Apr 23 2013
Last week I discussed the device of forced seduction as part of the literary legacy of North American captivity narratives on genre Romance. As I’ve noted several times during this series, I think that the genre as it has developed in America, at least (and I would include a good deal of Harlequin’s offerings in this, even though Harlequin/Mills and Boon, as a publisher, has what I think of as a more international character) is reflective of American and British cultural and historical (patriarchal) norms. Reading Merrian Weymouth’s fascinating post on captivity and the history of Australia reinforced my perception of genre Romance as very much an Anglo-American invention, even as it draws on a rich and long history of literary and cultural influences.
This week I want to focus on the way Romance also utilizes the cross-cultural aspects of captivity narratives – sometimes in concert with forced seduction, as in The Sheik – as a way to emphasize and perhaps re-imagine the love union as one that can serve as a model for social change and cultural (including racial) hybridization that results in a more inclusive, egalitarian community.
There are a number of ways in which genre Romance re-enacts the captivity narrative, some of which have evolved into their own subgenres – sheik and Native American-themed Romances, for example – and others that make use of subgenres like SF/F and paranormal Romance. Although the characterizations of cultural difference in these novels can oftentimes be very problematic – fetishizing via the erotic-exotic, stereotypical, etc. – they can also be aspirational, in the sense of challenging social norms of patriarchy, cultural hierarchies, and autonomy/authority based on social status. Although the complexity and success of this venture varies widely, I think some of the more potentially subversive elements of the genre (in terms of social norms) come sharply into relief in these narrative contexts.
Before I go on, I want to note a couple of things: first, in these narratives, cultural diversity and hybridization are viewed as positive values (another way in which I see Romance rooted in an Anglo-American cultural context). Consequently, these narrative involve a certain level of cultural appropriation for the purpose of investigating alternative cultural and social realities, which themselves are not necessarily grounded in an authentically realized portrayal. But given the way women socialized within a Western, patriarchal, primarily white paradigm often have simultaneous positions of privilege and marginalization, I think the transcultural space so often created in these types of Romance narratives is a logical, but not unproblematic, extension of that insider-outsider tension.
Take Louise Allen’s Harlequin Historical novel, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, for example. One of the most straightforward challenges to the “civilized v savage” dynamics that exists, not only in the North American captivity narratives, but in many other cultural contexts, Allen’s story is set in Ancient Rome, where the Romans become the reactionary barbarians, and the Visigoths the civilized progressives. Although the reversal is rather unsubtle, the intention is clear: the Visigoth warrior Wulfric captures the wealthy, privileged Julia Livia Rufa, who becomes liberated through her captivity from a life of social and cultural limitations she did not even recognize until she lives among the egalitarian-minded Goths.
All of Julia’s wealth and social privilege as a Roman did not give her the kind of autonomy and personal agency she has with Wulfric, and her realization makes her want to create a new kind of reality with him, one that blends the best of her Roman and his Goth customs. Wulfric tells Julia that he wants to settle in Gaul to “’learn to live with my Roman neighbors.’” Flipping the social script, Allen grounds notions of civilization and barbarism in human nature, rather than cultural difference. Julia sees in Wulfric a man who is “like his wolf, domesticated until roused, then a killer,” while Wulfric compares Julia to “an exotic animal, half-tame, half-wild.” Although highly idealized and somewhat simplistic in its reversal of the old captivity ideology, (which, does, of course, wind through the history of Rome), Allen’s novel also very bluntly sets the agenda for the transcultural union as one that can represent and initiate transformative, egalitarian social evolution.
Although sheik Romances often seem to be either loved or hated en mass, there is actually quite a bit of diversity within the subgenre. Certainly some of these novels perpetuate the exotic-erotic stereotype of “Otherness,” and some even utilize that sense of cultural difference to reinforce Western (often white) values [note: this is a great introduction to race formation theory, which shows race, as we often use the construct, to be artificial rather than genetically or even phenotypically based]. You see some of that in The Sheik, for example, with Ahmed’s European ancestry.
