J is for Eloisa James

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here!} I knew when I started reading that Eloisa James' The Duke is Mine takes its inspiration from the Princess and the Pea, but halfway into the second chapter I was getting irresistible literary flashes of quite another story. (If the comment thread from the Dear Author review is anything to go by, I'm not alone in suspecting this text of being allusive even when I don't immediately recognize the references.) So I stopped, put the book down, grabbed my handy annotated copy of Through the Looking-Glassand had myself a quick re-read to look for connections.

Cover image for The Duke is Mine by Eloisa James. A pale-skinned woman with dark hair and a gold gown rucked up around her knees lounges back on a pile of mattresses that extend to the bottom edge of the cover. The mattresses have a variety of multicolored patterns.Building elaborate bridges between texts is one of my favorite games -- as we saw with Jade Yeo -- and it was a lifeline here, since without a secondary structure to prop it up this book has all the heft and resilience of antique tissue paper in a hurricane. Reading it with Looking-Glass in mind gives the story more resonance but not more meaning, and does nothing to mitigate the exploitative way the text treats its disabled secondary character, Rupert Blakemore, Marquess of Montsurrey.

Like much of Lewis Carroll's work, The Duke is Mine is lively, full of wordplay, and often shockingly cruel. Brief moments of connection between the texts pop up on virtually every page: rabbits, madness, mazes, math, pompous moral maxims, nonsense, riddles, and a sense of the world as incomprehensible to those who inhabit it.  I'm no Carroll scholar (the intensity of the absurdity tires me out) and not all of these parallels are relevant to my project at the moment, so I will attempt to be concise. (Good luck, self.) Olivia Lytton is a grown-up Alice: she delights in wordplay for wordplay's sake, she refuses to be intimidated by those in power, and she frequently has poetry recited at her. After she crosses into the mirror world, Alice's goal as a pawn is to cross the chess-board and be queened; similarly, Olivia has been "duchified" (James, Kindle location 147) in preparation for her to assume the position of duchess, which is explicitly equated with royalty: "a coronet was as good as a crown" (38). The proper instrument of transformation, according to Olivia's mother, is a book known as The Mirror of Compliments:

"'Dignity, virtue, affability, and bearing,'" Mrs. Lytton recited over and over, turning it into a nursery rhyme.

Georgiana would glance at the glass, checking her dignified bearing and affable expression.

Olivia would sing back to her mother: "Debility, vanity, absurdity, and ... brainlessness!" (176)

This kind of word-twisting is highly reminiscent of the Looking-Glass world, whether it's the Gnat's animal puns (Carroll 149-152) or Humpty-Dumpty's nonsense etymologies (184-189). Carroll's use of madness as metaphor is universalizing and inclusive, e.g. "We're all mad here," though admittedly that's from Wonderland rather than Looking-Glass. There's a sense that everyone in the Looking-Glass world is susceptible to madness, with different symptoms from different people at different times. Alice, for instance, forgets her name in one chapter, and while this is a source of some anxiety it is not considered a stain on her character, merely an effect of the peculiar Looking-Glass landscape. In contrast, Ms. James' text makes intellectual ability a moral value rather than a simple descriptor or a function of an otherworldly geography. Antagonists are frequently brainless (Lady Althea) or else they mistake self-importance for wisdom (the Duchess of Sconce, Lady Cecily). On the 'heroic' side, Olivia has her gift for witty banter, her twin Georgiana is a keen would-be scientist, and hero Quin is a mathematical genius. Meanwhile, Olivia's fiancé Rupert is reviled and belittled and pitied and scorned for his mental disability -- until he turns out to have a flair for military strategy, whereupon he is hailed as a national hero. (More on this later.)

The way Rupert's disability is treated in this book is shameful on so many levels that it took my breath away. There is absolutely zero narrative purpose to the early scene where Olivia and Rupert are forced to attempt a consummation of their betrothal -- no, let me use language more frank: Olivia and Rupert are forced to try to fuck one another for the social satisfaction of their parents. It does not go well, and the best thing I can say about this scene is that at least there is no penetration. I am not against uncomfortable elements in romance -- if anything, I think the genre could do with a little messification. I just want my discomfort to have a purpose in the story: consequences for plot or for character. The only purpose in this scene, however, appears to be Look how unpleasant sex with this person could be. Which ... doesn't really need spelling out at such length or so grotesquely. Rupert doesn't have to have his limp penis in his hand for us to know that he's the wrong partner for Olivia. The significant poem Rupert recites during this passage could have been delivered in any number of less appalling ways. Quin later calls this a "double rape" (James 4490) and he is absolutely correct. It made me feel complicit in a crime just by reading it, and I expected better from a writer whose work I have long admired for its intelligence and liveliness. But apparently this kind of rank humiliation of major characters does nothing to tarnish a story, as Ms. James has given her own book five stars on Goodreads.

