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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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“Getting Laid, Getting Old, and Getting Fed: The Cultural Resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s Romance Heroines” by Kyra Kramer

Jennifer Crusie identifies herself as a feminist author who attempts to communicate the ideals of gender equality via her narratives. As she has explained, she chose to write feminist romances because too few authors were writing the “edgy, angry feminist love stories I wanted to read” and the “combination of what you love in your romance reading and what you can’t find in your romance reading defines the romance you want to write” (“Emotionally”). Her aim has been for her romantic writings to communicate

what the best romance fiction does: it tells the story that reflects a woman’s reality as it could be and as it often is. It tells her she is not stupid because she’s female, [ . . . ] that she has a right to control over her own life, to children, to vocational fulfillment, to great sex, to a faithful loving partner. It doesn’t promise her she’ll get these things, but it shows her a woman like herself who struggles to attain any and all of these and wins, not because she’s beautiful or young or lucky, but because she works for them. It says that a lot of the “truths” that the different societal ideologies have foisted on her are lies and that she has the right to point and laugh when those ideologies try to limit her. (“Romancing”)

One of the ways in which Crusie contests “a lot of the ‘truths’ that the different societal ideologies have foisted on” her heroines is through her depiction of their bodies. In several of her novels, her heroines find a satisfying romance in spite of the fact they transgress in some way the modern cultural conceptualisation of what is a “desirable” or “beautiful” woman, thereby contesting the cultural ideal of “feminine beauty.” Although there are several other areas in which the bodies of her heroines are consistent with culturally ascribed definition of what is normal or what is beautiful—in that they are white, middle-class heroines who are not transgendered, homosexual, disabled, or disfigured, among other variables—there is at least an attempt by Crusie to stretch the narrow definition of what kind of woman is ‘allowed’ to live happily ever after within the cultural narrative.

The importance of any transgressive depictions of the body should not be underestimated. Feminist anthropologists have long argued that women’s bodies are often subject to unspoken yet forceful cultural restraints that are an attempt to diminish women’s rights and their power in the social network. Although cultural “constructs and bodies are not the same; neither are they separable” (Marks 182). Therefore, the body is often symbolic of larger cultural beliefs and norms, and as such it can be used as a medium for social expression or dissent. Female bodies that do not adhere to the hegemonic social ideals are seen as rebellious, or even as battlegrounds for opposing viewpoints of femininity. While it is true that Crusie’s heroines do not challenge all aspects of the socio-cultural normative body, to write about heroines who are fat, or whose sexuality is active rather than the passive receptacle for male desire, or who are middle aged, does oppose and call into question the hegemonic and patriarchal suppositions of femininity and ‘correct’ gender roles.

Women’s bodies have been historically fictionalized as the abnormal counterparts of normative white, male, heterosexual bodies, and have accordingly been typified as biologically inferior to those of men (Urla and Terry; Tavris; Braidotti; Horn). Women as a whole have been traditionally viewed by Western philosophy, religion, and science as inherently symbolizing the animalistic body, whereas men as a whole have been viewed as representative of the human ability to surmount the needs of the body via elevated mental functions (Goldenberg; Shildrick and Price; Bordo; Grosz; Martin). Just as the body has been constructed as the negative half of the mind/body dualism, the fleshy hindrance for the mind/soul to overcome, women have likewise been socially and historically equated with the body. Since women are synonymous with the body, and the body has been historically considered as fundamentally negative, from the socio-cultural point of view “women are that negativity” (Bordo 5). Feminist theorists have fought vigorously to asseverate women’s physical normalcy and to protest the idea that women are helplessly ruled by biological imperatives. The female body is therefore frequently the locus of attempts to assert women’s inherent equality in feminist writing.

The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective (Scheper-Hughes and Lock). These “three bodies” exist synchronously, superimposed on the physical reality of the individual’s body. Each of these three bodies can be used as a means to either dispute or support socio-cultural ideologies.[1] While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. The social body is a symbolic representation of culture. The cultural conceptualization of the individual body becomes a cultural text, because socio-cultural “constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19). For example, a statement about the attractiveness or unattractiveness of a person’s physical appearance can also be understood as a comment on how well that person embodies cultural beliefs, norms, and ideas. Accordingly, the admiration of an individual’s lean, “fit” body represents the cultural admiration of “discipline” and the relative value ascribed to self-control. The political body is a conceptualization of the way in which governments can regulate, punish, and control the individual body. The political body is created by culture in much the same way as the social body is produced. Culture provides the “codes and social scripts” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26) that coerce the individual body to conform to “the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). One of the most explicit forms of socio-political power over an individual’s body is the power to regulate “sexuality, gender, and reproduction” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 27). Thus, culture defines appropriate “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors, and those definitions are enforced with social policing and/or criminalization.

Since the body exists concurrently as both a natural and a cultural object, it is nearly impossible to examine the individual body independently of the social and political bodies. A person has a certain amount of autonomy, or agency, in regards to their individual body. However, the individual body is so closely intermeshed with the social/political body that it cannot help but represent cultural assumptions. From a cultural perspective, the body is the “terrain where social truths and social contradictions are played out, as well as a locus of personal and social resistance, creativity, and struggle” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 31). Consequently, if the heroine’s individual body differs from the ideal, this can form a subtle but salient part of the feminist architecture of any romantic novel. Any depiction of the heroine’s physical appearance not only describes how the heroine looks, but also contains encoded messages about the cultural value and socio-political freedoms of women.

Within Western cultural paradigms “no female can achieve the status of romantic or sexual ideal without the appropriate body” (Bordo 154). Women who have inappropriate bodies, bodies that do not fit within the ascribed definitions of normal and/or attractive, frequently suffer social penalties as a consequence. Some of the many ways women’s bodies are rendered transgressive, and thus undeserving of romantic fulfillment under traditional cultural narratives, are when a woman controls her own sexuality (and reproduction), when she gains weight beyond what is ideally allowed, or even when she has grown older. It is these particular socio-cultural contraventions that Crusie has chosen to address in some of her romantic fiction.

As defined by the limitations of hegemony-approved ‘correct femininity,’ women must balance on a cultural tightrope of socially condoned sexual behavior. Those who have “too much” sexual freedom or “too little” interest in sex face being labeled as either slutty or frigid, appellations that are seldom used to describe men’s sexuality. Women who are more sexually active than is sanctioned by the socio-cultural definition of normal female sexual behavior are rarely depicted as the central or long-term love interest of the hero in mainstream entertainment. The hero may have short amorous relationships with “bad girls” but he predominantly falls in love with (and thus commits to) the “good girls.” Likewise, women who are overweight are also undervalued and are therefore only rarely depicted as potential long-term sexual partners for the hero. Instead, corpulent women are often the target of physical humor in popular visual media, especially comedies that are aimed at a young, male audience. In this type of comedy the idea of a heavyset woman as a sexual or romantic partner is portrayed as ludicrous, and being forced to interact with an overweight woman is a source of humiliation for the male protagonist. Even if a woman manages to persevere in both socially approved sexual behavior and requisite slenderness, she is nevertheless eventually going to lose the cultural approbation of her body because she will inevitably age. The older female body functions as a text illustrating how sexuality and aging are “social constructs that we interact with simultaneously through our language (which is also our culture) and our bodies” (Marks 182). Women become socially transparent as they age; they are rendered almost invisible in mainstream popular culture and lose much of their ascribed social value as potential romantic/sexual companions (Woodward).

In contrast to the patriarchal narrative, several of Crusie’s female protagonists discover they can live and find love unfettered by some of the cultural expectations of how woman’s bodies should look and act. They are thus free to be middle-aged, initiate sexual encounters, eschew underwear when it pleases them and eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts. These depictions of the individual bodies of her heroines are an incarnate rebellion against several of the cultural norms that impose an almost unattainable model of ideal womanhood. Simultaneously, the social bodies of the heroines are acting as metaphors for the larger feminist rebellion against the prevailing misogynistic cultural constructs. By freeing the bodies of her heroines from some of the socio-cultural injunctions concerning age, weight, and sexuality, Jennifer Crusie communicates a compelling feminist message of women’s empowerment and emancipation from some elements of the hegemonic gender ideology.

This essay will focus on three novels in which the feminist message of patriarchal resistance is conveyed by Crusie’s rendering of the female body in a particularly clear way: Welcome to Temptation (2000), Anyone But You (1996), and Bet Me (2004). In these novels the hero’s desire for the heroine is, respectively, a repudiation of the accepted cultural beliefs about how a woman may express her erotic appetite, how old a woman can be and still be a sexual being, and how much a woman can weigh and still be desirable.

Getting Laid

Feminists have long contested the way in which women’s sexuality is socio-culturally constructed. Welcome to Temptation explores one woman’s escape from the limitations placed on female sexuality by cultural expectations. The central female protagonist, Sophie, begins her relationship with the hero, Phin, solely to liberate herself from her sexual angst and recoils from any possibility of love or emotional commitment. It is only as she comes to know Phin better, and begins to trust him not to hurt her emotionally, that she stops seeing him exclusively in terms of the sexual pleasure he can bring her and starts thinking of him as someone with whom she is involved romantically, thus connecting with him emotionally as well as sexually.

When she was still a teenager Sophie learned that, simply because she was female, her sexual behavior could cause her to become the subject of social policing via the use of shame and ridicule. She had tried to earn the approval of a popular boy in her high-school by permitting him to have sex with her. It was her first sexual encounter and she had allowed it because she

wanted to be “in” just once [ . . . ]. Except it was awful, and when I got to school on Monday, everybody knew. And when I went to the cafeteria at lunchtime, his best friend came up and stuck his finger in the pie on my tray and scooped out this big, gloppy cherry and said “Heard you lost this, Sophie.” And then everybody laughed. (34)

This form of social policing devastated Sophie emotionally and left her with a lasting fear of falling victim again to a culturally imposed

sexual double standard that endorses different sexual behavior for women and men, whereby women are expected to confine sexual behavior to the context of a committed relationship and men are expected to engage in sexual behavior in all kinds of relationships. (Greene and Faulkner 240)

Her fear fosters an enduring distrust of “town boys.” As a result Sophie has restricted her sexual needs to “safe” relationships with boring but acceptable men, represented by her boyfriend/therapist. Therefore, when Sophie first meets Phin she immediately distrusts him because he looked “like every popular town boy who’d ever looked right through her in high school, like every rotten rich kid who’d ever belonged where she hadn’t” (22). This fear is compounded by the fact she finds Phin extremely attractive and there is a great deal of sexual tension between them.

