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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 October 2008

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Sex, and Money

I was going to continue posting about vampires today, but when I sat down to write, my mind kept wandering to a set of observations I heard on the radio last weekend, about a high-powered academic meeting that opened its proceedings by asking participants to introduce themselves vis-a-vis their (1) institutional affiliation, (2) current project, and (3) sexual orientation.

And what was remarkable, the commentator said -- and strikingly revealing of our times -- was how little surprise or distress the sexual orientation question seemed to cause anybody. Especially when one considers how much havoc and consternation would have been wrought if the attendees had been asked to specify the dollar values of their salaries.

The speaker, Slavoj Zizek, has written with similar manic, iconoclastic zeal about politics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the movies.

My account is only a paraphrase of his much funnier commentary. But my point is that his observation brought me face to face with my preoccupations as a writer of explicitly sexy historical romances.

Because what always worries me when I write the erotic scenes that I and my readers want and deserve, is wondering whether there's something not-period (as we say) about doing this. Because isn't there something very much of our times about the kind of sexual frankness I try for?

I'm not referring to what my characters actually do in bed: the human body hasn't changed so much in the past couple of centuries; the apparatus is as finite, the possibilities for sensation and expression limitless as ever.

But the attitudes? Aren't there certain assumptions that we cherish -- about a woman's right to her own pleasures, perceptions, and point of view -- that would have been incomprehensible or at least unsayable in that past? Is it period, in short, to portray a couple in bed who already seem to know what well-meaning men and women have had to put some thought into, during a couple of tumultuous decades of second-wave feminism and unprecedentedly open erotic chattiness in the media?

Or -- to turn around the question -- if it would be more accurate to this historical period to represent a less egalitarian sexuality, would we even want that? What sort of twenty-first century reader would bother to go to that benighted past, even for an afternoon's escapist pleasure?

As usual, I'm happy to be among history hoydens who've also thought about these matters.

And certainly, Tracy's recent post about unconventional heroines and the discussion that ensued provided some answers. History always presents us with people who were ahead of their times, and fiction is often about what happens on the day that isn't like the ordinary days preceding. It's possible to write believable period pieces that engage the constraints of the past by evoking aspects of actual rebels and standard-bearers -- those who were strong-willed enough to flout convention, and those (I'm thinking particularly of some of Amanda's true-life heroines) who rose to the extraordinary challenges their extraordinary lives presented them.

All good. All worthy and interesting. But Zizek steered my thinking in another direction that until now I've only dimly apprehended. Because every bit as much as dress, manners, or decor, what marks a historical period is what people can and can't say or think -- not because they don't know it on some highly personal, intimate level, but because it's simply not part of the public conversation.

So when I'm writing a book set in the English Regency, I should be paying attention not only to a veiled public discourse about matters erotical, but to a cherished literary tradition of open discourse about matters financial. This is a world (at least as we've inherited it) where everyone speaks of Mr. Bingley's four or five thousand a year and knows about Emma Woodhouse's portion of thirty thousand. Because it's a world in which you are, publicly, your fortune (or the one you'll marry).

Not entirely so, of course: everyone also knows -- or learns -- that Mr. Darcy is more than his ten thousand a year and that Elizabeth Bennet's wit and charm are (as Mastercard would have it) priceless. But it's exactly this tension between received public discourse and achieved private valuation that allows a reader to feel she's taken possession of the fictional world. It's the structuring irony, in fact, that allows her to feel that she understands it better than the literary characters who live there, who have to learn what we already know (not in the least, as Emma puts it, that "Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself.")

I'd argue that the same possibilities exist for literary eroticism -- and that what makes an "erotic historical" erotic and historical is the author's respect for the public decorum of her period and her delight in undercutting it (in the privacy of the characters' growing intimacy). Happy historical romances are always in some sense novels of education, in which characters learn to grow into their social roles and be worthy of them as they also learn to be worthy of each other. I'd argue that one of the legitimate pleasures of historical fiction is watching the action tend in ways that we might understand better -- or at least can speak more comfortably of -- than the characters acting their own transformations and discoveries.

Which is probably why, as an author, I love teaching my characters how to speak.

In Almost a Gentleman, my hero and heroine test and stretch the limits of their growing intimacy by trying out every word in the early nineteenth century glossary for sexual organs.

While in my forthcoming The Edge of Impropriety I send a thirteen-year-old girl for a walk along the Rotten Row to ponder the public discourse of marriage and money, and to wonder how one learned to perform the conjurer's trick of reading, as if from an invisible placard hanging from this or that elegant neck, exactly how money a personage riding, driving, or strolling along here possessed....

