Category Archives: Strong Female Leads

Viscounts and Vorkosigans: For the Love of Lit Crit

Welcome to the inaugural post in my new once-monthly series, For the Love of Lit Crit, where we treat romance novels like the deliberately composed texts they are. Posts will be tagged as such and collected on their very own page. Spoilers generally abound. Suggestions for a better series title (and books to analyze) will be eagerly entertained.

In Jo Walton’s review of A Civil Campaign for Tor.com, she states that aside from the title she finds this book has more in common with The Grand Sophy than with Heyer’s A Civil Contract. As far as plot structure and character are concerned, she’s probably right — I’ve never read The Grand Sophy myself so I’m leaving that one out of this analysis. But thematically, I feel like the Vorkosigan book is a direct response to the themes of Heyer’s text. A Civil Contract is essentially about the social self, how to define it and how it can or cannot be changed; A Civil Campaign takes these fundamental questions and very forthrightly rebuts Heyer’s conservative theses.

In A Civil Contract, hero Adam starts the book by being thrown out of his accustomed orbit. He has inherited his late father’s title, he has become the legal head of his family, he has been injured in battle and has a permanent limp, and now he must cash out his captaincy and abandon his military career. The previous viscount ran in the highest social circles but was financially profligate and reckless; much of Adam’s journey over the course of the book deals with him trying to find a different mode of aristocracy more suited to his personal inclinations. He does so by following the example of the elderly gentlemen-farmers and learning how best to improve his ancestral lands, thus satisfying his class pride while also gaining scope for his energy and individual drive. It is a personal decision, but it also means Adam never really questions his position as an aristocrat. He simply finds a more personally palatable form of aristocracy, without rejecting the class hierarchy’s fundamental assumptions.

This is not the only time Adam inhabits a ready-made social role. His romance with Julia is obviously a classic example of the Wounded Hero romance, a connection between two types rather than two individuals and explicitly described as such:

It was not wonderful that he should have alleviated the pain and the weariness of the months he had spent in and out of the surgeons’ hands with a flirtation with the lovely Miss Oversley; still less wonderful that a romantic girl should have encouraged the gallantry of a hero of Salamanca. (A Civil Contract, Kindle location 150)

Julia is less a character than a symbol in this novel: she exists to embody the most rarefied type of nobility. And while Adam found this charming before, he comes to a different opinion after her marriage to the Marquis of Rockhill: “when he looked at Julia, and listened to her, she seemed to be almost a stranger. Even her appearance had altered. She had always been charmingly dressed, but in a style suited to her maiden status; he had never seen her attired in the silks, the velvets, and the jewels of matronhood” (Kindle location 4975). This is the glittering and useless aristocracy of Adam’s father, against which our hero has been struggling over the course of the whole novel.

I have said before that I often try to root for the Other Woman as a habit of feminist praxis, and Julia is such a quintessential Other Woman that empathizing with her feels like real resistance to patriarchy. The more the text tries to make her unsympathetic — to make her spoiled, or histrionic, or casually adulterous — the more I want to champion her. Yes, she’s impractical and sheltered — not hard, when her attempts to be practical are roundly mocked and everyone goes out of their way to shelter her. I can’t find it in me to blame her for what has obviously been done to her by her family (and the author). Adam’s gradual rejection of Julia and what she represents reads to me less like a character coming into emotional maturity and more like a man who slowly comes to believe himself a superior kind of person. His preference for the maiden over the matron ties in with his protectiveness of Fontley and his resistance to Mr. Chawleigh’s wealth: there’s something about purity in there that I would tease out if I could stand to spend so much time talking about Adam. (Confession: I’m one of those readers who remains unconvinced by this book’s happy ending).

