Viscounts and Vorkosigans

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!

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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. 

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

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

'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.

This is worth unraveling further. The 'official' channels of social power—a husband's authority over his wife and her property, a master's authority over his hired hand, and an aristocrat's authority over a coal miner's son—are subverted by the ebb and flow of money. The legal actions of the duke's father-in-law do much to thwart the duke's own exercise of power, proving that emotional ties and competing agendas can complicate what should be straightforward hierarchies. As Hugo observes soon after: "A duke should have known how to take charge. But no; Clermont was so used to having others bow before his title that he'd never learned to command by force of personality" (5). I love how this reverses the usual romance trope where a titled hero is so used to getting his own way that he becomes autocratic or commanding or a force of nature. Privilege, in Courtney Milan's text, means never having to work to exert one's will upon the world.

Our hero Hugo, of course, has to work very hard to do the same thing. His past as a boxer means he has more than common physical power, of course, but his past as an abused son of a battered mother makes him wary of the uses of physical force, particularly against those less powerful than himself. His low-class birth and shady employment further exclude him from the halls of official authority—from government as well as from society. The solution he seeks is wealth, "his own empire" (7), which will allow him to exist comfortably outside the channels of official power. Money is, in the aristocratic system, unofficial power.

Again, at this point we're still about seven pages into this novella.

Enter our heroine.

Or rather, say that she is revealed to be our heroine. She first appeared on page three, in a bit of description where the duke was looking at her and grinding his teeth. She wears a hat with a "thin pink ribbon." She appeared again, "a smudge of pink for her lips," on page seven. And she gets finally introduced in the least impressive manner possible: "'You see,' Clermont muttered, 'there was this governess … that's her, now. Waiting. Demanding compensation from me" (8). Our heroine wants money too.

Actually, she wants a great deal more than money. Unlike Hugo, who sees money as some kind of proof that he's transcended the legacy of his abusive father, Serena Barton wants the things money can bring her rather than money for its own sake. She wants to buy a lavender farm to ensure her financial independence, and she wants a guarantee that the duke will pay for the future education of his unborn son (or a Season for his daughter, if the child is a girl).

Serena Barton, you see, is a survivor of sexual assault. She is also pregnant with the duke's illegitimate child.

I've seen plenty of rapes in romance, whether by the hero or by the villain. I've even seen some heroines get pregnant after being raped by the hero, in a few romances of the 'sweeping generational epic' type. And there's the heroine in Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady, who has a bastard child with a deceased rake.

The duke is clearly, unambiguously not the hero.

And yet our heroine is carrying his child.

This is textual violence as well as sexual violence. Babies tend to be almost magical in romance. They embody hope, happiness, love, and the future. Secret babies bring long-estranged lovers together. Children's troubles are often the inciting incident to reunite formerly feuding spouses and exes. Barren heroines are mystically un-barrenated by True Love in cherubic baby-filled epilogues. If a couple has One Night of Passion, the chances of baby go through the roof. (Does nobody understand how condoms function?) But this particular baby is an accident, an unfortunate consequence of a traumatic experience. This is not a baby born to solve its parents' problems. In another romance, an author would let her heroine wonder if she could possibly love a child born from such a cicumstances. Serena Barton, however, seems to have simply accepted this baby as hers to protect—not out of defiance, but as a matter of simple responsibility. It's very quietly powerful.

Virginity, too, is fetishized in romance, and Serena Barton was a virgin until Clermont came along. But Serena Barton does not spend a lot of time mourning her lost innocence. In a romance so concerned with money, it would have been easy to depict the heroine's rape as a robbery, in the commodity model of sexual relationships. Especially since it also cost her her governess' wages. But this is not what Courtney Milan does. Yes, Serena is traumatized by her rape—she has nightmares, she gets triggered (though she doesn't of course use the term), and she has been fired from her position as a result of her pregnancy. She fears being silenced, she wonders if she should have fought back harder, if there was something she could have done to protect herself—all very standard responses for victims of sexual violence. But while her rape has affected her, it has not taken something from her femininity, and this is hugely important in feminist terms.

Serena Barton has no money, no character, no prospects, no power. But she still has agency: "I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, am going to happen to things." (38)

Reader, I admit that I flat-out cheered.

And this is the moment when Serena first begins her assault on Hugo's bleak and tender heart. Though she doesn't realize it at the time.

Because Hugo is sensitive to the workings of power, and one of the other visible marks of official power is that it allows men like Clermont to succeed in abusing women like Serena. "I'm a duke," he says in the first chapter. "I have no need to force women." (10) Astute readers will notice that this is not the same as saying I did not force that woman. And it's true he did not use physical force—but then, he didn't have to. "He promised not to wake the household" (98) Serena explains later. His wealth, his title, and his gender all allow him access to unpunished violence. The duke is not a moustache-twirler in the classic romance tradition—unlike, say, my own heinous and much-beloved Lord Wart—he's an average man, with average appetites, and the unshakeable conviction that he is entitled to satisfy those appetites no matter what it costs anyone else. "I was so bored, and she was the closest thing to a woman around. What would it hurt?" (171)

As a governess, Serena has no official recourse against abuse and violence. All the duke has to do is tell her to be quiet, once during the rape, and once when she takes up her vigil on the bench outside his home: "She'd been cut deep by her own silence, cut to the point of shame … Silence could cut both ways—for instance, when one failed to repudiate rumors that might cause damage. She wished Clermont much joy of her silence." (17-18) Privilege thrives on being unseen, so Serena makes her silence conspicuously visible: "What do you suppose the gossip will run to once I begin to show?" (109)

Hugo, whose instincts for abuse are finely honed, sees through the duke's feeble lies about the rape; he even sees through Serena's insistence that she was not forced under the legal definition of the term: "Somehow, what had happened seemed even worse than physical violence—as if Clermont had taken not only his pleasure and her future, but had robbed her of the right to believe herself blameless." (99) Note that the robbery metaphor here pertains to Serena's sense of herself, not to her status as a virgin. It is the damage to Serena-as-a-person that matters in this text, not the damage to Serena-as-a-sexual-object. Her virginity is barely even established as having been taken—a brief mention of blood on the sheets when it wasn't her time of the month—but the results to her security, happiness, and peace of mind are thoroughly explored.

Hugo, unlike Clermont and unlike many other romance heroes, is very very good with boundaries. A list:

  • When he first suspects Serena has been raped, he sets a twig on the bench between them, declaring his intention of treating it as a wall. He does not move the twig; Serena does, at the end of the scene.
  • He tries to take her glove off to warm her hands, chilled from standing all day in a downpour. When she flinches at the touch, he stops, lets go, apologizes, and asks if she can take her own gloves off. When she can't manage it with stiff fingers, he asks her permission again before gently removing the gloves, not touching her any more than he has to, not turning it into a caress or a seduction. (Since I love Lord of Scoundrels, I read this as a clear callback to the famous glove scene between Dain and Jessica.) If she'd refused, he would not have touched her, even though it meant she continued to shiver and drip in the rain. He would not have manhandled her "for her own good," as so many heroes are wont to do.
  • In the scene where they finally consummate the relationship, he turns it into a game, with hairpins as tokens, and pre-arranged rules. The rules apply to him, not to Serena: "You can make me touch you," he says. "I can only make you touch yourself." (132) He deliberately gives her more power. She is explicitly the one in charge of this encounter. He never loses control and breaks the rules he's set, never pushes her, even after they both forget about the pins.
  • When Serena mentions how clever the games with the twig and the hairpins, he explains that things like this were how his mother dealt with the reality her own abuse. Hugo's mother is not shown to be a passive victim—she has coping strategies, mental tricks to avoid being dragged down by hopelessness, which she has passed on to her son. The fact that she was killed by her abuser is a tragedy, but it does not dehumanize her in the text or in Hugo's eyes.

