Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Revisiting the Matter of Britain

I have vague memories of pop culture references to King Arthur and Sir Lancelot while I was growing up, but I first learned the basics about the legends in high school, when my English class read Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The teacher also told us about Thomas Malory's Mort d'Arthur, on which it was largely based, and some of the ways in which Tennyson departed from his source material.

I was hooked. In college, I took as many literature electives as a business major could manage to fit in and began reading some of the earlier medieval versions. For recreational reading, I devoured many of the modern retellings (some with a high medieval or fantasy setting, some firmly set in a realistic late-Roman-Britain setting). My favorites were those by authors who Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel and Sharan Newman's Guinevere trilogy. No matter how many times I read the story, however, I always knew going in that there would be no happily-ever-after.
leavened the tragedy with humor and had a firm understanding of the medieval source material. I am particularly fond of Thomas Berger's

I got away from the Matter of Britain for a number of years, largely because the pressures of post-college life led me to want a happy ending in my recreational reading. My interest in Arthurian stories was re-kindled by a trip I took to Glastonbury last summer. I climbed the tor and saw the purported grave of King Arthur (conveniently found by the monks in the 12th century, when they desperately needed pilgrims and donations to help them rebuild the church after a fire). I remembered my love for the legends and their many retellings.

Over the years, a number of authors have written contemporary, fantasy or science fiction books that are based on or inspired by the Matter of Britain. The nice thing about a loosely-Arthurian story with new characters is the possibility for a happy ending. I remember reading Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh and Excalibur by Sanders Anne Laubenthal when I was still in college. I decided to seek out more Arthurian-inspired books that have the possibility of a happy ending. In a bit of serendipity, I recently found If Ever I Would Leave You, an anthology of romance stories with Arthurian themes. I am currently reading it and enjoying it very much. I think I will make a habit of seeking out new Arthurian-inspired romances.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

When I was a young woman, I never even heard of e-mail until I took a "Computers in Business" course at UW-Madison. The instructor told us about this new thing called "electronic mail" that was meant to solve the persistent problem of phone tag (this was also in the era before affordable and truly portable cell phones). We all seemed skeptical that it would ever catch on.

I kept in touch with friends and relatives who had moved out of state by regularly writing letters, in cursive handwriting on decorated stationery with matching envelopes. My correspondents regularly sent me handwritten letters in return. I still have many of them packed away somewhere (a handful of them were deliberately destroyed, like Lord Byron's memoirs, out of concern for the reputation of the author).

In 1991, one of my reservist friends was called up and sent to Saudi Arabia for the duration of Operation Desert Storm. For several weeks, I did not have a mailing address for him. By this time, I had access to a computer with word processing software, so I began typing letters to him in one big document, with each entry clearly dated. I chronicled all the gossip about our mutual friends (mainly who hooked up with whom -- we were in our 20s at the time, and our social circle was full of drama).

When I got an APO address for him, I began printing and sending the letter(s) in manageable chunks, with two or three days' worth of entries at a time, mailed a few days apart. He seemed to really enjoy getting them, and he wrote back to me whenever he could. No, it was not the beginning of a romance between the two of us (I was already dating my future husband by then). Another sort of drama was gradually revealed in the letters I received from him. A woman whom he met at a New Year's Eve party (just a week or two before he shipped out) was also writing to him. As the weeks went on, her letters became increasingly romantic and possessive. He swore to me that he had done nothing to encourage her to think of him as her boyfriend, and he was at a loss over how to handle it. I believed him, because I knew the woman in question, and she had a history of that sort of self-escalating relationship behavior. Some of us had to hold an intervention with her, and he decided to transfer to a different campus when he returned stateside.

Nowadays, that whole drama would play out in less than a couple weeks on Facebook, with conflicting relationship statuses and comments from mutual friends. But once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was possible to remain in touch with someone, and even become a close confidante, via letters that took days or even weeks to reach their destinations. Maybe that's why I am fascinated by epistolary novels, and why I felt the urge to write one (a novella, actually) this summer. There have been a number of great contemporary epistolary novels that make use of emails and social media posts. I'm going old school, though, because as useful as I find email and social media, they don't quite have the same magic as a letter written on paper and sent through the mail.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Turning a Villain into a Hero

I've just started reading How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray. It is the third of her Princess in Hiding books, featuring heroines disguised as men. This is a tried-and-true romance trope, and I began to tire of it after the second book. I was intrigued by this novel, however, because it uses another plot device that is done far less often -- making a villain from a past book into the hero.

That is not to say that the idea is new. It has been done often enough, but it is rarely done well. Often, the character seems to undergo a personality transplant between books. I am curious to see how Gray handles it. So far, she seems to be implying that the characters in A Gentleman Never Tells were mistaken in their perceptions as to the depths of the Earl of Somerton's villainy.

