Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Laughing with the Conventions: Eloisa James' YOUR WICKED WAYS

All genres have their own conventions, patterns of form, style, and content that differentiate one genre from another. A tragedy must end badly to be a tragedy; a metaphysical poem must include a metaphysical conceit or pun; a melodrama must include an out-an-out evil villain. Romance novels, of course, are no exception. Plots that focus on courtship, a tone of hope rather than despair, a story that concludes happily—all must be present in order for a romance to make sense as romance.

In addition to genre-defining conventions, many literary genres also develop historically-specific conventions, conventions that change over time. Such conventions flourish for a short while, then give way to new patterns, different types of events, characters, or settings as history moves on. For example, in the opening chapter of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan describe the conventions of romances published in the 1970s, then note how books published since the late 1980s feature quite different patterns: romances that were once solely written from the heroine's point of view shifting to include both heroine's and hero's viewpoints; the gradual disappearance of the rapist hero; the rise of romances that mention birth control. Though more recent romances still feature courtship, a hopeful tone, and happy endings, they've left behind many other non-genre-defining patterns, conventions that would feel dated to today's readers.

Snoopy plays with genre conventions, not entirely successfully...
Conventions are often ripe for poking fun at, not only by writers who have little respect for a genre, but also by its most innovative practitioners. A romance writer tired of, or ideologically opposed to, a certain convention might call readers' attention to its more absurd aspects, not only making readers laugh at it, but pointing to the ideology behind said convention, an ideology readers might prefer to do without. And if other romance writers follow said innovator's lead, one convention may disappear, and be replaced by a new one.
One such romance convention that I've been thinking about lately is "sex will always be fantabulously out-of-this-world—once I find my True Love." I don't know about you, but my first experience of sexual intercourse was not all that great. Neither was my second, or my third. In fact, it took a good long while for me and my partner at the time to figure the whole sex thing out, inexperienced practitioners that we were. Scientists and sociologists who have studied first heterosexual intercourse confirm that such a pattern is far more common than the one depicted in most romances. These studies consistently find that women find less pleasure in first intercourse than do their male partners; one 2010 study found that 52% of women experienced pain, only 34% reported physical satisfaction, and a mere 11% reported experiencing orgasm during their first intercourse. I haven't seen studies that look at experiences beyond the loss of virginity, but I'd guess that the satisfaction rate doesn't shoot up overnight from 34% to 100%, but instead only gradually increases over time, as young women gain knowledge both of their own bodies and of the act of sex itself.

Though the fantasy of ideal sex with one's beloved might be appealing for sexually experienced readers, younger readers who have yet to cross the virginity barrier might find themselves unpleasantly surprised by their initial sexual intercourse if romance novels have served as their primary source of sexual information. Perhaps this is why I so enjoy romance novels that poke fun at the convention of a heroine's virginity giving immediate way to earthshattering, blind-blowing intercourse once she's found her One True Love. One of my favorites is Eloisa' James Regency-set comedy Your Wicked Ways (2004). Not only does James make us laugh at the romance convention that as long as you're in love, the sex will always great, she does it with wit, charm, and a warmhearted sympathy for both her less than rakishly-experienced hero and her sexually self-doubting heroine.

Helene, Countess Godwin, and her husband Rees Holland have been separated for nearly a decade, Rees having thrown his wife of only a few weeks out of the house after she dumped a chamber pot over him. Serving as supporting role characters in the previous three books in James' Duchess quartet (Duchess in Love, Fool for Love, and A Wild Pursuit), Helene and Rees provide the comic counterpoint of the amorously disillusioned as their friends fall in love around them. 

Yet Rees and Helene's relationship began as a love-match, Your Wicked Way reveals: the seventeen-year-old Helene and a not much older Rees fell in love over the piano. Both musicians, they would often steal away from a ball or party to discuss each others compositions, and to exchange a few heated kisses. Despite having the approval of Helene's parents, the two chose to elope to Gretna Green, high on the romance of their own newfound amour.

Yet when sex is introduced into the equation, la vie en rose of young love all too rapidly gives way to the snarkiness of wounded feelings. The insults that flew fast and furious during previous books, and continue in this one, have an added poignancy now, as readers gradually come to see how both Rees and Helene are attempting to protect their own vulnerabilities in the face of their own mistakes, particularly their laughably disastrous wedding night, and the increasingly hurtful sexual encounters that follow it.

After living a life of spotless respectability for nearly ten years,  Helene decides she wants a baby, even if Rees won't give her a divorce and allow her to remarry. As she begins her search for a potential lover/father, Rees, advised of Helene's plans by her friend, pragmatically offers his own services. After all, it wouldn't be fair to his brother for a child not of their blood to inherit Rees's earldom, would it? Besides, he doesn't want Helene's feelings to be hurt when no eligible man expresses an interest in his scrawny, belligerent wife.

Rees has only two conditions: Helen must  move back into Godwin House, and she must help him complete his current opera, a project that has come to a standstill in the wake of the marriage of Rees's best friend, Darby, and Rees's longing for the "same kind of fire that burned" between Darby and his bride. Add Rees's brother, a minister, as well as Rees's current (and quite bored) mistress, both of whom also currently reside at Godwin House, and the double entendres, sarcastic quips, and hilariously surprising conversations bubble forth like the frothiest of champagnes:

    "If it is quite all right with you, I would like to borrow him once a day.... From what I remember, I only need around five minutes of Rees's time," [Helene] told Miss McKenna.
     "Sometimes Rees is good for seven minutes," Miss McKenna said with just a hint of laughter in her voice. "I would give him the benefit of the doubt."
     "Seven minutes!" Helene exclaimed. "How nice to know that one's husband has matured a whole two minutes in the past nine years."
     "I like a man to have ambition, don't you?" Miss McKenna said, taking a sip of wine. (169-70).

