History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 January 2008

Theorygirl Meets Charlotte Bronte

Oh lord, this post just crept up on me. Somehow I thought I was due up next week. Theorygirl, help me out here (that's her in the picture, blurring the air with her unruly ideas an hour after a presentation Janet Mullany and I gave at Romance Writers of America's National Conference last year on Writing the Hot Historical).

OK, my brainy muse says, I'll help if you agree to make an honest woman of yourself (yet again!) by backing up your claims (in the Historical Reads post) about Charlotte Bronte's Villette -- the ego, the eroticism.

I gulp and agree to it. Well, it's one of the ways I lurch forward as a writer. (Did I say that? Do I think that? Wow. That's... um, interesting. Now I've got to prove it.)

In this case, let's start with a quote from what the theory people like to call the "text," in order to show you something of what I found so hot in Villette. From an episode where the shy English teacher Lucy Snowe is prevailed upon to act in a student play, substituting in a male role for an indisposed student.

The play is a love triangle, about a good man, a fop, and a coquette. The role of coquette has inevitably been taken by the school's coquette, the hot, trashy Ginevra Fanshawe, who has spent several off-stage chapters discombobulating Lucy by flirting with her. One of the ways Ginevra has tormented Lucy was by confiding how bored she is by Dr. John, the good man in love with her (whom Lucy is, of course in love with). In the play, Ginevra's coquette is "made love to" (in the nineteenth century meaning) by Lucy's fop, both of them extemporaneously deciding to ignore the student actress playing the character of the good man, while the "real" good man, Dr. John, watches uneasily from the audience.

The spectacle seemed somehow suggestive. There was language in Dr. John's look...; it animated me: I drew out of it a history; I put my idea into the part I performed; I threw it into my wooing of Ginevra. In the... sincere lover, I saw Dr. John. Did I pity him, as erst? No, I hardened my heart, rivaled and out-rivaled him. I knew myself but a fop, but where he was outcast I could please. Now I know I acted as if wishful and resolute to win and conquer. Ginevra seconded me; between us we half-changed the nature of the role gilding it from top to toe.

It's as though a furious Fanny Price had stepped into the theatricals at Mansfield Park and by example dared a dilatory Edmund Bertram to really make love to Mary Crawford.

In some ways it presages one of my cherished moments in literary history, when the French writer and literary critic Dominique Aury told her lover that she could write "one of those stories you like." Her lover, who was on the verge of dumping her, didn't believe a woman could venture into Marquis de Sade territory. In reply, Aury wrote the scandalous, immortal Story of O. Her lover stayed with her for the rest of his life. "If you want it done right," the second wave feminist slogan ran, "hire a woman."

Nor does Lucy Snowe feel she needs entirely to masquerade herself as a man. Unlike my romantic girl in pants (Phoebe turned Phizz in Almost a Gentleman), Lucy eschews complete male drag. Begging a kind of Victorian modesty, she subverts modesty entirely by wearing a combination male and female dress:

Retaining my woman's garb without the slightest retrenchment, I merely assumed, in addition, a little vest, a collar, and cravat, and a paletot of small dimensions; the whole being the costume of a brother of one of the pupils. Having loosened my hair out of its braids, made up the long back hair close, and brushed the front hair to one side, I took my hat and gloves in my hand and came out.

I've lived long enough in San Francisco to know that incomplete drag is riskier and more suggestive than perfect masquerade. And I've been watching with interest how "acceptable" male-male bonding is becoming in certain hinterlands of the romance landscape, while female-female bonding evidently remains too risky for us.

How did Charlotte Bronte come to imagine such things in Victorian Yorkshire? Where did she get her intuitions of the permeability of male and female gesture and identity? How did she intuit the themes and variations, the hints of homoeroticism, that might just now begin to challenge, vex, and fascinate us at the boundaries of romance?

