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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

Marriage, Romance and Mourning Movement in Cherie Nowlan’s Thank God He Met Lizzie
by Mark Nicholls

Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997) stands out as an extremely rare example of an Australian romantic comedy/drama.  Like most romantic comedies, this film is really about the negotiation of an obstacle to union and marital happiness.  What is generically atypical [End Page 1] about the film, and the source of its drama, is that this obstacle emerges only once the marriage is solemnized and in the form of nothing more concrete than what we might call the ghost of a girlfriend past. The last few shots of the film present the eponymous “He”, Guy (Richard Roxburgh), and Lizzie (Cate Blanchett) with their children, “slip, slop, slapping” (an eighties promotional slogan for liberal sunscreen application) beside a Mercedes station-wagon in a Sydney beachside car park.  Within the span of less than a minute, the camera moves in, very slightly, before tilting up and left, fractionally, framing the actors in a medium shot that will hold them for the last ten seconds before the credit sequence rolls.  This final shot is a freeze-frame, the highpoint of a gradual slowing of their motion which began, almost imperceptibly at first, ten seconds into the sequence and continues, seemly unhindered by two slow dissolves, before reaching its final point of stasis.  The image presented is picture-perfect and is the sort of snapshot of domestic bliss that will probably end up on the family piano.  Whatever substantial doubts over the question of Guy’s current state of happiness, raised both by his voiced-over letter to his sponsor-child and Martin Armiger’s stingingly melancholic score, the picture itself is one that many spectators understandably associate with desire.  The sun, the beach, signs of material comfort and the blessings of children and family togetherness all add up to an idea that many aspire to.  This is also an idea that lies beneath and relies upon the expression of divine gratitude explicit in the film’s albeit ironical title.  Like this apparent irony, the crushing feelings of domestic ambivalence implied by this final image make a telling impression on us.  This image and the marriage that lead to it have such an impact on us because they are so dearly protected by our genuine ambivalence over the question of desire and its relationship to romantic love, marriage, children and family life.  The film does not tell us about this ambivalence – it reminds us.

Given what we know about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce rates since the Second World War and what scholars such as Irving Singer have highlighted in the vast historiography of romantic love, the potential incompatibility of romantic love and marriage should be a truism of modern life.  At the very least we ought to consider love, as Catherine Belsey has considered it in its paradoxical postmodern form, as “ceaselessly suspected” even if “endlessly pursued” (Belsey, 74). From Belsey we understand love in postmodernity as ”naïve”, defined by opposites, contained by a “fundamentalism” of material transformations, commodification and social surveillance. The fundamentalism of marriage and contractual bonds marks desire’s fragility. The interventions of Law are the mark of its absurdity.    Another transformation, for Belsey comes through the media and cultural expression. Love is considered silent in its essence. Through the media, however, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, (what it packaged up as) love is endlessly loquacious, even enduringly citational in its banal expression of nightly paraded clichés. Stories and narratives thus place lovers in the passivity and imprisonment of uncharacteristic behaviour, thus becoming victims of this very fundamentalism (Belsey, 73-84).  Doubtless we can view Thank God He Met Lizzie as just such a banal expression.  But the terms of the relationship represented within the film, its practicality and a sense of inevitable doom linked to a relentlessly enduring quality, sustain comparison with much of the essence of Belsey’s portrait and its critique.

There is, of course, an array of theoretical treatments and methodologies contextualising romantic love, any number of which might be employed in relation to Thank God He Met Lizzie.  In this article I will emphasise certain discourses of [End Page 2] melancholia as highly useful in reading the film, but I do not wish to impose this psychoanalytic approach to advocate the exclusion of others.  Accordingly, I find it extremely useful to look to comparative mythology and Joseph Campbell, if only briefly, to provide a summary position on romantic love.  This is to employ a working definition, which I have found enduringly communicative of romantic love’s essential discourse.  Campbell places the origins of the love/marriage divide at the beginnings of romantic love in the troubadour traditions of twelfth century.  Marriage in this context was about the power of the family, the church and the state.  Romantic love coming in with the troubadours stood in radical distinction to that power.  A personal expression, romantic love supported the courage to live one’s life according to one’s own pattern. Jealously opposed by established authorities, however, romantic love threatened disaster and eternal damnation.  As a prime example, Campbell looks to the romance of Tristan and Isolde. Campbell’s reduction of Tristan’s reaction to the news that he and Isolde have drunk the love potion that will bring them together in disaster encapsulates the dilemma.  Once Isolde’s nurse tells him, “You have drunk your death.” Tristan replies:

By my death, do you mean this pain of love? . . . If by my death, you mean this agony of love, that is my life.  If by my death, you mean the punishment that we are to suffer if discovered, I accept that.  And if by my death, you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too. (Campbell 235-6)

The ever-increasing commodification of what used to be called “courtship and marriage”, however, coupled with the impossible material expectations of middle-class lifestyles after marriage, have produced an adherence to a perverse contemporary mono-myth of romance – nice boy meets nice girl and they stay nice for the rest of their lives – in order to keep the whole thing going.  The simplicity of Thank God He Met Lizzie’s exposé of that adherence makes the point about the romance/marriage disconnect obvious.  Even in its most practical and conservative incarnations such as friendship and companionship, the viability of love and the prospects for intimacy in relationship to marriage, as Guy will experience, is chillingly impossible.  In Seminar XX Encore Jacques Lacan invokes the notion of courtly love.  In doing so he provides an insight into the drama of the unconscious underpinning this incompatibility.  For Lacan the aristocratic acts and aesthetics of courtly love are a performance of desire that stand in for consummation.  They are a proxy, an alibi for desire itself, giving cause and excuse for the obstacles and blockages that pile up against sexual intimacy.  Perhaps the most refined of all forms of perversion, such acts of courtly culture are a potent metaphor for Lacan’s general notion that “in the case of the speaking being the relation between the sexes does not take place” (Lacan 138-141).  In its own context the more contemporary forms of courtly culture, ritual and commodity concern in Thank God He Met Lizzie play an equally perverse role.  In Freud’s useful phrase to account for perversion, we may read Guy and Lizzie’s marriage of convenience, and the social and commodity fundamentalism that support it, as a sophisticated process of deferring desire by “lingering over the intermediate relations” (Freud 1991, 62).  What we see in the final freeze-frame image of the film, however, suggests a general and logical reluctance to do anything about their perversion.  In this particular era of commodity romance the film’s simple, perhaps even banal deconstruction of the love and marriage relationship is, nevertheless, instructive. [End Page 3]

I will begin here by outlining the film’s general themes.  Given the narrative primacy of Guy in the film, I will also highlight the way in which the film relies heavily on Guy’s agency, his fantasy of loss and his expression of male melancholia – another of the great cinematic perversions – for its emotional impact.  Despite its potency, the concept of male melancholia, however, cannot account for this impact alone.  By beginning this article with a description of the film’s final slow-motion to stasis sequence, I wish to highlight that the sadness, and perhaps even grief, which dominate the spectator’s experience of watching the film are not solely reliant upon the who of loss expressed by the male melancholic Guy, but the what of loss experienced by both characters and spectators more generally.  I argue that what is mourned by the spectator watching the film, in its obvious advancement towards stillness, is not merely Guy’s loss of love through his separation from his former girlfriend Jenny (Frances O’Connor), but the loss of the palpable sense of movement that we know Guy once experienced in his life. It was this capacity for movement that also gave Guy and Jenny the ability to present each other the gift of freedom and the gift of movement that it implies.  As Laura Mulvey has written of ideas of stillness and movement, this is the trauma of her primary form of “delayed cinema”, “the actual act of slowing down the flow of film” (2006: 8) as we have observed it in the final scene.  This last minute retardation acts in the service of one particular form of narrative cinema which, Mulvey considers, creates a “desire for the end, elongating the road down which the story travels, postponing the structurally inevitable conclusion” (2006: 144).  Mulvey’s “two grand conventions of narrative closure that allow the drive of a story to return to stasis: death or marriage” have merged in Thank God He Met Lizzie into a drive towards stasis, a sense of advancement towards stillness, Freud’s death instinct as a kind of “no fault” marriage (2006, 71).[1]

“The trouble with happiness is . . . you remember it.” 

Alexandra Long’s screenplay begins with Guy’s awkward failure to meet a potential partner at a catered affair expressly designed for the purpose.  He then continues his misfortune on two blind dates before finally meeting Lizzie in a chance encounter involving a pregnant cat.  We see Lizzie and Guy only once together, lounging by some Sydney side waterway, before the wedding plans are in full swing. A priest is brought in; Guy informs his sponsor child Fong Hu; and Guy then buys Lizzie a professionally wrapped engagement present which seems to seal the deal.  Only once is Jenny, the “ex”, named in discussion and it takes the particular probing of the Catholic priest to raise the spectre of a three shot mini-montage in which she features at passionate moments in their past relationship.  The devil of romantic desire seemingly exorcised, the wedding ceremony takes place off screen, and the major part of the film, anchored to the excessive social ritualism of the wedding reception, can then proceed.

The wedding reception is regularly punctuated by expressions of the fakery and cynicism of the event.  These moments provide the cues for extended flashbacks of Guy’s life with Jenny; their meeting at less sophisticated and less well-catered pubs and parties, embarrassing family get-togethers, the ups and downs of their sexual appetites, the traumas of foreign travel, their fights and, finally, the growing irreconcilability of their differences leading to the bitter-sweet termination of the relationship.  Before these [End Page 4] flashbacks are done, the functionality of the wedding is made chillingly explicit when Lizzie’s mother Poppy (Linden Wilkinson) produces a forged letter purporting to be from Fong Hu giving an innocent and moving blessing on their nuptials.  Knowing it to be a fake, the letter causes Guy momentary terror before he gives into his sense of decorum and continues with his duties at the reception.  Later in their hotel room, released of his first night obligations by a tired and emotional bride, that terror is magnified by a speech Lizzie gives him, calmly advocating her need and desire for what used to be known as an “open marriage”.  Shocked then resigned, “overwhelmed by life’s choices” as Margaret Smith has observed (Smith, 48), Guy does not argue the point.  The film then cuts to a devastating scene in which Guy sees a vision of Jenny in Martin Place.  He approaches her with enthusiasm, only to see the vision first disappear in the crowd of cold and wintry spirits rushing to work, and then become occluded by the family picture postcard scene described above. “The trouble with happiness”, Guy writes (and narrates) to Fong Hu, “is you don’t know when you have it, you remember it.”

“Like a horse and carriage”

Something about Thank God He Met Lizzie that stands out immediately, for an Australian film made in the late 1990s, is how banal, unselfconscious and middle-class it seems in its milieux and subject matter.  This film is essentially a melodrama of “first world problems.”  As a film about the basic disconnect between romantic love and marriage, however, how could it be otherwise?  And yet what could be stranger in the context of Australian cinema since Strictly Ballroom (1992) than a clear and straightforward picture of the persistently questioned, but ultimately unshakable marriage customs of the audience for which it is intended?  In this sense, “the melodrama of one bourgeois addressing another” as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith puts it (91), which is present here, relies on a certain sense of the mundane to expose the fact that the most significant of our emotional dilemmas are usually those closest to home.  The greatest strangers to us are most often ourselves.  In another sense, however, like Noel Coward and David Lean’s timelessly affecting Brief Encounter (1946), the effectiveness of the film’s theme relies on its very simplicity of expression.  Any extraordinary estrangement of the audience from the world represented, such as Matthews observes as central to the types of love stories praised by Andre Breton and Surrealist thought generally (Matthews, 37-50), runs the risk of clouding the already complex issue.  The obvious message of the disconnect between romantic love and marriage seems so lost in our culture, the clinging to the mono-myth of romance so tenacious, that Thank God He Met Lizzie impresses upon its audience the fact that all attempts at mystification run the risk of supporting that very tenacity.  Placing this affair amongst the guns of Verona Beach (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 1996), the mentally ill characters jumping off Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge (Angel Baby, 1995), in the elite world of Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, 1997) or even simply making it happen between “old folk” (Innocence, 2000) or university intellectuals (What I Have Written, 1995), threatens to portray it as something that happens to other people.  In its dramatic understatement and lack of hyperbole, in its very middle-class context, a comparatively [End Page 5] rare milieu within Australian cinema, Thank God He Met Lizzie demonstrates that the romantic love/marriage disconnect is not portrayed as “their” problem but “ours”.

Marriage, as represented in Thank God He Met Lizzie,is a department store gift registry length list of abominations.  From the plot description and brief visual analysis I have already presented, we can see that the film’s marriage portrait shows us the manipulation, deception, convenience, emotional entrapment, fear of loneliness, class anxieties, overwhelming community involvement and expectation, nostalgia and compromise that seem central to the institution.  Whether any of these characteristics really has the potential to shock any adult who has experienced more than about three weeks of a settled domestic relationship is an important point.  As a summary of any important partnership, this liste de mariage, might well, at different times in our lives, argue for both the need and the genuine use for the institutionalisation of such relationships.  The film itself does not totally shun this point of view.  In this context, however, it is testament to the work of the film that these “abominations” do appear shocking and detestable however familiar and even necessary they may be.  Beyond what it presents as familiar and practical, however, it is in the way this particular portrait of marriage represents the desire for intimacy in relationships that we see the real source of its conclusions about the abhorrence of marriage.  The same may be said for the film’s rendering of even something so basic in marriage as the desire for friendship and companionship.

In their only real moment together as a couple, before they become caught up in wedding preparations, Guy and Lizzie are lounging by the water and talking about how her father, a surgeon, once told her she could become “a doctor, a lawyer or a piece of shit”.  Once assured that his own occupational status, or relative lack thereof, will pass muster, Guy begins to admire Lizzie’s once fair hair.  Lizzie embarks on a deconstruction of the validity of the adult blonde before Guy attempts to stop her by saying, “Don’t tell me about it. We’ve got the rest of our lives to find out about each other.  It will be boring if you tell me now”.  In this playful moment, Lizzie presses on, in an intimacy “over-share”, with information about her family history and her first sexual encounter, before Guy stops her mouth with a kiss.  At that point the scene dissolves with a high medium shot framing their headless bodies rolling on-top of each other, a clear allusion to the essential biology behind the union which seems to trump all other threatening complications.  The personal back-stories of each character, Guy’s relationship with Jenny, and Lizzie’s “married by thirty and then have affairs” agenda among them, will emerge as part of their discourse soon enough.  The essential fear and mistrust of genuine intimacy, expressed through Guy’s concealment and Lizzie’s shocking frankness, as part of their marriage is the most disturbing aspect of the film’s portrait of married life.  As Cate Blanchett says of the couple, “They sort of don’t want to know about each other.” (Blanchett, “Cast Interviews”)  Somewhere between the need to be kept in ignorance and the need to be horrifyingly overly-informed lies the film’s representation of the fear of the line between intimacy, true partnership and marriage.  Importantly, this is a fear that the film does not restrict to its portrait of marriage, but one that is also an acknowledged part of its idea of romantic love.  Guy knows this fear as much in his relationship with Jenny as with Lizzie.  The difference is that with Jenny he has the freedom to express it and explore its implications, however bleak they may be. [End Page 6]

Lizzie is the frankness expert in the film and she knows how to use that frankness in the fight against intimacy.  When Raoul (Jacek Koman) is teasing her about her pre-ordained vision of a marriage of convenience, she defends herself by saying “you couldn’t expect me to make a commitment like that to someone I knew.”  Despite Lizzie’s sophistication in this matter it is Jenny, from the safety of a presumptively directionless, one night pub pick up, who is able to best present the threat of the information/ignorance/intimacy triad.  When Guy explains to Jenny that he would like to get to know her before getting involved, Jenny replies, “Oh, see, you are taking a big risk there . . . you might get to know me and find out you don’t like me and then you’ll miss out on a fantastic root.” Of course, nothing about this proffered one night stand suggests any real potential for intimacy.  The point made, however, is that deep knowledge of one’s partner threatens emotional intimacy and emotional intimacy is presented in the film as not only a threat to good marriage, but also a threat to good sex.  Avoidance of this kind of intimacy may be desirable within a twenty-something relationship and it may also suit the requirements of thirty-something marriage.  Just where it leaves the obvious search for intimacy in our lives generally is the film’s insoluble dilemma.

If the scenes with Lizzie provide us a view of the film’s cynicism about marriage, the Jenny flashback sequences speak of love in its romantic mode.  The flashback scenes of Guy’s relationship with Jenny may be about the work of nostalgia but they are not nostalgic or rose-coloured in content.  Certainly they are warm, colourful, charmingly chaotic, passionate and, above all, full of movement.  In their isolation from community interests and lack of middle-class consciousness and decorum, these moments stand in high contrast to Guy’s experience of the formal bourgeois ritual of the wedding and its preparations.  For all their relative warmth and colour, however, these moments with Jenny speak of a love that is full of a sweet sort of pain, an affair that is fleeting, potentially fatal (when they are drugged and robbed while on holiday), fading and ultimately lost without the benefit of hindsight.  As Guy makes clear in the last words of the film, these moments represent a happiness that is not known but only remembered.  Like Brief Encounter, the key to the emotional power that this relationship holds over the spectator is the fact that it is represented in flashbacks that are visually designed in a very separate and distinct way from the sequences of the main plot.  Most importantly such flashbacks obviously indicate that the relationship is located in time past and that, for all its potency in the present, the relationship is over and probably done with.  As is the case with Brief Encounter, the “probably” gives the narrative its romantic potential, but this potential is so grounded in the armed camp-like detention of the protagonists’ present life that any real thought of romantic fulfilment is little more than fantasy.

Just over an hour into the film, as Lizzie’s “married by thirty” plan is outed by Raoul, Guy reflects on the scene of his break up with Jenny.  The scene is typical of all Guy’s reminiscences throughout the film, but the act of breaking up and the directness and honesty with which the decision is arrived at give the scene a devastating resonance.  It is the most moving scene of the film and, in many ways, the most expressive of any real form of love exchange.  Common to all their scenes together is the movement of Kathryn Milliss’ hand-held camera, never resting and always maintaining a feeling of uncertainty and high energy in the spectator.  As in the moment in this scene when Jenny rushes to find Guy’s hidden photos of Fong Hu, this off-balance movement, like their relationship itself, sometimes becomes disconcerting.  Also a feature of all their scenes together, in contrast to [End Page 7] the shades of grey and white of the scenes with Lizzie, is the explosion of colour about them.  Whatever mood is portrayed, and in this film mood can move across a scale between joy and horror, the richness and variety of colours provides a depth of feeling and a sense of emotional substance to their scenes together.  This colour is matched by their Hepburn/Tracy-like, screwball physicality and a verbal banter routine, as here, when they squabble over Jenny’s annoying habit of leaving her clothes on the floor, and the quibble she makes over the plural form of cactus and “other related succulents”, in light of her extensive collection of cacti that have now become odious to Guy.

Where the break up scene turns away from the expected levity, however, is when Jenny introduces the issue of Fong Hu, Guy’s sponsored child in Vietnam.  In all their years together, we discover, Guy has never told Fong Hu anything about Jenny.  Challenged over this, Guy babbles on for a moment about Fong Hu’s innocence and cultural sensitivities over the question of why he and Jenny are not married.  What he does not say or understand about his relationship with Fong Hu, and what Jenny’s challenge implies, is that it is a model of the structure of his desire.  In the face of the dilemmas of emotional intimacy with Jenny, the distance, cultural estrangement and age gap he enjoys with Fong Hu provides him with an ideal relationship. Ultimately he sidesteps that emotional conundrum, an intimacy challenge to, what we might think of as, his melancholic “crypt” of solitude (Abraham and Torok, 135-6), by introducing the strain of discussion that will end in their separation.  This sidestepping is an act of resistance that demonstrates the line against emotional intimacy that they are clearly unwilling, or unable, to cross.  That resistance, however, does manage briefly to give way to a mutual expression of a degree of honesty about their states of mind, which makes the scene even more affecting.  Guy says he wants space (his crypt), but Jenny counters by pointing out the emptiness and untouchability of this space.  Guy longs for the things and the feelings “you can’t touch”, but Jenny does not want to hear about his feelings – the feelings he now complains he no longer has.  Her reaction to this admission is genuinely empathetic, but like a true melancholic, he wants the “magic” back and she cannot see why.  In many ways this is a confused, illogical and, in terms of characterisation, inconsistent line of argument, but not incompatible with the truth of the moment as we might expect it to be played.  It is at this point of confusion, the clueless moment of “what do we do now?” that they find the “end of the line” and resolve to separate. Jenny bursts into tears as Guy holds her with an expression of exhaustion and sadness.

Jenny and Guy’s last and final scene together in the film, in which they announce their break up to Jenny’s devastated parents, simply underlines the trauma of the previous scene.  The substance of trauma is found in the very basis of romance at the heart of their relationship: that is, the inevitable incompatibility between love, their mutual desires, and the broader, social context of their lives.  With Jenny’s mind and body moving towards children, this broader context undoubtedly implies the move towards permanent union.  This is the very announcement Jenny’s parents were obviously, eagerly expecting. But such external expectations of permanent union and grandchildren are the antithesis of romance.  What such expectations fail to acknowledge, in their push towards the altar, is the potential for a genuine clash between female biological imperative and male emotional inexperience. Guy’s isolationist emotional reticence, frequently expressed in social work and counselling contexts as “men in sheds”, and his protection of his “space”, with Fong Hu delineating that space, may look like a sit-com joke.  That very reticence is, however, an [End Page 8] equally potent combatant in this clash and plays a role, similar to Jenny’s desire for children, in breaking up the relationship.  What is ultimately, amongst all their scenes in the film, the most strikingly consistent element in the break up scene is the representation of the inevitable demise of their union.  If Thank God He Met Lizzie shows its portrait of marriage as both lacking in real intimacy and doggedly persistent and unbreakable, the film shows romance as brutally true – honest, but with a lively discourse of intimacy – and hopelessly lost in the empty and intangible space of the past.

Man Melancholy

As to Guy’s “men in sheds” emotional obstructions, it is worth nothing that Thank God He Met Lizzie was released in the same year as Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, this co-incidence suggesting the usefulness of the critical territory of male melancholia.  Given the dynamics of male impairment and loss, most notably represented in the films of Martin Scorsese and Jeremy Irons, which highlighted a continuing strain of cinematic male melodrama into the 1990s, this context is obviously seductive in reading Guy’s lament (Nicholls 2004; 2012).  This approach relies heavily on a reading that privileges Guy’s point of view and constructs both Lizzie and Jenny as objects of an emotional empowerment through loss that has been the project of male melancholic discourse since Hamlet (Schiesari, pp. 5-6).

The scene of Jenny’s final appearance in the film might have easily been lifted from Lolita or, indeed, any of Scorsese’s final scenes of mournful parting in films from Taxi Driver (1976) to Shutter Island (2010).  Prompted by Guy’s sadness and his sense of horror when, on their wedding night, Lizzie suggests they pursue an open marriage, the scene cuts to a windy, cold, drab and grey working day morning in Martin Place.  Guy is on his way to work when he sees Jenny in a bright red coat, the only real colour in the sequence, walking towards him.  Guy smiles enthusiastically as they approach each other but as Jenny appears to see him her expression moves gently from a contented air to one of cold reproach. Martin Armiger’s violin and string concerto pauses for seven seconds as the camera is over-cranked, shooting Jenny in slow motion until she finally comes to a halt.  As the music track resumes and a very brief piano accompaniment is added into the score, Jenny stands staring towards Guy.  Although Jenny seems frozen, other city dwellers pass in front of the camera, at first momentarily obscuring our view of Jenny, and then the shot goes to black as if one of these walkers has lingered.  When the shot cuts back to the scene of action, Jenny has gone.  Guy’s point of view shot (although not in his own close up) then remains in slow motion for a few seconds more, before standard cranking returns to the sequence as a whole.  But for one jump cut, Guy’s close-up is held for an excruciating twenty seconds while his confused state of mind tries to work out where Jenny went and what happened.  The sequence then ends with a high, extreme long shot of Guy in the square, looking around, still in his state of confusion, while his fellow workers cross his path from every direction, in their frantic and disinterested walk to work.

The reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie as an expression of male melancholia is a compelling one. Certainly Guy demonstrates its key tendencies: a sense of separateness from a conservative and over-bearing group (Lizzie and her world), the trauma of loss (his life and separation from Jenny), a tendency to fetishise and a refusal to relinquish that loss [End Page 9] (his inescapable reminiscences of that life), an outward show of conformity, self-sacrifice and renunciation of that refusal (going through with the marriage when he knows it is a fake), and finally, a consolidation of his personal authority through melancholic display (the attraction of the spectator’s prevailing sympathy for him) (Nicholls, 2004, 1-14).  Guy duly performs all these tendencies throughout the film and they take up the major part of the film’s duration.  They are also summarised in the Martin Place scene where, as the man in the grey flannel suit, Guy interrupts his dutiful walk to his Lizzie lifestyle-supporting job to perform his desire, his radicalism, his loss and to receive the mandated adulation and sympathy as the great bourgeois of sorrows.  In the years following Daniel Day Lewis’ Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (1997) and Jeremy Irons’ performance as Humbert Humbert, Richard Roxburgh’s incarnation of the melancholic Guy is a performance of emotional “sad man candy” that is too similar to shun the comparison.

Implying an unrevised Mulvian representation of visual, and emotional, pleasure for both male and female spectators (1989: 14-28 & 29-38), however, the celebration of male loss in narrative cinema is a discourse that can be equally empowering to spectators across the spectrum of gender and sexual identity.  But this is the case because it is a discourse.  It is the nature of the expression of loss that multiple perspectives leak out.  In the case of the Martin Place scene, for example, the dubious nature of Jenny’s actual presence in the scene, as opposed to being there as a phantom of Guy’s fantasy, has to prompt us to consider whether she was, in fact, in that or in any of her scenes.  Could Jenny not simply be a fantasy image constructed by Guy in the face of the intolerable realities of his present situation?  Is she, in another sense, simply a substantially unrecognisable version of Lizzie when young, before she got old and serious?  Given the lively ambivalence of the discourse of male melancholia, I am not willing to dismiss it as an utterly suitable reading of the film, any more than a variety of other readings.  Looking at the film some fifteen years later, however, what strikes me about it now is the very force of that ambivalence.  Fifteen years later, older and hopefully wiser and at a distance from the predominant sad men of late nineties art house cinema, the reading of moral and emotional objectification of Lizzie and Jenny in the film seems to me somewhat questionable.  In the secondary form of Mulvey’s notion of “delayed cinema” she posits a “loose parallel with Freud’s concept of deferred action (nachtraglichkeit), the way the unconscious preserves a specific experience, while its traumatic effect might only be realized by another, later but associated event.” As in this quite different notion of “delayed cinema” to that considered above, in a contemporary reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie other details that have “lain dormant” can now be “noticed” (2006: 8).  In this context and in an updated reading, Lizzie and Jenny may appear to merge in their desires, but no more so than they all merge together with Guy’s similar desires for a life of stability, home and family – the “no fault” marriage.  Such a re-evaluation may not leave us feeling any more positive about the representation of Guy’s destiny with Lizzie, but the film’s exposure of the past as equally prone to, and fast moving towards the dilemmas of that present, leaves both it and Jenny as in no way looking like a fantasy or the ideal.  Reading the film simply as an expression of male melancholic perversion in the context, therefore, is inadequate.  The problem with the male melancholic reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie is that it threatens to limit the extent of what is mourned and who mourns.  We may feel sadness at Guy’s story, but the sadness of Jenny, her family, their friends and, indeed, the implicit grief and lack at the heart of Lizzie’s character, echo a more profound and general sense of loss and sadness that is the [End Page 10] experience of the audience watching the film.  It is an experience of loss that goes well beyond a generalised male melancholic expression of “poor Guy”, “horrible Lizzie” and “I just really miss Jenny”.

