Friday, April 11, 2014

Justifying Gender Nonconformity in Historical Romance: Meredith Duran's FOOL ME TWICE and Elizabeth Essex's AFTER THE SCANDAL

My apologies for the radio silence this past Tuesday. As my daughter so kindly told me, "Even feminists get sick sometimes, mom."

As recompense, I give you the following two-for-one historical romance review:

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes...
                           —Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, 1854

Reading historical romance with feminist expectations may strike many an exercise in the futile, or at least in the fantastic. For much of human history, women were considered lesser than men, an idea embraced not only by the males who benefitted from it, but also from the majority of females who were its victim. Common knowledge, scientific wisdom, and plain old human nature insisted that women were, by their very natures, inferior to men. While views about gender did begin to change during the nineteenth century, from a deficit model (women are lesser than men) to a more egalitarian difference model (women are different from men), in practice, laws and customs continued to place women in positions of dependency throughout the Victorian period. If a writer attempts to be at all historically accurate, he/she cannot ignore this essential component of social life in the past.

Contemporary women aren't likely to enjoy reading about historical counterparts who espouse gender ideologies that consign them to positions of inferiority. And thus many a historical romance uses the past as mere window dressing, a reason to place people with contemporary views about relations between the sexes in fancy dress. I had to admit that as a reader, I prefer those books that at least acknowledge the social assumptions of the world in which they place their characters, including, to our modern eyes, their sexist assumptions about gender, even if the characters themselves do not conform to said assumptions. The best of such works provide plausible and compelling reasons for why their characters have chosen, or been forced, to act in socially unsanctioned ways, reasons that add nuance and depth to their characterizations.

Two recently published 19th-century-set historical romances do just that. Elizabeth Essex's After the Scandal features the oh-so-prevalent duke as hero. But Tanner Evans, the Duke of Fenmore, has a background far different than that of his aristocratic peers. His father, estranged from his noble family due to religious differences, died when Tanner was just a child, as did his mother, leaving him and his older sister to scratch out a living on London's streets. By the time a chance meeting reunited them with their father's family, Tanner and his sister had become skilled street thieves. Being yanked from the life of a London urchin at the age of twelve, suddenly named the scion of a ducal heritage, Tanner can't help but feel a fraud. Nor can he help questioning the norms of aristocratic society, norms far different than those that ruled life on London's streets.

Protecting the girls...
Now twenty-eight, the reclusive Tanner has long yearned after innocent Lady Claire Jellicoe, the sheltered daughter of an earl. But because of his own past experiences, Tanner recognizes it is precisely her innocence that places Claire in danger from a rapacious fellow nobleman: "Refined, polite young women were easy targets. It was all the confining codes of ladylike behavior—of always having to be civil and passively polite—that got immaculate, refined young women into such monstrous trouble" (31). Tanner intervenes in the opening chapter to prevent the attempted rape (we are in a romance novel, after all), but the resulting story is not one of heroic alpha male rescuing hapless clueless female over and over again. Instead, Tanner and Claire become partners in solving a brutal murder, a murder that by its very nature interrogates gender roles and expectations.

To Tanner's surprise, during their investigation, Claire proves to be far more than just the pretty face and figure upon which he had cast his own longings: "But the realization that she clearly had a first-class mind hidden behind all that astonishing beauty excited him more completely than all of his inchoate longings from afar never had. My God—he could talk to her" (85). That Tanner had not expected Claire to be smart enough to converse intelligently with him demonstrates how even he, with his unusual background, takes many of the gender norms of genteel society for granted. Claire challenges some aspects of said norms, not because they do not exist for her, in the wallpaper-romance way, but because she recognizes the real limitations they place upon her—"[Am I] capable?... No. I know I'm not. But I want to be. And how shall I ever become capable if I do not try? If I do not attempt to do the things I ought? You said I was not ignorant, only unlearned, and I'm tired of being unlearned" (100). The plot in which Tanner and Claire find themselves may be rather improbable, but their negotiation of gender roles within said plot gives us a real sense of why each is calling certain gender norms into question, rather than taking the more standard route of acceptance.

In Meredith Duran's Fool Me Twice, it's the heroine, rather than the hero, who has grown up in a way that leads her to question the gender norms of late Victorian society. Olivia Holladay's mother broke the most dearly-held gender rule of genteel society: do not have sex out of wedlock, and especially do not give birth to a child.  Not only that, but Olivia's mother allowed that man to support her and her daughter in comfortable style, much to the disgust of the fellow citizens of the small English town in which Olivia grew up. After her mother's death, eighteen-year-old Olivia travels to London, intent on making her own way in the world, learning the new skill of typing and taking a job as a secretary. Her plans almost come to naught after she's brutally attacked and left for dead by a man she recognizes. Olivia knows she must hide, even while she searches for a way to prevent her attacker from striking again.

Olivia discovers that her freedom may lie within the house of the Duke of Marwick, a former political lion who, in the aftermath of his wife's death, has become a recluse and a tyrant in his own domain. Olivia applies for a job as a housemaid, hoping to leverage the work into an opportunity to search Marwick's house for the evidence she needs to bribe her attacker. Instead of a housemaid, though, Olivia finds herself in the role of housekeeper, the irascible duke's temper having sent yet another chatelaine fleeing. While Olivia's focus should be on her search, the upheaval in the Marwick household, and the disturbing behavior of the duke who is its cause, keeps distracting her from her own problems. And her own unconventional background makes Olivia far from fearful of rebuking her presumed social and gender superior the duke, as are the rest of his cowed servants.

