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Posts Tagged ‘homosexuality’

“The Upper-Class Bisexual Top as Romantic Hero: (Pre)dominant in the Social Structure and in the Bedroom” by Ann Herendeen

As an illustration of the attractions of wealth and high social status in a marriage partner, it’s hard to surpass Elizabeth Bennet’s reply in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to her sister Jane’s question as to how long she has loved Mr. Darcy: “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (353; vol. 3, ch. 17). While the remark is presented as a typical jest from the wittiest of Austen heroines (“Another entreaty that she would be serious, however, produced the desired effect”), some readers can’t help seeing a grain of truth in this supposedly humorous answer. We recall Elizabeth’s thoughts during her visit to Mr. Darcy’s beautiful grounds, “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (note the exclamation point) and her “lucky recollection” that her “uncle and aunt would have been lost to [her]” which “saved her from something like regret” (235-236; vol. 3, ch. 1).

In my second novel, Pride/Prejudice, I develop Austen’s link between status and attraction, teasing out its sexual undertones. On his wedding night, Fitz(william) Darcy is momentarily deflated, literally and figuratively, upon learning that Elizabeth has seen him, naked and aroused, in the company of an equally naked and aroused Charles Bingley. Elizabeth attempts to joke her new husband into confidence and potency: “Although Charles is a very well-formed man, appropriate for a respectable four or five thousand a year, your far more magnificent appearance confirmed my every idea of the grandeur of a large estate, a house in town, and a clear ten thousand pounds” (Herendeen, P/P 318).  This is the place in my book where the deliberate correlation of wealth, power and sexuality is stated most clearly, and as Elizabeth cheerfully admits, crudely. But the combination of high economic, social and sexual status as desirable ingredients in the romantic hero underlies all my fiction, and is an obvious theme in my two published novels: P/P; and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander.  That the romantic hero in each of these books is not simply a wealthy, upper-class man, but also a bisexual top, as dominant in the bedroom as he is in the social structure, is the twist on the Austen model that I wish to explore in this essay.

The connection these novels imply between the heroes’ social status and their dominant bisexuality seems to have struck some readers as not only confusing but contradictory. Consider, for example, the way that Meredith S. Faust began her presentation on my work at the 2011 PCA/ACA conference: “Many [ . . . ] old school romances depict sexuality according to strict patriarchal hegemonic heteronormative structures: masculinity rules. [ . . . ] Therefore, when I picked up Ann Herendeen’s Phyllida . . . a female / male / male polyamorous love story, I expected to see [ . . . ] characters whose understanding of relationships and preferences in relationships was evolved. [ . . . ] I was [ . . . ] astonished by the patriarchal and rigid heteronormative structures in place” (1).  Faust seems to have assumed that a romance novel featuring bisexuality and polyamory would necessarily contest “old school” constructions of masculinity and sexuality, and I can understand why, given how the genre itself has “evolved” in recent years.  Over the past three decades, after all, as first feminism and then “gay” liberation (now more inclusively seen as LGBTQ: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) brought into question the nature of “masculinity” and “femininity” and the very concepts of “men” and “women,” the popular romance novel has undergone profound changes. Contemporary romance novels—those written recently, including those set in the past—reflect readers’ increasingly diverse outlooks and advanced ideas of sex roles and relationship dynamics. Alpha males are more likely to be vampires or shape-shifters than human beings, and gender roles are constantly being reevaluated and renegotiated in romance subgenres like BDSM, m/m and paranormal. Members of minority groups such as African-Americans, gay men and lesbians and, occasionally, people with disabilities are the heroes and heroines of love stories from which they were not so long ago excluded.  The idea of a romance hero who is wealthy, upper-class, and sexually dominant seems at odds with a presumably “progressive” decision to cast this hero as a bisexual.  To Faust, at least, it seemed positively retrograde.

Set during the English Regency (1811-1820), near the end of the Georgian era, my novels take place at a time when traditional ideas of social class were only beginning to be questioned.  As I wrote them, I imagined heroes who embody late Augustan-age,[1] robust masculinity: men at the top of their society who enjoy every material advantage and who expect to control their partners. The characters of my heroes, Fitz in P/P and Andrew Carrington in Phyllida, are determined primarily by their social and economic class.  Both are wealthy, even by the standards of their rarefied stratum of society; both are nephews of earls; and both are, I imagined,  “tops,” men who prefer the dominant position in sexual activity. As their creator, I was making a deliberate connection between their social class and their sexuality—one which, as I hope to show, has some basis in actual history, however refracted through a novelist’s eyes.

What, though, of their bisexuality, their status as outsiders in a harsh, punitive, heteronormative society? At a time when same-sex love between men was a capital offense, how could these men also be at the top of their world?

To address these questions within the limited space of this article, I will have to survey changes in attitudes toward male human sexuality over time and place in a necessarily cursory fashion, concentrating on eighteenth-century England.   I will be interpreting these changes from the point of view of a novelist, especially in their relation to the fiction that has directly influenced my own writing; I hope that this perspective will help me escape, at least in part, the solipsism of any author’s analyzing her own work, yielding me something to offer an academic forum on a popular genre of fiction.  My intent is not to refute Faust (or any other scholar kind enough to discuss my work) but rather to contribute the viewpoint of both a writer and a longtime reader of the romance genre to the evolving scholarly conversation about it, and not just in the cases of P/P and Phyllida.


“Homosexual behaviour is common among social animals, and is mainly expressed within the context of a bisexual sexual orientation,” Aldo Poiani declares in the abstract to his 2010 work on animal homosexuality. Poiani’s statement, something that would have seemed radical not so long ago, is now almost mainstream; it takes for granted a distinction between sexual acts (behavior) and an individual’s identity, his or her “sexual orientation.” Poiani goes further, applying the concept of sexual orientation to other animals besides human beings and, most radical of all, acknowledging “bisexual” as an orientation, one still not entirely accepted even within the LGBT community.[2]

If most animal “homosexuality” can be interpreted as behavior that occurs in the context of a bisexual orientation, it can also be said that, as far as we can tell from the sketchy historical record, most human “bisexuality” has occurred in contexts where modern ideas of “orientation” only awkwardly apply.  From classical to early modern times, for example, sexuality was defined or categorized by what I call a “vertical” divide, based on a person’s role in the sexual act itself and in relationships, both sexual and social:  a conceptual framework that spanned Greco-Roman antiquity, Christian Europe, and much of the Islamic world (Andrews and Kalpakli 11-15), and is also quite common elsewhere (Werner 330). The important distinction was who inserted or penetrated (the “top”) and who received or was penetrated (the “bottom”). In vaginal heterosexual sex, the man is the inserter, the woman the receiver. Inserter/penetrator and receiver/penetrated defined the concepts of masculine and feminine, and the inserter/receiver distinction was applied to same-sex male relationships as well, influencing a society’s acceptance or rejection of the individual participants and of their place in the social structure.