I must also disagree with Jo Walton’s assertion that there’s “none of Heyer’s weirdly vile racism here, because we don’t see anyone to provoke it.” (Also: weirdly vile? As opposed to commonly vile?) Here’s an early passage describing Mr. Chawleigh’s reception by his new in-laws: “With every will in the world to talk pleasantly to him, an over-delicate refinement made [Adam's sister] Charlotte regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal” (1376). Racism and colonialism underscore the inherent class bias in the text: Mr. Chawleigh is as far removed from the world of Adam’s titled English family as a brown- or black-skinned native of some far-flung imperial wilderness. It’s a little moment, but a telling one: that’s a lot of power systems to invoke in one throwaway simile.

Despite the narrative’s attempts to make him overbearing, Mr. Chawleigh is an incredibly likeable character, even if I did hear his dialogue in the voice of Mr. Hardwood from this episode of Blackadder (video link: relevant bit starts at 11:04). His rampant generosity and earnest desire to make his new in-laws happy are touching and empathetic. But to Adam’s high-born eyes his greatest virtue is his refusal to mix with those above his social station. Adam is similarly grateful for Jenny’s reticence to make changes at Fontley, even when those changes are necessary maintenance and repair. As the romance progresses, the story asks the question: How permeable are the barriers between Adam and Jenny? How much can they transcend their social selves to make a sincere connection separate from class and status?

Not that much, as it turns out. They can essentially hold hands through the chain-link fence, but they will never be the same category of person. Jenny is much more attuned to this than Adam, which makes sense as the marginalized are always much more attuned to the workings of privilege than the privileged are. (See: rape culture, institutional racism, accessibility for disabled people, etc.) Upon her first much-postponed arrival at Fontley — her husband’s home! which her father’s money helped save! — Adam tells her she can do as she pleases and Jenny has the following heartbreaking insight: “She did not say: I am only a guest in your house, but it was what she thought, for he uttered the speech just stiltedly enough to betray that it had been rehearsed” (3473). This same assumption of difference underlies Julia’s suggestion to Adam that they enjoy a discreet sexual liaison (it’s couched as ‘friendship,’ but come on): “Cannot something be left to us? … Jenny could not be hurt by anything that passed between you and me, Adam” (3830). Nor will I be the first person to point out that Jenny’s lack of beauty reads as a function of class, even though there’s no statistical reason to suppose a commoner is likely to be less pretty than a lord’s daughter. Moreover, while Jenny gives birth to a son with a great deal of bodily risk and effort, Julia becomes a stepmother to two girls already half-grown. It’s hard not to see this as a class distinction as well: the common folk’s messy struggle, the upper classes’ aloofness and untouchability. I found myself wanting to read more about Julia and her stepdaughters; it felt as though there was a whole book there waiting to be explored, more nuanced than the usual stepmother tropes allow. Again: official Olivia Waite stance is Team Julia.

And Team Jenny — because Jenny broke my heart and she deserves better than what she gets in this book. Here is Adam’s ultimate confession of love: “‘I do love you, Jenny,’ he said gently. ‘Very much indeed — and I couldn’t do without you. You are a part of my life’” (6006). Jenny has one of her quiet, unspoken revelations: “Probably Adam would always carry Julia in some corner of his heart … although he might no longer yearn to possess her she would remain nostalgically dear to him while life endured.”

This is a hell of a thing for a romance heroine to think at the emotional climax of the book.

Look, I get it: the chemistry of lust can be blinding, and a quieter, less dashing partner can nevertheless be wonderfully romantic (e.g. Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon, be still my swooning heart). And we should definitely resist the urge to define love as a thing earned through effort, because that way lie the hellish gates of the Friendzone and favor sharking and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” where unasked-for sacrifices by manipulative partners lead to an obligation for love, for sex, and for attention and power in ways that are clearly misogynistic. (Thanks to Cecilia Grant for reminding me about “Grenade!” That song is the catchiest and the worst.)

But does Jenny not deserve one goddamn moment where it’s all about her? Where her thoughts, needs, feelings, and existence as a human being come first? Just one would be nice. But there’s nothing in Adam’s confession of love that even comes close to Mr. Chawleigh’s quietly heartrending, “She’s all I’ve got, you see” (4848). The problem is not that Adam and Jenny’s relationship is different in kind than Adam and Julia’s: the problem is that Adam and Jenny’s relationship will always come second to Adam’s relationship with Adam. Jenny becomes part of his life, but she never really becomes part of his self, and her own self disappears in consideration of his aristocratic priorities.

