History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 July 2009

Umberto Eco, Barbara Cartland, and Me: Saying I Love You in Historical Romance

Before I became a romance writer, I hadn't read romance for quite a number of years. And yet, on the strength of my memories and the buzz of my own more recent erotic writing, I somehow had the chutzpah to believe in the stories I was imagining, to feel they were mine, to trust my gut and stumble on in.

Beginner's mind, the Buddhists call it. I think I'll always write better when I feel a little like a stranger in a strange land. But I can still surprise myself (and scandalize some among my fellow writers) by how little I know about the genre and the market.

A recent case in point being when a friend remarked that surely most romance novels must be historicals.

Well, I thought, at least I know better than that.

No, I told my friend. In fact the biggest percentage of published romances are contemporaries (single-title and series, though I doubtless did a lousy job of explaining what a series romance was). Probably, I continued (confidently, wrong-headedly), historical romance doesn't account for more than 30 or 35% of genre's readership.

Hah! Check out the statistics, courtesy of Romance Writers of America's web page. Historical romance (which includes Regencies) accounts for only 16% of the market! (And note that if you count in at least half of the romantic suspense, women's fiction, and inspirationals published, there are probably three romance novels with present-day settings on the shelves for every historical.)

But present-day just doesn't say "romance" to me -- any more than it did for my only slightly more ignorant friend.

Why, I began to wonder. Why, for a certain kind of readerly sensibility, is romance a matter of somewhere that's not quite here, sometime that's not quite now?

A while back, in one of our hoyden discussions, I remember Mary saying that she read for escape. Perhaps, I thought, we're trying to create a hermetic, believable place of refuge (which, for a history hoyden, would be as free of anachronism as you can make it) for when life just gets too tough.

But upon reflection I want to put it differently. There's always anachronism. I don't just mean inevitable errors of detail (hey, my husband found one in War and Peace). The essential, inevitable anachronism -- a feature, not a bug, as the computer programmers say -- is the simple fact of history itself: it's impossible to write or to read about there and then except from the point of view of here and now.

We know we're living in the present because we don't know how it's going to turn out. Iran, Afghanistan, the Dow. Sarah Palin. Global warming. Who knows, who can know? In the present, the rules are always changing, the ground shifting under our feet. It's bracing, crazy-making, and not at all romantic to be alive and adult in this ticking time-bomb of a real world we call home.

Whereas in the worlds of historical fiction (and in other genres as well -- sometimes, I'd suggest, in the most dystopic sci fi) we know where we stand because we know where we're going. Reading our way through the early chapters of a genre novel, we're offered a simultaneous double pleasure: first of recapitulating the early thrill of learning language, gaining mastery over codes and the manners, clothes and tchotkes; and second, of return to and recognition of what we already know.

Critics of the romance genre like to diss it for the inevitability of its happy ending; in response, Julia Quinn rightly points out that in a mystery, no one expects Hercule Poiret not to solve it.

But there's more to it, I think, because in historical romance not only do we know who's going to marry whom, but what's going to happen to Brummell and Byron, Prinny and Napoleon. Equipped with past-and-present parallax vision, the historical romance reader can even see that the heroines (or at least the heroines' daughters' daughters) are eventually going to achieve fuller humanity; we can enjoy all that pretty, protected, muslin-and-corsets second-class citizenship with good conscience, secure in the knowledge that that the witty, sparkly, rebellious moments are actually going to add up to something.

The historical romance doesn't just plop a romance plot into history. It romanticizes history itself, by giving it the beginning, middle, and end we can never get from the rough strife of living our lives.

Some people damn it as costume fiction. Indeed, having gotten my fiction-writing start in fetishistic BDSM erotica, for years I did think was mostly about the props and costumes. And according to one of the most stimulating critical studies I've read in a while -- Historical Romance: Heterosexuality and Performativity, by Lisa Fletcher -- I was partly right; and moreover, the elements of masquerade, role confusion, and crossdressing that I've always been so fond of are pretty important and central to the genre as well.

I should confess that I read this book because I'd heard that Fletcher uses my Almost a Gentleman as one of the examples in her chapter on cross-dressing in popular romance fiction. But what I learned goes far beyond a vindication of my obsessions and intuitions. I'll be mulling over it well into the future, but in right now I've only got space for one zinger of an idea that I want to share. With great gratitude to Lisa Fletcher, for citing this observation by Umberto Eco, the critic and author of The Name of the Rose, who suggests that we think of:

...a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, "I love you madly," because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly." At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.

Oh yes. That's how it for me anyway. I may be a stranger in a strange land, but I'm no false innocent. And I suspect that (in our present Silver Age of the Smart, Romance-reading Bitch) few of us are. That we're all learning to say I love you in the present tense by knowing that we've been this way before, by the great circle route of the recreated romantic past.

Definitely more to come, especially on those gnarly notions of heterosexuality and performativity.

But now I'd love to hear from anybody with whom this strikes a responsive chord. Or any innocents out there, false or perhaps not.