When Sophie finds herself in a potentially erotic situation with Phin, she tries to talk herself out of participating in a sex act she really wants. She tells herself that her lust for him is “dumb” and that she is “not this kind of woman” (84). Phin offers to perform oral sex on her, in order to give her pleasure without guilt or responsibility, “an orgasm you don’t have to work for” (84) but she insists she would “have to be depraved to say yes to something like that” (85). Instead of placating her with assurances that she would still be a “good girl,” Phin tells her that she would be “Wild” (85) and “Reckless” (85) and “Satisfied” (85). The thought of herself as daringly erotic and sexually fulfilled is so exciting that Sophie “arched into him, depraved and abandoned after all” (85). Phin encourages Sophie to release her sexuality without making demands for reciprocity, and gives tacit approval of her potentially “bad girl” behavior. The idea that she could enjoy her sexuality and not suffer social reprisals or condemnation for it is so freeing for her that she is able to have “glorious” (87) multiple orgasms. This is a major turning point in her feelings toward Phin. Instead of reviling him as a town boy who is trying to seduce her in order to humiliate her, she tells him that “I like you after all” (88).

Later, while her body is still in a blissfully post-orgasmic state, she tries to chastise herself for indulging her libido with a man she was unsure of, a man with whom she had no intention of having a relationship, a man who represented many of her insecurities even as he inspired her fantasies. She feels guilty because her sexual exploration “was so wrong of her” (93) but “it had felt so good” (93) that she mentally “relived the whole thing all over again, dwelling lavishly on the moments that were particularly perverse and unlike her” (93).

In spite of her intense enjoyment, at this point Sophie still has not entirely shaken off the social norms that insist “good girls” simply do not have sex with gorgeous strangers in order to obtain an orgasm. “Good girls” make love with men they adore, preferably within the bonds of holy matrimony; only “bad girls” fuck men they aren’t committed to. Sophie still has difficulty even imagining herself saying “fuck me” to Phin; it “sounded so unlike her [ . . . ]. Then she thought of the dock. And Phin. And the heat rose again. Fuck me. ‘Fuck me,’ she tried out loud. [ . . . ] ‘Fuck me,’ Sophie said again, and went upstairs to practice” (108).

Despite her resolution to have wild, uncommitted sex just for the physical thrill, Sophie fears that it makes her “slutty” (115) and “depraved” (115). From a hegemonic cultural standpoint, Sophie is being a “slut” when she seeks sexual fulfillment and tells Phin to fuck her she is initiating sex and aggressively communicating her sexual needs. She is not passively waiting for Phin to seduce her nor is she being the object of sexual aggression. This transgresses the normative sexual script in which women must be “sexually available but not sexually in charge of themselves” (Wolf, Promiscuities 136).

Sophie’s view of her own sexuality has been shaped by patriarchal acculturation, the learned acceptance that masculinity comes with certain privileges and authority which a “feminine” woman must not imitate or usurp. The influential French philosopher Michel Foucault postulated that this socio-cultural “power has not operated primarily by denying sexual expression but by creating the forms that modern sexuality takes” (Sawicki 38). In other words, socially perceived experts on normal or moral sexual behavior, such as biomedical practitioners, scientists, and clergy, establish the “authoritative knowledge” of normal sexuality.[2] They create arbitrary definitions of sexual normalcy, and those definitions are then used as a way to control the sexual expression of the individual. Thus, Sophie fears being a “slut” because she has been enculturated to believe sexual freedom is a masculine prerogative and therefore deviant in a woman.

Feminism attempts to reconceptualise what is considered normal female sexuality by challenging the patriarchal authoritative knowledge. Romantic fiction, by expressing sexuality via women’s discourse, can allow women to regain control over their own embodied sexuality. The romance genre provides a setting in which the predominantly female authors may, if they so choose, explore female sexuality and seek to redefine what is “normal” for women to feel or desire. Crusie asserts in her essay “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real” that many romance novels reposition women

at the center of their own sexuality. Many modern romance writers zero in on the sexual lies women have been told, reversing patriarchal constraints and confirming what women already knew about their sexual identities but that many distrusted because it conflicted with the conventional wisdom that detailed what being a good woman was all about. If romance novels do nothing else, they should earn the respect of feminists for the way they re-vision women’s sexuality, making her a partner in her own satisfaction instead of an object.

Although most feminists maintain that women are the real experts in their own sexual satisfaction, it is also an area of divisiveness in feminist theory. Radical feminists (radical feminism is one of many differing feminist theoretical perspectives, along with libertarian feminism, Marxist feminism, etc. . . .) maintain that all sexuality has been conceptualized through masculine discourse for so long that true female sexuality cannot emerge until all patriarchal customs and sexual practices which objectify women have been dismantled (Sawicki).[3] Radical feminist theorists would therefore be likely to reject Crusie’s argument that romantic fiction liberates women’s sexuality on the grounds that it isn’t “real” female sexuality; it is merely a reiteration and rearrangement of masculine sexuality. In contrast, most libertarian feminists, while acknowledging that there is a chauvinistic bias in most socio-cultural sexual expression, tend to view “the release of female sexual energy as more important than the restraint of male sexuality” (Sawicki 35). For libertarian feminists the romantic novel’s depictions of women’s sexual pleasure does not necessarily stem from patriarchal repression, but can instead help women “by generating [women’s] own sexual imagery, by becoming [women’s] own sexual authority, and by thereby repossessing [women’s] own sexual world” (West 129).

Crusie obviously falls into the libertarian feminist camp, maintaining that the sexual depictions in a significant portion of romance novels bolster women’s sexuality by

making it clear that, far from being helpless, asexual beings who must be seduced to respond, many women like sex. A lot. Romance novels spend pages describing women’s sexual pleasure including details that mama never told and patriarchy would be appalled at. (“Romancing”)

Novels about women reclaiming their sexual autonomy “are transgressive inasmuch as they are aggressive, asserting female desire in a culture where female sexuality is viewed as [ . . . ] conjoined with passivity” (Hite 121-22). Writing about women from a feminist perspective or in a woman’s voice is subversive because it “suggests that patriarchal language cannot fully contain and control the female body” (Hite 134). Crusie rejects traditional male-orientated writing and instead writes defiant, feminist romantic “fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea” (“Romancing”).

In Welcome to Temptation, as Sophie’s sexual relationship with Phin progresses, she becomes more secure and comfortable in her transgressive behavior. She explains to him that she wants “something exciting and different and depraved” (138), communicating her needs and expecting him to meet them. Sophie tells Phin that their sexual relationship is “like college” (139), and demands that he teach her “something new” (139). Although the role of teacher could be construed as a position of control and authority, Sophie’s demand that Phin teach her reverses normative female sexuality because she, not Phin, is negotiating the desired sexual behavior. The act of negotiation makes Sophie sexually assertive, and therefore deviates from the culturally approved female sexual script. Thus, Phin becomes her ally in her investigation of her sexual needs, not her master. Their early sexual relationship also flips the sexual script because Phin is the object (although not a passive object, so it is more egalitarian than the traditional sexual script allows for women) of Sophie’s enterprising sexual exploration.

Novels in which a female protagonist does not follow the sexual script, refuses to be the receptacle of male desires, and is instead the active agent of her own sexual satisfaction, are disruptive and potentially feminist because they rebel against cultural norms regarding feminine sexual behavior. Accordingly, one may consider Welcome to Temptation to be a feminist novel because the heroine commits feminist acts: she contests passivity and actively seeks sexual fulfillment.[4]

Crusie is well aware that the liberation of her heroine’s body, i.e. the freedom of her protagonist to be sexual and still be a woman who is beloved and respected, is a crucial component of feminist writing in the romance genre. All of her romances have heroines who are either sexually emancipated or learning how to be so. Even if a Crusie heroine requires assistance from the hero to fulfill her sexual potential, he does not “rescue” her from her sexual inhibitions nor does he use the heroine to fortify his ego: she is never a conquest. As Crusie explained in her essay “Glee and Sympathy”:

My sex scenes—and my romance novels—are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they’re a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That’s what I’m doing, that’s my mission in life, I’m writing sluts for the revolution. I’m very proud.

Sophie is therefore representing an aspect of the feminist revolution when she begins to actively reject the cultural stereotypes that insist men will use women’s bodies and then socially punish them for their sexual openness. Tired of being a prisoner of the potential shame that could be inflicted on her by a sexist social ethos, she decides that her fear of being used as a sex object 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. (147)

Eventually their relationship evolves past the purely physical and Sophie begins to care about Phin emotionally and trust him. She then starts to reciprocate sexually by offering to try to fulfill some of his fantasies. Their relationship thus becomes one of mutuality and equality, within which both feel free to express their sexuality without shame or pain, demonstrating the untruth of the socio-cultural belief that “bad girls” can never be respected or loved.

By the end of the book, Crusie has integrated all three aspects of the body in support of women’s sexual freedom. As an individual Sophie has achieved fulfilling sex and obtained Phin’s love, while her social body is rewarded with cultural validation when Phin asks her to marry him and even his previously hostile mother supports his choice. Finally, her political body literally becomes part of the body politic: Sophie decides to run for mayor. Not only has she avoided being punished by the establishment for her sexual liberation, she will likely gain access to the governmental power structure. She therefore secures love, social status, and a career as a result of her sexual renaissance.

On the surface, the novel appears to be about an individual woman learning to enjoy her own sexuality; however, Sophie’s body is also a social body and thus embodies the larger cultural milieu. Although the misogynistic social bias insists that women who enjoy their sexuality “too much” are sluts, Sophie is validated and rewarded for being a slut, not punished. Her individual body may remain within the hegemonic ideal (she is white, able-bodied, heterosexual, not overweight, etc.), but Crusie does this to isolate a variable in terms of her social and political bodies, so that her refusal to obey the sexual script exemplifies women’s resistance to the double standard more generally. Therefore, when Sophie successfully embraces unsanctioned sexual behavior, it symbolizes the possibility of all women’s successful cultural nonconformity, even though it addresses only one aspect of that nonconformity.

Getting Old

The way in which a woman’s body is socially policed changes as she ages. Young women are called sluts if they have autonomy over their own sexuality, whereas older women are culturally denied control over their sexuality inasmuch as they are stripped of their eroticism. An older woman is culturally constructed as asexual: the older the woman, the less she is thought of as a sexual or romantic figure. The older female is supposed to willingly relegate herself to the background, emerging only in the context of a motherly role. The way the aging female body is socio-culturally conceptualised is therefore a feminist issue (Woodward; Gibson). Simply to write a novel, especially a romance novel, with a female protagonist who is in midlife is transgressive, considering that mainstream culture appears to want “to erase the older female body from view” (Woodward 163).

Although several of Crusie’s novels touch on the issue of age, it is only in one of Crusie’s earlier novels, Anyone But You (1996), that the heroine’s age is central to the plot and forms the barrier between the protagonists which must be removed before emotional satisfaction can be achieved.[5] This can be considered a feminist text because the forty-year-old heroine, Nina, in asserting her own worth and attractiveness as an individual, rebels against the social norms that devalue women as they age.

