Sunday, October 22, 2017

One of the best stories about consent and female autonomy was written in the middle ages

Readers and writers have become more aware in recent years about issues of dubious consent in novels. Plot tropes that were once common are becoming less so, as people think through the implications of situations that take away a character's choices. It is natural to assume that awareness of consent issues and female empowerment is a product of our modern age, and that stories addressing the topics in a thoughtful way must be of recent vintage. That assumption is mistaken.

In fifteenth-century England, an anonymous author wrote The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, a short story in verse involving King Arthur and his nephew, Sir Gawain. A villain named Gromer Somer Joure ambushes the king while he is hunting, not armed for battle, and threatens to kill him to avenge a past slight. He lets him live in exchange for promising to meet him on a future date and giving the answer to an existential question (as one does). The question is What do women most desire? If the king cannot give the correct answer, he will allow Gromer Somer Joure to cut off his head.

Although Arthur has been pledged to secrecy, he tells his loyal nephew Sir Gawain in confidence what is bothering him. Gawain then concocts a plan to save the king's life. They will both travel throughout the kingdom, asking every man and woman they meet what women most desire and writing their answers in a book. At the end of the allotted time, they will present Gromer Somer Joure with all of the answers; one of them is sure to be correct. They both accumulate many different answers, with no idea which (if any) may be the right one.

As the day of reckoning draws near, Arthur encounters a woman of hideous appearance. She is described as oversized and unkempt, with yellow teeth and rheumy eyes. She sits upon a beautiful horse with magnificent, jeweled tack. She declares that none of the responses he has collected will save his life, but if he grants her one thing, she will give him the true answer. In exchange for her help, she wants Sir Gawain as her husband. The king declares he cannot give her Sir Gawain, for that must be up to him. The woman, called Dame Ragnell, tells him to go home and ask Gawain, then. The loyal and courteous Sir Gawain tells King Arthur that he will wed her and would do so if she were a fiend and foul as Beelzebub, in order to save the king's life.

On his way to meet Gromer Somer Joure, Arthur again encounters Dame Ragnell. He assures her that Gawain will marry her and asks her to tell him what women most desire. Ragnell gives a lengthy speech, first listing things that others say women want but which are not correct. And then she tells him, "We desire above everything else to have power over men, both high and low. When we have power, everything else is ours." (modern English prose translation by Louis B. Hall)

At the deadly appointment, the king hands over his books of collected answers. The villain reads through them all, pronounces them incorrect, and prepares to decapitate his old enemy. King Arthur then tells him that women most desire power, to rule over the manliest of men. Gromer Somer Joure declares he must have learned that from his sister, Dame Ragnell. He curses her but keeps his word and promises to bother the king no more. On his way home, Ragnell meets Arthur and accompanies him the rest of the way. She demands to ride in front, next to the king, although he is ashamed to be seen with her. She also demands a public wedding with all the court in attendance, rather than a secret early-morning wedding as the queen suggests. The ladies of the court weep for Gawain's fate.

Sir Gawain is the only one who does not complain or treat Ragnell as undeserving of honored treatment. He behaves with courteous diplomacy. At the wedding banquet, the bride eats with a monstrous appetite, tearing apart her food with three-inch-long fingernails. When they have retired to bed, Ragnell demands he show her courtesy in bed. She asks that he at least kiss her. He declares he will do more than kiss her. When he turns toward her, she transforms into a beautiful woman. Gawain is stunned and delighted, and he kisses her with great passion. Ragnell tells him her beauty is not constant. He must choose whether to have her beautiful by day or by night.

He mulls over the implications. One choice would destroy his honor and standing at court. The other would destroy his carnal pleasure. He does not know which is best, so he defers to Ragnell and puts the choice in her hands. He tells her, "Do with me as you wish, for I am bound to you. I give the choice to you. Both my body and my goods, my heart and all parts of me are all yours, to buy and sell--that I swear to God." (modern English prose translation by Louis B. Hall)

By giving her sovereignty, Gawain breaks the enchantment for good. Her beauty will remain all day and all night.

Most of the medieval tales written about the Knights of the Round Table were much like fan fiction--new stories involving familiar characters created by different authors. Character traits sometimes changed over time, but they were often consistent through a number of different stories. Plot tropes were frequently reused. The loathly lady transformed plot appears in other medieval works, including The Canterbury Tales. But in The Wife of Bath's Tale, the loathly lady is married off to a nameless knight convicted of rape. Having to bed a monstrous female against his will is a sort of poetic justice, and by giving her the decision-making authority, he essentially makes her his parole officer. The story loses its charm by making the "hero" a villain who does not deserve a happy ending.