This is not merely a romantic failure in our hero, I would argue, but a larger failure of empathy across class boundaries. Contrast Mr. Chawleigh’s open and earnest affection for his daughter with Adam’s feelings upon seeing his newborn son for the first time: “He thought he had never seen anything less beautiful than the red and crumpled countenance of his son” (6006). Father of the Year, that one. He only waxes enthusiastic when he sees that this noble-born future viscount is equally scornful of his lowborn antecedents: “I left [Mr. Chawleigh] making the most peculiar noises to his grandson, who treated them with utter contempt — very understandably, I thought!” (6006). He’s pleased to see his baby son self-ally with the proper class by scorning Mr. Chawleigh. Blood will tell, as so often happens in Heyer. Class is changeless. It’s an essentially conservative thesis.

It’s also rejected in every possible way by Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.

First, a few disclaimers: I’ve been hopping around the Vorkosiverse rather than reading the series straight through, which means there’s a lot I’ve missed so any comments and clarifications from those in the know would be most welcome. Also, if anyone wants to put together a movie version of any of these books and cast Gwendolyn Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth, aka She Who Should Be Queen In Westeros) as Drou, I would be eternally grateful and see said movie seventeen times at non-matinee prices.

It’s a truism that Heyer’s book is about class — but saying this obscures the fact that class, of course, is not one homogenous and indivisible thing. Class is a cake we make out of money, race, manners, education, family, and gender. A Civil Campaign explores each one of these in ways that could really only happen in a space Regency, where futuristic technology and antique social systems can smash productively up against one another.

It’s also not going to be possible for me to talk as much about all this as I would like – especially not when I’ve got edits to be working on! — but I’ll try and hit some of the highlights before my brain dissolves in the heat.

When these books are read back-to-back, Miles reads as an utter rejection of all things Adam: he’s a successful soldier, his family members are strong and independent and happy (for the most part), he’s got a sense of humor about his own failings, his disability is not made conveniently invisible in the way Adam’s is (oh noes, I has a limp that’s noticeable enough to get me sympathy laid but doesn’t stop me from tramping around making pretend I am a farmer God I just hate Adam more and more). But the greatest difference is that Miles is adept at passing through the membranes of class and station that Heyer’s book would have us treat as permanent barriers. His undercover identity as Admiral Naismith is a ghost that haunts the narrative, showing even to readers like me unfamiliar with prior books that Miles’ identity is fluid and variable, Odyssean rather than Achillean. In fact, this becomes the very problem between him and Ekaterina: Miles chooses the wrong self to show her at first, hiding his true intentions in ways that remind her traumatically of her first husband’s manipulations. The idea of being one solid knowable self frightens Miles a little, in fact: “Someday, if things went well, he must stand before her in his skin, in this very room and place, with no disguise at all” (Kindle location 7964). Imagine Adam feeling this self-conscious in front of, well, anyone. Miles is well aware that there is a secret kernel of self not defined by terms like Vor or ImpSec or even mutie: he hesitates to show it to Ekaterin because his shifting selves have successfully kept him alive for so many years.

And oh, Ekaterin — I must really go back and read Komarr because I definitely want more time with Ekaterin. I also feel like she’s a mirror version of Jenny, with Tien as another mirror-Adam — a cold husband who’s convinced his wife she’s a mere accessory, who has a truncated military career, who’s made a great financial gamble (Adam’s is successful, but I still think it was a pretty self-serving move). It’s an unsettlingly short leap of imagination from Adam’s benevolent neglect to Tien’s emotional manipulation and abuse. Ekaterin lost sight of who she was as a person during those terrible years, and on Barrayar she’s trying to assert a self long-suppressed:

Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. (1183)

