Mar 5 2013
Note: this is the third part of a series I’m doing on the current popularity of what I’m calling Extreme Romance Novels. Part One can be found here, and Part Two here. I do think the first two installments are best read in order, but you can easily start with this post and then go back, if you are so inclined.
When we talk about the origins of genre Romance, certain books consistently come up: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and even Wuthering Heights. As I noted last week, though, scholars like Pamela Regis draw the genre’s roots back even further, in part to the mid 18th C and books like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. And certainly, the 18th and 19th centuries saw a lot of books written in the sentimental and sensational modes, which took as their subjects the romantic adventures of young women. As I noted earlier, these books were read and discussed widely by women, who understood the importance of negotiating social rules, including (and perhaps especially) choosing as well as they could in marriage. Very broadly speaking, sentimental fiction provided them with a number of moral exemplars, while sensational fiction was a bit more off the rails. So if Samuel Richardson was writing books to give young women (and men) moral guidance, Hannah Webster Foster was writing The Coquette more as an example of what not to do.
But here’s the problem: whatever these authors and books intended – overtly or by implication – the texts often took on a much different life once they made their way through the public sphere of readers. Take Foster’s The Coquette, a story about a young woman (Eliza Wharton) who, given a choice between a somewhat sedate but stable and morally upright suitor and an exciting but wholly dissolute admirer, chooses the guy who excites and challenges her, which sets off a series of disastrous turns for Eliza, including unmarried pregnancy, miscarriage, financial destitution, disease, and, ultimately, death. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the choice Eliza makes –- for personal happiness above duty – comes from such a potent place, the reader can never really leave that behind for the boring but dutiful alternative, just as Eliza could not:
I recoil at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine me to the duties of domestic life, and make me dependent for happiness, perhaps too, for subsistence, upon a class of people, who will claim the right of scrutinising every part of my conduct; and by censuring those foibles, which I am conscious of not having prudence to avoid, may render me completely miserable. (Letter XIV)
It is difficult to read Foster’s novel without feeling sympathy for Eliza’s choice, and because the novel was written in 1797, real women were actively struggling with and debating these issues, thanks to Enlightenment theories of individual freedom, political shifts that gave American women, particularly, more political and economic mobility, and a growing number of women writing novels for other women, novels full of love, adventure, macabre elements, and plenty of melodrama – novels that were consistently slip-sliding between embracing limiting societal norms for women and shattering them completely. And the novels that were the most sensationalistic were often those that enjoyed the most popularity.
One of the most interesting things about looking at the history of women’s writing is the extent to which there have always been elements of social subversion developing alongside those of moral conformity. Take Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, for example, written in 1688, as the story of a white European woman traveling in Africa, recounting the experiences of an African prince who eventually becomes enslaved in Surinam. While the novel reinforces many blind prejudices a wealthy, white, European woman would have at the time, it also represents an interracial relationship, as well as figuring of Oroonoko as a clear romantic hero. Oroonoko is a story that represents the phenomenon I discussed in my last post, namely the simultaneous reinforcement and challenging (the hiding and revealing) of social norms. Behn’s work is part of the genre of “amatory fiction,” which, as its name implies, is a largely female-driven genre concerned with romantic love.
Behn’s work is important to genre Romance in many ways, only one of which is the theme of love in her work. A novel like Oroonoko sits at the crossroads of several genres, one of which is the captivity narrative, which itself has numerous subgenres. One of those is the so-called Indian captivity narrative, which I view as at least as important to the development of genre Romance as books like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Pamela.
Captivity narratives were to Colonial and post-Revolutionary America as Romance novels are to today’s reading public – massively popular bestsellers in Europe and America. They were attached to real estate pamphlets to attract new settlers to the colonies, went through multiple editions (Mary Jemison’s narrative, for example, went through more than 30 editions between the 1820s and the 1960s), and helped launch other genres, especially the Western and the sentimental novel. Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Indian captivity narrative, widely credited as the first of the genre, was outsold only by The Bible, and it might have been even more widely read.
Some of the most popular narratives feature white, female captives (or male captives, like Daniel Boone, who seemed to acclimate easily to indigenous societies) and Native American captors. The overt project of the narratives was largely to justify colonization, religious conversion, and expansion of the European territories. They are full of problematic images of indigenous nations as “savage” and “uncivilized.” The captive — especially the female captive, represented civilization and its vulnerability at the hands of the “savages,” but also its spiritual, cultural (and eventually racial) superiority. Captives were ideally ransomed or rescued back to their original society (Rowlandson), but some stayed and married within their adopted society (Jemison). Not all the narratives were based in fact, but the most popular were perceived to be authentic narratives, and the American colonies had a surprisingly difficult time keeping redeemed women and children from fleeing back to the indigenous people with whom they often spent months. Some captives were kept as political prisoners, some as adoptees to replace fallen members, and consequently their treatment varied, but in most of the narratives there is an acculturation process that occurs, often based on the pure necessity of survival, but sometimes based on sympathy and respect. Rowlandson, for example, goes from being repulsed by the food she is offered to finding it “savory” and “pleasant” (food – and all it represents — is a HUGE issue in these narratives, with lots of narrative being devoted to food preparation, type, and consumption). Jemison, who was adopted by the Seneca, recounts her escape from a white scout who was trying to “rescue” her from the tribe, and consistently refers to the Seneca as “our Indians” and to “the Americans” as people of a different (often enemy) nation.
