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"Alternative Facts": Some Thoughts After Quaker Meeting

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 29 January, 2017

The Quaker Advices and Queries states that "Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth" because, as explained elsewhere,

An oath is like a formal version of a promise – in saying certain words, you guarantee that you are speaking the truth. Quakers claimed always to speak the truth, so they took issue with swearing oaths, seeing them as creating a double standard of truthfulness. If you need to swear an oath to guarantee you are telling the truth, then you can’t really feel that you must tell the truth the rest of the time.

I couldn't help but think of someone who recently swore an oath and who certainly would not be able to answer in the affirmative these questions, posed in the Advices and Queries:

Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? Do you maintain strict integrity in business transactions and in your dealings with individuals and organisations? Do you use money and information entrusted to you with discretion and responsibility?

Sadly that may mean that, for many of the rest of us, the next paragraph of the Advices and Queries will become increasingly pertinent:

If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it? Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions.

New Page on this Site: Politics and the Past in Historical Romance Fiction

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 27 January, 2017

In case anyone's following this blog via a feedreader, I thought I'd mention here that I've just put up a new page elsewhere on this site (the topic was a bit long to be just a blog post) about politics and history in historical romance fiction.

In it I refer to Beverly Jenkins, who's one of the authors included in Bowling Green State University Library's new small online display about pioneering African-American romance authors.

Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr)

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 7 January, 2017

 

I was sent a copy of Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr) around Christmas but I waited till after New Year to take a closer look at it. It's not about envying the Virgin Mary, although her presence does make itself felt particularly in the final chapter.

The editors suggest that "our ideas about virginity - the hymen in particular - and the phallus are 'cultural fantasies' that continue to inspire, provoke, and unsettle us" (2): the first and second essays in the volume show the continuities across the centuries of some of these "cultural fantasies". And yet:

As we began to discuss virginity, however, we realized that many of these common virginal narratives are not true. Virginity extends well beyond the girl who protects herself and her hymen until marriage. [...] Indeed, insistence on the hymen erases all kinds of bodies save the most normative, cisgendered body of the female. Therefore, it is imperative that we go beyond the hymen and think about virginity without it. Truth be told, boys are virgins, queers are virgins, some people reclaim their virginities, and others reject virginity from the get go. (4-5)

The editors have tried to ensure that the collection of essays in the volume have a wide range but "as editors regret that this collection does not contain much about lesbian or trans virginities - important areas of research that need to be attended to [...]. It is surprising that, though virginity studies is a field dominated by the idea that virginity is female, lesbian experiences of virginity are unaccounted for in the scholarship" (11). There is a discussion of Catalina de Erauso, though, in the last chapter.

I've copied out the abstracts of the two chapters on romance in this post so here I'll just highlight a few other quotes/elements which piqued my interest, mainly relating to depictions of race/ethnicity/geography and religion in texts/contexts related to popular romance fiction.

Chapter 1: "I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet": Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance [by Amy Burge, pages 17-44.]

Amy Burge's

focus throughout is on the [virginity] test as it applies to women, echoing the deeply gendered discourses that surround virginity testing: there are no virgin sheikhs. (18)

I'm kind of tempted to look for one now, just in case he exists out there somewhere. Almost certainly not published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, though, as I know Amy researched those very, very carefully.

Given the popularity of virgin heroines in romance fiction, it's really interesting to note that her

large-scale analysis of Mills & Boon Modern Romance [i.e. the line known as Harlequin Presents in the North American market] novels reveals that female virginity is particularly pronounced in romance novels with "foreign heroes": the ubiquitous Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Brazilians, Argentines, and, of course, sheikhs. Of the 931 Modern Romance novels published in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2009, 458 feature virgin heroines, and 281 of them (approximately 61 percent) have foreign heroes. This simultaneously reveals Western preoccupation with virginity and its situating of it "elsewhere." (21)

This does begin to make me wonder if, among English-speaking writers and readers, Greece, Italy and Spain are in some way not considered part of the "West," and in turn reminds me of Hsu-Ming Teo's essay about Rudolph Valentino playing the part of the "sheik." Teo mentions that

the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 [in the US] “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. [...] To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks."