(My editor was worried, btw, about my introducing such a young character into so explicitly erotic a book as this one; I think I solved the problem by making my young person a student of the public discourse of her time, and leaving the private self-education to her fortunate elders. If you read The Edge of Impropriety, I'll be curious about what you think about how I negotiated this.)

A decade ago now, when I first made up my mind to write a romance novel, it never occurred to me to write anything but a historical. Partly, of course, this was because I had a specific idea for one and also because I've always loved long, stately, historical costume drama.

But also, I now think, it was because to me there's always been an affinity between historical fiction and romance. For the exquisitely simple reason that all historical fictions -- even quite tragic ones -- exist in the romantic roundness of the fact that we already know the end of events, even as in romance we know which lovers will end up together.

Which is a simple distinction, but not an easy one.

As everyone living in real history -- which is all of us -- are learning these days, when we don't know the end of the story at all. And -- who knows? -- may learn how to speak of money and fortune as quite a personal matter before we're done.

But what do you think?

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19 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

You know, there's a bit somewhere in ARISTOTLE'S MASTERPIECE about how a good husband sees to/assures his wife's pleasure . . . wish I could find it today, but the 400+ pages of the book are thwarting me.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

True, there is. There are lots of bits and pieces that make it possible -- but still an achievement.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I guess that "my" heroes think of it the way I've seen my male friends and boyfriends think of it: Being able to give pleasure is a coup. Like anything else a man might pride himself on, he wants to be the best at it. It reinforces his identity as a man and his place high atop mount STUD. So his reasons might be selfish and shallow at the beginning of a relationship, but she still has a reason to try and please his partner.

Does that make sense?

1:43 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wondful observation, Pam. Talking about money, even with my closest girlfriends, is considered a poor show of manners. I would turn red-faced if anybody said what they did or didn't make...

But when it comes to sex...well, anything goes. That's not too personal. ;-)

1:52 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Love it Pam - you bring to the front of my mind something that my subconscious has been thinking about.

Glad we have all weekend to comment as I am just back from a ten day "writing retreat" and must renest for a bit...but will come back to this for sure.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Makes sense, Kalen. Absolutely. My heroes too, sometimes. Which is why I specified a woman's right to her own pleasures, perceptions, and point of view. I'm fascinated -- as I suspect we all are -- by the subtle conversation that accompanies sex. Cataclysmic orgasms are great and all... but the devil's always in the details, the nuances. And somehow we've gotten ourselves to believe that truth lies therein (I mean I can criticize that belief but I think I still believe it myself.)

Which is why I agree with Kathrynn that it's interesting to examine the money taboo, and to wonder how things would be if we structured things differently. As undoubtedly we will -- perhaps sooner than is entirely comfortable. Perhaps not.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

***Which is why I specified a woman's right to her own pleasures, perceptions, and point of view.***

Which, like a dork, I flew right over. Whoops! I'm not even sure in this day and age that all men respect and understand a woman's right to her own pleasures (several of my girlfriends' ex husbands certainly didn't).

2:48 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

As always, Pam, a provocative post. Here in NYC, inquiring of strangers at dinner and cocktail parties what they paid for their house/condo/co-op (or in rent) has been the shocking standard for a couple of decades now. No one discusses salaries -- that subject is still taboo in polite discourse, but you can see people calculating what a person's income might be, given what she/he ponyed up for their abode.

Of course, nowadays, one's mortgage is not necessarily an indication of one's actual income!

In my view, when it comes to historicals and erotica it's all about the fantasy -- of what an era was like (and for many romance readers they prefer the author to supply the rose-tinted lenses) and of course the erotica supplies the sexual fantasy. An erotic historical is therefore a double fantasy of sorts for the reader. Beautiful costumes from another era, sumptuous surroundings, gracious speech, plus the lush sensuality of an erotic is escapist literature in the best way. We want to be--yearn to be--transported; that's why we choose either genre, and in particular the double or hybrid genre of an erotic historical.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful, thoughtful post, Pam! This passage from "The Edge of Impropriety" sounds fabulous:

"While in my forthcoming The Edge of Impropriety I send a thirteen-year-old girl for a walk along the Rotten Row to ponder the public discourse of marriage and money, an[Photo]d to wonder how one learned to perform the conjurer's trick of reading, as if from an invisible placard hanging from this or that elegant neck, exactly how money a personage riding, driving, or strolling along here possessed.... "

It also sounds quite like what I quite often observe people doing at cocktail parties today :-). The label on a purse, the cut of a jacket, the gleam of 14 kt. gold. Symbols that become a shorthand for a determing econmic status (which is still often intertwined with social status). We may not talk about it as openly, but then Mrs. Bennet is considered vulgar for talking for openly about Mr. Darcy's and Mr. Bingley's incomes. I actually think some of the recent popularity of Jane Austen's novels (and the spinoffs and film and tv adaptations) from the 90s on has to do with the parallels to a status conscious culture.

