indisputably the best-looking man Emily had ever seen. Distinguished. Beautifully dressed. Powerful. And sexy. […] For everyone there, Richard Parker radiated power and authority. (12-13)

Richard is, in appearance, a stock romance hero, one of the “‘dark, tall and gravely handsome’ men, all mysterious strangers or powerful bosses” (Snitow 248).[4] He escapes being a cliché, however, due to his awareness of the image he presents:

Without realizing it, she’d let her eyes narrow as she looked at him, so that when he gazed idly around […] he saw her look of undiluted antagonism. His eyes widened slightly, and then he grinned at her as if he was seeing her for the first time, a real smile that accepted her challenge and recognized her as an equal, sharing the absurdity of the moment and of his own new-kid-on-the-block power play. (15)

It takes some time, and considerable effort on Emily’s part, to ensure that he fully recognises her as an equal and listens to her in both their personal and professional lives; the developments in their relationship are accompanied by descriptions of Emily’s underwear.

After one meeting Emily feels only slightly more antagonistic towards her panty hose than she does towards Richard:

“How did it go?” Jane asked, following her into the office.

“Not well, but not badly, either.” Emily kicked off her shoes. “I really hate panty hose. They itch.” (22)

Emily actively resists oppression but the struggle wearies her and she finds relief in throwing away her hated panty hose:

Emily kicked off her shoes and sat in the gloom of her office. I’m so tired, she thought. And my panty hose are driving me nuts. I hate panty hose. They’re an invention of the devil. I’m never wearing them again. She took them off as a gesture of independence and threw them away. There was a run in one leg, anyway.

Instantly she felt better, cooler. She leaned back in her chair and spread her legs apart to cool them, reveling in the relief from the scratchy heat of the hose. (56)

This throwing off of an oppressive garment soon gives rise to sexual thoughts: “It reminded her of other ways of feeling good. It reminded her that she was still so [sexually] frustrated from the night before she wanted to kill” (56). Emily’s freedom from panty hose also pleases Richard sexually, though this was not her intention, and in a scene which may be the most memorable in the novella,[5] Emily is dominated professionally by George (via the telephone) and sexually by Richard, who is under her desk:

“Stop it.” Emily tried to shove him back with her free hand.

“Now, Emily,” George said. “Relax. I’m not interfering with your project.”

“Relax.” Richard put his mouth against the softness of her inner thigh.

Emily moved her hand to his head and tried to push him away. Great day I picked to stop wearing panty hose and start wearing stockings, she thought wildly. Oh, God, what is he doing? We’re in my office, for heaven’s sake.

“Emily?” George said. “Emily, don’t be difficult about this.”

She twined her fingers in Richard’s hair and jerked his head up. He winced and pulled her hand away. “The garters are a good idea,” he said. “Don’t ever wear anything else.” And then he lowered his head again, clamping her hand at her side. (62-63)

Emily’s “gesture of independence” is thus subverted: having chosen to wear stockings, she is now commanded not to “wear anything else.” The desk scene also serves to remind the reader of the similarities between George and Richard, the two figures of authority and patriarchal oppression. The two men echo each other, each telling Emily to “Relax,” and over-riding her objections. Although they both appreciate her talents, neither is willing to treat her with the respect they would accord an equal: Richard is clearly delighted with Emily’s body and underwear and, in the first scene of the novella, George admits that Emily is “smart, and you have a sixth sense about marketing that I’d kill to have” (6), but both ignore her objections. Although Emily enjoys sex with Richard she is aware that she is being metaphorically as well as literally manipulated and, as she makes clear to Jane, she is disturbed by the implications of this:

“Richard is always the one in control. If I make a decision, he approves of it or says no. If he makes a decision, he just informs me of it. If I say something he disagrees with or feels isn’t important, he ignores me. Today is a perfect example. I was on the phone, and he just came around the desk and put his hand up my skirt.” She closed her eyes for a moment at the memory.

“And you loved it.”

“That’s not the point. The point is that he always decides everything, and he never listens to me. I want a little power here, too.” (67)

Emily and Jane at last devise a plan to make Richard listen to Emily by showing him how it feels to be dominated and to have one’s opinions remain unheard. Emily’s underwear is essential to the plan’s success.

Having agreed to “do exactly what I say” (77) in the bedroom, Richard “looked bored and a little chilly” (78). Then Emily’s underwear piques his interest:

She drew her fingertips up her leg, pulling her skirt back over her thigh to reveal her garters, never taking her eyes off Richard. The garters were pink.

Richard began to look more interested. (79)

A little later she is

wondering if any of this was exciting Richard in the slightest. […] When she opened her eyes, Richard was still looking at her.

She unsnapped her garters with one hand.

Richard was definitely interested. (79)

If all Emily had planned was a striptease, it would merely prove that her body and her underwear could attract male sexual attention, which is something she, and the reader, already knows it would. What follows is the use of a stocking in a way which transforms it into part of another “gesture of independence” (56):

[S]he wrapped the stocking around his wrists and pulled them back.

“What are you doing?” He tried to jerk his hands away, but she’d already tied the ends of the stocking to the brass bed frame. […]

“This isn’t funny, Emily.” He yanked at his bonds. “Let me go.”

“What?” Emily asked, smiling at him gently. “I didn’t hear.” (81)

Richard does indeed learn his lesson and on the last page of the novella, with his hand “cupping her lace-covered breast” (92), he states that he’s listening. In an earlier scene Richard had ignored Emily’s advice about how to undo the bra:

[H]e slid his hands beneath her back to find her bra clasp.

“It’s in front,” she whispered, but he still ran his fingers along her back. “Richard, the hook is in front.”

“What?” he murmured into her ear, not listening.

She closed her eyes in irritation […]. She unhooked her bra herself. (52)

This time “‘The hook is in the front,’ Emily said, and he unfastened it” (92); with this unfastening, new prospects open up for their personal relationship.

Clearly a little light bondage is not going to topple patriarchy. It is, however, indicative of a change in Emily. As she observes early on in the novella:

Change him, Emily thought. No, better yet, change me. I’m in this position because I’m modest, cooperative and polite. Because I’m modest, cooperative and polite, I’m working for a vain, obstructive rude man like George. And as if George wasn’t enough, now I have Richard Parker, the Budget Hun. (24)

In using her lingerie to tie Richard up, Emily demonstrates that she is no longer “cooperative and polite.” The final exchange between Richard and Henry Evadne, the owner of the company Emily, George and Richard work for, vindicates Emily’s new assertiveness:

“[…] if Emily feels strongly about the product placement, we will, of course, go with it.” He smiled tightly at Richard. “We don’t know how she does it, but we’ve learned that when it comes to marketing, the best thing we can do is listen to Emily and do exactly what she wants.”

“Yes.” Richard smiled. “I’ve learned that, too.”

“Good.” Henry leaned back, satisfied. “You make a good team. […]”. (91)

In the scenes described above, lingerie is a site of conflict and Emily eventually uses it to assert her power and gain equality. In the professional sphere, however, she is still subordinate to Henry, whom she pleases by devising strategies to sell other women products which may promise more than they can deliver.

Emily admits that “We’re selling emotions here, the sizzle not the steak” (21). The advertising for many products creates “sizzle” by implying that they have semi-magical properties:

In civilized society today belief in the supernatural powers of clothing […] remains widespread, though we denigrate it with the name “superstition.” Advertisements announce that improbable and romantic events will follow the application of a particular sort of grease to our faces, hair or bodies; they claim that members of the opposite (or our own) sex will be drawn to us by the smell of a particular soap. Nobody believes those ads, you may say. Maybe not, but we behave as though we did: look in your bathroom cabinet. (Lurie 29-30)

Emily claims that the perfume, Sizzle, has special powers: “It makes strong men putty in my hands” (Sizzle 92). This is not a literal assertion that it is a magic potion but Emily’s earlier use of Sizzle in the bondage scene (in conjunction with carefully chosen “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie, candles and food) does take on the appearance of a magical ritual when read in the context of her words about how Sizzle will be marketed:

“You’ll note that the bottle [for Sizzle] is the same as Paradise [another perfume], but it’s black, instead of white, with a ruby-glass stopper, instead of a diamond-glass stopper.” […]

“We’re confident that the consumer will make not only the connection with Paradise, but will also subconsciously pick up the dualism here. She’ll wear Paradise when she wants to feel sexy, but sophisticated and in control, Sizzle when she wants to feel sexy and wanton. […]

“And since there’s a little bit of angel and a little bit of devil in every woman, every woman will need both these perfumes,” Emily said. (88-89)

The white bottles of Paradise match the name with a colour associated with spirituality and purity: “In the Christian church, white is the color of heavenly joy and purity […]. In secular life white has always stood for purity and innocence” (Lurie 185). In contrast, black has long been associated with the more malevolent supernatural powers: “The Furies, the three avenging goddesses of Greek drama, always dress in black, and so do witches, warlocks and other practitioners of the Black Arts” (Lurie 188).

Emily incorporates the perfume which expresses the “bit of devil in every woman” into the ritual which Jane has promised “will work. I guarantee you, this time, he’ll listen” (73). Although the references to hell, “What the hell are you going to do?” (77) and evil, “wicked pink lace” (73), as well as Richard’s cry of “Oh, God” (81) and his unease with Emily’s actions, “Don’t ever do that again […] You damn near killed me” (84), can all be read (and, it appears, are uttered by the characters) as mere figures of speech, the allusions to the spiritual realm reinforce the magical subtext of the scene. Threatened with “the spiked heel” (78) of Emily’s black shoe, naked and tied up, Richard takes on the aspect of a sacrificial victim in a satanic rite. Emily’s choice of “black spike heels with open toes” (78) and a “little black slip” (80) reinforce the impression that something occult is taking place. The transition back towards goodness is marked by Emily untying Richard and letting him inside her body, “he felt so good inside her. The feel of his body hot and strong and hard against her, inside her, pushed her out of the limbo of lust she’d been drifting through” (84, my emphasis) and the next morning she prepares food which makes the kitchen smell “like heaven” (85) and perhaps both literally and metaphorically removes any bad taste left by the black magic.

On this occasion Sizzle and the “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie fulfill the promises made by their colouring but in general the magic of lingerie, if it has one, is dependent on the power the wearer and the viewer give it and for this reason scenes of seduction do not always succeed. Prior to her first dinner-date with Richard, Emily asked Jane to go out and buy her some underwear:

The evening started well. Emily brushed her hair in a cloud around her shoulders and wore her new black lace underwear, one of two sets Jane had splurged on with her money.

“Always have a backup set,” Jane had told her. “You never know, he may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion.”

Emily visualized it. “Sounds good.” (34)[6]

Unfortunately for Emily it is her hair, not her lingerie, which seems most likely to be ripped off that evening: “She pulled away from him, holding on to his arm so he wouldn’t jerk her hair out. A lock of her hair was wound around his sleeve button” (39). As a result Emily develops a bad headache and declines to participate in any further sexual activity. In Crazy for You, Darla has made even more of an effort in preparation for sex:

Darla stared in her bathroom mirror, appalled. Forget that the thing she had on was called a merry widow, not the best omen under the circumstances. Forget that it was black lace and scratchy, forget that it was so tight her breasts stood out like they were propped on a shelf […]. Concentrate on the fact that she looked like a rogue dominatrix. […]

She let her hands drop and tried to look less angry. It was the anger that was doing it, she decided. The anger that she was having to try this hard to seduce her husband, to wear this stupid lace thing that Quinn assured her was sexy. (128-29)

Max initially responds by holding and kissing Darla but he then breaks off to discuss her actions and they have a row. After this Darla “peeled the merry widow off […] yanked on her long flannel nightgown” (130) and concludes that she is “[j]ust not a sexy woman” (130).[7]

Although lingerie lacks any intrinsic magical powers, it can have a significant physical effect on the women who wear it. When wearing the black lace “merry widow,” for example, Darla’s waist is “cinched tighter than usual, smaller, so that his hands on her waist made her feel sexy” (130). Most modern lingerie cannot create sensual effects as intense as those produced by a corset:

Tight-lacing […] heightens sexuality by quickening the action of the lungs. […] Many women experience inhibition of breathing, on a swing or by other means, as erotic, ‘breathtaking’. […] Elimination of abdominal in favour of pectoral breathing creates, moreover, movement about the breasts, which may be imagined constantly palpitating with desire. […]

The spasms to which the body is subject during orgasm involve, of course, an often violent quickening of breathing, sensations of breathlessness, heaving of the chest, and contraction of the belly, all of which may be erotically enhanced by manual pressure at the waist, and artificially induced by means of a corset. (Kunzle 18)

Nor can lingerie produce the physical effect of the fictional perfume in Sizzle:

“[…] Suppose we put something in this stuff to make it really sizzle? […] Tingle. Only with heat. A woman wears perfume on the warmest parts of her body—the pulse points. Suppose when she touched the perfume to those places she felt a subtle heat and tingle. It would make her feel excited. Exciting. It would feel like. . .”

