Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wanting what you're not supposed to want: Cecilia Grant's A LADY ENTANGLED

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Between high school, college, graduate school, and miscellaneous other intellectual venues, I've listened to more than my fair share of lectures on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The one I remember the most, in an undergraduate Victorian novel class for which I was serving as a Teaching Assistant, began with the professor reading aloud the above opening line of Austen's novel. Rather than pose the expected question—what does this line say—he asked the fifty undergraduates to consider what it didn't say. What is Austen deliberately leaving out, even as she calls our attention to it by its absence? The answer—that a single gentlewoman, at least in Jane Austen's day, must be in want of a husband in possession of a good fortune. Or at least a fortune sizable enough to support her in the manner to which she has been brought up.

Mrs. Bennet in raptures...
Austen's female characters openly gossip about potential suitors' yearly income ("Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted") in a way rarely found in novels published during the Victorian period. Yet, like those later novels, Austen's romance simultaneously suggests that thinking too much about "worldly advantage," as does Charlotte Lucas, is to "disgrace" oneself to a humiliating degree. Women must care about how much their potential suitors earn, Austen indirectly suggests, but, just as she does in her opening line, they must do so only without openly acknowledging that this is what they are doing. Actively work to secure your financial future through marriage, and, like Charlotte, you're punished, wedded to a Mr. Collins. But scorn a man in spite of his fortune, and you're rewarded with the fortune anyway. This paradox—only when a woman rejects material gain does she prove herself worthy of it—serves as the central organizing structure not only of many a 19th century novel, but also in much 20th (and 21st) century historical romance, in the trope of the romance heroine choosing to throw over a wealthy fiancĂ© in favor of the poorer man she has truly come to love. Rewarding women for denying desire—not the most feminist of messages.

So my heart sank just a bit when I turned to the latest offering from Cecilia Grant and discovered that its female protagonist, Kate Westbrook, intends to hunt down and snare a man of fortune, one who can open "the door to that glittering world of champagne and consequence—the world that ought to have been her birthright." Though her father is the son of an earl, he married not only a commoner, but an actress, an alliance which his family refused to acknowledge. Kate may have other, more altruistic reasons for wishing to slip through that aristocratic door—to "haul her family back into respectability," to save her sensitive youngest sister from constant teasing at school, to reunite her father with a brother for whom he obviously cares deeply—but Kate also wants, wants the beauty and the luxuries, the "courtesy, consideration, and etiquette" lacking in her current life as the daughter of a gainfully-employed barrister.

Of course, there's a young barrister just waiting in the wings, who once thought of winning her hand but who big-heartedly takes an interest in her assault on the ton, and offers his help in her mercenary endeavor (the brother of Martha and Will, the Blackshear siblings featured in Grant's previous two books). And, by the way, Kate's amazingly beautiful, and she knows it, too: "stupefaction was her stock-in-trade, and she would not stoop to the tedious false modesty of pretending not to know it." For readers conditioned by romance tropes with two hundred years of history behind them, Kate is a heroine made to hate on-sight. It seemed, disappointingly, I was in for a story of a "bad" girl's reformation, a schooling of a young woman in how not to want.

But Grant's first two novels (A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone) openly rejected many of the traditional romance novel tropes, so I kept reading, counting on her to do something with this very traditional storyline other than make Kate give up her material dreams in order to achieve her romantic ones. And while the romantic outcome of the novel is never in doubt (the novel is told in alternating hero/heroine points of view), the reasons why Kate chooses her impassioned barrister rather than the newly-ennobled Baron are far from the expected. Kate discovers what to most women during the period must have been obvious, but that many romance writers seem to have forgotten—that not only marriage, but female friendship, can help advance a woman's standing in society. That helping another realize her own romantic prospects is almost as gratifying as realizing one's own. That marrying into a life of consequence and ease might just be "dreary beyond imagining. What did you do all day, once you'd married Mr. Darcy?" That the challenges and industry required to strive for a goal such as marrying well might be at least as much of a pleasure as achieving the goal itself. Though it might take a bit longer than she had first imagined, Kate doesn't have to give up her material desires altogether; she just has to have the patience, and the drive, to achieve them by working with a husband, rather than accepting a hand-out from a husband.

In a blog post back in March, Cecilia Grant questioned whether there is such a thing as feminist romance. Romance certainly does privilege relationship over all other aspects of a person's life, which may disqualify the genre as a whole from being inherently feminist. But I would argue that there are many books within the genre that certainly align with feminist sensibilities. Especially those written by Cecilia Grant.

ARC courtesy of Netgalley

Photo credits:
Mrs. Bennet: Fanpop
Marrying for Money: CollegeTimes TV

Bantam, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
Sexism in the SF community


  1. I loooove Cecilia Grant's novels and have been eagerly awaiting this one.

    And I don't think that prizing relationships over other aspects of a person's life is necessarily anti-feminist, nor that all romance novels value relationships over ALL other aspects. The best novels show how romantic relationships are one part of our complex lives, which include relationships with family, with work and with ourselves & our own desires. Romance might focus on the development of the romantic relationship, but if those other aspects of characters' lives aren't included and don't help characters grow, then it's a pretty poor novel. This seems to me to be a reflection of life. My relationship with my husband (and, now, with my baby daughter) is the most important part of my life, but that doesn't make me unfeminist.