 “A relationship is like a shark”

Woody Allen is one of the greatest expressionists of the cinema of male melancholia.  In the substance of his various character and relationship studies however, we can see that he is committed to the very general audience experience of loss that I am interested in here.  Allen specialises in the charms of the type of break up scene we experience in Thank God He Met Lizzie.  In his Husbands and Wives (1992), Gabe (Allen himself) and Judy (Mia Farrow) conclude a long argument sequence with a final scene of lyrical reminiscence of their life together which leads to a mutual realisation of its ending.  It is a sad but sweet moment, typical of Allen’s films since Annie Hall (1977), which so often appear to work as a kind of palliative to the sadness and trauma of romantic separation.  The reason these films work as great films to watch after a break up, or in the middle of any relationship turmoil, is that they advocate the virtues of change and movement.  As Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are considering breaking up in Annie Hall, Alvy observes that, “a relationship is like a shark it has to constantly move forward or it dies.  And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”  This is a cute gag certainly, and the role of the humour in these so-called Romantic Comedies is central to their palliative aspect.  As Freud points out in his 1928 essay, humour is about assuaging fear and pain, reminding us, “Look here!  This is all the seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child’s play – the very thing to jest about.” (Freud, 1950, 220).  Accordingly, this type of humour is never far away from psychological insight, not to mention the many physical acts of movement in Allen’s work, particularly walking.  It also relates directly to the privileging of mobility over stasis that I have emphasised in my reading of the Cherie Nowlan’s film so far.  It is, therefore, a humorous line of dialogue that helps us understand the very nature of melancholia and loss, in a gender-wide sense and beyond the perversions of male melancholia, as we can read it in the film.

Central to the work of melancholia in classical Freudian terms is the subject’s unwillingness to move on and free him or herself from loss and the past.  This “inhibition of all activity” is read by Freud in both psychological and physical terms (Freud, 1984, 252, 263).  In the work of Julia Kristeva, we read the logical, and perhaps happy extension of this ceaseless mourning in the ultimate stupor, stasis and immobility of the death drive (Kristeva 1989, 119-128; 2000, 47, 54-5).  I am drawn to these ideas of movement, and the lack thereof, by considering more recent work on the idea of melancholia brought to the foreground by a 2011 exhibition at the Dax Centre in Melbourne under the curatorship of Charlotte Christie.  In the exhibition book of essays, child psychiatristPia Brous looks at the idea of melancholia in relation to psychiatry and neuroscience and highlights the work of Australian biological psychiatrist Gordon Parker.  As Brous puts it, Parker “conceptualises the “core” of melancholia as a disorder of movement rather than that of mood.”  For Brous this conceptualisation has it that “psychomotor retardation or agitation is the essence.” (Brous, 14) [End Page 11]

As we have observed in Thank God He Met Lizzie, it is exactly this type of psychomotor capacity and retardation that is at stake.  Through the apparently simple strategy of contrasting the Jenny scenes of mise-en-scene colour and camera movement with the creamy, Steadicam and stable diegesis of the Lizzie scenes, and by gradually bringing both to a final point of stasis and freeze-frame, we locate the true centre of despair in the film.  This visual manifestation of the “cinema’s paradoxical relation between movement and stillness”, as Laura Mulvey has considered it, has a direct connection to the idea of death and destruction (2006, 71& 104).  What is mourned in the film is not Jenny and not the apparent freedom of the youth and lack of responsibility that, from one perspective and in contrast to Lizzie, Jenny seems to represent.  When Jenny says of the “magic” that Guy wants to get back, “why would we want to do that?” she really seems to be saying “why would we want to go back to what was before?”  What Guy mourns, however, and we join him in this, is this very notion of movement.  The symptoms of melancholia in the film are its predominant aesthetic of stability found in the scenes of the present with Lizzie.  At the very point when the worst possible expressions of Lizzie’s character become apparent, Guy cannot resist the incredible propulsion towards this stability, a death-drive to a place of still life, where change is impossible.

The scenes with Jenny threaded throughout the wedding reception may be about fun and freedom and romantic experimentation, but the break up scene is not only extremely sad, but the freest and most romantic thing about the film.  It impresses such a response on us because it implies the greatest of all acts of mobility, the ability to change.  The scene demonstrates that, however dead inside Jenny and Guy have become, however intolerant of each other’s feeling and foibles, at that point in their lives they still have the ability to move on, to change, to break up and explore the positive side of the experience.  This break up is so moving because it is the ultimate sign of love, a gift of love and life.  In this context, the break up says, “I love you so much that I am willing to set you free and to spare you the pain of the living death of stasis and immobility.”  This is the very immobility to which not only the final snapshot scene turns, but also where Guy’s final, perhaps fantastically perverted, vision of Jenny in Martin Place rests, before both fade to darkness.


[1] Since the early 1970s, divorce in Australian law is all “no fault”.  I am using this phrase to highlight the idea in the film that marriage is essentially perverse but that the film’s protagonists are not to blame for it. “Fault” is still part of popular discourse of divorce, but is not part of the legal grounds for divorce in Australia. [End Page 12]

Works Cited

Abraham, N & Torok, M. “Mourning or Melancholia:  Introjection versus Incorporation”. The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994. 125-138. Print.

Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Blanchett, Cate. “Cast Interviews” in “Special Features” Thank God He Met Lizzie, (Cherie Nolwlan (dir), Stamen Films, The Australian Film Commission, The New South Wales Film and Television Office, Magna Pacific, Becker Entertainment 1997). DVD.

Brous, Pia. “Melancholia: A Vista from Psychiatry and Neuroscience”. Melancholia (Exhibition Booklet). Melbourne: The Dax Centre, 2011. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “The Mythology of Love,” in Myths To Live By. London: Paladin, 1972. 119-135. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905)”. Trans. J. Strachey. The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. Ed. A. Richards.  London: Penguin, 1991. 33–169. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia (1917 [1915])”. Trans. J. Strachey. The Pelican Freud Library, volume 11, On Metapsychology. Middlesex: Penguin, 1984. 245-268. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Humor (1928)”. Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers,Volume 2. Ed. E. Jones. London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1950. 215-221. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt: The Power and Limits of Psychoanalysis. Trans. J. Herman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. L. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “God and the Jouissance of the Woman”. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and The Ecole Freudienne. Ed. J. Mitchell, and J. Rose. London: Macmillan, 1982. 137-148. Print.

Matthews, J. H. Surrealism and Film. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “The Death Drive: Narrative Movement Stilled”, in Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books, 2006, pp 67-84. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989. Print.

Nicholls, Mark. Lost Objects of Desire: The Performances of Jeremy Irons. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012. Print.

Nicholls, Mark. Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob. Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2004. Print.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “Minnelli and Melodrama (1977)” in Movies and Methods, volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985. 190-194. Print.

Schiesari, J. The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Print.

Singer, Irving. The Nature of Love. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print

Smith, Margaret. “In Review: Thank God He Met Lizzie”, Cinema Papers, November 1997, no. 121: 47-48. Print. [End Page 13]

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The Private and Public Life of Nellie Stewart’s Bangle
by Annita Boyd

An Alluring Beauty

The Nellie Stewart bangle was a plain gold bangle worn by many Australian and New Zealand women in the early twentieth century as a sign of romantic attachment. Before recovering the Nellie Stewart bangle as an important addition to the history of colonial fashion and sentimental object, it is important to understand the charismatic [End Page 1] appeal of Stewart’s celebrity, the social mores of the time and how they overshadowed her private life, thus obscuring the real circumstances of the original bangle’s existence. Actress, singer and humanitarian, and once a household name in Australia and New Zealand, Nellie Stewart was a great beauty and a fashion icon whose style was widely emulated. Born Eleanor Stewart Towzey, in Sydney in 1858 to a theatrical family, she held her adoring public for over fifty years, until her death in 1931. She was called “Australia’s Idol” by press and public alike, and was their most loved star (Cooper 1931: 9). She also unwittingly began a fashion trend in the form of a ubiquitous bangle. Similar bangles are still worn, but commonly, they are known as golf bangles and very few know their history in Australia. Contemporary jewellers and wearers, have seldom heard of Stewart. Even if they do know such pieces as versions of the ‘Nellie Stewart bangle’ few will be aware of the star it was named after, let alone the story of the origin of its once famous namesake. (Fig. 1)

 

Fig. 1 A 100 year old hinged Nellie Stewart bangle (L), larger contemporary golf bangle (R) (property of the author)

Fig. 1 A 100 year old hinged Nellie Stewart bangle (L), larger contemporary golf bangle (R)
(property of the author)

All of the bangles were based on Stewart’s own bangle, which she wore for forty-six years, never once removing it. It was so conspicuous in her stage presence, in her personal life and in representations of her that it became the basis of a fashion trend. For Nellie Stewart, however, the original bangle was never about fashion. It came into being in 1885 when her lover, George Musgrove, gave her twenty-five gold sovereigns and his own design [End Page 2] for the bangle. What I am interested in here is how the romantic stories of Stewart’s own bangle and the bangles it inspired become inter-implicated in private and public life for women in the Australia and New Zealand of Stewart’s lifetime. For decade after decade these bangles were exchanged as material symbols of romantic love in courtship rituals and handed down through generations as sentimental love objects, without the participants’ knowledge of the signification of the original bangle as a tangible sign of devotion for that first couple.

Known for her ageless looks, at the age of thirty Stewart was amongst twenty-five theatrical women included in what must surely be one of Australia’s first fan magazines, containing black and white portraits and profiles of each actress. The self-published Pets of the Public: A Book of Beauty (Ellis 1888) is an early example of the kind of celebrity title that assumes ownership of famous people by their publics. This was a cultural trend that would later be crucial in the promotion of the Nellie Stewart name and the bangles that became associated with it. “Actresses were of great interest, given their supposedly questionable morals as well as their stylish dress, jewellery and hairstyles. Many were, of course, ‘protected’ by rich, prominent men, and some made advantageous marriages” (Church Gibson 2012: 42). These aspects will be investigated through close attention to the way Stewart’s celebrity was marketed along with her iconic bangle. There is no salacious press regarding Nellie Stewart, indeed to the contrary. Her good moral character seems to have been an integral part of her reputation, despite an annulled marriage, her being a single mother, and living the rest of her life with a still-married man. This man, George Musgrove, was very much (at times) a rich, prominent and influential man, and very well could have ‘protected’ her good name. It is something, however, that remains ambiguous and can only remain as speculation.

Nellie Stewart worked mostly within light opera, pantomime and other forms of popular entertainment, and in contrast to Nellie Melba, she made only one sound recording shortly before she died. Even though she had success abroad, she spent most of her performing life amongst the Australian and New Zealand people. Embraced as “Australia’s darling” and the “Rose of Australia” she was a deeply loved popular cultural figure. Paradoxically, it may be for this very reason – that she was a popular rather than high cultural figure – that despite her longevity, once her loving audiences disappeared, so also, to a significant extent, did cultural memory of her.

However, during her career, Stewart was well aware of the nature of her popular appeal, revealing in her autobiography an astute recognition that it involved more than her beauty and performance skills: “I am thankful for that magnetism in me, that powerful, elusive not-easy-to-suggest something which has made all my successes intimately personal” (Stewart 1923: 3). That is, Nellie Stewart grasped that the strength of the bonds between popular entertainers and their publics is frequently more than might be assumed when the attention is on “idols” or even ‘pets”. It can involve something “intimately personal” that fans come to experience as a relationship, albeit unrequited, between each of them and the unattainable “star”:

She was Sydney’s sweetheart, and of course mine too, (but I wasn’t hers). Just a fascinated youth of 16 in 1891, many nights I stood on a stone and wood-blocked street in front of the Lyceum and watched Our Nell … (Frederick Nyman in Skill, 1973: 52) [End Page 3]

Australia-wide, her name became synonymous with beauty and style. Reportage after her appearance at the Melbourne Cup demonstrates Stewart’s celebrity allure:

Nellie Stewart, Idol of the Melbourne stage, led the Fashion Stakes – and Melbourne followed. In 1901 the ‘Nellie Stewart’ line was the vogue. (Bernstein in Skill, 1973: 67)

From the moment of Stewart’s propulsion into the spotlight she was identified by an ever-present gold bangle. Copies of her bangle became sought-after fashion pieces and then became a “craze”, notably through no action of hers or her associates in relation to the production of the copies or the naming of them as “Nellie Stewart bangles”. The wide manufacture and popularity of the Nellie Stewart bangle was simply an effect of her much-beloved status. Her name became ‘attached to’ the adornment, understood as a public form of flattery in the construction of her fame.

Michael Madow extensively explores this practice of the commodification of famous personas and publicity rights, tracing historical changes in the status of celebrities and the emerging commercialisation of their names, images and identities. He explains that

[L]arge-scale commercial exploitation of famous persons goes back at least to the eighteenth century. It continued throughout the nineteenth century as well, all the while engendering little in the way of private complaint of social disapproval. Indeed, the practice seems to have been supported by a widely shared conception of famous persons as a kind of communal property, freely available for commercial as well as cultural exploitation. (Madow 1993: 8)

He notes how there was little control or litigation over this kind of exploitation until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The proliferation of one’s good name on consumable objects was conceived as part of fame’s reward. In the 1880s Sarah Bernhardt, with whom Nellie Stewart was often compared, was also the subject of this kind of merchandising in the form of cigars, perfume, candy and eyeglasses, for example, and like Stewart, Bernhardt did not profit, except in the continued circulation of her name. Oscar Wilde’s name was appropriated to sell freckle powder. Similarly, Nellie Stewart’s image, with closed mouth, appeared on a promotional card for toothpaste.

As with so many objects that are associated with the famous, in the case of Nellie Stewart bangles, the traits of the individual are transferred to the linked artefact: vicariously touched by Stewart’s aura, ladies who adorned themselves with these particular bangles were perceived as part of the fashionable set and doubtless aspired to the allure associated with Stewart herself. Possession of this gold accessory bonded women to their absent idol, as they physically carried an indexical trace of her social standing with them.

“[L]ike stage properties, accessories make meanings under the ever useful trope of synecdoche – the part stands in for the whole … Physical objects like hand props or articles of dress thus make vivid verbal and visual metonyms” (Roach in Engel 2009: 282) [End Page 4]

This in turn, confirms Stewart’s own status as object of what Marcel Mauss calls prestigious imitation (1973: 75). Anthropologically, Mauss’s interest is in parental, religious and other roles of governance or authority, but his ideas are also valuable in relation to cultural trends such as fashion and the association of styles with famous people who are perceived as having desirable traits, which are emulated by others. In tracing the emergence of what has come to be called celebrity culture, Madow notes how

[s]tage actors in particular became objects of popular fascination and widespread emulation, as the nineteenth century’s “culture of character,” which had stressed self-discipline and self-sacrifice, gave way to a culture that emphasized instead the importance of a distinctive “personality.”  Traditional social elites responded to this challenge not by closing ranks against theatrical celebrities but by visibly associating with them, hoping thereby to retain some of their former prestige and cultural authority. (Madow 1993: 40)

Stewart straddled both of these spheres, being at once respected for her good deeds and character and also recognised for her stage performances and charismatic personality. Stylish, talented and also noted for her frequent charitable work, Stewart thus became available as a socially appropriate model for imitation, indeed for a kind of worship, as indicated by reference to her as an “Idol”. As Skill also observes, “so potent was the actress’s appeal that thousands of women, then and for years to come, wore a Nellie Stewart bangle …” (Skill 1973: 41)

A Gift of Gold

Gentlemen of the day were of course also enamoured of Stewart, but equally they were aware of her style status and social standing amongst women. Alert to the widespread desire for the Nellie Stewart bangle, they continued the craze in order to court favour:

In Newcastle long ago, years before his election to Parliament, Fred Roels proudly presented one of the circlets to his fiancé. He was following the lead of other young men who aimed to make a fashionable impression. (Skill 1973: 41)

George Musgrove was a theatrical entrepreneur and a member of the J. C. Williamson’s theatre company, or ‘the Firm’. The sovereigns from which the original bangle was made were a reward for the money raised through a benefit concert, held to erect a statue to General George Gordon after his death in the battle for Khartoum. It is inferred in Stewart’s autobiography that these sovereigns formed part of the money that was in excess of the sum raised required to build the statue. If this was true, the ethics of such a deed become questionable. Musgrove could have easily bought any item of jewellery for Stewart with the money, except that one item which would have publicly cemented their loving bond: a wedding ring. Musgrove was estranged from his wife who never would divorce him and Stewart was still legally bound to an unconsummated marriage, which would much later be [End Page 5] annulled.[1] In having the sovereigns made into the gold bangle of Musgrove’s design, Stewart turned the gift of money, which has no sentimental worth, into an object of significant emotional value to both of them.  She converted the coins into a body object, which she never removed from her wrist. What had occurred was a change in form, perhaps as important to the couple as the change in the public and private form(s) of their relationship that could have occurred had they been free to marry.

Fig. 2 Nellie Stewart weighty gold bangle, postcard (Author’s private collection)

Fig. 2 Nellie Stewart weighty gold bangle, postcard (Author’s private collection)

[End Page 6]

The bangle would have been solid, very weighty and made of 22 carat gold (Fig. 2). If they were early sovereigns the gold would have been of a lighter colour “due to the use of silver instead of copper to form an alloy to the prescribed legal standard’ (Duveen & Stride 1962: 95). According to Jonathan Cooper (2005), specialist in Australian colonial jewellery, the sovereigns were also probably mixed with copper in the melt to give the bangle strength. The amount of copper would also have affected the colour of the gold – the more copper, the pinker the hue. This certainly would have been a very valuable item of jewellery: worth the twenty-five coins that went into it plus the manufacturing cost. But to give some idea of value: in the late nineteenth century one gold sovereign would have been about one week’s wages for a common labourer; in 1914, nearly thirty years after the bangle came into existence, the average weekly earnings of a man were £3 per week. If we were to consider its value differently, in terms of an equivalent item today being worth half a year’s modest wages, the bangle would be at least equivalent to $20,000 – $25,000. In terms simply of the value of gold, the original Nellie Stewart bangle, were it still in existence, would be worth approximately $2,500, without taking into consideration any antique value. Given its place in the history of Australian jewellery, the value would, of course, increase astronomically for collectors, while its heritage value as a museum piece, as part of Australian cultural history, would be difficult to assess.

All this monetary, cultural and social value, though, has no bearing on the private value to Nellie Stewart and George Musgrove in terms of their shared lives, which included the birth of their daughter, Nancye in June 1893. The bangle for them was much more than a decoration or memento. It “stood for” a wedding band and was treated as such by Stewart. It was their private recognition of their intimate relationship with each other, publicly worn. However, unlike the circumstances attending a wedding ring, their shared private life and the bangle’s part in it, were not declared publicly until Stewart’s autobiography appeared almost forty years after the bangle first appeared on her wrist.

The bangle’s first stage appearance was in 1886 in Stewart’s premiere role of Yum Yum in The Mikado. Throughout her professional life, because it never left her arm, such an obviously large gold bangle had to be disguised sometimes, such as when she played male characters in pantomime or a poor girl (like Nell Gwynne – a part for which she became most famous). On such occasions, the bangle would be either hidden under long sleeves, or covered with braid. (Fig. 3) [End Page 7]

 

Fig. 3 Nellie Stewart’s braided bangle, postcard. (Author’s private collection)

Fig. 3 Nellie Stewart’s braided bangle, postcard. (Author’s private collection)

 

Stewart’s association with the role of Nell Gwynne would never leave her. The ongoing conflation of the Nell the actress, with Nell, the role is not accidental, but was used as a discursive device in the publicity for Stewart’s own public identity  (Lipton 2011).  In addition to this, the two shared several life characteristics. Nell Gwynne was famous in the seventeenth century as the poor theatre orange seller, who not only became an actress in restoration comedy, but also Charles II’s mistress who bore him illegitimate children. The play Sweet Nell of Old Drury, is reference to the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane, where Stewart herself would later also famously perform as principal boy in pantomime. Charles II was a patron of the arts, and George Musgrove, although not a king, was a theatrical entrepreneur who would never marry his true love.

Baubles, Bangles and Brides

For Nellie Stewart and George Musgrove the bangle signifying their private relationship was perpetually disguised, merely as a piece of jewellery without such deep personal significance. But wedding bangles have been a common tradition across a range of cultures. Indian wedding customs involve the bride’s receiving bangles (often coloured glass) from her mother-in-law. Both Stewart and Musgrove had travelled to India and quite possibly were aware of this custom. In Victorian England, a bangle was often given to the future bride by her fiancé upon their engagement, with another given on their wedding day (‘Mirabel’ 1909a; 1909c). These bangles were identical and worn in pairs. A variety of designs were used, with safety chains, and they symbolised good luck or faith, hope and charity. [End Page 8]

Such items of jewellery became important cultural artefacts, as items into which memories are embedded. They symbolically share a lifetime of lived experience with their owner-wearers, who are usually women, especially in the case of wedding jewellery. This is why items of personal jewellery are such sought-after objects in family histories, embodying as they do a vicarious transference of those memories to the women who may inherit and so also wear them. Thus, in usual circumstances, the object that signifies the love between a couple takes on a public life not only during the lives of that couple, but across generations, becoming a part of the private and public stories of families and cultures. For Musgrove and Stewart, though, the bangle remained an intensely private gesture.

This makes it all the more extraordinary that the most public and well-known manifestation of popular “love” for Nellie Stewart was a craze for replicas of that gold bangle. Because Stewart never removed her own bangle, it became her public signature and a celebrity object. For Skill (1973: 41) this was an ingenious move on the part of Musgrove: every time a girl placed the bangle on her arm, she thought of Nellie Stewart. “Roach suggests that images of stars with accessories give the spectator a kind of access to the celebrity, a gateway into the aura of illusions surrounding that particular figure” (Engels 2009: 282). Therefore, when a girl first wore her Nellie Stewart bangle we might imagine the kind of heightened response she might have had through the tactility and the resemblance of her own bangle to that of her idol’s. Roach argues that through accessories “ordinary people can experience a spurious but vivid intimacy with the public figures they represent” (Roach in Engels 2009: 282). But as we have seen, the gift held a significance that remained private until 1923. Neither Musgrove nor Stewart had any part in the manufacture or promotion of the bangles. The craze seems to have had a range of origins, including the recognition on the part of jewellers of Stewart’s role as style-setter, as well a women’s desire to wear a bangle like the one constantly worn by Nellie Stewart, and men’s desire to please women.

The gold rushes of the second half of the nineteenth century brought about an abundance of gold, resulting in an influx of gold jewellery.[2] Bracelets became particularly fashionable:

The nineteenth century saw a new vogue for bracelets. As many as four were sometimes worn on each arm, and they continued to be popular when other forms of jewellery were temporarily out of fashion… but by far the most popular bracelet of the 1870s was a plain gold bangle. (Mason 1973: 41, 42)

Although this was true and remains so today, “plain gold bangles” come in many forms. Once the craze was underway, from the second half of the 1880s on, an authentic Nellie Stewart bangle was a completely round ring, usually not oval, and not flat on the inside surface. The bangle’s similarity to a wedding band cannot go unnoticed: it is plain, with no embellishment such as hand chasing, repousse work, engraving, stippling or black taille d’epergne enamelling, as was popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Nellie Stewart bangles were usually of rose gold, hollow and filled with wax to prevent dings and denting.[3] They could be hinged or unhinged. We know the original was unhinged and different from most bangles of the time, as Stewart (1923: 159) explained in her autobiography: [End Page 9]

It was large and of a new style – it was forced on my arm and has never been removed since. I daren’t think how many other Nellie Stewart bangles, of all qualities, have been made and worn in Australia since then. There was a time when no really smart girl would be without one. A friend tells me he counted over three hundred on women going into a theatre in Sydney one night.

The bangle’s popularity as a coveted fashion item, even as late as the 1920s, is evidenced by studio portraits and many a Box Brownie family photo, at a time when home photography had become more accessible to the average person (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 Studio portrait of Anna Louisa and Hilda Ryan, Anna wearing her treasured NS bangle (by kind permission of Hilda McDonnell, Lower Hutt, NZ)

Fig. 4 Studio portrait of Anna Louisa and Hilda Ryan, Anna wearing her treasured Nellie Stewart bangle
(by kind permission of Hilda McDonnell, Lower Hutt, NZ)

[End Page 10]

The bangles, however, would not have been readily accessible to an ordinary young woman. As shown in the 1912 Sydney Prouds Magazine, the smallest and thinnest 9ct bangle would have cost 17/6, and the largest and thickest 15ct one, £5/10. (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5 Prouds Magazine 1912

Fig. 5 Prouds Magazine 1912

[End Page 11]

Women with incomes may have bought them for themselves, indulging in the pleasure of this coveted fashion accessory, thereby entering into a sense of association with the fashionable ‘set’. However, given what we have noted about wages, for the majority of women in the closing years of the nineteenth century such a purchase would have been out of the question. This is probably one explanation for the fact that, as indicated in relation to Fred Roels’s gift to his fiancé, the bangles became a popular courting gift. Although this was a style trend, a fashion craze that became particularly widespread and long lasting, at the same time the bangles retained for many women an aura of being “special” not only because they were associated with Stewart’s signature bangle, but because they were gold, and because they were frequently a gift from their sweetheart or fiancé. Just as ironically, the bangles came to be a common gift to women in bridal parties – that is, to the bridesmaids rather than to the bride (who may already have received one during courtship). Detailed descriptions of wedding apparel and party gifts were provided in the social or women’s pages of early newspapers and magazines, (‘Mirabel’ 1909a; 1909b, Clark 2003) and later they were seen in the photographic coverage of fashionable bridal parties. Figs. 6 & 7

 

Fig. 6. Left. Studio portrait of the author’s grandparents’ wedding party 1923, Toowoomba, Queensland. Nellie Stewart bangle is seen on arm of bridesmaid Julie Boyd, far right. Alma Curtis, trainbearer, already wears bangles, possibly given to her upon her christening or birthday.

Fig. 6. Studio portrait of the author’s grandparents’ wedding party 1923, Toowoomba, Queensland. Nellie Stewart bangle is seen on arm of bridesmaid Julie Boyd, far right. Alma Curtis, trainbearer, already wears bangles, possibly given to her upon her christening or birthday.

[End Page 12]

Fig. 7. Right. ‘Wedding Party’ (Moody/Boyd) 2 April, 1923 The Darling Downs Gazette (clipping). Nellie Stewart bangles are listed as gifts from the bridesgroom (my grandfather)

Fig. 7. ‘Wedding Party’ (Moody/Boyd) 2 April, 1923 The Darling Downs Gazette (clipping). Nellie Stewart bangles are listed as gifts from the bridegroom (my grandfather)

[End Page 13]

In his study of gift-giving practices, Berking (1999) notes three patterns of behaviour and sets of motives in the evolution of the courting relationship: approach, confirmation and togetherness rituals. The presentation of a Nellie Stewart bangle by a man to his girlfriend would fall into the confirmation ritual, “mostly in the form of jewellery, little totems or more intimate objects, [which] try to bring certainty into an insecure situation by signalling that things are intended to stay as they are” (Berking 1999: 12). As a gift to a fiancé, the bangle would signify impending togetherness. Given as a groom’s present to the bridesmaid or female trainbearer, it may signal more than “appreciation of their support and assistance” (Pratt 1996: 18). However, the bridesmaid gift also signifies a rite of passage and publicly authenticates the new social position of the husband: “the wedding effects the outsider’s incorporation into the local group, with an accompanying exchange of gifts whose collective ‘meaning’ is not only to confirm his acceptance into the group, but also to bond him to the new symbolic order” (Berking 1999: 13). For bridesmaids, though, such gifts were and are reminders of their special role in the life of a woman friend or relative. In a further shift into the private lives of families, the bangles came to mark rituals such as christenings and events such as birthdays: “When Nellie Gill was a small child she was given a plain gold bangle (known as a Nellie Stewart bangle) which were very fashionable at the time” (Power 1995). These gifts to children, like those associated with romance, represent various changes in status: the christening event signifies a rite of passage in terms of a religious bond, rather than a romantic one; and the birthday signals a transition from one age to another. We also know that they were kept in families as heirlooms, and handed down through the generations, from mother to daughter, niece or friend (Skill 1973: 41, 42). In all of these contexts, gift giving is a question of emotional value much more than it is concerned with monetary value. The “preciousness” of the bangle in such uses of it comes to be measured only fleetingly in the association with Nellie Stewart, relatively insignificantly in the value of the gold itself, and largely in what the bangle comes to represent for the giver and receiver. When a bangle is inherited upon death of a loved one it becomes what Margaret Gibson describes as a “melancholy object”.

The melancholy object is a double signifier. It is the object (or objects) materialising and signifying the mourning of mourning. In other words, the melancholy object signifies the memory of the mourning and as such it is the memorialized object of mourning … However, the melancholy object as a memorialized object could also signify the incompletion of mourning – the reminder that grief never entirely goes away. The melancholy object is then the affective remainder or residual trace of sadness and longing in non-forgetting. (Gibson 2004: 289)

So in this regard, a Nellie Stewart bangle once belonging to a mother, now worn by a bereaved daughter, holds a multitude of functions and meanings that go further than the ritual event of the bangle’s exchange. It is in the continued wearing of that inherited bangle upon the arm of its new owner that the wearer remembers and perhaps re-experiences her grief. It is indeed a special kind of memory object.