Eloisa James gives her own book five stars on Goodreads.

Rupert's disability is frequently described in terms of eggs: he is more "akin to a duck" than a duke (623), a very Looking-Glass pun; his mind is "more scrambled than an egg custard" (2787); he lacks "a full twelve eggs to the dozen" (3719); he is a "poor scrambled egg" (5830). This metaphor combined with his love of poetry and obsession with military glory is more than enough to connect him with Carroll's Humpty Dumpty -- a connection I wish I'd thought about a little more deeply while reading, since it might have prepared me for -- SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- the bit where Rupert dies. Just like Humpty he has fallen from a wall, or rather the "battlements" (5754) of a Spanish fort, and he lingers only long enough to provide Olivia and Quin with an excuse to rush off to wartime France (?!?!?!) and indulge in some self-involved, mawkish sentiment.

The more I think about Rupert's death, the angrier it makes me. It's positioned at the climax of a series of narrative moves that make Rupert increasingly romanticized and heroic as a military leader -- moves which, in retrospect, were clearly designed to elicit my sympathy so that I would be all the more hurt by Rupert's demise. The fact that it worked, that I was devastated by Rupert's death, should not I think be counted a success. It is in fact the laziest, cheapest kind of emotional manupulation: this is precisely the pattern I hate about Nicholas Sparks' non-romance novels, and I don't like it any better for appearing here.

One of Rupert's men says he was "Babbling of green fields" (5680), and the Falstaff reference completes Rupert's transformation from Humpty Dumpty into Carroll's White Knight, with his "gentle face and large mild eyes" and talk of a "glorious victory" (Carroll 207) and, of course, his love of poetry. Humpty Dumpty is pompous and sharp-tongued, but the White Knight is a figure of elegy and pity; a sweet and noble type despite his lack of intellect. This transformation is, I think, meant to show how Olivia's initial disdain for Rupert has softened into respect and friendly affection -- but it is entirely meaningless, since she is softening toward Rupert's glorious reputation, rather than Rupert himself, who has been away on the Continent for most of the book.

Rupert's death also rather too neatly absolves Olivia from the responsibility for breaking off their engagement: she's never forced by the narrative to account for her less-than-loyal actions and speak in their defense or apology; she never has to deal with what Rupert feels as a human being. It's a betrayal of the narrative's original promises of tension -- just like it's too convenient that Georgie decides she doesn't want to marry Quin even though she's initially quite taken with the idea. By the time we hear of Rupert's injuries, Olivia and Quin have decided that all the reasons they shouldn't be together don't matter anyways, so Rupert's death feels cruel and unnecessary and becomes little more than an afterthought on the page: Quin, sitting at Rupert's deathbed, is so occupied thinking about his love for Olivia that he barely notices the moment Rupert stops breathing. I know many reviewers hate the heroine of this novel for being heartless and/or boinking literally the first man she meets after signing the betrothal papers, but I thought Quin's utter self-absorption in the face of a fellow man's death was a gobsmacking piece of selfishness.

Horribly, this death was imagined by Olivia and her twin in the early pages of the novel, in one of the most callous passages I've ever seen uttered by a heroine: "'Foolish fiancés are often killed on the battlefield,' Olivia pointed out. 'I think the term is "cannon fodder" ... I would be sad,' Olivia protested. 'I think'" (289). This kind of casual indifference to death is common in the absurdist worlds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass, but it's breathtakingly jarring in a historical romance, even a wallpaper one. The fact of Rupert's eventual death turns this macabre early joke into a prophecy.

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As we saw with Sandra Hill's book at the start of this week, it's profoundly dehumanizing to turn experiences of secondary characters' oppression into a metaphor for your privileged hero and heroine. It's equally dehumanizing to kill off a disabled character for the sake of an able-bodied protagonist's emotional journey. TVTropes calls it Bury Your Disabled, and it reduces the disabled person to the level of a prop for abled characters' development or convenience. I really feel angered to have to lay this out plainly for a professor of literature in the year 2014. It's especially frustrating in light of the fact that Rupert's own story, of which we see hints, looks fascinating: he has led a band of misfit soldiers, several of whom are also disabled in various ways, into an unlikely and significant victory. This is a tale that would be worth the telling, a historical heist with a diverse cast and a unique plot. Instead, we are left with the old cliché of the Inspirationally Disadvantaged character, and his death becomes deeply, distressingly fetishized:

Rupert was buried with honors: not in the family tomb, but in Westminster Abbey, as befitted an English hero who trailed clouds of glory. His place was marked by a very simple marble tablet engraved with his name and a fragment of an odd poem.