This inserter/receiver understanding of gender identity and sex roles can take two forms (Werner 330-331). In one, the “gender-stratified society,” cisgender males (men who exhibit the appearance and behavior their society considers masculine) (“Cisgender”) are distinguished from “pathics,” men who engage in sex exclusively with other men and prefer the receiver role. Only the pathics are considered to be homosexual, and there is often a specific word in the language for them. Pathics may dress as women and perform women’s jobs, and in some societies they may marry a cisgender man as his second or third “wife.” The cisgender men who have sex with pathics are not considered to be homosexual and are not recognized as a separate group from men who do not engage in sex with pathics.

In the second type, the “age-stratified” society, boys or youths take the receiver role with older men, either in a monogamous relationship with a “mentor,” or in a “catamite” system in which the boys are available as sexual objects to older and socially powerful men. When the boys reach an age at which they are considered to be (young) men, they switch over to the inserter role with younger boys/men. In some age-stratified societies, the period of same-sex relationships is a distinct phase for all males between early adolescence and heterosexual marriage; in others, access to youths is a permanent privilege of masculine adulthood.

Many societies contain elements of both gender and age stratification, but among these various societies there are two constants: the view of cisgender males as “masculine,” whether or not they engage in homosexual behavior with pathics or boys; and the relegation of adult men who choose the receiver role to a separate category, pathics, distinguishable by their “effeminate” dress and behavior. Reinforcing the view of the receiver as taking the “feminine” role, K. J. Dover compares the acceptable behavior for a youth courted by an older man in ancient Greece to that of a proper Victorian lady (90). The modest youth, like the nineteenth-century woman, does not desire or seek out sexual intercourse for its own sake, but yields to an honorable proposal from a good man whom he admires. It is the adult masculine role to pursue and to take the top position in sex; it is the feminine or youthful role to submit to the bottom position, but only out of love for a worthy suitor.

Both age- and gender-stratified societies, then, might be said to be “heteronormative,” in the sense that even when a degree of same-sex male sexual behavior is accepted or encouraged, it occurs within a cultural context that feminizes the man or boy in the receiver role. In the gender-stratified society, the pathic is female-identified by appearance and behavior. In the age-stratified society, it is boys who are too young to show secondary sex characteristics that are acceptable objects of adult male attraction. Stratification, social hierarchy, is the crucial conceptual framework involved, not what we might think of now as “sexual orientation.”  In fact, in both kinds of stratified society, adult men married to women might engage in sex with pathics or boys as their society allows, without their activity being labeled “bisexual” and without their identity as (heterosexual) men being questioned, as long as they do so in the active, penetrating role.

It is important to note that I am talking now only about socially-approved behavior. The fact that in ancient Athens adult men were not supposed to engage in the receptive role in same-sex relationships tells us very little about men’s actual sexual behavior. The disapproval of adult males’ taking the receiver role applied only to citizens (Dover 31-34). Working-class men, foreigners, and especially slaves were by definition on the bottom of this vertical divide, expected or required, for reasons of poverty or disenfranchisement, to engage in the receptive role with wealthy higher-ranking men.

By the time we come to early modern England, acceptable behavior no longer includes any same-sex activity. But the vertical distinction between masculine inserter/top and feminized receiver/bottom is still in place. Up until the middle of the seventeenth century, invisible homosexual relationships could exist within a hierarchical society that contained, along with the usual age and gender stratifications, a third one—social class—also present in ancient Greece. Master with servant or apprentice, schoolmaster with pupil, and gentry and noblemen with “boys” of all sorts, the Ganymedes and linkboys of Lord Rochester’s Restoration-era contests with his mistress, “When each the well-looked linkboy strove t’ enjoy, / And the best kiss was the deciding lot, / Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy” (lines 38-40): all these couplings allowed the older or higher-ranking man to engage in the active sexual role while retaining his masculine identity, and we know from both public and private texts (diaries, letters, etc.) that such couplings were far from uncommon (Andrews and Kalpakli 125-129).

At the end of the seventeenth century, for complicated and much-debated reasons involving urbanization and the concentration in cities of young unmarried men, as well as the desire to persecute Roman Catholic institutions, male same-sex activity came to the attention of the legal and religious authorities. The sporadic single prosecutions of the 150 years following the passage of the Buggery Act of 1533 gave way to cycles of raids and hangings that both Bray (92) and Norton (Mother 16-18) relate to the development of a subculture of “molly houses” and the men (“mollies”) who frequented them.  Since the law made no distinction between inserter and receiver, all men accused of “sodomy” were equally guilty, equally “unnatural,” and equally “gay,” and the old, vertical model of sexuality began to seem obsolete. Inserter/receiver or masculine/feminine no longer made sense as ways of describing or thinking about same-sex male relationships, and some Western European societies moved toward a third way of classifying sexual identity, the “egalitarian system.”

In an “egalitarian system,” as opposed to a stratified one, all men who engage in same-sex activity, whether inserter or receiver, cisgender or pathic, are considered to be homosexual (Werner 331).  Under this new way of thinking, sexuality is defined, not by a vertical division, top and bottom, but by what we might call a horizontal division between “male” and “female” based on a person’s (perceived) gender and the gender of his or her partner. This horizontal division is similar to, and perhaps the first step toward, the modern concept of sexual orientation or identity.  In an egalitarian system, men who are consistently attracted to other men and choose men for their partners are classified as homosexual in orientation; men who consistently choose women are considered heterosexual.

I don’t mean to suggest that the older conceptual model vanished away entirely.  Indeed, the older, stratified system and the emerging egalitarian one sometimes converged as they grappled with male (homo)sexuality.  Under the old system, the “unnatural” man was the one who, as an adult, chose the bottom position. He was considered to be feminized, or partaking of both male and female identities (two-spirit, etc.). In the transitional eighteenth century, sexual subcultures, perhaps celebrating their freedom from the constrictions of earlier gender roles, were often characterized by effeminate behavior, cross-dressing, and the use of female nicknames by men whose occupations are conventionally masculine (butcher, bargeman, blacksmith, coal merchant, etc.), reinforcing this notion of sexual duality, androgyny, or even metaphoric hermaphroditism (Norton 93).[3]  By the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, theorists like Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing were debating whether the newly-defined group called “homosexuals” constitutes a “third sex,” and the idea that male homosexuals are “feminine” men while lesbians are “masculine” women became entrenched in the popular imagination (Norton, “Critique”), from which it has never entirely vanished.  My fictional character Sylvester Monkton, a proud and outspoken man of exclusive homosexual orientation, expresses his (and my) exasperation with this enduring idea: “The world is so ignorant of these things, [that] they confuse buggery with incapability and a sodomite with a hermaphrodite” (Herendeen, P/P 214).[4]