Thus, while Australian and New Zealand women would have carried the tradition of the Nellie Stewart bangle for thirty-eight years, without knowing the private history of the original, the replica bangles became publicly associated with love, courtship and weddings; [End Page 14] privately given as tokens of commitment to a love relationship; treasured as mementoes of important relationships with other women; given to women to mark significant occasions; and passed down through families as remembrances of past feelings. The value of the Nellie Stewart bangles involved the transfer of a certain aura associated with Nellie Stewart and the public’s love for her, but for many people it also involved “intimately personal” associations with private expressions of love or affection, and public acknowledgement of those feelings. In this interplay between public craze and intimate uses – between style and expression, aura and value, personal and shared experiences – the deep emotional importance of the original bangle to Nellie Stewart and George Musgrove is invisible to their contemporaries, hidden from public view.

For Walter Benjamin, “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity … The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Benjamin 1970: 222-3). When a Nellie Stewart bangle was a fashion accessory for the wearer, the associations with Nellie’s signature bangle may well have been the most important thing about the replica for the wearer, the residual aura that came to the reproduction from that famous original. But when the replica bangles become associated with all these other uses in the intimate lives of giver, receivers and inheritors of them, the fact that they are replicas falls away and the sense of “authenticity” is invested in the replica objects due to their current or past associations with the personal histories of individuals, couples and families. The replica objects begin to enter into a value exchange of their own.

[C]ertain symbolic continuities can remain as objects might continue to be thought of and named as belonging to former owners even though they are now worn by, used or in the possession of other people. Through death, the subject-object relationship enters into a new phase of distribution, attachment, ownership or custodianship and the question of value inevitably arises. (Gibson 2010: 55)

In such ways, we need to notice that it is too easy to allow the participation of an object (or a story) in a culture of celebrity to occlude the other cultural values that come to accrete around it.  In the case of Nellie Stewart bangles degrees of value slide around between emotional, monetary, fashion and celebrity associations for each woman who has such a bangle in the period that coincides with Stewart’s active life as a performer, social icon and example of public morality in relation to her humanitarian work. There is no fixed set of associations that attend the replica bangles. Each becomes an object with its own story and those many stories frequently leave the original bangle behind as the bangles become treasured personal possessions. The Nellie Stewart bangle had acquired an independent popular cultural life.

During the period of her celebrity Nellie Stewart seems to have been particularly highly regarded by women. On the reverse of a Nellie Stewart postcard (held in the Mitchell Library Pictures Collection, PXA857) dated July 9, 190(?), addressed to presumably a young woman, her friend and professional colourist writes: [End Page 15]

Dear Kit,

Be sure and send that head of her to be colored for your pendant. Hope you haven’t this one of her. I colored it of course, it is an old one, I think, but pretty. 7/6 the half dozen… take such a time to do, the color always sinks in on the plate of any kind & you have to go over them so many times.

‘little Nell”

The Victorians were famous for their obsession with sentimental jewellery (Cooper 1972) and well into the early twentieth century it remained a very popular practice to insert the photo of a loved one inside a locket either worn as a necklace or even a bracelet or brooch. This is, therefore, a particularly revealing inscription. If it was traditional only for loved ones to be held in the intimate space of a locket and worn around one’s neck, then this demonstrates how loved and adored Nellie Stewart really was, especially by women. Not only did her name attach itself to a beloved bangle, but in this case her image is carried with the wearer against the heart. This goes beyond the predilection for the prized collecting of theatrical postcards alone, and demonstrates both an active and creative engagement with the iconicity of celebrity on the part of the fan.  “The portrait of the actress similarly signifies the presence of her ‘real’ body and the fantasy for the spectator of owning a part of that body through possessing the portrait. Portraits of actresses also suggest the absence of their real bodies, leaving spectators with a longing for the missing actual thing” (Engel 2009: 282). This example is truly a demonstration of the act of possession in a state of absence. Stewart acknowledges this deep affection held towards her by women, and she expresses her gratitude:

And I am thankful – oh, more thankful than I can say! – to those tens of thousands of good people who have made my success possible, and who long ago adopted me into their hearts, and who have kept me there…It is the greater joy to me because so many of them have been women. It always hurts me when I hear that such and such a person is a man’s woman – meaning by that that she is indifferent or hostile to fellows of her own sex. Times beyond count I have been helped over rough places by the unobtrusive sympathy of women.

With Australian girls I know that I am among friends; it has always been so. (Stewart 1923: 3, 4)

One explanation of Stewart’s popularity amongst women might be found in the theories of Andrew Tudor and Leo Handel. Their typology of audience /star relationships suggests that people’s favourite stars tend to be of the same sex as themselves. This would certainly apply in their classification of degrees of identification and affinity with the admired star, with the popular wearing of bangles falling within the category of “imitation” and role modelling (Tudor & Handel in Dyer 1998: 17, 18).

Many Australian photographs of the twenties reveal women frolicking in their woollen bathing costumes sporting a Nellie Stewart bangle, usually on their upper arm. The opportunities for display in this context, not just of the body, but of adornment of the body, were great in the context of an emerging Australian beach culture. The frequency of such images in the period would also seem to indicate that the bangles were not taken off for [End Page 16] swimming, and therefore always left on the arm (much like Stewart’s). This public display of the bangle could be interpreted in several ways, none exclusive of the others: first, that they were fashionable young women; second, that perhaps they were attached, i.e. a gentleman had signalled his intentions; and third, as a public statement of identification with the apparent independence of Nellie Stewart. Young women willing to be seen in such revealing garments were willing to reveal more than was customary of their private selves in public, just as the admired performer might. This can be read as fashion performance, but also as recognition, however intuitive or considered, that being a woman in public is always a question of performance and the more so if a woman or group of women steps outside of the expected frames for how women’s bodies should be displayed, used or enjoyed by themselves. These are images of women having fun together, making public use of their bodies for exercise and enjoyment, whether or nor not for flirtation and/or social standing.

The emergence into the public knowledge of the facts of Stewart’s long-term de facto relationship and unmarried motherhood might have changed how she was viewed by many of her public. Stewart was at pains to defend the morality of the private theatrical environment in which she grew up and spent the entirety of her life, being only too aware of the suspicious public perception of actresses:

There is a queer idea prevalent that the players of forty or fifty years ago were all bohemian in the bad sense – reckless and riotous people. I never found them so. There was sound comradeship among them, and with that an honest joy and pride in their profession. They were far homelier than we of the theatre are now. (Stewart 1923: 30)

Engels (2009) explores discourses of tainted morality around actresses of the eighteenth century. These anxieties tended to persist even into the twentieth century (especially in the early years of Hollywood). By virtue of their profession being based on techniques of bodily display, and various representations of femininity as excess, there emerges a slippage of meaning in the consumption of the actress as commodity. The blurring of the distinction between actress and role is embedded in such polarised performances as, “good or bad, comic or tragic, prostitutes or virgins, mistresses or mothers” (Engels 2009: 284). An actress’s life on and offstage acquired interest for fans, despite the only access they had to either was necessarily mediated. A month before she died Stewart was the subject of a feature article in Australian Home Beautiful (May 1931). The article includes several photographs of the garden and interior of Stewart’s home, “Den o’ Gwynne”, complete with theatrical memorablia on display,  and a very youthful looking Stewart seated at a harpsichord, bangle in full view. Marshall (2006: 317) references Charles Ponce de Leon’s work on how “celebrity journalism changed,  from the nineteenth to the twentieth century from reporters piecing together stories from people knew famous people to direct interviews with famous people in their private homes.” The women’s magazine article demonstrates this move ‘literally’ towards gaining access to a supposed private interior of the individual, rather than prior focus on Stewart a key player in the J. C. Williamson company. It is also worth noting Stewart’s own playful naming of her house as the home of Nell Gwynne – indicating she herself identified with her alter ego, the one her public too learned to identify.  However, very little is actually revealed about Nellie Stewart. Far from [End Page 17] accessing “the real” person behind the celebrity image, as many contemporary women’s magazines claim to do, this article serves only to build even more on the constructed Gwynne identity, but presents it as a natural part of the actress’s personality, in tandem with a number of her other roles:

Here, on the threshold of the little home she loves so well, she steps simply and naturally into the title-role of a little one-act piece, “Nellie Stewart At Home,” by Herself. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the role is played by a number of lovely women, Nell Gwynne, Maggie Wylie, Sweet Kitty Bellairs, and all the rest of the goodly company. For one realises that they… are really part of Nellie herself, that magic personality whereby she has held for so many years, and still holds, the hearts of the Australian public. (Cooper, 1931: 10)

In contrast, two articles in The Sketch detail a different approach: the first ‘Miss Nellie Stewart’ (1895: 154), about a decade into Nellie Stewart’s fame, consists of two lengthy paragraphs on Miss Stewart’s travel plans whilst abroad in Europe, her critical opinion of Australian versus English audiences, and the sacrifices she believes one should make for one’s art; the second, ‘An Australian Manager in London’(1897: 135), is a full-page interview with George Musgrove, detailing his professional achievements and upcoming productions. Stewart is mentioned by Musgrove only in passing as a skilled and well-known player with a wide repertoire, but the layout features a large photograph of her centre-page, with the written text encircling her image.  The caption reads “Miss Nellie Stewart, Leading Lady at the Shaftesbury Theatre”. The reader’s attention is at once directed towards her image, but the article itself is not about her, but her manager, the impresario behind her fame, and the man to whom she is ‘attached’.  Even so, there is no mention of a personal relationship and this at a time several years after the birth of Nancye. This early media coverage definitely focuses on their achievements, rather than any speculation on intimate personal relations. In this regard, these two nineteenth century texts conform to Leo  Braudy’s theory of the four elements of fame: “a person, an accomplishment, their immediate publicity, and what posterity has brought them ever since” (Braudy 1987: 15). It is unfortunate that Stewart did not make any musical recordings, unlike her contemporary, Dame Nellie Melba who made over one hundred. Should she have done so, these audio recordings would have outlasted the ephemerality of her popular celebrity in the theatre. The longevity of a commercial recording has the capacity to reach others beyond the lifetime of the person recorded, through the public’s consumption of repeated reproductions. The reason for this lack may have been because Stewart was an actress first and a singer second. Melba’s profession as a classical opera singer, favoured her for posterity, because of the elite and enduring status of the art and her further audio documentation. The fashion for light opera and pantomimes fluctuated with publics, as new forms of popular entertainment, namely cinema, replaced them. Shortly before she died, Stewart made four 78 records (now held in the Mitchell Library in New South Wales), reprising segments of her role as Nell Gwynne and including an address to her public. The only film she made, Sweet Nell of Old Drury (Longford & Musgrove 1911), based on her highly successful theatrical role, sadly does not survive. Richard de Cordova [End Page 18] (2006: 101) observes that it was some time before there was a perception that people “acted in films”.

The film D’Art’s supreme contribution to the contention that people acted in films probably did not come until 1912 with the release of the filmed version of Camille starring Sarah Bernhardt … The world’s greatest and most famous actress had (by many accounts at least) had become a photoplayer, thus blurring – for an instant at least – all distinctions between the moving picture and the legitimate theatre.

Stewart had sometimes been hailed as Australia’s Bernhardt, and both had played the role of Camille. It seems Stewart’s transition to film in this regard appears to mirror that of Bernhardt’s, in that both actresses were widely recognised for their excellent theatrical skills and had attracted much public attention. Each had made their name on the stage first, and played out their favoured theatrical roles in filmed versions. Each was paid large sums of money to appear in the films. However, Stewart, did not continue down this path, and sought to return to the stage.

Whether being apparently too soon forgotten in popular culture was in anyway associated with her acquisition of a more ambiguous moral status than she had prior to her autobiography is unclear.  Certainly, actresses had already for some time taken advantage of writing their memoirs as a publicity technique to represent themselves in a positive light in order to counter any scandalous rumour or unfavourable discourse circulating around their name and image (Engels 2009: 284). We can imagine that for some women their Nellie Stewart bangle might have become (privately) more precious as a “standing in” for the difficulties of life for women, or, as may have been the case with the women on the beach, even more endowed with emergent nineteen-twenties qualities of stylish independence already associated with Stewart. For others the bangle may have become “tainted” by association with the public revelation of Nellie’s Stewart’s “real” private life, as opposed to the performance of being Nellie Stewart necessitated by Stewart’s being herself a public commodity, just as her bangle had become. However, it seems apparent that once Stewart passed away in 1931, and despite plain gold bangles retaining their status as ritual gifts (particularly for children’s birthdays), they gradually ceased to be known as Nellie Stewart bangles, as a younger generation reached marrying age and the name Nellie Stewart was no longer as familiar. Her celebrity, which had spanned four decades, had come to an end, and so with it the public’s romantic gesture of giving the bangles as a wedding gifts.

 A Bangle’s Demise

So what became of that bangle? Below is an extract from Stewart’s will:

I DIRECT that my remains shall be cremated together with the gold bangle which has been on my arm for over thirty years… (Stewart in Skill 1973: 171)

Rather than its being passed on to her daughter, as sentimental jewellery customarily was, and as other Nellie Stewart bangles have been, Stewart instructed it to be destroyed with [End Page 19] her body. She wanted her most intimately precious possession to go to her death with her, as a testament to the depth of the relationship that led to Nancye’s birth.

Contrary to her wishes, however, it was removed from her arm after her death. It was not cremated with her remains as “this was impracticable under the New South Wales law” (Evening Post, 1931, p 13). It was delivered to Nancye, along with bequeathed personal effects and jewellery. By then, Nancye was herself an actress and married to the actor, Mayne Lynton. Had it not been for State law prohibiting the bangle’s cremation, Nancye would have been deprived of the transference of memory that this melancholy object facilitated for her, while other daughters inherited “Nellie Stewart bangles” along with the romantic stories of childhood memories of their mothers. Stewart, on the other hand, had wanted to take her bangle with her as a powerfully private symbol of her love for George that had been secretly acknowledged through the ever-present bangle. For Stewart, the bangle was clearly a public/private interface of deep significance. For almost forty years she was unable to declare her love for Musgrove publicly, but she could wear the bangle, thus creating a personally sacred object. As the bangle had never left Stewart’s arm in her lifetime, this item attracts special value as an intimate object of the body (Gibson 2010: 59).  Given what Stewart attempted to instruct in her will, the story of her bangle has much to say about the constraints on women’s lives in her time. Even being a major celebrity, a style icon adored and emulated by millions, did not allow her to be free from the restrictions placed on women by law and morality working together. But Stewart’s bangle can also be seen to be a representation of her resistance.

In a final twist, the bangle was taken by flames in the end. In a postscript to a 1974 interview with Stewart’s biographer, Marjorie Skill, she adds:

Nellie’s grandson, Michael Lynton, has told me recently (February, 1975) that the original and famous ‘Nellie Stewart Bangle’ was destroyed in the terrible fire that killed fifty people in a holiday resort at the Isle of Man in August, 1973 – the month and year of Nancye Stewart’s death in Mosman, Sydney. (Skill 1975: postscript)

The bangle’s centrality in Nellie’s Stewart’s emotional life was such that we can only guess at how she might have reacted to this. When the great San Francisco earthquake struck, Musgrove’s company was touring. All the sets, costumes and props were destroyed in the fires so Stewart sold all her jewellery to assist the company to return to Australia. She must have owned a significant amount of valuable jewellery for such a gesture to make a difference, but even in that crisis she did not sell her bangle – any more than one might sell a wedding ring. The bangle was imbued with symbolic value, far greater than that of its market value. The decision not to sell represents a moral economy: “… taken-for-grantedness values about what possessions can or cannot be sold in exchange for money” (Gibson 2010: 55). Margaret Gibson points out in her research on the significance of objects of bereavement, that the disposal of, “… some objects (inalienable) have a status which places them beyond monetary calculation and market exchange, whilst others (alienable) are more easily transacted in exchange relations” (Gibson 2010: 55). So too, it was with the bangle, an inalienable personal and priceless object.

The bangle stood for Musgrove’s desire to marry Stewart, symbolising a disguised “marriage”. Her autobiography is dedicated to him: ‘A great and good man’. In a further [End Page 20] intensification of the dilemma posed by the ambiguity of their relationship, and the tensions between their private and public lives, their inability to legally marry resulted in another disguise: in his will, Musgrove refers to Nancye Stewart as his “adopted daughter”. Even Stewart remarked that this was strange. But Nancye was the illegitimate child of Musgrove, and her actual status is hidden by the category of ‘adopted’. Early in Stewart’s book she frankly declares, “I have known one lover, and only one, but I have had many splendid men friends” (Stewart 1923: 39). At a time when divorce was not readily available and when considerably more conservative social mores prevailed, perhaps this was Musgrove’s effort to preserve both women’s respectability[4] or perhaps his own morality, remaining as he was a married man. Stewart fell pregnant to Musgrove on his visit to her in London, in August 1892. Stewart had already been working in England and had taken up residence in Devonshire before this.  Musgrove then spent much of his time in America on business. Throughout her pregnancy she lived frugally for ten months in a village called Chingford, in Essex where Nancye was born. There is no doubt regarding the paternity of Nancye, given these details related by Stewart (1923:103-104). George had already left for Australia when Stewart gave birth. She followed him shortly afterwards and arrived in Melbourne when Nancye was three months old, and began performing heavy schedules again with J. C. Williamson in September. In this regard, the pregnancy was concealed from her publics (both English and Australian) but there does not seem to be any effort on their part to hide Nancye from view, as she travelled with them as part of the wider theatrical family. I have not encountered any printed scandalous gossip concerning Musgrove or Stewart. On the contrary, Stewart, especially, was held in very high regard.

Nellie Stewart’s ashes are buried in the family grave at Boroondara cemetery in Kew, “then the cemetery most favoured by Melbourne’s fashionable world” (Skill 1973: 158). The grave bears a large guardian angel in the likeness of Stewart, who is wearing the bangle. (Fig. 8) The statue was there before Stewart’s death, tending her mother and stepsister’s resting places. When I visited the gravesite in April 2005 rose bushes had recently been planted within it. [End Page 21]

 

Fig. 8 Nellie Stewart’s grave, Kew, Melbourne

Fig. 8 Nellie Stewart’s grave, Kew, Melbourne

Fig. 9 Nellie Stewart’s Memorial Plaque, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Fig. 9 Nellie Stewart’s Memorial Plaque, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

[End Page 22]

The memorial plaque in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens erected by the Nellie Stewart Memorial Club, was once within The Nellie Stewart Garden of Memory. (Fig. 9) This plaque also shows the bangle, although it is braided and decorated, and thus not in the style of an “authentic” Nellie Stewart bangle.[5] Originally this memorial was located in a gazebo surrounded by two thousand rose bushes in her honour, befitting the ‘Rose of Australia’.[6] There is even a waltz, aptly called Rose of Australia, composed by Nellie Smith (1913), bearing a dedication “by kind permission” to Nellie Stewart and an art nouveau garland of red roses around an image of Stewart on the cover. This Grecian-inspired Talma photograph, taken in 1908 (when Stewart was fifty-three) exudes an air of innocence and simplicity. It was not uncommon for sheet music of the time to bear dedications to famous persons on the cover. Combined with a photograph of the star, this would aid in sales of the music and continue to build on the celebrity of the artist. This also applied to named performers pictured on covers, who were famous for singing a particular song, thereby acting as important vehicles in the promotion of the song (Marshall 1997: 150-151).

In a photograph taken by Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, during the 1940s, we see two young women looking at the plaque inside the shady gazebo. Sadly, the gazebo is long gone and there are no more roses, nor the Garden of Memory. Nellie Stewart’s memorial lies hidden behind some pots in the Herb Garden. When I visited, the section of the gardens where two thousand roses once grew was under reconstruction, with an accompanying sign: “What’s happened to Sydney’s rose garden?” explaining that the older style roses and garden design were being replaced by roses and a design more suitable to Sydney’s climate, conditions and fun lifestyle. This was also explained on the Botanic Garden’s website. Neither source gestured towards any original connection with Nellie Stewart. Perhaps Nellie Stewart’s flower or plant should now be rosemary. It is strangely befitting that she is located in the herb garden, with rosemary’s traditional meaning of ‘remembrance’. And perhaps they should also plant some Queen’s Rocket, being the Victorian plant to signify fashion (Greenaway 1884), as no other Australian woman of her time had such an impact on fashion as the kind that Nellie Stewart did. Even the Reverend Doctor Micklem declared at her funeral, “An artist such as Nellie Stewart fulfilled our desire for beauty and performed a service to the whole world” (Micklem in Skill 1973: 158).

On Stewart’s memorial plaque in St James’s Church in King Street, Sydney, where she was christened and her funeral held, are the last words of Nell Gwynne from Sweet Nell of Old Drury, with whom her public image became synonymous: “Memory will be my happiness”. This line also ends her autobiography and accompanies an autograph I have of hers. The second part of the line reads, “For you are enshrined there”. Its sentiments are directed to her audiences who brought her to stardom, but also dedicated to George Musgrove. So there is another strange, sad irony, in that she was a woman who held the hearts of many, at a time when there were none who did not know her name, but her memory has now faded almost entirely from public view.

A young Nellie Stewart (as Nell Gwynne, with her oranges) looks out at us on a 1924 Australian 50 pence stamp, celebrating Rose Day, Sydney, saying, “’Sweet Nell’ thanks you”. This can be taken to indicate the love and gratitude Stewart felt towards her public. But at the same time, like the plaque in St James’s, this stamp, released just after the publication of her autobiography, associates her not only with a famous role, but with the great actress and great mistress of her time – Nell Gwynne who was never able to marry her lover, the king. The conflation of actress with role by the public is not something new. “The highest [End Page 23] praise for a star actress in eighteenth-century commentaries was that she consistently became the person she impersonated, alleviating the strain between public and private identity but more significantly between uncertain rank and recognisable status” (Nussbaum in Engel 2009: 282-283). The confusion between Nell, the character and Nell, the performer, was possibly also a strategic ploy on the part of her promoters. By forging a fantasy identity for consumption, they thereby blurred the boundaries of authenticity and illusion (Engel 2009), and perhaps protected Stewart’s ‘real’ status as unmarried mother and sweetheart to a married man.  Stewart was also remembered in 1989 on another stamp – this time with J. C. Williamson, her employer – commemorating Australia’s theatrical history.[7] Still, Stewart and Musgrove do not acquire a public presence, side by side. Our once loved Australia’s public idol appears without the man who privately adored and idolised her, their relationship still hidden.

Nellie Stewart bangles existed as enduring artefacts at the centre of a range of social and cultural relations for over forty years. They marked the transition from single maiden to betrothed woman, from newborn child to child of God, from one birthday to another, and from sentimental memory objects into objects of mourning. They are also indicative of the Industrial Revolution’s exploitation of a number of historical events, namely the Victorian gold rushes, and the widespread and largely uncontrolled manufacture and merchandising of famous persons’ identities via objects that bore their name. The original bangle’s history is now uncovered as being much more than a signatorial feature of Stewart’s celebrity, but is revealing of a unique set of social circumstances, that manifested in a body adornment which would be emulated by thousands of fashionable women, happily unaware of the sad disguise that first bangle enacted.

In closing, this excerpt from a poem by Dorothy Hewett (1966) Legend of the Green Country is apt. Through the figure of her grandfather, it embodies the gold rush era, the working classes, the distinction between high and popular culture, and the love for Sweet Nell:

Yet sometimes in the dark I come upon him in his chair,
A book lying open on his knees, his eye turned inward,
And then he sings old songs of Bendigo and windlasses,
And tells me tales of Newport railway workers, Nellie Melba
Singing High Mass, and how he read all night in Collingwood.
Voted for Labor and fell in love with Nellie Stewart.


[1] Stewart took pity on a young man called Richard Goldsbrough Row who was desperately in love with her, and regrettably married him on 26 January, 1884. She realised her foolishness, later calling it “a girl’s mad act”, and sailed for New Zealand a few days later. This marriage was not dissolved until 1900.

[2] Before this, pinchbeck was far more common. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney holds a gold spade pin, a reflection of some of the mining-themed jewellery that was produced at the time. There were other gold rushes in the Americas and Africa in the same period. Thus, gold became more common and affordable in Britain and Europe as well.

[3] Although there was no requirement for hallmarking in Australia at that time, they would probably have born a maker’s mark if produced by a reputable jeweller. [End Page 24]

[4] And although he was a theatrical manager, or perhaps because he was, it may also be the case that Musgrove was sensitive to the bohemian and “not quite respectable” connotations of the theatre, given that both Nellie and Nancye were performers.

[5] The image of Stewart for this plaque was modelled on her niece rather than on herself, and unfortunately the date of her death is incorrect: 1932 instead of 1931. Stewart’s reality is in this instance obscured by historical mis-takes.

[6] Throughout the Victorian period roses generally meant beauty and love, although there were many variants depending upon the type of rose concerned (Bryant 2002).

[7] To appear on an Australian stamp more than once is significant and indicates that archival history, at least, has not forgotten her. Stewart’s portrait is held in the National Gallery of Victoria. [End Page 25]

References

Albrecht, Kurt (1969) 19th Century Australian Gold and Silversmiths, Melbourne: Hutchison.

‘An Australian Manager in London’, The Sketch, Nov. 17, 1897, p. 135.

Benjamin, Walter (1970) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, trans. H Zohn, Jonathon Cape, London, pp. 219–244.

Berking, Helmuth (1999) The Sociology of Giving, trans. Patrick Camiller, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Braudy, Leo (1997) [1986] ‘Introduction’, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, New York, Vintage, pp. 3-18.

Bryant, Katherine (2002) The Language of Flowers
http://home.comcast.net/~bryant.katherine/flowqr.html (accessed 15/10/06)

Cavill, Kenneth, Cocks, Graham & Grace, Jack (1992) Australian Jewellers, Roseville: CGC Gold Pty Ltd.

Chisholm, Alexander Hugh (1972) Transcript of interview recorded June, 19, Sydney: National Library of Australia.

Church Gibson, Pamela (2012) Fashion and Celebrity Culture, London, Berg.

Clark, Cathy (2003) ‘Wedding Bells’ The Myers Family History, Whangarei
http://www.myers.orcon.net.nz/wedding.html (accessed 12/02/05)

Coney, Sandra (1995) I Do – 125 Years of Weddings in New Zealand, Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett.

Cooper, Diana & Battershill, Norman (1972) Victorian Sentimental Jewellery, Newton Abbot: David and Charles.

Cooper, Jonathan (April, 2005) of Coopers of Epping Antiques, est. 1951, 14 Bridge Street, Epping, Sydney (personal conversation).

Cooper, Nora (1931) ‘Nellie Stewart at Home’, The Australian Home Beautiful, Vol. 9, No. 5, May, pp. 9-14.

Davison, Graeme – Melbourne’s Golden Mile, Melbourne: Melbourne Convention and Marketing Bureau.

De Cordova, Richard (2006) ‘The Discourse on Acting’, in P. David Marshall (ed.) The Celebrity Culture Reader, New York, Routledge, pp. 91-107.

Duveen, Geoffrey & Stride, H.G. (1962) The History of the Gold Sovereign, London: Oxford University Press.’

Dyer, Richard (1998) Stars, 2nd edition, London, British Film Institute.

Ellis, Edward (1888) Pets of the Public: A Book of Beauty, Sydney: Ellis.

Engel, Laura (2009) ‘The Muff Affair: Fashioning Celebrity in the Portraits of Late-eighteenth-century British Actresses’, Fashion Theory, Vol. 13, Issue 3, pp. 279-298.

Gere, Charlotte (1972) Victorian Jewelry Design, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Gibson, Margaret (2004) ‘Melancholy objects’, Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying, 9: 4, 285-299

Gibson, Margaret (2010) ‘Death and the Transformation of Objects and Their Value’, Thesis Eleven, 103: 54, pp. 54-64.
http://the.sagepub.com/content/103/1/54 (accessed 7/5/14) [End Page 26]

Greenaway, Kate (1884) ‘Language of Flowers’, Prints with a Past
http://www.printspast.com/selected_print.asp?PrintID=10780035&Return=language-flowers-greenaway.htm (accessed 15/10/06)

Hewett, Dorothy (1966) Legend of the Green Country
http://wawriting.library.uwa.edu.au/cgi-bin/nph-dweb/dynaweb/wawriting/hewett003/

Hume, Fergus (1886) The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Melbourne: Kemp and Boyce.

Hurley, Frank (1910 – 1962) Hurley Negative Collection
http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an23478328

Joel, Alexandra (1998) Parade: The Story of Fashion in Australia, Sydney: Harper Collins.