Alex, the hero of Anyone But You, is described as a “tall, blond, broad-shouldered and boyishly good-looking” (41) doctor. Nina initially rejects even the idea of a romantic or erotic attachment to him, in spite of her desire for his body and her enjoyment of his company, for entirely socio-cultural reasons. She thinks that if she

started dating him or, dear God, sleeping with him—she swallowed at the thought— people would say she was in her second childhood. People would look at them on the street and wonder what he saw in her. Guy [her ex-husband] would sneer. Her mother would roll her eyes. His friends would make jokes about Oedipus Alex [ . . . ] her body was forty years old. The whole idea was impossible. (55)

Alex, in addition to being ten years younger than Nina, has typically dated young women who are considered highly desirable. Why would he chose the forty-year-old Nina when he has beautiful women in their twenties competing for his affection? Nina confides her worries to her best friend, saying

“[ . . . ] I’m visibly older than he is, and it’s only going to get worse. And there’s my body.” She stopped and swallowed. “Everything’s lower and chunkier than it used to be. You should see the women he dates. They’re young and beautiful and—”she made a face“—taut and perky, the whole Playboy bit. And you want me to flash him a body that has twenty more years on it than the ones he’s used to? There’s a limit to how long I can hold in my stomach.” (120)

During the course of the story it is Nina, not Alex, who has to come to terms with the fact her body is alluring even though it is no longer firm and her breasts are beginning to droop. Alex always finds her desirable, but Nina cannot believe that he is not negatively influenced by the social norms that insist only youth is beautiful. Nina, not Alex, is the one who struggles to overcome the socio-cultural message that women must be young in order to be loved. Nina can perform feminist acts such as leaving a loveless marriage and restarting her career, but she has not overcome the social conditioning that leads her to believe that she is not “young enough” to be worthy of a handsome younger man. Alex’s approval isn’t sufficient to change her mind: Nina needs to find her own sense of romantic worth.

Although Nina is not yet an “old” woman, at forty years old she is approaching the menopausal stage. For women the transition from middle age to old age “has long been underwritten by the biological dividing line between the reproductive and post-reproductive years, with the symbolic date of older age for women understood as coinciding with menopause” (Woodward 168). Crusie illustrates the effects of these enculturated beliefs by addressing Nina’s anxieties about menopause. Nina fears menopause and all its attendant social implications for her sexuality. Like many women, she has been culturally indoctrinated to assume that her sexuality and attractiveness will cease at the same time as her menses. She has a conversation with her best friend about her coming change of life after she

read an article on menopause [ . . . ]. It said that perimenopause starts in the forties. [ . . . ] There was a list of symptoms [ . . . ]. Warning signs. They were awful. [ . . . ] One of them is that your pubic hair starts to thin [ . . . ] I was in the shower last night and I looked, but the thing is, I never paid that much attention before, so I don’t have any idea if mine’s thinner. (51-52)

In effect, Nina was unconcerned about menopause until she read that she should be worried. Now she is looking for physical proof that her sexual self is diminishing, and that old age is rushing toward her, heralded by perimenopausal-related bodily changes.

Nina is surrounded by socio-cultural messages implying that any romance, or even the attempt at a romance, especially with a younger man, is unfeasible for a woman her age. The socio-cultural climate continually reinforces the belief that she is undesirable because she is middle-aged: “a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification” (Sontag 102). Nina’s mother bluntly tells her that she was foolish to get a divorce because she has “put on weight” (37), developed “crow’s-feet” (37) around her eyes, and worst of all, is “sagging in more places than just your jawline” (37). The cultural construction that only youth can be beautiful or sexual “absents old(er) women from the erotic arena and kills people’s ability to imagine [ . . . ] old(er) women as erotic” (Frueh 66). Women are rarely presented with any cultural images that suggest age is compatible with attractiveness, instead they

are advised to avoid unnecessary exposure to the elements, such as wind, water and ‘damaging UV rays’ of the sun in order to keep skin ‘fresh and young looking’. Only youthful bodies or bodies with the appearance of youth are considered beautiful and valued in our society [ . . . ]. The cosmetic industries capitalise on the fear of ageing by offering products endorsed by scientific language that claim to prevent or reduce the signs of ageing, which is discussed as though it were some kind of disease that it is every woman’s responsibility to try to prevent. (King 35)

Studies have shown that women are judged to have lost not only their attractiveness, but also their essential femininity when they age (Saltzberg and Chrisler). Older women are socially dispossessed of their embodied gender because they are desexualized, and sexuality is culturally synonymous with femininity. The fact that women are culturally indoctrinated to believe they cannot be older and sexual at the same time is explicitly addressed in Anyone But You. Alex’s brother observes that as women approach midlife they

look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their own perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over. (158)

Nina’s ex-husband verbalizes the dominant patriarchal assumptions when he tells Nina that she is “a lovely woman” (165) but unfortunately she looks her age, and therefore it would be “humiliating” (165) for her to take Alex as a lover. Nina is angered by her ex-husband’s sexist and patronizing remarks, yet she has absorbed the same cultural biases and therefore she privately agrees with him. When she thinks of how her body has “softened with age, everything lower than it used to be” (166), she internally concedes that her ex-husband “was right” (166) to mock the possibility of a relationship with Alex. Nina feels great personal trepidation when she considers having sex with Alex because she thinks her body’s age-related “flaws” make her unappealing to a man his age. She looks at her naked reflection in the mirror and thinks that “[g]ravity had betrayed her when she wasn’t paying attention. Looking closely, she could see the damage. Cellulite. Fat. Bulge. Droop” (181). Nevertheless, her indignation about her ex-husband’s complacent chauvinism regarding her age and desirability impels her to begin an affair with Alex.

Nina tries to convince him that they should always make love in the dark because her body is “lower than it used to be” (185), and even though Alex tells her that he doesn’t “care if it’s on the floor” (185), she fears what he might think if he sees her mature body without the mitigating concealment of clothes. Alex is infinitely less critical of her body than she is. He views her body as desirable because it is a part of who she is, and he is in love with a woman, not with the ideal female body. However, her sexual and romantic relationship with Alex does not relieve her culturally constructed fears about her supposed undesirability.

Nina’s sexual angst stems from the fact that she cannot really “see” the desirability of her individual body: it is too inscribed with the social text of what her body should look like in order to be “really” attractive or desirable. In consequence, her social body eclipses her individual body. Since the socio-cultural atmosphere is prejudiced against aging women, she is afraid her body inspires only negative thoughts and feelings, and she has difficulty believing that Alex feels otherwise. However, in order to enjoy her relationship with Alex, Nina must accept her body’s romantic value despite its differences from the cultural construction of female beauty. She must find a mental framework that allows her to reconceptualise herself as sexual and erotic. To find personal happiness and romantic fulfillment she empowers herself by adopting a new, feminist mindset through which to view her sexuality and physical appeal.

Nina’s insecurities about her romantic worth are intensified by her interactions with her mother and ex-husband, but she is encouraged by other characters in the novel to accept the feminist realization of her desirability. Her best friend, Charity, invariably and firmly admonishes Nina for not trusting in her own eroticism. Charity tells her bluntly that the biggest problem facing her isn’t the chronological age gap: “The real problem is that you don’t believe Alex could love you because your body is forty years old and your face has some wrinkles” (144). Additionally, Nina’s upstairs neighbor, Norma, is a healthy and vigorous woman in her seventies who still sees herself as desirable. Norma has a younger lover (a man in his early sixties) and she points out that having a younger lover means he will not “run out of steam in bed while you’re hitting your stride” (81). Norma chastises Nina for declining a chance to date Alex, pointing out that “There are too few good men around to ignore one just because he’s the perfect age for you” (81). Norma makes it clear that it is foolish to let Alex’s age stand in Nina’s way. Eventually, these positive messages began to sink in. Nina then embraces her age and asserts her personal desirability. As the book reaches its romantic resolution Nina strips off her clothes in front of her mirror and tells herself that “There was nothing wrong with her body. All right, it was softer than it had been, and her waist was thicker than it had been, and nothing about it could be called perky, but it was a good healthy body, and Alex loved it” (218).

Nina only resolves the novel’s romantic conflict after she asseverates her self-worth and rebels against the way in which female beauty, sexuality, and desirability are culturally defined. When she refuses to become romantically invisible, even though she is middle aged and possibly perimenopausal, she rebels against a cultural ethos which implies that an older woman in an erotic relationship is a paradox. Her decision to transgress against patriarchal constructions of worth and attractiveness is a decidedly feminist act.

Getting Fed

Women are culturally desexualized not only by their age, but also by their body fat. Fat is a feminist issue: cultural norms insisting on hyperslenderness for women are used to control women and keep them “in their place” (Orbach; Bordo). The overweight body, especially the overweight female body, is very rarely portrayed as a sexual or desirable body in any form of mainstream culture; rather, the more corpulent a female body is, the more likely it is to be a source of social and sexual ridicule.[6] The constant and pervasive cultural messages about the undesirability of heavyset females has created a climate wherein women learn to view themselves negatively if they do not have the idealized super-thin body (Bordo; Urla and Swedlund). As a result, obsession and misery about weight are now the cultural norm (Saltzberg and Chrisler).

Min, the central female protagonist of Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me (2004), struggles to reconcile the fact she is overweight with her likelihood of having romantic fulfillment. She doubts her desirability and her romantic worth because she is heavyset. Her weight is a significant barrier between herself and Cal, the novel’s hero. Even when the other barriers are surmounted for Min, she cannot help but worry “about how fat she must feel under his hands” (307). In order to comprehend why Min’s weight is such an issue for her, it is necessary to understand the socio-cultural implications of the overweight female body. Why is Min’s social body so problematic, just because her individual body has more fat on it than judged ideal by her society?

Historically, female fat was seen as a sign of health and beauty, and was considered an intrinsic quality of femininity. However, when women began to gain social equality, there was a complete reversal of the social ideal of female beauty (Wolf, Beauty). Now a Western woman must have the ultra-thin and ultra-fashionable “look of sickness, the look of poverty, and the look of nervous exhaustion” (Hollander qtd. in Wolf, Beauty 184) in order to approach the socio-cultural ideal of beauty. As a result, many modern women are restricting their caloric intake to appear more feminine. Whereas the denial of food was once historically and traditionally imposed on female children and adult women by the patriarchy as a way of reinforcing their low status and worth in a community, now women impose these food restrictions on themselves (Wolf, Beauty). Since hyperslenderness has become synonymous with feminine qualities of beauty and self-denial, even a normal amount of female fat has accordingly become a sign that a woman is neither beautiful nor feminine. Women who only have the medically recommended 20-25% body fat frequently consider themselves “too fat” to be beautiful; their healthy amount of body fat shows that they have failed to deny themselves food like “good” women should.