As they work together on the opera, Rees and Helene gradually remember why it was they came to care for one another. And with the maturity of an additional ten years, and a little soul searching, they each find the courage to reveal their vulnerabilities to one another, rather than hiding them behind the protective armor of insult and slight.

And as they grow closer emotionally, Helene and Rees also grow more sexually compatible. Not simply because love must lead to great sex, but rather because each works to discover what it is that the other needs in order to take pleasure from each other's bodies, and from their own.

Many romance novels construct sex as an act that people in love must already know how to perform; in contrast, Helene and Rees show that in order to perform sex with any degree of success, one must diligently study one's role, paying careful attention to the cues of the person with whom one takes the the sexual stage.

What other romance novels can you think of that open with a bad sexual relationship between the hero and heroine, a relationship that gradually transforms over the course of the novel? Or that discuss the difficulties adding sex to a relationship can raise?

Eloisa James, Your Wicked Ways. Book for in the Duchesses quartet. Avon, 2004.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Snoopy playing with conventions: Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life
Romance novels: Shannon Simbulan, Flickr
1-star lover: Spreadshirt
Doing it fast: Michael Crawford, Condenast store

Next time on RNFF:
Heterosexuality and feminism, strange and uncomfortable bedfellows?




  1. Have you read An Affair Before Christmas? More realistic bad sex. (Inhibitions caused largely by the discomfort of the awful Georgian wigs!)

  2. Oh, yes, I had almost forgotten that one! A little sillier than YOUR WICKED WAYS, but still a fun read.

    In the contemporary sub-genre, Jennifer Crusie's FAKING IT could qualify, although the bad sex isn't truly horrible, just rather blah, and on one side...

  3. I confess that this novel made me mildly uncomfortable the first time I read it. I remember that I did appreciate James's playing with this particular convention though. Perhaps I will give it another read and let you know what didn't work for me (if it still doesn't). I wish I could recall... I do remember several books from my younger years that revealed the pain of first intercourse. (I was born in 1980 and started reading romance novels in elementary school). One story in particular, (I think it was The Heiress Bride by Coulter), had a heroine named Sinjun who really suffered an uncomfortable first night that created a lot of angst for her and trouble for her relationship. That, and other books, gave me a sense of what to expect with sex. Odd, though, that I had not thought until now of the ways that romance novels would teach girls about a subject that would be taboo or simply difficult to talk about frankly with others.

  4. Hope you do have a chance to reread YOUR WICKED WAYS, JW. I'd be interested in hearing your reservations.

    Haven't read THE HEIRESS BRIDE -- how does Sinjun's husband react to her pain, and (I'm assuming) her subsequent reluctance to engage in sex? Is it a case of the "big misunderstanding," serving as a plot device to keep the hero and heroine apart? Or is he understanding?

    1. I wouldn't call what happens in The Heiress Bride a realistic or convention-changing portrayal -- Coulter heroines generally have bad first times, but in this one, it's especially bad because her husband is angry with her and uses sex as a punishment. I don't remember where it goes from there, but he probably either forces her or coaxes her out of it, knowing Coulter. Quite possibly both.

      Another interesting book that just came to mind is Wed to a Stranger by Edith Layton, in which the wedding night is kind of crappy for both of them because there's no emotional component.

  5. I don't remember that aspect of the Layton book (but my memory isn't anything to brag about!).

    The blurb copy suggests exactly the opposite: "Yet there is certainly nothing "average" about their wedding night! There is magic in Miles's touch, and the smoldering ecstasy it ignites threatens to consume them both." A case of the sell copy trying to pull in readers with the typical romance convention of great immediate sex, even if it's different WITHIN the book?

    1. I would put that in the same category as publishers putting the most rail thin models on the covers of books featuring fat heroines. It's like they're trying to distract us in the hopes we won't notice.

  6. Mary Jo Putney's Shattered Rainbows!

    1. Mmmm, love Mary Jo Putney.

      Is my memory failing again, or was it Catherine's husband, rather than the hero Michael Kenyon, who was her bad sex lover?

      Putney's THE BARTERED BRIDE certainly features some difficult sex, but due largely to the heroine's previous abuse. We could start a long list of books featuring women who've had bad sexual experiences, but who subsequently have good ones when they meet the right man. BARTERED BRIDE seems rarer, as it really tries to delve into the difficulties of engaging in sex when you've been abused in the past, even with the one you really love.

  7. I'll have to second the nom for Crusie's "Faking It". The hero and heroine (Davy and Tilda) just don't ... connect. I really started to live the book just for that.

    Mostly, I'm glad that there are now plenty of non-virginal heroines. I've never read a romance that had a scene anything like my pretty good experience. Maybe I was lucky.

    1. Yes, even in historical romance the field has opened up to feature non-virginal heroines. And in contemporary, it's become almost more rare for a heroine to be a virgin than it is for her to be sexually experienced. Perhaps YA lit is now the place to look for virgin heroines who have a pretty good first experience? It's a really long book, but I enjoyed that aspect of Aidan Chambers' THIS IS ALL: THE PILLOW BOOK OF CORDELIA KENN.

  8. I got this! A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant. She actually directly addresses sex and emotion. Her heroine does not enjoy sex with the stud until she actually likes him. Ground-breaking, I know, lol. Compare to multitudes of romances where the stud wins her over with his mad skillz, lol.

  9. Ah, another book I love, love, love. Although Martha was married before, so her ad sex is not quite the same as Helene's. More emotionally bad, than physically painful...

  10. The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan. The first time they make sex is dissappointing, because none of them has sexual experiences with other people, but they know what orgasm is.