Apr 16 2013
Avon’s publication of Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan in 2007 sparked quite a conflagration online. Campbell’s unapologetic use of captivity and sexual force generated a great deal of discussion and controversy, some of which is captured nicely in Sarah Wendell’s review and its attendant comments. Many readers characterized the book like Mala Bhattacharjee does, as part of a cohort of books that demonstrate what she calls the “misogynist underpinnings of forced seduction romance”:
The argument one could make, of course, is that female characters have sexual agency in all of these books. They like being treated poorly (i.e. “challenged”) and told what to do as long as they get off and get their Happy Ever After. But that’s no different from old-school forced-seduction, than the sexual revolution happening on the page long before Kristen Ashley starting burning up the Amazon charts. It didn’t matter if a heroine got roofied and locked in a trunk or kidnapped and tied up in a wigwam, she always had an orgasm. The highly questionable, but tried-and-true, “No, no, no…yes!”
As I have argued elsewhere, I think Romance’s persistent interest in, representation of, and variation on the rape fantasy is extremely complex, and one of my principle objections to classifying forced seduction in the genre as anti-feminist or misogynistic or the like is that such characterizations can easily (if unintentionally) impugn and shame those readers who enjoy rape fantasy (and research consistently shows that the percentage of women said to enjoy this sexual fantasy exceed 50%, so it’s hardly an insignificant number, as the popularity of 50 Shades now hopefully demonstrates). Sexual fantasies themselves implicate diverse issues and interactions, and novels focused on romantic love and sex seem a very logical place to symbolically represent and reflect on some of them.
That said, the narrative use of sexual force in genre Romance is problematic, precisely because it evokes and invokes real life sexual assault, even if it’s only to romantically differentiate the fictional device from real life rape. I think it’s impossible to convincingly argue that there is no relationship between the two, because so much of the emotional and sexual power of the forced seduction comes precisely from the sense of vulnerability it calls upon and generates in the reader, which, in turn, comes at least in part from the physical and sexual vulnerability women so often experience in real life.
Generally speaking, sexual force scenarios between the hero and heroine in Romance (I am going to make this distinction because the genre makes use of sexual force in various capacities, and I want to focus on its presence in the central romantic relationship) are a form of captivity. Indeed, they are often contextualized within a formal captivity scenario, as in Claiming the Courtesan, where the courtesan in question, Soraya (aka Verity Ashton) is kidnapped by Justin, the Duke of Kylemore, after he finds that she has left London with no plans to return, either to the city or to him. Kylemore needs a wife, and has decided that Soraya/Verity would be the perfect choice, while Verity desires a quiet life of independence and chastity. Justin finds Verity and takes her forcibly to his family estate in Scotland, determined to convince her that they would make the perfect couple.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of simply trying to force her into sexual and legal submission as his wife, Justin attempts to convince Verity that she is denying her own power by running away:
“Soroya is you. Soroya’s innate sensuality and sense of adventure are also yours. Verity is sweet and virtuous and Soroya is a woman who goes after what she wants without regret or fear. Those two women unite in you. Until you recognize that, you’re no use to me or yourself.”
So Justin forcibly captures Verity, forces himself on her sexually (“Anything you take, you take as a thief,” she tells him), and then tries to get her to “submit” to the idea that she is actually a strong, independent woman. Whether that is a paradox or a contradiction may depend on the extent to which the reader identifies with the fantasy of sexual submission, but it is definitely a twisty strip of logic: in one sense Justin seems to be ironically giving Verity permission to have individual agency, but in another, his own sense of happiness seems to depend on her sense of independence. That is, he decided he wanted to marry her when she was a courtesan and, by definition, not “his.” Yet to make her “his,” she will no longer be free to choose another man, even though it is that independent, even rebellious spirit Justin falls in love with.
On the surface, at least, Claiming the Courtesan seems to reinforce rather than subvert the more socially conservative aspects of genre Romance. Critics like Emily Haddad argue that in the captivity device “[b]ondage gives way to bonding,” while “the structure of captivity remains, transmogrified as marriage” (“Bound to Love: Captivity in Harlequin Sheikh Novels,” in Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-first Century Views of Popular Romance Novels, p. 45). This reading seems to align with the dominant reading of the Indian captivity narrative – that is, the values of the captive’s home culture are ideally reinforced by the captor’s “savagery,” and re-committed to by the captive’s return home and the community’s witnessing of the experience through the narrative.
The problem with this reading is that it ignores the fact that in these moments of force, there is an opening created – perhaps only a momentary suspension of normalcy – both in the narrative and in the story the narrative relates, during which things happen that are not so easily controlled or controllable. In the Indian captivity narrative, you see this when a woman like Mary Jemison decides to make her home with the Seneca and regards anyone sent to redeem her as more captor than those who originally took her from her colonial home. You see it in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she brings readers into the daily intimacies of a Narragansett village to vicariously experience those aspects of Narragansett life that are so closely analogous to their own: her master’s gossipy wife; the need to make and mend socks and clothes; the kindness of another woman who lets Rowlandson sleep in her wigwam; the careful preparation and communal partaking of meals, etc. It’s as if the narrative is forced open at these points, too, giving the reader a way into a new experience or a new way of seeing things, building that bridge of sympathy necessary for emotional investment in the story and the ultimate fate of the characters.