Hugo, despite his declarations of ruthlessness and his nickname (the Wolf of Clermont), is incapable of true cruelty. Serena notices this, recognizes his value and strength, and makes her decision. I'm going to quote at length:

She'd thought of the Wolf of Clermont as the duke's tool, his thing. Yet Mr. Marshall was sitting in the rain feeding her sandwiches. Maybe this was some twisted, diabolical strategy on his part. It seemed unlikely. It would have made more sense to keep her cold and hungry.

Her heart beat hard, half fear, half excitement. This was the man who, if the gossip papers had it right, had brought Clermont's estates back from the verge of imminent doom. The duke relied on him for everything. Without him, Clermont was nothing.

She could steal him away. (62-63)

To clarify: she's initially looking to use Hugo, but this quickly changes: "She wanted to steal him away—not to deprive Clermont of his use, but to have him for herself." (91)

This is precisely what she does.

It's a beautifully inexorable plot. One step at a time, Hugo becomes Serena's. She mentally declares him hers at precisely the midpoint of the novel—in the same scene where she agrees to marry him in name only, for the legitimacy of her unborn child. In the same scene she ends with this thought: "He was fooling himself if he thought she would settle for a half-marriage. She'd vowed to win him from Clermont. She'd be damned if she stopped with less than full victory." (116) I kept expecting it to fall apart; I kept expecting she would have to humble herself, or change, or compromise what she wants in some way.

Instead, she gets married, gets one night with Hugo—on her insistence—and gets her lavender farm. After she leaves for the country, the reader stays with Hugo, watching him suffer (in the best romance-y sense of the term). He writes her letters; she writes back with wit, and warmth, and friendship, and a few delightfully prosy innuendoes. He watches the money come rolling in, and can't think why he used to feel it was so important. Unofficial power is still power, which is not the same as love. It's not the same thing as trust, even. The duke returns, having reconciled with the duchess, and asks Hugo what to buy first with all this lovely, lovely money.

Hugo punches him right in the stomach. And does it again, once the duke has admitted to the rape. Physical violence finally has an appropriate use and an appropriate target. Hugo then blackmails the duke into handing over everything Serena wanted, both funds for the child's education and a written confession of what he's done.

And then Hugo shows this confession to the duchess, saying: "I think you've lied to quite enough women." (173) It's not a prosecution, not really justice. Justice is impossible under the laws of the time. But Hugo, through the duchess, can change the balance of unofficial power—money—in such a way as to be a punishment. (A punishment the duke can't really openly discuss, either, echoing Serena's position that silence is a weapon.)

Then—only after Serena has everything else she's wanted—Hugo goes to the lavender farm and tells her he loves her. This is what he says next: "I want to be somebody. Let me be your husband. Let me be the father of your child—of all your children." (177)

I couldn't believe that passage was real the first time I read it. A romance hero was defining himself in relation to the heroine, rather than the other way around. Possessing and stealing and claiming and owning tend to be the domains of the hero, not the heroine—but here, Hugo is the one being claimed. He even—I can't believe this, either—he even asks permission to be claimed: Let me be yours. This ending is not papered over with gender essentialism; it's not the you woman have taught me to love and open my manly heart to your nurturing feminine ways trope. It's not about power, because Hugo and Serena have always related to one another as equals, even when they were on opposite sides. There's no magical shower of money gilding this particular lily. It's just sweet, and human, and utterly romantic. (Side note: there's something intensely poetic about the idea of a lavender farm—why hasn't this come up before? It's ready-made for romance heroines.)

In sum, this ending? It's fucking revolutionary.

I'll stop before this post hits the 3k mark. I know I've practically written a novella analyzing Courtney Milan's novella. But strongly feminist romances are still rare and remarkable, and this was not only a strong feminist book, it was a strong book. I can't wait to get started on The Duchess War.

{You can find digital copies of The Governess Affair at Amazon, ARe, and Third Place Books. It's also a finalist in this year's DABWAHA, if you feel like a bookish brawl.}

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.

A Tribute To Anne McCaffrey, Accidental Romance Author

Word came over the Twitter today that beloved author Anne McCaffrey has died at 85. She was one of my absolute favorites growing up, and what's more I'm currently in the middle of the biggest Dragonriders of Pern-reading binge in the history of dragons. Or binges. It's always dangerous to revisit things you loved as a kid—there is the chance they will have gone stale or turned fragile, and then you can never quite recapture that soothing golden glow. But then there are the things that turn out to be even better now that you've grown up and gotten around more than you did when you were, say, twelve. And then you feel smart for having such good taste as a kid.

With that in mind, let's talk about the first book in the Pern series: Dragonflight.

It is my contention that Dragonflight is a classic example of romance as well as sci-fi/fantasy.

There are going to be a lot of pieces talking about Anne McCaffrey's imagination and worldbuilding skill from an sff perspective. This post is going to talk specifically about how this first book in the Pern series was a pioneering romance as well as being a ridiculously brave mix of fantasy and sci-fi.*

Spoilers ahoy.

{Ed. note: For the twelve of you who don't already know this, the events on Pern starts off looking like your basic faux-medieval fantasy, only to be revealed as a deliberately anachronistic colony planet founded by future Earthlings who make dragons using alien genetic techniques. While fighting off vicious devouring space spores with fire and acid. It is Teh Shiznit.}

The book begins with Lessa. This book came out at a time when romance heroines mostly followed the Harlequin or Heyer models: Dragonflight was published four years before The Flame and the Flower, to give you some perspective. Lessa is something entirely different. For one thing, she's an unqualified bitch—guarded, ambitious, and rebellious. She's spent ten years living secretly as a drudge, working to undermine the man who slaughtered her family and planning her return to glory. She is talented, intelligent, and more than a little unscrupulous—and after she takes a bath, her hair goes all frizzy and full of static, which she finds irritating.

No wonder I loved her.

Our hero, F'lar, initially sees Lessa only as a tool for his own agenda to save Pern from a looming threat nobody but him really believes in. As time passes, the two of them come to appreciate one another's intelligence and strength. They begin to trust one another. They have some dragon-induced, mind-blowing sex. And then Lessa discovers time-travel.

No, for real! Kickass bitchy heroine discovers time travel!

And then she figures out how to use time travel to save the planet, but it involves a five-hundred-year jump. And F'lar tells her not to go because her dragon is the only egg-laying queen Pern has left and they need dragons. And Lessa goes anyways—and F'lar falls totally to pieces. Followed swiftly by the reader, because when she comes back—thus saving the planet and proving that she was right all along—he goes running up and grabs her and is sobbing with relief and it's not because the planet's been saved or anything to do with dragons. It's because he thought she was dead and now she's back. She is more important to him than saving the planet.

And the first time I read this book, some quiet part of my brain sat up and went: THIS.

This was what I wanted: a strong woman and a strong man slowly coming to care for one another beyond the bounds of reason. A book where the lady got to save the planet instead of being rescued b the hero. (Throughout the book, Lessa gets thoroughly pissed when people tell her she can't do things because being female is an obstacle—whether it's her own femininity or her dragon's.) Less and F'lar are not perfect people; it'd be fair to say they're both downright annoying at times. But they're perfect for each other.