Something of that hierarchy perhaps continues to haunt romance fiction; as a result of my own research on Greece in popular romance (forthcoming) I came across the suggestion that in England the Mediterrean has been particularly associated with passion since at least the early modern period.

It isn't entirely clear why cultures assumed to be more passionate should also be assumed to value virginity more highly but it is certainly stressed in romance novels set in the "romance East" that "female virginity is of great cultural importance. Sheikh romances repeatedly highlight the importance placed on virginity in Eastern culture [...]. Such a cultural valuing is connected to ideas of tradition often glossed as 'medieval.'" (Burge 23). As Burge concludes:

For contemporary popular romance fiction to construct the "romance East" as a space in which "medieval" virginity can be celebrated echoes the similar practice of situating practices or attitudes inappropriate today - such as sexual violence - in a distant space, such as the historical past or, indeed, the East. Relegating the valuing and testing of virginity to the East might be in line with current popular ideas about the East, but it also reveals some of the romance genre's motivations for situating this valuing in the fictional romance East. In other words, for the romance genre to celebrate the unequal traditions of heteronormativity, the virginity testing that upholds these traditions must be situated "elsewhere." As much as many Western readers [...] might condemn "foreign" cultures for continuing to conduct virginity tests, the gender hegemony that these tests uphold is clearly evident and even celebrated in our own romantic cultural imagination, as revealed in the pages of some of the most popular contemporary Western fiction. (34-35)

Chapter 2: Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen [by Jodi McAlister, pages 45-64.

Given the way in which the valuing of virginity is located "elsewhere" in the popular romances examined by Burge, it's intriguing that McAlister observes that

in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries [..] Some virgins were said to be affected by chlorosis or "green-sickness," for which marriage was recommended as the cure [...]. We can see this represented in [...] the 1682 ballad "A Remedy for the Green Sickness" [...] We can see represented here not only the cure for green-sickness but also the pathologization of maintained virginity that existed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hanne Blank notes that it is an interesting coincidence that green-sickness was so often diagnosed during the period in which Protestantism, with its emphasis on marriage as the ideal state, became popular in Europe. (47-48)

Is it also a coincidence that the countries/places onto which romance novels seem to project the idealisation of virginity are not Protestant? Possibly it is, but at the same time I can't help but remember that in the seventeenth century:

European writers associated Islam with, and criticized it for, excessive and depraved sexual practices. The sexual excesses of Muslims were believed to derive from their religion, which permitted polygamy. (Teo, Desert 40-41)

A couple of centuries later, Gothic fiction linked Catholicism and "depraved" sexuality. For example:

When in The Monk (1796), Matthew G. Lewis uses the details of conventual life to suggest lurid forms of sexual excess such as necromancy, incest, matricide, and same-sex love, he does not need to explain his choice of a Catholic setting, a Mediterranean country (Spain, not Italy in this case), or religious life itself. All these things, to the English imagination at least, make such easy, rational sense that Lewis could assume a general understanding of (and even assent to) his extravagant posturing. And while reviewers criticized Lewis’s excess, they never suggested that his portrayal of Catholic monastic life was inappropriate. If the novel can be considered sensational, that is not because anyone objected to the portrayal of the characters themselves: oversexed and violent Catholic priests, victimizing and vindictive nuns, devil worship and self-abuse. These and other lurid sexual possibilities were common popular perceptions of conventual life in Mediterranean countries. (Haggerty)

Is it yet another coincidence that all this sexual excess is taking place in settings which are supposed to be filled with virgins?

Chapter 3 - The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga [by Jonathan A. Allan and Cristina Santos, pages 67-96.

Edward, the virgin hero of the Twilight saga is "foreign" in a different way from Mediterranean romance heroes: he is a vampire. Again, there is a link to religion:

Silver argues that his values are "uncommon in popular, mainstream secular discourse about young adult sexuality today." [...] there is an entire industry dedicated to ensuring sexual purity, which though having a religious affiliation, is also very much a part of secular culture. (72)

The issue of virginity in US culture is also mentioned in the next chapter.

