Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Last week, an hours-long drive in the pouring rain after a welcome but tiring round of family holiday visiting had me longing for the comforts of a cozy sofa, a warm blanket, and an well-thumbed romance novel. As soon as we arrived home, I shed my wet clothing and headed straight for my romance bookshelf, knowing just what book I needed. Honing in on the "B"s, then on the "Balogh"s, then, there: the third book of Mary Balogh's Web trilogy, The Devil's Web.

A strange choice for a feminist reader, part of my brain thought. The protagonists of Balogh's novel are both pretty horrid to each other throughout much of the novel. Through the first two books in the series, and through half of this one, Madeline Raine and James Purnell repeat to themselves, and insist to each other, that they have nothing in common, that they despise one another, that there's no way that the mere physical attraction that keeps drawing them together is sufficient grounds upon which to build any kind of relationship, especially a marriage. Yet by the middle of The Devil's Web, Madeline's wish to comfort a grieving James pushes them beyond the bounds of physical restraint; as a result, James insists that honor demands their marriage. Despite James' overbearing behavior, Madeline does nothing to resist. Only after the wedding does she vow to not sit back and allow him to steamroller her, and their resultant marriage is anything but peaceful.

After James wonders out loud during one of their many bitter arguments why Madeline ever agreed to marry him, Madeline taunts him by saying that perhaps she agreed to wed him because she secretly enjoys being punished. Their verbal fights are not merely playful sniping, or intellectual exercises in matching wits; they are mean, cruel, intended to keep the other from coming too close. Toward the end of the novel, in the midst of a particularly vicious fight, Madeline tells James that if he coerces her into have sex with him, then it will be no better than raping her. But he throws up her obvious physical response to him in her face, and proceeds to fan the flames of her desire, seducing her in spite of herself. All more the stuff of feminist nightmares than idylls of equality, no?

Though it seems from the above description that The Devil's Web is just an example of Old Skool romance, with its dark, brooding hero who acts with cruelty toward the heroine until the final love admission wipes away all his sins, something about this particular Balogh book keeps me coming back to it again and again. Why? I think it's because when I read this particular story, I end up identifying not with its heroine Madeline, but with its hero, James. Though my upbringing was nothing like his—raised at the hands of a sternly religious man, one who never showed physical affection and spent most of his time warning his children against sin rather than encouraging their talents—I find his personality quite familiar. Quiet, even taciturn, not comfortable making small talk, James is thought a "strange fellow" even by those who find much about him to admire. For the shy, introverted, often social awkward among us, there's much about James that strikes a painfully familiar chord.

I also find myself relating to the disconnect between James' internal thoughts and way he finds himself acting. Reading the sections of the novel from his point of view, Balogh shows us how often his external actions do not match his real thoughts and feelings:

    And instead of taking her hands in his and smiling at her and telling her that he wanted his bride to be like the sunshine, as she usually was, he had looked at her without any expression at all.
     "You will not wear mourning on account of my father," he had said. "Try wearing a black dress, Madeline, tomorrow or any other day in the next year, and I shall tear it off you and rip it to shreds before your eyes."
     Because he loved her and wanted her to brighten his life, not add to its gloom, he might have added. Because he did not want her tainted by the gloom that had always hung like a pall over his own family. He did not want to look at her and see mourning. He wanted to see the hope, the light of his life, in her.
     But he said none of those things. He had stood, his hands clasped behind his back, watching her flush, waiting for her to turn away and seek out other company. (234)

James has become so estranged from his own feelings that he cannot bring himself to show them to anyone, especially not to the woman he has come to love. Even his wish to act kindly cannot overcome the barriers of his own natural reticence and an upbringing that urged him not to show any deep emotion. And above all, he cannot get past his own guilt: because of a wrong he did in his adolescent years, a wrong that he was not prevented from fixing or openly atoning for, he fears that he can only bring pain and destruction to those whom he loves. His abusive actions hurt Madeline, yes, but in the process they also punish him, too. A punishment that his unconscious insists that he deserves.

Every time I reread Balogh's novel, I feel sympathy for Madeline, ensnared by her attraction to a man who doesn't seem to value her. But still my empathy ends up with James, every time. In part because I can relate all too closely to a person whose words don't come close to reflecting the emotional truths bound up inside him. But mostly, I think, because Balogh does such a good job showing us James' point of view, allowing us to realize his self-punishing motivations even though he himself doesn't understand them. Many of James' actions, action that I would have found appalling if told only through Madeline's eyes, gain depth, meaning, and poignancy when they are shown through James'. Through the character of James, Balogh holds out the promise that even people who do really cruel, hurtful things are worthy of forgiveness, and can win such forgiveness from those they love. 

I'm willing, it seems, to forgive, even to empathize with, characters who do quite nasty things, if an author is skillful enough to present their inner lives in a way that allows me to understand why they act the way they do. Does this make me more of a humanist reader than a feminist one, when the character I'm forgiving is a man, and has perpetrated his cruelty on a woman?