As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has observed, this three-sex conceptual model necessarily created new suspect, boundary-crossing categories.  What, for example, was one to do with that problematic figure, the “straight-acting and -appearing gay male” (Sedgwick, Closet 46)?  And what, I would add, of the male bisexual?  As an adjective, “bisexual” originally signified a pathic, “two-spirited,” androgynous, hermaphroditic quality:  “having both sexes in the same individual” (“Bisexual”), precisely the confusion lamented by my Monkton.  The older idea of a man who is attracted to members of both sexes, but is in no way “feminized” by that attraction—who is, quite the contrary, the ultimate in dominant masculinity precisely because of it—seems to me to have slipped out of learned discourse about the sexes with the arrival of the three-sex model. In a curious twist of history, however, it has lingered within popular culture, preserving the older, stratified model of sexuality even as the broader culture has embraced the egalitarian model. [5]

This version of the bisexual man—the one who is the inserter, the top, with “anything that moves”—shows up in both progressive and deeply conservative aspects of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Western culture.  As recently as 2002, for example, the deliberately humorous title of a national publication for bisexuals was “Anything That Moves.”  Less happily, Mark Simpson quotes the advice that openly bisexual author Colin MacInnes (Thirkell) received from his father—”What you must do, son, is become a fucker and not [ . . . ] a fucked” (69)—and notes that such admonitions help explain “why ‘bisexual’ is not an identity taken on by the vast majority of men who are bisexual in behaviour: they regard themselves as straight men who happen to have sex with other men” (209). From the few reputable studies that have been conducted, there does appear to be a small but genuine subset of men that enjoys dominating both male and female partners (Werner 335-336; Dixson 397). In a gender-stratified society—a society in which, as Faust said in her conference paper, “masculinity rules”—such men would find a comfortable home at the top of the economic and political hierarchy, since what we now think of as bisexuality is, in such contexts, an established, if often covert form of male dominance. Recall my earlier point about gender-stratified societies: they generally are, as we would now say, “heteronormative,” but they define adult masculinity in terms of male dominance, and not in terms of the sex of one’s partner. In such societies, the “straight man who happens to have sex with other men” is not an outlaw or outlier, but something like a cultural ideal, at least if he has the money and power to be “a fucker” and not “a fucked.”

The aristocratic bisexual heroes of my Regency novels are precisely these sorts of men, unabashed tops (in every sense of the word) in a society still stratified by class and gender. No wonder Faust was all astonishment! In the egalitarian system, bisexuality has been reclassified from a mode of male dominance to an oppressed minority’s sexual orientation, so that just like people of different ethnicity or racial heritage and people with disabilities, the bisexual male is someone whose rights are being trampled on by “The Man.” My heroes have gone from being The Man to being Born This Way. And as the transition from gender- or age-stratified to egalitarian society can be seen as “evolution,” an upward progression from discrimination against an outcast group to acceptance, progressive readers might mistakenly expect to find “evolved” modern men in my novels instead of men who (rather shockingly, I gather) recall the traditional romance heroes of the old-school, heteronormative romance. It is to those old-school heroes, my literary models, that I want to turn next.


The modern popular romance novel, if we follow Pamela Regis in beginning with Richardson’s Pamela, and progressing to Austen and Georgette Heyer, has been necessarily situated within its own heteronormative society. Its heroines are disenfranchised, inevitably by gender, and often additionally by poverty or inferior social status; its theme is the heroine’s elevation, through romantic love and marriage, to a situation more appropriate to her nature, defined as intelligent, spirited and virtuous—a natural aristocrat. In such works as Pride and Prejudice and most of Heyer’s historical romances, the agency of this elevation is a man with the requisite status and wealth to accomplish it. Only a Mr. Darcy or a Duke of Avon—an alpha male—can afford to marry purely for love, to choose a young woman of superior character without regard to her (lack of) fortune, land, or aristocratic connections.

The setting for my two novels, the England of 1811-1813, is a society in transition. A new, wealthy middle class is making inroads on the aristocracy’s monopoly of power, but rank and title still establish a man’s place in the hierarchy; the gay subculture exists, but for most people sexuality is still divided the old-fashioned, vertical way. In novels by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, wealthy and powerful men, including titled aristocrats, landed gentry, and merchant princes, reflect the privileges of rank in their sexual practices. Richardson’s dedicated seducer-rapists, Fielding’s cheerful libertines, Defoe’s entrepreneurs, those dark lords of commerce—all enjoy the hunt, the chase and the conquest.[6] Sedgwick’s interpretation of English literature at this time, however, teases out how transitions in class and in sexuality appear in the subtexts of some authors of the time, including the “feminization of the aristocracy” in the eighteenth century (Men 93, ch. 4) and evidence of “homosexual panic” in some male authors’ Gothic novels (Men ch. 5). [7]

As for the fiction of Jane Austen, I would argue that Austen’s place in the literary continuum is decidedly with the heterosexual and “masculine” first half of the eighteenth century.[8] Her only response to the Gothic is parody (Northanger Abbey), and the authors she admires, whether men (Richardson, Samuel Johnson) or women (Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney), wrote in the realistic tradition. From her position on the lower rungs of the gentry, Austen sets her works within her own milieu; influenced by her female contemporaries Edgeworth and Burney, she created a new kind of hero, appealing to women readers tired of being conquered. Empathetic and respectful, Austen’s heroes are gentleman, not noblemen, and each accepts his female partner as an equal from the beginning. With one exception: that darkest of Austen heroes, Mr. Darcy. It’s no coincidence that he’s the most aristocratic and by far the wealthiest.

Writing a century after Austen, in a world transformed by extraordinary gains in women’s social and legal status, Georgette Heyer likewise consistently rejects the sentimental and the Gothic, preferring Austen’s humor and common sense. Building on Austen’s transformation of the romance hero, but never losing sight of Mr. Darcy, Heyer glamorizes and, dare I say, romanticizes the upper-class man. Her heroes are paragons: educated and intelligent, fashionable and well-dressed, athletic and financially responsible—sound minds in exceptionally fine bodies. And however much they love the heroine, their expectations for marriage are traditionally masculine. The Heyer hero will be on top after marriage as before, and his only “feminization” is an appreciation for the woman who is his proper mate: not his equal, but his complement.

My two Regency novels are deliberate homages to Austen (P/P) and Heyer (Phyllida), and their respective heroes, Fitz Darcy and Andrew Carrington, are written to be as un-evolved as their literary predecessors. Andrew was imagined as the direct descendent of the domineering, alpha-male heroes of Georgette Heyer’s romance novels,[9] while Fitz was simply my reading of Austen’s most-desired hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Of course, my reading took place through a very particular set of historical and erotic lenses. Given the correlation of social class and sexuality in Mr. Darcy, how could I not see him as potentially (OK, to me, obviously) a bisexual dominant? As for Heyer’s aristocratic heroes, many could easily be interpreted as bisexual tops with little or no change in their personality.