Unlike Olivia, Alistair de Grey has long embraced the social roles his society expected of him. Marrying the right woman, agitating for the right political causes, and behaving always as a gentleman ought, he's determined not to follow in his dissipated father's footsteps. In fact, he expects to become the next Prime Minister. But his wife's death, and the shocking acts he discovers she's been hiding beneath her outwardly gender-conforming behavior, throw him into a state of near-madness. For months, he's confined himself to his house, to his room, knowing that if he leaves, his anger at his wife's betrayals will drive him to murder: "He looks into his palms. His eyes have grown accustomed to the dark he has made for himself, behind these curtains that never open. He sees clearly his lifelines, supposed harbingers of fortune: another lie, as much a lie as honor or ideals. He curls his lip. Fuck these lies" (20). Alistair is a man disillusioned, recognizing the social lies, including the lies of the superiority of the male sex, that have undergirded his socially and gender-privileged life. A man poised to recognize the merits of a woman brave enough to reject the gendered social judgments with which others would burden her: "When I was young, I decided nobody would ever be able to ruin me but myself" (302).

The journeys of both of these heroines begin after they are physically attacked by men. Nineteenth-century gender norms argued that women were the gentler sex, in need of protection and care. But when the very men who are supposed to provide said care are the perpetrators of the violence they are supposed to be protecting their women against, the gaping hole in the gendered argument becomes all too painfully obvious. Both Essex and Duran are skilled enough writers not to simply ignore the historical realities of gender norms; instead, they craft characters with plausible reasons for calling their own society's gender norms into question. In the process, they give readers far more courageous role models than any writer who simply adorns characters with twenty-first-century mindsets in the beautiful ball gowns and dainty dancing slippers of the past.

Illustration credits:
Victorian couple: Challenging Women's Roles Through Literature
The Oddie Children (1789) by Sir William Beechey. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.
Mind Your Manners: Fight Like a Gentleman

After the Scandal
St. Martin's, 2014

Fool Me Twice
Pocket, 2014


  1. Excellent discussion and dissection of characters in the most colorful period of time I know!

    1. Thanks, Anne, for stopping by, and for the kudos. Much appreciated!

  2. I do also love the impossible: a historical romance novel that is -at the same time- accurate.
    The majority of romance novels sound like fantasies. Modern people dressed in costumes.
    But very very good authors can do it. Courtney Milan, for instance, usually respects the ideology of the time, shows the real problems women faced and at the same time gives you the part of fantasy of ideal love that is typical of the romance novel.
    Perhaps the gist of it is to show the Zeitgeist but stating clearly that you, the author, do not share those ideas. Something that is not very clear in the oldies by goldies (Cartland, Woodiwiss etcetera).

    1. Bona:

      Yes, I like the idea of depicting the Zeitgeist while making it clear that the narrative does not endorse it.

      Do you think the oldies by Cartland and Woodiwiss show the Zeitgeist of the past? Or of Cartland and Woodiwiss's own times?

  3. I'm not very sure about Cartland, because her production spans several decades, but in Woodiwiss' case I think she mainly tries to show the Zeitgeist of the past, but as a matter of fact, she ended up showing a very problematic point of her own times: how did the then-new sexual freedom affect female traditional roles.
    Let me see if I can explain this very personal theory that I have.
    She took this very old-fashioned idea, the dychotomy between the Good woman and the Evil woman -a very 19th century idea. But she -and many other authors from the 70s & 80s- took the sexy, the spicy part from the 'bad girls' and put it in the 'good girls', in the 'home angels', so they could enjoy sex, too. After the sexual revolution, even 'Good' girls had to enjoy it. But the way of doing it was through that hateful trope the forced seduction which is, -again- an idea from the past. Because there's no way a 'Good girl' can enjoy sex if they are not forced by the man they love or are going to love, and here she is certainly showing the mores of her own times. So in order not to feel guilty about their own sexuality 'it had' to be that way.
    Now that society has changed and readers haven't got this problem, forced seduction has almost disappeared from the romantic genre because it's something we just hate, and can't even understand why the readers liked it.
    So the problem with these old books is that the author accepted basic old-fashioned ideas like this opposition between good/bad women, that hypergamy is the only acceptable marriage, that the male of our species is a brute that cannot control himself if the heroine is very beutiful and it's not his fault but the heroine's...
    The heroine is perfect, charming, beautiful, tender,... with no female friends or connections to any other female group. And the antagonist is the bad girl, who doesn't love, doesn't care for anything or anyone but her own desires. These old books showed the idea that the only way to a sexual life for a 'Good girl' was through marriage and being forced to it. But they keep on thinking in those terms of good & bad.
    Those ideas can be showed -and in a rawer way- by 21st century author, but not supported by them. That's why I wrote that the difference between old authors and modern authors is that the former seemed to support the traditional role of women whereas the latter describe the woman's condition in the past but do not support it.

    1. Yes, Bona, I think your theory is dead-on. In her work on women's sexual fantasies (MY SECRET GARDEN from 1973), Nancy Friday argues that the rape fantasy worked in just the same way--to allow women to experience sex, but without the guilt of choosing it. The whore/madonna split that feminism began to dismantle in the 1970s is far less prevalent now, and the forced seduction fantasy in literature has become far less prevalent.