However, take a novel like Michelle Reid’s The Sheik’s Chosen Wife, in which Hassan engages an elaborate plan to kidnap his estranged wife, Leona. Initially, the novel lets you believe that Hassan has completely nefarious motives in taking Leona captive, and it is only after they are together on his yacht that we discover that Leona left Hassan because, after a couple of years of marriage and no pregnancy, she feared she could not give him a child, let alone a son. Hassan is in a difficult position politically, because many of his region’s elders are traditional, and they want Hassan to take a second wife so he can have a son and heir. Hassan, an Arab Muslim, is a progressive who respects the traditionalism of the elders. His own behavior mirrors this tension, as he employs a rather reactionary strategy to convince Leona, a white Englishwoman, that he still wants to be married to her and only her, regardless of the eventuality of a child.
It is a difficult balance that Reid tries to maintain, and one she reflects in Hassan’s own political and personal struggles, making it clear that he values the old traditions, but that he also sees the need for change, and he is trying to negotiate between these forces. Leona, for her part, has not merely left Hassan because she feels she’s “failed” him (her word, which he strongly objects to), but because she cannot stand the idea of him taking a second wife. The book plays out these tensions, trying not to fall too far over on one side or the other. What happens to the hereditary monarchy if Leona and Hassan cannot bear a son? What happens to their marriage if Hassan cannot deliver on his familial and political duties?
This dilemma is one the book takes seriously, and while it is an idealized, semi-fictional cultural space that Reid creates (although she identifies Hassan as an Arab Muslim from the Persian Gulf region, the country is fictitious), it is one that shows earnest respect for cultural differences, without levying judgment on either side. Even the book’s resolution is somewhat ambiguous, in the way it reinforces traditional norms in both Hassan and Leona’s cultural contexts.
What is interesting to me about Reid’s novel is that it overtly grapples with how to balance competing, even sometimes mutually exclusive social responsibilities and cultural values, without sacrificing the individual desires, which, I’ve argued before, is a hallmark genre trait. I see Reid’s novel as doing some of that symbolic work, but trying to do it in a somewhat realistic way, even though the setting is not fully real.
The tension between realism – making something appear real – and reality – something as it is in actual fact – is part of what makes Romance so powerful and so problematic at the same time. On the one hand, there is an aspirational quality to Romance, whereby a level of individual autonomy is given to people who, in the social reality of their time, may not have had so much latitude. This is where you see the more idealistic and progressive elements of the genre working (and the remnants of Classical Comedy, which used love and marriage to represent forward-moving social change). And yet, through this idealization, historical and social realities can be erased or whitewashed in such a way as to appear to reproduce social privilege (especially if one does not share the social vision of the novel’s happy ending). This tension tracks parallel to the social norming tensions, because so often these questions of social privilege are simultaneously questions about status and about the extent to which one has the freedom to discount or buck social and cultural norms.
In Bound and Determined, literary critic Christopher Castiglia, writing about captivity narratives, captures something I think is also essential to amatory fiction, sentimental and sensational fiction, genre Romance, and other female-authored genres that are centered on experiences of women:
As it evolved from a religious document of the seventeenth to a feminist plot of the twentieth century, the captivity narrative allowed women authors to create a symbolic economy through which to express dissatisfaction with the roles traditionally offered white women in America, and to reimagine those roles and the narratives that normalize them, giving rise ultimately to a new female subject and to the female audience on which she relies.
Take Julia Livia Rufa, for example, who, upon capture, laments that “[f]or the first time in her life . . . her status meant nothing,” and therefore, she must learn to embrace and recognize a different type of value for herself, one based on her individual accomplishments and characteristics, rather than the circumstances of her birth. Or, as an even more drastic case, Lara from Elizabeth Vaughan’s Warprize, who is given by her brother – the king of her people — as tribute (warprize) to a tribal warlord with whom they are at war, in exchange for peace. Lara, a trained healer, has been told by her brother that she is going to be a slave to the warlord, and when he carries her away to his people, she is convinced that she will be raped and punished as the warlord’s property. She is no longer called by her own name, but only “warprize,” and she is guarded everywhere she goes and prohibited from taking any food or drink from someone other than Keir.