Chapter 4 - Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood [Janice Zehentbauer and Cristina Santos, pages 97-123.]

Certainly, in the past two decades in America, evangelical church groups and the American government have united to encourage youth in general, and young women in particular, to choose abstinence [...]. Historian and independent scholar Hanne Blank points out that, "of all the developed world, the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." (97)

Zehentbauer and Santos suggest that

Twenty-first-century America's obsession with virginity also emerges in many artifacts of popular culture, especially those of the gothic or supernatural genres. In her influential Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach argues that vampires, in the Anglo-American cultural imaginary, embody and signify the sociopolitical concerns of the era that produces them. (98)

If the US policies around virginity have been at all divisive, and it would seem that they have, given that "repealing abstinence-only programs, much less authorizing the full scope of reproductive health care services, runs into deep moral divides" (Morone and Ehlke 318), and if Edward's values "are 'uncommon in [...] secular discourse," could it be that those values have to be translated into a "foreign" (in this case vampiric) context to make them palatable to a mass audience which is, nonetheless, still fascinated by virginity and what it represents?

-----

The other chapters in the volume are:

McGuiness, Kevin. "The Queer Saint: Male Virginity in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane." (127-143.)

Ncube, Gibson. "Troping Boyishness, Effeminacy, and Masculine Queer Virginity: Abdellah Taïa and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri." (145-169.)

Sayed, Asma. "Bollywood Virgins: Diachronic Flirtations with Indian Womanhood." (173-190.)

Crowe Morey, Tracy and Adriana Spahr. "The Policing of Viragos and other "Fuckable" Bodies: Virginity as Performance in Latin America." (191-231.)

That last chapter introduced me to Catalina de Erauso whose life

reads like a picaresque novel. Born, probably in 1592, to a noble Basque family in San Sebastián, Spain, she bolted from a convent before taking her vows, assumed masculine clothing, gave herself a new identity as "Francisco de Loyola," and, early in the seventeenth century , made her way to the New World, where she led the rough-and-ready life of a soldier in the Spanish colonies.

On the battlefield she was a formidable warrior; in her other exploits she gambled, engaged in dalliances with women, brawled, and faced death sentences for murder. Once her true sex was revealed, she became a celebrity in Spain. [...]

In her memoir Erauso stressed her chief virtues as a man--physical courage--and as a woman--virginity . While she did not stint at recounting transgressive acts of "manly" bravery such as fights resulting in murder, she was more oblique when referring to acts that were sexually transgressive.

At no point does Erauso speak of physical attraction to a man. She did, however, include several incidents that show her affection for women. (Rapp)

As the authors note, she fared much better than either Joan of Arc or more modern women whose soldiering/other forms of political engagement was responded to with state-sponsored violence that included rape and execution.

-----

 
Allan, Jonathan A. and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 67-96.
Burge, Amy, 2016. 
"‘I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet’: Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 17-44.
Haggerty, George. 2004-2005. 
"The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction." Romanticism on the Net 36-37.
McAlister, Jodi, 2016. 
"Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 45-64.
 
Morone, James A. and Daniel C. Ehlke, 2013. 
Health Politics and Policy. Fifth Edition. Cengage.
Rapp. Linda. 2003. 
"Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592- ca 1650)." glbtq Encyclopedia.
Teo, Hsu-Ming, 2010. 
'Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film', Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1.
Teo, Hsu-Ming. 2012. 
Desert passions: Orientalism and romance novels. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Zehentbauer, Janice and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 97-123.
 

"translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring [...] discernment"

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 23 October, 2016

In "Reading Readers: Living and Leaving Fictional Worlds" (Narrative 24.3 (2016): 351-69) Cristina V. Bruns explores a downside of deep engagement with novels:

here is a problem of fiction reading. Good stories of many kinds can show us what we are missing. In them we can discover by imagined experience what our ordinary lives lack. During the duration of our reading, our inner world is merged with the imaginary world we meet and to some extent create at the prompting of the text, and our self-experience is thus temporarily re-formed by our encounter with a world of adventure, terror, triumph, love lost and regained, and significance, as well as our encounter with the selves we become as we inhabit that world. Then we must inevitably return to our ordinary life and may find no place in it for our newly shaped self, instead facing only the absence of opportunity for that self-experience, a desire for which the reading has awakened. From this perspective, it is no wonder that one of my students blamed books for leaving her thoroughly dissatisfied with her life. Immersing oneself in the world of a literary text may produce the intense intermediate experience that Winnicott attributed to transitional object use, but in these cases it seems not to give relief from the strain of relating inner and outer reality but indeed to heighten that strain because the intermediate world drawn between the reader’s self and the text shows the reader through imagined experience what is lacking in her world outside the text. It seems that the reader’s task is not yet finished. The process of bringing back into one’s world one’s experience of the story, the process of continuing “a literary style in one’s own life,” in Macé’s words, is neither automatic nor inevitable, but the incongruity between the fiction and life can seem or indeed be insurmountable. (362)

She mostly looks at young adult readers of series such as Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Twilight but there is a section, based on Radway, which suggests this phenomenon may also affect adult readers of romance. Bruns does note that Radway's findings date from the 1980s, so aren't necessarily reflective of contemporary readers, and she also notes that romance reading did lead on to successful careers for both Dot (the bookseller Radway interviewed) and romance readers who became romance writers.

Here's a bit more:

This work of translation from fiction to life, however, is not only difficult but dangerous, as Flaubert and Cervantes demonstrate in perhaps exaggerated form with Emma Bovary and Don Quixote. Both characters in their own ways try to mold their external worlds to fit what they discovered in reading but found sadly lacking in their mundane realities. What they choose to introduce into their realities, however, cannot fit there. Two students I have interviewed also enacted in life what they found in fiction, both as young teenagers, but one with more intentionality than the other and with very different outcomes. Sarah was teased and excluded for being smart and so read much of the time as an escape. In the Harry Potter series, she discovered Hermione, a girl who also was smart but who used her intelligence and didn’t care what others thought of her. Sarah decided to act like Hermione, to act like she was confident and didn’t care that others teased her. Before long Sarah became that person rather than just imitating Hermione, and this enactment brought her out of a period of intimidation and alienation. The other student, Melanie, loved the romance of the Twilight series and was thrilled early in high school to win the affection of an older boy who seemed out of reach for her socially like Edward was for Bella. She said that a few years later she realized that during that relationship she had used Edward’s sometimes harsh treatment of Bella to rationalize and tolerate her older boyfriend’s growing demands that made her increasingly uncomfortable. If the relationship at the heart of the Twilight series could survive and flourish through such difficulty, hers could too, she reasoned, even though it produced at times physical bruises like those Bella received. Eventually Melanie had to be pulled out of school in order to get away from her hoped-for romance.

In both instances these avid readers brought into their lived experience elements from the fictional worlds they loved, producing in Sarah’s case clearly a more satisfying relation with the world around her, and in Melanie’s the opposite. One could attribute the difference between these outcomes to a widespread assumption that Harry Potter is a better book series than Twilight, but it could also be that Sarah’s choice of an element was compatible with her reality while Melanie’s was harmful when transposed into ordinary life. If, as Booth claims, writers of fiction construct worlds designed intentionally to be more appealing than ordinary reality in order to keep readers reading, then translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring the work not only of enactment but also of discernment. (363-64)

I think Bruns is right that "translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring the work not only of enactment but also of discernment." I also think it's likely to be a problem potentially faced by all readers who find something desirable in the fictional worlds they read about.  Even if we're perfectly capable of separating fantasy from fiction, it can be harder to work out exactly what it is in the fictional world which holds the most appeal, why, and whether this has implications for our daily lives.

It occurs to me that this sort of "translation" and "discernment" is also required when engaging with a lot of other media, including the glimpses we can get into the lives of celebrities via magazines, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook etc. When real people shape how they present their lives to others, they may make them seem more appealing so perhaps even more discernment is required in order to work out the implications for our daily lives?