And all the classic romance beats are there: the initial annoyance with each other, the grudging respect, the attraction that refuses to be stifled even when they're at odds, the eventual affection and trust, and that devastating reunion at the end of the book. This is a romance written in 1968 that avoids the worst excesses of romance during that time: the useless angst, the spineless heroine, and the rapist hero—though we could have an in-depth conversation about how consent works when dragon hormones are involved, and believe me, people have.

And yet, the paradox—this is a strong romance from an author who would have dismissed the label (and has apparently done so in places I cannot find citations for). I can't really blame her. Romance gets a bad rap, especially in the sff part of the world. All I can say is that when I discovered Dragonflight, I recognized it as being kin to Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Julie Garwood's The Bride. I took it to heart personally as a romance, and find it hard to let the label go.

So today, per this week's holiday, today I am thankful for Anne McCaffrey and the Pern series—for Lessa and Menolly especially—for showing young me the kind of capable, intelligent, forthright romance heroines I've loved ever since. Even if she wasn't writing romance at the time.

It's An Erotic Steampunk Print Anthology!

We here at Olivia Waite are absolutely tickled to announce that we are appearing in a print book. And not just any print book, but a steampunk erotic romance anthology. And not just any steampunk erotic romance anthology, but a steampunk erotic romance anthology with the glorious Delphine Dryden and the magnificent J.K. Coi. And check out that cover!

Cover image for Steam HeatSteam Heat contains my own Generous Fire (Dickensian alternate history), Iron Seduction by J. K. Coi (Chinese steampunk), and The Lamplighter's Love by Delphine Dryden (straight-up gaslamp fantasy).

In conclusion: Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

{Disclosure: clicking on some of the above links might prove profitable to myself or the other authors mentioned—so you should totally do it. Go on; you know you want to.}

"I've Got Deviants To See And A Novel To Finish."

The whole time we were writing this previous post on fictional romance authors, we here at Olivia Waite had the nagging suspicion that we were forgetting something. And then someone on Tumblr reminded me who it was.

Allison Janney as Ms. Perky: a pale-skinned woman with short, dark, retro-curly hair. She wears a pink suit jacket and a strand of pearls, and is looking very skeptically over the top of her computer monitor.

I Always Like the Secondary Characters Best

In 10 Things I Hate About You, a movie which has a great appreciation for the specific beauties of Seattle geography and an appalling lack of actual knowledge about same, Allison Janney plays Ms. Perky, a guidance counselor who is also a romance novelist. She writes sex scenes during unoccupied hours, and often quizzes her students for synonyms in a pinch. Everything about her is pink and feminine and exaggerated like a cartoon sketch of a smutty Jackie O., and she steals absolutely every scene she's in.

I saw this film in California, on a road trip to look at colleges, because one of the friends I was traveling with had an enormous crush on Heath Ledger. (Let's face it, who didn't?) And the instant Ms. Perky appeared, I knew I'd found my muse.

She was picky about her word choice, and I liked her glasses and her pearls and the Georgia O'Keefe-type stained glass ladyparts window in her office. Plus, she was strong and sharp-tongued and unafraid to be a little silly or to swear if such was warranted. And when she was done with someone, she dismissed them with the word "Scoot!" that cut through the air like a bullet.

Ms. Perky was the first romance novelist I ever saw depicted on film. This was the first time I ever saw a romance writer actually working—replacing text, typing the next sentence, and all that. She also managed to squeeze in her writing time between the business of correcting and corralling all the troubled youth of Padua.

Deep down inside me, something went click.

I'd always thought of what I did as daydreaming or spacing out—the moments before I fell asleep, where I put together stories in my head, or car trips where reading gave me a headache so I stared out the window and arranged other stories, or the boring classes where instead of notes I'd be writing poems and stories and sketches, not a one of which was ever really finished.

But looking up at Allison Janney on that flickering silver screen, I knew that what I had actually been doing that whole time was writing. This habit of mine was an actual thing in the world. And it didn't make Ms. Perky crazy, or at least not any crazier than any other adult character in the film. It was just who she was.

It took years—a lot of years—before I was finally able to roll up my sleeves, call myself a writer out loud an in public, and land a publishing contract. None of it would have happened without that small moment of realization in a darkened theater.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a novel to finish.

In Defense Of Slave Leia

We here at Olivia Waite hover happily on the edges of geek culture. And lately we've been noticing a bit of a trend in various blog posts on and around convention season. Apparently the internet has declared this the Summer Where Everyone Criticizes Slave Leia.

For instance, this satirical public service announcement:

Heather from the delightful Galaxy Express argues in favor of Bounty Hunter Leia cosplay and general diversity in costuming:

By talking up my favorite heroines, I can advocate for the idea that SF/F/SFR heroines are more than the sum of their sexual parts. If enough people add their voices to mine, in time we could make serious inroads (not just for us, but for future genre fans). Rather than devolve into an endless parade of Slave Leias, conventions could become places where many types of cosplay outfits are accepted and valued.

And naturally, Courtney from Geek Feminism gets right to the heart of the matter (emphasis hers):

But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. ... The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.

I have to admit that it bothers me to see "Slave Leia" becoming seen more and more as a token—as proof that you haven't been creative enough with your costume, or that you're not as authentic a geek like the dudes dressed as Han Solo or Spiderman, or that you're given in to dudely pressure on a grand scale. (Which is not to say that pressure does not exist on a grand scale—hoo boy, does it ever.)

Because, for me, Slave Leia and the gold bikini were life-changing.

To explain, I'm going to have to talk about saddle shoes.

Black background. Facing right is a black-and-white saddle shoe with ivory laces and a hard rubber sole.

When I was a little tyke I was pretty active: running, climbing, falling down (active =/= graceful), kicking things, chasing and being chased, the whole bit. And like many others my school had a concrete parking lot as a playground. But for all of kindergarten and half of first grade, my mother refused to buy me tennis shoes or sneakers. (Hi, Mom!) Instead, I did all that running and climbing and chasing while wearing saddle shoes—hard-soled, stiff-sided, pinch-toed monstrosities that supposedly were a better match for the French braid or bun or pigtails that I wore, because I was also not allowed to go to school with my hair down.

I hated all of it. I still remember the rush of relief I got when finally my mom got tired of seeing scuffs and scratches on those nicer shoes (or just worn down by my constant griping—it's a toss-up) and bought me a pair of purple Reebok hi-tops. Oh, the glorious eggplant shade of comfortable footgear!

It was another two years before I won the right to wear my hair loose one or two days a week. (Little does Mom know—now that I'm a writer, it's a banner day when my hair even gets brushed!)

This was also the time I started watching the original Star Wars trilogy every time it was televised. Which was every year for a lot of years, all the way up into high school and puberty. And one of the things I liked best was Leia—this badass, intelligent, passionate woman who sometimes found herself kidnapped and threatened and other times did the rescuing herself.

And as soon as she shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that.

Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it's the one costume she doesn't choose for herself. She's forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba's dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there's one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it's the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it's important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini.

And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn't let her clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day.

And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence (that would have to wait until I saw my first R-rated movie in theaters—that Connery and Cage masterpiece known as The Rock). Jabba's death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn't a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it's vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal.

So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification.

To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you.

It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am.

And if my reading is a good one, and the gold bikini is dangerous, that explains the double reaction from geek culture to the Slave Leia cosplayers: they are both dismissed and demonized. They are simultaneously insignificant and threatening—like feminists, or gay people, or trans people, or people of color, or anyone who tries to speak out against the various types of privilege that are active in geekery. These speakers are not normal because they're not like us, so you can ignore them—or you can insult them, either one.

