The tangled politics of these questions have made me wary of reviewing m/m romances on this blog. But I've decided that such reticence is a cop-out, a cowardly refusal to get a bit wet when wading into potentially stormy waters. So I've decided to, if not take the plunge, at least to kick a toe in the waves, hoping to learn more about the issues at stake in this contested sub-genre, as well as to hash out for myself what might constitute a "feminist m/m romance" (if such a thing is even a possibility). Feel free to chime in with your thoughts about the possibilities and problematic aspects of such a genre.
My toe in the water today takes the form of a review of a specific m/m romance that strikes me as feminist, and my exploration about why it feels feminist to me. Historical romance is the genre that brought me back to reading romance after I had given it up after my Women's Studies consciousness-raising, and Alex Beecroft was the first writer of m/m romance that I read after returning to romance. So it seems fitting to begin with a work by this author, a novella originally published in the 2009 collection Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle (Cheyenne Publishing), but just reissued as a stand-alone e-novella this past December by Riptide Publishing.
|Convict transportation ship Neptune|
Harry, in contrast, is dutiful and hardworking; not willing to settle for climbing his way up from impressed seaman to lieutenant, he set his mind on becoming a captain, and committed himself to performing the heroic act that such an ambition required. In his journal entries, Harry writes more plainly and directly, with far fewer flourishes; his imagery tends to the mundane, natural world ("I took to the Navy as a bird, falling from its nest, takes to flight") rather than to the classical texts that the educated Garnet can reference at will.
Harry and Garnet have different attitudes to their sexuality, too, which are made clear through the dual narrative. Harry is not afraid to die, but fears disgrace if he acts on his attraction to Garnet. Garnet, in contrast, is more than willing to risk everything in order to sate his desires for Harry. Not just faceless, fetishized bodies upon which readers can thrust their own fantasies, then, Harry and Garnet emerge, through the dual narrative, as unique, nuanced, complicated individuals.
But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that this love should go unrecorded, that posterity should judge men like myself—like him—by the poor fools driven out to grope strangers in alleys, all fumbling fingers and anonymous grunting. Those of us uncaught must perforce be silent. But one day, perhaps, when the world has grown kinder, this journal will be read by less jaundiced eyes. To them I will be able to say there was fidelity here, and love, and long-suffering sacrifice, and joy.
But this passage is soon contested by Garnet's thoughts, giving voice to a different view on sex between men:
I had enjoyed the game of it, in the past. I did not enter the Navy because I feared to put myself at risk, and I have always found that life tastes sweetest with a slight spicing of terror. If you go looking for them, there are always men to be found, three weeks out of port, who are willing to take the chance of a quick fumble. From a whisper misjudged so that the lips brush skin, to the torment of squeezing by, just that little bit too close in a confined space. All this leading to a hasty climax on the cable tier or in the spirit room. The gunpowder magazine, that's my favourite. Biting kisses and the little death in the dark, surrounded by all that slumbering fire.
I'm not a gambling man, despite what my present neighbours may tell you. But I believe the reckless compulsion a man finds at the tables, I found in this. Knowing I could be destroyed at any moment, loving the high stakes and the thrill.
A feminist romance embraces the idea that there are multiple avenues of healthy, satisfying sexuality. It also recognizes that one person can never be enough in him or herself to satisfy every need of another. When Harry and Garnet are shipwrecked, and spend eight months alone together on a deserted island, Harry regards their land as a "Blessed Isle," a space where he and Garnet have "liberty to indulge our natures with no condemnation and no risk." But for the extroverted Garnet, the solitary days on the island grow increasingly dark, despite the joy he takes in his new sexual relationship with Harry. He tries to hide his melancholy, but finally admits: "I miss other people, Harry. I am... sorry, but much as I love you, you cannot be a sufficient replacement for all civilized society." As soon as Harry understands Garnet's pain, he determines to find a way to allow them to escape what to Garnet has become a prison, even though to Harry, it is a refuge.
Harry and Garnet fight their way to a happy ending, each learning from the other the true meanings of cowardice and freedom, the need for both self-protection and self-expression. Though in public, they must still masquerade, in private, and inside themselves, they are no longer burdened by shame, but sent aloft by joy.
If feminism can be expanded to include not just equal rights between woman and men, but equitable relationships between all romantic partners, no matter their sex or gender, then Beecroft's Blessed Isle can surely stand as a feminist text, despite not featuring a single woman in a major or supporting role.
Alex Beecroft, Blessed Isle. Riptide Publishing, 2012.
Kate Millett on Time: Vitro Nasu
Raining Men: Romantic Times Book Reviews
Neptune: Australian History.org
Ship Journal: Wanelo
Quill pens: TJ Bookarts
Thanks to netgalley for providing me with a copy of Blessed Isle
Next time on RNFF
RNFF Pet Peeve: "Baby, you're all that I need"