The possible appeal of rehabilitating a hero is obvious. Many women are attracted to bad boys, with the belief that the love of a good woman can save him. I happen to agree with advice columnist Margo Howard, who is fond of saying "Women are not reform schools."  However, the rehabilitation of a villain is the logical next step after rehabilitating a damaged hero.

The damaged hero trope became very popular in the 1990s, largely thanks to the works of Laura Kinsale. She is a master at writing about damaged but redeemable heroes. My personal favorites from her are Flowers from the Storm and Seize the Fire. She eventually took the next step and wrote Shadowheart, which features a brutal medieval villain from her previous romance For My Lady's Heart. I loved FMLH, but I have avoided reading Shadowheart because the description of the plot turned me off. There was a time when I read romances about women being forced to marry their captors, but that trope has long since lost its appeal for me.

On the other hand, I loved Loretta Chase's Captives of the Night, featuring a brutal assassin from The Lion's Daughter as the hero. However, TLD is one of the few novels by Chase that I haven't read (by the time I became interested in her back catalog, that one was out of print, and I'm too frugal to pay collectors' prices for paperbacks). I wonder if I would love the Comte d'Esmond so much if I had gotten to know him as a villain first. Of course, he has that James Bond thing going on (he is equally skilled as an assassin, a spy and a lover), so I might.

I am looking forward to learning whether I can appreciate a hero whom I first encountered as a villain.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Staycation, All I Ever Wanted

After a summer of trying to write while working a full time day job, I finally have a week off.  Hopefully, I will make a lot of progress on the novella I am currently working on (I have 33 pages of my first draft written, and I'm aiming for 100). Unfortunately, my PC picked this week to die (thank goodness for cloud backups), so I will have to get used to my laptop's crappy little keyboard. Maybe I can plug our full-size keyboard into the laptop...

I'm also looking forward to putting a dent in my ever-growing to-be-read pile of books.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Windflower, Windermere and the Differing Effects of Bhang

Last month, I read Lady Windermere's Lover by Miranda Neville. I enjoyed it very much, as I have enjoyed all of her books. The plot is a second-chance romance involving an estranged couple who made a marriage of convenience and then separated for a year when Lord Windermere accepted a diplomatic post in Persia.

Newly returned from the Orient, he finds his wife has developed a close friendship with his former best friend (now bitter rival), and circumstantial evidence leads him to believe they are having an affair. He makes an effort to repair his marriage, and his wife asks for time to become better acquainted before they resume having sex. He agrees, and his patience eventually pays off. They plan a night of intimacy, and in order to help her relax, he fills an incense-burner with hashish resin that he calls by the Persian term bhang.

I knew that would not end as Lord Windermere hoped, for I remembered the infamous opium scene in The Windflower. Poor Merry is forced by Rand Morgan to smoke opium until she is passive and semi-conscious. Then she is left in Devon's bed like a gift. He believes she is a woman of easy virtue and at least somewhat willing (an old trope in romance novels of that era). His kissing and groping is brought to an abrupt end when Merry's stomach rebels, and he ends the night holding her hair instead of more interesting bits of her anatomy.

Re-reading that book this month, I was amused by Devon's observation: "That's what you get when you force yourself on a seasick woman splattered with bhang and bruises."

I believe that is an important life lesson for everyone.

The use of the word "bhang" (in this case referring to opium) caught my eye, since I had recently encountered it in Lady Windermere's Lover. I started to wonder if Miranda Neville had written that scene as a deliberate homage/parody.

There are some important differences. Poor Windflower Merry does not try opium willingly, nor does she consent to amorous congress with Devon, and she gets no enjoyment out of the encounter. Lady Windermere consents to intimacy with Damien, and although the bhang is not her idea, she is not averse to it. She gets a pleasant buzz from it (probably similar to the high one experiences at a certain type of rock concert, even if one does not smoke). Damien uses his mouth to bring her to her first orgasm, after which she promptly falls asleep. Poor Damien is left with an extreme case of blue balls, which is perhaps karmic payback for the joyless (for her) sex at the beginning of their marriage.

I also notice that the heroes' names and the heroines' title or nickname sound similar. I recall reading a review of Lady Windermere's Lover (but cannot find that one now) wherein either the reviewer or some commenters complained that they disliked Damien and felt he did not grovel sufficiently, and they found themselves wishing Lady Windermere would dump him and run off with Julian. That was similar to some online comments I read about The Windflower back in May, that some readers disliked Devon and wished that Merry would end up with Cat or Raven instead.

There are many differences between the two novels and only a few similarities. Comparing them is a good illustration of how much attitudes and expectations among readers and writers of historical romance have changed in the last 30 years.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part V: the Hero Isn't Real

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

My perception of the central romance in The Windflower is very different this time around, mainly because my perception of Devon is far less favorable.  It isn't only that he is more abusive than I remember. I suspect I originally measured him against the common romance heroes of the 1980s, many of whom were far more brutal. I found myself hoping that he would grovel sufficiently to make up for his bad behavior. Although he does, briefly, humble himself and express sincere regret for his past actions, he bullies Merry into marrying him on the same day, so it sort of undermines the new leaf he has supposedly turned over. Although Merry delivers a satisfying punch to his jaw, I kept wishing she would chain Devon up and whip him before she finally gave in and agreed to marry him (and I don't even care for BDSM; I just think he really had it coming to him).