Kelly, Veronica (2004) ‘Beauty and the Market: Actress Postcards and their Senders in Early Twentieth-Century Australia’, New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, May, pp. 99–116.

Lipton, Martina (2011) ‘Imbricated Identity and the Thatre Star in Early Twentieth-Century Australia’, Australasian Drama Studies, April, pp. 126-147.

Maguire, Roslyn (2004) ‘Italian Jewellers in New South Wales’, Australiana, Vol. 26, No. 3.

Madow, Michael (1993) ‘Private Ownership of the Public Image: Popular Culture and Publicity Rights’, California Law Review, January 1993, 81 Calif. L. Rev. 125.
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/IPCoop/93mado2.html

Marks, Kenneth R (April 2005) of Percy Marks, est. 1899, 60-70 Elizabeth Street, Sydney (personal telephone conversation).

Marshall, P. David (1997) ‘The Meanings of the Popular Music Celebrity: The Construction of Distinctive Authenticity’, Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 150-184.

Marshall. P. David (2006) ‘Intimately intertwined in the most public way: Celebrity and journalism’, in P. David Marshall (ed.) The Celebrity Culture Reader, New York, Routledge, pp. 315 – 323.

Mason, Anita (1973) An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewellery, Berkshire: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Mauss, Marcel (1973) ‘Techniques of the Body’, Economy and Society, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 70-87.

Meyer, Franz Sales (1894) A Handbook of Ornament, London: Batsford.

‘Mirabel’ (1909a) ‘The Social Sphere’, The Observer, Auckland, Saturday, September, 4, pp. 8, 9.

‘Mirabel’ (1909b) ‘The Social Sphere’, The Observer, Auckland, Saturday, December 18, p.8.

‘Mirabel’ (1909c) ‘The Social Sphere’, The Observer, Auckland, Saturday, December 25, p.8.

‘Miss Nellie Stewart’,The Sketch, Aug, 14, 1895, p. 154.

New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime, (1909) Wednesday, 20 May, p. 204.

O’Day, Deirdre (1982) Victorian Jewellery, London: Charles Letts Books Ltd.

Power, Bryan (1995) ‘Nellie Gill Remembers’, RLHP Local Stories  http://www.rlcnews.org.au/stories/stamford_park/gill_nellie_gill_remembers.php

Pratt, Douglas (1996) A New Zealand Guide to Wedding Ceremonies and Birth Celebration (3rd Ed), Orewa: Collom Press.

Reserve Bank of Australia (2005) Museum of Australian Currency Notes
http://www.rba.gov.au/Museum/Displays/ [End Page 27]

Skill, Marjorie (1973) Sweet Nell of Old Sydney, Sydney: Urania Publishing Company.

Skill, Marjorie (1975) Postscript to a transcribed conversation with Skill, recorded 19 February, 1974, National Library of Australia.

Smith, Nellie (1913) Rose of Australia Waltz
http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-an6223227

Stewart, Nellie (1923) My Life’s Story, Sydney: John Sands Ltd.

“Sweet Nell’s” Bangle, Evening Post, Vol. CXII, Issue 55, 2 September 1931, p. 13.

Woodly, Robert (April, 2005) Pictures Staff, Mitchell Library, State Library NSW (personal conversation)

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Dr Margaret Gibson, Assoc Professor Pat Wise and Ms Sue Jarvis for their most helpful reading and detailed suggestions for revisions. I would also like to thank Chrys Spicer for escorting me to Nellie Stewart’s grave and the hospitality he showed me whilst visiting Melbourne. [End Page 28]

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Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance
by Laura Vivanco

Georgette Heyer’s “invariable answer, when asked about her private life, was to refer the questioner back to her books. You will find me, she said, in my work” (Aiken Hodge ix).[1] Although The Nonesuch (1962) is probably not Heyer’s best-known or best-loved Regency romance, there is a great deal of Heyer in this novel. Its eponymous hero, Sir Waldo Hawkridge, is “straitlaced” (234) and Heyer’s son “described her, to her amusement, as ‘not so much square as cubed’” (Aiken Hodge 41). Both Heyer and Sir Waldo were left [End Page 1] fatherless at too early an age: until George Heyer unexpectedly collapsed and died when Georgette was twenty-two he “had been by her side, advising and encouraging her, her closest ally” (Kloester, Biography 85) and Sir Waldo acknowledges that when his “father died, I was too young for my inheritance!” (16). Their fathers did, however, remain important influences on their lives. Sir Waldo’s “father, and my grandfather before him, were both considerable philanthropists” (275) and he followed them in devoting “half my fortune” (275), and a considerable proportion of his time, to charity. As for Heyer, it seems her choice of career was also shaped by family “Tradition, and upbringing” (275): her grandfather “was described by his daughter Alice as being ‘full of little pithy stories […] and very witty’” (Kloester, Biography 10) and Heyer declared that “I inherited my literary bent from my father” (Kloester, Biography, 17). Perhaps, then, Heyer, “the acknowledged Queen of the Regency romance” (Robinson 208), would be better styled its Nonesuch, “first in consequence with the ton, and of the first style of elegance” (Heyer, Nonesuch 20).[2]

As for Heyer’s historical romantic fiction, it could be said to offer her readers pleasures akin to those to be derived from the “book, or some trifle” (Nonesuch 190) which Sir Waldo gives to young Charlotte Underhill. Heyer certainly described her novels as though they were trifles, for she “referred to her own work with a persistent, broadly funny self-mockery” (Byatt, “The Ferocious” 297). She did, however, admit that her writing was “unquestionably good escapist literature, and I think I should rather like it if I were […] recovering from flu” (Aiken Hodge xii).[3] By her own assessment, then, Heyer’s romantic fiction may be considered to resemble the presents Sir Waldo brings to “amuse” (190) Charlotte Underhill during her convalescence.

The book Sir Waldo chooses for Charlotte is Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering and the value of this work is forcefully defended by Miss Ancilla Trent, who is both the heroine of The Nonesuch and “a very superior governess! […] Besides such commonplace subjects as water-colour sketching and the use of the globes, I instruct my pupils in music—both pianoforte and harp; and can speak and read French and Italian!” (87).[4] She is also “intelligent […] and had a sense of humour” (59) and this gives some weight to her opinions. When Mrs Mickleby confesses to being “an enemy to that class of literature, but I daresay that you, Miss Trent, are partial to romances” (190), Ancilla Trent retorts “When they are as well-written as this one, ma’am, most certainly!” (190). Although Heyer’s Regency romances are not “romances” of exactly the same kind as Scott’s, it seems possible that she may have intended Miss Trent’s defence of Scott’s romance to serve as a subtle rebuke to those who denigrated the quality of her writing.[5] According to A. S. Byatt, Heyer’s criticism of her own work “hid a sense that it had more real value than was acknowledged” (“The Ferocious” 297) and Jennifer Kloester has stated that

Georgette was […] prepared to acknowledge her own ability (up to a point), though any hint of self-praise or a suggestion in a letter that what she had written was good was invariably and immediately qualified or contradicted. To have publicly admitted that she thought her writing good would mean committing the unforgivable sin of vulgarity […] to Georgette’s mind a well-bred person never bragged about her own success. (Biography 324)

It would appear that Heyer, like Mrs Chartley in The Nonesuch, believed “A lady of true quality […] did not puff off her consequence: anything of that nature belonged to the [End Page 2] mushroom class!” (125). Nonetheless, Heyer would have been happy to have heard her own romances described as “well-written”: she “remembered with pleasure” that “the critic St John Ervine […] had once written about her ‘seemly English’” (Aiken Hodge 95).

Mrs Mickleby and Miss Trent’s exchange of views about romances is a very short one but it leaves the latter feeling that she has “a score to pay” (191). An opportunity to do so is soon provided by a “dissected map” (190) which, like Guy Mannering, is a gift from Sir Waldo to Charlotte. Since “The Misses Mickleby had not seen one […] Miss Trent […] advised their mama, very kindly, to procure one for them. ‘So educational!’ she said. ‘And quite unexceptionable!’” (190-91). The use of the map to avenge the criticisms made of romances perhaps subtly suggests that some romances should also be considered both “educational” and “quite unexceptionable!” It is certainly the case that in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (1950) this latter phrase is used to express approval of another of Scott’s novels: Hubert Rivenhall “went into raptures over that capital novel, Waverley” (50) and Miss Wraxton, whose family is “very particular in all matters of correct conduct” (11), “graciously said that she believed the work in question to be, for a novel, quite unexceptionable” (50). Heyer may have been subtly claiming an “unexceptionable” pedigree for her own historical romances by placing them in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, a respected author of historical fiction. She may also have considered their subject matter “quite unexceptionable” inasmuch as they have “no sex in them” (Laski 285). They are not entirely devoid of either passion or discreet references to sexual activity but Heyer was fiercely determined that they should not be confused with “salacious novels” (Kloester, Biography 278): she was repulsed by a film version of her The Reluctant Widow because “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith” (Kloester, Biography 278) and, angered by some of the covers Pan produced for the paperback editions of her novels, she protested “against any suggestion that a book written by me will be found to contain lurid sex-scenes. I find this nauseating” (Kloester, Biography 346).

In addition to having a claim to be considered “unexceptionable” in both subject matter and literary status, The Nonesuch may also be considered “educational.” Education is an important theme in the novel, and not simply because its heroine is a governess and its hero is a “social mentor” (79) who is quite explicitly described as teaching others: “to Julian Sir Waldo was […] the big cousin who had taught him to ride, drive, shoot, fish, and box; a fount of wisdom” (8). Such things as a conscience and a sense of responsibility are not acquired in quite the same way as these practical skills but Heyer implies that they, too, must be taught and learned. In Cotillion (1953), an earlier novel of Heyer’s, Freddy Standen asked “How the deuce would you know the right way to go on if you was never taught anything but the wrong way?” (266-67). In The Nonesuch, Tiffany and Laurie serve as demonstrations of the negative consequences of a lack of a suitable education. Tiffany has “been ruined by indulgence” (27) and Miss Trent observes that “it is never of the least use to appeal to her sense of what is right, because I don’t think she has any—or any regard for the sensibilities of others either” (42). Laurie can also be considered a case study in how indulgent treatment, no matter how well-intentioned, can spoil a character. As Sir Waldo frankly acknowledges, “I ruined Laurie” (16) by inadvertently “encouraging him in the conviction that he would never be run quite off his legs because his wealthy cousin would infallibly rescue him from utter disaster” (156-57) and “By the time I’d acquired enough sense to know what it signified to him, the mischief had been done” (16). Sir Waldo [End Page 3] therefore feels responsible for “Laurie’s idleness, his follies, his reckless extravagance […]. By his easy, unthinking generosity he had sapped whatever independence Laurie might have had, imposing no check upon his volatility” (156).

Although lessons, particularly in bad habits, can be imparted without much effort, reversing the ill effects of those lessons is more difficult and may require a combination of knowledge and cunning. At the beginning of The Nonesuch we learn that Sir Waldo, now older and more sensible, has attempted to trick Laurie into adopting a new lifestyle by telling him he will no longer pay his debts. Sir Waldo may not mean it, “but […] Laurie thinks I do” (15). Sir Waldo’s plan depends for its success on his knowledge that “Laurie won’t go back on his word” (17) and that “Laurie is no more a gamester than I am!’ […] All he wishes to do is to sport a figure in the world. Do believe that I know him much better than you do” (17).

Another of Sir Waldo’s plans also requires cunning and knowledge in order to succeed: having reached the conclusion that neither Tiffany’s “disposition nor her breeding made her an eligible wife for young Lord Lindeth” (79), Sir Waldo sets to work to teach his cousin the truth about Tiffany’s personality. Since he is aware that “Julian might ignore, and indignantly resent, warnings uttered by even so revered a mentor as his Top-of-the-Trees cousin, but he would not disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes” (80-81), Sir Waldo proceeds to provoke Tiffany into “betray[ing] the least amiable side of her disposition” (78). He does so with such skill that Julian remains unaware “that Waldo’s lazy complaisance masked a grim determination to thrust a spoke into the wheel of his courtship” (78).

Ancilla Trent, who owes “her present position to the knowledge, which had made it possible for her, in the past, to manage the wayward Beauty rather more successfully than had anyone else” (25), employs equally “unorthodox” (43) methods to educate her pupil:

when informed of Tiffany’s determination to marry into the peerage [she] not only accepted this as a praiseworthy ambition, but entered with gratifying enthusiasm into various schemes for furthering it. As these were solely concerned with the preparation of the future peeress for her exalted estate, Tiffany was induced to pay attention to lessons in Deportment, to practise her music, and even, occasionally, to read a book. (28)

In addition, she attempts to teach Tiffany to give at least the impression of modesty by insisting, “without the least hesitation” (23), that “whenever you boast of your beauty you seem to lose some of it” (22-23).

Unlike Miss Trent, Heyer was not the grand-daughter of “a Professor of Greek” (86) but her father was “a natural and inspiring teacher” (Aiken Hodge 3) and her younger brother Frank “became a schoolmaster, teaching for twenty-one contented years at Downside” (Aiken Hodge 4). Heyer herself can perhaps be said to have employed subtle educational methods which “masked” the didactic elements of her novels beneath highly entertaining plots. Jane Aiken Hodge has suggested that Heyer “did her best to conceal her […] stern moral code behind the mask of romantic comedy, and succeeded, so far as her great fan public was concerned” (xi). The comic aspects of Heyer’s novels enable them to appeal to those who, like Tiffany, would be “Bored by the reproaches and the homilies of […] a parcel of old dowdies” (27). Nonetheless, in The Nonesuch there is clear authorial [End Page 4] approval of Patience Chartley, “a modest girl” (21) “so free from jealousy that she wished very much that Tiffany would not say such things as must surely repel her most devout admirers” (22), who is also capable of putting herself in considerable danger to rescue a “slum-brat from under the wheels of a carriage, with the greatest pluck and presence of mind!” (239). She is contrasted with the vain and selfish Tiffany and since both receive their just deserts, they serve as examples of both the right and the wrong way for a young woman “to go on in society” (202). The Nonesuch can therefore be considered “didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living” (Lutz 2) rather than “amatory fiction” which “cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally” (Lutz 2).[6]

It should be noted, however, that the lines between the two types of fiction are somewhat blurred by the ubiquity of “the enemy lover” who, “Contrary to all expectation […] appears in […] didactic fiction” (Lutz 3), albeit when he is the hero of a work of didactic love fiction he is “set up as dangerous only to then be reformed in the end” (3). Heyer divided her romantic heroes into two categories: “her hero, Mark II [is] ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip,’ as opposed to her Mark I hero who is ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper.’” (Aiken Hodge 49). The Mark I hero is of the “enemy lover” type and, as Heyer made very clear, he is not truly marriage material:

my youthful fans […] seem (from their letters) to be convinced that my Ideal Man is the prototype of what I call the Heyer Hero, No. I pattern—a horrid type, whom no woman in the possession of her senses could endure for more than half a day. (Aiken Hodge 197)

The Nonesuch, with its Mark II hero, is therefore fully didactic in nature since it does not encourage “youthful fans” to hanker after a type of man who, as Cotillion’s Freddy Standen says of his rakish cousin Jack, “wouldn’t make you a good husband” (Heyer 333).[7] Instead it provides the reader with both a youthful and a more mature version of the Mark II hero and outlines the characteristics required in a woman who wishes to be a good match for him. Tiffany is deemed unsuitable because “she hasn’t a particle of that sweetness of disposition which is in your cousin, and nothing but misery could be the outcome of a marriage between them!” (91). By contrast, Julian and “The Rector’s well-brought up daughter” (134) Patience are, in Miss Trent’s opinion, “very well-suited to one another” (134) and Sir Waldo, too, is “much inclined to think that […] Julian had found exactly the wife to suit him” (197-98). Heyer never became as involved in her readers’ love lives as Sir Waldo is in Julian’s, but the owner of one romance review website recounts that

a commenter at the site who goes by the name DreadPirateRachel told me, “The first romances I ever read were by Georgette Heyer. They taught me to hold out for a partner who would share my intellectual passions and respect me for the person I am. I’m glad I paid attention, because I ended up with a husband who is funny, kind, supportive, and adoring.” (Wendell 196)

Clearly Heyer’s novels have helped at least one person find exactly the spouse to suit her.

The most obviously didactic aspect of Heyer’s romantic fiction, however, is her use of historical detail. As Karin E. Westman has observed, [End Page 5]

Her Regency romances […] made Heyer a household name and continue to grant her lasting narrative power within contemporary culture. […] Heyer’s presence on the cultural landscape […] is not even limited to the literary: her name is frequently invoked to conjure for the general reader the Regency period as a whole […], the mention of “Georgette Heyer” guarantees that readers have in mind the leisured upper-class social world of Regency England that Heyer created. (167-68)

Some of those readers may resemble Tiffany, who acquired no more than “a smattering of learning” (Nonesuch 28) despite all of Ancilla Trent’s efforts. Penny Jordan, an author of contemporary Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, appears to have depicted at least one reader of this type in Past Loving (1992). During a scene set at a charity event with a Regency theme,

Holly […] glanced briefly at the outrageously décolleté dress that Patsy was wearing. The chiffon skirt of the dress was so fine that it was almost possible to see right through it.

‘That’s how they wore them in those days,’ Patsy told her defensively […]. ‘They used to damp down their skirts so that they would cling to their bodies.’

‘I know,’ Holly agreed drily. ‘I read Georgette Heyer as well, you know.’ (54)

Other readers have learned rather more: Jennifer Kloester, for example, has acknowledged that Heyer’s Regency novels “beguiled my leisure hours, affording me enormous pleasure, but also giving me a great deal of useful information about the English Regency period” (Regency World xv). It was not until she began to write Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, however, that Kloester realised

just how much accurate and factual information there was in the novels […] and, although I’d always been under the impression that Heyer was meticulous in her communication of the period, I hadn’t appreciated the scope of her research, nor the degree to which she immersed herself in the Regency era. (xv)

Aiken Hodge states that Heyer was

so deeply grounded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that she could date a book effortlessly by the most casual of references to contemporary events. She hardly ever uses an actual flat-footed date. […] It is almost a game that she plays with the reader. (65)

Dating the novels can thus become an interesting and educational challenge.

The first of the references which helps to date The Nonesuch is to be found in Sir Waldo’s questions to Miss Trent regarding her brother being “engaged at Waterloo” and currently “with the Army of Occupation” (85). Following the defeat of Napoleon at [End Page 6] Waterloo, “Article V of the definitive treaty between France and the allies, signed on 20 November 1815, […] set up a multinational occupation force” (Veve 99) and

The arrangements to end the occupation were signed at the conference of Aix-la-Chapelle on 9 October 1818. All allied forces were to be removed by 30 November […]. The allied withdrawal did, in fact, begin almost immediately, and all British forces were disembarked in England within a few days of the planned departure date. (Veve 106-07)

Since we are told that “the event which started the succession of gaieties which made that summer memorable was Mrs Underhill’s informal ball” (76) which took place on “a warm June night” (74), and the Army of Occupation did not yet exist in June 1815, one may assume that The Nonesuch is set in either 1816, 1817, or 1818. The precise year in which the novel is set can be identified thanks to Sir Waldo’s mention of “Lady Spencer—the one that died a couple of years ago, and was mad after educating the poor” (275). This Lady Spencer is not an invention of Heyer’s but was the wife of the first Earl Spencer and

one of the first in the higher classes to adopt Sunday-schools; and her name will be found among the bountiful supporters of many of the most useful plans originated in her day, for ameliorating the condition of the poor […] she expired, after a very short illness, on the 18th March, 1814, in her seventy-sixth year. (Le Marchant 6)

If Sir Waldo’s memory is accurate, the events in The Nonesuch must be taking place in 1816, a few months and a “couple of years” after Lady Spencer’s death.

Heyer was truly interested in getting her historical details right, had “her own […] library of about 1000 historical books” (Byatt, “The Ferocious” 300) and only occasionally made mistakes.[8] Although in general, when

Reading her books, one remembers with surprise that the post-Waterloo years in which many of them are set were ones of appalling depression and poverty in England, with ex-servicemen begging in the streets and a very real danger of revolution […] in fact […] Georgette Heyer does occasionally look below the smiling surface of things. (Aiken Hodge 88)

Since Sir Waldo’s philanthropic efforts are focused on “collecting as many of the homeless waifs you may find in any city […] and rearing them to become respectable citizens” (275), The Nonesuch is one of the novels in which Heyer looks “below the smiling surface of things.” In it Leeds is presented as both a commercial centre which is a suitable destination for “the tabbies [who] spend the better part of their time jauntering into Leeds to do some shopping” (256) and as a potential source of “homeless waifs”:

Leeds was a thriving and rapidly expanding town, numbering amongst its public edifices two Cloth Halls (one of which was of impressive dimensions, and was divided into six covered streets); five Churches; a Moot Hall; the Exchange (a handsome building of octangular design); an Infirmary; a House [End Page 7] of Recovery for persons afflicted with infectious diseases; a Charity school, clothing and educating upwards of a hundred children […]; a number of cloth and carpet manufactories; several cotton mills, and foundries; inns innumerable; and half-a-dozen excellent posting-houses. The buildings were for the most part of red brick, beginning to be blackened by the smoke of industry; and while none could be thought magnificent there were several Squares and Parades which contained private residences of considerable elegance. There were some very good shops and silk warehouses. (131-32)

The accuracy of this description can be ascertained by a comparison with the details given in John Ryley’s Leeds Guide (1806), John Bigland’s Yorkshire volume of The Beauties of England and Wales (1812), and Edward Baines’s Directory, General and Commercial, of the Town & Borough of Leeds (1817).[9]

Heyer was certainly familiar with works of this type since they are mentioned in the texts of her novels on more than one occasion. In Cotillion Kitty Charing acquires “The Picture of London, and it says here that it is a correct guide to all the Curiosities, Amusements, Exhibitions, Public Establishments, and Remarkable Objects in and near London, made for the use of Strangers, Foreigners, and all Persons who are not intimately acquainted with the Metropolis” (141). Kitty is quoting here from the extended title of a guide which actually existed (Picture) and which was reprinted many times in the early nineteenth century. In Lady of Quality (1972) Corisande Stinchcombe observes that Farley Castle is “a place any visitor to Bath ought to visit, because of the chapel, which is very interesting on—on account of its relics of—of mortality and antiquity!” (61) and she is promptly accused of “having ‘got all that stuff’ out of the local guidebook” (61). Her recommendation and description are indeed rather similar to the ones in John Feltham’s A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1815) in which it is stated that “Farley Castle, six miles from Bath, […] deserves a visit; particularly on account of its curious chapel, with some remarkable reliques of mortality and antiquity” (66).

Engraving of the "Dropping Well" from the Yorkshire volume of The Beauties of England... by John Bigland.

Bigland’s work contains an engraving of what he calls the “Dropping Well” at Knaresborough which may have formed the inspiration for the one spotted by The Nonesuch’s Lord Lindeth in Leeds: “A picture hanging in the window of a print-shop caught his eye; he recognized the subject, which was the Dripping Well” (Heyer 136). Heyer’s [End Page 8] “Dripping Well” must be the same as Bigland’s “Dropping Well” since it can be found in Knaresborough (Heyer 91) and Bigland states that

The walk along the margin of the river, from the dropping well to the bridge, is extremely delightful. […] The precipitous rocks which run along the north side of the river, are not less than a hundred feet in height. At the bottom […] are many dwellings, scooped out of the rock, and inhabited from time immemorial […]. The most remarkable of these, is that called the Rock-house, a large cavern, supposed to have been the retreat of some of those banditti, who, in former times, infested the neighbouring forest. (642-43)

Some of this information appears to have made its way into The Nonesuch since Lord Lindeth “told us of the wild, ragged rocks, and the cavern which was once the lair of bandits” (Heyer 91).

Heyer’s inclusion of Leeds’ charitable institutions in her description of the town hints at the social problems created by rapid industrial expansion.[10] She reveals them even more vividly via a minor character, a “ragged urchin” (136), who steals an apple and has to be reassured by Patience Chartley that he will not be handed over to “the beadle (an official of whom he seemed to stand in terror” (138). Ryley describes the beadle, along with the Chief Constable, as “personages who are, to vulgar thieves, as terrific as the Chief Justice himself” (89). Heyer’s

urchin hails from the slums: either in the eastern part of the town, where the dyeing-houses and most of the manufactories are situated, or on the south bank of the river. […] So far as I am aware there is no epidemic disease rife there at the moment, but most of the dwellings are little better than hovels, and there is a degree of squalor which makes it excessively imprudent for you […] to enter them. (145)

Once again, Heyer’s description is congruent with that provided by contemporary sources. Bigland observes that “On the eastern side, the town falls into a deep valley, through which runs a rivulet, having on its banks a great number of dying houses. […], on the banks of the abovementioned rivulet, the houses are mean, and the streets and lanes dirty, crooked, and irregular […]. The southern edge of the town […] is almost equally disagreeable” (775).[11] For his part Ryley comments that in the families of women who work in the large factories “we find an offensive neglect of cleanliness, a total disregard of frugality, and every appearance of the most squalid poverty; the children are dirty, diseased, and in rags” (102). He concludes that it “remains for the philanthropist […] to apply correctives, and more especially to apply assiduously to the forming of the minds of the rising generation to habits of virtue and religion” (102).

Heyer, like the philanthropic Sir Waldo, has had an effect on “the rising generation.” Pamela Regis goes as far as to claim that Heyer’s “influence is felt in every historical romance novel written since 1921, particularly in the Regency romance novel. Heyer is the mother of this kind of romance” (125). Heyer’s work is in some respects comparable to Sir Waldo’s: he has for many years been engaged in “collecting as many […] homeless waifs […] as I could, and rearing them to become respectable citizens. […] The important thing is to [End Page 9] enter them to the right trades” (Nonesuch 275). As Sir Waldo admits, “we’ve had our failures, but not many” (275) and although Heyer was horrified by instances of blatant plagiarism of her novels, on the whole the authors she inspired might be described as “respectable citizens” of the society of romance authors.[12] Prominent among them are Stephanie Laurens, for whom Heyer’s These Old Shades “is unquestionably the one that has most strongly contributed to, not just what I write today, but the fact that I write at all” (ii) and Mary Balogh, who first encountered Heyer when she picked up a copy of Frederica:

I was enchanted, enthralled. I could not bear for the book to end. I started gathering about me and devouring every other book she had written. Then I discovered that other people were writing the same kind of books—Regency romances. To say that that one book changed my life would not be overstating the case at all. (24)

For Mary Jo Putney, another author of Regency-set romances, Heyer’s influence, albeit exerted indirectly, was also decisive: “discovering the modern Regencies inspired by her books was the first step on my path to authordom” (ii). Directly or indirectly, then, Georgette Heyer’s novels have introduced some authors to what would become, for them, “the right trade.”

To this day Heyer’s attention to historical details sets a high standard for others to follow. Linda Fildew, Senior Editor of Mills & Boon Historical/Harlequin Historical romances, has stated that

Georgette Heyer is known and respected for her accuracy and in our historical line at Harlequin we certainly ask that authors do their research. The process is such an engrossing, enjoyable one that we know the challenge for some authors is what to put in and what fascinating facts to leave out.