To me as both reader and author, the character of the traditional romance hero, from Pamela onward, already corresponds almost perfectly with what history and anthropology tell us about dominant male bisexuality in stratified sexual cultures. Like these old-school heroes, my particular type of “bisexual” hero dominates his partners, male and female, just as he dominates his society with his ten thousand pounds a year and his great estate, his control of electors and clergymen’s livings—because the top is his rightful place in the world. He is “to the manner born,” a phrase from a time when aristocratic behavior (“breeding”) was thought to be transmitted, generation through generation, to those born into the top of society. For such a man, bisexuality of the “anything that moves” variety is a natural fit, reflecting the persona of the man who is born to power and accepts his role as leader. In the dichotomy of modern terminology, it is who he is, expressed naturally and happily, by what he does. To me, the hero’s bisexuality enhances his masculinity, making him even more desirable to me as participant/heroine in the love story I am writing. His ability to top other men, and women, is proof, in my view, of his extraordinary virility.

This version of masculinity does not have to be cruel or selfish; it can be loving and generous, as it is, eventually, with both my heroes. Eventually—because the plot of the old school romance novel, from Richardson to Austen to the present, is mostly the story of an upper-class (and therefore, to Austen, morally suspect[10]) hero who is “properly humbled” by love, and I wanted to use this plot as well. Just as the hero in heterosexual romances often begins with a negative outlook on women, love, and marriage (leaving him sexually predatory, rejecting love, and uninterested in monogamy), my bisexual heroes have been damaged by past loves, here inflicted not by women but by other men. Just as the hero in heterosexual romances is “humbled” by love for the heroine, emerging as an ideal husband only after an enforced metamorphosis from the pupa of a rather prickly caterpillar, my alpha-male bisexual heroes must evolve toward an emotional equality with two partners, male and female, making two parallel and simultaneous transformations. And, as in heterosexual romances, the transformed heroes must retain a degree of masculine pride, even dominance, the quality that made them so appealing (to me) in the first place.

In Phyllida, envisioned as an old-school romance of the highest order, I approached this challenge through a version of that oldest of old-school plots, the marriage of convenience. As we meet Andrew Carrington at the start of the novel, he is a man of large fortune who—after some heterosexual experimentation in his teens—thinks of himself simply as a “sodomite,” acting on his desires without apology or regret. Reconciled to the new egalitarian system which has made him an outsider, he is hopeful that his wealth and social status will allow him to live as he pleases (Herendeen, Phyllida 4, 31); to be on the safe side, however, and to do his family duty, he arranges to marry Phyllida Lewis, an impoverished young lady[11] who writes Gothic romances. Phyllida accepts his offer, agreeing to ignore his sexual orientation in return for access to his wealth and social position, but also in return for his willingness to ignore her continuing work as an author, so long as she continues to publish anonymously. As she finds herself falling in love with her “sodomite husband” and aroused rather than disgusted by his same-sex activity, Phyllida must reexamine her earlier, innocent ideas on physical and emotional love between men and women, as well as her fulfillment in the kind of marriage that society sees as mercenary, even if approved (67-68, 145-147). Andrew, meanwhile, must come to terms with the fact that he is aroused by and, in time, quite in love with his wife, even as he also pairs off, sexually and emotionally, with his male partner, Matthew Thornby, the tall, blond, muscular, financially comfortable son of a tradesman.[12]

Abrasive as he may be to modern sensibilities, Andrew is not envisioned as a morally challenged aristocrat but simply as sexually dominant. He’s cocky, not corrupt. His favorite form of sexual encounter is a sort of verbal / sexual sparring, filled with drawled insults and sneering orders, but he reserves “playing the game” (85, 168) for encounters with equals:  men like Matthew, and certainly not women. How to “properly humble” such a hero? First, I unsettle Andrew by having Phyllida be less than pleased by what to him seemed a more than adequate performance on their wedding night (49-52), so that he’s forced to turn to his straight younger brother (oh, the humiliation!) for advice on how to satisfy her sexually. Next, he is emotionally wounded—that old trope —by the ending of a long-distance relationship with a young officer serving overseas: a turn that is quickly followed by a Big Misunderstanding that leaves poor Andrew convinced, quite erroneously, that he has not just failed to please his wife, but struck her in anger. Aghast, abashed, he finds himself impotent at the thought that he has abused his power. In a final twist, near the center of the book I have Andrew read Austen’s anonymously published Sense and Sensibility, believing his wife to be the author. He admires her talent, but is downright terrified at the thought of being married to such a brilliant writer. “She could eviscerate him with a chosen phrase, demolish him with a sentence. His manhood would never withstand that cold scrutiny” (448).

Andrew’s lowest point occurs when his emotional distress over the problems with his wife affects his sexual performance with Matthew (368-372). The aspect of his sexuality about which he has been most confident, his relationships with other men, has been undermined, but it’s the woman who has unmanned him. While Matthew, an ideal partner, is properly encouraging and sympathetic, Andrew’s return to healthy masculine sexuality requires the reparation of his relationship with Phyllida. Their rapprochement begins when Phyllida no longer perceives Andrew as a threat but as a wounded hero in need of healing. Instead of demanding that Phyllida submit to him in fulfillment of her wifely duty, Andrew requests that she share his bed, and only when she is ready (265). And it is here, in his flaccid state, that Andrew experiences his first genuinely egalitarian sexual moments. Unable to engage in intercourse, Andrew takes the “submissive”[13] role in oral sex, bringing Phyllida to full, screaming orgasm and giving Andrew the sense of accomplishment that has been lacking in their earlier “vertical” encounters. Not only does he acquire a new respect for women’s powerful sexuality, but he reaps an immediate reward for his submission, as Phyllida reciprocates and brings him to his own first climax since his loss of confidence.

Over time, as the two become comfortable with each other, Andrew’s recovery to dominant masculinity will be complete, but within an egalitarian, consensual context, without the earlier overtones of coercion. In their first encounters, despite the spark between them, Andrew’s unconscious reliance on “the game” confused and frightened Phyllida. Her involuntary response to Andrew’s dominant manner unnerved her, and she worried that there may be no clear line between consensual sex and rape (67-68). Once Andrew discovers that Phyllida responds to the teasing words of the game as well as any man, and once Phyllida recognizes the game as Andrew’s peculiar but enjoyable sexual style and has gained the experience to participate in it as an equal, their lovemaking can become egalitarian regardless of who is on top in any particular act. Andrew signals their impending reconciliation by calling his wife a “slut” who is “hungry for cock” and threatening to strip off her inappropriate attire, to which Phyllida responds by calling him a “foulmouthed beast,” a “brute” and a “fiend.” As Andrew explains to the shocked bystanders, “Mrs. Carrington was merely expressing her love in our own subtle idiom” (419-420).

Andrew’s necessary sexual evolution occurs almost entirely with his wife, as his feelings of pride and later on, love, require him to learn the differences in women’s anatomy and responses. He can experiment with a beginner’s level of nonthreatening equality, such as mutual oral gratification, and when Phyllida later tops him in bed it’s at Andrew’s invitation, following a spectacularly successful demonstration of the old, dominant method. With his male partner there are no such difficulties. Matthew’s submissive desires are a perfect complement to Andrew’s dominant ones; their only problems are caused by plot devices related directly or indirectly to Andrew’s troubles with Phyllida. By the end of the story, Phyllida and Andrew are evolving into genuine versatility, while Andrew continues to enjoy the dominant role with Matthew. With both partners, Andrew adds words of love to his repertory while engaged in some form of dominant sexual activity (484,498-499), although the almost identical verbal role-playing (“slut” and “brute”) will continue indefinitely.