But what they're not is comfortable.

When geek culture says, Don't be Slave Leia, what I hear is: Don't unsettle us. Don't make us think about the consequences of our misogyny, or our entitlement, or our privilege. Don't remind us that female sexuality can be a power as well as a commodity.

This is not to say that Slave Leia (or Jabba-Killin' Leia, as I think we could more accurately call her) is the only or even the best choice for cosplay. Because I am also really, really enthralled with this steampunk Tardis trend I've been hearing so much about.

But I find it troubling when there's a whole category of women that we are Officially Allowed to Mock and/or Hate. Because that line is a really arbitrary thing, and it's really easy to imagine that, some day, I'll end up on the wrong side of it.

What Fictional Romance Authors Can Show Us About Romance Stereotypes

Lately it seems like every time I try and step away from the internet—for a trip, a wedding, a weekend in bed for my anniversary—there emerges another ludicrous screed against the romance genre and then another valiant defense. In the former, a lot of conventional wisdom about romance novels and their readership gets trotted out under the guise of research, and the more I become involved in the romance industry the more ridiculous appear mass-media stereotypes of romance novels, readers, and authors.

And since everyone including me has done the You Don't Know Romance Like I Know Romance post already, I'm going to approach from a different angle and talk about how romance authors are portrayed in the media and how that feeds into certain stereotypes about the genre and its fans.

First of all, I could only come up with five of them, and that includes the movie I found a while back on Netflix Instant which seems to have vanished from my queue (any information on what movie this was would be appreciated). So we have a grand total of four examples to look at.

Time for a list!

Fictional Romance Authors:

Joan Wilder, Romancing the Stone

Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder stands in her New York apartment kitchen, wearing layered shirts and a bulky lavender jacket, hair pulled up in a dowdy bun, holding a phone to her left ear. Her expression is highly concerned.The grande dame of romance authors in fiction—Joan starts off her movie pining for a character she's made up, weeping over the end of her own manuscript, talking to her cat, hurling miniature bottles of booze into the fireplace, and expressing her phobia of flying. But a mysterious package from her dead brother-in-law and a desperate phone call from her sister send Joan off to the wilds of 1980s Columbia. Once there she breaks a heel, goes down a mudslide in a jungle monsoon, gets stoned to the bejeezus-belt, escapes many an anonymous goon, finds a priceless emerald, meets an intense and intensely well-armed fan of her novels, foils the bad guys, and wraps Michael Douglas (as hot here as he's ever been) around her delicate little finger.

I want to be just like her.

Trish Murtaugh/Ebony Clark, Lethal Weapon 4

A dark-haired, dark-skinned woman in a turquoise shirt and gold hoop earrings. Her expression is part exasperation, part loving tolerance.

All throughout Lethal Weapon 4, Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh flashes obscene amounts of cash to Martin Riggs' astonishment and concern. But Murtaugh's not on the take—his wife Trish is just the author of absurdly popular romance novels, such as we see a pregnant Lorna reading at one point. Trish's romance writing under the name Ebony Clark is actually the one trait that makes her something other than a character who might as well be named Buddy-Cop's Token Wife.

Also: Ebony Clark, my god.

Charlotte Knight, Remington Steele, "Etched in Steele"

A curly-haired blond woman with pale skin and a sly smile, dressed in flowing white, with bright gold jewelry. She is lounging back on a sofa and looking expectantly to the left.

This may be cheating, because Charlotte Knight's books sound more like watered-down Erica Jong than anything by La Nora, but if Diana Gabaldon counts as romance then we're probably safe in including Mrs. Knight. Glamorous, lecherous, and a complete fraud—her bestselling trashy trashy novels are actually written by her husband Mitchell. Mitchell's increasing insecurity and alcoholism lead to a terminal case of writer's block: he is murdered by would-be author Tony, who has plans to usurp the Charlotte Knight ghostwriting position (and the millions of dollars that come with it). What's more, the means of murder is predicted in a scene from the new Charlotte Knight manuscript.

As Laura Holt and Remington Steele investigate Mitchell's death, they talk about pleasure versus duty, popular reading versus inspired literature, and appearances versus reality—all of which hit very close to home for our main couple, who have secrets and masks of their own.

Jameson Rook/Victoria St. Clair, Naked Heat

A pale-skinned, dark-haired man in a dark indigo shirt with sleeves rolled up sits behind an open black lapop. His expression is intent and slightly excited.

This is where we enter that funhouse mirror set at the end of Enter the Dragon, so bear with me. On Castle, Nathan Fillion plays Richard Castle, mystery author. Castle writes the Nikki Heat series, which includes the character of Jameson Rook, clearly based on Castle himself (just as Nikki is based on NYPD detective Kate Beckett). And some unnamed but very skilled ghostwriter has been publishing Nikki Heat books here in the real world—in the second one, it is revealed that—spoiler!—Jameson Rook also writes romance under the name Victoria St. Clair.

So: it's a fictional character's fictional character's pen name. And he's (they're?) very sensitive about it.

Angst and Anxiety

Arguments against romance frequently state that the genre offers harmful fantasy rather than healthy reality, and consider the genre's sexual content a threat to moral order. It's plain that there is a similar anxiety at work in the above depictions of romance authors.

  • Joan Wilder is clearly the outlier: she's the main character in her story, she's a woman, she writes under her own name, Columbian gang leaders (guns and Jeeps=manly) love her books. But even Joan is not all she appears at first glance—though a bit of a wet noodle at first, when times get tough she is strong, sexy, confident, capable, and powerful.
  • The money Trish brings in causes people to doubt Roger's integrity on the force. Her career is a threat to his, even though her career is a secret.
  • Charlotte Knight is only a pretty face that makes her husband's sex-filled stories more palatable to the public. At the same time, her sex appeal is what inspires him to write, and her lover is ultimately the one who murders her husband in manner identical to a scene from the new manuscript.
  • Jameson Rook's reputation is one of high masculine adventure—daring forays across enemy lines, friendships with well-known mobsters, connections with all the important political players in the city. Yet his pseudonymous works are sexy historical potboilers—feminine, domestic, and supposedly trivial.

There is also a deep theme of sexual shame that runs through these depictions:

  • Joan Wilder's love life does not live up to either her fantasies (exemplified by her character Jesse) or the more normalized, modernized expectations of her editor. There is a sense in these early scenes that Joan's work is at odds with her chances for happiness. (Though ultimately she ends up with someone very like her ideal, and on her own terms. That's just how Joan Wilder rolls.)
  • Roger Murtaugh is ashamed to tell his partner what his wife does for a living, and only does so in a moment of extreme crisis. Riggs' immediate reaction is to congratulate Roger for "boinking" someone who writes such filthy books.
  • Mitchell Knight's book is described by publisher Russell Forsyth as "pornography," but the same book, with Charlotte standing in for the author, is "erotica." Forsyth also strongly implies that Charlotte offered him sexual favors to publish the first book—at which point Charlotte, an openly, eagerly sexual woman, flinches and drops her eyes to the carpet. It's a pretty vile example of a good old-fashioned slut-shaming by a dude who was involved in precisely the same activities he implied the lady should blush about. Also, Laura Holt has read all the Charlotte Knight books but has difficulty admitting it, and the murderer has literary aspirations and often makes vicious, venomous remarks at the expense of the sexual content of the books—even before he is revealed as the killer.
  • Jameson Rook's romance authorship clashes with his Pulitzer-winning, swaggering, supermanly image. Feminine sexuality is considered a taint or corruption of this ideal. At best, it waters down Rook's masculine purity; at worst, destroys it. He goes so far as to cartoonishly hide his face in an elevator, lest someone from his publisher recognize him.