Unlike women, men have heretofore been encouraged to eat heartily and take the “lion’s share” of food, therefore obvious signs of eating have become socially linked with masculine qualities. The ideology of food consumption equaling masculinity is still so pervasive in modern culture that plump or obese women are now not only unattractive, they are subconsciously considered unfeminine. From a cultural standpoint a fat woman, a woman who has obviously eaten “too much” food, has usurped the male prerogative of calorie consumption. When women eat a “man-size” potion of food, it implies that they are claiming to have the same social worth as men. The “fat chick” is mocked in popular culture because she is frightening: she embodies female rejection of the patriarchal establishment. An obese woman is not only a symbol of female appropriation of male privileges, she is also “the embodiment of woman’s insidious tendency to occupy more than her allotted space” and “the outward and visible sign of a world out of control” (Hite 136). Cultural constructions promoting thinness for women are not really concerned with beauty, rather they are advocating thinness as a way of ensuring “female obedience” (Wolf, Beauty 187). A slender female body unconsciously assuages fears that women are encroaching on men’s traditional entitlements.

The interpretation of a fat woman’s political body as a symbolic threat to established social norms is mainly part of the national subconscious, rarely addressed outside of feminist theory. By contrast, people are more aware of the negative cultural meanings imposed on an overweight woman’s social and individual body. Since the body is a “direct locus of social control” (Bordo 165), women’s bodies are constantly policed, particularly through cultural constructions of the “proper” weight, in order to ensure that they are conforming to the socio-culturally correct form of womanhood. If an individual female body is fat, her social body is consequently interpreted “as reflecting moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will” (Bordo 192). Therefore, heavier women are not given the dignity of being conceptualized as feminist rebels, they are thought of as too lazy and weak-willed to deny themselves food like “good” women. The issue of weight has become dissociated from the larger social context and culturally repositioned as an individual woman’s personal problem.

Min is highly self-critical because she is overweight vis-a-vis modern Western cultural standards: a problem shared by many women. From the earliest pages of Bet Me we see that she thinks of herself as inferior because of her weight. She believes that the maid-of-honor’s dress that she will be wearing in her sister’s wedding makes her “look like a fat, demented shepherdess” (2). Furthermore, she tells herself she would “look like Barney’s slut cousin” (4) if she dared to wear a sexy purple leather outfit and views herself as one of “the terminally chubby” (9).[7]

To further intensify Min’s belief that she is not attractive because she is not thin enough, her mother, Nanette, constantly reinforces the cultural message that only slender women are romantically desirable. Nanette is convinced that only women who conform to the socio-cultural ideal of beauty will achieve a woman’s ultimate life goal—marriage. She therefore believes that by constantly haranguing her daughter about her weight she is acting in a loving, supportive way and she tells Min that she only wants her to be “married to a good man who will appreciate you for how wonderful you are and not leave you because you’re overweight” (116). Nanette’s relentless policing of Min’s food intake and social body for Min’s own good is representative of the cultural surveillance woman must endure. This lamentable mixture of love and body policing is clearly seen when Nanette tells Min that “I know you think I’m awful. But I know how the world works. And it’s not kind to fat people, Min. It’s especially not kind to fat women. I want to see you happy and safe, married to a good man, and it’s not going to happen if you don’t lose that weight” (304). Sadly, it never occurs to Nanette that instead of helping to socially police her daughter’s body, she could teach Min to resist the cultural constructions that devalue fat women.

Confronted with constant social messages that only slender women are erotic, it is certainly understandable why Min should consider herself too heavy, simply because she is not thin. Min is described as the “chubby friend” (11) by another character in the novel, and the term “chubby” hardly connotes morbid obesity. In another era Min would have been, at most, pleasingly plump. These cultural stereotypes of female beauty are visually transmitted by models, dancers and actresses who are almost universally thinner than 95% of the female populace, so it is unsurprising that a survey conducted in 1985 found that 90% of the women respondents believed they weighed too much (Wolf, Beauty 185). Therefore, Min’s angst is almost certainly shared by most of Crusie’s readers. Even the thinnest women reading Bet Me can sympathize with Min, because they have also been repeatedly exposed to socio-cultural messages that they are never quite thin enough (Bordo).

Min’s belief that she is “too fat” to be attractive and lovable is further reinforced when the central antagonist of the novel, David, ends his dating relationship with her. Although David insists that he is ending their relationship because Min is “not making any effort to make our relationship work” (2), Min knows the real reason for the breakup is that she will not have sex with him. She never began a sexual relationship with David because she knew that if he saw her naked he would be critical of her body’s surplus fat. Min explains to her friends:

We were on our third date, and the waiter brought the dessert menu, and David said, ‘No, thank you, we’re on a diet,’ and of course, he isn’t because there’s not an ounce of fat on him, and I thought, ‘I’m not taking off my clothes with you’ and I paid my half of the check and went home early. And after that, whenever he made his move, I thought of the waiter and crossed my legs. (5)

Although she knew that David’s attitude towards her weight demonstrated that he did not really value her as a person, Min nevertheless continued to date him, ostensibly because she needed a date to take to her sister’s wedding. However, had she believed any other man might feel differently about her physical appearance she would have actively sought another companion. Obviously Min has no faith whatsoever in her desirability because her body does not conform to the socio-cultural ideal of beauty. Consequently, when she first sees the exceedingly handsome Cal her instinctive response is not only desire: it is also fear. She immediately concludes that “The amount of damage somebody that beautiful could do to a woman like her was too much to contemplate” (7). Since she admires his good looks, she assumes he would reject her because, “looking that beautiful, he probably never dated the terminally chubby. At least, not without sneering. And she’d been sneered at enough for one night” (9).

Min’s anxiety over how unattractive someone like Cal would find her is mainly a product of her own poor self-image. In spite of her fears, Cal is not sneering at her because she is overweight; he finds her body attractive. His appreciation for Min’s figure is made apparent throughout the novel. He admires her legs because they had “strong full calves” and were “sturdy, like Min in general” (84). Cal assures Min that she is “Opulent” (147) and “Soft and round and hot” (147) and that she should never diet because “Some things are supposed to be made with butter. You’re one of them” (147). Unfortunately, although Min tries to think of Cal’s compliments when she views her body in the mirror, “her mother’s voice [criticizing her weight] was louder” (305).

Min begins to overcome the barrier preventing her romantic resolution when she starts to resist the cultural messages about her body’s supposed ugliness. Although she has been trying to cast off feelings of self-doubt about her appearance, she has been having little success. Min tells herself that her body is “not that bad” but she is “not convinced” (64). While Cal’s admiration of her looks is comforting, she realizes that she is the only person who can change the way she feels about herself. She needs to internalize the feminist message that extra weight does not make her, or any woman, morally inadequate, weak-willed, or repulsive. She decides to buy new clothes that showcase her body instead of concealing her “fat” and tells herself that she is like “one of those heavy cream wedding invitations, the kind you have to touch because it’s so beautiful” (175). Once again, only when the heroine seeks a new, feminist outlook on her society and culture does she find empowerment and fulfillment. Cal is supportive of her reconceptualization, but she does not passively rely on him to “save” her from believing in socio-cultural biases against her.

Min’s growing empowerment does not stop her, or the reader, from appreciating and delighting in the way Cal assists her in combating negative ideologies about her body. He becomes a valuable ally in Min’s fight to resist the cultural messages imposed on her by her mother. When Min is being hassled by Nanette to restrict her food consumption yet further so that she will fit into the maid-of-honor’s dress, Cal insists “she is not too big for the dress. The dress is too small for her. She’s perfect” (227). Then he puts butter on a carb-filled roll and defiantly encourages Min to eat. At long last Min is being given positive socio-cultural feedback about her normalcy, worthiness, and attractiveness. Cal is abetting her quest for feminist liberation from the tyranny of the calorie police. Min falls in love with him at least in part because his affirming messages about her body make her “feel wonderful” (277) and she is “never fat” (277) when she is with him.

Cal’s approval of Min’s weight is also his approval of Min’s sexuality, because fat is socio-culturally associated with female sexual autonomy. Women’s appetite for food is “a metaphor for their sexual appetite” (Bordo 110). In part this is because “female fat is [ . . . ] understood by the subconscious as fertile sexuality” (Wolf, Beauty 184). Thus, fat is not only symbolic of female encroachment into masculine spheres, fat is also a culturally implied analogue for sexual extravagance. Ironically, fat is no longer considered “sexy” because it is a symbol of uncontrolled female sexuality: it is potentially insatiable and may consume men as well as food (Bordo). Fat women are construed as unattractive because they are cultural representations of “women’s desires, hungers, and appetites [which] are seen as [ . . . ] threatening and in need of control in a patriarchal society” (Urla and Swedlund 300). Much of the ideology connecting “excessive” sexuality with “excessive” eating can be seen clearly in advertisements for food, especially sweet foods. Advertisements usually depict women’s consumption of food as something “private, secretive, illicit” (Bordo 129) which, if it must be ingested at all, should be eaten in suitably small, genteel amounts, such as bite-size candies. Women are culturally conditioned not to give in “too much” to the “temptation” of luscious, rich, satisfying food. If they do, their fat will expose them as gluttons, the culinary equivalent of sluts.

Crusie definitely equates food with sex in Bet Me. Almost every erotic encounter between Min and Cal is centered around food in some manner. It is Min’s culinary sensuality which awakens Cal to her potential sexuality. At the beginning of their first dinner together, when Cal offers Min bread she rejects it, just as she plans to reject him sexually. Her excuse for refusing his offering of food is that she cannot eat any bread or pasta because she has to lose weight in order to fit into a maid-of-honor’s dress in just three weeks’ time. Nevertheless, Cal encourages her to eat, and soon the socio-cultural connection between food and sex becomes vividly clear. When Min finally bites into the bread she “chewed it with her eyes shut, pleasure flooding her face” (40) and Cal thinks “Look at me like that” (40). When Min tells him that she is “not interested in sex” (41), Cal watches her enjoyment of food and knows she is lying. Min’s lusty appetite inspires Cal to have lusty thoughts.