Outside the bedroom, Andrew’s social evolution is accomplished through clashes with both partners. Although Phyllida and Matthew may enjoy the submissive role in the bedroom, neither is submissive in character, and their strong wills challenge Andrew’s authority as a gentleman of leisure and wealthy provider. Matthew continues to work at his father’s business, while Phyllida insists on pursuing her career as author, writing it into the marriage contract. Both partners engage in the kind of teasing banter with Andrew that is the opposite of the obedience he expects from a wife or the deference of a working-class man. More seriously, they unintentionally (at first) and without malice deceive Andrew, for reasons of necessity and expedience (Phyllida) or simply because it’s so easy (Matthew). Phyllida doesn’t correct Andrew’s mistaken ideas about her writing, finding it preferable to his discovering its true Gothic (and semi-autobiographical) nature, but also enjoying the secret pleasure it gives her, a form of emotional and financial independence. In a similar fashion, she lets Andrew continue to believe he struck her, despite the cost to their marital happiness, convinced that her silence is protecting Andrew from the threats of a blackmailer.

It’s only with Matthew’s seemingly lighthearted deceptions that Andrew confronts all the deepest conflicts of wealth and social class. Andrew perceives Matthew as his inferior in wealth as well as socially, and Matthew deliberately encourages Andrew’s misconceptions, lapsing into Yorkshire-inflected speech on occasion and complaining about the expensive lodgings at the Brotherhood. As it turns out, Matthew’s “tradesman” father is an obscenely wealthy cotton baron, the personification of the social upheaval wrought by the Industrial Revolution on the English nobility’s inherited wealth and titles, leaving Matthew more than a match for Andrew in size, in strength, and in wealth. He can buy and sell Andrew if not “ten times over,” “at least once or twice,” and is the beneficiary of a similar education (Harrow to Andrew’s Eton) (489, 528). What’s worst, from Andrew’s point of view, is that Matthew is not ashamed of his inferior background. He works by choice, not out of necessity, despite having enough ready capital to buy a landed estate, and he deliberately provokes Andrew’s displays of upper-class hauteur, as when Andrew covers his hurt at Matthew’s seeming abandonment by correcting his expression of going “up” to the country, instead of “down” (454).

But Andrew’s evolution toward equality with his male partner is relatively easy. As the men’s climactic confrontation shows, their fistfight turned into lovemaking (chap. 27), it is the logical outcome of all of Andrew’s—and his world’s—conflicted desires. Andrew has discovered the truth of his lover’s vast fortune, earned through despised “trade” rather than inherited, as Andrew’s is, and the reality of Matthew’s gentlemanly education. “The Yorkshireman is heavier, but Carrington’s got style,” one of the upper-class spectators remarks (493), and as the fight progresses, Andrew’s style triumphs over Matthew’s brawn. For Andrew, there’s a thrill to be had in topping someone who outmatches him in size, in strength, and in wealth. In the Heyer model, upper-class style (manners, “breeding”) has value beyond its “weight;” the rising middle classes emulate their social superiors because they want to join their ranks, not displace them, and the aristocratic bisexual top may dominate the heavier middle-class or working man—but only with his acquiescence.

Once I moved from writing an original work to interpreting Austen’s famous novel, I felt as if I was entering a darker, harsher universe. My original creation, Phyllida, and its male protagonists, Andrew and Matthew, were shaped in part by the worldview of Georgette Heyer and her relatively benign assessment of upper-class masculine dominance. Austen, by contrast, takes a more jaundiced view of the aristocracy, male and female, and its assumption of privilege.[14] The conflicts of wealth and social class are explicit in Austen’s novel, leading me to focus on bringing out the implicit bisexuality in mine. Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is an aloof, arrogant, and disdainful man at the beginning of her novel, and his “humbling” by Elizabeth Bennet is not only an argument in favor of equalizing male-female relationships but a representation of the superiority of middle-class manners and morals. Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy’s first proposal because he has not behaved in a “gentleman-like manner” (Austen 188; vol. 2, ch. 11), and from the beginning of the novel it is his friend, Mr. Bingley, whose father made his fortune in trade, who is described as “gentlemanlike” (12; vol. 1, ch. 3).

Austen’s novels have become classics both of popular romance and of English literature, to an extent almost unimaginable a century ago. Perhaps it’s their iconic status that colors our perceptions of their characters. While I deliberately wrote Andrew Carrington to be as arrogant and overbearing as the most self-assured of Heyer’s heroes—and readers have read him that way—I’ve been astonished at reactions to my Fitz, with some readers apparently remembering Mr. Darcy as having been flawless from the beginning. As Faust says: “Thus, instead of idolizing Mr. Darcy as the perfect mate, as the reader does in Austen’s novel, the reader of Herendeen’s novel grows disgusted with Fitz’s behavior” (MA thesis 32). But the Mr. Darcy presented at the start of Austen’s P&P strikes me as a most un-evolved hero indeed, hardly someone to idolize. That, to me, is the theme of Austen’s story, and of so many romance novels that followed: that an ideal husband is made, not born; that he is the product of hard work—and hard knocks—the heroine’s initial rejection leading to his desire to improve.

In fact, the only major difference between my bisexual heroes and their heterosexual counterparts is one of number, not kind. I saw my Fitz as a bisexual hero with a bad attitude, engaged in two relationships, with Charles Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet, which require him to evolve emotionally if he wants to retain (Charles) or gain (Elizabeth) his partner’s love. Fitz’s treatment of his lover, Charles, in the first half of P/P is overbearing and domineering, just as Mr. Darcy’s treatment of his friend Mr. Bingley is verbally condescending and bullying in Austen’s novel. He’s not an “evolved” personality in either book, and the sexual and romantic relationship between the men in my P/P is not equal. It’s not intended to be a model of an ideal same-sex male romance, but the starting point for a story of a dominant male’s transformation from an unlikable but sexually compelling “player” into a husband or lover who wins his partners’ love through courtship, by treating them not merely as conquests, but as worthy of the respect that inspires love.

The story of my P/P follows Austen’s novel, bringing out what I see as an implied bisexuality in Fitz (Mr. Darcy’s) character, as shown in his two same-sex relationships: with Charles Bingley; and with his foster brother, the seductive and manipulative George Wickham. Austen’s novel gives us several instances of Mr. Darcy’s affectionate but seemingly contemptuous style of conversation with his friend Mr. Bingley,[15] which Elizabeth in P/P recognizes as similar to that of “the clever husband with the simple wife” (Herendeen P/P 30-31), saying that “Mr. Darcy could not be more jealous of a new bride than he is of [ . . . ] Mr. Bingley” (26). Similarly, the exploitative and deceptive nature of the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Wickham strikes me as one that can easily accommodate a physical sexual manifestation, and I wrote explicit scenes with both men in which Fitz displays his dominant bisexual masculinity.