In the French stories of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot was generally the greatest knight of Arthur's court, but in the English tales before Sir Thomas Malory, that place was held by Sir Gawain. He had a reputation for both courtesy and promiscuity. There are numerous stories about ladies who saved their virginity for the famous Sir Gawain. So there is a bit of burlesque comedy in making Sir Gawain the object of Ragnell's desire. But there are also some interesting observations about chivalric virtues. Gawain has the most to lose from the situation, but he is the only one who does not behave like Ragnell should be a shameful secret. There is quite a bit of fat-shaming in the narrator's descriptions of Ragnell's appearance. The account of her predatory consumption at the banquet is meant to imply that she might devour Gawain as well. But the bridegroom treats her with all of the respect due to his wife, and he is fully prepared to pay the "debt of his body" (as the Wife of Bath would say) on their wedding night.

Ragnell's declaration that women wish to have power over men sounds sinister. It plays into every misogynist's biggest fear. But in the end, granting her such power has entirely benevolent consequences, for Gawain and the rest of Arthur's court. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell reverses the usual gender roles by making Gawain the object of an arranged marriage, forced into sexual servitude to a ravenous predator. He plays the usually-female part of family diplomat, making the best of things and putting everyone at ease by completely erasing his own preferences. When asked to make a life-altering decision, he takes a passive role and defers to his spouse. But none of this undermines his masculinity nor his social position. He is perceived as brave and strong for his willing sacrifice. And the fat-shamers are shown to be entirely wrong in their assumptions.

This story is clever and subversive even by modern standards. As a product of 15th-century England, it is truly remarkable. It just goes to show that history and culture do not develop in a straight line; we keep circling back to the same problems.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Marrying a Stranger

I've been thinking a lot about the enduring appeal of marriage-of-convenience romances. It isn't my favorite trope, but I've read many of them over the years, generally those by favorite authors or novellas included in an anthology that appealed to me.

Mary Balogh has written several marriage of convenience stories over the years, and she writes them very well. Her characters always have depth and redeeming qualities, even those who seem abrasive.

There is something both compelling and repellant in the notion of being intimate with a near stranger. The imagination can have full reign in the absence of known facts. An optimist may experience a night with his or her ideal lover. Time and further acquaintance may bring disappointment, but that first time holds a wealth of possibilities. That excitement can be sought in a one night stand, but our society judges women harshly for engaging in casual sex, and that was even more true in centuries past. In the world of historical romances, an arranged marriage is a socially acceptable way to experience sex with a stranger.

On the other hand, there is tremendous risk in legally tying oneself to an unknown quantity, especially in previous centuries, when women had few protections against an abusive or profligate husband. Of course, a romance novel always has a happy ending, so we know the husband will turn out to have a heart of gold under his cold exterior, or that he will subdue his demons with the love and support of his new wife.

Getting to know someone after physical intimacy rather than before has its ups and downs. For women, sexual activity usually stimulates the production of oxytocin, which may increase emotional bonding. A new bride may develop feelings of affection for her husband based entirely on that physical intimacy, even if they spend their days apart. That can make her emotionally vulnerable, however. A perceived rejection or sense that her husband finds her less than attractive will truly sting.

Fortunately, studies have shown that, contrary to the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, faces actually seem more attractive with repeated exposure. There is something in human nature that seeks to put a positive spin on things. I remember reading First Comes Marriage a number of years ago, and I still recall the way Vanessa's husband considers her plain at first but eventually comes to admire her looks. In part that is due to her new fashionable wardrobe and flattering haircut, but mostly it is because she is no longer a random acquaintance; she is his wife. There is also the example in Pride and Prejudice, where Mr. Darcy's first impression of Lizzy is that she is not handsome enough to tempt him. Later in the book, when speaking of her, he declares himself "meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."

The ancient myth of Eros and Psyche contains a marriage-of-convenience romance. Psyche is told she is to be married to a monster to satisfy the wrath of the gods and protect her family. Her bridegroom comes to her in the dark and proves to be a tender lover instead. But she never sees him, and her sisters convince her she is being fattened up to be devoured later. She tries to reconcile the truth she experiences in the dark with everything she has been told by her family to expect. Like Pandora, she allows curiosity to get the better of her, with disastrous results. For her husband is none other than the god of love himself, and he cannot abide her faithlessness in disobeying his order to never try to see him. But like all true romance stories, the heroine perseveres in the end.

Friday, November 6, 2015

When Nudity Was Heroic

In our modern (often puritanical) society, public nudity is considered lewd. To be photographed naked is risky; to have those photos published elicits criticism (if published with the subject's permission) or pity (if private photographs were leaked by a hacker or revenge-seeking ex). A common type of anxiety dream involves being unclothed in public. For modern westerners, nudity outside of one's private space is a sign of vulnerability and humiliation.