Their courtship continues to revolve around Cal’s presentation of food for Min’s culinary gratification. He invites her to a picnic lunch and brings hot dogs, the large bratwurst sausages that remind her of her childhood. When Min protests that she is absolutely not supposed to eat brats on her diet, Cal encourages her to “Live a little” (94) and “Sin again” (94) by eating this rich, calorific, forbidden food. This echoes the way in which Phin urged Sophie to indulge herself sexually in Welcome to Temptation. Cal is “distracted by the look of bliss on her face” (94-95) while she consumes the brats and when she “licked a smear of ketchup off her thumb [ . . . ] Cal lost his train of thought” (99). Finally, as though he were a devil, he tempts her by offering her Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He waves a pastry at her and cajoles her to “sin a little” (101), which inspires Min to call him “a beast and a vile seducer” (101). As Min opens her mouth to argue with him, he abruptly pops in a piece of doughnut. Her enjoyment of the pastry is so great that

[h]er face was beautifully blissful, her mouth soft and pouted, her full lower lip glazed with icing, and as she teased the last of the chocolate from her lip, Cal heard a rushing in his ears [ . . . ] and before she could open her eyes, he leaned in and kissed her, tasting the chocolate and the heat of her mouth, and she froze for a moment and then kissed him back, sweet and insistent, blanking out all coherent thought. He let the taste and the scent and the warmth of her wash over him, drowning in her, and when she finally pulled back, he almost fell into her lap. (103)

Cal is obviously unthreatened by a larger woman’s culturally implied encroachment on masculine turf. He consistently encourages her to eat “bad” or “forbidden” foods. From the very beginning he resists socio-cultural messages about fat by refusing to accept the social implication that Min’s body fat makes her transgressive and unattractive. He finds Min, in all her curvy plumpness, attractive and erotic. Min is still learning that her body does not preclude her from desirability and romance; Cal already knows this to be true.

When Min begins to indulge by eating doughnuts with Cal, she also begins to have a new, feminist reconceptualization of herself. She starts to see herself as erotic and sensual, and has a new, sexual, body image as a result. She no longer sees her body as “too fat”; she sees it as libidinal and as desirable to Cal. Min’s newfound appreciation of her individual body, coupled with her resistance to negative cultural messages about her social body, empower her to accept Cal’s love and to understand that she is worthy and deserving of romance despite socio-cultural constructions to the contrary. Likewise, the fact that Min is an overweight or heavier romantic heroine communicates a feminist message of nonconformity and rebellion against the patriarchal ethos that would deny the intrinsic sexuality and social value of a woman based on her excess adipose tissue. As Min comes to value herself, in spite of the fact she is not slender, the reader is encouraged to do so too. Ergo, Crusie uses her heroine’s body to encourage resistance to cultural messages that try to use a woman’s weight to determine her worth as a romantic or erotic partner.

Resistance is Fruitful

Crusie’s heroines boldly go forth, with their wrinkles and sexual appetite and cellulite, and meet the men of their dreams who aid them in their rebellion and fall in love with them without requiring the heroine to lose one shred of her personal autonomy.[8] The bodies of Crusie’s heroines do not characterize “conformity to dominant cultural imperatives for [ . . . ] contained feminine desires” (Urla and Swedlund 301). Her heroines are anything but contained. Her heroines are the proverbial loose women: they are loose because they have fought free of some of the many bonds of patriarchal expectations for women and no longer function completely within the strictures of hegemonic feministy.

Jennifer Crusie maintains that romantic fiction is an important way to communicate feminist ideology because the genre,

while sometimes committing the patriarchy-reinforcing crimes the critics accuse it of, much more often reinforces a sense of self worth in readers while reflecting a psychologically accurate portrayal of their lives. It does this by demonstrating the idea of women as strong, active human beings; by reinforcing the validity of their preoccupations; and by putting them at the center of their own stories, empowering them by showing heroines who realistically take control of their own lives. (“Romancing”)

Crusie herself certainly does write feminist romantic fiction about female protagonists who are strong women actively seeking to attain their personal goals. Crusie does not overtly rail against the misogynistic socio-cultural ideology that denies women the right to their own sexuality, the right to age with dignity, and the right to gain weight without being devalued. Rather, she weaves her resistance into the narrative of her fiction, embodying feminism in her heroines as they contradict some the cultural norms that constrict women by getting laid, getting old, and getting fed.

Crusie’s novels demonstrate that feminism and romance are not only compatible, but that feminist principles can free heroines to find both romantic and self fulfillment. Her novels provide not only an emotionally satisfying romance, they also provide a feminist parable as her heroines assume control over their lives and reaffirm the inherent normalcy of the ‘abnormal’ aspects of their bodies. The heroines’ imperfect bodies demonstrate to the reader that, in contrast to socio-cultural constructions to the contrary, the “perfect” body is not a prerequisite for love. Moreover, as a very popular romance author, her success may help pave the way for a wider acceptance of other categories of physically imperfect and/or feminist romantic protagonists by other authors and publishers.

Works Cited

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. Print.

Braidotti, Rosi. “Mothers, Monsters, and Machines.” Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina and Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 59-79. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Anyone But You. 1996. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN, 2006. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. “Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” Web. <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/emotionallyspeakingromancefictioninthetwentyfirstcentury/>.

Crusie, Jennifer. “Glee and Sympathy.” Web. <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/gleeandsympathy/>.

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

Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93. Web. Rpt. at <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/romancingrealitythepowerofromancefictiontoreinforceandrevisionthereal/>.

Delmar, Rosalind. “What is Feminism?” Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Ed. Anne C. Herrmann and Abigail J. Stewart. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001. 5-28. Print.

Frueh, Joanna. “The Erotic as Social Security.” Art Journal 53.1 (1994): 66-72. Print.

Gibson, Diane. “Broken Down by Age and Gender: ‘The Problem of Old Women’ Redefined.” Gender and Society 10.4 (1996): 433-48. Print.

Goldenberg, Naomi R. Returning Words to Flesh: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Resurrection of the Body. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1990. Print.

Greene, Kathryn and Sandra L. Faulkner. “Gender, Belief in the Sexual Double Standard, and Sexual Talk in Heterosexual Dating Relationships.” Sex Roles 53.3-4 (2005): 239-51. Print.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994. Print.

Hite, Molly. “Writing—and Reading—the Body: Female Sexuality and Recent Feminist Fiction.” Feminist Studies 14.1 (1988): 121-42. Print.

Horn, David G. “This Norm Which Is Not One: Reading the Female Body in Lombroso’s Anthropology.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 109-28. Print.

King, Angela. “The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 5.2 (2004): 29-39. Web. <http://www.bridgew.edu/SoAS/jiws/Mar04/King.pdf>.

Marks, Elaine. “Transgressing the (In)cont(in)ent Boundaries: The Body in Decline.” Yale French Studies 72 (1986): 181-200. Print.

Marshall, Susan E. “Keep Us on the Pedestal: Women Against Feminism in Twentieth-Century America.” Women: A Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. 5th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1995. 547-60. Print.

Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon, 1987. Print.

Mussell, Kay. “Are Feminism & Romance Novels Mutually Exclusive?: A Quickie with Kay Mussell.” All About Romance. Nov. 1997. Web. <http://www.likesbooks.com/mussell.html>.

Orbach, S. Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss. New York: Paddington, 1978. Print.

Rabine, Leslie W. “Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises.” Feminist Studies 11.1 (1985): 39-60. Print.

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

Saltzberg, Elayne A. and Joan C. Chrisler. “Beauty is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body.” Women: A Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. 5th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1995. 306-15. Print.

Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Margaret M. Lock. “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1.1 (1987): 6-41.

Shildrick, Margrit and Janet Price. “Openings on the Body: A Critical Introduction.” Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick. New York: Routledge, 1999. 1-14.

Sontag, Susan. “The Double Standard of Aging.” Saturday Review. 23 Sept. 1972: 29-38. Rpt. in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women. Ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1983. 99-112.

Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Urla, Jacqueline and Jennifer Terry. “Introduction: Mapping Embodied Deviance.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 1-18.

Urla, Jacqueline and Alan C. Swedlund. “The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 277-313.

West, Robin. “Pornography as a Legal Text: Comments from a Legal Perspective.” For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography. Ed. Susan Gubar and Joan Hoff. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1989: 108-30.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Wolf, Naomi. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. New York: Random, 1997.

Woodward, Kathleen “Performing Age, Performing Gender.” NWSA Journal 18.1 (2006): 162-89.



[1] For further analysis of the romance protagonist and cultural embodiment, please see Vivanco and Kramer’s article, “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre”.

[2]     Information that is considered correct, regardless of its factual content, because it comes from culturally acknowledged experts.

[3]     The main flaw in the argument that radical feminists make is that “they appeal to a form of essentialism in which ‘male sexuality’ is associated with violence, lust, objectification and a preoccupation with orgasm” and “a natural and inherently good female sexuality” is associated “with nurturance, reciprocity, intimacy and an emphasis on non-genital pleasure” (Sawicki 35). This theory relies strongly on biological determinism, which is the belief that woman are born more tender and nurturing than innately aggressive and hostile men. However, feminist theory in general strives to repudiate belief in hereditary gendered behaviors, inasmuch as it has been central to the justification of women’s socio-cultural and political oppression.

[4] It should be noted that Welcome To Temptation does not address the sexual emancipation of women on the other end of the spectrum; those who are ‘frigid’ or asexual. None of Crusie’s heroines, nor many heroines within the romance genre, celebrate a woman’s right to be free from the expectation she should enjoy sex, or maintain a woman’s right to find love even if she does not find orgasm.

[5]     Pamela Regis identifies “eight essential narrative elements of the romance novel” (27). One of these is “The Barrier”:

A series of scenes often scattered throughout the novel establishes for the reader the reasons that this heroine and hero cannot marry. The romance novel’s conflict often consists entirely of this barrier between the heroine and hero. The elements of the barrier can be external, a circumstance that exists outside of a heroine or a hero’s mind, or internal, a circumstance that comes from within either or both. (32)

[6] There is a small but growing sub-genre in romance that centers around a heavier (but not too heavy) female protagonist. Sonya C. Brown does an excellent job of evaluating the resistance to, and support of, socio-cultural constructions of female fat and fat females in her article “Does this book make me look fat?

[7]     Barney is a large purple dinosaur in a popular children’s television program.

[8] It is important for the hero to support and abet the heroine in her resistance to hegemonic norms of femininity, because such collusion establishes the hero as a fellow feminist and as a man who rejects patriarchal domination and assumptions.

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“Jennifer Crusie’s Literary Lingerie” by Laura Vivanco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you loved it.”

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

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

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

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

Richard began to look more interested. (79)

A little later she is

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

She unsnapped her garters with one hand.

Richard was definitely interested. (79)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Foreplay.” (29)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Coward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily sighed. “Sounds like fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re looking down my sweater.”

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

“Lace is good, huh?” Min said.

“Oh, yeah.”

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

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

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

Works Cited

Primary Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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“Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” by Catherine Roach

The “story of romance” is the guiding text offered by contemporary American culture, and more generally the culture of the modern West, on the subject of how women and men (should) relate: find your One True Love—your one-and-only—and live happily ever after.[1] To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites: Disney princess movies consumed by three-year-olds, the wedding industry, Hollywood, pop music lyrics, advertising, popular magazines, the diamond jewelry industry, and more. One of the most important of these sites, where romance is taught, re-told, and—a crucial point—experimented with in new forms, is in the literal “romance story” of mass market genre fiction.

