Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Behind Every Good Rake... Review of Courtney Milan's UNCLAIMED


The rake abandons his pregnant betrothed

A mainstay of contemporary historical romance is the dashing figure of the rake. The word rake originated as an abbreviated version of rakehell, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came into use during the sixteenth century as a derogatory term for "a thorough scoundrel or rascal; an utterly immoral or dissolute person; a vile debauchee." As the shortened version of the word gradually began to replace the longer, so, too, did the term's connotations began to shift. By the late eighteenth century, rake could refer to the somewhat less reprehensible "man of loose habits and immoral character," and even to the fairly harmless "idle, dissipated man of fashion."*

The rake as fop
But for today's Regency romance readers, the rake is a man not to be shunned or made fun of, but to be desired. All About Romance describes the rake as "a ladies' man, a bon vivant and possibly a libertine." A search at amazon.com for books with the word "rake" in the title turns up more than 800 in paperback alone, a testament to the popularity of the once derided figure.

Embodying the same appeal as the leather-jacketed rebel of the 1950s, the rake is valued by historical romance readers for his virility, his air of danger, and his unwillingness to conform to the strict social (and sexual) standards of his time. As a 2009 discussion of the rake on the Dear Author website suggests, the fantasy of being able to "tame" or "reform" such a figure is also a big part of the ungentlemanly gentleman's appeal. "I think the whole concept plays upon women's fantasies of being that one special someone who can affect positive change," argues author Maggie Robinson. "Lord knows in real life, men are not so amendable to reformation, or even putting the toilet seat down..."

But behind the figure of the rake looms an all-too-often forgotten shadow, Courtney Milan suggests in her historical romance, Unclaimed: the women whom he has seduced and abandoned.

A 1837 sex conduct book
Milan begins her questioning of our love affair with the rake by making her protagonist his very opposite. Unclaimed's Mark Turner is not only a virgin, but also the very public embodiment of early Victorian male sexual abstinence. When he writes A Gentleman's Practical Guide to Chastity, Mark thinks it just another philosophical treatise, one that will be printed then quickly forgotten. But to his surprise, his philosophizing draws the attention of young Queen Victoria, who knights him for his efforts. Mark becomes the rock star of his generation, known far and wide for being a man who won't succumb to any woman's physical charms. Mark is hounded by newspapermen eager to report his every move to his adoring fans; annoyed by his publisher, who is making a mint from subscriptions to the Male Chastity Brigade (MCB), a group inspired by his book; and tortured by well-meaning MCB members, who compare him to Christ, proudly inform him how many days they've gone without sex ("Forty-seven, sir!" Tolliver squeaked), and act in ways that clearly demonstrate they've never read his book.

Everyone in the rural village of Shepton Mallet, where Mark retreats to avoid the reporters and groupies who dog his every footstep, tries to matchmake on his behalf, believing that such a perfect man will want a similarly perfect woman. But Mark, and Milan, know better.

Jessica Farleigh is a courtesan, a woman who has sold her body for sex. She's followed Sir Mark to Shepton Mallet in order to win the cash prize, offered by a rival of Mark's, to any woman who can prove she's seduced the morally upright gentleman. Jessica believes the seduction will be easy: "If Jessica knew anything, she knew men. She knew what men wanted, and she knew how to give it to them.... [A]s with all men, she only needed to imply she was available. Sir Mark would be a willing participant in the destruction of his own reputation" (46). But what draws Mark to Jessica is not what all men want; thought he notices her beauty and her provocative dress, he won't be driven by it:

No doubt the inhabitants of Shepton Mallet had no idea what to make of a woman like this one—or a gown as daring as the one she wore. But Mark knew. That was the sort of dress that commanded: look at me.
    Mark had never taken well to commands. He turned away. (34)

Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson and her "look at me" dress

What convinces Mark to reconsider is not how Jessica looks, but the incongruity between her dress and her actions. Though her gown signals sexual availability, the way she flinches when the local rector touches her arm clearly signals stay away:

For one instant, she had more the look of scalded cat about her than graceful swan, and that half-second of response betrayed her air of worldly sensuality. She was not who she appeared at first blush.
     Mark was suddenly interested—interested in a way that a low-cut gown and a striking figure could never have accomplished. (36)

Mark sees the specific, the individual in Jessica, refusing to universalize. Unlike Jessica, he refuses to insist that all women are anything. And what he wants in a romantic partner is someone who can see him for who he really is: not the pious, sexless plaster saint the fans of his book assume him to be, but the man who desires, yet chooses not to act on that desire.

If he feels sexual desire, why does Mark choose to remain celibate? First, because he refuses to buy into the popular wisdom that places all blame for sexual impropriety on the woman. "A man must claim responsibility for his own temptation, and not pin it on the woman who arouses him," he tells the young MCB member who urges him to kick the all-too-alluring Jessica out of a town picnic held in his honor (87). As Jessica discovers when Mark refuses her seduction attempts, Mark believes there's an important distinction between thought and deed: "Yes, I want you, he'd as good as told her, but I won't act on the want" (89). In many historical romances, a hero's loss of sexual self-control in the face of the woman he lusts after is a positive sign; through Mark, Milan asks us to consider sexual self-control as a sign of respect.

Second, Mark realizes that the double standard makes indulging in sex far more risky to the woman than to the man. Frustrated by the misguided principles of the MCB, Mark lectures the group:

You should hold to chastity not because you fear what your cohort will say, but because when you indulge your own lusts, the woman you indulge them with is hurt. She is the one who will weather the censure of society. She is the one on whom the burden and expense of an unanticipated pregnancy will fall. She is the one who will be cast out. (243)

Mark's words point to the debilitating double standard of his society (and, far too often, of our own), a clearly empowering feminist message. Intriguingly, though, by insisting that it is the male alone who is responsible for making the choice about whether or not to indulge in sex, Mark comes dangerously close to justifying the same male privilege as his words decry. Such a protective attitude toward women can all too easily lead to a man making all the choices on behalf of his beloved, Milan's novel cautions. And given Jessica's history, the choices that she's made and the choices that have been made for her, that is a danger that bodes ill for any worthwhile romantic relationship.

Before Jessica and Mark can reach their happily ever after, then, Mark needs to accept that Jessica is not just a victim waiting for his knight in shining armor to rescue her and absolve her for her sins. She doesn't need him to stifle her with his protection, taking away her choices just as much as did any of the "protectors" who gave her money rather than love. Instead, she needs him to accept her, flaws and all, and to let her fight her own battles. The novel's climax allows Jessica to act as her own savior; the specific means by which she accomplishes this may not be very historically likely, but they are intensely satisfying to the feminist reader.

The opposite of a rakehell isn't a prude, Unclaimed asks us to believe, but rather a man who takes responsibility for his own sexual desires, and for their consequences. And a man looking for a relationship of equality with a woman will not smother her with his protection, but will allow her to ride to her own rescue, all the while admiring "how brightly [her] armor shone" (400).

* "Rakehell" and "rake." Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition on CD-ROM. Oxford UP, 2009. 

  Courtney Milan, Unclaimed. Book #2 in the Turner series.    
  HQN Books, 2001.


Photo credits:
• William Hogarth, first painting in The Rake's Progress series (1735). Wikipedia.
• Detail from George Cruickshank, Monstrosities of 1822. Reprinted in Mark Bills, The Art of Satire: London in Caricature. London: Philip Wilson/Museum of London, 2006.
• Harriette Wilson, from the BBC Radio 4 web site
• Sylvester Grahame, Grahame's Lectures on Chastity, specially intended for the serious consideration of young men and parents. Internet Archive.
• Self-Rescuing Princess T-shirt. Thinkgeek.com

Next time on RNFF: It's a guy thing...


