Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Thoughts on the original RITA winners

When I came across romance author Corinna Lawson's January 2018 post on B&N Reads' blog, "The Great RITA Read: In the Beginning," I was decidedly intrigued. Lawson announced her plans to read and then write about past winners of Romance Writers of America®'s Golden Medallion Awards, now the RITA Awards, as a way to "explore the history of the romance genre." This first column focused on the four books which were the first to be named Golden Medallion winners (back in 1982): one long and one short historical, and one long and one short contemporary romance. I thought it would be fun to try and find these books and read them too, and then talk about my findings here on the blog.

Given its place on a Barnes & Noble-sponsored web site, Lawson's post leans towards more toward the celebratory than the analytical. Lawson notes that she had some "preconceptions" about what the books would be like, given conventional wisdom about Old Skool romance. In particular, she worried that these books' heroines would be flat, tame damsel-in-distress. But actually reading the books quickly dispelled her preconceptions: "I had a collection of characters who would not be out of place in a contemporary romance," she argues.

I wondered if I would feel the same.

After reading the two short Golden Medallion winners, Constance Ravenlock's , Rendezvous at Gramercy (Candlelight Regency Special 1981) and Brooke Hastings' Winner Take All (Silhouette 1981), I can report that I both do and don't. Neither spoiled Regency rich girl Alexis Palme, nor window-turned-business-owner Carrie Spencer is your stereotypical passive heroine. Yet both are distinctly limited by the gender roles of the 1970s. And both of their narratives struggle, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, with questions about gender equality that the Women's Movement of the 1970s brought into the popular consciousness.

At the beginning of Rendezvous at Gramercy, our heroine, nineteen-year-old Alexis Palme, is a self-involved, rather heartless girl. Her American mother is dead; since that death, her Swedish diplomat father has "taken to spoiling his only daughter until the sweetness was little more than an evanescent mood and her prettily curved lips were more frequently hardened into a line of stubborn arrogance" (20). Ravenlock doesn't just tell readers this; she shows her protagonist's selfishness in the opening chapter, by having Alexis care more about her clothing than about the war raging across Napoleonic Europe; by showing her refusing her maid's request to remain in England with her sweetheart rather than travel with her to Gibraltar where she is to meet her father; and by having her keeping the ship upon which she is to travel waiting: "Naturally the ship's captain would understand a woman's last minute packing requirements, even if he had stressed the importance of her arriving at the latest by eight fifteen" (12). Alexis, then, is the type of heroine with whom readers are not expected to identify, at least at the start of the story. The romance will spend the bulk of its time tracking Alexis's transformation, from self-centered, thoughtless society girl to other-centered helper of the poor and downtrodden. Ironically, though, it is the very arrogance and self-assurance for which Alexis is condemned at book's start that allows her to succeed in her new role as smuggler and spy.

Early in the story, Alexis's ship wrecks off the north coast of France, landing her in Breton, or Brittany. Rescued by an elderly pair of aristocrats, Alexis's restless curiosity soon leads her to discover that the aloof Count and Countess de Chambord are deeply involved in smuggling goods from the British to help the impoverished Breton peasants. But when the Count is injured, Alexis ends up taking on his role in the smuggling rather than fleeing with the English smugglers herself, going out at darkest night to exchange French goods for British. Masquerading as the Count and Countess's niece, Alexis also pretends to flirt with the suspicious colonel at the local garrison, a man bent on discovering and routing the smugglers, to pump him for information. Said flirting felt pretty smarmy to me as a reader, in part because I got the feeling that Alexis enjoyed what she was doing, plying her feminine wiles to deceive the obviously dim Colonel. Alexis, then, is not a passive damsel, but an active protagonist, but she can only act under the guise of deception.

Another sign of the story's dated feminism is it's "mean girl" foil, a staple of 70's and 80's category romances. The de Chambourd's actual niece, Laure, who arrives mid-book from Paris to create more difficulty for the smugglers, bears a remarkable resemblance to Alexis at the novel's start, and serves primarily to show readers that Alexis is no longer the unfeeling creature she once was. For now, unlike Laure, Alexis is kind to the servants; she respects the poor and feels a landed gentry's responsibility to aid and succor them; and she disdains Laure's focus on finery and frippery (at least when it is the sole focus of one's attention and concerns).