While there are clearly significant differences—among these media forms and certainly among the diversity of the immense romance readership, as well as in the variety of subgenres and plots within the romance publishing field—nonetheless there are significant similarities across these categories as well. The basic plotline of the romance narrative holds true despite subgenre variation, which, as we’ll see in the case of erotica and paranormal, can serve simply to highlight the core genre message. As such, likening readers and novels and considering the phenomenon of romance narrative as a whole allows important insights to emerge. More specifically, in this article, I argue romance novels are so popular partly because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them—work that derives from the mythic or religious nature of the romance narrative that serves to engage readers in a “reparation fantasy” of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women.[2]

Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. Romance novels function as an antidote, as a way of pleasurably working through—in fantasy, in the safe and imaginative play world of fiction—the contradictory position of the heterosexual woman within patriarchal rape culture. This complex work, we will see, involves reconciling women to the limits and threats specifically posed to them as women by the culture, yet also teaching women to refuse to accept such limits and threats as normative and empowering them to expect or demand better for themselves. Furthermore, I argue that the industry subcategories of erotica (including gay/lesbian and “slash” romance) and paranormal—both areas of strong recent growth within the overall genre—offer new and highly effective literary means for women to use romance fiction as a way of working out their position within the culture. Indeed, the mainstream growth of erotica in particular signals important changes in American cultural attitudes towards women’s sexuality and perhaps, finally, a loosening of the patriarchal knot of allowable sexual expression.

This article forms the initial part of an ongoing monograph project on the romance narrative in popular culture, focusing especially on popular romance fiction. I seek to understand how this romance narrative functions and how it is currently changing, both as a genre of popular literature and as a form of human relationship. Unlike some lines of previous academic inquiry into romance fiction, my goal has little to do with either critique or defense of the genre, nor do I aim for close literary reading of individual authors (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). Like Tania Modleski, I seek to read “symptomatically” (2008, xix), not intending by this metaphor for romance fiction to be taken as illness or pathology, but simply as a rich cultural site that yields much insight into critical issues of gender and sexuality in America today. I seek to place romance fiction in the broader context of the romance narrative in popular culture; and to adopt a framework of cultural studies, religious studies, gender studies, and sex-positive feminist theory to ask questions about meaning, fantasy, fear, and desire in how the romance narrative plays out in the realms of both popular and high culture in which this story holds such vast sway.

Love as God: Healing and the Religious Eschatology of the “Happily Ever After”

What fascinates me is how, even with the possibility of new and more open twenty-first century norms for gender equality and sexual experimentation, the romance narrative continues to thrive and endure. The power of the story does not die. In fact, romance sales show new dominance in the market; for example, yearly growth in number of new titles rose from 5,184 in 2003 to 10,497 in 2007 (Romance Writers Report 2009). According to industry research compiled by Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels constitute, by far, the largest segment of fiction publishing, with $1.4 billion in yearly US sales and half of mass market paperbacks sold.[3] We chase romance—even when it is to our detriment—we structure our lives around it, we fashion much of our art and pop culture from it. There is a mythic and even religious nature to this endless quest for love, this search for our “One True Love,” this desire and yearning for happily ever after.

Although the romance narrative finds one of its major contemporary expressions in the publishing industry of popular romance novels, more broadly speaking, the story of romance is perhaps the most powerful narrative at work in popular culture and, since its ascendance in the nineteenth century, may well be the most powerful narrative in art and culture in general (Coontz 2005, Polhemus 1990). By calling romance a “cultural narrative” here, I mean a guiding story that provides coherence and meaning in many people’s lives; a story whose truth value lies in the extent it is held to be true by people who shape their lives around that story, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is in this sense that the romance narrative is mythic or religious: it often functions as a foundational or idealized story about the meaning and purpose of life.[4] According to this story, it is love that gives value and depth to life; our purpose is to find a well-suited life-mate worthy of our love and to love well and be loved by this mate and a circle of family and friends.

Part of my jumping off point here is Robert Polhemus’s powerful study of nineteenth-century British novels of love and romance, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (1990). In his analysis of these novels that stand as high literary precursors to twentieth-century popular romance fiction, his key concept of “erotic faith” provides a reading of the emotional dynamic that the romance narrative then turns into story. Erotic faith, he writes, is “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love” (1). Erotic faith is the belief “that people complete themselves and fulfill their destinies only with another … that in the quest for lasting love and the experience of being in love men and women find their real worth and character” (27). John Keats, for example, in a recent movie dramatization, proclaims, “There is a holiness to the heart’s affection” (Bright Star 2009). Polhemus’s point is that we have faith in love, a reverence for it. Starting in the late eighteenth century with the growth of secularism springing from the Enlightenment, in the art and in the marriages of  western Europe and North America, people increasingly fell in love with the idea of being in love. This faith in love has become a new form of faith, to “augment or substitute for orthodox religious visions” (4), but with such close psychological functionality between the two forms of faith that “religious feeling and eroticism run close together” (10) and “love and theology may be surrogates for each other” (19).

Erotic faith takes on story form in what I’m calling the romance narrative: spun out in prose in the novel, be it the literary high fiction of Pride and Prejudice or the popular mass market fiction of The Sheik and the Vixen; or in advertisements, Hollywood flicks, and pop lyrics; or again as mythic or archetypal template to make sense of one’s own relationship practice. In all cases, the shared and underlying mythic conviction is in the idealizing power of love to make the world, in reality so often harsh and even tragic, a better place. In line with the promise of orthodox religious faith, love offers the promise of redemption and even salvation. In novels, the love plot is the story arc by which characters mature and, the novel teaches, is the means by which real-life people can mature as well. Love leads to compassion, mercy, understanding, and kindness; it tempers pride, harsh judgment, and the violent outbursts of a reflexive defensiveness; it grants the inner peace and self-confidence for the lover to be a stronger and wiser person. In all these ways, erotic faith is the conviction, explored in the ups and downs of the romance narrative—girl and boy meet, fall in love or lust, suffer through internal and external conflicts, break up, get back together, and then live happily ever after—of the healing power of love.

But to go further and flip the equation: while the romance narrative is “religious” in its faith in the healing power of love and in the scope of its mythic quest for love, the central religious narrative of western history is also “romantic.” Christianity, that central religious narrative, is easily read as a love story. In the context of  western culture, wherein the artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific heritage are all strongly shaped by the Christian religious tradition, the narrative core of that tradition is essentially a romance story. The mythic narrative of Christianity follows the pattern of the romance narrative, with a guaranteed happy ending (for well-behaved believers or the “saved”), wherein all works out and you live forever after. “Find your one true love and live happily ever after” is one way to describe the narrative content of Christian theology, of the ideal relationship between the believer and the One True Love of Christ the Son or the Christian Father God, and then the believer’s reward of life everlasting. “Are you the One?” the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, as many a lover has pondered early in the game (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20). “God is love,” asserts a key New Testament passage (1 John 4:8, 16), a theological notion that erotic faith easily flips into its own central dogma that “Love is God.”

This two-directional religious analysis allows us to see both the romance narrative within the Christian religious story, thus highlighting the omnipresence and cultural power of this narrative, as well as the religious aspect of the romance story itself, thus highlighting the mythic work of healing and salvation carried out by this story.  The point I seek to make through this parallel is the deep-rootedness of the cultural belief that there is a resurrection power to love. The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith,  western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.

To make this argument clearer, we need to consider one particular aspect of the romance novel: namely, the ending. In romance, the ending is crucial. Romance novels, as well as the romance narrative more generally, are defined by their “HEA”: the happily-ever-after ending, or what RWA calls the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Web), wherein the protagonists resolve their various internal and external conflicts and commit their lives lovingly to one another. Stereotypically, this ending involves the hero and heroine solving the problems that kept them apart, declaring their mutual love, getting married, and often conceiving or bearing a child. Increasingly in contemporary romances, the protagonists may not marry and reproduce, but still make some sort of deliberate decision to be together, a decision that brings to their lives a sense of fulfillment, joy, and the ongoing promise of hot sex.

This ending is important because it highlights the core fantasy work of the romance narrative: everything will be all right; it will all work out; whatever pain and betrayal and disappointment and loneliness haunts you will end; you will be loved by a most worthy partner despite your flaws: absolutely, devotedly, without fail, never-endingly (“for all eternity, and even beyond” promises Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl [386]). This fantasy is the idealized version of reality that Northrop Frye (1957) sees as the central characteristic of the romance myth.[5] Authors I’ve interviewed talk about the ending as a contract they have with their readers: no matter how wounded are their characters at the book’s beginning and how further tortured are those characters by the plot conflicts in the book’s middle, all will be well by the end. The HEA is a sacred guarantee in a romance novel: the author will not let the readers down by failing to provide the emotional resolution in the reading experience of love conquering all, healing all wounds, and leading to the promised happily ever after.

The true significance of this HEA, I submit, lies not in its presence at the end of every romance novel, but in its presence in the larger culture. The Christian mythic narrative and the romance narrative both highlight eschatology. Both are narratives concerned with the eschaton, the end of the world or the ultimate destiny of the characters involved (from the Greek eschatos for “last” or “farthest”). A romance, from the very beginning of the story, promises its HEA; the end of the story is inherent from the very beginning, as part of its very narrative structure. The romance story is narrative eschatology. A romance is a story about how to get to a healing end—an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed. To be human is to desire and quest for love. This is what is both wonderful and foolish, even dangerous, about the human condition. The romance narrative tells this story of love and the human condition, in all its vulnerability and risk and wonder and foolishness.

To connect this analysis back to the context of patriarchal culture—true to eschatology, this HEA ending is not just the ending of a particular book nor of a genre of popular literature. The ending of romance novels—in which the heroine and hero will love each other well, for all their lives, and their love binds up their wounds—is not just the conclusion of a story. The romance ending, like the Christian eschaton, is the end of all endings, the ending beyond endings. It is the foundational premise of hetero-normative masculinist culture: that a woman must be under the protection of a man, yoked to him and to at least some extent in his control. But here’s the rub: as evidenced by the enormous female readership of romance novels, this premise is foundational as well to much female fantasy life: that a woman will be protected, yet also pleasured, by the perfect love of a good man.

Lust, Loins, and Literature: Romance Novels as Mirror of Changing Sexual Norms for Women

Feminist scholars of the romance genre have long been engaged and troubled by this paradox: women seemingly love to read novels in which they are bound to men. Thus, the genre limits women (but does it?), yet the genre empowers women (but does it?). Much scholarship has prodded, and continues to prod along these lines, as variously nuanced feminist critique and/or apologia for the genre (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). From a feminist perspective worried about romance novels’ take-away message for women, there is room for concern. However, while readers may sometimes consume these novels in voracious quantity and with great attachment to the genre (reading “religiously” in another sense of the term), they by no means read uncritically. The advent of online readers’ communities exposes the rich interplay among readers, texts, and authors; far from accepting characters’ choices and any views implied by authors, readers often argue back (Wendell and Tan 2009). They post comments deriding the “too stupid to live heroine” along the lines of “why would any sane woman act like that?” or “why would she fall in love with a jerk like him?” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume readers, perhaps especially young adolescent girls, do derive something from their reading experience in terms of a “moral of the story,” and that this moral may well have some sort of ramification in the lives of women. In the books’ complex and ambiguous nexus of women’s imagined fear and desire, shame and pleasure, hurt and healing, vulnerability and protection, pleasure and anxiety, risk and reward, bondage and freedom—what lessons then emerge for readers?