Paraphrasing and Misleading: Inguenues, Madonnas, Virgins and Whores

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 22 October, 2016

Sometimes, an author/critic can be quoted out of context so that it appears they're saying something they didn't mean. For example, if I summarised an argument I disagreed with and someone then quoted my summary and attributed it to me but didn't say that I was summarising arguments I disagreed with, they'd not be misquoting me, but they would be giving a misleading impression of my opinions.

Another possiblility is for someone to paraphrase an argument or statement in a way which significantly alters its meaning. Here's an example I've just come across from an article by Victoria Kennedy about Philippa Gregory's work of historical fiction, The Other Boleyn Girl, in which romance fiction in briefly discussed so that the conclusions drawn about it can be used to analyse Gregory's novel:

Regis notes that romance novels are defined by their happy endings (9) and their ingénue heroines (49). The virgin and the whore appear as standard archetypes in romance narratives, but, as Regis explains, the virginal ingénue is the usual heroine of a romance novel (49). This figure, according to Janice Radway, allows the “ideal romance” narrative to deal with female sexuality “by confining the expression of female desire within the limits of a permanent, loving relationship” (169). Indeed, the element of “love” is central to the ideal romance heroine. As Helen Hughes notes of the genre’s typical heroine, “a woman who wants love is a sympathetic figure” (112). The ingénue’s opposite – the whore, seductress, or fallen woman – is a figure that severs the link between love and sex and is consequently denied the happy ending of matrimonial bliss granted to the heroine at the conclusion of the narrative. (50-51, emphasis added)

It seems extremely odd that Kennedy would describe "ingénue heroines" as a defining feature of the romance novel given that that just before this passage Kennedy had listed the eight elements which Regis does describe as defining:

Regis outlines eight narrative elements that she says define the romance novel: a depiction of corruption within society that the romance will reform; the meeting of heroine and hero; their attraction; a barrier to their relationship; a symbolic or literal death; the overcoming of the barrier; the declaration of love; and the betrothal. (Kennedy, 50)

Clearly, ingénue heroines are not among the eight essential elements of a romance listed by Regis.

I think there is, moreover, a significant difference between the statement "the virginal ingénue is the usual heroine of a romance novel"(51, emphasis added) and what Regis actually wrote on page 49 of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, which is "the ingenue heroine [is] frequent in romance novels" (49). Admittedly neither "usual" and "frequent" are precise terms, but it seems to me that something might be frequent if, for example, it happens in one book in ten. If something is usual I'd expect it to happen in fifty percent or more cases.

Changing "frequent" to "usual" matters, then, and it makes a difference because it's a building-block in Kennedy's argument, which leads her to conclude that:

A great deal of the tension between feminism and the romance, I suggest, lies in the fact that the romance’s formulaic female archetypes represent precisely the static female identity positions that feminism has long fought to undermine: the madonna and the whore. (54)

It seems rather ironic to reduce romance heroines to just two archetypes while arguing, from a feminist perspective, that feminism "has long fought to undermine" "static female identity positions".

Regis, it should be noted, was taking a historical perspective on the romance and it's certainly true that, in the past, virgin heroines were probably the norm (i.e. more than 50% of heroines). Even then, though, you could find exceptions. Georgette Heyer's Babs, in An Infamous Army (1937), is a widow with a distinctly un-madonna-like reputation and history.

It should also be noted that the heroines of The Grand Sophy (1950), The Masqueraders (1928), and Venetia (1958), to give just three examples, though virgins, are hardly "ingénues": an "ingénue" is "An innocent or unsophisticated young woman" (Oxford Dictionaries) and Sophy, Prudence and Venetia are neither.

While it is true that virgin heroines are still "frequent" in romance novels they're far from ubiquitous and the impression I have is that, outside historical romance, inspirational romance and particular lines such as Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern they probably don't make up over 50% of heroines published in recent years. Even in the sample of early twenty-first century sheikh romances analysed by Amy Burge, "Of the fifty-seven sheikh novels published in the Modern Romance series, at least thirty-two feature virgin heroines" (89-90) and that's in a sub-genre within that line in which "virginity is a particularly prominent trope" (89).