Where Andrew Carrington’s dominance was an exultant, happy expression of his sexuality, Fitz’s dominance has darker roots, related to Austen’s view of Mr. Darcy as having been “encouraged [by my parents . . . ] to be selfish and overbearing [ . . . ] to think meanly of all the rest of the world [ . . . ] of their sense of worth compared with my own” (Austen 349; vol. 3, ch. 16). Building on this self-description in Austen’s novel, I imagined my Fitz as expressing this unpleasant side of his nature in his private sexual activity, although here I felt that there were mitigating factors. Fitz has been deeply scarred by his first love for Wickham, who seduced Fitz with submissive “favors” and led him on to make declarations of love, only to reveal, with the cruelest words, that his motives were mercenary and practical. “Love you? Are you really that stupid, Darcy?” (Herendeen, P/P 192) Where Andrew’s wounds, the result of a reciprocated love affair reaching a natural if unwelcome ending, were easily healed, Fitz’s wounds are permanent and disfiguring. Wickham’s practiced duplicity has left Fitz suspicious of love and looking for a partner who is innocent and naïve—one whose love is genuine, or whom he can easily influence, if not control.

Partly as a result, for Fitz the allure of domination is more difficult to overcome. While Andrew’s partner, Matthew, is submissive only in the bedroom, Charles Bingley is submissive in all aspects of his character. At the start of the novel, Charles is beginning to assert his independence, questioning the ideal of man/boy love underlying his relationship with Fitz, and beginning to think that “it might be very nice to have a wife” (Herendeen, P/P 6). But ultimately he enjoys being “taken care of” by Fitz, as Elizabeth remarks scornfully to Colonel Fitzwilliam (Austen 180; vol. 2, ch. 10). The challenge for Fitz with Charles is to continue to play the roles he enjoys: sexual top, protector, and mentor, while accepting Charles as his equal in spirit. Just as in a democratic society everyone is supposed to be equal before the law regardless of ability or income, so Fitz must not let his own areas of genuine superiority—wealth, intellect, pedigree, size and strength—undermine the equality and reciprocity necessary to sustain a relationship of love. Contrasting their uncomplicated love with the inescapable realities of heterosexual relationships, Fitz tells Charles, “We share the purest form of love, one that can exist solely between men—disinterested love whose only object is its own fulfillment, that looks for no advantage of money or condition” (Herendeen, P/P 226).

Where Andrew’s two partners are similar, Fitz’s male and female partners are opposites. Unlike Charles, Elizabeth is most certainly not submissive, and I could not imagine her exuberantly active nature melting away into passivity in the bedroom. On their wedding night, Fitz takes the dominant position at first, as he is the experienced lover. Elizabeth, overcome by the pleasures of lovemaking, utters the essential words, “I love you,” as a form of submission (Herendeen, P/P 324). But by the next morning, after three or four sexual encounters, Elizabeth has developed the skill to top Fitz by winning a sexual wrestling match, and I imagined Fitz’s astonished delight at being topped by someone he loves: “Never had surrender felt so like victory” (334). To underscore the significance of this reversal of positions, I show Fitz imagining himself as a racehorse with Elizabeth as the jockey whipping him to the finish line, and it is he who now “submits” by saying the words of love. Later in their marriage, Elizabeth dominates Fitz emotionally as well as physically, topping him on a chair in the breakfast room, forcing him, through his uncontrollable arousal, to perform despite his voiced fear that “Someone might come in” (350).

In the marriage of Fitz and Elizabeth I see a joyful combat between two dominant personalities; their only solution is to take turns. Fitz and Elizabeth will remain sexual tops, enjoying an equal, unwinnable contest, their more erudite conversational sexual intercourse an exalted version of Andrew and Phyllida’s coarser “game.” In fact, I saw Fitz’s relationship with Charles as similar in many ways to a conventional marriage, domestic and comfortable, the two men naturally fitting their respective roles of “husband” and “wife,” while Fitz’s connection with Elizabeth has the allure of forbidden passion, more like an ongoing extramarital affair that neither partner can give up because it’s so exciting—and transgressive.

For the two men, Fitz and Charles, it is only after they have entered into heterosexual marriages that they can resume their sexual relationship on new terms—an agreed-upon, negotiated dominance. Where Fitz has been humbled by his love for his exceptional wife and mellowed by winning her affection, Charles has matured, his character strengthened by marriage to his perfect female complement, the equally sweet and submissive Jane. “You have grown into marriage,” Fitz tells Charles. “From a youth to a man. I admit to liking it very well” (360-361). Only now can the two former lovers approach each other with something resembling equality, and in their first reunion after their respective marriages Charles “surprises” Fitz by taking the initiative in their lovemaking. But evolution cannot entirely transform fundamental nature, and these two men will always be perfectly matched as opposites, as they are similar to their wives. When Fitz expresses the desire to make love “as they were used to,” with Fitz on top, Charles replies, “I shall always want that” (365-366). Where upper-class male dominance wins the day with a timely left hook in Phyllida, in my version of Austen’s world, the dominant aristocrat stoops to conquer, adopting some of the qualities of his middle-class partner and meeting him halfway.


In writing my masculine, bisexual heroes, I had to make some concession to the realities of their time. My heroes are anomalies under the old systems governing male sexuality, cisgender men who desire, not boys or “pathics,” but other cisgender men, and each must come to terms with the changing definition of sexual identity and orientation. And in some ways they are already moving toward the future, as embodied by the men they desire: other cisgender men, neither pathics nor effeminate, who choose the bottom position in sex.

In our modern understanding of “gentle doms” and “pushy bottoms,” the man who plays the top role in bed is often motivated by the desire to please his partner rather than to control him, and the man in the submissive role as often as not directs the action (“Pushy bottom”). Both Andrew and Fitz perform oral sex on their wives as a matter of course, and although consistently dominant with their male partners during anal intercourse, willingly and eagerly take the “submissive” role in oral sex at times. When Andrew meets Matthew, his first clear statement of intent “involves your cock in my mouth and my cock in your arse” (Herendeen, Phyllida 298), and as soon as the two men are in bed, he makes good on his promise (306-307). Fitz, like Andrew, takes on the “submissive” role in oral sex as a way of both controlling and gratifying his partner. By pleasuring Charles orally, Fitz allows him to climax first, while also preparing him for the receptive role in the anal sex that will be Fitz’s “reward” (Herendeen, P/P 21-23).

For Andrew, already psychologically adapted to the new social order, and accepting himself as a “sodomite,” it’s the unexpected passion for a woman that most disturbs him. On his wedding night, after worrying that he will have to perform on demand, he’s astonished to find himself “[holding] back with difficulty. He liked this, wanted this” (Herendeen, Phyllida 46). His early hope that Phyllida will become pregnant immediately and “he might never have to do it again” (51) soon turns to frustrated desire when Phyllida, displeased by his performance, locks him out of her room, and the transition from dominant “homosexual” to dominant “bisexual” is ultimately a natural one for him.