Heyer herself left out some “fascinating facts” about the Regency period; as Aiken Hodge observed, “Her Regency world is a very carefully selected, highly artificial one” (87-88). Although Heyer worked hard to ensure her novels were historically accurate, her depiction of the Regency is coloured by her own beliefs. For example, as already mentioned, she did not wish her novels to be considered “salacious.” In addition, it seems highly unlikely that Heyer, who “consistently criticised the feminist stance, and could be vehement in her condemnation of women in business” (Kloester, Biography 134), would ever have considered creating heroines such as those to be found in Paula Marshall’s Dear Lady Disdain (1995) and Michelle Styles’s His Unsuitable Viscountess (2012), who respectively run a bank and a foundry. These two Harlequin Mills & Boon authors had, nonetheless, done their research. As Styles notes, there were

successful Regency businesswomen—women like Eleanor Coade, whose factory made the famous Coade Stone statues […] and Sarah Child Villiers, Lady Jersey, who inherited Child and Co from her grandfather […]. Lady Jersey served as the senior partner from 1806-1867. She never allowed the men in her life to take an active part in the bank, and retained the right to hire and fire all the other partners. […] In 1812 in England fourteen women [End Page 10] literally held licences to print money because they were senior partners in a variety of private banks. The two wealthiest bankers in London in the 1820s were the Peeresses—Lady Jersey and the Duchess of St Alban’s, who was the senior partner at Coutts. (2)

Heyer’s personal views certainly affected her depiction of class and racial differences. It might be said of her that “the mushroom-class” was one which she, like Lord Lindeth, “instinctively avoided” (The Nonesuch 64). In her biography of Heyer, Kloester states that “Georgette’s own view of herself was as someone who was well-bred and most comfortable in upper- and upper-middle-class circles” (133) and “Her notion of class and breeding underpins all of her writing […] she held to the idea of a natural social hierarchy” (132). This was certainly not a view exclusive to Heyer: Helen Hughes, in her study of “historical romances written between 1890 and 1990” (8), observes that one of the “themes which remain[ed] the same throughout the century […] is the portrayal of class. In the texts […] upper-class characters are seen as belonging to what amounts to a different species from lower-class ones” (136-37). In Heyer’s oeuvre the clearest example of this portrayal is perhaps to be found in These Old Shades (1926). Here the cross-dressing heroine’s “gentle birth,” which “One can tell […] from his speech, and his delicate hands and face” (12), is more readily discerned than her sex while the true parentage of the peasant-born boy who has taken her place is betrayed by the fact that he is “A boorish cub […] with the soul of a farmer” (51) who has it as his “ambition to have a farm under his own management” (37). The young man’s supposed paternal uncle does not suspect the deception, but he is nonetheless certain that the youth cannot be the product of pure aristocratic bloodlines: “there must be bad blood in Marie! My beautiful nephew did not get his boorishness from us. Well, I never thought that Marie was of the real nobility” (51). The effects of descent from “good […] yeoman-stock” (47) are noted in A Civil Contract (1961): Jenny Chawleigh tells Lady Nassington that “my mother was a farmer’s daughter” (115), is told in reply that “you have the look of it” (116), and her subsequent enjoyment of country living reveals that she “owed more to her mother’s ancestry than […] she herself had known” (241). The idea that particular personality traits could be ascribed to entire social groups also underpins Heyer’s depiction of “Mr Goldhanger, […] a literary caricature of an avaricious moneylender whose antecedents were undoubtedly Dickens’ Fagin and Shakespeare’s Shylock” (Kloester, Biography 368). Mr Goldhanger appears in The Grand Sophy, in which he is described as “a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer” (190) and “The instinct of his race made him prefer, whenever possible, to maintain a manner of the utmost urbanity” (191, emphasis added).

As with the Nonesuch’s gift of a “dissected map […] all made of little pieces which fit into each other, to make a map of Europe” (190), “The impression given of ‘history’ in these novels can be summed up as an imaginative creation, a selective version of the past” (Hughes 139). The nineteenth-century dissected map, “born in the same workshops as its more formal sibling, the imperial map” (Norcia 5), offered children “narratives of power and authority which are incumbent in the business of building both nation and empire” (2). Such maps were not simply neutral depictions of the world: they were “often strategically colored or marked to catalog the resources and opportunities for imperial inscription; titles reflect the moving horizon of imperial ambitions” (10). Heyer’s historical romances are also shaped by ideologies which ensure that, despite the historical accuracy of many of their [End Page 11] details, they will not be universally accepted as “quite unexceptionable.” Mrs Chartley cautioned Miss Trent that

Sir Waldo belongs to a certain set which is considered to be the very height of fashion. In fact, he is its leader […]. You must know, perhaps better than I do, that the manners and too often the conduct of those who are vulgarly called Top-of-the-Trees are not governed by quite the same principles which are the rule in more modest circles. (207)

Heyer is the Nonesuch of Regency romance: like Sir Waldo she led her “set,” conforming to such high standards of historical accuracy that she too can be considered a “paragon” (20). Nonetheless, neither Heyer nor Sir Waldo embodied “perfection” (20) and the manners and conduct endorsed by Heyer’s novels are not governed by quite the same principles as those which are the rule in many more modern circles.


[1] I am very grateful for the assistance I have received from: Linda Fildew at Harlequin Mills & Boon; Louise-Ann Hand, Information Librarian: Local and Family History Library, Leeds City Council, who was a fount of useful information about the streets and inns of early nineteenth-century Leeds; Greta Meredith, Assistant Librarian, Thoresby Society, who pointed me in the direction of useful primary and secondary sources about Leeds; and Harlequin Mills & Boon author Michelle Styles.

[2] Although Lillian S. Robinson qualified the description of Heyer as “Queen of the Regency romance” by adding that “later paperback editions make some such peculiar claim” (208), it is a claim which has persisted down the years: in 1983 Rosemary Guiley observed that “By the time she died […] Georgette had long reigned as the Queen of the Regency romance” (190) and the backcover copy of the Arrow (2006) edition of Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography of Heyer states that “An internationally bestselling phenomenon and queen of the Regency romance, Georgette Heyer is one of the most beloved historical novelists of our time.”

[3] A. S. Byatt and Rachel Law, Lady Ellenborough, have offered support for the last two of these assessments: the former described Heyer as a “superlatively good writer of honourable escape” (“Honourable” 258) while the latter declared that “Georgette Heyer […] was the only reading for a hospital bed” (Aiken Hodge 209).

[4] Jennifer Kloester has noted that Guy Mannering is “the story which so enthralled Mrs Underhill and her family in The Nonesuch” (Regency World 342). Although it is not explicitly named in Heyer’s novel, enough details are given by Mrs Underhill to enable reliable identification. She describes the book that “Miss Trent reads […] after dinner to us” as being “so lifelike that I couldn’t get to sleep last night for wondering whether that nasty Glossin would get poor Harry Bertram carried off by the smugglers again, or whether the old witch is going to save him—her and the tutor” (190).

[5] Regarding the term “romance,” Clive Bloom notes that “Before the First World War there was simply too little popular fiction to need categorising, almost all popular writing being designated with the vague title of ‘romance’, which had not itself become a term used exclusively for women’s fiction” (86). Heyer is known to have used the word to [End Page 12] describe her own work: in 1955, while writing Sprig Muslin, she mentioned her need to “turn out another bleeding romance” (Aiken Hodge 112).

[6] Deborah Lutz acknowledges her debt to Ros Ballaster who, in Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740, writes that “The early eighteenth century […] saw a split between female-authored pious and didactic love fiction, stressing the virtues of chastity or sentimental marriage, and erotic fiction by women, with its voyeuristic attention to the combined pleasures and ravages of seduction” (33).

[7] Jack Westruther is very much in the Mark I mould. Freddy himself is a Mark II hero, and Kitty has by this stage in the novel come to recognise their relative merits:

‘I was never in love with Jack in my life! […] I thought I was, but I know now it was no such thing. He seemed just like all the heroes in books, but I soon found that he is not like them at all.’

‘No,’ agreed Freddy. ‘I’m afraid I ain’t either, Kit.’

‘Of course you are not! No one is! And if somebody was, I should think him quite odious!’ (333)

[8] Kloester reports “an uncharacteristic error” (Biography 142) in Regency Buck:

In describing (in loving detail) the minaret-domed exterior and the magnificent Chinoiserie interior of the Pavilion, Georgette described a building which did not yet exist in that form. […]. While it remains the fiction writer’s prerogative to adapt history to suit the needs of a story, this had never been Georgette’s approach. Her mistake in Regency Buck came from her reading of the limited source material […]. Georgette made very few mistakes in her historical novels and the discovery of an error always caused her considerable distress. (142-43).

Another is noted by Aiken Hodge:

When Frederica began to come out in Woman’s Journal a reader pointed out a rare error. Researching Felix’s beloved engineering works at the London Library, Georgette Heyer had been misled by a reference to an iron foundry in Soho and placed it in London instead of Birmingham. (168)

A minor error of a slightly different nature can be found in The Nonesuch. The shopping party made up of Tiffany, Patience and Ancilla “alighted from the carriage at the King’s Arms” (Heyer 131), and they return there to eat “cold meats, fruit, jellies and creams” in a “private parlour” (132) hired by Lord Lindeth. Later in the novel, however, the King’s Arms seems to have metamorphosed into a rather different area of the royal body, for Tiffany coerces Laurence into taking her to “the King’s Head” (248) and they are “ushered into the same parlour which Lindeth had hired for his memorable nuncheon-party” (249). Both the King’s Arms and the King’s Head are listed in early nineteenth-century sources. According to Baines’s 1817 Directory, the King’s Head was to be found in Kirkgate (195). The King’s Arms is one of the Leeds inns (Cooke 33, 40) included in “An Itinerary of all the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in the West Riding of Yorkshire in which are Included the Stages, [End Page 13] Inns, and Gentlemen’s Seats” (Cooke 17). It is also included in Baines’s Directory, in the list of “Inns, Taverns, &c. in the Borough of Leeds” (194) which mentions that it is to be found on “Lower head row” (195) and had as its proprietor an H. Dawson (195). Since “Lower Headrow (today known just as the Headrow) […] was located at the northern/top part of Briggate” (Hand) and “Briggate […] has historically been, and indeed still is, the main shopping street in Leeds” (Hand), the shopping party could easily have left the King’s Arms, walked along “Lower head row” until they reached Briggate, and then “set forth on foot down the main shopping street” (Heyer Nonesuch 131).

[9] Ryley begins his survey of Leeds’s public buildings by describing its “five Churches of the established religion” (20), and “From the description of the edifices approprited to the exercise of religious worship, the transition is natural to those devoted to its best fruit—Charity” (43), including the Infirmary, House of Recovery and Charity School. He also describes the White Cloth Hall (57), the Mixed Cloth Hall with its “six long streets or aisles” (57), the Moot Hall (63), the Exchange, which he deems “a beautiful building, on an octagan [sic] form” (57), the cloth factories (103-04), cotton mills (104), foundries (104-05), squares and parades (67-68). Baines’s Directory, in addition to containing descriptions of the White Cloth Hall (29), the Mixed Cloth-Hall (28), “The Exchange, […] an octagon building, adjoining this Cloth Hall” (28), the churches (24-25), the Moot-Hall (23), the General Infirmary (31), the House of Recovery “intended for the reception of persons attacked by infectious fevers” (31) and the Charity School (35-36), provides a long list of “Inns, Taverns, &c. in the Borough of Leeds” (194). Bigland describes the Mixed Cloth Hall’s “six covered streets” (785), mentions that there are “carpet manufactories,” “cotton mills” and “founderies” (787) and observes that Leeds is “in general well built, almost entirely of brick” (775), although “the western part displays the greatest degree of elegance. In this quarter is a spacious square environed with handsome brick houses […]. Park Square is also composed of elegant modern houses” (777). Bigland also notes that at the Charity School “70 boys are taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, and 50 girls reading, writing, and knitting” (784). Ryley does not give the precise number of children at the school (51-52). Baines’s Directory, published in 1817, a year after Sir Waldo’s fictional visit to the town, relates that the Charity School had “been lately rebuilt, in the Gothic style, and is intended in future solely for the reception of girls. The boys have been removed to the National School” (36). No publication date is given for G. A. Cooke’s Topography of Great Britain but the archive which makes it available online dates it to 1820 and in the text itself Cooke comments that in Leeds “New buildings even in the latter end of the summer of 1819, were erecting, and excited the appearance of a town in a thriving state” (186). This would appear to suggest that Cooke visited Leeds during the summer of 1819. His statement that “The charity school instructs seventy boys and fifty girls in reading and knitting” (183) agrees with Bigland’s 1812 work rather than with the 1817 Directory. His comments regarding the Charity School cannot be regarded as entirely reliable, however, since his description of Leeds often appears to repeat Bigland verbatim. For example, Bigland states that Leeds is “one of the most commercial and opulent towns in Yorkshire” (775) and Cooke uses precisely the same words (179).

[10] Ryley states in his Guide that “Within the last thirty years the town has increased to more than double its number of inhabitants, and it is annually augmenting in its dimensions” (19). According to Cooke, “In 1811 the population of Leeds was 62,534 persons, an increase of nearly ten thousand since the census of 1801” (185). Cooke would [End Page 14] appear to be giving the total for “the town and parish of Leeds” (Bigland 789), not just the town of Leeds itself. Ryley sets the total population of the town in 1801 at 30,669 (118), a figure accepted by Steven Burt and Kevin Grady in their modern history of Leeds: “Its population of 17,117 in 1775 had mushroomed to 30,669 by 1801. By 1811 another 5,000 had been added, and in 1821 the total had reached 48,603” (95). Bigland includes the figures quoted by Cooke and those given by Ryley (789).

[11] This is another passage which Cooke includes almost verbatim in his work (179-80).

[12] Regarding those who are alleged to have plagiarised Heyer’s novels, Aiken Hodge mentions that “In the spring of 1950, a letter from a fan drew her [Heyer’s] attention to a series of books by a successful romantic novelist […]. When Georgette Heyer read the books in question, she found so obvious a debt to her own work that she seriously considered filing a suit for plagiarism” (80). Kloester identifies the author in question as Barbara Cartland (Biography 281). In the early sixties Heyer’s attention was drawn to another suspected case of plagiarism, this time involving Kathleen Lindsay (Kloester, Biography 335) and she wrote that “It makes me feel quite sick to know that another slug is crawling over my work” (Aiken Hodge 139). [End Page 15]

Works Cited

Aiken Hodge, Jane. The Private World of Georgette Heyer. 1984. London: Arrow, 2006.

Baines, Edward. Directory, General and Commercial, of the Town & Borough of Leeds, for 1817, containing an alphabetical list of the merchants, manufacturers, tradesmen, and inhabitants in general … to which is prefixed, a brief but comprehensive history of the borough, containing a variety of useful and interesting information; with a map of the country ten miles round Leeds. Leeds: Edward Baines, 1817. http://www.historicaldirectories.org/hd/lookup.asp?dn=LUL19003.

Ballaster, Ros. Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740. 1992. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Balogh, Mary. “Do It Passionately or Not at All.” North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1999. 24-28.

Bigland, John. The Beauties of England and Wales: or, Original Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County. Vol. XVI. Yorkshire. London: J. Harris; Longman and Co.; J. Walker; R Baldwin; Sherwood and Co.; J. and J. Cundee; B. and R. Crosby and Co.; J. Cuthell; J. and J. Richardson; Cadell and Davies; C. and J. Rivington; and G. Cowie and Co., 1812. http://books.google.com/books?id=OKMMAAAAIAAJ and http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101073814996.

Bloom, Clive. Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Burt, Steven, and Kevin Grady. The Illustrated History of Leeds. 1994. Derby: Breedon Books, 2002.

Byatt, A. S. “An Honourable Escape: Georgette Heyer.” Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991. 258-65.

—. “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” Sunday Times Magazine 5 Oct. 1975: 28-38. Rpt. In Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective. Ed. Mary Fahnestock-Thomas. Saraland, AL: PrinnyWorld, 2001. 289-303.

Cooke, G. A. Topography of Great Britain, or, British Traveller’s Pocket Directory; Being an Accurate and Comprehensive Topographical and Statistical Description of All the Counties of England, Scotland, and Wales, with the Adjacent Islands: Illustrated with Maps of the Counties, which Form a Complete British Atlas. Vol. XXI. containing Yorkshire. London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones. No date. http://www.archive.org/details/topographyofgrea21cook.

Feltham, John. A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places, with a Description of the Lakes, a Sketch of a Tour in Wales, and various Itineraries, Illustrated with Maps and Views. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815. http://books.google.com/books?id=NQ4HAAAAQAAJ.

Fildew, Linda. “Heyer’s Influence.” Email to the author. 7 Aug. 2012.

Guiley, Rosemary. Love Lines: The Romance Reader’s Guide to Printed Pleasures. New York: Facts on File, 1983.

Hand, Louise-Ann. “Re: Briggate.” Email to the author. 13 Oct. 2009.

Heyer, Georgette. 1961. A Civil Contract. London: Pan, 1973.

—. 1953. Cotillion. London: Pan, 1966.

—. 1972. Lady of Quality. London: Pan, 1973. [End Page 16]

—. 1950. The Grand Sophy. London: Arrow, 2004.

—. 1962. The Nonesuch. London: Pan, 1975.

—. 1926. These Old Shades. London: Pan, 1962.

Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. London: Routledge, 1993.

Jordan, Penny. Past Loving. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1992.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. London: Heinemann, 2011.

—. 2005. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. London: Arrow, 2008.

Laski, Marghanita. “The Appeal of Georgette Heyer.” The Times 1 Oct. 1970: 16. Rpt. in Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective. Ed. Mary Fahnestock-Thomas. Saraland, AL: PrinnyWorld, 2001. 283-86.

Laurens, Stephanie. Foreword. These Old Shades. By Georgette Heyer. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 2003. i-iv.

Le Marchant, Denis. Memoir of John Charles, Viscount Althorp, Third Earl Spencer. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1876. http://www.archive.org/details/memoirofjohnchar00lemauoft.

Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Norcia, Megan A. “Puzzling Empire: Early Puzzles and Dissected Maps as Imperial Heuristics.” Children’s Literature 37 (2009): 1-32.

Picture. The Picture of London for 1803. London: R. Phillips, 1803. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009711169.

Putney, Mary Jo. Foreword. The Nonesuch. By Georgette Heyer. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 2000. i-iv.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Robinson, Lillian S. “On Reading Trash.” Sex, Class, & Culture. 1978. New York: Methuen, 1986. 200-22.

Ryley, John. The Leeds Guide; Including a Sketch of the Environs, and Kirkstall Abbey. Leeds: Edward Baines, 1806. http://archive.org/details/leedsguideinclu00rylegoog.

Styles, Michelle. His Unsuitable Viscountess. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2012.

Veve, Thomas D. “Wellington and the Army of Occupation in France, 1815-1818,” The International History Review 11.1 (1989): 98-108.

Wendell, Sarah. Everything I Know About Romance I Learned from Romance Novels. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2011.

Westman, Karin E. “A Story of Her Weaving: The Self-Authoring Heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance.” Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi. 165-84. [End Page 17]

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“The Heroine as Reader, the Reader as Heroine: Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation” by Kate Moore and Eric Murphy Selinger

In July, 2011, an opinion piece in the “consumer commentary” of the British Journal of Family Planning, Reproduction, and Health Care sparked a brief flurry of worry and debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the pernicious effects that reading popular romance fiction might have on women’s contraceptive choices. On inspection, the essay turned out to have no solid basis in research or data; indeed, although its author, Susan Quilliam, was the author of several self-help books, she had no medical or academic expertise of any kind.[1] The piece and its reception, however, remind us of the persistence of the idea that reading romantic fantasy misleads women as to the nature of their circumstances and condition in life. It makes of the female reader, in short, a “female Quixote” (Lennox, 1752), a Catherine Moreland (Austen, 1818), or an Emma Bovary (Flaubert, 1856).

In the 1980s, this concern was central to the early feminist studies of popular romance fiction, even among scholars who considered themselves to be defending both the genre and its readers. Tania Modleski’s early essay “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances,” for example, suggests that in immersing themselves in “the wonderful world of Harlequin Romances” women find themselves rewarded for the same kind of “self-subversion,” as opposed to self-advocacy, that haunts them in the world outside these novels (Modleski 435). Janice Radway, a few years later, was equally wary. “Although in restoring a woman’s depleted sense of self romance reading may constitute tacit recognition that the current arrangement of the sexes is not ideal for her emotional well-being,” she observes in Reading the Romance, “it does nothing to alter a woman’s social situation, itself very likely characterized by those dissatisfying patterns” (212). Despite the fact that the romance readers she interviews explicitly tell her otherwise (see, for example, 100-102), Radway remains skeptical of their claims that reading romance changes their lives for the better, and she hypothesizes instead that reading the romance causes readers to stay trapped in unhappy or chafing personal circumstances. “This activity,” she writes, “may very well obviate the need or desire to demand satisfaction in the real world because it can be so successfully met in fantasy” (212, emphasis mine).

When romance authors begin to write their own critical essays on the genre in the 1990s, they often take up the question of romance’s effect on its readers. You can find accounts of the genre as heartening, empowering, or leading to various forms of psychological health in many of the essays gathered in Jayne Ann Krentz’s anthology Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women (1992), notably those by Laura Kinsale, Linda Barlow, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Mary Jo Putney, Diana Palmer, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Krentz herself. The claims made by these authors frequently echo those made by the readers Radway interviews (but does not quite believe); likewise, several of these authors take on Radway, Modleski, Kay Mussell, and other scholars by name, quoting from their work and defining their own views against those of the academics. Clearly, then, by the start of the 1990s, academic accounts of popular romance were well known within, and contested by, the romance community. By the middle of the decade, when Jennifer Crusie began to study, write, and write about popular romance, those accounts and debates might well form a part of an aspiring romance novelist’s education.

Several of Crusie’s early category romances, including Anyone But You (1996) and The Cinderella Deal (1996) can profitably be read in dialogue with first-wave popular romance criticism, serving as implicit defenses of popular romance fiction and the act of reading it. Likewise, many of Crusie’s essays, especially those published in 1997-1998, draw on her own life experience and her graduate training in literary studies as they defend the genre against charges from both the patriarchal right and the radical-feminist left. Perhaps her most accomplished work in this vein, however, is found in the New York Times bestseller Welcome to Temptation (2000). In this novel, Crusie implicitly confronts flawed popular and critical conceptions of the romance genre, including the notion that romance is an undemanding and addictive form of fantasy that misleads women readers about their actual lives. Without simply dismissing what is problematic in our relationship with the fictions we enjoy, Crusie offers a nuanced argument for the liberating power of reading and writing the romance. Over the course of the novel, Sophie Dempsey, Crusie’s protagonist and a figure for the reader and writer of romance, becomes a reader of her own self. Her romantic relationship with the novel’s hero, mayor Phineas “Phin” Tucker, encourages her to have fantasies that become a means of reading what lies inside her and of reading the world of things and people around her. Crusie argues through Sophie that active participation in imaginative experience can connect a woman more fully to herself and to others, that it empowers her to transform her life and the life of the community around her, and, further, that whether this possibility is realized depends on the quality of responsiveness to experience in the reader—either a real experience or a fictional one—and not at all on the subject matter of the experience, whether it is a real-life relationship or a popular romance.

Fantasy, Vanity, Reality

Crusie, Radway, and ordinary readers agree that a boundary exists between “real life,” “the world [we] actually inhabit,” “the world of actual social relations,” and “the separate, free realm of the imaginary” (Radway 55, 60, 117). According to the critics of romance, however, from 18th century moralists to Susan Quilliam, confusion between the two realms seems to be the inevitable effect of the genre, at least on women readers. Crusie does not deny that individuals can confuse fantasy and reality, but rather suggests that confusion about boundaries between the two realms is not specific to women or to one form of fantasy, the romance, but rather arises in the vanity and egocentrism of the person experiencing the fantasy. To make her case, Crusie opens the novel by locating her heroine’s imaginative experience as a reader and writer in the larger context of accepted imaginative experience in American popular culture. She then juxtaposes her heroine’s fantasy experience against the experiences of a cast of secondary characters, both male and female, whose participation in popularly accepted forms of fantasy, those not subject to critical derision for association with women, leads them into moral error.

When Crusie’s heroine Sophie Dempsey arrives at the edge of the title’s small Ohio town, she expects problems to appear “like bats, dive-bombing them from out of nowhere” (2). She is quoting a film, as Crusie heroines often do (in this case, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and, in the process, announcing her awareness that things might not be as they seem. Sophie’s experiences as a filmgoer confirm what she already knows from her grim adolescence as the daughter of an itinerant, small-time con artist: small towns are “dangerous” (2). Behind the blue skies, waving maple trees, and fluffy clouds, Sophie instinctively looks for the Bates Hotel, the bats, and the host who offers fava beans and Chianti. Where Sophie’s younger sister, Amy, sees “Pleasantville,” Sophie sees “Amityville.” She finds the “deserted tree-lined road before them” leading to Temptation “ominous” (3). “A muddy river stream[s] sullenly under a gunmetal bridge at the bottom of the hill,” the houses are “smug,” and a “flesh-colored,” “bullet shaped,” and “aggressively phallic” water tower dominates the landscape, each detail suggesting that this town embodies a world overshadowed by masculine power (4).

In these first perceptions of Temptation, in which Sophie relies on her experience of popular films, she does appear to be an anxious mis-reader of her environment, much like Jane Austen’s naïve heroine Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey. Yet in a significant twist, the fantasies from which Sophie derives her first flawed reading of the town of Temptation are not associated with women or with romance, even of the gothic variety. Furthermore, from the moment Sophie arrives in Temptation, she finds herself surrounded by other characters immersed in fantasies, as though—in this novel, at least—such immersion were simply part of the human condition, not an isolated or unusual case. Crusie gives each of these self-absorbed individuals a different and commonly accepted form of fantasy experience. Few critics of popular culture would condemn high school plays, local repertory theater productions, small-market newscasts, or stagy wedding videos as potentially harmful; instead critics assume participants in these activities can navigate between their on-stage experience and ordinary life and benefit from their involvement in imaginative acts. Yet each of the supporting characters turns out to be so deeply immersed in an apparently innocuous fantasy that he or she grossly misreads his or her familiar environment and relationships with others. Clearly, then, it is not a specific genre of imaginative experience that misleads or deludes its participants, nor is it women in general as participants in fantasy who feel its potentially harmful effects. Rather, as Crusie’s narrative demonstrates, the flaw lies in the characters themselves.

Consider, for example, the overlapping fates of Frank and Georgia Lutz and actress and sometime porn-star Clea Whipple, all of whom grew up (unlike Sophie) in the Ohio town of Temptation. Before the novel begins, Clea and Frank, who played opposite each other in a high school production of The Taming of the Shrew, pretended, for the show, to be in love. In an adolescent failure to distinguish fantasy from reality, they went on to have sex (very disappointing sex, at least for Clea), and this in turn precipitated Frank’s hasty marriage to a jealous Georgia, who faked a pregnancy to trap him and spite her rival.

At the start of the novel, Clea has returned to Temptation to make a video that will, she hopes, restart her film career. The chance to see Frank again immediately stimulates her capacity for fantasy. Before they meet, he is “Frank the football star, Frank the high-school-theater leading man; Frank the wealthy developer; Frank the generally magnificent” (23). Alas, although he has continued to play that high-school leading man, ever more inappropriately cast as a youthful hero, the real-life adult Frank turns out to be “pudgy, badly dressed, and annoying” (36). When we first encounter him in the novel, he is eagerly waiting to play the lead in the Temptation production of Carousel, opposite his wife, Georgia, the “Coppertone Toad,” (54) who imagines that with an application of suntan lotion she and her son’s twenty year old girlfriend can be mistaken for sisters. Clea promptly loses interest in the actual Frank, and instead casts Frank’s twenty-year old son Rob as the leading man of her current fantasy and would-be comeback film.

Crusie casts a cool, appraising eye on all of these characters. The Lutzes don’t come off well: as they continue to “play” the youthful leads, both husband and wife lose their dignity in vanity, and they pay for their lack of self-awareness in a loveless marriage that was always, after all, based on a lie (Georgia’s faked pregnancy). Clea, though, comes off worse. Abandoning her fantasy of a reunion with Frank, she concocts a new one, a sort of narcissistic caricature of a woman-empowering romance novel plot. It is, she explains, “a great story, about me coming home to meet my old high-school lover and being disillusioned, and then meeting his son, who seduces me and sets me free of my past, and I drive off into the sunset with him, getting everything I ever wanted” (177, italics are mine). Although she describes this as “a real woman’s fantasy” (177), Clea’s plot could not be further from the fantasies enjoyed by Radway’s Smithton readers, who repeatedly emphasize their interest in the developing relationship between the hero and heroine, and not simply in the heroine’s individual triumph. When Clea acts out the fantasy she has scripted for herself, not only on film for Amy Dempsey’s camera, but in the “movie set” of a town, Temptation, seducing Rob and humiliating Frank and his wife Georgia, the ego-centrism of her fantasy-life proves to be entirely anti-romantic, undermining the Lutz’s marriage just as it undermined Clea’s own marriage to the callow and selfish anchorman Zane Black.

As the novel goes on, the Lutzes’ self-absorption gradually makes them objects of our pity. Clea’s, by contrast, becomes more and more morally disturbing; ultimately, she turns out to be capable of watching with “depraved indifference” (370) as her ex-husband Zane dies in front of her. The most pernicious form of fantasy-entrapment in the novel, however—even worse than Clea’s, because it threatens to infect a whole community, and it leads to an actual murder attempt—belongs to the Garveys, Stephen and Virginia, a couple who cast themselves as the moral “pillars” of Temptation, and are seen as such by Sophie (see 6, 7, 8, and 27).