Two of our fictional authors are actually men writing under female names—which does happen, though not as frequently as, say, women writing under female names. Lastly, all four of our fictional authors are wildly successful:

  • Joan Wilder has many nice clothes and an excellent New York Apartment with a fireplace.
  • Trish Murtaugh provides eye-boggling wads of cash to her husband. Which is totally how romance royalties work. (Please?)
  • Charlotte Knight seems to have servants and strawberries and champagne on hand at a moment's notice in case anyone sexy drops by her thirty-fifth floor apartment. Her books sell, according to her publisher, "three million copies" each.
  • Jameson Rook's pen name is well-known enough that even a NYPD homicide cop recognizes it.

Pink background, a smiling, blond, pale-skinned woman in a very pink dress, and flowers absolutely everywhere.

Too Long; Didn't Read

  • Romance author as sex object: Joan Wilder (sort of), Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight
  • Romance author ashamed: Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author actually a man: Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author as ludicrously wealthy: all four authors

It goes without saying that none of these depictions match the day-to-day life of any of the romance authors I know. (If someone out there is totally Joan Wilder, though, show me how you do it?). Trish Murtaugh comes closest—she's a working wife and mother whose job just happens to be writing romance—but it's a throwaway note in a series that focuses entirely on masculine exploits and problems.

In reality, we work hard. We go to meetings with other authors and figure out how to do our job better every day. Some of us are best-sellers; others not so much. Some of us are queer. Some of us have husbands and children; some of us are husbands and children. Personally, I feel about twelve today—which will hopefully change once I get to the sex scene I'm supposed to be writing instead of this lengthy post.

All of us are doing this out of love.

And that's what's really missing from the list, and why Joan Wilder really stands out for me: she's the one who does it out of love, the one we see at work on her typewriter with headphones on and tear tracks on her face. Sure, she passes over a lot of real-world guys because they can't compare to the imaginary Jesse—but on the other hand, those particular real-world guys looked like complete chumps. And if my choices are A) reading/writing romance, or B) dating chumps, I'm gonna go with option A every time.

Because romance is not separate from our life—it's a part of it. There is not a big black boundary drawn between Fantasy and Reality because we have this thing called a mind that is designed to smash those two things together. Sometimes real life is what sparks our fantasy, such as when we see a photo of a far-off place and wonder what sort of stories happen there. Sometimes our fantasy informs real life, such as when reading a romance set in the Napoleonic war (or the Civil War, or the zombie apocalypse, or WWIII) helps me understand the nature of soldiership and trauma a bit more than I did before.

Fantasy and imagination are part of what make us human. And romance doesn't threaten our scare-quote "real" lives any more than doing laundry threatens our ability to appreciate a story richly told.

Lucille Bluth And The Body Battle

Lucille Bluth, the booze-swilling, social-climbing, sexpot matriarch played by Jessica Walters in Arrested Development, is quite probably my favorite television character of all time. I fully intend to transform into her on my fiftieth birthday—minus the completely devastating criticism of loved ones. A pale woman with carefully coiffed short hair, a bright pastel-patterend blazer, with the world's most intimidating scowl.

Because Lucille's tongue? It is beyond vicious. Often this is awesome, but equally often it is jaw-droppingly, inventively mean. Which is why she's so fun on tv, but also why I would never ever want to be part of her family.

The comment that always sticks in my mind is one she makes to her daughter, Lindsay, in regard to a brooch Lindsay always wanted to inherit. Lucille objects:

"But it's an elephant and I didn't want to invite the comparison."

This in spite of the fact that Lindsay is later criticized as a flat-chested "surfboard," and in spite of the fact that she is played by Portia di Rossi, one of the world's prettiest skinny people. And this is all very funny, but it hits very close to home.

Skinny is a thing I once was that I am not any more. There are times when I miss the thinner me's ability to enjoy shopping and fit into awesome clothes. There are times—and not as far apart as I'd like—when I feel like bigger me is failing some moral test by taking up an unwarranted amount of space and having unsightly blemishes like stretch marks and cellulite. When the overwhelming pressure to be thin thin THIN gains a temporary victory over my health, my peace of mind, and my love for pasta and cheese and fine cocktails.

But there are also times when I get to fight back.

One of these happened today. I was out shopping for a dress to wear to a bridal brunch this weekend—idly shopping, hoping to find something but not willing to lay odds on my success. As usual, I was in Anthropologie, when all of a sudden one garment stopped me right in my tracks.

Ladies, you haven't really lived until you have asked a saleswoman, "Could you get me the largest size you have in the elephant dress?"

Close-up of bodice pleating with the elephant-and-polka-dot fabric on a strapless party dress.Elephants! Happy little Babar-style elephants, with polka dots! The pop of that yellow sash! The pleating on the bodice—so winking and naughty and sweet! Meanwhile, the quote-happy phonograph in my brain piped up automatically: "You don't want to invite the comparison."

And I realized: I totally want to invite the comparison.

Despite the fact that my proportions usually mean separates are going to fit better than off-the-rack dresses, and despite my tendency to avoid anything strapless on account of the need for support for the Double Dames … I had to try it on.

And it fit just beautifully.

The zipper zipped, and even without a strapless bra the bodice looks great—'40s pinup cleavage great—and I have the perfect yellow floral cardigan to throw over it to keep things family-friendly and brunch-appropriate.

And standing there in front of a triad of mirrors, wearing an elephant dress and boat shoes, I felt as though all the good things about Lucille Bluth were invoked: the backbone, the boldness, the supreme confidence in her own abilities to attract and manipulate and succeed on her own terms. And I feel equally that the put-downs, the barbed witticisms, and the vitriol would roll off me like water off a duck's back.

Few things on earth are as deeply satisfying as a dress that can make you feel both pretty and strong.

Plain, pale background, with a strapless black dress covered in tiny white elephants, with a bright yellow sash.

 

My Favorite Subgenre: Fire And Hemlock

{This is one of a series of posts on historical fantasy romance; earlier episodes have talked about Mairelon the Magician and The Enchanted Chocolate Pot.} Although I've been a fan of Diana Wynne Jones from way, way back, I am still finding books of hers I haven't read. She has so many! One of these was the strange, thought-provoking Fire and Hemlock, which has both one of my favorite and one of my least favorite plot devices. Favorite Plot Device: Blurring Fact and Fiction

I love when stories cross lines between what is real and what is fictive. I loved it in Sophie's World and I loved it in this book as well. And nobody can capture that eerie moment where the world feels capable of coming apart better than Diana Wynne Jones. Things move very fluidly here between legends and modern London, between Polly's buried set of memories with Tom and her surface set of memories without him. Stories that Polly and Tom write to each other start coming true, which is just plain eerie, and it's not immediately clear what's happening or how dangerous it may be.

At times this makes it hard to predict what's going to happen and how obstacles are going to be overcome—but I am almost always more comfortable when I either know what's going to happen or have read a story before. Movies, too, unless they are clearly following a formula, often take a second viewing for me to get beyond the mechanics of plot and into the shape of the narrative. (I'm looking at you, Joel and Ethan Coen.) The first time through, except in very rare cases, I'm always more concerned about what's going to happen than in why something is happening.

This may well be a fault of mine as a reader/viewer, but that's another story.