“Foreplay.” (29)

Lingerie can, however, be used in foreplay and have a sensual effect on the wearer: as Emily seduces and dominates Richard she “stroked the inside of her thigh with her fingertips, feeling them glide across the smoothness of the nylon, closing her eyes, trying to concentrate on the sensation […]. Surprisingly enough, it was beginning to excite her” (79). Later she leans forwards, “her breasts almost spilling out of the lace. She stopped for a moment, savoring the feel of their weight against the brief bra” (82). Lingerie, then, can in itself give a woman physical pleasure.

This positive aspect of lingerie may, however, be offset by the negative effect of lingerie advertising which encourages the viewer to feel that her body is imperfect. As Rosalind Coward observes

The ideal promoted by our culture is pretty scarce in nature […]. Only the mass of advertising images, glamour photographs and so on makes us believe that just about all women have this figure. […]

Somewhere along the line, most women know that the image is impossible, and corresponds to the wishes of our culture rather than being actually attainable. We remain trapped by the image, though. (45)

Thus, although the images of women’s bodies used in lingerie adverts can create anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, female viewers may nonetheless perceive the lingerie itself as a means to attain a look more closely approaching the ideal. In Manhunting Kate meets a woman who does have one of those few perfect bodies:

Miss Craft, young, blond, and built like a Barbie doll, had eyes of cornflower blue, a tilted-up nose, and a genuinely sweet smile on her lovely full lips. She looked about nineteen.

Great, Kate thought. My competition. I bet nothing on her droops. I bet she doesn’t even wear underwear. (30)

Kate would seem to believe that only a woman “built like a Barbie doll” is free from the need to wear underwear. Nina, the heroine of Crusie’s Anyone But You, demonstrates how concerns about having an imperfect body may convince a woman that she will be undesirable, and therefore unlovable, without the concealment and support provided by lingerie. Nina hides behind her “Red lace Incredibra” (100), a bra so padded it is “round and shapely without her. It practically had cleavage without her. […] It sort of pushes everything together and then shoves it up” (100).[8] Although Nina eventually plucks up the courage to have sex with Alex, she steadfastly refuses to let him see her breasts; her friend Charity is astonished to discover that Nina “slept with this guy for two months, and […] never took your bra off with the lights on” (212). Charity had previously told Nina that “The real problem is that you don’t believe Alex could love you because your body is forty years old and your face has some wrinkles. […] You don’t believe in unconditional love” (144).

According to Coward

Self-image in this society is enmeshed with judgments about desirability. And because desirability has been elevated to being the crucial reason for sexual relations, it sometimes appears to women that the whole possibility of being loved and comforted hangs on how their appearance will be received. (78)

Max, a gynaecologist and Alex’s brother, blames the media and the fashion industry for making women feel this way:

They look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their own perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over. […] And if you tell them their bodies are normal and attractive, they think you’re being nice […] Sometimes, I swear to God, I’d like to set fire to the fashion industry. (158)

Germaine Greer, writing in 1970, said much the same thing:

Women are so brainwashed about the physical image that they should have that, despite popular fiction on the point, they rarely undress with éclat. They are often apologetic about their bodies, considered in relation to that plastic object of desire whose image is radiated throughout the media. […] The woman who complains that her behind is droopy does not want to be told, ‘I don’t care, because I love you,’ but ‘Silly girl, it’s a perfect shape, you can’t see it like I can.’ (261)

Crusie’s Anyone But You, despite being a romance and therefore “popular fiction,” gives us a heroine who does not “undress with éclat” and who, when she expresses concern about her droopy body, is told by her male partner that he doesn’t care “if it’s on the floor. I want you naked now” (185). It takes Nina time to realise that Alex does indeed love her and find her sexually attractive despite the fact that her body is not perfect according to the standards set by the media. Once she has accepted that this is the case, however, she discards the Incredibra, stating that “There was nothing wrong with her body. All right, it was softer than it had been, and her waist was thicker than it had been, and nothing about it could be called perky, but it was a good healthy body, and Alex loved it” (218). Only then can she stand “naked in front of him, with all the living-room lights on” (219).

Nina’s rejection of the Incredibra marks her acceptance of both her body and Alex’s love. Lingerie is also discarded at an emotional turning-point in Tell Me Lies. When Maddie decides to get “rid of the old Maddie completely” (322-23) she throws caution and her clothes to the wind:

[S]he took off her scarf and held it above her head and let the wind blow it away […] she stripped her T-shirt over her head and let that go in the wind, too […] and […] pulled her bra off over her head and threw it in his lap where it immediately blew back over to her side and out of the car. (324)

The final paragraphs of this novel, which opened with Maddie’s discovery of the shocking black lace crotchless underpants, show us Maddie once again holding a pair of woman’s underpants. This time, however, they are her own underpants and instead of concealing them she puts them on display as an indication that there will be no more lies. They announce, to both her neighbours and her lover, C. L., that she is unashamed of being a sexually active unmarried woman:

She stripped off her baby blue bikini underpants and left them on the hall floor for him to find, and then reconsidered and went out on the front porch and hung them on the doorknob instead, waving to Mrs. Crosby, who was squinting at her from her own porch. Then she went back inside. She was sure finding the pants would have an electrifying effect on an already electrified C. L. (347)[9]

Here nakedness is not just about “electrifying” a lover; it also indicates Maddie’s desire for truth and can be read as a rejection of the culture of shame which has surrounded her.

Nakedness is also associated with truthfulness and a lack of shame in Faking It where, in an echo of the words in Genesis describing Adam and Eve who, prior to the Fall, were “both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2: 25), Tilda tells Davy her secrets and “I love you, she thought and kissed him back, naked and unashamed” (317). Tilda is revealing not just her body but also the truth about her family’s history of art forgery. The knowledge Nina tries to hide may seem more trivial: it is merely the truth that ageing has changed her body. To Nina, however, this is a shameful secret which she is desperate to conceal because age, as indicated by Jane’s comment about “gray flannel long johns” (Sizzle 23), is often assumed to bring with it a lack of both desire and desirability.[10]

Although Nina’s Incredibra is worn in an attempt to conceal the truth from masculine eyes, she acquired it as a result of emotional openness with another woman. Having asked her friend Charity to help “rev up my image” (99), Charity obliged by selecting a variety of garments for Nina, including “Red lace panties. Red lace Incredibra” (100). When Crusie’s female characters are friendly with each other they not infrequently discuss underwear. In Manhunting Kate arrives at her holiday destination thinking about “the fancy underwear that Jessie had talked her into buying as inspiration” (27) in Kate’s search to find a husband. Later we see the formation of a new female friendship: Kate “and Nancy talked on through the evening […] comparing life stories and falling into the kind of friendship that women with the same outlook on life can form easily and permanently” (113). When Jake becomes aware of how much information they’ve shared, including details of his financial involvement with Nancy’s business “Jake winced. ‘Did she show you her underwear, too?’” (122). Jake does not mean this literally but there is clearly an association in his mind between female intimacy and lingerie. In Crazy for You, Quinn advises Darla to wear black lace to revitalise her marriage:

“[…] maybe you should go for something really in-your-face.”

“How about I grab him by the throat and say, ‘Fuck me or die’?” Darla said.

“I was thinking more about black lace,” Quinn said. “You know, something incredibly tacky. The kind of thing guys like and we laugh at.” (122)

In Sizzle Jane describes the activities she’s going to engage in while wearing the pink lingerie:

Emily sighed. “Sounds like fun.”

Jane pounced. “You buy some, too.” (19)

Nanette, the mother of Bet Me’s heroine, discusses lingerie’s role in catching and keeping a husband and informs her daughter that

“[…] [y]our prime years are past you, and you’re wearing white cotton. […] If you’re wearing white cotton lingerie, you’ll feel like white cotton, and you’ll act like white cotton, and white cotton cannot get a man, nor can it keep one. Always wear lace.”

“You’d make a nice pimp,” Min said […]. “But honestly, Mother, this conversation is getting old. I’m not even sure I want to get married, and you’re critiquing my underwear because it’s not good enough bait. […]” (63)

There is a difference, however, between Nanette’s approach to lingerie and that of Kate, Jessie, Nina, Charity, Darla and Quinn. It may seem a trivial one given that Kate is husband-hunting, Nina is dating, and Darla is trying to improve her marriage, but it is a difference which is important to Crusie who

graduated from high school in the sixties. […] The madness that defined women’s lives back then was based on four Big Lies:

  1. A woman wasn’t a real woman until she was married.
  2. A woman had to distort herself and deny her own identity in order to catch a man to marry. (Remember girdles, spike heels, inane laughter, playing dumb, and flunking math?)
  3. Any husband was better than no husband.
  4. Staying in a bad marriage was better than divorce because God forbid a woman should be unmarried again once she’d finally achieved the goal.

[…] Writing and living are about us, about who we are and what we want, about satisfying our needs as individuals, about listening to our hearts. Please note, I am not saying give up publication (or marriage) entirely; I’m saying give it up as a goal. (“A Writer”)

For Nanette, a woman of Crusie’s generation, lingerie is not a way for woman to express her personality or obtain pleasure; she only considers its function in terms of the “goal” of marriage.

Nanette is correct in assuming that coloured, lacy lingerie will attract a man’s attention: when Cal “looked down the v-neck of her [Min’s] loose red sweater and saw a lot of lush round flesh in tight red lace” (95) he felt “a little light-headed” (95). Min notices:

“You’re looking down my sweater.”

“You’re leaning over. There’s all that red lace right there.”

“Lace is good, huh?” Min said.

“Oh, yeah.”

“My mother wins again,” Min said. (96)

Nanette has not, however, really won: Cal finds Min attractive regardless of what she wears and Cynthie, his ex-girlfriend, was the very thin and beautiful possessor of highly sensual lingerie.[11] In one of the final scenes of the book Min wears “a strapless black lace nightgown” (359) and Cal states that “I like this thing you’re not wearing. But I still want a chance to rip your sweats off you, too” (362). To Cal, Min looks “wonderful” (187) even in her “godawful sweats” (187). As in Crazy for You, it is made clear that sexy lingerie cannot hold together a troubled relationship and, as in Anyone But You, neither a lack of sexy underwear nor a less-than-perfect body will damage a sexual relationship based on true love.

Regardless of its reception, in Crusie’s fiction even the flimsiest piece of lingerie can be “heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86). This meaning is only partially encoded in the fabrics, styles and colours chosen: it is also dependent on the context in which a particular item is worn or discarded. In one situation, therefore, lingerie can function as an instrument of patriarchal oppression while in another it may serve as a weapon in the feminist struggle; it can be used to signal sexual interest and boost a woman’s confidence but may also reinforce her feelings of inadequacy about her body; it can cause her physical discomfort or give sensual pleasure; although it can indicate a lack of openness and truth, female intimacy is promoted as women discuss their lingerie and via such discussions give each other emotional support that complements the physical uplift of underwiring and padding. Crusie’s literary lingerie reflects the complexity of women’s relationships with their bodies, their desires, their sexual partners and their friends.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Crusie, Jennifer. Anyone But You. 1996. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006.

—. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.

—. Crazy for You. 1999. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

—. Faking It. 2002. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.

—. Manhunting. 1993. Don Mills, Ontario: MIRA, 2000.

—. Sizzle. Don Mills, Ontario: Worldwide, 1994.

—. Tell Me Lies. 1998. New York: St Martin’s, 1999.

—. Trust Me on This. New York: Bantam, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Coward, Rosalind. Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today. London: Paladin Grafton, 1984.

Crusie, Jennifer. “A Writer Without a Publisher is like a Fish Without a Bicycle: Writer’s Liberation and You.” Romance Writer’s Report (2002). <http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/a-writer-without-a-publisher-is-like-a-fish-without-a-bicycle-writers-liberation-and-you/>.