I also noticed this time around that Devon is not portrayed as a believable person.  He is a composite of at least three romance hero archetypes: the pirate, the duke and the spy. He is also described as a genius (although we never witness him having any brilliant ideas or using his supposedly-clever brain to figure out who Merry really is). His motivations are told to the reader rather than shown. That was a common approach in classic romance novels. However, The Windflower is full of brilliantly fleshed-out characters, which is what makes it odd that Devon is such an artificial construct.

He is a placeholder for the man of Merry's dreams. He is her unicorn, and also the MacGuffin that sets Merry's adventures in motion. Her trip to England was engineered by Devon's relatives, who viewed her as a potential bride for him. She was kidnapped off the ship by the inept burglars whom Devon hired to steal incriminating papers from his old enemy. Her disastrous escape attempts were motivated by her fear of both his hostility toward her and her growing attraction for him.

When their union is finally consummated, his passion is taken for granted, contrary to the available evidence. The sex is described in a style that was common to many classic romance novels. There are many flowery metaphors for the feelings the pair experience. Devon manages to touch Merry slowly and gently in all the right places, without producing any frightening grunts or messy bodily fluids. It's like a spa visit with a happy ending.  He performed not like a human male but more like a sexbot from a regency-themed sci-fi brothel (imagine Austenland if it were written by Michael Crichton, author of Westworld).

Again, this was a common convention in classic romance novels. The hero exists in a constant state of desire for the heroine, so that he is always ready when she finally is, and somehow this all-consuming passion is expressed by catering only to her desires. When I was a young woman with limited sexual experience, I found that fantasy very appealing.  Now that I am a mature woman of more experience, I find it rather quaint but not terribly satisfying.

However, The Windflower still works for me as women's fiction.  It's really about Merry's journey from shy, lonely introvert to spy, pirate and duchess. I'm still hoping for sequels about Cat, Raven and Rand Morgan.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part IV: the Squid Jumps the Shark

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

The term "Jumping the Shark" has become shorthand for that moment when a television series, movie or book fundamentally changes in character and tone, altering the audience's expectations.

It is often a pejorative, meaning the show has become ridiculous and/or unwatchable, but that is not always the case.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer jumped several sharks over the course of its seven-year run (the sudden appearance of a previously-unseen younger sister; the musical episode; Buffy's affair with Spike; the sudden deaths of multiple beloved characters), and those changes kept the series fresh and exciting.

There is a distinct moment in The Windflower when everything changes, and it coincidentally involves a sea creature and a jump.  A squid leaps into a small fishing craft and is brought back to the Black Joke for the amusement of the captive Merry. She has become something of a mascot to the crew, rather like the ship's pet pig, Dennis.  Until now, however, we believe that the crew are really cutthroats who would not hesitate to slaughter Dennis if food supplies were low or brutalize Merry if circumstances were slightly different.

The squid sets in motion a chain of events that lead to Merry's escape from the Joke with a defecting crew member during a battle with a rival pirate ship. The defector tells Merry that the rival was known for his particular cruelty toward captive women. He also believes that the crew voted to attack the ship because they spotted a terrified woman with children on the deck of a schooner recently captured by the rival pirate.  So now we are lead to believe that the crew of the Joke are not completely without conscience. I am unsure whether we are meant to think that spending time with Merry has restored their humanity or if they merely put on a tougher façade to frighten their captive into cooperating.

In any case, Merry's relationships with the crew of the Joke are forever changed after her disastrous (and temporary) escape.  Most importantly, Devon (and the reader) begins to realize that he has genuine feelings for her.  He does not yet apologize for his past behavior or grovel in the traditional sense, but he volunteers himself as a human guinea pig for an untested and potentially dangerous malaria treatment that could save Merry's life.

While in a malarial fever, Merry has another double-entendre-filled unicorn dream, filled with metaphors that are so unsubtle that the dream almost hints at bestiality. Some of the imagery in the dream (particularly the shower of white petals) also reminded me of the Tom Cruise film Legend (which came out a year after The Windflower was first published).

In this section of the book, I was also reminded of a phenomenon in classic romance novels that I call "Calgon, Take Me Away!" (in honor of the 1970s TV ads for powdered Epsom salts that could magically create a bubble of quiet relaxation around a woman's bathtub, allowing her to tune out ringing phones and screaming children). The sex scenes in classic romance novels often transport the heroine to an altered state of consciousness, where she is seemingly unable to remember the reality around her while she experiences magical sensations that go beyond the neural impulses caused by the stimulation of erogenous zones.  The scenes advance the plot but exist slightly outside reality, rather like a song-and-dance number in a Bollywood film.