Altar of the Dioscuri
(Castor and Pollux)
The ancient Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, celebrated the human form. Although they usually dressed conservatively in public life, athletic nudity was celebrated. The word "gymnasium" is derived from the ancient Greek word for naked, because work-out clothes were not a thing in the ancient world.

Vase painters and sculptors delighted in portraying idealized human forms. Mythical gods and heroes were often shown naked, or nearly so. My recent trip to Rome revived my love of classical art and architecture. I toured renaissance palazzos filled with classical sculptures and rococo imitations.

Some of the subjects were visually familiar to me. Hercules, for instance, is usually recognizable by the club he carries and the lion skin he wears as a mantle. Others, like the Dioscuri, I knew by name but not iconography. Some were more obscure.

Funerary altar with winged figures
representing the four seasons
Time and again, however, I saw statues and carved altars showing male figures "in heroic nudity". I never took art history classes, so I was not familiar with the term. However, I noticed all of the figures so described were wearing some sort of cape or mantle--because we all know that heroes wear capes. My inner 12-year-old giggled at the thought of Superman wearing only his cape (and maybe his red boots).

Antoninus Pius
I was surprised to see two different Roman emperors (Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) portrayed in heroic nudity as the god Mars. I suspect they both had body doubles. Marcus Aurelius was joined by Faustina Minor as Venus, making a charming domestic scene. She appears to be adjusting his mantle--perhaps so he does not catch a chill when he marches north to battle the Germanic hordes.

Seeing all of these sculptures in context, I understand what Antonio Canova was thinking when he created his infamous statue of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. I had a brief London layover on my way home, and I toured Apsley House, the home of the first Duke of Wellington, who eventually received the Canova statue as a gift.

Marcus Aurelius
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed at Apsley House, but you can see a picture of the Napoleon here. When I saw it in person shortly after my time in Rome, I hadn't the slightest urge to giggle.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Longer Than Expected Blogging Hiatus

In recent weeks, I've been focusing on my novel-in-progress and preparing for an upcoming trip. I kept putting off the blog post I meant to write because I didn't have time to focus on it.

Now it will have to wait a few more weeks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Fairytale Appeal of Castles

The Tower of London
Since childhood, I have had a fascination with castles. I blame the Walt Disney Corporation and its diabolical talent for separating middle class families from their disposable income. When my family visited Disneyworld, I immediately wanted to visit Cinderella's Castle. We walked through the castle a couple of times during our touring day, passing between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, and I admired the sparkly mosaics depicting scenes from Cinderella's story. I desperately wanted to go inside the castle's rooms, but my mother refused. It was nothing but an expensive restaurant, she told me. Our family returned to the parking lot for lunch, eating sandwiches inside our RV. So close, and yet I was not worthy to explore the castle.

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy
Living in the Midwest, castles were hard to come by. I was delighted when Medieval Times opened up in Schaumburg, IL. When I was in my early 20s, my boyfriend and I made a pilgrimage there. The experience was disappointing, and we never went back. When we married a couple years later, we honeymooned at Disneyworld and had lunch at King Stephen's Banquet Hall (the "expensive restaurant" inside the castle). I enjoyed the experience at the time, but only because it had been on my bucket list. The architecture, décor, and food were far superior to Medieval Times, but that's a pretty low bar.

Castillo de Santa Barbara, Alicante, Spain
Ten years later, we celebrated our anniversary in Las Vegas and briefly visited the Excalibur hotel. It was fun in a cheesy way, but we had no desire to eat at Sir Galahad's Steakhouse or attend their knightly combat show (which appeared to be patterned after the one at Medieval Times).

It was only as we entered middle age that we had the opportunity to travel across the pond and visit some real medieval castles. My first was the Tower of London. It's a hodgepodge of several different eras, with one part dating back to William the Conqueror. It's full of history (and tourists).

Windsor Castle
I have fond memories of the 14th-century red brick Castelvecchio ("old castle") in Verona, Italy. It now houses an art museum, and the crowds were modest in the shoulder season. Scrambling over the ruins of the Castillo de Santa Barbara in Alicante, Spain made for a wonderful birthday. Windsor Castle is everything one expects a castle to be (including an active royal residence).

No matter how many castles I manage to visit, I do not believe I will ever tire of them. They are timeless and romantic, whether ruined or sumptuously furnished. Cardiff Castle provides an 
excellent example of both, an old Norman shell keep and the surrounding castle, remodeled during the Victorian era into a gothic revival fantasy.