—. “Sizzle.” JennyCrusie.com <http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>. Internet Archive. 25 Oct. 2006. <http://replay.web.archive.org/20061025035035/http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>.

—. “Topic: Crusie, Jennifer: Anyone But You (Romance).” CherryForums.com 15 May 2006. <http://www.cherryforums.com/index.php?topic=578.0>.

Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93.

Dow, Bonnie J. “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 6.1 (2003): 127-49.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. 1970. London: Paladin, 1972.

Jorgenson, Jane. “Writer’s Corner for October, 2004: Jennifer Crusie.” All About Romance. <http://www.likesbooks.com/crusie.html>.

Juffer, Jane. “A Pornographic Femininity? Telling and Selling Victoria’s (Dirty) Secrets.” Social Text 48 (1996): 27-48.

Kunzle, David. Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-lacing & Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004.

Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. 1981. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.

Scott, Martin. “Underwear.” Agora 30.3 (2005). <http://castle.eiu.edu/~agora/Feb05/MartallB.htm#uw>.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P, 1983. 245-63.

Thesander, Marianne. The Feminine Ideal. Trans. Nicholas Hills. London: Reaktion, 1997.

Willett, C. and Phillis Cunnington. 1951. The History of Underclothes. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1992.

 


[1] The Victoria’s Secret lingerie “catalog functions, […] for many of its consumers, as a kind of sexually explicit representation of the female body not too far afield from Playboy’s images” (Juffer 27-28) and “Lingerie fetishism […] is, like the voyeurism upon which it thrives, relatively uncontroversial, customarily acceptable and commercially profitable” (Kunzle 5).

[2] Lurie notes that “grayed, dull colors” “seem to deny sensuality” (231).

[3] Girdles are also items of underwear, but bras, and the rejection of the bra, seem to have had a particular cultural resonance in the 1960s:

At this time many women, whether in the [women’s] movement or not, got rid of their bras — some for a short period, others for ever; some because they sympathized with the struggle for the liberation of women, others simply because it became fashionable. As early as 1968 Yves Saint-Laurent had shown transparent blouses worn without a bra at his fashion show in Paris. (Thesander 185-7)

[4] This is probably due to the fact that Sizzle was, as Crusie has revealed, “my attempt to write to formula, an attempt that failed because there is no formula” (“Sizzle”).

[5] In the short description of the book that Crusie wrote for her website she noted that “occasionally people come up to me and say, ‘Sizzle. The desk scene. Ohmigod.’” (“Sizzle”).

[6] The suggestion that Richard “may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion” perhaps contains an allusion to the term “bodice-rippers,” considered derogatory by authors and readers of romance novels. In this context the fact that Emily’s underwear remains unripped is perhaps a subtle rejection of the term.

[7] Again, the wearing of flannel would appear to be associated with an existence devoid of sexual activity.

[8] Crusie has stated that at the time she was writing this novel “I went in and tried on a Wonderbra (they were just out then, articles in all the newspapers) and it was so ridiculous” (“Topic”).

[9] The “baby blue” colour of these underpants contrasts with the darkness of the “black lace crotchless underwear” (23) and perhaps symbolises openness and lack of deceit: Maddie is not ashamed of her relationship with C. L.

[10] Crusie vigorously challenges this stereotype in some of her later works through her older characters who have extremely active sex-lives. In Anyone But You not only is the heroine older than the hero (forty to his thirty), but her seventy-five-year-old upstairs neighbour, Norma Lynn, quite clearly has an active sex-life. Gwen, the heroine’s mother in Faking It is “only fifty-four” (270) and in the course of the novel has sex with two suitors. Trust Me on This includes a secondary romance between the hero’s aunt, sixty-two-year-old Victoria Prentice, and his boss, fifty-eight-year-old Harry Chase. At one point Victoria is described as standing in front of Harry, her body “curving and warm in black lace, and Harry told himself not to have a heart attack” (86). Victoria may be over sixty, but she’s not over sex or an appreciation of sexy lingerie.

[11] Cynthie’s lingerie includes a “red silk bra [which] matched the lining of the suit” (153) she was wearing and “a shiny pink bra that was so sheer it was probably illegal in several states” (263).

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“There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre” by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer

Modern romance novels written in English have a pedigree which stretches back to the eighteenth century:

Harlequins can be traced back through the work of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen to the sentimental novel and ultimately […] to the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela is considered by many scholars to be the first British novel (it was also the first English novel printed in America). (Modleski 15)[1]

Defined as novels in which “The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” (RWA) and which conclude with “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA), romances constitute a genre which, despite being “so stable in its form” (Regis 207), has not remained unchanged: “Although the base plot […] remains constant, themes vary from decade to decade and author to author” (Dixon 8). With regard to the portrayal of sexuality in the genre, however, it has been suggested that although many modern romances “portray human sexuality more explicitly than in the past, […] assumptions about male sexuality […] have not altered as much as one might expect from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to one of last month’s Harlequin Romances” (Mussell 4). It has also been argued that “the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types — the sweet romance and the erotic romance — with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities” (Thurston 7). We have examined primary texts in English which span more than two centuries, and which include both “sweet” and more explicit romances, in order to explore some of the continuities and variations that exist in the interactions between the bodies of the “individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.”

Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock’s “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology” provides a framework within which many of the existing analyses of the physical appearances, social statuses, and sexual behaviours of the characters in romance novels can be pieced together to reveal differing models of romantic relationships. Scheper-Hughes and Lock’s essay, which draws on Michel Foucault’s theories about the body, can be summarised thus:

The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective […]. While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. (Kramer)

This tripartite approach to understanding the human body can usefully be applied to the protagonists of romance novels. We can think of them as individuals with physical bodies (the individual body), as representations of cultural identities (the social body), and as characters existing in a particular political context (the political body). Each character’s three bodies can be conceptualised and analysed separately, but they exist simultaneously and therefore, as we shall see, a description of a character’s appearance in the least sexually explicit of romances may nonetheless intimate much about the sexuality of his or her social body.

Since each protagonist has three bodies, there are six bodies in a monogamous romantic relationship. Although we will discuss all six bodies, our discussion will centre around some socio-sexual aspects of the social bodies and a few socio-political elements of the political bodies. We focus in particular on one configuration of the six bodies which is both extremely common in modern romances and has a long history within the genre, and then briefly discuss a few alternative configurations, some of which are relatively recent innovations and others of which have been present in romantic fiction for centuries.

The Individual Body

As humans, we understand that we have a body; our consciousness is embodied in a physical self. This is the individual body, an “expectant canvas of human flesh” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 10). The individual bodies of heroines vary, and one may have “a pair of fine eyes” (Austen, Pride 73) while another has a “lush lower lip and unblemished skin” (Lindsey 65), but “some indication, however slight, of the heroine’s physical attributes has always been an important part of the romantic novel” (Anderson 85). Social beliefs are inscribed on the “expectant canvas” of the body as soon as value judgements are included in the description. A heroine’s appearance, for example, may be compared to particular ideals of feminine beauty and attractiveness:

Was he looking at her nose? ‘Strong’ was the euphemism that people tossed around but Grace knew what she saw in the mirror every morning. Her nose was too big for the perfect oval of her face, too distinctive. Like her height, another ‘advantage’ that she had been encouraged to flaunt rather than conceal. She knew without vanity that she was beautiful, but not in the classical sense of the word. Her features taken piece by piece were far from perfect — apart from her nose, her blue eyes were too widely spaced, her mouth too full — but together with her gleaming cap of midnight-black hair they formed a striking whole. Her beauty was ‘unique’ and in this era of mass-production uniqueness had an inflationary value. (Napier 6)

Ann Barr Snitow has suggested that “There are more descriptions of his [the hero’s] body than of hers [the heroine’s]” (248), and although

The body of the romantic hero may represent an ideal of masculine beauty, […] beauty here is the equivalent of physical strength, and physical strength itself becomes a sign of something more, a definition of authentic virility as a power that is always scarcely contained. (Cook 155)

Descriptions of a hero whose “Iron-hewed strength rippled from every muscle” (Lindsey 47), or whose “gold-blond hair had been cut military short, a style that looked both severe and sexy” (Mallery 19), certainly call attention to his strength (which may be a component of his socio-political body) and to the potent sexuality of his socio-sexual body.

Since sexual desire is such an important part of romantic relationships, it is unsurprising that even in “sweet” romances, or in scenes which involve non-sexual activity, descriptions of the protagonists’ individual bodies are often overlaid by references to their socio-sexual bodies:

Harlequins revitalize daily routines by insisting that a woman combing her hair, a woman reaching up to put a plate on a high shelf (so that her knees show beneath the hem, if only there were a viewer), a woman doing what women do all day, is in a constant state of potential sexuality. (Snitow 249)

Bodies are more than flesh, blood, and bone: the social and political bodies co-exist with, and are written on, the individual body.

The Social Body

The social body can be thought of as the way in which the individual body relates to its cultural context. Descriptions of the protagonists’ clothing and adornments can be particularly helpful in revealing the social body. In Johanna Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, for example, we are told that the hero’s preference for “simple attire said a lot for his character” (274). His avoidance of ostentatious dress reveals his lack of vanity and is a culturally approved masculine behaviour, albeit perhaps a historically anachronistic one for a novel set in the Middle Ages.[2] Clothing may thus assist both in distinguishing between male and female individual bodies and in increasing or decreasing the former’s masculinity and the latter’s femininity, for although “The ‘naturalness’ of gender is constantly invoked, […] masculinity and femininity are disciplines of the body that require work” (King 33). Women, for example, are expected to construct their social bodies through how they dress and adorn themselves. In turn, “Cultural constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19), and women’s fashion has been deemed problematic by many feminists because it can reinforce negative images of women:

Turning woman into an ornamented surface requires an enormous amount of discipline and can cause discomfort, not to mention untold feelings of inadequacy. […] Female styles over the years have also served to confirm myths about woman: as duplicitous, over-sexualised temptress; delicate and weak or narcissistic, frivolous and obsessed with trivialities. (King 36)

Culturally constructed “ideas about men and women, their appropriate behaviors and attributes, and their relations to each other” are called “gender ideologies” (Blackwood 240-41). Despite the fluid nature of gender across cultures, each culture’s ideologies about gender tend to assume that gender is natural, inherent, and determined by a person’s sex at birth. For example, “the social sciences in the postwar period […] posited women as expressive (emotional) and men as instrumental (pragmatic, rational, and cognitive)” (Gutmann 388). Cross-cultural studies have found that

most societies hold consensual ideas — guiding or admonitory images — for conventional masculinity and femininity by which individuals are judged worthy members of one or the other sex […]. Such ideal statuses and their attendant images, or models, often become psychic anchors, or psychological identities, for most individuals, serving as a basis for self-perception. (Gilmore 208)

Masculinity can be defined as “anything men think and do to be men” (Gutmann 386, emphasis added). In many societies, perhaps even all cultures, “there is a constantly recurring notion that real manhood is different from simple anatomical maleness” (Gilmore 208) and that manhood must be earned or achieved in particular ways. After his first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, a rare virginal romance hero tells his heroine that “I gave you my virginity; you gave me my manhood” (Napier 133). Zilbergeld suggests that sexuality is an area in which men feel under particular pressure to earn and demonstrate manhood:

One of the cornerstones of the masculine stereotype in our society is that a man is one who has no doubts, questions, or confusion about sex, and that a real man knows how to have good sex and does so frequently. For a man to ask a question about sex, thereby revealing ignorance, or to express concern, or to admit to a problem is to risk being thought something less than a man. (5)

Manhood, then, is a status which once achieved must be maintained, and it therefore appears to be a status more easily lost by males than womanhood is by females. Jo Beverley’s Cyn Malloren, for example, must frequently fight to maintain his manhood because his individual body constantly calls it into question:

Despite all evidence to the contrary people would persist in seeing him as fragile, even his family who certainly should know better. […] As a boy he’d believed age would toughen his looks, but at twenty-four, a veteran of Quebec and Louisbourg, he was still disgustingly pretty. He had to fight duels with nearly every new officer in the regiment to establish his manhood. (6)

As Gilmore has observed,

femininity seems to be judged differently. It usually involves questions of body ornament or sexual allure, or other essentially cosmetic behaviors that enhance, rather than create, an inherent quality of character […], femininity is more often construed as a biological given that is culturally refined or augmented. (208-09)

