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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part III: the Forgotten Conflict

(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 novel opens in 1813 Virginia and rather quickly references the ongoing war against the British (which naïve patriot Merry calls The Second War for American Independence). The heroine's brother and father are directly involved in the war effort and her brother occasionally involves her in a bit of espionage on behalf of her country.

The Windflower can be classified as a Regency-set historical romance (since it takes place during the Regency and its hero is a British aristocrat). I did not realize in 1984 how unusual it was for such a book to deal with the War of 1812 in a substantial way. It is usually seen as a sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars (which, from the British point of view, it rather was).

Very few Americans know much about it; most believe that it was an aggressive attempt by the British to re-take her former American colonies, and that the British lost (as documented in Johnny Horton's classic pop tune "the Battle of New Orleans").  In reality, it was part trade war, part labor dispute (over the shortage of able-bodied seamen) and part land war between the U.S. and Canada.  Both sides sustained a great deal of damage, and in the end everyone agreed to return to the status quo antebellum.

There are many reasons why the average American school textbook presents such an oversimplified (to the point of being misleading) version of the War of 1812, and they all have to do with cultural propaganda. As a nation, we are uncomfortable talking about the wars that did not end in glory for the American military and new territory for the United States. Also, during the first half of the 20th century, Britain was an important ally during both world wars, helping to strengthen the "special relationship" between our two nations. We did not care to dwell on the spats early in that relationship.

In the 1990s, I read a book by Donald R. Hickey called The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.  I found it to be fascinating.  When I started re-reading The Windflower, I wondered if the war would be portrayed superficially and/or inaccurately.  Much to my surprise, the historical references seem pretty accurate (given that 20 years has elapsed since I read that scholarly tome about the war).  Characters hear news about actual battles.  Merry's brother eagerly declares that, if the coming campaign in Canada is successful, the British will soon be driven out of North America (taking Canada from the British was a major motivation for the American war hawks to pursue the war in the first place). The New York merchants grumble about the ruinously expensive war disrupting trade. Devon muses about the poor decisions by the Madison administration.

I have read a great many historical romances that really skimped on the historical research.  The Windflower isn't one of them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part II: The Hero Is a Villain

(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).

In the Sizzling Book Club chat about The Windflower back in May, some readers remarked that they could not like Devon because he was abusive toward Merry, and his only redeeming quality seemed to be that he did not actually rape her.

In the early 1980s, a lot of classic romance novels featured villainous heroes, some of whom actually did rape the heroine. Even at the time, I found most of those books to be distasteful (although some provided unintentional comedy entertainment because they were so ridiculous).  I wondered if I only liked Devon because I was too young to know better when I first read the book, or if I was willing to cut him some slack because I liked the book so much for other reasons.

Reading it this time, in the scene where Merry first encounters Devon, I realized that he reminded me of James Bond. He was competent, ruthless, and utterly convinced of his ability to charm any woman out of her secrets and her virtue simultaneously. In that first encounter, he has good reason to believe that Merry is engaged in some sort of intrigue that could endanger all of his colleagues. I did not feel that his behavior was beyond the pale.

In their second encounter, aboard ship, his behavior is worse. I do not recall if he does genuinely grovel and apologize later on in the book. I know that he will come to genuinely love Merry and treat her with tenderness and affection.  I will have to see if the redemption arc works by modern standards (the hero is expected to grovel in proportion to his earlier bad behavior).

I suspect that readers who find James Bond appealing are more likely to enjoy this book than those who are not Bond fans.

Something else I noticed this time around is that my perception of Rand Morgan (the pirate captain who is also Devon's half-brother) when I read the book 30 years ago was based less upon his actual description than upon my preconceived idea that he should look like Blackbeard. I actually pictured him as Brian Blessed might have portrayed Blackbeard, which was a completely mistaken impression. He is not described as having a beard, and he is presumably rather fit (and probably at least a few years younger than I am now).

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part I: Unicorns and Phallic Vegetables

In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower by Sharon and Tom Curtis (originally published under their pen name of Laura London). It has been 30 years since I first read it (and close to 20 years since the last time I read it), and the genre has changed quite a bit.

I just started it today, and so far, I've only read the opening scene. Freud would have a field day, but I believe that was intentional. Historical romances in the early 1980s were filled with lush descriptions and euphemisms that made a thesaurus a necessary tool for any successful romance writer. The Curtises show a mastery of description and euphemism that rises to the level of affectionate satire. In the opening scene, 18-year-old sheltered virgin Merry Wilding is sketching vegetables in the kitchen garden. The authors slyly use phallic euphemisms to describe the vegetables without even mentioning cucumbers. Merry is apparently too innocent to notice the phallic symbolism (or wonder why the garden contains no eggplants or tomatoes). Then we are treated to descriptions of Merry's dreams about unicorns and how those dreams have suddenly changed in nature. Again, the Freudian symbolism is obvious to the reader but not to Merry.

One of the many things that delights me about this book is that it was obviously written by educated people who assumed that their readers were reasonably well-informed as well.  While the story works even if you know nothing about Freudian symbolism or the conventions of the romance genre, there is a whole extra layer of humor for those who do. In that way, it's a lot like watching episodes of The Muppet Show from the same era.

There were fewer entertainment choices in those days, and as a culture we participated more broadly in the mainstream. For that reason, some of the biggest hits in many entertainment media were able to appeal to people from diverse subcultures and educational levels (and not necessarily by dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator). I think we've lost that in this day of niche markets and nearly infinite entertainment choices.

Re-reading this book has also reminded me, to my embarrassment, that I had a collection of porcelain unicorns on my dresser when I was 18.