This is a romance novel, but Alexis's love story takes a decided second seat to the derring-do of the smuggling plot. Her love interest is a doctor, Edouard Lautrec, a bitter, disillusioned former naval surgeon who initially suspects Alexis of "the vilest foppery and shallowness" (59). I'd expected that the two would end up working together by book's end, Edouard seeing beyond Alexis's false mask to her true, good smuggler self. But Edouard is pretty much a bystander to the majority of the action up until the very end of the story, after Alexis has stolen jewels from the smug actual niece of the Count and Countess, after she's duped the smarmy Colonel again and again, and after she's disguised herself as a drunken slop-bucket carrier to free her former fellow shipmate, an English seaman, from prison. Only after the dim Colonel finally catches on and imprisons and whips her does the good doctor come riding to her rescue. So yes, in fact, Alexis does need to be rescued at novel's end. But the rescue feels almost as gratuitous as the romance in the book, a cap added to appease the conventional trope of male hero saving the heroine which does little to mask the self-directed actions of the female protagonist we witnessed throughout the bulk of the story.

Caroline "Carrie" Spencer, the heroine of Brooke Hastings' Golden Medallion short contemporary Winner Take All, seems to be far more empowered at the start of her story than Alexis Palme was. She's the owner of Elliot Bay Electronics; she has a college degree; she even enjoys playing basketball in her spare time. A modern empowered woman, no? But this contemporary romance is far more ambivalent about female power than its historical counterpart.

Carrie only owns Seattle-based Elliot Bay because she inherited it from her dead husband. And her authority as owner is continually questioned, not just by other characters, but by Carrie by herself. And by the plot trajectory of the novel as a whole.

Within the first paragraph, we learn that "Caroline invariably felt inexperienced" by comparison to the company's longtime comptroller, and, a few paragraphs later, that "she never could have fulfilled her duties as president so competently without his encouragement and advice" (9, 10). And by page three, we hear that her former brother-in-law has just sold off his share of the company to corporate raider Matthew Lyle, a man who has a reputation for hostile takeovers of reluctant companies. The stage is set: alpha male Matthew against ice queen Carrie, cool on the outside but deeply insecure on the inside.

Carrie thinks to get the jump on finding out about Matthew by going to observe him when he speaks at a local boat show. Little does she realize that he's already out-manipulating her, arranging to casually "bump" into her and ask her out on a date, pretending all the while that he has no idea who she really is. The two have an enjoyable, if argumentative, dinner; when Matthew sees her home, he immediately begins to kiss her (this contemporary is far more interested in sex and sexuality than its historical winning counterpart). In typical Old Skool romance style, Carrie's mind protests, while her body can't help but respond:

Her lips were parted with punishing swiftness, her mouth probed and explored with passionate impatience.
     It was the first time Caroline had been kissed by a man with any real experience and technique. Matthew had gone too fast—demanded more than she could give—and initially she froze, her body objecting by means of a sudden, shocked stiffness. Her hands slid up to push against his chest, rejecting his rough invasion of her mouth. Although he loosened his hold, he refused to release her. His mouth became gentle and persuasive again, caressing, nibbling, teasing relentlessly.
     Caroline heard her own soft moans as she began to kiss him back. Now when he parted her lips the intimate feel of his tongue moving against her own was arousing rather than alarming. And when he deepened the kiss into a passionate conquest, Caroline was only too ready to be enslaved. (53)

Carrie, despite having been married, is a virgin (older, ill husband), and is decidedly skittish when it comes to sexual intimacy. Behavior which the arrogant Matthew interprets as teasing, a tactic to which he strenuously objects. He objects so much, in fact, that he makes her a bargain: spend a weekend away with him, and he'll stop his hostile takeover of her company. He'll settle for two seats on the board of directors and an immediate audit of the books.

Carrie, of course, objects to this crass bargain, but after she discovers that her kindly comptroller, on the instructions of her now-dead husband, bribed companies to win contracts for the firm, her former determination to fight the takeover begins to waver. Because the audit Matthew is insisting upon will likely send Sam Hanover to jail. Carrie worries for Sam, and for her late husband's reputation, but isn't at all happy about the idea of giving in to Matthew, even though subsequent meetings continue to demonstrate that when it comes to his sex appeal, Carrie's mind may protest, but her body inevitably gives in.

Twenty-first century rape victim advocates argue strenuously against the automatic equation of a sexually responsive body and affirmative consent to sex. But in early 1980s category romance, a sexually responsive female body is always read as a sign of willing, usually repressed, female sexual desire, a sexual desire that a strong male will insist takes precedence over any woman's verbal refusal to engage in sex. As Matthew explains in frustration, "When you stand there like that, not moving, I can't take it. Because I can feel you wanting me and resisting it. I can't stop myself from forcing you to respond when I'd rather not have to do that, Carrie" (93). A man knows better than a woman what she wants, and is rather put out when she refuses to acknowledge it.