Or am I (ahem) way off base here? Should I have saved this post for my other home in the Blogosphere, the Spiced Tea party where erotic romance writers gather? Where do you think the erotic frontiers of romance lie? Do you think any of us might be woman enough to face off against small, plain, angry, angry Charlotte Bronte?

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Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Your mind works in amazing ways, Pam. and I always enjoy how you make other think.

My response is short -- my own writing is not inclined in that direction though I enjoy reading what tests the boundaries. Add to that, I am not angry enough which I think is an essential element (at least I am sure it was for Bronte).

10:54 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for saying that, Mary. One difference between us as writers, I think, is that you write about wealth and power as values to be achieved and lived up to (the Darcy paradigm -- and who could argue with that?) and I get all cranky and irritated over it (not that the world out there doesn't yield an undeserving Darcy for every deserving one... but who's counting?)

One of the things I like about romance is that there's room for both stances.

Looking forward to The Traitor's Kiss...

11:22 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Oh, Pam -- I like that description of what I write -- thanks a lot. A comparison of our pesonal world view and how it influences our writing is something to talk about when we see each other next -- in July I am guessing.

Do you think everybody it taking the day off - more likely reading Vilette which I am going to look for at the bookstore tonight -- though I expect it will have to be Amazon.

To answer your blog question -- I think readers are always open to new experiences -- though they don't often know it. As a reader I want what I loved before but then something like ALMOST A GENTLEMAN comes along and I think "Wow that was good" -- and very different from anything I have read before.

I think as the readership for more erotic books grows the see-saw balance will see more readers for inspirationals. And still I think that the folks in the middle are neglected these days and looking looking looking. Hopefully that is my market.

By the way, I think three must be a max level for erotic romance but maybe that shows my own limitations.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for blogging about "Villette," Pam! Your blurb in yesterday's blog left me very curious about the book. Yet another example that even in a supposedly repressed era (perhaps especially then), there's a lot going on in people's heads. How was "Villette" received when it was first published?

As to how Charlotte Bronte imagined such things, people are people and human feelings are human feelings, whether in a Yorkshire village or the most sophisticated circles in Paris. As to whether the topic fits in the romance genre--I've always felt anything to do with romantic relationships fits in the genre (my problem is I tend to get distracted by things like stolen dispatches and dead bodies and parliamentary maneuvers, which is why I'm not precisely writing romance any more, though I still have romances in my books).

5:36 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam -- I'm one of those women who embraces erotica in all its forms and hasn't a shy bone about it. I am fascinated with the ways in which the taboo was expressed in societies where it was so repressed (e.g. Villette). Actually, any frankness coming from a woman at the time (sexual, political, etc) was frowned upon. These women were not only breaking the rules imposed by a prudish society honorbound to keep them in their place, but they were acting human!

5:55 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Mary, Tracy, and Amanda, for your penetrating comments -- radiating out in all directions, too.

I'm not sure that I'm asking romance to be more erotic. I think that what astonished me and my book group (all gay men except me, fwiw) about Villette was what I referred to in my prior post about the book as its "egotism AND eroticism." The word I almost always find myself using when I think about these issues is DARE. I return to it again and again, though it was probably the Story of O foundational story that brought me to it in the first place, and it's what I wrote about in my Salon.com piece about that book and its author -- a decade ago now.

I think that I'm asking "erotic romance" to be more daring, less commodified. I was shocked at some RWA National a few years ago when an editor told me of her company's just-to-be-launched "erotica" line. "What's your company's take on that?" I asked. "Oh," she said proudly, "we're looking for books with TWICE as much sex as Almost a Gentleman." "Yes," I said, "and...?" She didn't think there was more to be said. I do. And I'm also infuriated when erotica writers are told what to write and what sells. "M-M is hot," they tell us. "F-F isn't." I almost made a spectacle of myself once at an erotica writers luncheon by muttering -- too loud -- that, "then the F-F writers aren't doing it right."

As for writers "in the middle", Mary: I think the industry is going to shake out to fewer and (in your case), better.

8:46 AM  

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