What Lara does not know, until somewhat late in the novel, is that the difference between being a warprize and a slave is vast:
“Lara, a true warprize is a rare thing. We value them, for our people have found that the warprize brings a new way of thinking, of doing things. It makes us better, stronger, when we are exposed to new ways and new ideas. You cannot fake a true warprize, nor pick one, nor force one. They happen maybe once in five generations, and we see it as a benediction from the elements themselves, even for the upheaval that they bring.”
“Our people started as tribes, tribes based on our totem animals. Keir is of the Cat; Simus is of the Hawk, as am I. There was a time when the tribes fought among themselves. It was the first warprize, long ago, that created that change, that united the tribes.”
But because we experience most of the novel through Lara’s eyes, we see her confusion over the care Keir’s people take of her, and the protections she must have as such a valuable person in the tribe. Essentially, she represents the tribe’s future, because she brings more diversity to the group and therefore change: “‘Your presence in our camp is a gift to your people and our people, and we acknowledge that gift.’” She wears bracelets that she assumes are symbols of her slavery, wondering initially where the chains are, even though the bracelets are gifts from Keir, symbolic of their prospective union. Also note that her influence is not based in her ability to have a child, but rather in the change she represents through the difference perspectives she brings to the tribe. At the same time, her perspective does not dominate or colonize; rather, the mixture of new and traditional creates a kind of synergistic cultural effect, a transformative impulse that will create something more inclusive, more diverse, and more resilient.
Lara, however, interprets these gestures of respect as indications of her status as chattel, and finds herself continuously baffled by Keir’s unwillingness to sexually claim her. Once Keir finds out that she is a virgin, and that her own cultural customs value chastity for both men and women (which his own tribe perceives to be completely backward), he decides to wait until he can win her trust and affection. But because there is no discussion of this – nor does Keir know what Lara’s brother told her – he believes that she understands her position among his people, while she alternately lives in fear that he will take her by force and wonders if he is not satisfied with her (thus making her fail in her duty to her own people, as well as Keir’s).
In some ways, Warprize is closest to some of the North American captivity narratives, especially those featuring nations of the Iroquois confederacy, where a captive could be adopted to replace a fallen tribal member, receiving all the respect and goods that individual had in life. The Firelanders, as Keir’s people are called, are perceived as uncivilized by the Xy, Lara’s people. In fact, the first Firelander she sees is a black-skinned man, and she initially thinks of the myths she has heard, that the Firelanders are “blue, red, and black, and belch fire from their mouths.” The racial diversity of the Firelanders (although the book does not strictly identify these differences as racial) is fully normalized among the Firelanders, but not the Xy.
Lara, like many women who serve as the subjects of North American captivity narratives, possesses an insider-outsider status among her own people. She is a princess, and therefore socially privileged, but she is also a healer by choice, something her family frowns on, and which makes her almost a pariah to some of the royal family (especially her brother). And while she has more freedom among the Firelanders, life is also quite difficult, because in addition to the complex politics in such a diverse confederacy of now-united tribes, there are also ongoing attacks from the Xy, despite the formal treaty. The triumph of love between Keir and Lara is not a victory for the Firelanders, whose need to evolve and thrive is constantly challenged by natural and man-made enemies. Still, it is the strength of the bond between Keir and Lara, and the promise of a better future, that grounds the Firelanders and the series as a whole, engaging the reader’s hope for a better way of life, one that is more egalitarian and inclusive.
In each of the books I’ve discussed here, there is also an element of force that precipitates the necessary change for the heroine. On one level, there is a violation of her person (in Warlord, it is more Lara’s brother who fills that role, but still a male figure). Change, in other words, is preceded by violence, and in each case, the reader is in almost as much suspense as the heroine as to nature of her new circumstances, inviting the reader to break — even temporarily — with her own expectations as she follows the journey of the heroine.
Next week, as I move on to some of the books I’m classifying as Extreme Romance, I want to return to these themes of force and cultural hybridity, but in less direct, less literal ways.
In the meantime, it would be great if you could share any romantic captivity stories that did or did not work for you as idealized narratives of social change, represented by the couple’s romantic union and happiness.