Anyway, not having done a statistical analysis of heroines' levels of sexual experience and knowledge, I can't speak confidently about the precise percentages of recently-published romances which contain virgin heroines but (a) I don't think it's particularly helpful or accurate to assume that romance only depicts women as "madonnas" or "whores" and cannot conceive of a wider spectrum of sexual knowledge and experience among heroines, (b) I don't think it's accurate to imply that "madonnas" are "the usual" type of heroine in the romance novels currently being published and (c) I don't think it's possible to support such an argument on the basis of a paraphrasing of a passing comment by Pamela Regis.

 

----

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Kennedy, Victoria. "Revisionary Historical Metatext or 'Good Mills and Boon'?: Gender, Genre, and Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl." Pivot 5.1 (2016): 42-74.

Seeing Things as They Truly Are

On 6 October. as part of a symposium at the University of Melbourne on "The State of Play: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century" Rjurik Davidson, who "writes imaginative fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, surrealism, magic realism and fantasy" apparently stated, I assume in the context of a discussion of detective fiction, that "To solve the crime is to reveal the world as it truly is, not as it appears".

This reminded me of a passage in C. S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress in which the pilgrim meets Sigismund Enlightenment (clearly an allusion to Sigismund Freud) who attempts to show him that all his beliefs are nothing more than fantasies, "the pretence [...] put up to conceal your own lusts from yourself" (59). Mr Enlightenment then leaves the pilgim imprisoned in a place where he can be seen by "the Spirt of the Age" (60), whose "eyes had this property, that whatever they looked on became transparent"(60) and so, with the giant staring at them, when the pilgrim looks at one of the other people imprisoned with him he sees

the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins; and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes. And when he averted his eyes from her they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man had a cancer. (60-61)

What he sees is, indeed, a revelation of things as they are, but it is hardly the only or best way of seeing human beings: we are more than a collection of cells arranged into flesh, blood and bones.

I'm not sure what crime fiction suggests is "the world as it truly is" but romance, which is often accused of being escapist and unrealistic, probably offers a somewhat different vision of how the world "truly is". In Patricia Briggs' Alpha and Omega fantasy series with romantic elements, one of the characters pulls out a romance. Admittedly it is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, rather than a modern romance, but Briggs' is writing in a modern context, knowing that her readers will also associate the word "romance" with the modern genre:

'Romantic claptrap,' said Bran [...]. 'As well as historically full of holes'.

'Is there something wrong with that?' asked Asil. 'Romance is good for the soul. Heroic deeds, sacrifice, and hope.' He paused. 'The need for two dissimilar people to become one. [...]' (Fair Game 21)

and on the final page of a later book in the series Charles concludes:

"Love [...] is always a risk, isn't it? I've always thought that there were no certainties in life, but I was wrong. Love is a certainty. And love always gives more than it takes." (Dead Heat 324).

Are Charles and Asil seeing the world as it truly is? I think so, but then, I'm a romance reader.

------

Briggs, Patricia. Fair Game. London: Orbit, 2012.

Briggs, Patricia. Dead Heat. London: Orbit, 2015.

Lewis, C. S. The Pilgrim's Regress. 1933. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.

laura Saturday, 15 October, 2016

To Sheffield, With Love

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 18 September, 2016

The three-person Team @MillsandBoon was joined by Team Romance Scholar to take part in a panel discussion about romance organised by the University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. The event was recorded and the plan seemed to be to put up a podcast of the discussion so if that happens I'll mention it on the blog. In the meantime, I'll just write up a few comments focussed on the academic side of the panel discussions. Here's how we were described on the Festival's website:

On Saturday 17 September from 1-2pm there will be a panel discussion (see below), followed by the lecture at 2pm.

About the panel discussion

Can anyone write a romantic novel? What are editors looking for in their next romance? How do the authors come up with their ideas? And is it all just escapism, or is there literary value to be found in these texts?

Our panel of experts will answer your burning questions about Mills & Boon romantic novels.