  1. What a beautiful post. Pardon me while I go purchase the rest of Milan's books (I've read only the novella The Governess Affair, which I loved) and hole up to enjoy them. Cheers--

  2. Thanks, "readingwithanalysis." I, too, am a big fan of all of Milan's books, not just UNCLAIMED. Enjoy!

    1. The WordPress sign in for replies is so strange... Anyway, feel free to call me Kelly. :)

      I love what you are doing here with this blog. I was a guilty reader of romance for years (from 1993 or so), but I decided to stop marginalizing myself last year and am a much happier person now that I accept my tastes and consider them valid (rather important, that last bit) and refuse to feel ashamed for liking what I like. (Tangent: honestly, it's not like men are ever made to feel silly or small for liking every Transformers movie...) I certainly prefer to read books that I can enjoy, and that means books that embrace at least some feminist principles, but I have never consciously used feminist principles in my book-selection process. Perhaps I should: I might spend less time shaking my fists in anger. :) Cheers--

    2. Welcome to the club of proud romance readers, Kelly!

  3. Such fun! I am intrigued by Unclaimed and will put it on my TBR-list. I love, too, that you are taking a serious look at both the rake figure in popular fiction and that, in doing so, you are bringing attention to the serious topics handled by romance.

    1. Looking forward to hearing what you think if UNCLAIMED, JW.

  4. Proof that I'm losing my marbles. At least part of this comment about a virgin hero belongs here, although I put it with the post on romance novels and feminism. But I couldn't find *this* post as easily, and therefore couldn't remember just what it was that had reminded me of Balogh's novel:

    This reminds me of Mary Balogh's novel "No Man's Mistress," in which the heroine is a former prostitute and the hero is a virgin at 27. Of course, she didn't choose her profession but was forced into it to help her family. But the result in the story is to have a sexually experienced heroine and a totally inexperienced hero--an exact reversal of the typical situation, especially for a historical, and a Regency at that.

    I don't claim that this is an ideal "feminist" heterosexual relationship, only that it's interesting to contemplate the different directions that thinking outside the box can take us. For example, what would a heterosexual romance be like if the heroine had been a sex worker by choice? Or still was?

    Are there romance novels now with a heroine who is a rake? Your point about the forgotten female victims of the male rake is welcome. Can there be female rakes in the same sense? Could their male partners be seen as victims? and to what degree?

    And so sorry for the confusion! But this is such an interesting blog that it's hard to keep up with all the thoughts (and comments) it generates.

  5. Ann:

    No worries about where and when you post!

    I'm a big Mary Balogh fan, and NO MAN'S MISTRESS is one of my favs. I'm definitely going to have to do a post on virgin heroes soon, exploring how the transposition of sexual experience affects the dynamics of romantic relationships.

    As for your question about being a sex worker by choice, I haven't seen a historical romance that deploys such a trope, although several recent books feature heroines who don't shy away from admitting their past or current courtesan status (Julie Ann Long's A NOTORIOUS COUNTESS CONFESSES, and Cecilia Grant's A GENTLEMEN UNDONE come to mind). I'd imagine the trope would be more likely found in contemporary romance, where the stigma associated with such a choice might be less socially problematic. Perhaps in erotica/romantica? I'm not as well-read in that field as I'd like to be.

    Could a male be a victim of a female rake? I just read Tiffany Reisz's THE SIREN, which has one plotline that has elements of this -- the BSDM heroine cares for a younger vanilla-sex virgin male, but not refuses to give up her BSDM sexuality for his sake. The heroine's dominant former lover accuses her of taking advantage of the young man, so it might be interesting to think of him in terms of being a victim of a female rake.

    Otherwise, I could picture this dynamic occurring only in a society where female sexuality is lauded, but male sexuality is not. An interesting idea for a fantasy novelist to explore, perhaps?

    1. Thanks for answering my questions so precisely, with titles and authors. And thanks to Laura Vivanco for her, as always, specific and knowledgable replies.