For early Puritan narratives, it was very important that the female captive demonstrate that she was not sexually involved with her captors, either willingly or unwillingly. However, the most popular captivity narrative – measured by longevity and numbers of editions – is Mary Jemison’s. Her life, as represented in a narrative written down by a white male (many of these narratives were “edited,” either because – like Jemison – the captive could not read nor write English, or for informal “vetting” purposes), is full of hardship (she lost two Seneca husbands), but it has also become an iconic image of female captivity. Jemison’s editor, James Seaver, stubbornly tries to portray her in the sentimental tradition – she’s a good wife, a good mother, domestically focused and competent – while her narrative recounts endless acts of violence perpetrated on the Native American nations and myriad details that would be thoroughly “foreign” to the English or American housewife.
And that’s a huge part of the appeal for these narratives. Like Eliza Wharton, whose experiences would be radically different from – and undesirable for – the vast majority of readers, Rowlandson and Jemison and the hundreds of other female captives (some narratives with male captives, like Daniel Boone’s, served as foundational stories for genre Westerns), fictional and not, were incredibly appealing as characters. Check out this passage from Rowlandson’s narrative to see the mixing of familiar and unfamiliar references:
During my abode in this place, Philip spake to me to make a shirt for his boy, which I did, for which he gave me a shilling. I offered the money to my master, but he bade me keep it; and with it I bought a piece of horse flesh. Afterwards he asked me to make a cap for his boy, for which he invited me to dinner. I went, and he gave me a pancake, about as big as two fingers. It was made of parched wheat, beaten, and fried in bear’s grease, but I thought I never tasted pleasanter meat in my life. There was a squaw who spake to me to make a shirt for her sannup, for which she gave me a piece of bear. Another asked me to knit a pair of stockings, for which she gave me a quart of peas. I boiled my peas and bear together, and invited my master and mistress to dinner; but the proud gossip, because I served them both in one dish, would eat nothing, except one bit that he gave her upon the point of his knife.
The Philip she’s referring to is King Philip, as Rowlandson was captured in Massachusetts by the Narragansett in 1675 during King Philip’s War. She is primarily a political prisoner, but note the way she continues to talk about herself in domestic terms, even though she now has to use some different tools. One of my favorite parts of this passage is the bit where she insults her “mistress” for being a “proud gossip,” irritated and almost jealous-sounding that the woman would not eat the food she made. It’s remarkable how Rowlandson narrates this incident as if she were holding a nice dinner party for her neighbors, despite all of the references to her captivity. Also note the way Rowlandson relates a series of economic exchanges in which she participates, mingling what she would characterize as “civilized” and “uncivilized” resources. As much as Rowlandson wants to mark her difference from the Narragansett, she is also clearly chronicling her acclimation and acculturation – simultaneously rejecting and adopting what her narrative is superficially characterizing as “other.”
In Captivity and Sentiment, Michelle Burnham argues that “cultural exchange” in these captivity narratives “produces a supplement . . . the production of cultural difference,” which is represented, in the reader, by “the process of sympathy, which requires a crossing of the boundary between reader and text.” In other words, when the reader becomes sympathetic to the characters (ideally the captive, but other characters can inspire sympathy, as well), she becomes an interested and engaged observer, still separate from the action of the narrative, but connected to what’s happening through a sympathetic link with the characters and/or the story. This process should look very familiar to readers of genre Romance, who often judge the success of a novel by the extent to which they find the heroine and/or hero sympathetic.
Captivity narratives, while preceding sentimental and sensational fiction, were also published simultaneously with other genres of women-centric (and authored) writing, and critics like Nancy Armstrong (and me) see strong links between Indian captivity narratives and sentimental fiction (which, in turn, gives rise to genre Romance, among other literary types). As Armstrong points out,
. . . sentimental fiction borrowed from the following cluster of narrative ingredients from its New England cousins: 1) a long heroine whose self-determination and cultural value are under assault from members of a tribal culture, 2) an individual who manages to hang onto her values and identity by transcribing personal experiences under extreme circumstances, and 3) a written account that testifies to the captive’s unwavering desire to return to an English home. (373)
So is it any surprise that genre Romance loves the captivity device? Think about how Romance often puts the heroine through a trial of extreme circumstances, takes her out of her comfort place, disorients her and creates a sense of “otherness” with a different culture, part of society, or with the masculinity of the hero. Or just start with how many Romance novels contain a version of the captivity device: books by Judith McNaught, Judith Ivory, Mary Jo Putney, Anne Stuart, Susan Johnson, Sandra Brown, Cassie Edwards, Catherine Coulter, Julie Garwood, Linda Howard, Jo Goodman, Elizabeth Vaughan, J.R. Ward, Christina Dodd, Anna Campbell, Christine Monson – the list is just too long to enumerate. RT has compiled a list of forced seduction Romances, and readers on the Amazon forums have been compiling a list of m/m captivity Romances. From Erotic Romance to Paranormals Romance to Historical Romance to Romantic Suspense, and beyond, captivity is one of the most fundamental devices in the genre. Whether it’s sexual captivity (the forced seduction/rape fantasy), physical captivity (hostage/prisoner/protection), legal captivity (marriage of convenience, especially against the heroine’s will), meta captivity (BDSM play), or some other variation, the process by which one protagonist is often perceived to be held in captivity until she becomes captivated enough to fall in love with the captor-protagonist has become shorthand for drastically intensifying the emotional and physical power imbalances between the romantic protagonists and playing them out in a way that illustrates the tension between captivity and captivation, and the way love theoretically transforms the nature of the relationship to one based on free choice and mutual happiness.
In my next post I’m going to talk about the captivity device in Romance, especially as it intertwines these issues of cultural “otherness” with sexual and gender politics, beginning with Edith Hull’s 1919 novel, The Sheik, which I would argue is the first modern Romance novel. I’d also love it if you can think of any Romance novel titles that feature the captivity trope and note them in the comments.