Captivity narratives are, of course, predicated on a kind of force, not just the physical force of the captivity itself, but a kind of cross-cultural force, as well, as both the captive and the reader are, theoretically, at least, invited into a space of cultural “Otherness.” Now, as I’ve noted a number of times, there are many, many problematic aspects of these narratives (their colonialist, imperialist, hegemonic, patriarchal, etc. agendas). But as I’ve also noted, I don’t think those agendas are what secured the popularity of these narratives; rather, I think it’s these moments where both the experience of the captive and the narrative itself becomes open – even temporarily – to the experience of this “Otherness,” and to the potential for subversion, even if it is not ultimately realized. It is, I think, the same logic that made sensationalistic novels like The Coquette so appealing to the same readers who also enjoyed the more domesticated offerings of sentimental fiction.
And I am arguing that this logic holds for the way genre Romance utilizes the captivity narrative, as well, with personal and gender politics functioning in place of, or in addition to, what we more narrowly think of as cross-cultural politics. In Claiming the Courtesan, for example, Verity’s captivity opens up a place in which she and Justin have their superficial personas stripped away, so they can discover and get to know each other on a deeper, more “real” level:
“You owe me nothing. You were right to call me a thief.” His tone grated as he made the difficult confession. He looked away into the shadowy corner and spoke in a voice that was dull with hard-held self-restraint. “I’ve given up revenge. I’ve given up forcing you. I’ve given up asking anything of you at all.”
She leaned over him, releasing another tantalizing eddy of scent, subtle rose soap and woman. “You talk too much,” she whispered. “Where’s my ferocious lover gone? Where’s the demon Duke of Kylemore?”
He whipped his head around. Unbelievably, she still smiled. His hands fisted in the sheets as he battled the urge to grab her.
She was so close that he felt her warmth. But his sins against her exiled him forever to an icy hell.
“Stop it,” he snarled. “Listen to me! I’ve set you free.”
Her presence was sheerest torment.
He thought he’d die if she left him alone.
He spoke on a surge of self-hatred. “I should never have started this cruel nonsense in the first place.”
“It’s too late for regrets,” she said softly.
Too late to redeem himself and become worthy of her, certainly. There was a universe of sorrow in the thought.
His mind rehearsed the endless litany. He should never have hunted her down at Whitby. He should never have forced her into his carriage—at gunpoint, he recalled with corrosive shame. He should never have bullied her into his bed.
Although without the abduction, he’d never have really known her. He’d go through hellfire itself before he forsook that privilege.
But she, not you, went through hellfire. She almost lost her life yesterday.
“I’m letting you go.” His voice shook with desperation.
“Are you?” she asked idly.
After her long struggle to escape him, he’d have expected her to sound more than merely interested when he granted her freedom.
. . .
She bent closer, and he heard her shaky inhalation before she spoke. “I think…” She hesitated, then continued in a rush. “I think that’s why I can be here with you now.”
In some ways this exchange is very clichéd, but it’s also indicative to me of why books like these generate so much reader heat: namely, that they ride the line between the submission of both the hero and the heroine to traditional gender roles and social expectations and an authentically transformative experience for the individual protagonists that creates a new, different, hybrid space for them. Even in cases where the norms are not subverted, the moment(s) of disruption remain. In Claiming the Courtesan, for example, the second part of the novel is downright traditional sedate, compared to the first, but it is very difficult to forget the points of narrative and inter-character violence that occurred along the way.
To some degree this brings us back to the tensions between the individual and the institution, and to the way Romance grapples with this tension over and over and over. On an individual level, for example, Verity – through her captivity – learns to embrace her sexuality and her sense of sexual freedom without shame. But institutionally, she only does so long enough to bind herself in marriage to Justin. Similarly, Justin learns that he cannot make a woman submit to his love, but this lesson comes with the social power and rewards of a ducal marriage. Within the straight Western social norm that dominates both the traditional captivity narrative and the genre Romance novel, it’s basically the performance of a central, historically persistent drama in which so many women are still caught up: how does one willingly participate in the social institution of marriage and family while still retaining a sense of personal autonomy and social independence?
And so often in real life, unlike romantic fiction, those moments of transformation don’t happen, and the changes one might wish on a partner do not come to pass, nor the greater happiness such change seemed to promise. Which is another reason I think these particularly melodramatic narratives are so controversial and popular at the same time. Re-reading Loretta Chase’s Lord of the Scoundrels last week reminded me how incredibly over the top and dramatic the book is, from Dain’s hysteria (including psychogenic paralysis), to what Dain describes as Jess’s Lady Macbeth moment when she point blank shoots him, to the dramatic recitations of Italian and Dain’s irrational fear that he’s going to tear poor Jess in half when he finally consummates their marriage. As I was reading, I was many times reminded of Linda Howard’s Dream Man, where the book’s hero, Dane, experiences a hysterical pregnancy (not to mention the many OTT moments in Howard’s novels). Would either of those heroes have changed for the better (and the happier) without the “trauma” of love forced upon them?
Many readers mention Chase as an author whose books challenge traditional gender roles and expectations, but I’m not convinced that’s what makes Lord of Scoundrels such a classic to Romance readers. In various ways and from different angles, genre Romance novels ask and try to answer some fundamental questions about how one balances individual desires and social obligations, autonomy and accountability, freedom and service. So here’s the question I want to look more closely at via some of the genre’s more popularly controversial books: are those novels that seem most progressive any more subversive of social norms than those that seem most overtly traditional? Or, stated a different way, are those novels that seem most traditional incapable of effecting subversion of social norms?