      Yes, I agree that my idea of a female rake is more suited to the modern era or the future. My opinion is that those examples that Dr. Vivanco cites, of lamia, sirens, etc., are not exactly what I'm talking about. It's interesting to contemplate a human, non-supernatural, sexy woman who enjoys sex without attachments, pursuing an equivalent of the idea of "conquest" of multiple male partners, and of her being "tamed" by love for one man whio is relatively inexperienced or a virgin.

      While there's always the risk of sexually transmitted disease, in our biological world only the woman can be impregnated, so the risks of promiscuity for *her* are that much greater, and of a different kind. While the male "victim" of a female rake can suffer emotional damage, it's not quite the same thing as pregnancy, childbirth, death in childbirth, parenthood, and so on.

      And same-sex rake/virginal pairings also are limited in realistic settings to emotional and STD damage.

      So not only does there need to be a change in the way male and female sexuality are valued, but perhaps also a change in biology as well?

    2. While the male "victim" of a female rake can suffer emotional damage, it's not quite the same thing as pregnancy, childbirth, death in childbirth, parenthood, and so on.

      The mention of parenthood reminded me, somewhat belatedly, of the way that heroes are in fact quite often victims of female rakes: the hero who was abandoned by a promiscuous mother is really very common.

      I know that's going off at a bit of a tangent, but it struck me as being interesting. Also, if the son of a rakish mother becomes a rake himself, then he's in fact becoming his mother and not just embodying a certain ideal of masculinity. But then, since masculinity and femininity seem to be constructed in opposition to each other, with any given quality (e.g. aggression) being seen as "wrong" when present in someone of the sex to which it hasn't been ascribed, perhaps this isn't surprising.

      The rake-mother is a gender stereotype which might owe something to medieval ideas about women (as we've been discussing in the thread of another post), while the virgin-heroine seems to represent a later model of femininity.

    3. To Ann: Yes, a change in biology, or perhaps in technology/medicine (if they become easily curable, or eradicated some day...).

      Would love to see an author (you?) play with the idea of a sexually active woman who enjoys having lots of different partners be "tamed" by a relatively innocent male, in a sex-positive narrative.

      To Laura: Fascinating idea, to consider this from the point of view of the child of a "rakish" mother (although "promiscuous/wanton" are the adjectives typically used in these cases, at least in historicals). Can you think of particular titles in which the male child of a "rakish" woman becomes a rake himself?

    4. Can you think of particular titles in which the male child of a "rakish" woman becomes a rake himself?

      I'd put Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels in that category, because the hero was brought up being told that his mother was immoral (and she did, after all, run off with a man who wasn't her husband). The mother who was promiscuous and/or a golddigger and therefore abandoned her son who is therefore focused on his business and has lots of mistresses/casual affairs is something that comes up quite a bit in M&B Moderns/Harlequin Presents, I think.

      Unfortunately, as so often happens, I can't think of many examples now, though I know I've read them. However, the rakish mother who makes the hero distrust women is a situation that's well enough known that it's mentioned in a parodic epilogue Amanda Grange wrote for All About Romance:

      ‘Oh, look, it’s the Braithwaites,’ said Susan. ‘He won her on a hand of cards when her brother gambled her away. She offered to be his housekeeper but, as he already had one, he decided to marry her instead. By all accounts they’re very happy, even though, to begin with, he hated her because he thought she was bound to have affairs, just like his mother. I believe the turning point came when he caught her embracing the estate manager, only to find out that the man was her cousin and she was embracing him because he’d brought her the news of their great uncle’s death.’

    5. Ah, an excuse to revisit LORD OF SCOUNDRELS! Looking again at the book's opening pages, I see that Dain's father told him his mother was immoral. But the narrative tells us that she "eloped with the son of a wealthy shipping merchant... [and] departed with him to the West Indies" (6). The text doesn't connect Dain's wenching (which he always pays for) to his mother's act, except perhaps when it notes that Dain's father found her "uninhibited" behavior in bed appalling. But she doesn't seem quite the rake that Ann is looking for.