Contemporary romance novels do feature, almost universally, strong and empowered heroines in storylines bucking patriarchal convention mandating male leadership and female submission, but they also, by definition, pretty much always end in monogamous pair-bonding. In contrast to the second-wave feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to live happily ever after in a romance novel, a woman does need a man (and a man needs a woman). To the extent that romances push a vision of women’s lives as incomplete unless they are with a man, a vision of women’s happiness and mature fulfillment necessarily achieved through monogamous, heterosexual marriage and motherhood, this would remain a rather limited, traditional, and patriarchal vision of a woman’s life possibilities. In this regard, I am heartened by the growth of erotica, paranormal, and the new lines of gay and lesbian romance with their ménage stories; non-“vanilla” sex scenes; and heroines who even after pair-bonding remain kick-ass vampire-killers, or vampires, or some other form of strong female alpha or high-achieving professional. Although romance fiction can sometimes seem to offer a narrower vision of women’s lives—perhaps even create false expectations and impossible goals—on the other hand, judging by its massive readership, this vision is hugely appealing to women. So, why, and is that a problem? Just what is at stake in the romance novel? What does happen in reading it? What work does it do for its women readers, and does this work have any feminist liberatory potential?

I want to take a new tack on these issues by focusing on the recent rise of erotica, which I argue allows us to probe this paradox differently, by picking up the lines of inquiry I’ve laid out in regards to the HEA and its central motif of the healing power of love. I grew up reading romance novels (indeed, an important part of my motivation in this project is the chance it offers to interrogate my own fascination with the genre). I used to call the books—with amused affection—“trashy novels.” My friends and I, and my mother and some of her friends all bought, read, traded, and discussed our trashy novels. Were I to parse this descriptor now, I would see in it, on the one hand, a fondly-intended denigration of the genre as lowbrow (not the “good” literature I read for school), and on the other hand, a somewhat titillated adolescent sense that I was getting away with something naughty. I wouldn’t have been allowed to read Playboy or watch porn videos in the house, but although these stories were equally sexually explicit, and thus in that sense “trashy” or smutty, they were acceptable because they were both “romance,” with its legitimizing married HEA, and “novel,” thus still better than reading nothing at all. The genre has developed in many ways over the thirty years I’ve been reading it, but one of the most fascinating developments is the rise of the entirely “trashy” subgenres of erotica (which doesn’t necessarily end with monogamous pair bonding) and “romantica” (which generally does).

This rise is a controversial one, and benefits from a brief contextualization within the recent and equally controversial rise of sex-positive culture and sex-positive feminism. Kayla Perrin is a USA Today bestselling romance novelist who wrote this speech for her character Lishelle in the erotic romance Getting Some (2007, 133):

See, this is what I don’t understand. If guys fuck a hundred women, they’re heroes. They feel no shame in bedding a woman they’ve just met. But if a woman has a one-night stand, my God, she’s a dirty whore. How dare she like sex? This is the twenty-first century, honey. It’s high time we women embrace our sexuality and bury the shame. We have needs, the same as men do. Why do we feel so friggin’ bad about going after what we want?

Lishelle’s passionate endorsement for women to embrace their sexuality highlights how the story of romance is rapidly changing, especially for young women today. A new era is opening up wherein women can write or read such erotica, “hook up” with multiple partners and different types of partners, post images of themselves on altporn sites like Suicide Girls, attend Tupperware-style sex toy parties, wear porno-chic fashion, work as strippers, or simply revel in Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, yet still be “good girls” (“Good Girls Do,” reads one recent newspaper headline). The gay rights movement (LGBTQ) is an important part of opening up this narrative; “romance,” including in publishing, no longer means only heterosexual, female-virginal, monogamous, deeply-in-love pair-bonding. The category of what is culturally acceptable in love and romance has—at least in some quarters—grown much bigger. To use Polhemus’s term, our faith in what legitimately counts as the erotic is expanding. This phenomenon of potentially liberating new attitudes toward women’s sexuality is what commentators and scholars characterize in various forms as “sex-positive culture” or “sex-positive feminism” or “striptease culture” (Nagle 1997, McNair 2002, Johnson 2002, Roach 2007). We see its boldly playful echo in such romance groups and blogs as History Hoydens, Smart Bitches, Word Wenches, Historical Hussies, Rip My Bodice, and the Smutketeers.

This effect is further seen in the recent publishing rise of erotica and romantica, and the concurrent intensification of sexual content in much of mainstream romance fiction. Romance novels, like the wider romance narrative, are in the midst of a sea change as they become affected by this sex-positive culture—indeed, I would argue that many romance novelists today are doing sex-positive feminism in their writing. How can we evaluate the complex implications of this change as a current large-scale cultural experiment, both potentially liberatory and at risk of re-inscribing tired patriarchal norms of women’s erotic desire, fantasy, and pleasure? Does today’s romance fiction help move women’s sexuality from margin to crossroads to center, or simply re-marginalize it anew? How are romance novels affected by—and also responsible for shaping—new societal changes about what’s acceptable sexually, in terms of the novels’ level of graphicness, underlying attitudes toward sexuality, treatment of pregnancy and STD protection, etc.? And how does this new trend toward more explicit sexuality in romance novels and more sexual choices in lifestyle relate to such apparently opposite cultural trends as, for example, the premarital abstinence movements of “True Love Waits” and father-daughter “Purity Balls,” as well as the rise of inspirational romance novel sales (with little to no explicit sexuality)?

I take the rise of women’s erotica as indicative of an important cultural moment of change and counter-resistance. Romance authors are opening up restrictive sexual taboos in ways that have true potential to lessen social injustices (for women, sexual minorities, and men too long restricted to a narrow macho role). These new romance narratives can unchain young women from an often destructive and desperate sense they have to find “Mr. Right” early on and not let go. They can give people permission to explore love and sexuality, and ultimately themselves, in new liberatory ways, but these ways are, admittedly, at the same time clearly fraught with risk and danger. Part of the risk is women turning themselves into what author Ariel Levy (2005) termed “female chauvinist pigs” through the internalization of a sex-bunny sensibility that simply gives flesh to every boy’s wet dream fantasy, and then those women experiencing the type of losses Laura Sessions Stepp laments in her book Unhooked (2007) about the campus hook-up culture. Another part of the risk is the early sexualization of the “porno-tot” phenomenon and the loss of innocence and health risks feared by the abstinence movement. In all of this, there is a daunting challenge for the “new erotica” to pull off, but—perhaps—real potential as well, to help us live in ways that are richer and, ultimately, more loving.

Getting a Good Man to Love in Patriarchy: “Come Back to the Bed Ag’in, Alpha Honey!”

We arrive finally at the crux of the tension, the paradox at the heart of the romance narrative. If romance is one of—or even the—central cultural narrative(s), with roots stretching into the culture’s foundational religious story, and if this narrative is being experimented with in new and potentially liberatory ways for wider sexual justice, then romance novels are doing deep work for their readers and for the culture. By “deep work,” I mean that this work is partly unconscious (Modleski 2008), operating at the level of both individual psychology and larger socio-cultural dynamics. The purpose of this work, I argue, is to assuage the drag and rub of patriarchy, to try to make up for the costs to a woman’s psyche of living in a culture that is always just a little, at least potentially, in certain ways against her. As Frye says, “Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality” (1956, 136).

Let’s put it this way: if, to at least some extent, it’s still a man’s world out there, if the name of the game is patriarchy, then a woman is safer from the dangers that game poses to women—rape and other physical attack, diminished pay rates, employment discrimination, abandonment with children, restricted travel and other life options, general infantilization, misogyny, a life-long low-level anxiety over her sexual vulnerability—to the extent she is in committed relationship with, and thus protected by, a good man. The notion of “good man” here is represented by the romance hero possessing the unlikely profile of high alpha traits that both guarantee he can protect the heroine, and that render him immune to the predations of patriarchy—for patriarchy is a system of violent control and power-over that victimizes lower-caste males as well—in combination with the high sensitivity of the most enlightened pro-feminist lover. This good man/alpha hero is a fantasy, an illusion, in the sense of a powerfully-appealing figure based in wish-fulfillment. As Freud (1927) said, an illusion may have truth to it—for certain lucky young girls, their prince really does come; think Grace Kelly, for example. The story of the alpha hero does have such truth to it—in that love does heal wounds, romance does offer sweetness, most people do seek such and generally find such, to at least some extent—but it is also a fantasy, or illusion, and in the sense of a wish-fulfillment, is highly unlikely to be literally and wholly true. Such is the power of fantasy to offer both truth and illusion. I suspect the resonance of romance novels lies in the central paradox of this interconnected fantasy power of deep truth and of wish-fulfilling illusion.

Romance is fantasy in the sense of pleasure and escape from reality, where true love does not always conquer all nor heal all wounds—key premises of the romance narrative. But more specifically, romance does deep psychic work for its readers by functioning as a fantasy antidote to patriarchy, to the extent that it is still a man’s world out there: the heroine and, vicariously, the female readers get that fantasy paradox of an alpha male who is strong and dominant, yet also caring and sensitive; sexy and desired, yet devoted totally to the heroine and her sexual pleasure; indeed he is helpless and lost without her love. Part of the reading pleasure, too, is the fantasy conquest of patriarchy. According to Frye, one of the central and climactic images in the romance is that “of the monster tamed and controlled by the virgin” (1957, 201). In my reading, this taming is the central dynamic of the romance novel as well. Apart from any realism imparted by rich details, these novels essentially represent a mythic fantasy world in which Woman: the Virgin, the Maiden, the Princess Warrior, Everywoman, tames and controls the monster, Man: the patriarchal alpha hero, who has the power to easily harm her, but who will not, because she has cracked open his frozen patriarch’s heart and taught him to love (Frantz 2002).

These are large claims that must await full unpacking and exploration in future research and writing, but as an exemplar here, I want to focus on the HEA and healing in a final argument that both the subgenres of erotica and paranormal (often combined) highlight or intensify the dynamics of the HEA and of its central reparation fantasy of redemption, salvation, and wholeness. Both erotica and paranormal are highly effective at doing the deep work of the romance novel HEA and thus can more clearly reveal this deep work. The messages to women here are three: you can’t fight patriarchy, you must fight patriarchy, and patriarchy will end. All this is encapsulated in the complex HEA promise: you will get a good man to love. Vignettes from three recent romance novels illustrate these messages.