The panel:

  • Flo Nicoll, Senior Editor for Mills & Boon
  • Susan Stephens and Heidi Rice, popular authors for Mills & Boon
  • Dr Laura Vivanco, whose academic text For Love and Money, published in 2011, explored the literary art of Mills & Boon romantic novels
  • Dr Amy Burge, whose recent monograph Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) analysed race, religion, multiculturalism and gender in romance
  • Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University’s Vice-Chancellor Scholarship PhD candidate, whose own research explores the romance genre as a feminist endeavour.

Leading the discussion and then giving the lecture on Mills & Boon romance was Val Derbyshire (you can read about some of her M&B research here and here).

Team Romance Scholar fielded a number of questions.

As part of a discussion about heroes, Amy was able to give extremely detailed feedback on the numbers of sheikh heroes in Mills & Boon novels. Anyone wanting more information about that can read Amy's book on Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. There have also been a lot of Mediterranean heroes (Greek, Italian and Spanish mainly) and Flo Nichols suggested that although in recent years authors had been drawn to experiment with Russian heroes (presumably because of Russian oligarchs buying up UK football clubs etc) they've not been as popular as hoped with readers.

In response to a question about diversity, Amy suggested that although the Cinderella archetype may mean there are a fair number of heroines of working-class origin, there is less balance with regards to ethnicity/race. Flo argued that the company's output is diverse but also suggested that readers' responses have a big impact on Harlequin Mills & Boon's attempts at ethnic/racial diversification beyond sheikhs etc because they pay a lot of attention to sales figures when deciding what works and what doesn't. That said, Flo also felt that the submissions they receive have not varied very much, perhaps because aspiring authors write what they think HM&B want (based on what has already been published). She seemed interested in receiving submissions with heroes and heroines from a wider range of ethnicities/races.

I responded to a question about changes in the novels over time but I'm not the best at remembering dates so I'm afraid I might have been out by a decade or so when making some of my comments. Anyone wanting to know more about the history of Mills & Boon should read jay Dixon and Joseph McAleer's books on the topic but I'll quote a little bit of what they have to say here.

Mills & Boon began as a general publisher but from the 1930s "until the mid-1950s, general books were dropped and the firm concentrated on romance fiction" (Dixon 17):

The 1930s witnessed a major shift in the firm's direction which reflected changes in the marketplace. As library sales increased between the wars, fiction displaced the educational and general lists. At the same time, Mills and Boon specialized in its most successful type of novel, the romance. (McAleer "Scenes" 267)

However, McAleer also observes that:

it is difficult to speak of a specific Mills & Boon editorial policy before the Second World War. The reason is obvious: Charles Boon [...] was still a general publisher at heart. The 1930s was still a time of experimentation, and novels were novels in their own right. Boon did not impose many restrictions on his authors. (Passion's Fortune 145)

Nonetheless, it was "During this decade [that] the characteristics of the archetypal Mills & Boon heroine and hero began to fall into place" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 150).

In the 1940s Mills & Boon "added a strong dose of patriotism and social commentary. John Boon believed that Mills & Boon has not been given sufficient credit for maintaining morale with its novels during the war" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 171-72). I've quoted some of McAleer's thoughts on Mills & Boon and the NHS here and he also mentioned that:

when [Joyce] Dingwell's The Girl From Snowy River (1959) was published, a tale of an English woman emigrating to Australia, Boon sent a copy to the Hon. A. R. Downer, MP (then Australian Minister of Immigration), at Australia House, with the message, 'We feel it is good propaganda for immigration.' (Passion's Fortune 103).

Given that the panel was in Sheffield, it might be worth mentioning here that I contributed a few early Mills & Boon novels to Sheffield Hallam University's Readerships and literary cultures collection (1900-1950),  "a collection of books which reflects the wide range of literary tastes during the period 1900-1950". I think the M&Bs are only a very small proportion of the collection, which "consists of over 1200 novels, most in early editions, by 240 different authors" (Middlebrow Network) and I'm not sure how representative their Mills & Boons holdings are. Certainly, the ones I sent them were acquired on the non-academic criterion of whether they could be acquired cheaply on Ebay. As Amy has discovered, though, even the libraries which might be expected to hold a complete list of all the Mills & Boons ever published (such as the British Library and the National Library of Scotland) have lacunae.