As to talking freely about sex in other eras--sometimes I'm shocked at just how freely the subject is discussed in some 18th century literature, not to mention Shakespeare plays :-).

4:11 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Do tell about the 18th century literature, Tracy, I mean except for Fanny Hill. And I do think I oversimplified -- but I do also think that say-able or not is an important categorizing tool. The thing would be to test the hypothesis, read readily available sources from the period. I like coming up with hypotheses, then I start to yawn...

While as for the fantasy view of the period, Amanda. Yes of course you're right, but you have to have some armature to spin the fantasy around, and romances that seem to teach something new or challenge the conventional wisdom in some manageable way seems to have the necessary modicum of gravitas... sorry about the mixed metaphors...

Wow, ten day writing retreat, Mary. How was it? Hope it worked out great.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I was primarily thinking of "Dangerous Liaisons," which when I read it as a teenager, I found far more explicit, in a lot of ways, than modern books I'd read (including romances). Not sex scenes per say, but the way the characters talked about sex. Lady Bessborough wrote to Lord Granville that she thought peopl we so scandalized by "Dangerous Liaisons" because it was so close to the truth.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

I think money is part of the fantasy of romance novels. In just about all romance novels, the hero is not just rich, but filthy rich. Heaps and heaps of money seem to be part of people's dreams as much as lots of sex.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

filthy rich...

You're right, Linda. But I think aristocracy trumps money. And aristocracy is an interesting idea in itself -- this notion of being born to a position of power in society.

While as to Dangerous Liaisons, Tracy -- what a brilliant, cruel, cold book, but not sexually explicit at all. So it's an example of another kind of frankness, about human psychology, but not about sex exactly -- more about ego and power.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Actually, Pam, the talk about sex in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is pretty frank and explicit and raw. At least I found it so. Maybe that says something about me :-).

1:45 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think there may be a difference between the French ethos and the English. Our romance novels seem to be derived from British sensibilities and there's no clearer connection (however fancifully related it might be to real life or actual history) than the fact that most historical romances written by American authors and published for American readers, are set in Britain.

18th century Brit lit that deals with sex explicitly, like Fanny Hill was considered taboo lit in its day in England; whereas the 18th century French novel, Les Liaisons Dangeureuses was likely considered more mainstream literature (at least for men). But the writers' intentions were different as well. Fanny Hill is deliberate "pornography" with some social commentary threaded through the graphic sex scenes. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is very pointed social commentary as illustrated through sexual politics.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I agree, Amanda, that we're talking about two very separate traditions -- though historically they did intertwine... dandies vs rakes vs libertines: there's a complicated history there (one tip of the iceberg being Samuel Richardson as a profound influence on the Marquis de Sade). But I entirely agree that our own romance tradition is most carefully culled from the British end of things (take it from someone who couldn't sell her first romance novel, set in France, until she'd also written a British-set Regency).

8:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And Tracy, while I think that Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a profoundly sexy book, I wouldn't by any stretch of the imagination call it "raw." "Cooked," rather -- exquisitly elaborated scenarios of power as defense of amour propre and therefore exposed as ultimately powerless.

Breaching the loneliness of the libertine ego is perhaps the most important task facing the heroine of romance as we know it. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a major event in a tradition that's profoundly cynical as to the possibility of achieving this. The French are masters of this pessimistic mode, imo. Though (as you bring to life in your portrayal of the older generation of characters in Beneath a Silent Moon), certain English aristocrats of the late Georgian era showed themselves to be gifted amateurs. (And Jane Austen read Les Liaisons Dangereuses as a teenager).

There's a new translation out. I really want to read it.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think we'll have to agree to disagree, Pam. Or maybe it's just that we use terms differently. There may not be sex scenes in the book per say, but there's quite a bit of sexual detail. But more than that the sexual feelings and sexual games in the book have none of the gloss or sugar-coating or rose-colored tint of romance, so I find its treatment of sex much more raw than anything I've read in a romance novel.

Have to look for the new translation!

2:55 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Re agreeing to disagree, Tracy ;-} ...

Yeah, I think it's sort of an occupational hazard -- or writing erotic fiction or even talking about it. Lord knows I've had enough "you think THAT's sexy?" directed toward me over the years. One of the hardest things there is to talk about -- which is why it's such a goad and a challenge as well.

We should BOTH check out that new translation.

8:57 AM  

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