There were times during my reading of Fire and Hemlock where I wasn't sure if I was enjoying myself. The threats are keenly rendered and vivid, while our main character Polly spends much time out of her depth and struggling to get by. Another readerly fault of mine: if I can tell something really, truly, appallingly bad is going to happen to a character I've come to like, I may just put the book aside, never to return. (I'm looking at you, Brenda Vantrease's The Illuminator.) I'm not going to sit through torture unless there's a good reason.

And one of the things that bugged me? Age difference in a romance.

Least Favorite Plot Device: You Watched Me Grow Up, Now Let's Make Out

Polly meets Tom when she's a kid, and when she's sixteen she realizes she's fallen in love with him. Tom, quite rightly, is a little squicked out—plus there's a whole deal with his ex-wife who's superhumanly evil and still has some mysterious but powerful control over his life. It's all a bit much for a romance—though to be fair, I'm not quite sure if this book qualifies as a romance, based on certain ambiguities in the ending. I imagine the ending is happy—but then, given a choice, I always imagine an ending is happy, so that does not say much about the book one way or the other. Polly and Tom—spoiler!—are victorious over their enemies, but this frees them up to start exploring the issues between them, rather than resolving said issues.

I'm getting off-track. What I'm trying to say: unless a couple has grown up together, or they meet when both are adults, I find age differences can really cast doubt on a romance for me. This is partly why it's so funny when Buster Bluth hooks up with his mother's best friend Lucille 2 on Arrested Development (Lucille Bluth: "She changed him as a baby!"), and it's partly why the delightful Tumblr Reasoning with Vampires finds so much to criticize about the Twilight saga (he's a century old and still hangs out in high school?). Smart Bitches, Trashy Books just recently did a whole discussion on age differences, with a lovely and spoileriffic comments thread worth the perusing.

Ultimately, the more I think about Fire and Hemlock, the more I am pleased with it. It's a dark, rich mystery of a book, with some excellent character studies and plenty of honest emotion. Highly recommended if you want something extraordinary and challenging to shake up your reading list.

{Next up on My Favorite Subgenre, we'll discuss Amanda Quick's Arcane Society series and especially the first book, Second Sight.

Disclaimer: I have recently joined the Partner Program at Powell's Books, and so clicking on some of the book links on this blog may in fact lead to me receiving benefits, such as credits to buy more books from Powell's. But I think we can all agree this is a good thing.}

Things I Imagine Are Happening At RWA Nationals (From A Perspective Of Neurosis, Envy, And Also Ignorance, Unless Twitter Counts)

  • There is a champagne fountain in every room, and one entire hotel tv channel devoted to nothing but period pieces with elaborate costumes.
  • The air is filled with compliments on how marvelous everybody looks—because obviously everybody has gone to some trouble to look unbelievably splendid.
  • You get a RITA! And you get a RITA! And you get a RITA! …
  • Every author whose books you've loved are hanging out and talking about how much they hated your debut novella and how it's a relief you aren't here so they can finally all say how much they dislike you both personally and professionally.
  • Every author whose books you've loved are hanging out and talking about how there's just something missing—like maybe there's some magical future friend they have yet to meet but who will fill the missing gaps of the imaginary friendship circle and make life a wonderful adventure rich in laughter and warmth and shoe shopping.
  • Bacchanals, orgies, and general debauchery.

Black and white photographic image from an ancient Greek red-figure vase: several ladies in drapey clothing with loose hair cavort generally about, with the bearded limbless figure of Dionysus in the center.

  • Your Dream Agent is signing somebody else whose squidshifter/sexbot/lady engineer steampunk space opera menage erotic romance is not nearly as brilliantly written as yours.
  • Impromptu dance-fights break out between publisher parties: Ellora's Cave does the samba, Harlequin approximates a Lindy Hop, Samhain dances like Molly Ringwald in that scene where everybody gets high in the Breakfast Club, Avon waltzes with great sweeping passion, and Penguin does a jazzy sort of modern dance choreography that's really way too hip for the crowd to comprehend.
  • The Pulitzer Committee happens by and decides the industry is so vibrant and lively that they're instituting a whole new award just for romance.
  • The cast of True Blood is offered up as a sacrifice for success in the coming romance year.
  • Nobody ever feels hungover, overwhelmed, jet lagged, or intimidated.
  • Everyone goes home happier, energized, and excited to get back to work.

In Memory of Diana Wynne Jones

I never met Diana Wynne Jones, who died this past Saturday morning. I was simply one of her countless grateful and devoted readers, and like many others I read and re-read her books and held them close and deep in my heart. The first one I remember was Castle in the Air, one of the sequels to Howl's Moving Castle. I was about ten or twelve, and my recent discovery of the Arabian Nights had caused me to look for other stories with genies and lamps and such. After this, I read the Chrestomanci series and Dogsbody and Cart and Cwidder and everything else of hers I could find.

Her books completely transformed what I thought about fantasy, fairy tales, magic, and young adult stories. They changed the way I thought about parents, and siblings, and heroes, and villains. I was young and anxious and well aware of my own weirdness; at the time I thought that I was the only person who still liked fairy tales and myths and books that combined magic with a world that looked very much like our own. A Diana Wynne Jones book was like an oasis, a place where nothing was quite normal so you didn't worry about whether or not you stood out as odd. Certain scenes will be with me as long as I have memory: Cat sawing open his silver bonds with his left pinkie, or Sophie cursed into becoming an old woman.

Every so often, even as I grew up and studied Very Serious Literature in Very Dead Languages, I would make a foray into the library or used bookstore and see if there was anything new, or anything old I'd missed. Quite often, there was—and this constant dedication to her craft and her readers was as astonishing and magical as anything in the books themselves.

Her stories did that most impossible, and most valuable thing: create a living bridge from one mind and heart and life to another.

She will be deeply missed.

It's The Little Things

We here at Olivia Waite have been hit with the world's most efficient flu this week. It landed on us with both feverish feet the day our very first book was released (great timing, flu). Initially, we had a whole evening release party planned, with lounging and cocktails and the eating of decadent foods. There was in fact lounging, and there was the slow eating of grapes—but not in the fun way I'd hoped. {Have you checked out the book yet? If not, here is a handy link. The first chapter's free!}

And now, though the symptoms are gone, we are so exhausted that we are only barely able to raise ourselves up from the fainting couch. Actually, it's just a regular couch—but one of the allowances we make for ourselves when sick is that our suddenly limited range of experience gets redefined however we want. It becomes healthy to eat only popsicles for dinner, and the wearing of pants becomes unnecessarily burdensome.

Plus, we get to catch up on all the badass young adult novels we wish had been around when we were an actual young adult.

And when I opened this library book:

The cover for Starcrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I found this tucked in the back:

Rosie the Riveter on magazine paper, tucked in the back of a library book of just the right size.

Thank you, anonymous library patron, for your patient work with scissors! Happy Women's History Month, everyone!

Book Vs. Book: Ash and Ella Enchanted

We here at Olivia Waite earned our masters degree in Comparative Literature, and old habits die hard. The Book Vs. Book series will compare one book to another book similar in plot or theme or based on the same material. We will not care (much) about arguing which book is better, but we will care a great deal about what the books' differences mean for the story experience. It goes without saying that Here There Be Spoilers.

Today's contenders:

The hardback cover for Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo vs. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

The cover for one paperback edition of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Let's talk Cinderella stories. In an essay you should read if you haven't already, Jennifer Crusie breaks down the essence of Cinderella, both the well-known Grimms' version and a modern Harlequin romance based on the tale. She finds that one of the hallmarks of the original tale is the heroine's passivity:

In the Grimm’s story, Cinderella feels a lack of love and status; she follows her mother’s interdiction and is good; she quests (?) by asking others for help, and she is rewarded with the love of the prince and marriage. The tale punishes active women (the stepsisters who move heaven and earth and even chop off body parts to snag the prince) and rewards the passive (Cinderella, who depends on other to save her, runs away from confrontation, and sits waiting to be rescued). The Grimm’s culture was obviously sending women the message/theme: “Be good and passive and you will be rewarded.”