What makes you ready to forgive a romance novel character for his or her sins? What romance characters could you simply not find worthy of redemption, in spite of their authors' attempts to make you care for them? Does your reaction have more to do with whether a character goes against your own personal value system, or with an author's ability to portray the motivations behind a character's actions? Are you more likely to forgive a hero his sins than a heroine hers?

Illustration credits:
Callie Khoura quote: Lushquotes


  1. Ah, good. I'd been wanting to discuss this very point. I read Untamed from your Best of post last week and found myself wondering what you saw in it. I haven't loved everything you've recommended, but I have at least liked it. That one found me irritated with every single character, particularly the hero, who seemed selfish, self-absorbed and shallow even after his "redemption", and heroine, who seemed like a Katniss rip-off and much younger than the 27 years the author claimed. Okay, so she was brave and he was, what? Smart and beautiful? If they'd all been 17, I might have been able to forgive them. Though the hero is usually brave and the heroine usually beautiful and smart, it wasn't enough to make them sympathetic to me.

    But to answer your question, I think it comes down to how the hero and heroine treat each other. The best example I can think of is Miranda Neville's character Sebastian from The Dangerous Viscount. I was pretty sure from the previous book, where he is portrayed both as a misogynist and also just generally selfish, I wouldn't like him when it came time to take up his story. However, his transformation is already underway when we join him in the next book, there is an explanation of his previous behavior and the heroine treats him pretty badly at first, which made him more sympathetic. He never treats the heroine he falls for the way he treated the previous book's heroine (that I recall), where he had just a bit part. I didn't forget his past, but they all managed to find a detente that seemed believable and he ended up being one of my favorite characters of the series.

    I suppose what I'm saying is: 1) that the backstory has to be convincing and 2) either the hero needs to treat the heroine with some degree of respect the entire time (whatever his past) or the heroine needs to perpetrate some equally bad or worse behavior on him, in whatever order that might occur. If both those propositions are not in place, I'm not going to like either one of them. In Untamed, Jude's backstory was there, but Kit is pretty flawless and that made me hate both her for being stupid enough to like him and him for being a jerk.


  2. Does this make me more of a humanist reader than a feminist one, when the character I'm forgiving is a man, and has perpetrated his cruelty on a woman?

    I don't think so. I think that it's all about understanding. The basic premise is that all heros are redeemable under the right circumstances and with the right woman. I tend to buy into the combination of circumstances/woman rather than just "good woman I need in my bed, I'm reformed" mentality.

    However, I do completely agree that it depends on the authors ability to craft the story. I have noticed that I'm much more forgiving of cruel acts in the beginning of the novel than the end. I think it's because I'm able to get on board with a guy starts as an asshat but then changes. It's not enough to show me, in a hero's thoughts, why he acts cruelly. (That's great for understanding him in the beginning.) But, personally, I have to see a change in his actions throughout the novel that shows me he has grown as an individual. If I don't get that, then I just end up thinking he's a jerk and the HEA doesn't work for me, even if the heroine is happy.

  3. Your questions are very difficult to answer. I will try to do it, but do we really know ourselves or do we only suppose we know what we like, what we dislike, and what we can or cannot forgive?
    I think what makes me forgive a sin is, above all, the nature of the sin. If it’s a minor sin, sure, I will forgive it. But if it involves something that I really hate like rape or disdain towards women or violence, or very cruel thoughts, something that I reject politically or socially,… I think it can be forgiven but only if I see a real change from the person H/h was when he/she commited that deadly sin.
    Perhaps it’s because my Catholic education, but I think anybody can be redeemed, no matter how awful the crime. But it must be clear that the person is sorry and has changed and tries to make amends for the crime… But it’s difficult to make a believable change if the crime was very horrible, like a rape. I hate old skool heroes like Clayton in ‘Whitney My Love’. He really didn’t show he was sorry or that the future was going to be different.
    My reaction has certainly more to do with my own personal value system than with the author's ability to portray the motivations behind a character's actions. If the author represents for instance a nazi or a fascist (I’m saying this because they are the most horrible characters I can imagine now), I would say what a great writer! But I’d hate the character, nevertheless.
    But I’m one of those who believes that even a nazi or a terrorist could be redeemed if it shows you a real change.
    The only ones that you cannot redeem are psychopaths, of course, but I don’t think anybody would put a psycopath as the heroe of a romance novel.
    And, sincerely, I don’t know if I’m more likely to forgive a hero his sins than a heroine hers. I don’t think I make differences. Or at least that's what I want to believe.

  4. Interesting that you mention relating to the hero because when you mentioned his detachment from his feelings, my first thought was that that is a problem with teaching boys to dissociate from their feelings, but does this kind of thinking ignore women who also have trouble expressing themselves, etc.? The popular narrative is that women excel socially. Even when we discuss sexual harassment at conventions, for example, some people use the social awkwardness of men as an excuse, ignoring the women who may experience similar difficulties and probably wouldn't be so excused.

    Also, not a fan of humanist vs feminist conversations. Seems like just another excuse for anti-feminism.