Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Love in the Limelight: Nell Stark's THE PRINCESS AFFAIR and Lynn Ames' ALL THAT LIES WITHIN

In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis lists "the declaration," i.e., the moment when the hero tells the heroine that he loves her, and vice versa, as one of the eight essential narrative events of a romance (34). Such declarations most often take place in private, privacy serving as a protection against embarrassment if the "I love you" should prove not to be reciprocated, as well as a sign of the intimacy of the relationship the newly acknowledged love promises.

A large minority of heterosexual romances, though, include very public declarations, with a heroine or, more often, a hero, proclaiming his devotion in front of family, friends, or even the couple's entire social circle. The "grand gesture" of a public declaration serves not only as confirmation of one person's commitment to another, but also as recognition that a romantic relationship takes place within a larger social sphere. The lover who declares his devotion publicly asks not only for acknowledgement and acceptance from his beloved, but also from the broader society in which they both live.

Continuing my project of reading all of the lesbian romances nominated for the Lambda Award this year led me to think about how the declaration scene functions in same-sex romance. Lynn Ames' All That Lies Within and Nell Stark's The Princess Affair both feature protagonists who spend a large proportion of their time in the public eye: Ames' Dara Thomas is a famous film actress, a woman whose "most intimate emotions and moments [are] plastered across the pages of a tabloid for the world to see and dissect" (Loc 1169); Stark's Alexandra "Sasha" Carlisle is second in line to inherit the British throne (in a world with no Queen Elizabeth, but instead a King Andrew). Both spend much of their time performing a role for their publics, Dara that of tantalizing straight sex object, Sasha that of socialite party girl who may or may not have bisexual proclivities. Neither woman feels truly seen by the public for which she performs, in large part because neither feels able to reconcile her sexual identity as a lesbian with the demands of her public role.

Each woman falls in love with a woman who "sees" her for herself, who sees beyond the public performance. Both Sasha and Dara's lovers are already out, comfortable with a publicly-acknowledged identity as a lesbian. But in order to participate in a relationship with such public icons, graduate student Kerry and English professor Rebecca must accept a return of sorts to the closet: neither Dara nor Sasha feels able to "go public" with the news of her new relationship.

In both novels, it is the woman who is already out of the closet who first utters the love declaration. Both declarations are made in private, and are echoed by their objects, one immediately, one later, after a family crisis has been resolved. In Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis, Phyllis Betz argues that "Saying I love you...in a lesbian romance becomes a radical act, even though the narrative framework remains very conservative, and many of the characters in these novels seem to recognize that their declaration will alter how the rest of their community will respond to them" (75). But not until the love declaration moves from the private to the public sphere.

And thus the climax of both novels is not the private love declaration, but a later, enormously public one: actress Dara Thomas's in the midst of accepting an Academy Award; Princess Sasha's in the middle of a press conference to discuss an incriminating photograph of her and Kerry published in the tabloids. The declaration scene is duplicated, repeated for an audience far broader than that of just the beloved. The declaration thus becomes not only a declaration of love, but a declaration of sexual identity. And not just an individual declaration by the public figures of the actress and the princess, but an insistence that a gay identity can and should be accepted by the broader culture in which each serves as public symbol and role model.

Ellen DeGeneres announcing to Rosie
O'Donnell that she's "Lebanese" (1996)
Betz suggests that in lesbian love novels, "the happy ending that is essential to the romance erases the public censure for such visible displays of affection," such as these very public declaration of same-sex love (75). Though the narrative tells us that actress Dara was interviewed after her declaration, we don't hear any of the questions she was asked, nor do we hear anything about the public reaction to her surprising announcement. Neither do we hear any response from Sasha's audience, even though her announcement included not only her personal statement, but a larger promise: "I pledge to every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex member of this Commonwealth that I shall be your champion in the years to come" (Loc 4122). Instead, both narratives whisk us immediately back to the personal for their conclusions: an embrace between Dara and Rebecca; an introduction of Kerry to Sasha's quite accepting family.

The erasure of such censure may be the most fantastic element in these wish-fulfillment romances. But I'd far rather fantasize about a world that accepts same-sex romance than a world populated by burly alpha males bent on rescuing my helpless female self. Thanks to both Stark and Ames for helping me to do so.

Photo credits:
Billboard proposal: Daily Edge
DeGeneres and O'Donnell: UTube

Lynn Ames, All that Lies Within
Phoenix Rising Press, 2013

Nell Stark, The Princess Affair
Bold Strokes Books, 2013


  1. Thank you for mentioning that book, 'Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis', by Phyllis Betz. It looks very interesting if you want to know something about what I consider a subgenre in Romancelandia.

    I don't like public declarations in romances. They make me roll my eyes.

    1. You're very welcome!

      I'm not a big fan of public declarations, either (introvert that I am!)