The Garveys’ initial act in the novel is a face-saving fiction, a lie about which of them was driving the beige Cadillac that hits Sophie and Amy’s car. We do not learn this right away, however—instead, we learn that the Garveys are publicly and consistently contemptuous of fiction. They are not readers, film fans, or theater-goers, and they are keen on censorship, especially when it comes to anything sexual. Not simply hypocrites, they are profoundly self-deceiving, so caught up in lies about their own morality and importance to the community that they cannot distinguish the real version of events from their subjective version. Their lack of experience with imaginative fiction renders them unable to judge character effectively. (Virginia, for instance, simply admires celebrity; she has no capacity to judge the character of either Zane or Clea.) A pervasive and unconscious subjectivity shapes their interactions with others, which renders them bad citizens, bad neighbors, and bad parents.

Virginia’s version of events, in particular, turns out to be so detached from reality that it borders on the criminally insane. A former store clerk, Virginia married up in marrying Stephen, the son of one of the town’s two most politically powerful families. (The other, even more important, is the Tuckers.) For over twenty years, she has devoted herself to the fantasy that her daughter, Rachel, will marry the town’s mayor, Phin Tucker: a marriage that would end the generations-old, quasi-dynastic rivalry between the two families and would certify Virginia’s position in the upper circles of Temptation society. Utterly incapable of seeing herself as others see her, Virginia perceives others, including her daughter, as projections of her own wishes and resentments. She offers, in effect, a nightmare version of the maternal “nurturance” which Radway argues romance readers seek from romance novels and specifically from romance heroes (Radway 137), and Virginia’s daughter Rachel does everything she can to escape her mother and find good sex and independence, not nurturance, in a relationship with the deliciously non-heroic “Eeyore of LA,” porn producer Leo Kingsley (182).

Clea, the Lutzes, Virginia and Stephen: each of these supporting characters, whether female and male, has developed a controlling fantasy that inflates the self and distorts his or her relations with others.[2] Without ever having read a popular romance, each fails to distinguish between a fantasy world and the real one. In contrast to those misperceiving characters, Crusie’s protagonist, Sophie, is an exemplar of how a woman’s interaction with fiction can, over time, make her more perceptive of herself and her world. Without ever showing Sophie reading a romance novel (or any other kind of novel, for that matter) Crusie uses the novel’s heroine and her evolving relationship with Phin, its hero, to show how that devalued figure, the romance reader, can negotiate the difference between the fictional worlds she enters as she reads and the world of “actual social relations” (Radway, 60) that she returns to, and can change, when she is not reading.

Reading an Old-Fashioned Novel (or a Hero)

Before discussing Crusie’s heroine Sophie, let me briefly pause to note an account of women’s reading that is essentially contemporary with Radway and Modleski, yet quite contrasting in its conclusions. Published in 1982, just between Loving with a Vengeance (1981) and the first edition of Reading the Romance (1984), Rachel Brownstein’s Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels offers an overlapping, but considerably more positive account of how a woman’s reading, however private an act it seems, can also be a way of interacting with the actual world. “Reading an old-fashioned novel,” she explains—that is, as opposed to a novel inspired by the “New Feminism” (24)—offers real-world benefits to readers, since it

makes a woman’s secret life public, valid, as more and less real as everything else. Recognizing the problems and the conventions of a woman-centered novel, the reader feels part of a community and a tradition of women who talk well about their lives and link them, by language, to larger subjects. Looking up from a novel about a girl’s settling on a husband and a destiny so as to assert higher moral and aesthetic laws and her own alliance with them, the reader can feel the weight of her woman’s life as serious, can see her own self as shapely and significant. (24)

Brownstein is not speaking of reading popular romance novels here, but her description of the plots and values of those “old-fashioned novels” makes it clear that they are in fact romance novels, at least according to Pamela Regis’s working definition of this genre from the 18th century to the present: “a work of prose fiction that describes the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (14). In Brownstein’s account, then, the romance reader enters into a “reflective, observant life” that stands in sharp contrast to the unreflective, self-involved lives of Crusie’s flawed secondary characters. Reading, a sojourn in the free realm of the imaginary, leads to a wider and richer perception of the real—although “the real” turns out to be a complex, not entirely obvious thing. “Looking up from a novel,” in which a reader has encountered “talk” and “language” that links her life to that of others, the reader finds her life as “valid and as more and less real as everything else” (14). More and less, not more or less: a shift which suggests that the fabric of reality has its own elements of fantasy, of story, woven inextricably within it.

Brownstein’s account of the reading experience in a literary context may differ in tone from Radway’s less optimistic account of reading romance, but it squares remarkably well with the accounts given by Radway’s interview subjects, women who form a community in which they are able to discuss what Brownstein calls “the conventions of a woman-centered novel” (24) and connect their reading experience to their experience as wives, mothers, and friends. These Smithton readers might well have been on Crusie’s mind when she constructed Sophie, the heroine of Welcome to Temptation. Sophie’s alert consciousness may link her to the larger tradition of heroine-centered fiction, but like the Smithton readers described by Radway, Sophie is characterized first and foremost not by self-awareness, but rather by a profound (and profoundly gendered) sense of herself as a caregiver, a nurturer of others who is never nurtured in return. After the death of their mother in an automobile accident, Sophie mothers and nurtures her sister Amy and her younger brother Davy, and she continues to do so in a self-abnegating way even after they are all adults. Early in the novel, when asked by Amy to articulate her own desires, she thinks to herself that she doesn’t really have any, outside of caring for her family. “When she thought about it, it was sad,” Crusie writes. “Thirty two years old, and she had no idea what she wanted from life” (68).

At the opposite extreme from characters like Clea and Virginia Garvey, who are unable to see reality through the lens of their fantasies, Sophie sees only reality. Or, at least, she sees a “version” of it: one in which, she tells Phin, “you have to be careful all the time and you get nothing for free” (95). In the conversation leading up to her first sexual encounter with Phin, Sophie might be momentarily distracted by the effects of rum and diet coke and the “romantic” ambience of moonlight and a flowing river—the word “romantic” comes up a half-dozen times in the scene—but she is quick to notice a “fish stink” that spoils the mood. “Reality,” she calls it, “making its usual appearance just when she was getting somewhere” (94).

Sophie insists that her fish-stink “version of reality” is “empowering” (94): a term that she seems to have derived from pop culture representations of feminism. “‘I’ve read The Second Sex. I’ve read The Cinderella Complex. I’m responsible for my own orgasm,’” she tells Phin, quoting the movie Tootsie (93). Since she also quotes early and often from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Manchurian Candidate, Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs, however, we might well conclude that her wary realism stems from something else: a determination not to base real-world actions on a controlling fantasy, of whatever sort, the way that characters in these four movies do. (Trapped in altered psychic states, these characters are extreme versions of the deluded characters who surround Sophie in Temptation.) This determination, however, has not allowed Sophie to escape a conventionally female destiny. As the novel begins, she is in a relationship with a man who presumes to interpret her to herself—named Brandon, like the hero of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, he is Sophie’s former therapist—she’s sexually repressed; and she’s responsible for the care of younger, though adult, siblings. Sophie’s resistance to fantasy in general, and especially to fantasies about anything “romantic,” has enabled her to pride herself on being self-sufficient, but it has not provided her any affirmation that her “secret life,” in Brownstein’s terms, is “valid,” “real,” “serious,” “shapely,” or “significant” (24). In fact, that “secret life” has grown so secret, she hardly knows it’s there.

For Sophie to get to a new version of reality, then, she must begin by allowing herself to entertain fantasies. Unlike Catherine Moreland, Emma Bovary, or a Smithton reader, Sophie has no pile of romances by her bed to let her escape into a fascinating (or dangerous) fantasy life, nor does she have a shelf of “old-fashioned” literary or domestic fiction, of the kind extolled by Brownstein. Her access to fantasy, to fiction, to reading as an affirming and self-transforming act, comes, instead, through Phin. Phin is connected with reading in multiple ways. As they drive into town, Sophie and Amy first encounter him as a text to be read: his name appears in full on a small sign “in antique green” that says “Phineas T. Tucker” (3). The rusting sign leads Amy to speculate that “Phineas T. must be older than God;” and to imagine that “he hasn’t had sex since the bicentennial,” immediately evoking associations of Rotary Club meetings, expanding waistlines, and old boy networks. When they meet in person for the first time, Phin turns out instead to have “broad shoulders, mirrored sunglasses, and no smile,” a look that sends “every instinct [Sophie] ha[s] into overdrive” (25), especially her instincts for perception and interpretation. Uniting her experience of film with her actual history of living in a series of small towns, Sophie reads Phin as the embodiment of “every glossy frat boy in every nerd movie ever made, every popular town boy who’d ever looked right through her in high school, every rotten rich kid who had belonged where she hadn’t” (25). She may not be reading him like a book, but she views him like a movie, and even hears “ominous music on the soundtrack in her head” (25).

Sophie’s initial “reading” of Phin connects him simultaneously to men she has previously encountered and to male characters in movies she has seen—movies in which women like her are not the romantic leads. This reading places them on opposite sides of any number of binary oppositions: insider and outsider; male and female; established authority and resistance to it; college educated and under-educated; upper class and no class. (Sophie may arguably have achieved middle-class status as an adult, but her upbringing as a drifter haunts her, as when she describes Phin as “starring in The Philadelphia Story,” while “she looked like an extra from The Grapes of Wrath” [28].) To the experienced romance reader, of course, these tensions merely set the stage for a familiar plot structure: one in which a hero who is, as Radway says, “wealthy” or “aristocratic,” an “active and successful participant in some major public endeavor” (130) falls for and elevates, through marriage, a poor but honest heroine.

To our surprise, then, as well as Sophie’s, both her and our initial “readings” of Phin turn out to be incorrect, or at least incomplete. This small-town aristocrat finds his position at the top of the patriarchal pyramid in Temptation to be “mind-numbing” (14), and as he presides over a tedious town council meeting in the opening chapter, he turns out to be stuck between the “sepia-toned” photos of past Tucker mayors and the narrow, repetitive prospects for his future (13). (The family campaign motto, trotted out for endless campaigns, haunts Phin: “Tucker for Mayor: More of the Same” [10].) His power, rooted in his family’s history, is exactly the sort of political, legal, and financial power that Radway says women “do not possess in a society dominated by men” (149), but this Volvo-driving, golf-playing, college-educated mayor of a small town, son of its most prominent family, emblem of male privilege in America, is no figure for the “autonomous masculinity” Radway sees in romance heroes, and still less for the contemptuous brutality Modleski observes in an older generation of heroes (Radway 148, Modleski 437). Far from displaying “male emotional reserve, independence, and even cruelty” (Radway, 158), Phin is consistently seen by the reader as living “in relation” with other people: colleagues, friends, and family. His ties with those around him, including his relationship with his young daughter, may be flawed by his own lack of self-fulfillment, but they are unmistakably loving, and as the novel begins, Phin is utterly at home with domesticity.

In fact, as we learn a bit later in the novel, if it weren’t for his sense of family duty (a sense he shares with Sophie), Phin would just as soon stop being mayor and retire to his second job as owner of the town bookstore, Tucker Books. Located in a “pale green Victorian” house, this store seems as “old-fashioned” as any domestic novel described by Brownstein, and Phin lives right above it, yet another link between him and the art of fiction (22). In fact, since Phin is the character who utters the novel’s title phrase—“’Hello, Sophie Dempsey,’ her worst nightmare said. ‘Welcome to Temptation’” (25)—we might say that as the novel begins, at least potentially, Sophie and Phin are not just its heroine and hero, but figures for the reader of this very romance and for this very romance text.

Trading Textual Strategies

With all of this textual and metatextual material in mind, let’s return to the novel’s initial sex scene, the scene where Sophie’s transformation begins. In this scene, we now notice, Phin offers sex to Sophie in the precisely the same way that the romance novel, in Radway’s account, seduces its female readers. In the critic’s view, romance fiction supplies the Smithton readers “with an important emotional release that is proscribed in daily life because the social role with which they identify themselves leaves little room for guiltless, self-interested pursuit of individual pleasure” (Radway 95-96). Phin, in turn, encourages Sophie to go for “pleasure” with “no guilt,” “no responsibility,” to leave her social role behind and “let somebody take care of you for a change,” to “be selfish” and lose herself temporarily in a (sexual) fantasy, proving herself to be—not prudent and nurturing—but “wild,” “reckless,” and “satisfied” (95-96).

We are not, however, finished with this seduction scene. Radway, after all, interprets romance fiction as merely “compensatory literature,” a temporary respite from the female reader’s “social role” that does not enable, and may even discourage, actual lasting change (95). Phin does more, introducing Sophie at once to sexual and textual pleasures. His sexual invitation to Sophie, for example, arises from a twist he gives to an old Appalachian song, the first “text” (aside from himself) that he brings to the story. The song’s lyric about a woman wandering the mountains in search of a new lover sounds at first like a lovely fantasy to Sophie. But when Phin reveals that Julie Ann, the heroine of the song, meets a bear in the woods and becomes a ghost, Sophie immediately rejects the “romance” of the song. The “bear” in those lovely woods is like the river’s “fish stink”—reality intruding on fantasy to destroy it. Phin, the bookstore owner, quickly shows Sophie the power that an experienced reader actually has over the text at hand. Without missing a beat, he rewrites the end of Julie Ann’s story, telling Sophie, “Okay, she’s not dead. The bear ate her, and she came her brains out” (93). Phin’s revision of the song shows Sophie two ways of being an active, creative reader. You can find yourself in a text as a character, as he spontaneously casts her as the heroine and himself as the bear, and you can even enter the text as an author, changing its “version of reality,” in this case, the ending, to make it less menacing and more enjoyable. (It’s notable that his punning revision of the song leaves the key verb unchanged: the bear “ate her” in both versions of the song, but what that phrase means is changed utterly.)

In direct contradiction to the argument that romance reading renders women passive and invisible, then, Crusie designs the interaction between her hero and heroine as a dynamic of liberation. In fact, these early scenes can be read as a step-by-step rewriting of those early academic worries about the effects of the genre. Where Modleski argues that reading Harlequin romances invites a woman “to obliterate the consciousness of the self as a physical presence” (435), for example, the first effect of Phin’s presence and the oral sex he offers is Sophie’s increased awareness of her body. She becomes more corporeally real to herself. She has been ignoring injuries and nervous habits. Now she feels “every muscle and nerve in her body celebrating” (98), and the process does not end here. In the scenes that follow, she also becomes more psychologically real to herself, more self-aware. As soon as the sexual “mindlessness” fades, she realizes that she has just “cheated” on Brandon, her ex-therapist, and she leaves Phin to take responsibility for her behavior by calling Brandon and confessing. In a comic twist, he responds like an academic romance critic responding to a romance reader, refusing to take her word for what has happened and interpreting her behavior in psycho-political terms. He first describes her behavior as “going for a little harmless excitement by necking with an authority figure” (102). He then further defines her actions, saying,

You’re rebelling against the oppressive social structure that’s made your family outcast, by corrupting its most powerful and popular adherent. And now you’re sending me a wake-up call—literally—that I’m not paying enough attention to you (102).

Compare Brandon’s interpretation to Radway’s claim that the romance reader identifies with the heroine when “she secures the attention and recognition of her culture’s most powerful and essential representative, a man” (84). Like a condescending scholar, he speaks with smug assurance that Sophie’s actions in relation to Phin can be explained in terms of her victimization at the hands of an “oppressive social structure” (102), and he refuses to believe that what has happened signals any real change in her.

Sophie, however, refuses to accept his interpretation. In a sign that her own transformation has begun, Sophie listens to her body’s message of satisfaction and refuses to be convinced by Brandon’s interpretation of her behavior. Not only does she insist that no interpretation can change the reality of her encounter with Phin, but she shows that she has learned some of Phin’s textual strategies. Brandon’s suggestion that they will soon get her “straightened out,” for example, leads Sophie to consider that she might choose to be “bent,” and she does not hesitate to identify specific sex acts, claiming them in frank, colloquial language. Far from confusing fantasy and reality, then, Sophie has gained perspective on her real situation. She is absolutely clear that her enjoyment of and satisfaction in her sexual encounter with Phin are bad signs for her relationship with Brandon, and as she acknowledges to Amy the nature of the encounter—“Phin was sort of a kinky fantasy, sex with a guy I don’t know, swept away in the dark by the river, all that stuff” (105)—she begins to realize Phin’s role as a key to discovering her “secret life,” in Brownstein’s phrase (24), not just as someone who has fantasies, but as the active author and reviser of them. She takes ownership of the encounter by “reliving the whole thing all over again, dwelling lavishly on the moments that were particularly perverse and unlike her, fixing the awkward parts. By the time she’d reviewed it a couple of times, it was so glossy, it could have been a hot scene in a movie” (106). The romance reader becomes romance writer; her mind “click[s] along, rewriting her night,” and she begins to type, coming to terms with her experience through creating a text.

Constructing a New “Version of Reality”

In her essay “A Story of Her Weaving: The Self-Authoring Heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance,” Karin E. Westman tells us that heroines who trade in the “currencies in which men trade—money, sex, and wit” “succeed in authoring their own stories” (166). The realization that she can interpret, revise, and author her experience, using the medium she is most familiar with, surprises and empowers Sophie—a heroine named, Crusie has said, after Heyer’s heroine in The Grand Sophy[3]—and those around her notice a change. Clea and Amy, for example, read Sophie’s “script,” are surprised and impressed, and ask her to write more, eager to appropriate Sophie’s experience for their own purposes. Even the physical environment around her changes, at least in Sophie’s interpretive gaze. Earlier in the novel she metaphorically “reads” the wallpaper pattern of the farmhouse kitchen where she works as a set of “mutant cherries” (65; 110): reminders of her own humiliating loss of virginity to a town boy who used her for sex but discarded her as a person unworthy of his respect and affection. Once she has reshaped her experience with Phin into a text of her own making, Sophie realizes that she has “misread” the wallpaper based on her history as a victim and an outsider, and she recognizes that the print on the wallpaper is a faded set of apples, not cherries, the change in fruit suggesting a considerable change, however unconscious, in how she interprets her past.

Realistically, Crusie does not let a single exposure to fantasy to accomplish a complete transformation of her heroine. Such change does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Amy and Clea may want more scenes, but Sophie doesn’t think she can write more, and within hours, a deliberately cruel and contemptuous comment from Clea’s husband, Zane, sets back Sophie’s brief progress toward self-realization. Zane’s claim that “Sophie couldn’t write for Sesame Street,” that “she’s so repressed, she’s sexless” (115), attacks her for usurping two of the male currencies to which Westman refers in her essay on Heyer: sex and authorship. When Sophie tries on her own to write a new scene based on penetrative intercourse (the “Phallic Variation,” she calls it), Zane’s “voice [keeps] interrupting her thoughts” (117), as though contesting her right to phallic authority. Her “two hours” of composition are “anguished,” and she erases the words on her screen six times because they are “stupid.” As she looks at the wall, “the cherries sneer back” at her. “Evidently they hadn’t gotten the good news they were apples” (118).

At this point in the novel, then, fantasy and authorship fail Sophie, leaving her unable to silence self-doubt and resist the patriarchal backlash embodied by Zane. Crusie helps us understand why they fail her through the novel’s second sex scene, Sophie and Phin’s first “Phallic Variation.” As they have sex, Sophie is unable to respond—indeed, she decides Zane is right about her, that she’s too “detached” or “prissy” or “straight” for “headbanging sex” (135). But the real reason for her lack of inspiration earlier, and lack of satisfaction in the act, lies in her motivations: ultimately, she’s “doing this to write a sex scene for a movie she [isn’t] even sure she want[s] to make” (135), not as a means of escape or self-discovery. Once again, Phin-the-text comes to her aid. Unfazed by her lack of response, he asks her what her fantasies are when she masturbates. Though she won’t answer as he reels off possibilities, he intuits one of her fantasies from her reaction. It is, appropriately, a “discovery fantasy,” and Phin feeds her sense of it, until once again Sophie experiences a spectacular orgasm, “discovered” not just by her sister, who walks in as they’re having sex, drawn by the sound of a shattering lamp, but by Phin (who “discovers” what she wants, metaphorically illuminating it by breaking that lamp) and by Sophie herself (who “discovers” that she can in fact be, as Phin puts it, both “kinky” and “heart-stopping” in her sexiness [141]). The next morning Sophie writes the new “lamp scene” without difficulty, breaks off her relationship with Brandon, and agrees to “sacrifice herself to the mayor” to get another great scene for Amy’s project, happily thinking to herself “I have ideas” for it (146).

In the chapters that follow, Sophie becomes an increasingly active and imaginative participant in her lovemaking, not just taking charge of exactly how kinky and exciting it will be, but demanding to learn from it, scene by scene. “This is like college,” she tells Phin: “I never got to go [ . . . ] And I always wanted a degree. So I’m getting it from you” (156). Her sexual education changes her overall “version of reality,” rendering it decidedly more optimistic. As she leaves one encounter, for example, she “look[s] dazedly out at Temptation’s Main Street baking in the late-afternoon sun” and thinks “Nice little town” and “Pretty” (159), a far cry from her initial sense of the town as “bat country.” This is only a momentary glimpse, one that can be (and is) quickly dispelled by reminders of her position as an outsider, but such moments become increasingly common, and increasingly native to Sophie, as the novel goes on. Although she is repeatedly tempted to persist in her former construction of reality, particularly romantic reality, she soon learns to correct herself without prompting:

Well, that was men for you. She glared at the cherries across from her. Took what they wanted and then—

It occurred to her that this thought wasn’t getting her anywhere. It was the same thought she’d been having for fifteen years without any insight or growth, it was the thought that had led her into two years of mind-numbing security with Brandon, it was the thought that had kept her from having the kind of wickedly abandoned sex she’d been having since she’d met Phin. It was, in short, nonproductive.

Worse than that, it was boring.

‘I’m through with you,’ she said to the cherries. ‘It’s a brand-new day.’ (166).

When Phin appears a page later, Sophie is literally reconstructing her reality by repapering the kitchen in brand new “apple” wallpaper, and Phin finds her irresistable. “I had you at ‘hello,” she exults, revising the heroine’s moment of triumph from Jerry McGuire in the direction of female agency (the original says, “you had me”) and telling Phin, as she leads him off to the shower, to “imagine the possibilities,” a clear reversal of the imaginative power dynamic between them (170).

By the second half of Welcome to Temptation, Sophie’s transformation is complete, at least on the sexual level. Rather than Phin and Sophie mutually discovering Sophie’s fantasies, the two begin to act out Phin’s—but this time, the progress is played for comedy, not just because his are so familiar and quickly declared (he knows this side of himself quite well), but because their execution gets interrupted by multiple, increasingly dramatic events across the central chapters of the novel. Because of this repetition, we get to see Sophie taking the lead, per Phin’s fantasy scenario, over and over again, reinforcing our sense of her new, Phin-like confidence. In fact, after one interruption, Sophie jokes about her effect on him in phrases that mirror Phin’s early cockiness: “You were repressed,” she tells him, “Which is why God sent me to save you” (288; Phin says the same words to her on 141). Her intimate nickname for him throughout these scenes, “bear,” recalls their first encounter on the dock: “your fantasy, bear,” she tells him, for example (287). And their final sexual encounter in the novel is an almost move-for-move revision of the first, as Sophie handcuffs him to his own bed, tells him that in her version of the ballad, “Julie got the bear,” and proceeds to give him an “orgasm he doesn’t have to work for” (330). Authorship, authority, and sexuality are inextricably (and quite playfully) intertwined.

The Empowerment Plot

If the only result of Sophie’s exposure to fantasy, fiction, and Phin were a change in her sex life, of course, Crusie’s brief on behalf of romance would be rather limited. It would suggest that romance was essentially reducible to erotica, or even pornography: a claim that has, of course, been made about the genre, sometimes as a criticism and sometimes in its defense, by academic critics. Instead, Crusie distinguishes between the limited sexual version of her transformation and something broader or deeper, of which sex is only a part. She draws that line of distinction in two ways. First, she has the first group of sexual fantasies that Phin elicits from and acts out with Sophie becoming part of the script she is writing, while the later love scenes do not. That script, in turn, is then filmed and edited into the two contrasting versions of Clea’s comeback video, Cherished (Amy’s vision of “classy porn” for women) and Hot Fleshy Thighs (Leo Kingsley’s decidedly non-classy version of what his male market wants). Yet even as usurped or corrupted by others, Sophie’s work as an author retains its liberating effects: Cherished helps Rachel Garvey get out of town and make a new life with Leo, becoming a producer in her own right of female-oriented pornography, while Hot Fleshy Thighs, stolen by Stephen Garvey and shown on local cable TV, provokes a political firestorm for Phin and ultimately becomes the catalyst that breaks the old political “version of reality” for the town.

That firestorm would have destroyed Phin, not the Garveys, however, were it not for the other transformation of Sophie: the one that is not reducible to her discovery of her sexual “secret life,” but that is just as clearly dependent on her learning to “read” herself in the safe context provided by Phin. In the second half of the novel, in addition to the sexual encounters that are connected to Phin’s fantasy, we find a series of encounters that are mediated primarily by the couple’s growing companionship and intimacy. Traces of fantasy play may show up: movie quotes, flirting with fictional roles, the use of the word “bear,” albeit as a verb. (“He whispered ‘Now’ in her ear and rolled to bear down on her,” we read in one scene [307].). Alongside these, however, we find declarations like “My dad would have loved you” and questions like “So how was your day?” (306). Post-coital pleasure and emotional security blend into one another for Sophie, who feels “safe and satisfied and better” after their lovemaking (308). In this context, Sophie’s abilities as a reader of herself come to the fore, and she draws on this capacity to recognize and name her own mental and emotional states. “When they were both calm again,” Crusie writes, “she told him the truth: ‘I love you’” (308).

Phin, however, despite his comfort with sexual fantasy, has not learned to read his own heart as clearly. Although both Sophie and the reader are sure that Phin loves her (“of course he did, the dummy, she had no doubts about that,” she thinks), that love is now as much Phin’s “secret life” as Sophie’s sexual fantasies were to her at the start of the novel. He now needs her to mediate that knowledge for him so that his “secret life,” the emotional one, can be consciously known. Sophie deliberately steps into that role. After years of fleeing from her family legacy of con artistry, she tells herself, it is time for her to “be a Dempsey,” to use her family skills at interpersonal manipulation to “get what she needed”: which is, in this case, to get Phin to admit that he loves her (309). In the pages that follow, Sophie uses these skills in a pair of crucial scenes that show the private and public impacts of her transformation. Privately, she metaphorically re-reads what she knows of Phin’s weaknesses (“Sex. Shirts. Pool.”) and uses a combination of her sexual allure and grafter upbringing to defeat a distracted Phin at his living room billiard table, leaving the stunned Phin to declare to his friend Wes, the local police chief, that “I’m going to have to marry her” (314). Publically, at the Town Council showdown that results from the airing of Hot Fleshy Thighs, she uses exactly the same skills of “reading” a crowd and manipulating its emotions to bring the town around to Phin’s side, turning them against the Garveys. These are, we note, the same skills at the con that she used unsuccessfully in a scene at the start of the novel, interrupted by her sister Amy, but having accepted and embraced them as “a Dempsey” she now seems fully empowered to use them.

Alongside its sexual liberation plot, then, Welcome to Temptation also insists that Sophie’s encounter with fantasy (Phin) eventually leads to the more far-reaching, real-life empowerment that Crusie and other romance readers—in Radway and elsewhere—have long claimed on behalf of the genre. A comparison with one of Crusie’s early essays is revealing, since in her “Romancing Reality” essay, Crusie cites an anecdote from Susan Elizabeth Phillips to explain precisely this empowering effect. (The Phillips piece in question is her contribution to the Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women anthology.) According to Phillips, Crusie notes, even “a best-selling novelist and happily married wife and mother” might need a little sojourn in romance, and when Phillips “sat down after a tense time in her life to relax with a stack of category novels,” she found “something magical” happening: she “felt better. Calmer. In control.” She writes that the novels did not offer the fantasy she thought romance novels would, “that of a wonderful man or a glamorous, fulfilling career. I already had those things.” Instead, she writes that the “fantasy” they gave her was “one of command and control over the harum scarum events of my life–a fantasy of female empowerment” (55).

This is a beauty of a fantasy, especially since it’s not fantasy at all. Phillips already had command and control, and to this day she remains one of the most empowered women I know. The romance fiction she read simply reminded her of her own capabilities, thereby reinforcing her own experience of reality.

Like Phillips, Sophie is “reminded of her own capabilities” by her encounters with Phin, and those encounters leave her ready and able to embrace her talents at “command and control.” In the novel’s version of this empowerment plot, however, the excursion through fantasy does not “reinforc[e] her own experience of reality.” Rather, it enables her to have a new “version of reality,” one which changes not only her relationship with Phin, but also the social world around them. In fact, because he is the mayor, the two changes turn out to be one.