Fitz, the more introspective—and bisexual—of the two, labors toward self-acceptance. In two extended flashbacks, readers see him struggling to reconcile his position as a dominant bisexual man with the new egalitarian system that is being established, even at the top of the social and economic hierarchy he inhabits (Herendeen, P/P 191-200, 255-262). Fitz belongs to the same “gentlemen’s club” of the earlier novel, but resists identifying as a sodomite or molly. His university education, with its exposure to the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, has given him a different perspective. “Not all love between men is sodomy, any more than all love between a man and a woman is fornication,” Fitz says (103), to the scorn of Monkton and the others.

My two stories are novels—fiction—that take place during a time of significant changes in both the literary and sexual traditions that still resonate today. I wanted my heroes not only to be transformed by their relationships with women, but to confront the Gothic, which Sedgwick sees as “feminizing” the literary and cultural aesthetic of the time—the fictional counterpart to the physical details of the men’s sexual evolution. In Phyllida, a work that plays on the divide between “higher” literary fiction like Austen’s novels and “low” popular romances, the influence of the Gothic is empowering. Although steadfastly scorning Gothic novels as “sensational trash, only a step up from obscenity” (326), and admiring Austen’s work as superior, Andrew admits that marriage to a writer like Austen would be uncomfortable (see above). Later, while reading Phyllida’s real work, a Gothic novel with an improbable but arousing m/m/f plot, Andrew realizes that the author of this novel is the perfect match for him, combining “the best of mind and carnality in a mixture that [he] had thought [ . . . ] could only be found in men” (449). The encounter with the feminized, homosexual Gothic has unexpectedly reinforced his dominant bisexuality.

In P/P, the friendship between Fitz and Charles is a perfect example of what Sedgwick calls “homosexual panic,” a man’s fear that he is “under the compulsion of another male” (Men 91). There is also a direct reference to Gothic romances when Charles, entering Fitz’s darkened bedroom, compares it to a scene from The Mysteries of Udolpho, while Fitz replies that he “hoped to be spared talk of ladies’ novels in my own home” (Herendeen, P/P 223). But just as Austen rejected the supernatural Gothic in favor of sympathetic realism, so P/P must come down on the side of the “higher” literary genres. Fitz and Charles eventually reach a more equal relationship based on mutual agreement rather than the dominance and submission of Gothic control—while Fitz is introduced to the pleasure of realistic “ladies’ novels” by his wife (347-349).

Sedgwick’s idea of the feminization of the aristocracy in the eighteenth century seems to be a way of describing the upper-class adoption of a middle-class or bourgeois concept of the family. In discussing my two romance novels, with their conventionally masculine heroes and the most unconventional families they create, I have also been talking about social class. In the old class- and gender-stratified world, one that did not have a concept of bisexuality or sexual orientation, these men were indistinguishable from other cisgender males. Now, with the new vertical division of sexuality, these upper-class heroes are “humbled” by love.

That the “submissive” male partners in both books are the sons of tradesmen is an outgrowth of my (and Austen’s, and perhaps Sedgwick’s) view of the social hierarchy. In Phyllida, the direction of accommodation is “upward,” as Matthew, benefitting from his father’s wealth and the education and opportunities it affords, adopts the manners of the upper classes and moves effortlessly (or so it seems) into the landed aristocracy. By the end of the novel, it is his estate, purchased from its impoverished owners, that becomes the de facto country home of Mr. and Mrs. Carrington and site of the infamous “molly weddings” that close this comic novel. In P/P, Charles Bingley’s personality and background are Austen’s creation, a personification of middle-class virtue to contrast with the inherently amoral aristocracy (in Austen’s view) from which Fitz must be reclaimed. Like Matthew, Charles is introduced at the beginning of Austen’s novel as in the market for an estate, but his status as gentleman is already established by his superior manners. It is Mr. Darcy, and my Fitz, who must improve themselves by moving “downward,” adapting their domineering upper-class behavior to fit the modern, egalitarian world being shaped by the middle classes. There’s hope for Fitz, as his father was a commoner, however wealthy, and the redeeming force is love: for Elizabeth—and, I would argue, for Charles—in both novels, mine and Austen’s. “Perhaps we can create a new ideal,” Charles says (Herendeen, P/P 366).


In both novels, I portray a form of male bisexuality that, invisible from the outside, coexisted with the rigid heteronormativity, class system, and economic structure of their historical setting. Bisexuality of this kind was not, in itself, revolutionary, even if it might seem, to modern eyes, subversive, and I underscored the socially “natural” state of this bisexuality in my portrayals of both sets of men. Just as both Andrew and Fitz are dominant bisexual men by nature, so their male partners, Matthew and Charles, are sexual bottoms; when they submit to the hero, it’s out of love, and because bottoming is their preferred position in bed. In the outside world, however things are changing in the social and economic structure, these cisgender but submissive men are still on top by virtue of their sex and masculine demeanor. It’s the women who will want to equalize their marriages, and in both novels the heroes are ultimately “humbled,” not by their male partners, but by their wives.

That was my both my problem and my solution as a writer: to retain the reality of eighteenth-century male dominance, while at the same time “feminizing” it by allowing the heroines (and readers) to be aware of, even share in the men’s bisexual activity. Phyllida and Elizabeth are “modern” heroines; unashamed of their sexuality, attracted to their husbands physically as well as emotionally, and actively enjoying the fulfillment of their marital duties. Indeed, I take my heroines’ liberation from old-school sexual submissiveness several steps further, imagining them, rather than disgusted by their husbands’ same-sex activities, instead reveling in the vicarious arousal they provide.

But there’s more at stake than arousal, important as that is for women’s empowerment in marriage. According to Sedgwick, male homosocial desire is an expression of the patriarchy’s “traffic in women.” What may look like homoerotic attraction is just another form of male dominance, with women as commodities to be acquired and exchanged. Similarly, the traditional view of the married bisexual man is that he is “deceiving” his wife by engaging in same-sex activity or “cheating” on her with his male partner. In my contemporary reinterpretation of this very old situation I hoped to free my characters, male and female, from the “traffic in women,” and the means of this liberation is a rejection of the passive, depressing, wifely “acceptance” or “tolerance” of her husband’s sexual activities, in favor of a more active and positive response.

For these liberated wives and bisexual husbands, marriage is no longer something to endure for the sake of wealth and social position, or respectability. Released from the demeaning business of subterfuge, the men can pursue their male partners for no ulterior motive, only love, while their wives discover in their husbands’ male partners a comrade: a kindred soul, not a rival. As Phyllida says to Matthew, dismissing Andrew’s suggestion of “brother-in-law” as an “artificial relationship”: “You are one of the family. Not exactly a husband, but far more than a friend” (Herendeen, Phyllida 530-531). Elizabeth Darcy, inspired by her sister Jane’s belief that “A truly happy marriage ought not destroy a longstanding [male] friendship,” reexamines her own understanding of love (Herendeen, P/P 402-403). By the end of both novels, the heroines’ original ambivalence, nurtured by joyful and happy marriage, has blossomed into endorsement and encouragement of their husbands’ bisexuality. Phyllida acts as the “groomsman” at her husband’s marriage to Matthew (Herendeen, Phyllida 521), and Elizabeth allots a room to her husband and Charles for use during “inclement weather” (Herendeen, P/P 403).