There’s a whole spectrum of understood social roles for Ekaterin (mother, Vor, grieving widow considering remarriage) but no sense of her true individual self; this is what she is seeking over the course of the plot. The true self is here separate from class, rather than nourished by it as in Heyer’s text — yes, designing gardens is a pretty upper-class thing to do, but designing a prettier butterbug is a much more democratic, business-oriented move. It’s also something that is uniquely her — and she needs that, so desperately. It’s only when she has her self again that she really begins to think about having someone else as well: the romance arc follows the swell of Ekaterin’s growing strength and confidence — even when the person she’s at odds with is Miles himself. This is one of those romances that definitely keeps the characters apart to better effect — something refreshing in a sea of fuck-til-we’re-in-love erotic romances.

If you’ll allow me a brief metatextual tangent, it seems that social class is a little like genre, in that both operate on a set of shared but mostly unspoken assumptions. Both are accumulations of similarities rather than hard-and-fast categories. (And genres, like classes, come with various levels of social prestige.) In her review of the Bujold text, Jo Walton states that the narrative moves of the romance genre are “as stylized as a Noh play.” Romance does have codes and conventions but many of these are very opaque to outsiders or readers new to the genre. For instance, the Hardass Police Captain (video at the link) is an oft-cited cultural touchstone even among people who don’t watch a lot of buddy cop movies, but things like TSTL and Secret Babies and the No Other Woman Bed are far less frequently referenced outside of romance blogs and reviews. In regard to Ekaterin, little moments like suddenly noticing how Miles’ scent turns her on or keeping his apology letter tucked in the bodice of her gown for rereading are as good as an I love you to romance fans, but might not stand out to readers who lack the awareness of those tropes’ repetition. Similarly, class markers are often codes, and often inherited, and rarely talked about openly: for instance, when you bring food to a potluck, what kind of food do you bring? (And all my super-upper-class readers just looked at each other in horror at the word ‘potluck.’) Or when an invitation specifies BYOB, do you bring a mid-range white Burgundy or a case of Natty Ice? (Everyone with working tastebuds just looked at each other in horror at the words ‘Natty Ice.’)

And now we’re at 3k words — is your attention span as strained as mine? And I’m writing all this! It’s summer — we all deserve a break. Let’s hit the rest in bullet-point form.

  • Mark: Miles’ clone, so the two men are genetically identical. But physically and intellectually vastly different — Mark was raised in an abusive, horrifying situation, trained as a living weapon of assassination for his clone-brother. He’s been accepted into the Vorkosigan family (!) and is trying to figure out what his role is there, including getting treatment for mental health issues that manifest as a set of alternate selves known as the Black Gang. This was super-interesting to me, so again, going to dive heavily into the earlier books. Again: class is not destiny, family is not destiny, upbringing is not destiny.
  • Kareen Koudelka: Barrayar-born but coming back from a year’s education on Beta. Her sexual activities with Mark are gratifying to both her and him, and immensely helpful in his therapy — which would be creepier if Kareen weren’t so obviously into Mark and vice versa — but open pre-marital sex doesn’t jive with Barrayar standards of behavior, particularly the narrow standards for young unmarried women of high status. Kareen and Mark fight against the objections of her parents to their relationship, since she’s grown to enjoy the greater freedom and lack of disapproving supervision she found off-world. The pair also find satisfaction in borrowing economic terms with which to define the terms of their affair. This works because both Mark and Kareen place personal value (rather than class-specific value) on business and entrepreneurship.
  • Lord Dono: Betan medical technology allows a female character, Donna, to switch gender entirely for the purposes of inheriting a countship and thwarting her asshole cousin. There’s an unfortunate equivalence here between biology and gender — Dono has a penis, therefore Dono is a man — which prevents me from labeling this as a depiction of a trans character. Let us say instead that it is trans-adjacent. For instance, after the biological change, plot protagonists express varying levels of surprise and approval, but plot antagonists react with revulsion, misgendering, and even attempted mutilation. Dono himself is a wonderful character, charismatic and compelling with an edge of wit and cunning. The Donna/Dono plotline also exposes the way Betan habits and technology are starting to be used as loopholes for the narrow constraints of Barrayaran tradition, and not just by progressives — see also the rather horrifying plotline of the old Vor count and his hundreds of artificially created daughters, which I can’t even begin to take apart without a few more read-throughs and several stiff drinks.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the Beta-versus-Barrayar framework established in Shards of Honor and Barrayar (god, those books, so good!) exists to topple one by one many of the foundational pillars of Regency society as established in fiction like Heyer’s. (Hence this book’s dedication, obvs.) Primogeniture, ableism, women’s role as primarily one of motherhood and childrearing, etc. It’s not perfect — it’s very white and there’s a distinct preponderance of happy heterosexual couples, though let’s talk sometime about Aral Vorkosigan’s youthful flirtation with bisexuality — but it’s an interesting and vastly explorable series. One which I hope to explore more fully once the temperature goes down and stops boiling my brain. (Seriously, my recent forebears were from Finland: I’m like Pratchett’s Detritus in anything over 85 degrees.)