Even if she chooses not to augment her femininity but instead performs actions and behaviours associated with masculinity, a heroine may do so without losing her womanhood. In E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, for example, Diana Mayo’s “boyish directness” (6) and the fact that she is “far more at home” (14) in “smart-cut breeches and high brown boots” (13) than in “pretty dresses” (14) are the result of having been “brought up as a boy” (9). Nonetheless, “Diana Mayo, with the clothes and manners of a boy, was really an uncommonly beautiful young woman” (17), and one who at a ball can be found “ten deep in would-be partners” (3). By contrast, cross-dressing heroes are extremely rare, and if a hero acts in ways which are associated with femininity, this will tend to be dealt with circumspectly, so as not to impugn his masculinity. Cyn Malloren may disguise himself as a woman for a time, but he does so to play “knight-errant” (Beverley 25) to a “damsel in distress” (28). He is an experienced soldier, and the reader is aware that beneath the feminine dress he has chosen to wear, his individual body bears witness to his masculine socio-political and socio-sexual bodies: “He had a scar across his chest which it seemed no woman could ignore. It came from a minor wound, a long shallow saber cut, but it looked dramatic” (31). The scar is described in considerable detail while Cyn is dressing in “female garments” (58) for the first time and the reader is again told that women find it irresistible, thus emphasising the masculinity of Cyn’s socio-sexual body: “All the women who had been favored with a glimpse of it had been impelled to touch it, […] some with a finger, some with their mouths” (58). It also provides information about his socio-political body: seeing the scar convinces the heroine that “you really are a soldier” (59). In addition, even in disguise “His jaw was a little too square, his cheeks too lean. He carefully applied rouge to them, and was heartened to realize that for once he looked too masculine” (65). In another romance, analysed by Mary M. Talbot, it is the hero’s choice of profession which poses a threat to his masculinity since

Artists are assumed to be male, but at the same time there is some sort of problem with having an artist as hero. There is a shadow of doubt cast on the gender identity of artists. Being artistic is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. He is made ‘whole’ by the label Anna attaches to him: ‘He’s a portrait painter’. The hero […] is established as artist but reassuringly masculine, meaning heterosexual. (93)

Sexualities of the Social Bodies

Gender ideologies create, and are simultaneously created by, beliefs about human sexuality. There are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about the differences between male and female sexuality (Kane and Schippers). A clergyman in Richardson’s Pamela, for example, attempts to excuse Mr. B.’s abduction and intended rape or seduction of Pamela on the grounds that “’tis what all young Gentlemen will do” (135). These differences, however, may not all have biological causes: “Foucault […], Tiefer […], and others have argued that sexuality is constructed within particular sociocultural contexts and discourses” (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755). Far from being entirely innate,

sexual potential takes its form through a number of social processes, including ideologies of religion or ritual, ethnicity, class, gender, family, and reproduction, as well as the material and social conditions of everyday life. These processes provide the interpretive context for sexual feelings, desires and longings. (Blackwood 237)

Women have long been constructed as sexually “feeble and passive, literally a receptacle for the desires of the male” (King 31). This may explain why so many romance heroines, particularly in older romances, are virgins who are initiated into sexual activity by a romance hero, although thereafter they may enjoy sex immensely. Romance author Doreen Owens Malek argues that the heroine’s virginity is important because

virginity is a gift that can only be given once, and it is ideally bestowed on a woman’s great love. This giving of virginity adds an immeasurable element of drama and power to the story. It changes the heroine, of course, but in romance novels it also changes the hero. (118)

It is significant that Owens Malek only discusses the virginity of female characters. Virginal heroes do exist in the genre, but as acknowledged in a short questionnaire which Mills & Boon appended to Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, “Many heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced.” In Owens Malek’s description of virginity there is no suggestion that the hero might be a virgin whose virginity would be considered a “gift that can only be given once” and would change the heroine. Napier’s virgin hero, Scott Gregory, does, however, use this kind of language:

‘Couldn’t you tell, Grace? Was my gift such a paltry thing? I thought one’s partner could always tell.’ […]

‘What gift? T-tell-what?’ she stammered […]

‘Why, that it was my first time, of course.’ (133)

If we reword the quotation from Talbot which we cited earlier in the essay, so that “artist” is replaced by “male virgin,” we can say that this gender reversal casts

a shadow of doubt […] on the gender identity of [male virgins]. Being [a male virgin] is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. (93)

Grace, in her attempt to reconcile Scott’s claim of virginity with the knowledge that he has “been out with lots of women” (139), eventually asks “Are you homosexual?” (140) but Napier has already defused most of the suspicions about Scott’s sexuality and masculine identity by ensuring that the revelation occurs after Scott has lost his virginity and demonstrated that in all other respects his sexual behaviour is identical to that of a great many other romance heroes. Having literally, as well as emotionally, chased the heroine until she surrendered to him:

His desire […] had proved insatiable. And, although the second and third time they made love it was not with the stunning speed of the first, it was still fiercely, gloriously energetic. […] He made her feel unutterably sexy […]. In short, he was every bit the fantastic lover. (131)

By taking the lead in initiating sex, ensuring that his partner experiences hitherto unknown heights of pleasure, and demonstrating the stamina necessary to repeat the experience several times in one night, Scott has proved that he is indeed a man.

The group of cultural beliefs about masculine sexuality known as the

male sexual drive discourse was identified by Hollway […]. Zilbergeld […] identified the following themes: sex is a male performance; the man is responsible for orchestrating sex; a man always wants and is always ready to have sex; for a man, all physical contact must lead to sex; and birth control is the woman’s responsibility. Similarly, Reinholtz et al. […] included the following in their list of common themes in communication about sexuality: male sexuality as uncontrollable, female responsibility for male sexuality, sex as a force of nature, and men as dominant and women as submissive. These researchers also identified a theme they labeled, “romance,” the cultural notion that when two people “fall in love,” sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755-56)

With the possible exception of ideas surrounding contraception, since modern romance heroes often take responsibility for providing condoms, these beliefs about gendered sexuality frequently appear to underlie the sexual behaviour of characters in the romance genre. However, although “both men and women perceive men’s sexual drives as greater than women’s” (Kane and Schippers 655), there is

a clear and consistent pattern of gender differences in beliefs […] related to sexual power […]. Women are much more likely to see men’s sexual power as greater than their own, while men are much more likely than women to hold the view that women’s sexual power is greater. […] In terms of value judgments regarding power differentials, both men and women are likely to see the other group as too powerful. (Kane and Schippers 655)

In the romance genre, however, perhaps because it often offers “a fantasy of female empowerment” (Phillips 55), the heroine will tend to possess “an unrelenting and absolute power […] over the hero’s mind and body. The conventional line is often literally ‘No other woman had affected him like this before’” (Johnson-Kurek 127). It is possible for a hero to resist the power of the heroine’s allure. He may even seek to deny the possibility of any attraction, as Darcy does when he states that “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen, Pride 59). He cannot, however, resist indefinitely and Darcy eventually confesses to Elizabeth Bennet that “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (221). If she is aware of the attraction the hero feels towards her, a heroine may exult in it:

his mouth, hard and hungry, fell upon hers, dragging over her lips as though to punish her.

But what Jessica tasted was victory. She felt it in the heat he couldn’t disguise, and in the pulsing tension of his frame, and she heard it clear as any declaration when his tongue pushed impatiently for entry.

He wanted her. (Chase 160)

Madeline has a similar response to the evidence of her hero’s desire:

She’d seen the desire that flamed in his eyes when he held her. She’d felt the tremors in his arms and heard the pounding of his heart. A heady sense of feminine power shimmered in her veins. It thrilled her that she could cause such a reaction and made her eager to test her power over him once again. (Lovelace 133)

The Mighty Wang

Each of these heroines has aroused her hero’s Mighty Wang. The term “Mighty Wang” (Wendell and Tan 36) was coined by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan as a humorous way to describe the extremely large and effective sexual organ possessed by many a romance hero. The Mighty Wang (MW) can also be thought of as a symbol of the male sexual drive discourse: it is a penis functioning as a symbol of the ideal masculine socio-sexual body. The term “MW,” as it is used in this paper, will refer not to the individual body’s penis, but to the hero’s socio-sexual body. The appropriation of the name of this particular body-part to refer to the whole of a hero’s socio-sexual body seems particularly apt given that in romances there is frequent “use of the personal pronouns — me, he, him, himself — to signify this body part […]. The seemingly unavoidable use of these pronouns is a […] curious euphemistic practice because it equates the man’s penis with the man himself” (Johnson-Kurek 119). The sentence “She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm” (Castle 172) is an example of this kind of writing: the part seems to become the whole. Conversely, when the reader is told that a hero’s body has “Long, long legs, […] a broad back that went on forever, all golden-skinned and rock-hard” (Lindsey 47), the allusion to another part of the hero that might be long, broad, and hard is not subtle.[3]

When the MW performs acts which are common to the male sexual drive discourse, he is giving a demonstration of the socio-cultural attributes of masculine sexuality. Although Austen is so discreet about these matters that the reader is left to surmise what she or he will about the precise ways in which “the utmost force of passion” (Pride 228) might be expressed physically, many of the more explicit modern romances take the reader into the bedroom to observe the MW in action; it is not uncommon for the hero’s penis to be, if not quite “Two Feet Long, Hard As Steel, And Can Go All Night,” as described in the title of Zilbergeld’s chapter on “The Fantasy Model of Sex,” at least unusually large, hard, and possessed of immense stamina. Although Zilbergeld was writing in 1978, his comment that “Much of the explicitness of recent […] fiction serves only to give more detailed presentations of the same old myths” (53) continues to ring true in relation to the romance genre. The size of Ranulf’s penis, for example, is implied when, prior to his second sexual encounter with Reina he partially reassures her by reminding her that “you have withstood my size once without dying” (Lindsey 177) and Dain fears that his immense organ will damage his virgin wife: “His lust-swollen rod strained furiously against his trousers, a great, monstrous invader that would tear her to pieces” (Chase 223).

The MW exists “in a state of constant hornytoad” (Wendell and Tan 84) and Wendell and Tan have noted its immense stamina:

There is a concept of recovery time that never really affects the romance hero, and thus casts mortal men with normal turgid boners in a shameful light, because immediately after having a great orgasm, real men need at least a half hour before they can think about going another round. (167)

Another of the characteristics of the MW as it appears in more explicit romances is that it can “Elevate sexual intercourse to near heavenly experiences, one orgasm at a time” (Wendell and Tan 84). During Clare’s first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, she experiences “passion without subtlety: a primal, desperate need for union that swept them both into the heart of the storm” (Putney 292). This, however, is merely “a synopsis” (300), and “the unabridged version” (300) which follows is so intensely pleasurable that afterwards Clare murmurs “This could make someone forget about God, for it is hard to imagine that heaven can offer anything more” (301). If the heroine is sexually experienced, she has generally never had sex quite as good as the sex she has with the MW. In Merline Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, Madeline, despite “Having twice been wed, […] was yet a stranger to the feeling that suddenly coursed through her at the sight of this tall, broad-shouldered man” (29-30) and the contrast is even greater once they actually reach the bedroom:

her first lord, as gentle as he’d been with her young innocence, had lacked either the skill or the stamina to hold himself in check. And in his eagerness, her second lord had all but spilled himself afore he got his braies off. But Ian had wrung responses from her she’d never dreamed she was capable of. (226)

In less explicit romances, the description of the MW’s kisses may seem to foreshadow the even greater delights still in store for the heroine. Germaine Greer once sarcastically commented of a Barbara Cartland romance that “when handkissing results in orgasm it is possible that an actual kiss might bring on epilepsy” (178). Cartland did not, of course, write a scene in which handkissing literally resulted in orgasm but she did use hyperbolic language to describe the intensely pleasurable sensations experienced by her heroines while kissing:

his mouth came down on hers […] and it was even more wonderful than she had thought it could be.

She had not imagined a kiss could make her feel as if a streak of sunlight ran through her body, making her pulsatingly alive. (Cartland, Problems 138)

The heroine of Beverly Jenkins’s Josephine experiences similarly intense sensations while being kissed by a MW:

Her whole world seemed to have come alive in response to his kisses. Now she understood how a girl could become overwhelmed and allow a boy to take liberties he shouldn’t. The soaring sensations and rising emotions were so exciting, Jo didn’t want to stop.