    1. Kat:

      Hmmm, I'm finding myself wanting to differentiate between "prizing" and "privileging," but then not quite sure that there is a meaningful difference. Perhaps the way to go here is to differentiate between judging a genre and judging an individual. An individual isn't unfeminist for deciding that a romantic relationship is the most important thing in life, as long as that individual doesn't tell everyone else around her that they, too, should make the same decision. But a genre that requires every book within it to end with a pair of lovers (or occasionally more than two lovers) in a committed romantic relationship -- doesn't that suggest that EVERYONE (both within the books, and outside, too, in the real world) should do the same?

    2. Interesting point, but I'd argue that it doesn't suggest that everyone*should* do the same but that there's something innate in romance readers that desires the same. I don't know that you can fairly draw a broader connection than that. Otherwise wouldn't you also have to say that mysteries suggest that everyone should solve crimes? Why would romance as a genre be alone in suggesting that everyone should literally apply the genre's defining feature to their lives?

  2. Successful barristers were accepted in society and most had enough money to have champagne and consequences. So Kate can only be looking to the peerage for the sake of having a title.
    I don't know the definition of feminist any more as many people who say they are feminists seem to advocate situations and circumstances that are harmful to women. Historicaly, a woman was fortunate to have a good husband and a happy family. Women should be free to seek fulfillment in any legal, moral way even if it includes marriage and a clutch of children.

    1. Hi, Anonymous:

      Kate's father was a successful barrister, but not a wealthy one, at least not as compared to the wealth of his birth family (he was the son of an earl). There's society, and then there's the ton, the upper ten thousand -- a big difference in consequence, at least during the Regency period, no?

      What situations and circumstances that are harmful to women do you see feminists advocating?

      I'm with you that women should be free to seek fulfillment in any way they wish. Just hope that they get to see all their options, first, before making the decision about what to seek, first...

  3. I haven't read Cecilla Grant before, but I'm going to buy this one because of the heroine. Going after what you want (like money) doesn't make a woman a "bad girl". As Marilyn Monroe said in of her movies (can't remember the title) when accused by the guy's father of marrying his son for his money. Marilyn said "no, she was marrying his son for the father's money" but marrying for money doesn't mean she doesn't love him. She won the father over when she said that men marry a pretty woman because she's pretty, but that doesn't mean he can't love her. Marrying someone you dislike for money is a poor choice because you'll be miserable. Hey, if I was 40 years younger, after college I would have hired a personal trainer, gone shopping on upscale Newbury Street, and bought a one way ticket to Palm Beach. And, I would have been faithful until the old man died.

    1. Pat:

      Let me know what you think about it after you read it. I'll be really curious to hear your thoughts!

      Don't remember this Marilyn Monroe film. Let me know if you remember which one it is...

    2. Wasn't that "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"? I'm pretty sure it was and that moment is a true classic!

  4. That's a good point about the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, Jackie. I was taken aback by the negative reaction to Kate by Dear Author reviewer because of her desire to marry well. I think it's a breath of fresh air, as is showing Nick cutting his brother Will and his wife because of her past as a prostitute and courtesan.

    One of the reasons I love Jane Austen's books so much is that she openly explores the practical issues undergirding marriage as an institution. It makes her work more realistic and less "romantic" than most. That may be part of my quarrel with genre romance -- too many starry eyes and not enough clear-eyed, hard-headed realism.

    How soon I read this book, however, may depend on whether or not it shows up at the local library. Grant is a good writer, but her writing doesn't always connect with me. I liked A Lady Awakened, which I hesitated to read until I knew that Martha's reason for wanting to conceive a fraudulent heir was altruistic rather than venal, very much; A Gentlement Undone, not so much.

    However, I agree wholeheartedly with Grant's assertion that romance genre isn't inherently feminist. Some -- a few, in my experience -- books within the genre are. But, to address Kat Latham's point, the problem is that all traditional genre romances revolve around a woman's development of a committed, monogamous sexual and romantic relationship with a man. That strongly suggests that establishing such a relationship is the end all and be all of a woman's life and that a woman isn't complete without a man.

    This is a sore point with me and something I am especially sensitive to. I also find that singular focus on developing a relationship to result in unsatisfying narratives; contemporaries in particular often seem to have no content other than that which pertains to the relationship. For a highly-praised example, see Sarah Mayberry's Her Best Worst Mistake. The writing is fine, but I didn't feel like I gained anything or learned anything new from reading it.

    To address Anonymous' points: It's true that people in trade and professional men might actually have more money than someone with a title, but you're underestimating the power of the class system. Someone with a title not only had status but access to levels of society and means of advancement that would still be closed to someone like Nick.

    While I agree that women should be free to seek fulfillment even if it includes marriage and a clutch of children, I do not understand your assertion that feminists advocate situations and circumstances that are harmful to women. Feminism advocates female agency and gender equality. For a long time, marriage and children was the only societally-favored choice for women, and the playing field still hasn't been leveled (women are able to work, but men and society still look down on them; men and male characteristics are the default). Perhaps you've run into women who consider staying home and raising children a betrayal of feminist principles. That's not feminism, that's jerkishness.

    1. Yes, I didn't write at all about Nick and his emotional journey, but I, too, really appreciated the fact that Grant's book showed the real consequences of marrying outside of one's class. Not just being shunned by obviously evil people, but by kindhearted, generous people, too. And that a sibling's marriage choices really did impact the rest of the family, not only socially, but professionally, too. Nick really had to struggle to reach the point where he realized that what he would lose by continuing to cut his brother out of his life was far more important than what he would gain by maintaining the breach.

      Yes, books that focus so tightly on the romantic relationship, without acknowledging other facets of a person's life, even if they are well-written, tend to fall into my 3-star Goodreads category.