But if the Grimm’s culture rewards passivity in females, [the] modern audience does not.

A modern reader, even one who has been raised with these stories, often finds them at odds with many other messages sent by the culture: be passive and good, but follow your dreams; carpe diem, but the best things come to those who wait; etc etc etc.

Although Steven Swan Jones has argued that the resonance of a tale comes from the text interpreting “the larger drama of life,” in fairy tales that larger drama is often of male life, not female, and this has led many women to feel both drawn to the original tales and uncomfortable with them. … One woman reported to Stone that “I remember a feeling of being left out in the fairy tale stories. Whatever the story was about, it wasn’t about me. But this feeling didn’t make me not interested in them. I knew there was something I was supposed to do or be to fit in there, but I couldn’t do it, and it bothered me” (qtd. in Stone 133).

These two aspects—passivity/activity and reader identification—are vital to any comparison of Ash and Ella Enchanted. Let's start with the question of our heroine's passivity.

In Ash, which I only discovered recently and mostly enjoyed, our heroine only does about three things under her own steam during the course of the book. She is isolated, and diffident, and tends to feel numb with grief, which is affecting at first but starts to get tedious after a while. She may have been promised and is certainly attracted to an elf who was an acquaintance of her late mother's, but she's also very drawn to the King's Huntress, a completely awesome character named Kaisa who teaches her to ride and track. (There is a prince floating around, but he's not who the story is interested in.)

In order to get proper gear and a proper mount for the King's Hunt—our ball equivalent—Ash promises herself to the hot but scary elf, only to realize that of course she's really in love with Kaisa. How to get out of this magically binding promise? She asks the elf to let her go after a single night, because if he loves her he'll want her to be happy. And he does. And this is the solution to our whole problem. Love is a get out of Elfland jail free card.

It was a little unsatisfying to this particular reader—though I admit, part of that could be because I'd read Ella Enchanted before, and this book really ups the bar on Cinderella interpretations.

In Ella, our heroine is under a curse: she has to obey any direct order she is given, whether it's a command to pass the butter at dinner or a demand that she slit her own throat. Any resistance becomes physically uncomfortable and even dangerous to her life. Naturally, she finds all this infuriating, and much of the book is spent demonstrating how she can subvert orders that are broad or unspecific—when told to come closer, she takes a single step forward, for instance, or when told to pick up a pair of her stepsister's shoes, she picks them up and throws them out the window into a slop bucket. The forced obedience makes her follow the lines of the story (poverty, servitude, helplessness, disguise) without wholly taking away her agency as a character. In a way, she's struggling against an enforced passivity in the same way as readers of the Grimms' original story.

She meets her prince, they fall in love, he asks her to marry him—and Ella has a horrible realization: because of the curse, she could put her prince and her kingdom in danger. She is a weapon to be used against the people she loves. And so she refuses, even though the prince himself (who doesn't know of the curse) is commanding her to say yes (though he doesn't know it's a command rather than persuasion). And she refuses again, when her stepmother and stepsisters (who do know of the curse) command her to accept, because they want to use her as a means of increasing their own wealth and status. And the physical effects of disobedience become worse and worse, until she's shaking herself to pieces—and then deep inside herself, she finds an oasis of strength, and knows she's doing the right thing in refusing the marriage to save the prince she dearly loves. So she refuses a third time—and the curse is broken.

This is love as a force to be reckoned with, not a weakness to be exploited.

But if Ella Enchanted is more successful in dealing with the passivity from the original story, it is still firmly rooted in heteronormativity. Women and men get married to each other, and never is anything else suggested.

In Ash, on the other hand, queer relationships are everywhere, built right into the recognizable fairy-tale world. Characters tell fairy stories where women fall in love with women; some girls dance with girls and some men with men at a Yule ball, and it's no big earth-shaking deal. Ash herself is attracted to both an elf man and a human woman, and for all her angst she spends not one instant of time wondering which of them she's supposed to be "really" in love with on account of their gender.

There is an opportunity that Ash provides for queer youth and teenagers to see themselves reflected in its pages; it is a less exclusive mirror than the original Cinderella—where every woman wants the prince, and is competing to get him.

And if there were a way to squish these two books together into one giant Super-Cinderella of Awesome, I totally would.

Court and Courtesan

Until recently, I could not have distinguished Jean-Léon Gérôme from Jean-Claude van Damme -- unless the latter roundhouse kicked the former in his frippery French mustache. Yet through the miracle of Internet reconnaissance, with all its myriad trajectories and tangents, I wound up along an obscure trail that led me to the following sentence on Wikipedia: "Phryne before the Areopagus, King Candaules and Socrates finding Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia (1861) gave rise to some scandal by reason of the subjects selected by the painter, and brought down on him the bitter attacks of Paul de Saint-Victor and Maxime Du Camp." (Note his self-portrait -- I was not joking about the mustache.)

Naturally, I wanted to learn exactly what these 'bitter attacks' sounded like -- but an internet search left me empty-handed. I did, however, find the images themselves. Here is the first:

A man in ancient Greek robes pulls a blue cloth from the glowing, nude body of an impossibly beautiful woman. Judges, garbed in red, stare with various expressions at her revealed loveliness.Phryne was a famous hetaera -- translate: courtesan -- who lived in Athens in the 4th century BC. She is rumored to have offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes, destroyed by Alexander the Great, on the condition that the resurrected walls then read: "Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan." Sadly, this verbal middle finger to Alexander was refused.

Moreover, Phryne supposedly charged a customer for her favors based on how much she liked them personally (the king of Lydia paid a national debt-level sum, but philosopher Diogenes of Sinope got his for free) and is therefore a prime candidate for being the prototypical hooker with a heart of gold. (Diogenes is most famous for coining the term 'cynic,' thus proving that being cool got you laid even in ancient times.)

This painting depicts the moment where Phryne was brought before the Areopagus as a defendant, and charged with profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries (a common, though serious, accusation). During her trial, Phryne's breasts were exposed to the court, either by herself or her defender -- and she was instantly acquitted.

It is crucial to note the difference between a hetaera and a porne, a common street prostitute with a pimp (yes, ancient Greece had pimps). A hetaera was her own woman, intelligent, charming, and educated as well as beautiful; technically speaking, the word hetaera translates merely to "lady companion." Your male cohorts would be your hetaeroi, with no -- okay, very little -- okay, some -- sexual overtones. Moreover, a hetaera was expensive enough to be beyond the reach of ordinary men; Phryne was outspoken because she could afford to be.

Look again at that painting. The first bit that grabs your eye is the luminous pale skin of the female figure. If you look closely, you can see that her glowing body is the source of all the light in the room: the blue cloth she is no longer wearing is brighter closer to her body, and the deepest shadows are farthest away from her. The red robes of her judges are vibrant, and flicker as though their wearers have been literally set alight with her undoubtedly erotic power. In fact, the natural sweep of our eyes plays tricks on us here as it moves from left to right over the canvas. First we see the figure and its erstwhile covering, then the flame-like movement of the judges reacting, and then our eye is drawn back to the figure (by its arresting brightness) and it seems as though that cool blue cloak is a sheet of water waiting to douse her like a match dropped on dry tinder. As though she is dangerous.