When asked whether the status of romance is likely to improve, Flo suggested that (a) it ought to if people paid attention to the sales figures and (b) that the situation is somewhat better in the US. I suggested that perhaps the emergence of the field of popular romance studies would also help improve the genre's reputation. In the study of popular culture more generally, academics working on crime/detective fiction and science fiction have been able to ameliorate the status of those genres so I'm hopeful that academic study of popular romance will be able to demonstrate that romance novels reward analysis in a variety of ways and do deserve to be treated with respect.

As Fiona pointed out, the lack of respect for romance has seeped into the study of authors in other genres too, making assessement of their oeuvres less than complete. She's studying a range of prize-winning authors including Jeanette Winterson and has found that the romantic elements of their novels have been neglected by literary critics. She, however, is focussing on those elements and her work will therefore demonstrate that romance and its conventions can be found well beyond the covers of novels marketed as "romance". This may, perhaps, help reduce the stigma attached to works which are marketed that way.

Fiona has now written a post of her own about the event.

I'm hoping the booklet which gives a full outline of Val's talk might also be put online but perhaps it won't due to copyright restrictions because it includes a lot of images of Mills & Boon covers. As I said, though, the Festival organisers did promise they'd be making some material available online so when they do, I'll post about it. Here's a glimpse of one page via a tweet from Amy:

 

 

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Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

McAleer, Joseph. “Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908-1950.” Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264-288.

An Unusual Use for a Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 29 July, 2016

I just happened to come across this abstract (from the Formulaic Language Research Network's 2016 conference) and thought it was an interesting way to use a bit of Georgette Heyer, whose use of obscure slang can, perhaps, be rather off-putting to some readers.

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Alison Wray (Cardiff University)

Getting a shoehorn in: how we work out the meaning of unknown formulaic expressions

‘Took it off of a fat old gager a couple o’ years back,’ he explained, with engaging frankness. ‘Prigged his tattler, too, but I sold that. I’m a great one for a pinch o’ merry-go-up, and this little box just happened to take my fancy, and I’ve kept it. I daresay I’d get a double finnup for it, too,’ he added, sighing over his own prodigality. ‘It’s worth more, but when it comes to tipping over the dibs there ain’t a lock as isn’t a hob-grubber.’ (The Toll-gate, Georgette Heyer, 1954).

When we first encounter a new expression, how do we work out what it means? Although there has been research into how L2 learners approach unknown formulaic expressions, it has been difficult to make direct comparisons with what native speakers do, because of the ceiling effect that would arise in giving them ecologically valid expressions in their L1 – in other words, if an expression is formulaic in the L1, they will tend to know it already. In this talk, I describe an experiment (co-researched with Huw Bell and Katie Jones) that was able to present both L1 and L2 speakers with genuine, contextualised, formulaic expressions of English that were not known to either group. They were historical phrases researched and used by the British novelist Georgette Heyer in her works set in the Georgian and Regency periods (c.1800-1837). Through a think-aloud approach, participants gave commentaries on what they thought the expressions meant, and why. The results showed some important differences between the approach taken by L1 and L2 speakers, and suggest that increased knowledge of, and/or confidence with, an L2 enables a learner to get increasingly closer to behaving like an L1 speaker when encountering new expressions.

Frye on the Symbolism of the Virgin Heroine

In The Secular Scripture Northrop Frye takes a look at romance in its broadest definition and observes that there is a lot of emphasis on the heroines' virginity.

One can, of course, understand an emphasis on virgniity in romance on social grounds. In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave. Behind all the "fate worse than death" situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virgniity, by any means except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position. But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance. (73)

Deep within the stock convention of virgin-baiting is a vision of human integrity imprisoned in a world it is in but not of, often forced by weakness into all kinds of ruses and stratagems, yet always managing to avoid the one fate which really is worse than death, the annihilation of one's identity. [...] If we want an image [...] for this kind of integrity, there is an exquisite one in Sidney's Arcadia, where the heroine wears a diamond set in a black horn, with the motto attached "yet still myself." (86)

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Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard UP, 1976.

laura Friday, 1 July, 2016