Thanks for listening, everyone, and happy summer!

___

Speaking of Tor.com, their series on Post Binary Gender in SF is well worth the reading; start here with the introduction.

Merrian Oliver-Weymouth curates the wonderful Pinterest board Barrayar Dreaming, using real-world images and artifacts to visualize the imaginary world of Barrayar. There’s also The Vor, curated by Pinterest user fajrdrako. Both are utterly enchanting.

Someone somewhere has to be writing a thesis or dissertation on the Vorkosiverse and reproductive health choices, right? Abortion, surrogacy, pre-birth disability diagnoses, cloning — it’s all in there. Hard SF doesn’t often get to be this messy about the body, nor so inclined to consider a woman’s perspective on such technologies. I’m going to keep an eye on this as I keep reading. 

___

Bujold, Lois McMaster. A Civil Campaign. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle edition.

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011. Kindle edition.

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‘As if money was a substitute for fair play’: feminist subtext in The Governess Affair

After the Vicki Essex review and the feminist heroine fiasco, I’ve been feeling like many of my latest posts have come down on the negative side of the critical spectrum. To balance things out, I kept an eye out for positive examples of romances with feminist leanings — and now I’m thrilled to say that Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair has a strongly feminist subtext based around power, money, consent, and women’s autonomy.

{Be ye warned: spoilers abound. Also, at present the novella is free on Amazon, so I’d run right out and grab it if I were you.}

Cover for Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair: a light-skinned woman with dark hair wears a long gold gown. She has her back to the viewer, and is turning to look at the viewer over her right shoulder.

The book opens with a description of two men, one of them a duke, and the other, our hero:

An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command … his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. Compared with Hugo’s own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

The untutored observer, Hugo thought, was an idiot. (2-3)

Less than a page in, the visible marks of patriarchal power—expensive clothing, “patrician features”—are irrevocably undermined. Hugo isn’t a servant. He’s a former boxer who is now something of an enforcer, working to eliminate the duke’s many debts. If he succeeds before a given date, he will be rewarded with enough money to launch his own business empire. He successfully helped the duke marry an heiress, but the new duchess’ father was canny enough to put her fortune in trust, to be doled out on a regular schedule—provided, of course, that the duke does not do anything to irritate his new bride.

Continue reading

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This Star Trek Post is Brought to You by Not Getting Whooping Cough

So there is a pertussis epidemic afoot in our neck of the woods at present, and after one local news source referred to it as the Hundred Day Cough—the Napoleon of viruses!—I ran out and got myself vaccinated.

At which point my brain fell all to pieces.

It’s not whooping cough, and it’s not an allergic reaction: it’s just my body taking energy to make antibodies, like it’s supposed to. But it has drained all the thinky-juice from my brain-parts, so instead of making headway on any of my works-in-progress I am weeping over episodes of My Little Pony (that poor tortoise just wants to be loved!) and watching a lot of original series Star Trek for the first time ever.