Maya Banks’s Sweet Persuasion (2009) is a BDSM romantica tale, featuring Serena, a successful business woman whose fantasy is to be a sex slave to Damon, the charismatic owner of a sex club. This, and similar plot lines, allow for exploration of a submission and surrender theme to the erotic desire and possessiveness of a powerful man not widely seen since the “bodice-ripper” domination and rape plots of the 1980s (Wendell and Tan 2009). BDSM romantica allows for a more politically-correct exploration of this dynamic, as here the heroine surrenders willingly, in a fantasy power game, and Damon’s complete authority over her—“I want the security of knowing I am … owned,” Serena says (70)—is ultimately benign. While he puts her in bondage and takes a crop to her, Damon also feeds, clothes, and bathes her—literally by hand; fully supports her professional ambitions; puts up charmingly with her meddling friends; buys her a wardrobe; and sends her to the spa. He demands total control over her, but he’s also a good man, who loves her well and devotedly. “I wanted to own her. I wanted her to own my heart” (253), he says of a previous failed relationship, when explaining his desire to Serena. The lesson Serena learns in the end: “it takes someone strong to give up ultimate power, to allow a man to take care of her, to make decisions for her” (284). Patriarchy is literally the name of the game here: Serena wants to play sex-slave to a strong alpha master. Thus, the message: you can’t fight patriarchy, lest you be a bad slave and displease your master; but you must fight patriarchy, in the sense of holding out for no less than this perfectly egalitarian master. For while the master here rules, no matter—by the time of the HEA, it’s clear he rules to serve and to cherish. And so patriarchy ends. Although he’s in charge, she has him: she owns his heart. Through identification with both the heroine and hero, the female reader experiences her subordinate and vulnerable position within our still-patriarchal culture as one that nevertheless promises her safety and pleasure, precisely because this particular patriarch has capitulated to her, fully and completely.

In Joey W. Hill’s BDSM romantica novel Natural Law (2004), the power dynamic is reversed between two under-cover cops; instead of patriarchy ruling, here it’s the “matriarch” or Mistress in charge. Violet is petite, a “pixie,” yet formidable: a dominant Mistress born. Patriarchy is already overturned here, in that the deep fantasy work of this story is that of resisting and rejecting male rule for a matriarchy where man is the subordinate, required to obey the woman’s every command, and wanting nothing more than to fulfill her will and satisfaction as his own. Yet although Mac is a willing male submissive, he is still the alpha through and through: physically much stronger, a seasoned detective, no weakling who would leave you prey to harm (he in fact takes a bullet for Violet by the end of the story). Like Serena and Damon, Violet and Mac finally find each other after a long and painful life quest of loneliness and self-doubt; these couples complete each other and find healing and wholeness through surrender to their special form of love. Violet, unlike Serena, upends the patriarchal dynamic; she is “someone strong” in a different sense than Serena, but not in any sense that emasculates Mac. He enjoys “serving a Mistress’s pleasure,” he says self-confidently, as much as he enjoys “being a cop, or watching a Buccaneers game, or spending a day out in the Gulf on my boat. Being a sub doesn’t make me less of a man” (277). The female reader fantasy here is one of overt power, but although she’s nominally in charge (you must fight patriarchy), he’s the strong alpha male all the same (you can’t fight patriarchy), perhaps even more so—because if it takes a real man to eat quiche, wear pink, and drink Chardonnay, surely it takes a man on the archetypal level of a romance novel warrior-king to accept bondage and open himself to the pleasure of anal penetration by his Mistress (patriarchy will end).

The warrior-king becomes real, and becomes vampire, in my last example: J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover (2005), the first book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. In paranormal romance, the hero can be more alpha—bigger, stronger, more deadly—than in non-paranormal: he can grow fangs, possess supernatural strength, teleport, heal miraculously fast, etc. While “Wrath” is all that—indeed, his name says it all—he, like all males shaped by patriarchy’s “tough guise” or mask of emotional straight-jacketing, cannot love. He can only disdain erotic faith as the religion of women and weak men. He is the über-patriarch: violently aggressive against all enemies, an arrogant macho hardass toward the brotherhood, “six feet nine inches of pure terror dressed in leather” (3). Yet he’s immediately drawn to Beth, a beautiful woman thrust into his keeping, about to turn into a vampire herself. He gives into lust, but fights love. For a man to open himself to love means he’s weak, “pathetic … pussy-whipped,” Wrath goads a happily-mated brother (186-87). But by the end, as Wrath and Beth find peace and completion in their love bond and a new life mission together to rebuild vampire civilization, Wrath is a changed man. Still the ultra-violent patriarch toward any who would dare hurt his queen, he has literally had Beth’s name carved into his back; kneeled at her feet; offered his body, heart, and soul as hers to command; and then asked, with head bowed, “Will you take me as your own?” (333). The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues, and you get a good man to love; that is, you now have the alpha-king for your own, as you have fought and vanquished him on the battlefield of love.

All three of these examples have in common what I am calling a reparation fantasy in the HEA’s work of imagined healing. One of the Latin etymologies for the term “religion” is re-ligare, “to re-bind” or “re-tie” (the term “ligament” has the same root). From this perspective, religion represents a threefold sense of original unity, recognition of loss or wound, and attempt to repair and reconnect sundered parts back into a whole. Plato’s Symposium dialogue famously casts this threefold sense as an origin story of humanity and humans’ rather foolish yet poignant endless quest for love. In the dialogue, humans began as four-footed symmetrical beings, then were cut in half by the gods, and now are forever on a quest for their missing other part: our better half, our soul mate, our one-and-only, our One True Love. In the Symposium and the three romance novels above, love renders us whole, heals and completes us, resolves life’s quest, brings true peace. From this perspective, both romance and religion are reparation fantasies, deep mythic stories of the powerful healing that comes about through meaningful and intimate relations.

One last idea: for Leslie Fiedler, the American literature critic of the mid-twentieth century, American fiction is driven by the dream of interethnic male bonding and the “myth of the dark beloved,” in which people of color forgive and love white folk, despite the predations and horrors of racism. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) is his controversial essay on Huckleberry Finn and also The Last of the Mohicans, two iconic American stories authored by white males about a “dark beloved:” an African-American or Native American male other who shares an adventurous quest with a white male protagonist. Fielder’s essay is essentially about the literature of white male America as a reparation fantasy for racism, offered with remorse and affection on the part of the racists. Romance fiction is a different, reverse type of reparation fantasy, one centered on sexism and patriarchy and offered not by those who perpetuated the discrimination (as in Fiedler’s formulation), but by those subjected to it. Instead of a myth of the dark beloved, we have a myth of the “alpha beloved.” Women readers/authors/fictional heroines, like Jim in Huck Finn and in Fiedler’s provocative title, bear no grudge and invite the master, “Come back to the raft”—or the bed—“again, honey.” A woman can proffer this invitation because she has taken her stand against patriarchy, and though the system remains, so too has it ended. The romance fantasy, in other words, is that the hero will come, in all his fierce and possessive patriarchal warrior-king glory, but that he will also forever stay: emotionally vulnerable, devoted unto death, serving his mistress with his sword and with his heart. The fantasy is that patriarchy overall remains in place—he remains a ruling alpha, and so can protect her—but this system, and he as its representative, never threaten or diminish the heroine.

She gets a good man. And she gets him to love.[6]


Works Cited

Banks, Maya. Sweet Persuasion. New York: Berkley Heat, 2009. Print.

Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Apparition, 2009. Film.

Coddington, Lynn. “Wavering Between Worlds: Feminist Influences in the Romance Genre.” Paradoxa 3:1-2 (1997): 58-77. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review. June 1948. Print.

Frantz, Sarah. “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. and ed. James Strachey.  New York: Norton, 1989. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.

Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. Print.

Hill, Joey W. Natural Law. Akron, OH: Ellora’s Cave, 2004. Print.

Johnson, Allan G. The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Rev. and updated ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Johnson, Merri Lisa, ed. Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. Print.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press, 2005. Print.

McNair, Brian. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media, and the Democratisation of Desire. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Nagle, Jill, ed. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Perrin, Kayla. Getting Some. Don Mills, Can. Spice, 2007. Print

Plato, Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989. Print.

Polhemus, Robert M. Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

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

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

Roach, Catherine M. Stripping, Sex, and Popular Culture. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2007. Print.

Romance Writers of America. Romance Writers of America. Web.

Romance Writers of America. Romance Writers Report. April 2009. Print.

Stepp, Laura Sessions. Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

Ward, J.R. Dark Lover. New York: Signet Eclipse, 2005. Print.

Wendell, Sarah and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside, 2009. Print.


[1] In my use of the cultural descriptor “modern West” here, I draw on Stephanie Coontz’s (2005) history of marriage, with its central thesis that starting in the later eighteenth century, a “gigantic marital revolution had occurred in Western Europe and North America during the Enlightenment” (5). The ideal of the sentimental and passionate love-based marriage—in radical contrast to the more economically and politically pragmatic notions of marriage that had predominated before that time and that continued as the norm in other parts of the world—came to dominate in  western culture through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[2] By “patriarchy,” I adopt Allan Johnson’s definition of a cultural system that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered” and that valorizes violence and control (2005, 5). High rates of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and violence against girls and women form a central part of such culture, as well as high rates of violence against men. I share in Johnson’s analysis that contemporary American culture remains marked by such patterns, although these patterns have clearly lessened through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the growth of human rights and the influence of the successive waves of the women’s movement and feminism. To the extent that both patriarchy and popular romance fiction reading are phenomena with global reach, this analysis could be broadened beyond contemporary America as well, but for now, I confine my analysis to this cultural complex.

[3] Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the US-based professional writers’ organization devoted to the publishing genre of popular romance fiction, with a membership of approximately ten thousand published and aspiring authors. For publication and sale statistics, visit the organization’s website at rwanational.org.

[4] Northrop Frye’s (1957) archetypal criticism in his classic theory of myths is useful here as well, where he lays out a theory of generic plots or mythic narrative structures: “In terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

[5] Although what Frye (1957) means by “romance novel” differs from the popular women’s fiction under consideration here, there is significant continuity between these forms of prose fiction as well. This issue of the historical lineage of contemporary women’s romance novels in terms of the long-established literary forms of both “novel” and “romance” bears further study.

[6] I thank two very astute anonymous peer-review readers who helped me see my text more clearly with excellent suggestions for revision and expansion. I am grateful as well to the College of Arts and Sciences and New College at the University of Alabama and to the Romance Writers of America for academic grant support that made this research possible. Academic audiences at the Popular Culture Association 2009 annual conference and a Women’s Resource Center talk at the University of Alabama provided useful feedback as well in working out my ideas. Finally, I thank Eric Murphy Selinger for leading me to Robert Polhemus and colleagues Deborah Weiss, Fred Whiting, and Ted Trost for helping me think through key ideas in this paper.

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