Interestingly, Carrie's office assistant and close friend Maggie, a divorcee who lives with her boyfriend, offers a different take on female sexuality. Maggie gives Carrie the purportedly liberated woman's view of sex:

"Just remember that when you go to bed with someone, Caroline, you don't have to give him your soul, and you don't have to sacrifice your independence. You'll be giving Matthew Lyle your body for forty-eight hours—nothing more. From what you've told me [that she finds Matthew attractive], you'll probably enjoy doing it. Afterward, you can refuse to see him again, if that's what you want. There's no reason to become emotionally involved with him." (73)

But the 1980s category romance rejects any attempt to divorce emotional involvement from sex, at least for a woman. Though she plays basketball with men, and runs her own company, Carrie is not the liberated woman than Maggie is; she can't imagine sex divorced from love, and neither can the category romance. To Carrie, such a divorce is tantamount to using someone, and using herself.

Carrie is, however (perhaps like the average female reader of 1981?) interested in the women's movement. One of the books she's reading is "the latest novel by an aggressively feminist author who had raked the male sex over the coals in her three previous books" (87). Needless to say, Matthew isn't at all pleased to hear about Carrie's current book: "I'm not letting you near that one. By the time you've read two chapters, you'll probably throw it at me" (87). Feminism is tantalizing, but "aggressive," dangerous wrong. It's not surprising that by book's end, the liberated Maggie is planning her wedding.

Back to the story, from that quick diversion: In spite of her misgivings about his proposed bargain, Carrie ends up deciding to agree to Matthew's terms, reasoning that "It would cost her nothing to go up to the San Juan Islands with him, because if she found that she couldn't go through with it, she could walk out of his cabin and find a place to stay in town. He wouldn't drag her into bed—he was hardly the type to engage in rape" (74).

But Matthew is the type of engage in a bit of kidnapping, in the form of tricking Carrie onto his boat and taking her not to the populated San Juan Islands, but to a private island of his own. Carrie asked to return home, saying she's changed her mind, but Matthew arrogantly refuses: "By Sunday night you'll thank me for kidnapping you; I promise you that" (100). How quickly would an executive in 2018, acting like Matthew does, be hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit?

Carrie managed to fend off his advances, first by drinking too much and throwing up, then by crying, then by admitting she's a virgin. Matthew, of course, misinterprets her revelation:

"Make him happy? When you wouldn't let the poor guy near you? He must have been absolutely besotted with you, to marry you on those terms, His life must have been one long frustrated agony. And I thought he had hurt you! Just what kind of sadistic, manipulative woman are you?" (115)

But at least he stops importuning her. At least for a short while; not a month later, after hearing more kindly things about her from the son of his colleague, who is a basketball teammate of Carrie's, Matthew approaches her again, offering marriage rather than an affair. More bargaining ensues: if she marries him, will he call off the auditors? He says he will, but then breaks his word, which of course turns out to be justified (in order to get rid of the now not so kindly comptroller), once again undercutting Carrie's authority as head of her own company. By novel's end, the two are happy in their marriage, Carrie because Matthew loves her, and because he allows her to keep running a portion of her company (he's split off the government contract side of the business).

The book concludes with the two joking about women's lib:

     "I'm not about to object. I like the idea. Just think—our son could be the next Bill Bradley," he mused. "College All-American, Rhodes scholar, pro basketball player, United States senator. We've got all the right genes, sweetheart."
     "Really?" Caroline asked with feigned coolness. "And suppose we have a girl, you male chauvinist! Your mother wants a granddaughter, you know!"
     "Carrie, my beloved, enough is enough. I'll only accept so much liberation from the women in my family, and that's it! A corporation president for a wife is one thing, but no daughter of mine is going to make it her life's goal to get drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics!"
     "How about senator from the state of Washington?" Caroline countered.
     "If you don't shut up and let me get you where you belong, there won't be any offspring, Mrs. Lyle."
     "Who's talking?" Caroline giggled and held out her arms to him. (189)

In the world of award-winning early 1980's contemporary category romance, there is both acknowledgement of women's desire for greater power and independence, and also deep anxiety about that desire. Winner Take All acknowledges both the desire and the anxieties it provokes, then works to contain those anxieties by insisting that a woman can be liberated, as long as her liberation is palatable to her husband.

And as long as sex continues to be equated with emotional intimacy and love.

Photo credits:
Fort-La-Latte, Brittany: Dutch, Dutch, Goose!
San Juan Islands: Visit San Juan Islands


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