They had to, however, and they both knew it. (227)

In Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, the pleasure and power of the MW’s embrace almost render the heroine unconscious:

He had caught her in his arms so fiercely that the breath was almost crushed out of her. His dark face swam before her eyes for an instant, then his mouth was locked to hers, in a kiss so hard that her lips felt bruised. She yielded, carried away half-swooning on the tide of his passion. (277)

Another way in which the sexual potency of the MW may be revealed is via a description of the hero’s sexual history: Richardson’s Mr. B. has an illegitimate child by a woman he seduced; Cartland’s Duc de Savigne has had many liaisons with “women whom he takes up on an impulse and apparently without any consideration for their feelings, discards […] as soon as they bore him” (Love 8); and another hero, prior to meeting his heroine, “took what the wenches threw at him, never doubt it” (Lindsey 223). While multitudes of former sexual partners can serve as a demonstration of the MW’s allure, this can also be expressed via descriptions of women who find the hero attractive but who may not have had direct experience of his sexual prowess. Mr. B., for example, “is admir’d, as I know, by half a dozen Ladies” (Richardson 41) while Adam Morgan is “a young man accustomed to having young ladies jump at his beck and call” (Jenkins 176) who has “never had a young lady throw my interest back in my face” (188). Given the number of willing females available to him, it takes a very special woman to capture the MW’s permanent attention: a woman with a Glittery HooHa.

The Glittery HooHa

Although the term “Glittery HooHa” (GHH) “emerged at the internet discussion board Television Without Pity” (Vivanco) between 2004 and 2006, authors have long been describing heroines as glowing, sparkling and glittering. Pamela has “speaking Eyes” which can “overflow” with tears “without losing any of their Brilliancy!” (Richardson 186) and we learn of Syrilla that

there was something more than mere beauty about her, he thought, which made her different from other women.

It was the fact that she was so intensely alive, and that when she was animated she seemed almost to sparkle as she spoke, while her eyes shone as if they had captured the sunlight. (Cartland, Love 81)

A more recent example of a glittering heroine is Jo Best, whose “dark unblemished skin glowed with health and beauty. She was by far the most radiant young woman he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing” (Jenkins 123).

The GHH is a symbol of the female socio-sexual body and in particular of female sexual allure. Its glitter indicates the desirability of the heroine’s socio-sexual body. When Mr. B. states that Pamela is “so pretty, that go where you will, you will never be free from the Designs of some or other of our Sex” (Richardson 87), he is revealing that he himself has some quite definitely sexual “Designs” upon her GHH. Austen is much more reticent about sexual matters and Darcy has no immoral “Designs” on Elizabeth, but when he notices “the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (Pride 70) and is “forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing” (70), it is evident that despite having initially “looked at her only to criticise” (70), he is unable to deny the growing attraction he feels towards her GHH. As is demonstrated by Pride and Prejudice, there is no need for a heroine to be either the most beautiful woman in the novel, or one whom all men find irresistible. What matters is the special effect her GHH has on the hero:

A woman with a hooha as glittery as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Our Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the Glittery HooHa to snare him forever. […] For yea, no matter how many hoohas he might see, never will there be one as glittery as hers. (Crusie, Stuart, and Rich 237)

The heroine’s GHH is not merely sexually alluring; it is powerful enough to render a MW monogamous. Even while the attraction remains unconsummated and the hero’s physical penis (which is part of his individual body) has not penetrated the “hooha” or vagina (which is part of the heroine’s individual body), it is not uncommon for the hero to realise that his MW is no longer attracted to other women and their less glittery GHHs. Cyn Malloren “found he had difficulty imagining being aroused by any woman other than this one” (Beverley 68). In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the hero sets up a date with a woman who is not the heroine. She kisses him, and “In the old days, that would have set the fires burning. But not tonight” (85). That, and his inability to concentrate on anything except the heroine, enable the woman to reach an accurate diagnosis:

“Poor man,” she sighed. She reached up and kissed his cheek. “I guess we all meet our Waterloo someday. Looks like this is yours.” […] That same thought was only beginning to form in his own mind. He smiled sheepishly. (86)

In romance, then, it is often “the heroine’s task to remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love” (Cohn 30) and her success is made possible by her GHH.

Not all romance heroes need their sexuality to be “remade” in the same way. Some heroes have repressed, rather than hyperactive, MWs. Heyer’s Simon the Coldheart, for example, states that “There is no place for women in my life, and no liking for women in my breast” (16). In this case, the GHH regulates the MW by bringing forth a “new-born passion” (298). In Napier’s Secret Admirer, the hero’s sexuality was affected by his step-mother who, when he “turned fifteen […] decided that it was time I was taught the facts of life … on a practical basis” (154). Sent to a private boarding school by his father as punishment for what was assumed to be the attempted rape of his step-mother, Scott found that his “guilt and revulsion about sex in general was reinforced by the crude boastings in the dorm” (156). After that, he “never felt so strongly attracted to any one […] that I was willing to allow myself to be vulnerable” (158), but the heroine’s GHH changes his attitude towards sex. Whether hyper-sexual and promiscuous, or repressed and underused, the MW is attracted to, and then regulated by, the GHH.

Although the GHH is irresistible to the MW, the MW is also extremely attractive to the GHH. In some cases “The hero’s proximity alone can send the blood pounding through her veins, make her hands tremble, deprive her of speech and reason” (Douglas 26). In Anne Herries’s Captive of the Harem, the heroine expresses this attraction in terms of magic:

The sweetness of that kiss had surprised her, and aroused a longing for something that she did not understand, robbing her of the will to resist him. She had felt as though he cast a magic spell over her by some sorcery — was it this that made so many of the harem women eager for his notice? (99)

The heroine, who is generally unaware of the extent of her GHH’s power over the MW, may initially fear the “magic spell” cast by the MW. Such fears are not unfounded. In Barbara Samuel’s The Love Talker, in which the hero is quite literally a magical being, we are given a description of the full extent of the damage a MW can cause to women whose GHHs are not glittery enough to tame it:

The Love Talker is a fixture of Irish faery lore, a seductive and dangerous being indeed, a conscienceless faery who ravishes the senses of unsuspecting women and leaves them to pine away to their deaths. In all the poems and stories, he is the King of Rakes, a libertine of unholy power. (195)

This reflects the way in which male sexuality is culturally constructed as an active, unemotional, possibly dangerous part of masculine behaviour.

In a romance novel, the sexual desires and activities of a hero and heroine often reveal their growing emotional attachment, but how, when, where, and with whom the protagonists have sex, as well as the ramifications of their sexual activity, can express socio-cultural ideologies about what constitutes “ideal” sexuality.

The Political Body

Sex is not simply an activity engaged in by individual bodies: “Cultures are disciplines that provide codes and social scripts for the domestication of the individual body in conformity to the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). These codes and scripts are often translated into law, making it illegal to go against the cultural definition of normality. One of the most significant differences between the social body and the political body is that while the social body may be subjected to cultural sanctions, such as being socially marginalised, the political body may be disciplined by the state, especially through imprisonment.

Romances, however, generally conclude with the political bodies of the protagonists being rewarded. One of the key narrative elements of a romance is the “betrothal,” a “scene or scenes” in which “the hero asks the heroine to marry him and she accepts; or the heroine asks the hero, and he accepts” (Regis 37).[4] Marriage, or even the promise of marriage, gives both cultural and legal recognition to their relationship and legitimises the joining of their social and political bodies as well as of their individual bodies. In romances the pairing of the hero and heroine’s individual bodies, and of the MW and GHH, is complemented by the pairing of their socio-political bodies, which we shall call the Phallus and the Prism.

The Phallus in Romance

Teresa Ebert has described the romance hero as the personification of the Phallus:

The phallus […] is ideologically disguised as a full, embodied presence. […] Harlequin Romances, for example, are saturated with representations of the male anatomical organ. These representations take the form of tropic substitutions for the penis, as in such descriptions of the hero as “straight and tall, as brown and unbending as the monster trees rearing … behind him,” and “the erect masculine figure astride the horse”; or, more directly, “the thrusting weight of steel-hard thighs and hips.” These images […] reify the penis and thus mystify male power, sensuality, and sexual difference as physical and natural, while concealing the production of the phallus as signifier as well as the construction of male prowess and privilege in signification behind the naturalized penis. (34)

Perhaps the conflation of the Phallus with the penis occurs because while “generally ethnographers have concluded that few men actually equate their manhood with their genitalia, nonetheless many studies indicate that they are a favorite point of reference” (Gutmann 396). Regardless of the cause of the conflation,

The penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused […] with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. (Gallop 97)

In this essay the “Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.

At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero abducts the heroine on another man’s behalf before marrying her himself, and in Napier’s Secret Admirer the hero poses a threat on a business level because he’s “powerful enough to destroy us if he wants to — he’s done it before to other companies” (22). Not infrequently the heroine is wary of the Incomplete Phallus, and rightly so, since he may attempt to use his power and authority to imprison or coerce her. In Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, the hero is convinced that the heroine is nothing more than a GHH to be controlled and has her confined within an isolated castle. In other romances the MW and Incomplete Phallus may work in conjunction, through rape or sexual assault, to assert their dominance over the heroine. This is the case in Richardson’s Pamela, in which the hero attempts to rape the heroine, and in E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, in which the hero succeeds in such attempts.[5] More recent romances do not tend to include rapes of the heroine by the hero, but one can still find “ritual” versions, such as a punishing kiss which serves to demonstrate the social status and/or physical power of the Incomplete Phallus, and the sexual potency of the MW.

The Incomplete Phallus tends to have obtained his power and authority from one or more typically male-dominated cultural areas. He frequently has high social status (e.g. Duke, Sheik), wealth (billionaire, tycoon), or both. With or without wealth, he usually displays fighting skills or at least physical strength (SEAL, warrior, cowboy). In his most obviously patriarchal guise he has the ability to regulate society by enforcing the law (police officer, sheriff), or he may try to perfect society by fighting a corrupt system (outlaw, spy, private detective). There are, of course, other professions open to heroes, but many of them seem to involve power in forms strongly associated with masculinity.

Many Incomplete Phalluses lack emotional connection to others, but this lack can manifest itself in a number of different ways. A hero with a very strong MW and a very Incomplete Phallus may be a rake who spends much of his time engaging in sexual activity, as Dain does in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels:

He lusted for virtually every attractive female he saw. He had a prodigious sexual appetite […]. If he lusted for a whore, he paid her and had her. If he lusted for a respectable female, he found a whore as a substitute, paid her, and had her. (49)

In slightly less extreme cases this type of hero may be a “passionate, romantic figure with a past, perhaps most familiar in Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester” (Mussell 119). Sometimes rakish behaviour is ascribed to a deep emotional pain suffered by the hero:

He had deliberately set out to defy the conventions, to shock decent men and women, to become a by-word for everything that was debauched and immoral.

He had succeeded, but strangely enough it had not eased the hurt which had caused him to behave in such a manner, and the wound within himself had not healed. (Cartland, Love 84)

Although a rake generally acts in response to the demands of his MW, particularly where the heroine is concerned, his Phallic attributes may be considerable. Richardson’s Mr. B., for example, is a landowner, Justice of the Peace, and Member of Parliament and Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan states that “The French Government has no jurisdiction over me. I am not subject to it. I am an independent chief, my own master. I recognise no government. My tribe obey me and only me” (Hull 63).