The Marriage Shift

As I argued a few pages ago, Mayor Phin Tucker is something of an unhappy patriarch, just as trapped as Sophie is in a deadening, “mind-numbing” world of sameness and repetition. (To underscore this parallel, the adjective “mind-numbing” appears twice in the novel: once to describe Phin’s years as mayor [14] and once to describe Sophie’s years with Brandon [166].) Phin is as burdened by his social role as Sophie is, and as concerned with family duty; in fact, his family pressures, embodied by his mother Liz, might be read as even more ominous, given the multiple references to Psycho that crop up throughout the book. Phin is no Norman Bates, driven to murderous madness, but he is, by his own admission, “stuck” (another adjective the novel applies both to Phin [33] and Sophie [68]). No wonder he responds so eagerly to the opportunity to meet the “loose” women who have shaken up the Garveys by their mere arrival in Temptation (17), and no wonder his mother responds so coldly and threateningly to his increasingly public relationship with Sophie, not just to Phin’s face, but behind his back, visiting Sophie early in the novel to remind her precisely where she stands in the socio-political structure of Temptation.

Liz plans to intimidate Sophie, or, if that fails, to buy her son’s lover off, as she did his late first wife, Diane. Sophie, however, is unshaken, and she uses her initial, primarily sexual capacity for fantasy to present Phin’s mother with an image of her son simply as a man, stripped of his social and political trappings, “gorgeous and smart and funny and kind and skilled” and “sexy as hell” (163). As their relationship develops beyond the merely sexual (“We’re more than just the sex,” he tells her), Sophie’s impact on Phin likewise reaches beyond the sexual. It reveals to him just how frozen and dangerous his relationship with his mother has become, and he stands up to her, ordering Liz to “back off or you’ll lose us” when she tells him and his daughter, Dillie, to stay away from Sophie. When all three Tuckers meet up with Sophie at a Little League baseball game, Phin pushes back against his mother’s wishes to make his romantic relationship with Sophie obvious to the community at large, since “his smile to her pretty much telegraphed to everybody everything he’d said before”; when Liz angrily tells him that Sophie has “destroyed” his life, he agrees, adding that the life she destroyed was “a fucking wasteland; all Sophie did was clear the brush” (351-2).

Well before he admits to Sophie that he loves her, then—a declaration the novel postpones until its final triumphant pages—Phin finds himself freed by her from his “stuck” status, realizing in the process that he wants to replace that “wasteland” with a public, legal relationship. Just moments after being beaten at pool, in fact, is when he tells Wes “I’m going to have to marry her” (314). Not sex, not love, but marriage seems crucial here. Why?

First-wave romance scholars often lamented the connection in romance between fully expressed female sexuality and heterosexual marriage. Radway, for example, found it frustrating that even in ostensibly progressive novels, “in every case, these romances refuse finally to unravel the connection between female sexual desire and monogamous heterosexuality” (16). Crusie, by contrast, frames the issue of marriage in terms of a redefinition of heterosexual power dynamics. Most romances, she argues in an early essay, “feature a struggle between the heroine and the hero to achieve a balance of power defined by their own terms so that the commitment that takes place at the end of the book is not a surrender but a pact” (“Romancing Reality”). Like other female novelists before her, then, and like Pamela Regis, a more recent romance scholar, Crusie sees in fictional marriages at the ends of novels the opportunity to signal not a woman’s proscribed destiny—say, her submission to compulsory heterosexuality—but a shift in a society’s structure and values. As Regis explains, the role of the wedding at the end of a romance novel is to make clear the change that has taken place in the broken society in which the love story is set: an indication, for her, of the genre’s debt to Shakespearean comedy. A literary novel like David Vann’s Caribou Island might argue that marriage is “the death of self and possibility” for both partners (194), but the romance novel is concerned with marriage as a measure of the freedom a particular society affords individuals to marry whom they will. For Regis, then, the hero and heroine choose to marry when the plot liberates them from barriers that have constrained them in old patterns, and their marriage signals that those barriers and patterns are no more (Regis 15,33).

Regis, in describing the fall of the barrier between lovers, specifically cites the line in Pride and Prejudice in which the “union [of Elizabeth and Darcy] must have been to the advantage of both” (Regis, 17). Where Regis describes this moment as a moment in which “the heroine is free of the barrier,” Crusie writes this moment as a moment of mutual liberation of hero and heroine, Phin and Sophie (Regis, 17).

In the town of Temptation, the patterns that constrain hero and heroine alike are summed up by two motifs introduced to the reader in the opening pages and repeated throughout the novel. As Sophie and Amy drive into town, they encounter in quick succession the Tuckers’ campaign slogan, “More of the Same” (10) and that flesh-colored, ostentatiously phallic water tower, which tells us that the particular “sameness” that’s being repeated is patriarchy itself. In such a context, a purely sexual relationship between Sophie and Phin cannot provide real freedom. It’s simply too easy, for them and for Liz, to interpret their sexual relationship as part of a familiar pattern from the old patriarchal version of reality: a prominent man (a “town boy,” one of the “hill people”) seeks sexual release with a woman outside his class and community (a “loose” woman, a “cheap” woman, one of Phin’s “liaisons,” a bite of “the devil’s candy”). In sleeping with each other, they might simply be “crossing the tracks,” betraying family and class loyalties, consorting with “lepers,” with “Not Our Kind,” and so on. The static, unchanging, patriarchal social order of Temptation has plenty of room for them to meet in the shadows, even as it codifies a version of marriage—embodied in the Lutzes and the Garveys—that is as unhappy and unequal as any feminist scholar might fear.

By the end of the novel, however, each of these motifs has been transformed, and with it, the underlying pattern it represents. The water tower remains in place, but a series of new paintjobs and rainstorms has changed what it resembles: first a phallus, it then looks like a lipstick, and finally like a breast, an image simultaneously sexual and maternal. If the phallic water tower symbolized the constraining power of patriarchy over the town, that hold is broken—not through a revolutionary change, like tearing down the water tower entirely, but through a subtle shift that you have to be a “reader” of the tower, an interpreter, to notice. The meaning of the Tuckers’ campaign slogan undergoes a similar shift. In the final pages of the novel, Phin proposes to Sophie, brings her his mother’s ring, which all the Tucker brides have worn, to seal the deal. After some hesitation, she agrees, and he tells her that he’s through with being mayor after this term, so they’ll be left with boxes of unused family campaign posters. Thinking of those posters, Sophie has a sudden realization—not just about them, but about her talents and her future life. “She could make a difference,” she thinks,

She was good at making people do what she wanted. She was born to make people do what she wanted. “My God,” she said, as the full meaning of her family’s legacy for lying, cheating, and scheming hit her.

She was born to be a politician.

“Sophie?”

She leaned back against Phin. “I think I’ll take your name,” she said, smiling up at him sweetly. “Sophie Dempsey Tucker. It sounds…” She looked at the ring again. “…powerful.” (380-81)

The slogan will remain unchanged, still offering “more of the same,” but the gender and background of the “Tucker” in question will actually be quite different. Just as the water tower now signifies female power, not patriarchy, just as Julie Ann’s being “eaten” by the bear means sexual pleasure, not her death—indeed, just as the bear may have been, in Sophie’s version, “gotten” by Julie Ann—the external facts remain the same, but their meanings have changed, especially where gender and power are concerned.

Crusie invites us to extend this analogy still farther. The marriage between Phin and Sophie, we imagine, will look at first glance like any other marriage: they are married, as are the Lutzes, the Garveys, and so on. Under that superficial sameness, however, the power dynamics of the relationship will be entirely different. This couple will share what Crusie’s essay calls a “balance of power” between husband and wife; in fact, their “pact” will probably cede more power to Sophie, just as Phin seems to like it. (“Your life just changed,” she tells Phin on the final page of the novel, “but it’s okay. You can trust me” [381].) Just as girls’ weddings at the end of 18th and 19th century novels represented shifts in the patterns of earlier societies, Sophie and Phin’s “marriage is a new pattern for each of them, and a new pattern for the town.

And since a culminating happy marriage is a characteristic feature of the romance novel as a genre, we can extend the pattern one step further still. As read by the first generation of critics, back in the 1980s, romance novels seemed to offer “more of the same” in terms of sexual and marital roles, whatever their readers and authors might have claimed. Crusie suggests, by contrast, that this sameness likewise masks a subtle but substantial change in gender roles and power dynamics. Radway is quite right that we have not left “monogamous heterosexuality” behind, in this as in so many romance novels (16). But not all monogamous heterosexuality is alike, this final scene suggests, and just as the familiar signifiers of marriage—including the engagement ring that Sophie stares at with such obvious pleasure—need to be read well and in context in order to be truly understood, the same is true for the familiar signifiers of the romance novel genre.

Conclusion

In several of her essays from the late 1990s, Jennifer Crusie tells the story of how she became a reader of romance reluctantly, even warily, in pursuit of her doctoral dissertation. Like Sophie, she expected the worst from the books, but in the process of reading “one hundred romance novels” for her research, she found a form of narrative that “promised that [ . . . ] a woman [ . . . ] could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest” (Let us Now Praise Scribbling Women,” March 1998). That transformation spills over, Crusie testifies, such that “when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I. So do all romance readers.” Crusie’s own “new sense of self” included becoming “a romance reader, and then a romance critic, and finally a romance writer”; the plot of Welcome to Temptation echoes, distantly but unmistakably, this account of Crusie’s becoming a novelist.

If we turn for a moment from accounts of reading romance to accounts of the experience of reading generally, where for the critic there is neither bias against the gender of a reader nor against her chosen genre, we find reading acts and the likely effects of reading described in comparable ways, without alarm or condemnation or special pleading. In James Wood’s account of How Fiction Works, he explains:

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on (Wood 63).

Wood does not imagine that the details of a story confuse us about the difference between what is real and what is imagined. He rather asserts that our imaginative experience and our actual experience interact to strengthen our perceptions, and to perceive differently is, perforce, to be a different person, even if ever so slightly. (“As I am,” says Emerson, “so I see.” The inverse is also true.)

Katherine Lever’s The Novel and the Reader, A Primer for Critics cites three knowledgeable sources—Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, Gordon Gerould, How to Read Fiction, and Joyce Cary, Art and Reality—for the suggestion common to each of them that “the reader of a novel is [her]self a novelist” (Lever 44). Lever and her fellow analysts of the act of reading do not condemn readers for “los[ing] ourselves in the imagined world” or letting “the actual world fade away from our consciousness” (Lever 46). In fact, according to Lever,

A good reader can be so lost to actuality that he does not hear bells ring, or smell food burn, or see shadows fall, or feel the tug of a child’s hand. Everything else is forgotten because he is lost in the world of the novel” (Lever 46).

The very act and effect—losing oneself—that draw so much condemnation from Modleski or Radway when a book is a romance read by a woman seem to be the acts and effects associated generally with the practice of reading novels. Lever’s imagined reader is male, but she makes an interesting list of details of domestic life to which his reading renders him oblivious. The act of becoming lost in a book in the face of domestic duties like cooking or tending to a child seems to Lever to have value in itself when neither gender nor genre is an issue. Lever claims this value for becoming lost in a book because her understanding of reading is that it is fundamentally active, not passive, and that the reader is in effect a co-creator with the novelist (Lever 44). Crusie, Brownstein, and ordinary female readers have long said that reading novels that are “old-fashioned” or “woman-centered” (Brownstein 24), including popular romance novels, also entails this kind of active, creative reading. Such reading makes us better “readers of life” in general (Wood 63), and as readers of life, we become co-authors of life, or at least of our own lives.

Far from disappearing into fantasy, Sophie Dempsey emerges from her imaginative experience to become a fully realized, freshly empowered “reader of life.” She has always “read” the world around her—clouds, houses, cars, wallpaper—and even the first page of the novel shows this impulse at work, as Sophie “reads” the landscape around her as she drives into Temptation. “Maple trees had waved cheerfully in the warm breeze, cotton clouds had bounced across the blue, blue sky, and the late-August sun had blasted everything in sight,” Crusie writes—yet “Sophie had felt a chill,” knowing that this “riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape” must really be “bat country” (1-2). Sophie reads, we might say, in a particularly pessimistic, even cynical way, one she has learned from her unhappy upbringing and from the movies she has watched so often. Her wary realism, as she sees it, gets summed up by the phrase she sighs to herself, grimly and sarcastically, at the end of the opening scene: “Nothing but good times ahead” (11).

Crusie ends the novel with a reprise of the opening description, which Sophie now reads through an optimistic, self-assured lens. “Behind [the new family of Dillie, Phin, and Sophie], maple trees waved cheerfully in the breeze, cotton clouds bounced across the blue, blue sky, and the early-September sun glowed on everything in sight” (Crusie 381). The promise of the thousands of campaign posters in Phin’s house—“more of the same”—has thus been fulfilled, but with a twist, since time now seems to be moving forward, not just from “late-August” (1) to “early September” (381), but into an upbeat future. Sophie’s conclusion, likewise, is the same but different. “’Nothing but good times ahead,” she says aloud, and kisses Phin, imagining a life in Temptation that will be filled, not just with sex and love, but with public social purpose, “mak[ing] a difference” (380). Like the readers of “old-fashioned” and “woman-centered” literary fiction described by Browstein, Sophie has begun to imagine herself as something more than herself: as a heroine. This particular transformation, Brownstein suggests, is properly (or at least initially) the province of reading imaginative works, of immersing oneself in fantasy, rather than of engaging with critical or philosophical texts. “To want to become a heroine,” she writes,

to have a sense of the possibility of being one, is to develop the beginnings of what feminists call ‘raised’ consciousness: it liberates a woman from feeling (and therefore perhaps from being) a victim or a dependent or drudge, someone of no account. The domestic novel can be credited with strengthening and shaping female reader’s aspirations to matter, to make something special of herself, (Brownstein xix)

In Crusie’s revisionist account—presented both in essays and in novels—we can credit the popular romance novel with this “strengthening and shaping” power, too.

Works Cited

Brownstein, Rachel. Becoming a Heroine. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Welcome to Temptation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Print.

—. “Defeating the Critics: What We Can Do About the Anti-Romance Bias,” http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/. Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women,” http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/. Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Revision the Real,” http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/. Web. Jan. 2011.

—. Untitled entry. The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. Writer’s Digest Books, 2005.

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Krentz, Jayne Ann, editor. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the appeal of the Romance. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Lever, Katherine. The Novel and the Reader. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1960. Print.

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Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Print.

Strehle, Susan and Carden, Mary Paniccia, Eds. Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

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For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Tirril Hall, Tirril, Penrith: HEB Humanities-Ebooks, 2011.

Westman, Karin E. “The Self-Authoring Heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance,” Strehle and Carden, 165-184. Print.

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.


[1] For a point-by-point debunking of Quilliam’s piece, see Holmes and Vivanco. For a detailed expose of Quilliam’s credentials, see Tripler.

[2] This list of minor characters is not exhaustive. Zane Black has his fantasies and delusions, which he tries to impose on reality, as does Amy, whose devotion to self-interest blinds her to the merits of the two films she is making: the audition tape for Clea and the secret documentary she is taping on the side.

[3] “Sophie in Welcome to Temptation was named after Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (although I changed the spelling),” Crusie writes, “because I loved the way she went around fixing people, and that’s what my Sophie does too, although not with the ruthless enthusiasm of Heyer’s heroine. My Sophie is stuck fixing people; Heyer’s loves doing it” (Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, 237).

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Review: Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying

As romance readers and scholars both know, the sexual ethos of the popular romance novel has changed over the years. Regnerus and Uecker’s book Premarital Sex in America (2011) provides a sociological context for some of those changes. Exploring the ways in which sexuality has changed and how it functions in contemporary American society, this work contributes to a growing body of scholarship on “late-adolescence” or “delayed adulthood,” or as Regnerus and Uecker prefer to call it, “emerging adulthood.” “Recently,” they write, “we heard, in the span of just a few hours, claims both that ’13 is the new 18’ and ’21 is the new 16.’ Confused? That’s understandable. But this is the conundrum of emerging adults, the group of Americans about which this book is written” (5). More specifically, the focus is on “Americans between 18 and 23 years of age” (6) which is now part of this “emerging adulthood” wherein one is, by the standard of “being 18” an adult but at the same time one does not self-identity (yet) as an adult. Clearly, at least within the realm of scholarship, there is a growing interest in a new liminal stage, located somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. This marks a pronounced shift in age studies, which previously, or more traditionally, had seen adolescence as the liminal stage between childhood and adulthood.

The book oscillates comfortably between statistical analysis and personal, and at times, anecdotal narratives from interviewees. The authors explain that “[t]o use only national survey statistics to answer our questions would be farsighted: it would give us the big picture, but could encourage all manner of misinterpretations of the data” (9) and that “[w]hile personal anecdotes may not matter much to social scientists, they often mean everything to our interviewees. Stories of what happened to them and the people they know carry exceptional weight in their own understanding of sex and relationships” (9). The methodology here is important because it allows for both a “big picture” overview of broad sociological changes and an engaging focus on specific cases, stories that end up meaning much more to the reader, given their relationship to the national survey statistics, than they otherwise might.

The authors often turn to examples from popular culture for context as well. “Hannah’s method lends itself to pregnancy scares—and to the real thing,” one anecdote explains, adding, “Had they ever had such a scare? Of course. It was like a scene straight out of the film Juno” (48). This work thus has the potential to influence the field of popular romance studies, because it already refers to and engages with relevant texts, particularly romantic comedy films. (The Forty Year Old Virgin thus “portrays a collective effort to rid the main character of a trait that he’s socially supposed to have lost about two decades earlier” [18].)  Scholars of romance in other media will find it a helpful model for bringing sociological data to bear on their chosen texts.

One of the many engaging things about this work is its historical emphasis, much of which seems relevant to the changing representation of sexuality in popular romance. For instance, Regnerus and Uecker speak of the ways in which the “sexual repertoire” (31) has changed, noting that, “[o]ral sex and other types of sexual activity are common within the sexual repertoire of emerging adults” (32) and then later concluding that “[a]nal sex is not in the repertoire of most, at least not yet. Its place is not yet clearly defined and may never be. Given that most Americans, especially women, strongly prefer vaginal or oral sex to anal sex, its practice could well wane in popularity or remain a ‘tried that once and that was enough’ sort of activity. Before then, however, anal sex may grow in popularity simply for the novelty attached to it and online porn’s disproportionate coverage of it” (39). One thinks here of the memorable discussion of anal sex as “the new oral” in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan—and of the contrast between that discussion, which focuses on erotic romance, and the fact that anal sex only appeared in a Harlequin Blaze, Private Sessions by Toni Carrington, as recently as 2010.[1] (It remains to be seen whether, in an imprint as wide and varied as Harlequin, anal sex will turn out to be something of a ‘tried that once and that was enough.’)

The longest chapter in the study, “Inside Sexual Relationships,” seems particularly useful to scholars of popular romance. In this chapter, the authors consider the economics of sexual relationships, observing that “[s]exual markets are like economic markets: we all inhabit them, and they affect everyone” (52). The book discusses the common motif of sexuality (and virginity) as a “gift” that one gives to another, chiefly women to men—a trope that recurs in popular romance film and literature—the persistence of what they call “the stubborn double standard” (62-65), and the rise of new terms and motifs in sexual culture, like “friends with benefits” (65). “Most young adults don’t actually use the term ‘friends with benefits,’ at least not when they describe such relationship for themselves,” the authors conclude (65-66):  it is a term more often ascribed than subscribed to, which suggests the enduring influence of cultural norms that link sex with romantic love. The authors’ economic discourse sometimes frames those norms in rather cold-eyed terms, as when they note that “romantic relationships last longer and are a far more stable source of sex” than more casual, less emotionally-invested interactions (72). But they also cast a refreshingly cold eye on the anxieties about young adult sexuality that periodically crop up in popular culture.  “Students are certainly having sex,” they observe in a later chapter, “but more sex occurs within romance relationships than all the media chatter about hooking up has led us to believe” (134.)

In the past year there has been considerable “media chatter” about the impact of pornography on young (and older) Americans—in particular, about the impact of porn consumption on the sexual desires and expectations of heterosexual men.  Premarital Sex in America explores the messages men may receive from “sexualized media,” from pornography to newsstand men’s magazines, in particular the current focus of these media on what they call “odd sexual requests” (86).  (These requests, one should note, they recognise as being “probably as old as humanity” [86].)   “One of the most common topics in American men’s magazines like Maxim,” they observe, “is unorthodox sexual positions and locations, even though another common topic—what women want—is largely inconsistent with these practices” (86).  They also attend to sexualized media aimed at women, noting, for example, that even if Sex and the City never “directly made anyone do things they might not otherwise have done,” the television show succeeded in “popularizing [. . .] the narrative of the very eligible, single white female who pursues sex and romance on her own terms” (127). A good deal of additional research remains to be done, however, by sociologists and others, in the representations of “unorthodox” sexual behaviour of female desire in romance media produced primarily by women, notably chick-lit and erotic romance fiction.

Although its focus is on premarital beliefs and behaviour, Premarital Sex in America also considers marriage, which it presents as an institution in limbo.  “A distinctive fissure exists in the minds of young Americans,” the authors argue, “between the carefree single life and the married life of economic pressures and family responsibilities. The one is sexy, the other is sexless. In the minds of many, sex is for the young and single, while marriage is for the old. Marriage is quaint, adorable” (172). Indeed, Regnerus and Uecker conclude that “[t]here can be no doubt that the ‘institution’ of marriage is in the throes of deinstitutionalization” (204). The chapter “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Relationship Norms in a Divided America” considers whether this “deinstitutionalization” is playing out differently in conservative “red states” and more liberal “blue states” (for readers outside the USA, the colors signify Republican and Democratic dominance at the polls, respectively). Some differences emerge from the data:  for example, somewhat ironically reds “romanticize relationships and marriage, and often experience more of them—and at earlier ages—than blues do” (234-35).  However, readers subsequently learn that young people in both sets of states “share much in common, including their commitment to serial monogamy and romantic individualism, two ubiquitous narratives among emerging adults” (236).

In the closing chapter of Premarital Sex in America, the authors theorise the importance of stories and narrativising sexuality.  “Stories,” they write, “tend to issue in sets of particular scripts. [ . . . ] Sexual scripts specify not only appropriate sexual goals—what we ought to want—but they also provide plans for particular types of behaviour and ways to achieve those sexual goals: the right thing to say at the right time, what not to do, who leads, how to hook up, where they should go, who should bring the condom, what is too much to ask someone, etc.” (237). Clearly, as the authors write, “sex is complicated” (250)! As we critics read and engage with popular romance texts—texts that may supply, or at least document, some of these “scripts”—we need to keep these complexities in mind, to problematise sexuality, rather than treat it as an ahistorical or transparent phenomenon.

If there is one drawback to this book, it is that despite its sweeping title, Premarital Sex in America only deals with heterosexual premarital sex. The authors acknowledge this limitation at the start of the volume.  ”Some will label our focus as heteronormative—that is, privileging heterosexual expression to the neglect of alternative sexualities—” they note, “but the primary reason for avoiding an extended treatment of different sexual forms and identities is that it would have to be a much longer book in order to pay adequate attention to other patterns, to say nothing of the dynamics by which they form and the courses they take” (7-8). One hopes that other authors and studies will fill in this significant gap, and that scholars who draw on this volume will not assume that its conclusions about straight “emerging adults” in the United States can be transferred in any simple way to LGBTQ Americans, or to young people in other countries, whatever their sexual orientation.

Despite its boundaries, this illuminating study makes a helpful case for seeing sex as “complicated,” in writing about it, theorising and historicising it, and indeed, living it.  Premarital Sex in America shows how sex is given meaning in both the social sciences and the humanities, and it reminds us that the complex nature of sexuality continues to haunt our critical and cultural imaginaries.


[1] For a greater discussion of this “first time” in popular romance, see Sarah Wendell’s review of the book at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/private-sessions-by-tori-carrington

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“‘The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal’: Marriage and Gender in the Contemporary Greek Romantic Comedy” by Betty Kaklamanidou

Recent academic work on Hollywood romcoms of the past and present has demonstrated how such films encode significant meanings concerning gender politics, in their plots, characterization, structure, and point-of-view (Harvey, Evans & Deleyto, Beach, Glitre, and Abbott & Jermyn, among others). This paper takes a comparable approach to the Greek romantic comedy, a genre whose popularity in the new millennium coincided with a resurgence of the genre in Hollywood. In particular, I will look at the way ideologies of gender play out in the representation of weddings and of marriage—two linked, but not identical narrative elements—in the three most commercially successful Greek romantic comedies of the new millennium: The Kiss of Life (To Fili tis… Zois), 2007; Just Broke Up (Molis Horisa), 2008; and S.E.X. (Soula Ela Xana), 2009.[1]

Before I proceed with the analysis, let me briefly shed some light on the virtually unknown landscape of the Greek romantic comedy, placing the discussion which will follow in a clearer context. (Greek cinematography in general has rarely been explored in the international scholarly bibliography, and the situation is even worse for this particular genre.[2]) The apogee of the Greek romantic comedy took place during the heyday of the popular Greek cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s. During this decade, films such as Maiden’s Cheek, Alice in the Navy, I Liza kai I Alli, Modern Cinderella, Miss Director, and Jenny, Jenny were constantly placed in the domestic box office top ten (Valoukos, 577-81). Most of these films were vehicles for the female stars Aliki Vougiouklaki and Jenny Karezi, but their female focus was hardly feminist; rather, the films served to perpetuate stereotypical images of femininity, upholding the social status quo. As Greek film scholar Athena Kartalou has argued, in films of this era “professional and gender identities of women interact with each other in such a way that good performance in one domain presupposes and/or imposes incompetence and/or crisis in the other” (4-5). If the stars of these romantic comedies appear as strong working women at the start of the film, in the end these women trade in that “good performance” in the professional world for a more appropriate “performance” of femininity in the context of romance, subdued by male authority in the form of love and a marriage proposal.

The emergence of the New Greek Cinema in the 1970s temporarily displaced the romcom as a genre. Films of this era were often explicitly political, and their experiments with form and narrative resisted the conventional (and commercial) appeal of Old Greek Cinema. Resisted it, one might say, all too successfully: unlike the popular films that preceded them, these new films did not manage to attract a comparable audience to the theatres, eventually sending the Greek film industry into something of a crisis. By 1989/1990, only six new releases made their way to the theatres (Valoukos, 594): an unsustainable situation, and one to which Greek filmmakers responded, in part, by reintroducing the romcom.

The second wave of Greek romcoms, which began in the mid- to late-1990s, started by taking a curiously tentative or resistant approach to the genre. As I have argued at length elsewhere, Olga Malea’s The Cow’s Orgasm, The Mating Game, and Rizoto, which reintroduced the genre to a Greek audience, offered a rather cynical take on love, going so far as to avoid the word “love” and the talismanic phrase “I love you” almost completely. As a result, they failed to exude an atmosphere of romanticism, fantasy and heterosexual companionship, which is a fundamental aspect of the genre (2011).  (Perhaps this is part of the reason that Malea is still considered more an “auteur” than a commercial director, despite her box office success.)

The new millennium, however, has witnessed a return to more traditional, upbeat, and Hollywood-like romcoms–and, with them, a commercial renaissance in domestic cinematography. For the first time in decades, Greek films have managed to compete quite successfully with such heavily-promoted American “opponents” as Ocean’s Thirteen, Quantum of Solace, Sex and the City, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In the case of the Greek romcoms I will examine, this commercial appeal seems due to their ability to combine the main structural elements of the American romcom genre with details of plot, structure, and characterization that speak to the films’ specifically Greek social and cultural context—and, in the process, to issues of gender that are playing out somewhat differently in contemporary Greece than they are in the United States.[3]

The Wedding Cycle

According to Rick Altman, a genre film is a narrative with specific semantic and syntactic elements that are shared, at least to a certain extent, by all the films that belong to the same “family.” The semantic elements may comprise common plots, key scenes, character types, familiar objects, or recognizable shots and sounds while the syntactic elements refer to plot structure, character relationships, or image and sound montage (224). If we apply Altman’s theory to the romantic comedy, we can easily recognize that the semantic “ingredients” include a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual male and a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual female, and an urban environment, while the syntax usually follows different versions of the notorious boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-in-the-end scenario. Naturally, these structural elements undergo changes according to the social context of any given film; as Altman jokes, genres did not “spring full-blown from the head of Zeus” (218). Contemporary Greek romantic comedies may keep the structural elements intact (the heterosexual central couple, the obstacles, and the happy ending), but they update the conventional formula by adapting to their specific social environment.

