RNFF BOOK REVIEW
|The rake abandons his pregnant betrothed|
A mainstay of contemporary historical romance is the dashing figure of the rake. The word rake originated as an abbreviated version of rakehell, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came into use during the sixteenth century as a derogatory term for "a thorough scoundrel or rascal; an utterly immoral or dissolute person; a vile debauchee." As the shortened version of the word gradually began to replace the longer, so, too, did the term's connotations began to shift. By the late eighteenth century, rake could refer to the somewhat less reprehensible "man of loose habits and immoral character," and even to the fairly harmless "idle, dissipated man of fashion."*
|The rake as fop|
Embodying the same appeal as the leather-jacketed rebel of the 1950s, the rake is valued by historical romance readers for his virility, his air of danger, and his unwillingness to conform to the strict social (and sexual) standards of his time. As a 2009 discussion of the rake on the Dear Author website suggests, the fantasy of being able to "tame" or "reform" such a figure is also a big part of the ungentlemanly gentleman's appeal. "I think the whole concept plays upon women's fantasies of being that one special someone who can affect positive change," argues author Maggie Robinson. "Lord knows in real life, men are not so amendable to reformation, or even putting the toilet seat down..."
But behind the figure of the rake looms an all-too-often forgotten shadow, Courtney Milan suggests in her historical romance, Unclaimed: the women whom he has seduced and abandoned.
|A 1837 sex conduct book|
No doubt the inhabitants of Shepton Mallet had no idea what to make of a woman like this one—or a gown as daring as the one she wore. But Mark knew. That was the sort of dress that commanded: look at me.
Mark had never taken well to commands. He turned away. (34)
|Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson and her "look at me" dress|
What convinces Mark to reconsider is not how Jessica looks, but the incongruity between her dress and her actions. Though her gown signals sexual availability, the way she flinches when the local rector touches her arm clearly signals stay away:
For one instant, she had more the look of scalded cat about her than graceful swan, and that half-second of response betrayed her air of worldly sensuality. She was not who she appeared at first blush.
Mark was suddenly interested—interested in a way that a low-cut gown and a striking figure could never have accomplished. (36)
Mark sees the specific, the individual in Jessica, refusing to universalize. Unlike Jessica, he refuses to insist that all women are anything. And what he wants in a romantic partner is someone who can see him for who he really is: not the pious, sexless plaster saint the fans of his book assume him to be, but the man who desires, yet chooses not to act on that desire.
If he feels sexual desire, why does Mark choose to remain celibate? First, because he refuses to buy into the popular wisdom that places all blame for sexual impropriety on the woman. "A man must claim responsibility for his own temptation, and not pin it on the woman who arouses him," he tells the young MCB member who urges him to kick the all-too-alluring Jessica out of a town picnic held in his honor (87). As Jessica discovers when Mark refuses her seduction attempts, Mark believes there's an important distinction between thought and deed: "Yes, I want you, he'd as good as told her, but I won't act on the want" (89). In many historical romances, a hero's loss of sexual self-control in the face of the woman he lusts after is a positive sign; through Mark, Milan asks us to consider sexual self-control as a sign of respect.
Second, Mark realizes that the double standard makes indulging in sex far more risky to the woman than to the man. Frustrated by the misguided principles of the MCB, Mark lectures the group:
You should hold to chastity not because you fear what your cohort will say, but because when you indulge your own lusts, the woman you indulge them with is hurt. She is the one who will weather the censure of society. She is the one on whom the burden and expense of an unanticipated pregnancy will fall. She is the one who will be cast out. (243)
Mark's words point to the debilitating double standard of his society (and, far too often, of our own), a clearly empowering feminist message. Intriguingly, though, by insisting that it is the male alone who is responsible for making the choice about whether or not to indulge in sex, Mark comes dangerously close to justifying the same male privilege as his words decry. Such a protective attitude toward women can all too easily lead to a man making all the choices on behalf of his beloved, Milan's novel cautions. And given Jessica's history, the choices that she's made and the choices that have been made for her, that is a danger that bodes ill for any worthwhile romantic relationship.
Before Jessica and Mark can reach their happily ever after, then, Mark needs to accept that Jessica is not just a victim waiting for his knight in shining armor to rescue her and absolve her for her sins. She doesn't need him to stifle her with his protection, taking away her choices just as much as did any of the "protectors" who gave her money rather than love. Instead, she needs him to accept her, flaws and all, and to let her fight her own battles. The novel's climax allows Jessica to act as her own savior; the specific means by which she accomplishes this may not be very historically likely, but they are intensely satisfying to the feminist reader.
The opposite of a rakehell isn't a prude, Unclaimed asks us to believe, but rather a man who takes responsibility for his own sexual desires, and for their consequences. And a man looking for a relationship of equality with a woman will not smother her with his protection, but will allow her to ride to her own rescue, all the while admiring "how brightly [her] armor shone" (400).
* "Rakehell" and "rake." Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition on CD-ROM. Oxford UP, 2009.
Courtney Milan, Unclaimed. Book #2 in the Turner series.
HQN Books, 2001.
• William Hogarth, first painting in The Rake's Progress series (1735). Wikipedia.
• Detail from George Cruickshank, Monstrosities of 1822. Reprinted in Mark Bills, The Art of Satire: London in Caricature. London: Philip Wilson/Museum of London, 2006.
• Harriette Wilson, from the BBC Radio 4 web site
• Sylvester Grahame, Grahame's Lectures on Chastity, specially intended for the serious consideration of young men and parents. Internet Archive.
• Self-Rescuing Princess T-shirt. Thinkgeek.com
Next time on RNFF: It's a guy thing...