A second type of Incomplete Phallus may be identified by his devotion to his work (often in one of the typically Phallic professions listed above) and his avoidance of family ties. This type of hero’s Incomplete Phallus tendencies thus take precedence over those of his MW. Often this behaviour too is shown to be an imperfect coping mechanism developed in response to emotional trauma. Napier’s business “piranha” (22), for example, has been “taking over electronics companies, and offering preferential deals to anyone who has business with RedWing” (97) as part of his plan to destroy his father’s company in revenge for the way his mother was treated:

My mother died because she couldn’t afford a life-saving operation. […] She asked him for money and he told her that she had made her bed and now she could lie on it … but he meant die on it. […] my father had no humanity. (97)

He may be an emotionally wounded warrior, like Susan Mallery’s Rafe, whose “‘[…] folks died when I was four. There wasn’t anyone else. I became a ward of the state.’ […] He’d learned to take care of himself and never need anyone” (183). Diana Palmer’s Tony, a “professional soldier” specialising “in counterterrorism” (41), was physically abused by his father, who also “started doing things to my little sister, when she was about eight. […] My mother caught him at it […] She stabbed that knife up to the hilt in his stomach, all the way to the heart. […] I never saw so much blood” (70-71). Then, “When my sister and I went into foster care, it was like the end of the world. Especially when they separated us. […] She killed herself” (57). As he acknowledges, “I’ve got a past that’s going to make it hard for any woman to live with me on a permanent basis” (74). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero is an emotionally damaged, illegitimate, mercenary knight who has

no home, but it was his burning ambition to correct that lack. It was his only goal, yet it was an all-consuming one. It was all he worked toward, hiring out to any man no matter the task, no matter the difficulty, no matter his own feelings in the matter. His ambition did not allow for scruples. (15-16)

This particular ambition, and his authoritarian attitude towards his followers, put him on the brink of transforming into a third type of Incomplete Phallus.

This type manifests the incompleteness of his Phallus by the way in which he assumes his patriarchal authority and family duties. Although he may work hard, be a (phallic) pillar of the community, and a devoted father or brother, he tends to be an authoritarian patriarch who is emotionally flawed in some way. Darcy is an example of this kind of hero, since he has both high social standing and wealth, his father is deceased and he therefore stands in loco parentis to his younger sister, and he is declared by one of his servants to be “the best landlord, and the best master […] that ever lived” (Austen, Pride 270). This patriarch’s flaw, the evidence of his emotional lack, is his pride. Simon the Coldheart embodies, as far as that is possible for a human, the qualities of justice — “If it was a question of judgment or arbitration men found Simon relentlessly, mercilessly just” (Heyer 19) — and of omniscience:

‘[…] God alone knows what will come to this poor land!’

‘Nay, not God alone,’ the secretary said. ‘My lord knows also.’ (97)[6]

God-like in his own domain, Simon is omnipotent and one might say he “Suffer[s] the little children to come unto” (Mark 10:14) him because he “dost love children” (Heyer 114). In general, however, he seems incapable of feeling warmer emotions: “something he seemed to lack, for with all his assets and attainments, he was cold as stone, almost as though some humanising part of him had been left out in his fashioning” (130).

The Prism

The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism. The word appears in the rakish Marquis of Vidal’s mocking designation of Mary Challoner as “Miss Prunes and Prisms” (Heyer, Devil’s Cub 49), a phrase which characterises her as prim and disapproving. The term “Prism,” as used in this essay, also draws on Jayne Castle’s Orchid, set in a futuristic society in which many individuals are “talents” but only a few, including the heroine, are “prisms”:

talents […] possessed a specific type of paranormal power that could be actively used. […] The psychic energy that talents produced endowed them with a sixth sense. But unlike the other five senses, it could not be accessed except in brief, unpredictable, erratic bursts without the aid of a prism. […] In them, paranormal energy took a different form. Prisms possessed the ability to focus the powers of a talent for an extended length of time. (3)

Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.

The Prism embodies the Mother aspect of femininity and the Incomplete Prism’s motherliness tends to manifest itself in differing combinations of two different qualities. The first is nurturing tenderness, and the second is feistiness, which may also be thought of as an incomplete version of maternal authority and

the lioness aspect of the female personality […]. It’s acceptable for a woman, socially, to be outspoken and rude when defending her children — everyone knows not to get between a mother bear and her cub. (Wendell and Tan 59)

With the decline in the number of virgin heroines there may have been an increase in the proportion of heroines who are biological mothers, but childless heroines have long been given opportunities to display the nurturing aspect of their Prisms. Such heroines may often be found caring for children, either due to their jobs or because they have responsibility for younger siblings or abandoned infants. Slightly less blatant demonstrations of the Prism’s nurturing motherliness include expressions of love and care for animals or vulnerable friends. As Wendell and Tan declare in their humorous “ten commandments of heroine conduct” (36):

Thou shalt have a nurturing streak larger and warmer than the South China Sea. Thy desire for children shall be unquestioned […]. And shouldst thou choose to remain child-free, thou freak of nature, verily thou shouldst display your nurturing streak with animals. (36)

Elizabeth Bennet’s mother is so incompetent a parent that Elizabeth attempts to provide her sisters with both maternal care and authoritative maternal guidance. When her older sister Jane is “very unwell” (78), it is Elizabeth, not their mother, who feels “really anxious” (Austen, Pride 78) and tends to her during the illness. Furthermore, “Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavour to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement?” (241). In Cartland’s The Problems of Love, the heroine has taken on the role of mother: “I now have the family to look after, because my mother died five years ago” (11). On this heroine’s wedding day it also becomes apparent that in some respects she resembles the hero’s mother: “I was thinking in Church today when we were married that you were like the lilies that were arranged on the altar. I have never felt that about any other woman with the exception of my mother” (145). In some romances, the heroine may express motherly feelings towards the hero. Mary, the heroine of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, recognises that

it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake.

‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’ (110)

Similarly Jessica sees “the lonely little boy in” Dain (Chase 269), and understands that he needs “love […] he needed it far more than many, because, apparently, he hadn’t had so much as a whiff of it since he was a babe” (269). In some romances this motherly nurturance may take a very literal form: Sarah S. G. Frantz has written of one romance hero that his

desire to suckle (to be suckled) at his wife’s breast, when read against his whole character, can be read as the desire to return to the mother’s nourishment that he never received as a child, as his need for his lover to embody his mother and his mother to be his lover. (25)

Gentle maternal qualities are not the only traits demonstrated by Prisms, for as the Rev. Mr. Villars instructs Evelina, “Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men” (Burney 242). The Prism’s feisty “fortitude and firmness” may be displayed on behalf of others, as when Elizabeth Bennet angrily rejects a marriage proposal from Darcy, “who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister” (Austen, Pride 222), or in self-defence, often against either an untamed MW or an Incomplete Phallus. Pamela, for example, although only a servant, constantly expresses her resistance to her master’s designs upon her virtue:

when you forget what belongs to Decency in your Actions, and when Words are all that are left me, to shew my Resentment of such Actions, I will not promise to forbear the strongest Expressions that my distressed Mind shall suggest to me; nor shall your angriest Frowns deter me. (Richardson 211)

In Devil’s Cub, Mary goes so far as to shoot and injure Dominic when his untamed MW is about to rape her (Heyer 102).

In the end, displays of feisty strength in the heroine tend to bring forth positive characteristics in the hero, but as Incomplete Prisms differ in their type of feistiness and Incomplete Phalluses vary in the qualities they lack, each heroine will bring out slightly different personality traits in her hero: Pamela’s feistiness is focused on preserving her virtue, and she therefore stimulates her hero’s piety; Elizabeth Bennet’s blunt honesty about Darcy’s arrogance inspires him to become more self-aware and kind; Margaret “stole what men thought was not there to steal. Thy cold heart” (Heyer, Simon 300) and so teaches Simon to love; and Josephine is “a beautiful, headstrong woman” (Jenkins 100), and so the “man who marries you will have to have patience, a strong mind and an even stronger wit” (100).

Completing the Phallus

The Incomplete Prism’s feistiness poses a challenge to the Incomplete Phallus’s authority and its nurturance gentles him, bringing into focus his softer qualities. Many romances conclude with the hero “endowed with maternal qualities; he is not simply the phallus but also the maternal phallus: the ideal mother and father” (Treacher 80). However, since the Father also has nurturing qualities it should not be assumed that a Completed Phallus is an androgynous parental figure. The transformed hero is “the ideal male, who is masculine and strong yet nurturant too” (Radway 97). In becoming a Completed Phallus the hero suffers no loss of his culturally ascribed masculinity: he will still tend to exert control and power over others, but he is more likely to take the heroine’s views into account, and protectiveness will take the place of jealousy and aggression. Johanna Lindsey’s Ranulf, for example, becomes the Lord of Clydon and his military prowess ensures the safety of Reina, her lands, and dependants. The Completed Phallus’s Prism-inspired paternal care for the wider community may also be expressed politically. As the Marquis of Osminton declares:

I had never expected a woman to think seriously as you do on social and political questions, which have always been left to men. […] It will help and inspire me to make a greater effort in that direction than I have done in the past. (Cartland, Problems 144)

If he couldn’t before, he will now be able to express his feelings and often becomes an emotionally involved father. In Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, for example, Dain could initially only think of his illegitimate son as an “unspeakable thing” (293) which “was as foul inwardly as it was hideous outwardly, […] there was not a scrap of good it could have inherited from its depraved monster of a sire” (293-94). Dain’s own self-loathing has clearly affected his perception of the child who looks so much like him, but Jessica forces him into a situation in which he cannot help but realise that his son is indeed “just like his father, he needed someone […] to accept him” (340). Jessica’s conviction that Dain is not “a monster, impossible to love” (339) alters Dain’s perception of both himself and his son, and enables him to accept love for himself and show it to his child. In much less traumatic circumstances the Marquis of Osminton, too, is reconciled to the idea of fatherhood and confesses that

Once, before I knew you, […] I thought that children might disturb my well-organised life and perhaps be destructive, but now, because I love you, my darling, I can think of nothing more wonderful than to see you holding my son in your arms. (Cartland, Problems 146)

If he had feelings of loneliness or uncertainty about his role in life, these will be resolved by the Incomplete Prism. Barbara Samuel’s Galen is a faery cursed “to wander between the mortal and faerie realms, never to cross to either,” and so experiences a “loneliness so vast ‘twould make stones cry” (Samuel 199). His suffering lasts for 285 years, until he meets Moira who feels the allure of his MW, but is able to resist it in order to break the curse. As a heroine with a strong Incomplete Prism, she “wanted to protect him, protect him from the despair she’d glimpsed on his face […], protect him from having to return to the lost world of his exile” (247). Clare Morgan may not have to break a faery curse, but she is “the one Marta foresaw […] who would heal her Nikki’s heart” (Putney 346). It is thanks to Clare that “Nicholas Davies, the Gypsy Earl of Aberdare” (12), a man who says he doesn’t “give a damn about anyone or anything” (17), becomes involved in his local community, is reconciled with an estranged best friend, finds himself emotionally “free” (377) from his dead wife’s betrayal and his deceased grandfather’s hatred, and “can believe in my childhood again” (376).

The final transformation of the Incomplete Phallus may take place in a dramatic, emotionally charged scene. In Susan Mallery’s The Sheikh & the Virgin Princess, Rafe is an emotionally-wounded warrior hero who has power and status but is clearly an Incomplete Phallus because he has no desire to become the head of a stable family unit: “Rafe had told her that she was a marriage-and-kids kind of woman and that he wasn’t a marriage-and-kids kind of guy” (158). Zara intuits the reason behind this stance: “she knew. She read it in the pain in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders. After a lifetime of people turning away from him, he wasn’t about to trust her with something as fragile as his heart. Not before he knew that she would be willing to stay forever” (247-48). By demonstrating that she is indeed “willing to stay forever,” the Incomplete Prism transforms Rafe into a Completed Phallus:

The thick, angry barrier around his heart shattered and blew away. […] He knew then that he had to believe her or lose her forever. That he was nothing without her. That he had finally found a safe place to belong.

“I love you,” he told her. […] “[…] I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please do me the honor of marrying me.” (248-49)

In a way that parallels the GHH’s regulation of the MW, the Incomplete Prism completes the Phallus, making him a happier, better man than he was without her: “till within these few Days, I knew not what it was to be happy. […] I hope, from her good Example, […] in time, to be half as good as my Tutoress” (Richardson 308).

Completing the Prism

As with Incomplete Phalluses, there is variation in what is lacking in Incomplete Prisms. Some extremely feisty Incomplete Prisms are described as having a boyish appearance or behaving mannishly. Diana Mayo, for example, “looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy” (Hull 2). It is said of Lady Margaret that she “fights at the head of her men” (Heyer, Simon 135) and when she “don[s] boy’s raiment” (196) in an attempt to escape from Simon she looks like “a slim stripling” (198) and declares “In man’s clothes I stand, and a man will I be” (216). Feistiness taken to the point of mannishness is depicted in these two novels as a characteristic of which the heroine must be broken, at least insofar as she relates to the hero, so that she can become a Completed Prism. Diana Mayo’s sheik adopts particularly violent methods:

with a greater arrogance and a determination stronger than her own Ahmed Ben Hassan had tamed her as he tamed the magnificent horses that he rode. He had been brutal and merciless, using no half measures, forcing her to obedience by sheer strength of will and compelling a complete submission. (Hull 226-27)

She comes to think of him as “A man of men. Monseigneur! Monseigneur! Mon maître et seigneur” (245) and Lady Margaret murmurs “Stern, merciless conqueror! Simon, mon maître et mon seigneur!” (Heyer, Simon 299).