Heartfelt thanks to romance scholar Dr. Eric Selinger, of Depaul University and the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (note to romance geeks: join IASPR!) for turning me on to this terrific critical study.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wow, what a wonderful, thought-provoking post, Pam! It's an excellent point about knowing how things turned out historically. I have a lot of real people on my current wip, which makes the suspense tricky because of course we know (or could look up) what happened to all of them. Creating suspense with real people and events is one of the challenges for the historical novelist. I thought one of the brilliant things about the movie "Apollo 13" was how genuinely edge-the-seat the suspense was, even though we all knew watching it they the astronauts got safely back to earth.

Re: the difficulty of saying "I love you," I had a reader write to me a bit ago after reading "Beneath a Silent Moon" and comment that Charles and Mélanie never say "I love you" to each other in the course of the book. I didn't consciously not have them say the words, but I think I was subconsciously afraid they would come out sounding clichéd. Moreover. I think I also knew that both Charles and Mel were afraid the words would sound clichéd, and also that they weren't sure how the other would respond. So instead they tend to use Shakespeare quotes as a sort of code to express their feelings. Even when Mélanie thinks of how much Charles has come to mean to her and how much she wants from him emotionally, she puts it in a melange of Shakespeare lines "By yonder blessèd moon. Love, lord, ay, husband, friend. Soul's idol. I love with so much of my heart that none is left to protest."

10:57 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great quote, Tracy, and Charles and Melanie (and you) all knew exactly what I was getting at. To which I must counter something from one of my porn books (which are quite as literary as anything I've ever written). From Safe Word, when Carrie and Jonathan meet up, after a very eventful year apart:

"You know," she began, "when I got here this morning, I really had no idea what to expect from you. Well, I mean there was that letter you wrote, in 'Passionate Shepherd' mode..."

He raised his eyebrows, searching for the reference. Passionate who? Oh right, as in 'Come live with me and be my...'. Terrific road map, poetry, for steering around the unsayable patches in a conversation.

[...]She nodded. "But, of course I could see right off that that wasn’t really what you wanted, so then I thought you’d go straight for the hard core.[..."]

"Which scenario," he asked carefully, "would you have preferred?"

"Well," she lifted her eyes to him. "Either one would have given us a clear script to follow."

Fair enough, Jonathan thought. Neither of us ready to fold yet.

"You don't like just hanging out with me?"

They both smiled at the hurt tone of his voice.

"It's difficult," she answered, "with all the open questions sort of hanging in the air between us. I mean, I get the sense that you still want me, but I don't get at all what you've got in mind."

"I want you profoundly," he said quickly. "Complexly," he added. "And quite against my better judgment." He grinned. Elision through allusion. The movies as good as the Norton Anthology for a game of hide and seek.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a lovely excerpt, Pam. Intensely romantic and also full of character revelation.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Well you both have answered two questions for me. One of my critique partners just finished writing a book where the hero and heroine never say "I love you," but I bet if I read it more carefully when it comes out I will find it expressed in other ways.

And my current hero -- I cannot imagine Lord David Pennistan actually saying the words -- but there will be no doubt in the heroine's mind that he loves her "truly, madly, deeply"

Thanks for the discussion of something I had not previously appreciated.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Glad you found it helpful, Mary. I'll be writing more about the I-love-you moment when I get to Lisa Fletcher's stuff about performativity. Which I find fascinating -- the notion, worked out by certain 20th century philosophers, that there are certain kinds of statements that both "say" and "do" at the same time. Examples (courtesy of Wikipedia) being "I nominate John to be President", "I sentence you to ten years' imprisonment", or "I promise to pay you back."

And, of course, "I love you." Which somehow does have to do with the authenticity at the center of a romance story.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

They were just discussing this topic over on Dear Author (when last I looked the poll was 51%/49% in favor of "I love you" not being required).

Personally, I've yet to write a scene in which my characters say those three little words to each other. Why? I don't know, but they've just never felt necessary or right for the people I'm writing about. *shrug*

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I almost always dislike the overblown decleration scenes in romance novels (I skip/skim the endings of a lot of them; all those I love yous and pregnancies and babies just don't do it for me).

I don't know . . . or maybe it has something to do with the fact that I was never one of those innocent ingenue girls, even when I most likely should have been, LOL!

5:16 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

My characters sometimes do say I love you, but more often make themselves nuts with literary-type circumlocutions. My favorite, I think (besides Safe Word, which is my shy best-beloved child in all kinds of ways) is in The Slightest Provocation, where Mary gives Kit a watch inscribed with the line from Donne, "I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I Did till we loved?" and Kit loses and then finds again. I like that tangle of ideas: love linked to time, disappearing behind the horizon of memory, lost and found.

As for the Dear Author discussion, Kalen -- I feel really dumb but I can't find it. Tho I did find a discussion of infidelity (pace Tracy's recent post). A URL please?

9:30 PM  

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