Within the shell of a very old social order, a new one is beginning to emerge: playful, polyamorous, lit up by what Pam Rosenthal has called “the revealed spectacle of male homosocial desire” (7). It’s an order centered, still, on the concept of marriage, but a marriage grounded in honesty and equality, chosen freely by all partners. That was a radical idea in Austen’s time, and it remains one, as appealing to my heroines and heroes—and, I hope, my readers—as the beautiful grounds of Pemberley.

Works Cited

Andrews, Walter G. and Mehmet Kalpakli. The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. Vivien Jones. Penguin classics ed. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

“Bisexual, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print.

“Cisgender.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, LLC, 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

Dixson, Alan. “Homosexual Behaviour in Primates.” Animal Homosexuality: A Biosocial Perspective. Aldo Poiani. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. Updated ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. Print.

Eisner, Shiri. “Monosexual Privilege Checklist.” Radical Bi. WordPress, posted 28 July, 2011. Web. 28 July, 2012.

Faust, Meredith S. “[A] strange primitive feeling of lust”: Heteronormative Rigidity in Herendeen’s Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. Paper presented at the PCA/ACA Conference, San Antonio, 22 Apr., 2011. Print.

———. “Love of the purest kind”: Heteronormative Rigidity in the Homoerotic Fiction of Ann Herendeen. MA thesis. DePaul University, 2010. Print.

Herendeen, Ann. Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.

———. Pride/Prejudice. New York: Harper, 2010. Print.

“Morphodite.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, LLC, 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

Norton, Rictor. A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, “The Medicalization of Homosexuality.” Rictor Norton. 2008. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

———. Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830. London: GMP, 1992. Print.

Poiani, Aldo. Animal Homosexuality: A Biosocial Perspective. With a chapter by Alan Dixson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

“Pushy bottom.” Def. 1. Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, LLC, 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

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

Rochester, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of. “The Disabled Debauchee.” The Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Rosenthal, Pam. The Queer Theory of Eve Sedgwick at the Edge of the Popular Romance Genre. Paper presented at the Second International Conference on Popular Romance, Brussels, 5-7 Aug., 2010. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. 1985. With a new preface by the author. New York: Columbia University Press, [1992]. Print.

———. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Updated with a new preface. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Simpson, Mark S. Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Werner, Dennis. “The Evolution of Male Homosexuality: Implications for Human Psychological and Cultural Variations.” Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective. Ed. Volker Sommer and Paul L. Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 316-346. Print.

[1] While Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, its earliest version, “First Impressions,” was written 1796-1797, and its sensibility seems more 18th-century than Regency. Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, especially those set in the early years, like Regency Buck, show a society in transition from the old century to the new, as reflected in dress, in speech and particularly in morals.

[2] For example, see Shiri Eisner’s “Monosexual Privilege Checklist” that begins, “Society assures me that my sexual identity is real and that people like me exist.”

[3] As the exemplary quotations that define the old slang term “maphrodite” reveal, this corrupt form of “hermaphrodite” was long used as a synonym for “homosexual” (“Morphodite”).

[4] This remark occurs in the context of the “ignorant world” betting against the possibility of newlywed and former “confirmed bachelor” Andrew Carrington’s impregnating his bride. Suspicions of a penchant for “buggery” have been conflated with incapability, even for this most masculine-appearing man.

[5] Werner calls the gender-stratified society the “most common” in the ethnographic record (330), with only 30 modern societies having the egalitarian system. He also cites a 1995 study that found a number of societies in the process of changing over from gender-stratified to egalitarian (331).

[6] Bray (106) cites Ian Watts’s 1957 work The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding in his discussion of the cultural change from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. While we no longer restrict our discussion of the early English novel to these three male authors, I feel that their works are an accurate representation of the heterosexual orthodoxy of the time.

[7] The statement appears in a discussion of Gothic fiction and is related to Laurence Stone’s belief that the molly houses were “gentlemen’s clubs,” which Bray disputed and Norton’s work (not yet published when Men was written) entirely exploded, showing that the molly culture was a working- and middle-class phenomenon.

[8] I consider Austen’s writing sympathetic to women but “masculine” in style and mood: harsh, satirical and witty (while of course not believing that these qualities belong only to one gender).

[9] Influences for Andrew are many: Julian Audley, 5th Earl of Worth, in Regency Buck; Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, in These Old Shades (aka Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, in The Black Moth); Sir Richard Wyndham in The Corinthian, etc., along with the way this version of the romance hero was distilled through romance novels of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

[10] For an example of the ultimate amoral aristocratic Austen antihero, see the unpublished novella “Lady Susan,” in which the eponymous protagonist, the daughter of a nobleman, breaks every rule of female sexual behavior and wins through to an ending which, if not exactly happy, is certainly successful in terms of wealth and respectability.

[11] I mean “lady” here in the period sense of the word:  it meant, at the very lowest, middle class status, and usually implied gentry.  Phyllida’s family is poor by middle-class standards, as was Austen during most of her adult life, but as a gentleman’s daughter she is an eligible match for Andrew.

[12] Hugo Darracott, the hero of Heyer’s An Unknown Ajax, was the direct inspiration for Matthew. The idea of a large, tall, blond, muscular Yorkshireman, the epitome of masculine stereotypes, as a sexual bottom struck me as hilarious and very appealing.

[13] I use the term “submissive” for the person performing oral sex and “dominant” for the one receiving it. Although the person performing oral sex is usually more “active,” the performance is commonly perceived as submissive and the dominant partner may not reciprocate.

[14] Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, is even more disagreeable than her nephew. The aristocratic minor characters in other novels are usually buffoons or villains or both at once. Some examples: Sir Walter Eliot, the heroine’s vain father in Persuasion; Willoughby, seducer of innocents, in Sense and Sensibility; and coldhearted General Tilney and his rakish elder son, Frederick, in Northanger Abbey.

[15] For example, when Mr. Darcy accuses Mr. Bingley of “the indirect boast … being proud of your defects” (47-49; vol. 1, ch. 10).


“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).


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.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. London: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Bevarly, Elizabeth. Dr Mummy. 2000. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2001. Print.Beverley, Jo. My Lady Notorious. 1993. New York: Signet, 2002. Print.

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Cartland, Barbara. The Problems of Love. London: Corgi, 1978. Print.

Castle, Jayne. Orchid. New York: Pocket, 1998. Print.

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Gilmore, David D. “The Manhood Puzzle.” Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 207-220. Print. Rpt. Of Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1990. 2-29.

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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).