If you look at the painting long enough, you'll start to notice that the order of colors from left to right -- blue, white, red -- is the same as the French flag.

Now, in more detail: Phryne is not entirely naked. She is still wearing a gold bracelet, a necklace, and a small red flower in her hair. Her entire body is exposed both to the court and to the viewer; a normal woman in this situation would be trying to shield her body with her hands. (In fact, the famous Venus statue of Praxiteles, also known as the Venus Pudica or Modest Venus, uses one hand to cover her naughty bits, and supposedly had Phryne as a model.) But our girl is hiding her face: she manages by this not only to imitate shame and modesty -- allowing her to seem virtuous when she is anything but -- but also to remain aloof and mysterious. You can see either her face or her body, but never both at the same time. This is an immensely alluring, canny gesture on her part.

As for the men watching, each and every one of them wears a different, individual expression. They are mocking, aroused, repelled, fascinated, leering, horrified, shocked, and amused by turns. One man has clapped his hand to his head in the universal (and, apparently, eternal) gesture indicating "WTF!" -- another is just as clearly pointing at her ass and discussing it with his neighbor.

There is a shadowy figure who goes unnoticed at the far left of the painting. It took me a long while, staring intently at the digital reproduction, before I realized this person must be the priest who is the plaintiff in this case. And, in the center, balancing Phryne's own body, a tiny golden statue of Athena (there is an inscription on the pedestal). The heads of Athena, Phryne, and her defender (perhaps the orator Hypereides?) form a line heading down and right, while the heads of the judges form a line moving down and left. The two lines meet just to the right of Phryne's body; I can't help but think that this is how at least part of her luminosity is achieved -- our eyes slide to her and then slightly away from her, as though she is too divinely beautiful for us to simply stare at.

Phyrne is not in fact our hetaera's real name. Her given name was Mnesarete, meaning "virtue-mindful," which is quite lovely, but not really conducive to success in her profession. Supposedly, the nickname Phryne, "toad," was given to her on account of her sallow complexion. She is anything but sallow here. I like to think, per Gérôme, that it was in reality her cynical temper and bitter tongue that gave her that name, as well as a large part of her appeal. If she had merely been a beautiful, well-behaved Greek woman, we would never have heard about her. I much prefer to think of her as the Dorothy Parker of the Athenian set, mocking those who deserve it and taking lovers as they pleased her body or her purse, or both.

Today in Kickass Opera

When the Seattle Opera invited us to learn how to make stage blood as a tie-in event for its latest production, I knew Lucia di Lammermoor was going to be awesome.

Let's say you're a young woman of good family in the early nineteenth century. You're grieving your mother's recent death, and your family is on shaky political ground. You've met a dude named Edgardo who looks like an Oompa-Loompa but sings like an angel, and you've been secretly confessing your love to each other despite the fact that your brother Enrico considers him your family's greatest enemy.

But your brother has Edgardo sent into exile and is pressuring you to marry some other dude named Arturo for political reasons. (He seems okay, but you're promised to Edgardo!) Your brother even has a letter from Edgardo (a forgery) saying he's already betrayed you. Enrico threatens to curse you forever if you don't make the marriage to save his life.

So you reluctantly agree. And then! Edgardo bursts in on your wedding day, just after you have signed the contract, and curses you anways! You can't win! What on earth do you do next?

If you're Lucia, you go brilliantly, spectacularly insane -- kill your brand-new husband, strip off your bloody wedding gown in front of a stage full of horrified guests, and slit your own wrists while the audience gasps in shock.

It's almost a proto-feminist narrative, in the way it depicts the ruin of one woman's life as a catastrophic failure on the part of the men who love her. Neither Edgardo nor Enrico are particularly heroic in this story. They're childish and stubborn and it is clear they let Lucia down.

And then Edgardo stabs himself with a stiletto when he learns of Lucia's death. So we as an audience forgive him. The brother stays offstage and goes unpunished, which is disappointing, though presumably his life is pretty near ruined by the whole thing. Take that, you selfish bastard.

The staging was simply luscious. The costumes! And the set! Why stop at one spiral staircase when you can have two?

Decadence, thy name is two spiral staircases.

Everybody Loves a Villainness

When I was younger, my very favorite Halloween costume -- which I wore two years running -- was an Egyptian pharaoh outfit. It was a white robe with a huge sequined gold collar, matching headband, and gold sandals. I drew heavy black lines around my eyes and wore all the jewelry my mom had with turquoise in it. I felt amazing.

Looking back with grown-up eyes, it's clear I was borrowing this feeling from Anne Baxter's sizzling Nefretiri in Selznick's The Ten Commandments. Baxter smoulders around the Egyptian palace in clingy silks and lusts after Charleton Heston's Moses. She is loyal to those she loves. She is outspoken about how she feels. She might in fact be a little evil. If you really make trouble for her, she will push you right off a building.

She is awesomesauce.

Years later, I discovered another film: All About Eve. The young ingenue (who eventually turns out to be EVIL) was naggingly familiar. She spends most of the film being so sweet and self-effacing that it makes your eyeballs hurt, and only Bette Davis is suspicious of such a paragon. And then, in the span of one scene, she morphs into a figure of such naked ambition and malice that the viewer gets the kind of existential vertigo normally only experienced by astronauts looking back down at a distant Earth.

But why was her face so familiar?

Finally, the shoe dropped: Anne Baxter!

There she is with George Sanders, who plays the venomous film critic Addison DeWitt (swoon!) and who is also the voice for Shere Khan in the old animated Jungle Book.

In both films, the Baxter character is ambitious and opinionated. She lusts after a good man (Moses/Bill) but winds up with an evil man (Ramses/Addison). She plays by nobody's rules except her own.

I want so badly to figure out how to give her the happy ending she deserves.

Real Heroines Wear Bustiers

Some things I've discovered while re-watching episodes of She-Ra (thanks, Hulu!):

  • She-Ra doesn't start out on the side of good. She's a Force Captain for the Horde. And then she learns how the Horde really treats the people of Eternia, and she doesn't like it. So she turns rebel. This is a pretty awesome character arc for an eighties heroine.
  • He-Man sounds a lot like Adam West.
  • Maybe it's that I'm an erotic romance author currently editing an erotic romance manuscript, but -- there are a lot of things in this cartoon that look like a penis. Swords, of course. Certain cartoon plants. That giant roaring thing on Beast Island with the mushroom head. He-Man's haircut totally looks like a penis.
  • What is it about space operas and the idea of rebellion as a moral good? Is it because of the way Star Wars made us feel before Lucas joined the Dark Side under Palpatine?
  • She-Ra has a horse, Spirit, who becomes a flying unicorn named Swiftwind. This is awesome. Unfortunately, Swiftwind also speaks in a deep manly voice, which is kinda creepy.
  • I don't care what the mythology says: we all know She-Ra and He-Man should be a couple.
  • The Horde's great weapon in episode three is powered by "the energy of willpower." Come on.
  • Pantslessness is very much the norm on Etheria.
  • He-Man's sword magic is unleashed "by the power of Greyskull," while She-Ra's is "by the honor of Greyskull." This is irksome. Men always have power, and women are stuck with honor, or its synonym: reputation. Men are praised for what they do (objective standards), and women for what how they seem to others (subjective standards). If they were uncomfortable giving power to the show's female lead, couldn't they at least have gone with something less obviously gendered? Courage, perhaps? Or justice? Sigh . . . I wish eighties culture didn't let me down so often in retrospect.