Another way in which heroines may demonstrate their feisty nature is by engaging in “Too Stupid To Live” (TSTL) behaviour. This type of behaviour was “first recognized […] at romance supersite All About Romance” (Wendell and Tan 31) but AAR’s Laurie Gold has clarified that the term

tstl, or too-stupid-to-live […] actually came from a very well-known author who wrote me about it in 1997 and asked to remain anonymous. A tstl heroine does things like going […] where specifically told not to by the hero and ends up endangering both with her foolishness.

In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the heroine knows that “some crazy person is trying to kill me” (48), and she has been told that her apartment “is a death trap […]. […] Easy entrance and exit right outside the door, no dead bolts, a perfect line-of-sight aim for anybody with a high-powered rifle with a scope” (48). Her safety can only be assured if she moves in with Tony, whose professional skills will enable him to act as her bodyguard. She does so, but after an argument with him she decides to prove to him that she “wasn’t a doormat. No way was she staying in here to listen to him cavorting with his girlfriend! No way!” (82). Unfortunately, and rather predictably, the hit man “was watching and followed her home” (93). Tony only just arrives in time to save her. TSTL behaviour on the part of the heroine thus gives the hero an opportunity to display his manly prowess, and may demonstrate the extent to which the heroine needs the protection of a Phallus.

Removed from the context of TSTL behaviour, and described in terms which are more flattering to the heroine, this protection could be thought of as a benefit which accrues to the heroine once she has taken indirect control of his Phallus: “his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command” (Phillips 58). Once the heroine of Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart marries Ranulf, for example, she is safe from attacks by other males intent on usurping her wealth and power. Regardless of whether one views this outcome as evidence of the heroine’s lack or of her triumph, the end result is that the Completed Prism falls under the protection of the Completed Phallus.

Marriage to the Phallus may also enable a Prism to enter the socio-political elite or, “Put more polemically, popular romance tells the story of how the heroine gains access to money — to power — in patriarchal society” (Cohn 3). Millie, a woman who “came from a poor background, and lived on a meager budget” (Palmer 58), marries Tony, who is “rich” (62). In Richardson’s Pamela there is an even more marked elevation in the social status of the heroine: the landowner hero marries “his Mother’s Waiting-maid” (261) and “She was regularly visited by the principal Ladies in the Neighbourhood; who were fond of her Acquaintance” (499). In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet, though not noted for her intelligence in other matters, perceives the material benefits which will accrue to Elizabeth upon her marriage to Darcy: “how rich and how great you will be!” (386). By the end of Devil’s Cub Mary, a commoner, is engaged to the Marquis of Vidal who is “one of the biggest prizes on the matrimonial market” (Heyer 14).

Increased access to money and power may give the Completed Prism greater opportunities for displaying the nurturing aspects of the Prism. After her marriage to the Earl of Aberdare, Clare may have had to give up

being a full-time teacher, but […] now that she had Nicholas’s deep purse to plunder, she was able to help people on a broader scale. There were no more hungry children in Penreith, and the valley was becoming the prosperous, happy place she had dreamed of. (Putney 379-80)

Similarly, whereas Richardson’s Pamela as an Incomplete Prism, having received a charitable gift, exclaimed “O how amiable a Thing is doing good! — It is all I envy great Folks for!” (18), once she has been transformed by marriage into a Completed Prism she is able to reward her new servants, take Mr. B.’s illegitimate child into their home, and display “a diffusive Charity to all worthy Objects within the Compass of their Knowledge” (499).

The conclusion of Richardson’s novel also reveals that Pamela “made her beloved Spouse happy in a numerous and hopeful Progeny” (499), and in the epilogue to Thunder and Roses we learn that Clare “was almost sure that the next Gypsy Earl was on the way” (Putney 380). Dain and Jessica require no such epilogue for although they have only “been wed five weeks” by the end of Lord of Scoundrels, “It is easy enough to calculate. One fertile marchioness plus one virile marquess equals a brat” (Chase 373). Given the increase in recent decades of premarital sex in romances, it is now not uncommon for the virility of heroes and the fertility of heroines to be demonstrated long before either their wedding or the end of the novel. The heroine of His Lady’s Ransom, for example, falls pregnant after one night of “wild, prolonged and very thorough couplings” (Lovelace 273) with the hero; they marry a few months later, and in the final chapter their baby lies “in a basket on the table, gurgling” (353). Regardless of the method by which romance authors impart the information, it is common for them to provide evidence that the Completed Phallus and Prism, secure in their domestic bliss, have produced, or will produce, a suitable number of offspring.

The Alchemical Model of Relationships

In the model of romantic relationships outlined above, the processes of transformation are complex and involve the protagonists’ individual bodies, a GHH and MW, and an Incomplete Phallus and Incomplete Prism. Frantz suggests that a heroine who gives her breast milk to a supplicant hero is “appropriating patriarchal power for herself, but she is also then generous enough to return some to the hero, who continues to embody patriarchal power” (27). In such scenes, the individual bodies of the protagonists perform actions which can be read as symbolising the changes that are occurring to their socio-political bodies: the Incomplete Prism becomes a Completed Prism through her relationship with the Incomplete Phallus, and does so in a way which renders him Completed too. The GHH tends to be the catalyst for the transformation, because by ensuring that the MW desires union with this particular GHH, the hero’s Incomplete Phallus is brought into contact with the heroine’s Incomplete Prism. The Incomplete Prism then transmutes the glitter of sexual attraction into the gold of a socially sanctioned relationship between a Completed Prism and Completed Phallus. This, then, may be termed the alchemical model of relationships and it has been summarised by Mr. B., who admits to Pamela that “after having been long tost by the boisterous Winds of a more culpable Passion, I have now conquer’d it, and am not so much the Victim of your Love, all charming as you are, as of your Virtue” (Richardson 341); or, put more succinctly, “her Person made me her Lover; but her Mind made her my Wife” (474). Here “your Love” and “her Person” seem to refer to what we might term the heroine’s GHH, whereas her “Virtue” and her “Mind” are aspects of her Prism.

It is only because the heroine possesses both a particularly glittery GHH and an Incomplete Prism that she is able to have a transformative effect on both the MW and the Incomplete Phallus; as Janice A. Radway observed with regard to Alaina McGaren, the heroine of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, “It is […] the combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or of admitting dependence” (127). A GHH unaccompanied by an Incomplete Prism will be unable to effect the transformation of the Incomplete Phallus, as is demonstrated in Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man in which, as the heroine is aware, the hero has frequently found other women sexually attractive and “the brassier they are, the better you like them” (50). These women, however, appear to have lacked Incomplete Prisms, for as the hero explains:

“Those glittery women are fine for a good time. You don’t plan a future around them.”

He was insinuating that they were fine for a one-night stand. (60)

The brassy glitter of these promiscuous women is very different from the special glitter of the heroine, who is “illuminated” (59) and displays a special “radiance” (59) when in the presence of the hero. Her GHH is so closely associated with her Incomplete Prism that, like Mr. B.’s Pamela, she “would never go to bed with a man she hadn’t married” (58), and both novels conclude with the hero and heroine safely united in matrimony. Cartland’s Syrilla also has a glitter which is quite clearly inextricable from her Prism: “she had a radiance in her face that was not of this world” (Love 87), and since for the hero she “brought back dreams […] of a woman who could be innocent and pure and inspire a man spiritually as well as physically” (152), she may serve as a reminder to the reader that where some heroines are concerned, marriage is definitely Holy Matrimony.

The initial fear that many heroes experience in response to their overwhelming desire for the heroine can therefore be understood not solely in sexual terms (as a fear of a monogamy caused by a desire so strong and so specific for the GHH that the MW can barely feel attraction towards any other woman), but also as a fear of the gentling which will occur as his Incomplete Phallus is focused by the Incomplete Prism. The way in which the heroine’s GHH binds the hero to her, enabling the Incomplete Prism and Incomplete Phallus to act on each other and become Completed, has been described by Cook as

a bargain: his love for her sex. […] He finds pleasure in the confession of love because love is something he has learned to deny and fear, often as the result of a terrible experience in earlier life. She finds pleasure in the confession of sex because she can give freely to the hero what he has brought about in her and not fear the ruin of her identity. The formula of the bargain creates a kind of symmetry, a pretence of equality. The father of desire meets the mother of love and they exchange gifts. Each makes the other complete in a fantasy of total union.

But the bargain is also, on the heroine’s part, about attaching desire to social convention, to propriety, to marriage. It is part of her traditional role that she should represent virtue. […] Her function is to […] reassure us that, in the end, desire and the law are compatible. (157)[7]

There can be no better representative of the “traditional role” than Pamela, whose would-be seducer is so thoroughly reformed by his interactions with her Prism that he becomes “the best and fondest of Husbands; and, after her Example, became remarkable for Piety, Virtue, and all the Social Duties of a Man and a Christian” (Richardson 499).

Some Alternative Models

Although the alchemical model of relationships, in which a GHH regulates a MW, an Incomplete Prism focusses an Incomplete Phallus, and an Incomplete Phallus completes an Incomplete Prism, has been present in the genre for centuries, there are alternative models of how the six bodies of romance protagonists can interact, some of which also have a very long literary history. It would be impossible to offer a comprehensive survey of all of these models in the space available, and this section therefore provides only a very brief overview of just a few of the alternative models to be found within the genre.

One of these alternative models offers the reader a hero who, at the start of the novel, already embodies masculine perfection. His MW needs no regulation and almost all he requires in order to become a Completed Phallus is a wife. Marriage is necessary in order to comply with the demands of heteronormativity: as Fulk tells the young Simon, “a man must take a wife unto himself” (Heyer, Simon 115), or, as Austen somewhat satirically observes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride 51). Among these near-perfect heroes are Frances Burney’s Lord Orville, who is depicted “as a fully formed paragon of male manners from his first appearance” (Hamilton 429), and Austen’s Mr. Knightley. A more recent example may be found in Heyer’s The Nonesuch. Sir Waldo Hawkridge, the novel’s hero, is known by this nickname which

means perfection! […]

‘A paragon, certainly.’ […]

‘[…] they say the Nonesuch is a clipping rider to hounds too. […]’ […]

‘Sir Waldo is first in consequence with the ton, and of the first style of elegance, besides being very handsome, and hugely wealthy!’ (20)

Sir Waldo, who “commanded as much liking as admiration” (169), is also a philanthropist and a responsible and caring role model to his younger cousin. This kind of hero is “the more conventional, sensitive, mature and competent husband-lover” who “has great strength and stability and seems particularly solid and trustworthy” (Mussell 119-20). He can be found in the novels of Betty Neels, which jay Dixon recalls reading “to fill my need for a knowledgeable and calm father-figure” (35). As Mussell observes, such heroes

appeal […] because of their implicit stability, their self-knowledge, and the status they can confer through marriage. If this figure seems more mature and sensitive than other men, and more attractive and intelligent, he offers an assurance of sexual fidelity because he knows his own mind in choosing the heroine. […] His strength and power derive from self-assurance, self-control, and uncompromising moral principles. (124)

Since his MW is already perfectly regulated, and he already manifests the full range of qualities required to be a Completed Phallus, the heroine’s GHH and Prism function solely to attract him and assure him of her suitability, but there is no need for them to effect a major transformation of his personality. She, however, may be taught by him, as is the case in Austen’s Emma, or enjoy the benefits which, as described above, generally accrue to a Completed Prism. In The Nonesuch, for example, Ancilla Trent is saved from life as a governess and restored to the social circle from which her father’s death had distanced her. In addition, Sir Waldo’s philanthropy will give her ample opportunity to manifest the charitable, caring aspects of the Completed Prism, particularly as his “mother […] will welcome you with open arms, and will very likely egg you on to bully me into starting an asylum for female orphans” (275).