Which is why I want to talk about the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander.

A still shot from 'The Enterprise Incident,' featuring (among other figures) the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander in a long-sleeved, two-tone asymettrical mini-dress with black over-the-knee boots and sheer black hose.

That’s her there, center left, in one of the greatest outfits Star Trek has ever given humanity. She appears in an episode called ‘The Enterprise Incident,’ which is also pretty fantastic. The UFRC is in charge of the Romulan flagship (!) with a cloaking device, and spends most of her on-screen time seducing Spock (!!) using her words, logic, and that incredible minidress-boot combination. (Which is, of course, what any right-thinking dude-inclined woman would do if dropped into a Star Trek episode.) All while trying to also seduce him into defecting, which somehow doesn’t come across as evil so much as it does, well, strategic. Spock is clearly a badass and good to have on your side, plus if he’s fighting with the Romulans then she can keep seducing him, and it feels like everybody wins.

Spock, of course, is there to steal the cloaking device. There’s an elaborate game of espionage being played, though the episode goes to some lengths to keep the reveal from happening too early. It’s one of Star Trek‘s most effectively plotted stories. And though the UFRC doesn’t win, she’s not humiliated, and she’s treated with the respect due to her rank by everyone on the Enterprise, and Spock even privately admits that their brief sexytimes will have a greater impact on him than the theft of the cloaking device.

And then she disappears from the Star Trek universe forever.

This is unacceptable.

I mean, look at her accomplishments!

  • She can command a damn Romulan flagship, which bespeaks a certain amount of ruthless intelligence and political cunning, but she is never vicious or cruel in the use of her power.
  • She can seduce both the human and Vulcan sides of Spock, and very nearly bend him to her will without denting his awesomeness or independence. Not even Kirk can do this—except in the slashier areas of internet fandom (love you, K/S!).
  • She respects the rights and dignity of her prisoners, even those she has condemned to death.
  • She does not lose control when she discovers Spock’s betrayal, and she is as gracious in defeat as she is in victory.
  • She has emotions and expresses them, but they are not her sole motivation.
  • She manages to find two flattering, tasteful outfits in the Star Trek universe—which let me tell you, is no small feat. I expect she has a personal dressmaker on staff, because every other non-Federation lady has the worst outfits.

I don’t really have a larger point here. Just that one of the weaknesses of the original series is a tendency to ignore opportunities for long-form narrative arcs, as well as a distressing amount of sexism for a show that was/is considered a progressive benchmark. Following up on the UFRC would have been an excellent way to address both.

And if anyone knows where I can find a replica of that minidress, please let me know.

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A Is For: Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne

Welcome to the first installment of the A to Z April Blogging Challenge!

Today, to kick things off, I want to talk about one of my favorite fictional heroines: Princess Amy, from M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. This is one of those few books that are impossibly perfect and perfectly lovable.

Amy’s full name is Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne. She’s the youngest of seven sisters, each more beautiful than the last—but her christening present was to be ordinary, so while her siblings’ hair is golden and gently curled, Amy’s is mousy and brown and limp. Her freckles are a scandal, and by the time she is sixteen she has taken to slipping out of her bedroom in the palace and hanging out in a house in the woods, where at least she doesn’t feel like she is constantly letting everyone down.

Like Cimorene in the equally wonderful Dealing With Dragons, Amy runs away rather than let her parents marry her off in humiliating fashion to some prince who thinks she’s nothing special. She ends up in a neighboring kingdom and then… well, who am I to spoil the rest of the story?

It’s impossible to overstate how many times I’ve read this book, and how much comfort it brought me over the years. It’s one of the classic “be true to yourself” stories that got so many of us through so many rough, awkward teenage years (to say nothing of the rough, awkward grownup years we’re still trying to wrap our heads around).

Even now, when I’m tempted to worry about how I’m letting people down by not being perfect all the time, I recite Amy’s string of names like a mantra of strength.

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