Tessa Dare's current early-19th-century series, Castles Ever After, seems to have been written with me in mind. The first book, Romancing the Duke, is my favorite so far. It involves a semi-ruined castle, a bookish heroine with a secret, and a grumpy-but-hot duke. It also lampoons re-enactors and fandom communities. I may have squirmed a little bit.

I enjoyed the second book, Say Yes to the Marquess (which lampoons the wedding industry), and I'm very much looking forward to the third, When a Scot Ties the Knot, which is coming out in just a couple weeks. I'm seriously jonesing for a castle fix.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Intentions Are Important

I'm currently reading Miranda Neville's second-chance-romance novella Duchess of Scandal in the anthology Dancing in the Duke's Arms. There's a bit of dialogue that really stayed with me. A married couple's discussion of current events morphs into a less hypothetical discussion of practical issues on the estate and an exploration of each other's priorities.
She wrinkled her forehead. "Do you mean you wish to help the poor to prevent unrest, not because you think it's right to relieve misery?"
The question made him uncomfortable because he wasn't sure of the answer. His wife was a lot subtler in her ideas than he had ever suspected. "Does it matter? Doesn't it come to the same thing?"
"In practical terms, yes. But intentions are important. I would prefer you to leave Mrs. Trumbull's laundry alone because you see the justice of her need to dry her children's clothes, not because you don't wish to quarrel with me and spoil your dinner."
That captures nearly perfectly my feelings about romance heroes. I would prefer them to care about other people and have a sense of justice. Whatever the conflict may be, I can more readily forgive alphole behavior if it is motivated by concern for others (like the welfare of the hero's family or other dependents) rather than a drive for power or prestige.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Romance with a Proxy Stepbrother

A few months ago, Smexy Books had a post about the recent popularity of step-sibling romances. The author found it somewhat perplexing, since she expected to find books breaking taboos and instead found a book where the adult protagonists were strangers when their respective parents married.

I've been thinking about the reasons for the appeal of such books. I don't think it is necessarily because readers are looking for quasi-incest fantasies. I think they are looking for close-knit family fantasies.

In modern society, we often live far away from our parents, who are often divorced. Holiday visits may require more diplomacy than restoring normal relations with Cuba. Wouldn't it be convenient if your significant other already had ties to your family? You wouldn't have to explain your father's weird quirks or worry that your husband will be offended by his jokes.

Historical romances are less likely to feature the step-sibling trope (possibly because marriages were less fluid in prior eras). However, the common tropes of Brother's Best Friend and Childhood Friend are functionally similar. Usually one protagonist (usually the hero) comes from a broken home and the other (usually the heroine) has a loving family. A marriage between them gives the de facto orphan an official place in the family he already admires/envies.

My favorite book of this type is Last Night's Scandal by Loretta Chase. We first met the protagonists as children in Chase's third Carsington Brothers book, Lord Perfect. Peregrine's irresponsible parents essentially abandoned him to the care of servants and distant relatives, and Benedict Carsington became the father figure he never had. Benedict's stepdaughter, Olivia, was Peregrine's childhood partner in crime. After several years apart, they meet again as adults, and sparks fly.

Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt is a very charming example of the Brother's Best Friend trope. Lucy asks Jeremy to coach her in seductive wiles, so she may win her longtime crush. He is reluctant, but he fears she might ask someone less honorable for assistance (a common justification for overcoming such scruples in romance novels), so he agrees. He gradually sees her not as a little-sister type
but as a woman. Her newly-honed skills do not bring her the quarry she wanted, and she feels the sting of rejection, leading her to seek comfort in Jeremy's arms. In the end, they realize they are in love with each other, and Jeremy finally has the loving family he has always lacked.

Caroline Linden's Love and Other Scandals is a different type of Brother's Best Friend romance. In this case, Joan Bennett thoroughly disapproves of her brother's debauched friend Tristin Burke. The set-up has a little bit in common with Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels (which is really in a class all by itself). Linden's story is far less outrageous, but it is a satisfying enemies-to-lovers story with a family connection.

The most convoluted family relationship between protagonists I have found belongs to Katharine Ashe's I Loved a Rogue. As the conclusion to her Prince Catchers series, it solves the mystery of the Caulfield sisters' parentage. While it seems to be a Childhood Friend romance, from the very beginning I felt like the protagonists were de facto step-siblings. Taliesin was not related by blood nor adoption to Elinor's adoptive father, but he spent his boyhood summers as their live-in servant. He was basically a male Cinderella (cleaning the ashes from the hearth was specifically one of his chores). He and Elinor go on a quest to find her birth family, and he discovers secrets about his own background that he never suspected. In the end, the mentor who once sent him away (which was not intended as a rejection, although Taliesin always perceived it as such) becomes his father-in-law. I'm sure that won't make family Christmas gatherings at all awkward.