One set of adaptations centers on marriage, both as a lived social institution and as part of the cultural imaginary. Again, some background may be helpful, this time starting in the United States. American writer and actress Rita Rudner has quipped that “In Hollywood, a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk,” but although this quote may ring true if we count the speed with which the vast majority of stars discard and/or change their legal spouses, contemporary Hollywood films often idealize the institution of marriage, perhaps even more so now than at some periods in the past. Romcoms that question what happens after the happily-ever-after end credits are rarer now than they were in the 1930s and 1940s, the heyday of what Stanley Cavell has called the “comedies of remarriage.” [4] And even films such as Just Married, Trust the Man, Marley & Me, and Couples Retreat, which highlight the ways that a couple in trouble tackles different obstacles within a marriage, end up offering robust, sentimental affirmations of marriage as an institution worth struggling for. This affirmation reflects what one might call an American return to marriage, since in the United States divorce rates “abruptly stopped going up around 1980” and have since fallen, particularly among college-educated women (Hurley). No wonder the climactic scenes of twenty-first century romcoms so often take place in front of the altar or in a Town Hall, with the films thus visibly affirming the public nature of what might otherwise be a private, couple-centered declaration of eternal love.

Between 2001 and 2010, many of the most commercially successful American romcoms took this emphasis on the public nature of marriage one step further. The plots of such films as The Proposal, Sex & The City, 27 Dresses, Made of Honor, Bride Wars, and Enchanted revolved, not just around marriage, but around a long-awaited or even unwanted wedding ceremony, a ceremony whose primary importance is not religious but consumerist, a matter of material culture. The central focus of these films seems as much about finding and/or showcasing the perfect venue for the reception, the right dress, or the right cake as it is about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right.[5] Film scholars have explored how “cycles” emerge within a given film genre, a practice in which the industry capitalizes “on the (often unexpected) success of a film that offers a new twist on an old genre” (Glitre 20) by producing subsequent films marked by what Rick Altman calls “common features” such as “subject matter, character types, plot patterns,” thus gradually “associating a new type of material or approach with already existing genres” (60). In effect, the films I have noted mark the emergence of a “wedding cycle” within the romantic comedy genre.[6]

Like cycles in other genres, the wedding cycle seems “influenced by the specific cultural situation—a moment at which a genre’s tropes seem particularly resonant” (Glitre 20).[7] In these films, not only do love and marriage remain “indissolubly linked” (Evans & Deleyto 6), as has long been traditional in the romcom, but both of them are unmistakably linked to an idealized version of consumer culture. The perfect wedding that the wedding-cycle heroine longs for is the utopian site in which her individual agency as a liberal subject in the capitalist marketplace can be reconciled with her romantic selfhood as a woman in love. Sociologist Eva Illouz has argued that “consuming the romantic utopia” (as the title of her study calls it) is a characteristic ideal among postmodern lovers; the prominence of the wedding ceremony and reception in the wedding cycle romcom signals just how “resonant” (Glitre 20) these issues of choice, money, and female sociality now seem to be, at least in the American context.

What, though, of the contemporary Greek romcom, and the Greek context? The three films I wish to discuss, The Kiss of Life, Just Broke Up and S.E.X. might be said to belong to various “cycles” within the genre of romantic comedy—as, indeed one could also argue about the above-mentioned six American productions, since cycles are not exclusive entities). For instance, Bride Wars is about how two best friends (Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway) fight over the coveted venue of their wedding and can also be characterized as a “female friendship” film while Sex and The City can also belong to the emerging “mature cycle” of the Hollywood romcom genre since all of its heroines are in their early to late forties.[8] How can the theorist, then, determine his/her object of analysis? Roman Jakobson’s theory of the “dominant” offers the answer to this theoretical dilemma. According to the Russian formalist, “The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components.” It is “the element which specifies a given variety of language [or any narrative element,] dominates the entire structure and thus acts as its mandatory and inalienable constituent dominating all the remaining elements and exerting direct influence upon them” (751).

Therefore, given how emphatically these films use marriage as a narrative cardinal function which “dominates” the whole plot—and given their shared emphasis on the significance of the wedding per se—I will consider them as Greek instances and transformations of the “wedding cycle.” In them, the desire for marriage and the obstacles which have to be overcome before the wedding proposal or the ceremony can be seen to comment on “resonant” tropes in Greek culture; in this case, gender representations which are well worth examining. Altman (26) underlines that “Film genres are functional for their society. Whereas producers and exhibitors see genre films as ‘product’, critics increasingly recognize their role in a complex cultural system permitting viewers to consider and resolve (albeit fictively) contradictions that are not fully mastered by the society in which they live.” In other words, the insistence of the three Greek rom coms on the importance of the institution of marriage may constitute a reflection, a justification, and/or a solution regarding specific societal “contradictions” in contemporary Greece.

One of these “contradictions” may have to do with the tension between the returning popularity of domestically-produced American-style romantic comedy and the actual facts of romantic life in Greece. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the divorce rate in Greece has been steadily on the increase, reaching 24% in 2005 from 8% in the 1980s. Not only does this mean that one in four marriages will eventually be dissolved in a courtroom; it means that the Greek trajectory (in terms of marriage / divorce statistics) is exactly the opposite of the American one, and has been for some time. It is not surprising, then, that the films I will explore take a more divided, even ambivalent approach to the “wedding cycle” than their American counterparts, mixing progressive and conservative elements in ways that make the endings of the films (which tend to be conservative) seem oddly in contrast with material elsewhere.

To Fili tis…Zois [Kiss of Life]

Consider, first, the contradictions at work in Kiss of Life. The Greek title of this romcom, To Fili tis… Zois, already signals one of the film’s central tensions. Zois,” here, refers to the female heroine, Zoi (Katerina Papoutsaki), whose name is also the Greek word for life—but as the ironic ellipsis signals, the “kiss of life” here is also, potentially, a “kiss of death,” since Zoi/Life begins the film as a ruthless contract killer. Independent and uninhibited, Zoi does not like marriage since she “doesn’t want to share the bed with someone or have to sleep first not to hear him snore,”[9] a multiple inversion of gender expectations. We see a similar inversion in the hero, Pashalis (Laertis Malkotsis), a sweet and harmless agriculturist who, as the film begins, is getting married in three days on the island of Milos. Pashalis accidentally finds himself on a boat to Sifnos with no way of getting back because of a strike and his fear of flying. The film depicts Pashalis as a kind and sensitive man who is not afraid to cry and lives to makes his future bride happy; when Zoi spots him on the boat to Sifnos, she sees him as the perfect cover she needs in order to assassinate the influential magnate Anestis (Themos Anastasiadis).

As the film proceeds, however, these initial reversals begin to shift, and the film’s ambivalent impulses become more and more evident. The first shift concerns Zoi. When her first assassination attempt fails, with Pashalis accidentally saving the magnate’s life, the two find themselves guests of Anestis and his beautiful wife Sofia (Zeta Douka). Zoi begins to feel attracted to the clumsy and naïve Pashalis, who is constantly trying to find a way to get back to Milos and marry Anthoula (Parthena Horozidou), his betrothed. The film invites us to attribute her willingness to succumb to a summer romance with Pashalis—a romance that could upset her professional plans—to several factors: the natural beauty of Sifnos and of Anestis’s house, which provides a utopian, liminal setting conducive to romance (see Illouz 142-45); to the apparently loving and companionate marriage between Anestis and Sofia, which seems, at least at first, to be an alternative to the negative model of marriage Zoi has espoused (Sofia shows her love by caring about her husband’s diet and health and Anestis treats her with understanding and affection); and, ultimately, to the alternative model of masculinity provided by Pashalis himself. In such contexts, the film suggests, even as hard-edged a woman as Zoi might well soften her stance against love.

However, as the film reaches its climax, this mildly progressive narrative breaks down. Zoi discovers that it was Sofia that had initially hired her to assassinate her husband as she (mistakenly) believed he was responsible for her father’s death. Their marriage comes into focus as the cliché of the rich man with a trophy wife, “recasting” Sofia, in a sense, as the classic noir film’s femme fatale. Sofia’s final apology and explanation to Zoi, although sincere and heartfelt, does not persuade the spectator that hers was ever a marriage based on mutual respect, trust and companionship: a failure that would seem to validate Zoi’s initial negative feelings regarding the institution. Yet rather than revert to that initial suspicion, Zoi remains committed to love—and the reason the film offers is that Pashalis, too, has changed. Kind and sensitive he may be, but the more we hear his fiancée, Anthoula, screaming and threatening him on the phone, furious that he has not found a way to return for their wedding, the more these qualities in Pashalis seem weak, repressed, and emasculated. He acts, we sense, more out of a sense of duty than out of love. We thus approve when he starts having feelings for the sensual and dangerous Zoi, the complete opposite of Anthoula—indeed, in the only scene where Anthoula appears, an aborted wedding ceremony on a little boat, she is a plain, overweight woman with not even a line of dialogue—and are meant to cheer when he finally becomes more properly “masculine,” decisively calling off his wedding to Anthoula by jumping off the boat in the middle of their ceremony, an act that also shows that he has overcome his earlier fear of the sea.

This newfound or restored masculinity is not, I hasten to add, accompanied by traditional alpha-male qualities. Pashalis remains a plain-looking, low-income, kind and sensitive man who simply wants to spend the rest of his life with Zoi. (Perhaps he has one alpha quality: a newfound willingness to claim what is “his.”) But the film presents Zoi as oddly eager to ascribe male “authority” to him, as though she fundamentally longed for a return to some properly “feminine” identity. Even though she does not accept Pashalis’ marriage proposal, she does agree to start a new life with him on the island where they first met, and the last scene finds the couple in front of a little church—a sign of their eventual formal, legal union. Even more telling, Zoi’s confession to the magnate’s wife, Sofia, that “once she met a bad guy who taught her a bad job” reduces her to a woman who was always already submissive to male authority, and never an independent individual in her own right. Zoi’s white dress in this final scene, which reminds us of the color of a traditional wedding dress, thus connotes her return to an innocent and honest life, a sort of metaphorical “virginity” that might have been taken from her by that “bad guy,” but has now been restored to her, just in time for her to step into traditional roles as wife and mother: roles implied earlier by Pashalis, and never refuted by her, and roles which make her unequivocally a figure of life (Zoi) and not death (a femme fatale).

Molis Xorisa [Just Broke Up]

It’s hard to get more old-fashioned, traditional, and conventional than the Valentine’s Day setting and release-date of Molis Xorisa [Just Broke Up]. As in the United States, this holiday has come to represent in Greece the pinnacle of romantic fantasy and promises of eternal love: the perfect setting for a romantic narrative, or for a narrative that will explore the mass culture of romantic love. This connection is reinforced by a plot device: February 14 is also the birthday of the film’s heroine, Electra (Zeta Makripoulia). Adapted from a successful stage comedy from 1999, Just Broke Up resembles a fast-paced seventeenth-century farce à la française, characterized like these by “a mixture of skillfully used doses of the comical and the real,” as well as an assortment of recognizable and stereotypical character types (Lagarde & Michard 181).

The opening sequence of the film introduces us to several of these farcical features. As the story begins, Electra has been with her DJ boyfriend Petros (Giannis Tsimitselis) for six and a half years. Stereotypically panicked regarding the prospect of marriage, Petros dreams he is married to Electra and has three children, waking up in a horrified sweat. His fears are not entirely unfounded, since Electra’s birthday starts, for her, with a positive pregnancy test: playing again to stereotype, the film renders this as something that makes her deliriously happy. As she waits impatiently to break the news to Petros in the club he works, she dreams of her future married life. Unbeknownst to her, however, Petros has decided to break up with her by leaving a message on their answering machine. When her friends and mother come over to throw her a surprise party, they inadvertently hear Petros’ message and comically try to prevent Electra from learning the truth.

The English title of Just Broke Up might well remind us of the American production The Break-Up, a film with rather somber overtones about relationships that deals in-depth with a break-up and its implications, in the tradition of such films as Breaking Up and The Story of Us. The Greek film, however, has no interest in social or romantic realism. Mixing verbal gags with an Almodovar-influenced set and costume design—a visual vocabulary characterized by the use of vivid and clashing colors, as well as extravagant and/or eccentric costumes[10]Just Broke Up is overtly stylized, extravagant, even almost campy in its deployment of gender roles and romantic tropes. From the start, for example, Electra is presented as a modern female control freak. She leaves notes to all her friends in the building dictating what presents she wants, she instructs Petros to dedicate a specific song to her on the radio and she walks around the streets of Athens fantasizing about her wedding day. Despite her being financially independent, she is portrayed as a “closeted” housewife who craves for a family more than anything else and states that if ever Petros left her she would jump off the balcony and onto the street. Indeed, when she finally hears the break-up message, she dresses in black and plays the part of the tragic heroine connoted by her name.[11]

In what sense, then, does Just Broke Up belong to the “wedding cycle”? Certainly the film is structured by the viewer’s desire for Petros to realize that Electra is “the one” and by Electra’s desire, within the film, for the wedding that will give the same public, institutional, and conventional form to their relationship that Valentine’s Day gives to romantic love more generally. And, indeed, the film does move towards closure with that much-anticipated recognition on the part of Petros, with a final confrontation, and with the couple’s decision to wed in a highly public forum: one of the main streets of Athens. But the film reserves two surprises for its end sequence. Accompanied on the soundtrack by a new remix of a 1974 Greek hit song about the joy of an impending wedding ceremony, the audience witnesses all the characters getting ready for a wedding—but the married couple getting out of the city hall is not Petros and Electra but two gay friends of theirs, Mitsos and Vitor. This gay wedding—which is not yet legal in Greece—seems a welcome subversion in an otherwise conservative film: indeed, it reinforces our sense that there is something campy or queer about the heterosexual romance we have witnessed so far. What might potentially have been an interesting social critique of Greek conservatism, however, is abruptly interrupted when Electra shouts that she’s in labor, trumping the romantic union of Mitsos and Victor with the “real,” biological union of Electra and Petros. We may not actually witness the hero’s and heroine’s ceremony, but we are left with the expectation that this couple’s wedding will coincide with the Orthodox baptism of the child: a common practice in the domestic celebrity culture of the last decade, and a two-fold reinforcement of precisely the conservative values that might otherwise seem satirized by the film.

S.E.X (Soula Come Back)

Of the three Greek “wedding cycle” films, only S.E.X. centers explicitly on the heroine’s decision to wed. The initials in the title stand for Soula Ela Xana (Soula Come Back); in the film, Soula (Zeta Makripoulia) is a beautiful elementary teacher who lives and works in Spetses, an island near Athens. On her 30th birthday, Soula unexpectedly receives presents from four ex-boyfriends, each accompanied by pleas for her to resume the relationship. The four men represent four stereotypically flawed male figures: Manolis (Memos Begnis) is the traditional mamma’s boy, a type who is encountered in abundance in Greek society; Apostolis (Kostas Fragolias) represents the eternal Don Juan; Zisis (Manos Gavras) is the insanely jealous guy; and Tassos (Mihalis Marinos) the irritating scrooge. Unimpressed by the gifts (and the men they represent), she celebrates her birthday with her friend Vassilis (Tzortzis Mouriadis) with whom she shares rather skeptical views regarding marriage. Both find it oppressive and unnecessary, and both regard children a burden. Even as Vassilis leaves her to hit on a sexy woman, Soula seems content and self-sufficient, lighting the candles on her cake and blowing them out at a table surrounded by photos of her loved ones.

As in Kiss of Life, however, S.E.X. soon robs its heroine of her self-sufficiency. When Soula hears the take-out guy call her a spinster on the phone, she becomes obsessed with her need to get married: a reversal the film explains, in part, by having her re-read a set of letters she wrote to her deceased parents, in which she had promised to get married by the time she is thirty. Like Zoi, in Kiss of Life, Soula was thus originally a properly feminine subject, who needs only to be restored to that earlier status; she needs to “come back,” as the film’s full title suggests. However, like Electra, the control freak in Just Broke Up, Soula retains agency through much of the film, concocting a plan to take charge of her romantic life by inviting her four exes to the island, along with her two best girlfriends, in order to choose the man she will marry in two weeks. (She may have no choice in whether to marry, locked in by the past, but she ostensibly retains some choice as to whom she will marry, though even here the past plays what looks at first to be a determining role.)

For a substantial portion of the narrative, S.E X. makes an effort to present the modern Greek woman as an independent individual: one who stands in sharp contrast with the weak, irresponsible, naïve, and sexually confused lead and secondary male characters. The portrayal of these “flaws”—however exaggerated—that Greek masculinity entails should not be easily dismissed, nor should the attribution to female characters of traits mainly associated with masculinity. These include assertiveness, practicality, courage, inventiveness, and strength, but also sexual desire: a desire that the films seem to ascribe to the female members of their audience as well. Like Just Broke Up, that is to say, S.E.X. is not only narrated through a predominantly (here exclusively) female point of view, but that point of view is a desiring and even objectifying gaze, as the film contains numerous shots of half-naked and extremely fit male bodies for the heroine’s and viewer’s shared delectation.

As you might expect, the ending of S.E.X. unites Soula not with one of the four flawed “contestants,” but with her best friend, Vassilis: the man who shared her reservations about marriage at the start of the film. Soula goes to the church to call everything off once she realizes a simple game is not the way to find her life companion, only to find Vassilis waiting for her in front of the building. He’s confident she will not turn him down—which of course, she does not—but unlike the restoration of traditionally “masculine” confidence to Pashalis in Kiss of Life, which comes at a cost to Zoi, the end of S.E.X. emphasizes the commonality between the two, since as Vassilis stands waiting for Soula he holds her traditional bridal bouquet. The person Soula must “come back” to, in the end, is the one who was most like her at the start of the film, before the “spinster” insult, before her reading of the letters to her parents, and before her decision to marry someone for the sake of being married. It’s notable in this context that the wedding ceremony itself is never shown onscreen, as though it had been displaced as a telos, however slightly, by the union of two characters who started the film as skeptics about the institution.

I do not wish to be unequivocally positive about the sexual politics of S.E.X. There is, after all, something odd in the fact that Soula ends up with a man she has not so much as kissed throughout the film, who needs neither to court her or win her “contest.” But as the film ends, with all the characters singing and dancing happily during the end credits, it seems as though the film’s assertions of female agency and desire—again, admittedly a limited, heteronormative, and hardly radical form—are meant to seem integrated quite comfortably into the broader social order. In the film’s fantasy, precisely the characters who find marriage oppressive and unnecessary turn out to be its exemplary representatives.

As each of these films demonstrates, the ending of the contemporary Greek romantic comedy tends to reinscribe the genre’s generally conservative nature. The Kiss ends near a picturesque white little chapel, Just Broke Up closes with the heroine going into labor and S.E.X. completes its circle with a song performed by the cast during what seems to be the couple’s wedding reception: at a time of rising divorce rates, in these films religious marriage, procreative sex, and communal affirmation of the married couple are all, in some sense, affirmed. Yet if we take into account the full arc of each narrative, as I have tried to do, however briefly, here, we see that all three films also try to renegotiate gender identities. These efforts were not evident in Greek romantic comedies of the 1950s and ‘60s, nor are they the same engagement with “resonant” social and political issues that we see in contemporary American wedding-cycle romcoms, which tend to focus rather more on the relationships between romantic love and consumer culture.

Although romantic comedies are often discarded as escapist narratives with little depth, I subscribe to David R. Shumway’s assumption “that these fictional narratives do in fact teach readers and viewers even if they are often unaware of the lesson” (2-3). As I have already noted, “Film genres are functional for their society” Altman (26); in this case, the romcoms I discussed may well function by providing models of gender behavior and of relationships, which despite their fictional status may be consciously used by the spectator (see Anthony Giddens in Shumway 7). Certainly their happy endings validate the institution of marriage exactly at the time of its crisis in Greek society, and they do so by “teaching” (in Shumway’s sense) that marriage is on every woman’s agenda, however financially and emotionally independent she may be. Of course, as Shumway adds, “what individuals actually do with these various models [or relationships] differs” (5), and as yet, there are no ethnographic studies about how these film narratives are actually perceived. Still, it can be safely assumed that male and female spectators alike are invited to think about, revisit or even re-evaluate their own views regarding marriage and weddings, witnessing the joy that both the male and female protagonists exude in the final cinematic sequences. The contemporary Greek romcom can thus offer the scholar important insight regarding gender relations both diachronically and synchronically, and also a valuable window into how gender identities and romantic relationships are represented and negotiated cinematically in a transnational, twenty-first century context.

Works Cited

Abbott, Stacey and Deborah Jermyn (eds.). Falling in Love Again, Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema, UK: I. B. Tauris, 2009. Print.

Allinson, Mark. A Spanish Labyrinth. The Films of Pedro Almodóvar. UK: I.B. Tauris, 2001, 2005. Print.

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. USA: Indiana University Press, 2006. Print.

Beach, Christopher. Class, Language and American Film Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Bordwell, David & Kristin Thompson. Film History. An Introduction, US: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Buscombe, Edward. Cinema Today, New York: Phaidon Press, 2003. Print.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness. US: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.

Charsouli, Alkistis. Rev. of To Fili tis Zois, 2009. http://www.cine.gr/film.asp?id=709212&page=4. In Greek.

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film, 4th edition, New York: WW. Norton & Co., 2004. Print.

Delveroudi, Elisa-Anna. “H Politiki stis Komodies tou Ellinikou Kinimatografou.” Istorika, 14/26 (1997): 146-165. Print.

Evans, Peter Williams & Celestino Deleyto. “Introduction: Surviving Love.” Terms of Endearment. Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s. Eds. Peter Williams Evans & Celestino Deleyto. UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Print.

Glitre, Kathrina. Hollywood Romantic Comedy. UK: Manchester University Press, 2006. Print.

Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy: In Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988. Print.

Hurley, Dan. “Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think.” The New York Times. 19 Apr 2005. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/19/health/19divo.html

Jakobson, Roman. Selected Writings III: Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry, The Hague: Mouton, 1981. Print.

Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. U of California P, 1997. Print.

Kaklamanidou, Betty. “The New Millennium Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Charting a Genre’s History.” Gender and Genre. Eds. Kornelia Slavova & Isabelle Boof-Vermesse. Bulgaria: Sofia University Press, 2010. 167-178. Print.

—. “The Greek ‘American’ Dream: The Semiotics of the Greek Romantic Comedy.” Semiotics and ideo-logies. Eds. Grigoris Pashalidis & Eleni Hodolidou. Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, in Greek. (forthcoming).

Kartalou, Athena. “Gender, Professional, and Class Identities in Miss Director and Modern Cinderella.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 18/1, (2000): 105-118. Print.

Lagarde, André & Michard, Laurent. XVIII siècle. Paris: Bordas, 1985. Print.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Papamihos, Dimitris. Rev. Of Molis Horisa. October 14 2007. http://www.myfilm.gr/article1930.html. In Greek.

Paradeisi, Maria. “H Parousiasi tis Gynaikas stis “komenti” tou ellinikou kinimatografou.” To Vima ton Koinonikon Epistimon 11, (1993): 185-204. Print. In Greek.

Shumway, David R. Modern Love, Romance, Intimacy,and the Marriage Crisis. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Print.

Stassinopoulou, Maria. “Ti Gureyei h Istoria ston Kinhmatografo?” Istorika, 12/23, (1995): 421-437. Print. In Greek.

Valoukos, Stathis. Filmography of Greek Cinema (1914-2007), 3rd Edition. Athens: Aigokeros, 2007. In Greek. Print.

Vassiliou, Giannis. Rev. of Soula Ela Ksana, 2008. http://www.cinemanews.gr/v5/movies.php?n=6317www.boxoffice.mojo

Filmography

27 Dresses (2008)
300 (2007)Alice in the Navy (1960)
Angels & Demons (2009) Because I Said So (2007)
Breaking Up (1997)
Bride Wars (2008)
Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)Enchanted (2007)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I Am Legend (2008)

I Liza kai I Alli (1961)

Iron Man (2008) Jenny, Jenny (1965)
Last Chance Harvey (2009)
Made of Honor (2008)
Maiden’s Cheek (1959)
Miss Director (1964)
Modern Cinderella (1964)
Molis Horisa (2008)
Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)Prime (2005)

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Rebound (2010)

Rizoto (2000).

S.E.X. (2009)
Serious Moonlight (2009) Sex & The City (2008)
Shrek the Third(2007)Spider-Man 3 (2007)

The Break-Up (2006)

The Cow’s Orgasm (1996)
The Dark Knight (2008) The Mating Game (1998)
The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End(2007)The Proposal (2009)
The Story of Us (1999)
To Fili Tis Zois (2007)

Trust the Man (2006)

Twilight (2009)

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

Up (2009)

Watchmen (2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)


[1] The three films were not only the most commercial romantic comedies in their respective year of release but the most commercial Greek films irrespective of generic categories at the same time, grossing $2,721,704, $4,587,030, and $2,151,669 respectively (boxofficemojo.com).

[2] Apart from the internationally acknowledged and awarded director Theo Angelopoulos, Greece is considered a country whose cinematography has little to offer. Suffice it to say that in Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s 778-page Film History (2003) the country is mentioned only once on page 559 in a larger segment of collective productions and militant films of the 1960s and early 1970s. The same reference is found in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996) while in Douglas Gomery’s Movie History (1991) Greece is not mentioned at all. Only in Edward Buscombe’s Cinema Today (2003) and David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (2004) does the mention in Greek Cinematography surpass the limits of a single phrase or one paragraph. Nevertheless, the domestic cinema has had a long history which is worth investigating. Drawing from Hollywood models but adapting them to the specific cultural context of each specific era, Greek filmmakers have dabbled in many genres (film noir, comedy, melodrama, musical, romantic comedy) while creating new genres that stemmed from unique socio-cultural roots. On the same note, it should also be mentioned that the Greek bibliography is also limited. The Greek romantic comedy, for instance, has not been the object of systematic scholarly examination with a few notable exceptions that mainly focus on films of the past (i.e. Maria Paradeisi (1993), Maria Stassinopoulou (1995), Elisa-Anna Delveroudi (1997), and Athena Kartalou (2000)).

[3] The three romantic comedies which constitute the focus of this essay were consequently placed in a difficult race. According to the boxoffice.mojo online database, in 2007, The Kiss had to compete with such blockbusters, as 300, The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spider-Man 3, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Despite the fierce competition, it placed in the 10th position surpassing Ocean’s Thirteen, and Shrek the Third, gathering a little less than 3 million dollars which is a significant number in the domestic landscape. Just Broke Up came in 3rd in 2008, surpassing such international successes as Quantum of Solace, The Dark Knight, I Am Legend, Sex and the City and Iron Man, while in 2009, S.E.X. came in 10th after Angels & Demons and Twilight, but “beating” Up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Watchmen. What these numbers prove is that despite the Hollywood supremacy, popular Greek films can easily attract the audience since they can relate to them on a more intimate level despite the mediocre reviews they usually receive by the Press which considers them unworthy of attention (see Dimitris Papamihos 2007, Alkistis Charsouli 2008, and Giannis Vassiliou 2009).

[4] In a corpus I have studied of approximately 200 romantic comedies from the new millennium, Did You Hear About the Morgans? and Serious Moonlight (both 2009) are among the few that belong to Cavell’s category.

[5] According to the boxofficemojo.com data, these six films grossed more than $1,453,000 worldwide which is an impressive number if we consider that the most expensive film in this group, Enchanted, cost $85 million.

[6] This observation is based on a corpus which includes more than 150 romantic comedies produced in the U.S.A. and released domestically and/or worldwide from 2001 to 2009 (Kaklamanidou 167-178).

[7] For instance, Glitre (20) argues that “the revival of ‘old-fashioned’ romantic comedy in the 1980s is hardly coincidental in a decade noted for its reactionary cultural and sexual politics (a situation exacerbated by the emergence of AIDS in 1981).”

[8] The new millennium romcom witnessed the birth of a new cycle which renegotiates gender roles through the representation of the mature “cougar” and/or divorced older woman. Films, such as Under the Tuscan Sun, 2003, Prime, 2005, Trust the Man, 2006, Last Chance Harvey, 2009, Rebound, 2010, among others, showcase how the mature female heroine enters a new life chapter, where romance is discovered, or re-discovered.

[9] All translations of dialogue, from this and the other films, are mine.

[10] For more on the unique use of color, décor and costume in Pedro Almodóvar’s body of work, see Mark Allinson (158-193).

[11] According to ancient Greek dramaturgy, Electra the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra convinced her brother Orestes to kill their mother and her lover to avenge their father’s murder by the illicit couple.

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