      It would be interesting to check out all those books with mothers who had affairs, to see which ones depict the mother as promiscuous/rakish, versus which depict her as turning to another lover when her first husband turns out to be a bad 'un.

      Thanks for sharing the Grange parody. It's a scream!

  6. Are there romance novels now with a heroine who is a rake? Your point about the forgotten female victims of the male rake is welcome. Can there be female rakes in the same sense? Could their male partners be seen as victims? and to what degree?

    I don't know about modern romance, but there's a long tradition of femme fatales including the figures of the belle dame sans merci, lamia, siren, succubus, or perhaps a woman with a vagina dentata. Leaving behind the paranormal, Manon Lescaut comes to mind.

  7. Yep, but none of those gals have the positive connotations that the rake does in today's historical romances. They're all feared, no?

    1. Yes, but so, generally, were male vampires, werewolves and rakes until quite recently. I suspect it's more difficult to give the threatening female figures positive connotations because they're further from the feminine ideal (they're hardly nurturing, maternal, gentle, modest, sweet, innocent). I think it's been easier to transform male villains (for reasons I touched on in this post).

  8. This sounds very much like what I'm looking for. Coincidentally, a LJ friend of mine just finished this book and offered to lend it to anyone who was interested. She's going to send it to me.

  9. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it!

  10. I liked it very much, although I wasn't sure how much I would like it until fairly late. I loved the twists and turns, and Milan made the plot devices believable. I'm not sure how convinced I am that Mark's attitudes were of the period -- in fact, sometimes he seemed too good to be true irrespective of period -- and Milan's writing style is sufficiently modern that it sometimes threw me out of the book. At least the book taken as a whole was well-written, which is often not my reaction to romances, both het and m/m.

    The back and forth in the middle about whether Jessica had the guts to ruin him or not became tiresome. I kind of wanted to tell her to get on with it and do something. I also wanted to know more about Jessica's backstory; how did someone so intelligent wind up falling for a cad? Was it naivete over the social consequences, wanting to get away from going to rot in the country, thinking she was in love, or what?

    Now I'd like to read Milan's books about Mark's brothers. I'm still not convinced I'm the right audience for genre het romance -- there were parts about Jessica or written from her POV that had me rolling my eyes -- but judging from Unclaimed, Milan's are more interesting and less stereotyped than most.

  11. Glad you enjoyed it, Lawless. Will be interested to hear what you think of her other Turner brothers' books.

    What about Mark's attitudes seemed not true to the period to you?

  12. His egalitarianism and support of Jessica's agency.

    I just read Milan's novella A Kiss for Midwinter, and while it doesn't have as openly a feminist agenda, I enjoyed it more than Unclaimed. It didn't have the same pacing problems and felt more true to the period.

  13. I've now read most of Milan's books, and it turns out that Unclaimed is one of my least favorites. Proof By Seduction is the other one; I usually like her leading men as well as or better than the women, but Gareth was so standoffish and socially inept that his personality annoyed me mightily. I also did not like the way the plot required Jenny to betray Nick; she should have known better.

    Although it got poorer reviews on Amazon and sounded like it might be too preachy with its subplot about rescuing abused wives, I liked the sequel, Trial by Desire, much better.

    I loved Unraveled, the last book in the Turner series, and I liked Unveiled. Smite Turner in Unraveled was more what I thought Gareth in Trial by Seduction might be like.

  14. Glad you've enjoyed your Milan reading. I really like TRIAL BY DESIRE, too, particularly because it deals with mental health issues experienced by a main character.

  15. I loved this book much more than I had expected. One doesn't have to read the prior novel and novella in this series, but UNVEILED does give the reader more information and understanding of the charger of Mark and the Turner family.