A few years later, a young poet named Keats stood puzzling over the inscription one long afternoon. Sometime after that, a middle-aged poet named Auden found himself fascinated by it for a whole week. Fifty years later, an erudite dissertation discussed the complexities of fragmentation ... but that was all in the future, a puzzle that lay ahead for those interested in twists of language. (6867)

(I hate like fire the suspicion that the dissertation mentioned is Ms. James' own. Someone please correct me if there's a reference here I'm missing.)

Rupert's job in this alternate history of influence is not to be a great poet himself, but an inspiration of great poetry in able-bodied, able-minded men. Just like he is not to be a lover or a husband, but an object of pity and a lens to demonstrate the supposed noble nature of our hero and heroine. It was only at the end of the book that Ms. James brought attention to Rupert's middle names: Forrest G. There was a succession of swear words that erupted before I could get myself under control. Forrest Gump is not exactly an ideal representation of people with disabilities, but at least Forrest Gump fucking survives to the end of his own story.

We saw with Tessa Dare's Three Nights with a Scoundrel how having multiple disabled characters broadens the spectrum of representation. In theory we have multiple disabled characters in this book: in the afterward Ms. James identifies Quin as a character with "Aspergers-like" traits; I initially read this as "Asperger's-lite," and the Freudian slip turns out to be an accurate description of our hero's supposed condition. Quin has difficulty reading the emotions of others, we hear at the start -- but with Olivia, everything is magically clear. It's so simple! Problem solved! Disability conquered! Now if only he could rescue his wife from the garrison of French soldiers who've kidnapped her!

You heard me.

The last section of this novel veers off inexplicably into adventure-romance territory. I caught the Scarlet Pimpernel reference -- unlike French blockades, the Day Dream can't slip by me!-- but I did not understand its purpose as a climactic movement. It would barely be worth mentioning here, were it not for the bit with the mattresses, which I cannot bring myself to pass over sans comment. Olivia has been imprisoned in the garrison, where most of the soldiers are adoring young boys but one, Bessette, definitely has predatory intentions toward our heroine (you're not a real romance heroine unless someone's threatening to rape you, doncha know). So how do the young soldiers propose to defend Olivia? By putting her on top of a stack of fourteen mattresses in her cell.

You heard me.

The logic of this strategy absolutely requires quoting:

"We thought that it looked too much like a bed with just one or two mattresses."

"It is a bed."

"Yes, but if it looked like a bed, there was the chance that Bessette might decide to ..." He waved his hand, embarrassed. "You'd be there, you see, on a bed. But this way it is difficult to reach you."

"You are brilliant," Olivia said sincerely. (6447)

I am seized with quiet horror at the thought that, even in jest, someone believes that sexual predators can be thwarted by a giant-ass stack of mattresses.

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I have tried to form a coherent analysis of the mechanics of this novel, but that is hard to do when so many pieces of the narrative do not seem to fit with one another. This book reads as though the author is moving pieces around on a chessboard, making clever patterns and shapes that reference other stories (I spotted a few, including to my shame the Justin Bieber lyrics; Ms. James confirms many other allusions in her afterword). But none of those shapes seem to have anything to do with one another, making for a very shallow reading experience. And like Carroll's stories and poems, that cutting edge of cruelty at the expense of the vulnerable is never quite blunted.

Update: After I posted the above, Eloisa James has removed her own review of this book from Goodreads. 

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As I've mentioned before, Love in the Margins does excellent posts about disability in romance, among many other topics. There's also the Disability 101 series at great feminist site Shakesville, and this very illuminating Tumblr post from Shit Ableist's Say 

For a great breakdown of the many, many problems with framing narratives of disabled people as 'inspiration porn,' please enjoy "Kevin Grow and Disability as Inspiration" by s. e. smith from Disability Intersections.

___ James, Eloisa. The Duke is Mine. New York: Avon Books, 2011. Ebook.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. London: Penguin Books, 2009. Print book.