Many modern “inspirational” romances feature an explicitly Christian version of this near-perfect type of hero. His possession of a MW may be implied via descriptions of his individual body: “The heroes’ physical stature and good looks reinforce their virility and attractiveness to heroines” (Neal 149). In Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, for example, Samuel Hart is “broad-shouldered” (13) and although “It was inappropriate that she should notice his well-defined cheekbones or his recently shaved, firm, square chin, […] she had. Even his deep, rich voice arrested her attention” (15). The use of the word “inappropriate” suggests that Josie, the heroine, is not merely cataloguing the features of Samuel’s individual body: despite his status as “a widower, a father and a preacher” (109) he has “a fluid agility and masculine grace” (109) — in other words a MW — which “she couldn’t help but appreciate” (109). That the ideal Christian romance hero’s MW is pre-regulated and incapable of succumbing to uncontrollable lust is made very clear in the guidelines provided by some publishers. In Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired romances, for example, “Any physical interactions (i.e., kissing, hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality” (eHarlequin). Similarly, the guidelines for Barbour Publishing’s Heartsong Presents stipulate that:

Physical tension between characters should not be overdone. Do not be overly descriptive when describing how characters feel in a particular romantic moment, for example, kissing, embracing, and so on. It has been our belief from day one that we can tell a great love story without going into excessive physical detail. People can easily imagine the desires and tensions between a couple who are blossoming into love. Kisses are fine (no tongues or heights of arousal, please).

One consequence of the sexual restraint demonstrated by this near-perfect Christian romance hero is that he poses a challenge to some aspects of the “male sexual drive discourse” so often present in the mainstream romance genre’s depiction of heroes’ socio-sexual bodies. In addition to having a well-regulated MW he

retains all the rugged individualism, toughness, and power of secular heroes but combines this traditional masculinity with gentleness, patience, and attention to female needs, from snuggling to child-rearing. (Barrett-Fox 97)

He, like the near-perfect secular hero, is thus in possession of a Phallus which can become fully Completed without the need for major personality changes. However, despite the strong similarities between the near-perfect Christian hero and his secular counterpart, there is one very significant difference between the processes by which their Phalluses, and the Prisms of their heroines, become Completed: “The transformation that seems ‘magical’ in secular romances is explained by divinely sparked spiritual growth in their evangelical counterparts” (Neal 5).[8] Returning again to Samuel Hart, we find that he has an almost perfect Phallus, “He represented everything that was good and perfect about fathers and husbands” (St. John 157), but he does occasionally make mistakes and “Whenever he overlooked the obvious, whenever he let pride get in the way of what was best, God graciously pointed his foolishness out to him” (209).

The “beta” hero presents a challenge to the gender roles underlying all of the previous models because his Phallus is never Completed: he is never transformed into an authoritative, patriarchal figure. He is “More playful and relaxed,” “More of the ‘boy (or man) next door’ type,” “Considerate of his heroine’s feelings and opinions” and “The sort of man that a reader can actually imagine meeting, falling in love with, marrying — and being able to live with!” (Walker 100). Jayne Ann Krentz scornfully describes him as a “neurotic wimp” and “a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking ‘modern’ man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start” (109). It is indeed true that “you don’t get much of a challenge for a heroine” (109) from such a hero, if that challenge is understood in terms of demonstrating the power of her Prism and GHH. He brings into question the role of the heroine in the alchemical model because he tends not to need her to tame, gentle, domesticate or regulate his bodies.

Although Krentz attributes the beta hero’s appearance in romance to “a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing” (107), he is not a recent invention. Edward Ferrars in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is

too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart […]. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (49)

Like the more recent “beta” heroes, he has been found wanting by some readers:

There is a strong tendency among critics to disparage Edward Ferrars as romantic hero. […] I suspect that Edward’s gender dissonance has stymied even professional readers. […] Edward […] lacks aggression altogether: for the most part he is retiring, he is passive, and he is as backward a lover as ladies are enjoined to be. […] As to society, Edward lacks ambition and the desire to be somebody in the world […]. Against the grain of the affluent gentry’s model for men, but consonantly with the female model, he aspires to nothing higher than a happy domestic life. (Perkins 5-6)

This “beta” hero is favourably contrasted with an “uncommonly handsome” (75) rake, as is also the case in Heyer’s Cotillion, in which she “was teasing her fans […] by making ineffective Freddy the hero rather than handsome Jack Westruther” (Aiken Hodge 91). Jack is “a tall man” (Heyer, Cotillion 110) with “powerful thighs” (110), whereas Freddy is “a slender young gentleman, of average height and graceful carriage” (36), and this smaller, less physically powerful individual body is matched by a less attractive socio-sexual body and a very socially acceptable but non-dominant socio-political body:

He was neither witty nor handsome; his disposition was retiring; and although he might be seen at any social gathering, he never (except by the excellence of his tailoring) drew attention to himself […] he was too inarticulate to pay charming compliments, and had never been known to indulge in the mildest flirtation. But a numerous circle of male acquaintances held him in considerable affection, and with the ladies he was a prime favourite. The most sought-after beauty was pleased to stand up with so graceful a dancer; any lady desirous of redecorating her drawing-room was anxious for his advice. (108-09)

Many “beta” heroes are neither shy nor sexually inexperienced, but as a type the “beta” hero, because of his lack of a Completed Phallus and the fact that he often possesses character traits more often associated with femininity, challenges the way in which particular groups of traits (such as those which are characteristic of the Prism) tend to be assigned only to individuals of one biological sex.

Although the Phallus is firmly associated with masculinity and the Prism with femininity, psychologists have long acknowledged that no individual is exclusively imbued with qualities ascribed to only one gender:

In every human being, Freud […] remarks, “pure masculinity or femininity is not to be found either in a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture.” […] It is now generally accepted […] that masculine and feminine principles are not inherent polarities […]. Still, […] there exists a recurrent cultural tendency to distinguish and to polarize gender roles. (Gilmore 214)

Sexual, social, and political power are expressed in highly gendered ways when the MW and Phallus are strongly associated with heroes and their male individual bodies, while the GHH and Prism are strongly associated with heroines and their female individual bodies.

Elizabeth Bevarly’s Dr Mummy challenges such gender roles, but unlike romances featuring “beta” heroes, it does so by reversing the biological sex of the characters who, by the end of the novel, possess the Prism and Phallus. Perhaps in order to neutralise the threat to the hero’s masculinity which might result from this departure from the usual configuration of the six bodies, the transformation is not revealed until the epilogue, long after the hero’s “appealingly rugged, startlingly handsome […]. And big. Really, really big” (24) individual body has been established as being in conformity with the masculine ideal. The relationship between Nick and Claire’s socio-sexual bodies also conforms to romance conventions: “Nick’s hot, unyielding body before her, and the sense of his overwhelming possession thrilled her in a way that nothing else could” (117). The transformations undergone by their socio-political bodies, however, are anything but conventional. Nick begins the novel as an Incomplete Phallus: law enforcement is a typically Phallic profession and he works as a “narcotics detective” (15). Years before the start of the novel he had wanted to marry Claire and become a Completed Phallus:

He’d wanted them to have a half-dozen kids, just as his folks had done. He’d […] wanted Claire to stay at home with the kids, had wanted to work himself to death to take care of the family financially. […] And Claire just couldn’t see that happening. She hadn’t wanted to give birth to and care for six children — or even one child. She hadn’t wanted to be a homemaker — she’d wanted to be a doctor. (48)

Nick’s dream of having a large family with Claire is achievable, but only by abandoning traditional gender roles. By the end of the novel he has been transformed into a Completed Prism, a homemaking, stay-at-home parent who is “in charge of the bake sale this year” (184) and certain that “the job I have now is so much more important than the one I had before” (185). Claire, initially an Incomplete Phallus who had resisted parenthood, dedicated herself to her highly paid professional job, and who “had always had difficulty revealing any honest emotion” (56), becomes a Completed Phallus as the family’s only wage-earner.

Romances featuring protagonists of the same sex may also offer new dynamics between, and depictions of, their six bodies. Phyllis M. Betz states that in a lesbian romance “The very fact that two women have determined to pursue a passionate relationship contravenes traditional social norms and expectations” (105), and as Paulina Palmer has observed, “By placing characters who identify as lesbian in a heterosexist frame and highlighting the tensions this generates, they alert the reader to the ideological limitations of the romance genre and the social codes which it inscribes” (203). Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park, for example, opens as Lady Joanna Sinclair is walking and daydreaming about romances, and so it is while “half expecting to find Ivanhoe” (2) that she first encounters Lady Diana March and “instead of a knight in shining armor there was a fair damsel […]. She was […] dressed in brown turkish trousers” (2). Lady Diana’s individual body is female, but her socio-political body has traditionally masculine attributes, as indicated by her attire and the comparison with Ivanhoe. Her “excellent birth […], her friends at the highest level of English society, and her vast fortune” (164-65), as well as the role she plays in rescuing Joanna from familial oppression, mark her as the possessor of an Incomplete Phallus. As the more sexually experienced of the two, her socio-sexual body can be thought of as a MW. For her part Joanna, who despite having been married has “never been in the throes of a Grand Passion” (111), has a GHH and as the mother of a young daughter and a woman in need of protection, she is clearly an Incomplete Prism whose love will heal Diana’s emotional wounds. In many respects, then, Pembroke Park tells the traditional story of how a GHH and Incomplete Prism work together to gentle and complete a MW and Incomplete Phallus, but because that MW and Incomplete Phallus belong to a person with a biologically female individual body, Diana “flagrantly sidestep[s] every rule of social decorum!” (4).

Conclusion

Romance novels, because they deal so explicitly with sexuality and men’s and women’s roles within sexual relationships, are cultural agents (primarily for women) for the transmission of gender ideologies. Gender ideologies, in turn, “construct men’s and women’s sexualities” (Blackwood 240). Although we have stressed the degree of continuity that exists in the depiction of the alchemical model of heterosexual romantic relationships, the genre has responded to changes in social attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles. In addition, despite the fact that all romances feature protagonists with three bodies (individual, social, political) there are some romances which offer alternatives to the pairing of a female protagonist’s individual body, GHH, and Prism with a male protagonist’s individual body, MW, and Phallus. Such romances provide alternative “guiding or admonitory images” (Gilmore 208) regarding ideal masculinity or femininity. Due to the diversity that exists within the genre, the many bodies of romance heroes and heroines may be sites of reinforcement of, or of resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies.

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[1] For a more detailed analysis of the genre’s history, see Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel.

[2] Simplicity in men’s apparel was not unknown in the medieval period but, “In the Middle Ages, the norms regarding clothes were based on the nearly timeless precept that differentiations in social structure should be recognized by means of dress, hair and beard. However, at the same time – thanks to Christianity – clothes were endowed with a number of moral-symbolic interpretations […] controversy was caused on the one hand by the fashions prevalent at royal and aristocratic courts, and on the other by the symbolic attire of the ascetic religious movements, which opposed in equal measure the opulence of the Church and of the laity” (Klaniczay 52). It is only in much more recent centuries that simple fashions for men have been widely adopted by the aristocracy: “Clothing historians have labeled the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the era of ‘the great masculine renunciation,’ a period of increasing modesty and simplicity in middle- and upper-class men’s dress” (Kuchta 54).

[3] Unusually, this description is given from the point of view of a gay male, Theodric, who also observes the hero’s “tight, exquisitely curved arse” (47).

[4] Regis acknowledges that “In romance novels from the last quarter of the twentieth century marriage is not necessary as long as it is clear that heroine and hero will end up together” (37-38).

[5] Rape may also function, as Kate Saunders has observed in her introduction to The Sheik, as a way to ensure the heroine “is morally off the hook, in an era when female sexual desire on its own was shameful and improper” (vi).

[6] Another indication of his near omniscience is that “No matter how softly one might creep up to him, he always knew of the approach, and needed not to see who it was who drew near” (111).

[7] With regard to the “pretence of equality,” Cohn suggests that “the belief that a fair bargain has been struck between two parties when one offers rank and wealth and the other, moral improvement is the kind of pious wish-fulfillment called on to mask social relations that are far less benign” (140).

[8] Another significant difference between Christian romances and many secular romances is that characters in Christian romances have a fourth, spiritual, body. The existence of a spiritual body is explicitly mentioned in Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, in which the reader is informed that a minor character’s “physical body lay beneath the lush grass in the fenced-in cemetery behind the tiny white church. His spirit had gone on to be with the Lord” (7).

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