Georgette Heyer fans know that, in addition to her exquisite, sparkling regency romances, Georgette Heyer also wrote several more serious historic novels about everything from the Norman Conquest to the Battle of Waterloo. If you’ve dreamed of owning copies, you’ll be happy to know that, at least for today, Georgette Heyer’s historical novels are on sale.
Last week, I wrote a post about relationship porn, in which I argued that the sex in romance novels is the least interesting part for romance readers. The most interesting part, I said, is that the heroes like, respect, and support the heroines. I also said that there are few writers who even try to do what the great Georgette Heyer did, which was to write a cleverly plotted, true romance, one with no sex. (Indeed, many of hers don’t even offer a chaste kiss.) Moreover, those few who do write non-erotic romances tend to write Christian romances. Those Christian romances can be very nice, but they don’t suit me too well.
After I wrote that post, I got an email from Judith Lown, who said that she not only reads my blog (yay! thank you!), but that she’s written a couple of traditional romances, one of which is available on Kindle. I immediately looked up the Kindle edition and, low and behold, I’ve already read it:
Not only did I read A Sensible Lady, I liked it. It involves a young woman who moves into a new home, ends up adopting her orphaned nephew, and is pursued (in a genteel way) by three very different men. I read it some months ago, so I cannot give you a more detailed plot summary than that — nor would I want to. Romances all have the same plot anyway, because the whole point is boy and girl meet, fall in love, and get married. Where they differ isn’t so much in plot as in style: witty or flat, funny or maudlin, porn-y or romantic. Lown’s book, as I recall, is often witty and — and this is why I liked it — very decent. The characters are genuinely good and interesting people. It was a pleasure to spend time in their company, which is the nicest thing I can ever say about a book.
It’s no big secret in the Bookworm Room that I like romance novels. Someone I know calls them pornography. He’s both right and wrong.
A large percentage of today’s romance novels have pretty explicit sex scenes scattered through the pages. The language isn’t as vulgar as true pornography, but the sex is certainly graphic enough to fall under the heading of “erotica.” It’s also dull. There are only so many ways to describe “insert tab A into slot B.” Moreover, romance writers, because they’re aiming for romance and not hard-core porn employ no end of awkward and embarrassing euphemisms, all of which make the whole experience seem a little bit like peeking under the modesty skirts that some Victorians allegedly used to hide the legs of their Victorian piano.
Given my druthers, I read nothing but Georgette Heyer’s exquisite romantic comedies of manners, which might end with a chaste kiss on the last page. Sadly, though, Mrs. Heyer died in 1974, and there are no new Heyer books forthcoming. Even I, a most enthusiastic fan, can read her existing fare only so many times before feeling a bit of ennui creeping over me. There are other writers out there publishing “traditional” romances (i.e., no sex), but they lack Heyer’s wit and erudition, making their books a poor substitute. Moreover, many of these traditional books are overtly Christian, and that simply isn’t a genre that appeals to me.
So, as I said, my friend is correct that there’s an erotic element to today’s romantic novel market (which is, I believe, the largest segment of both the paperback and ebook market). What he misunderstands is that the graphic–ish sex isn’t the “porn” that draws women in. The real porn aspect of these novels is what I call “relationship porn.”
Relationship porn doesn’t have dialog revolving around body parts and sex acts. It has dialog revolving around a woman’s real needs. The following aren’t verbatim quotations from any specific book, but I guarantee you that you can find variations of these themes in any modern romance novel you pick up:
Lainey walked self-consciously down the stairs, aware that Caleb had never seen her in anything other than an over-sized sweatshirt and jeans before. In the clingy black dress, she felt acutely vulnerable. As she drew closer, Caleb let out a long, low whistle. “My God, Lainey! I could look at you forever!”
Safe for the time being under the sheltering overhang of the cave, Rob carefully checked Karen to make sure she was okay. Her hair was hanging lankly around her ears, her pale face was covered with mud, and her clothes were drenched and ragged. She had never looked more beautiful to him.
Brad turned to Victoria and said, “Don’t worry, baby. I’ll take care of the dishes for you. You just go to bed.”
Yup — there’s the real porn. Our romantic hero, who looks good and smells better (unlike many of Hollywood’s most famous and narcissistic stars, both male and female), thinks that, under any circumstances, our heroine is the most gorgeous thing in the world and he helps out around the house.
What’s sad is that relationship porn didn’t used to be a niche market idea. Before the sexual revolution hit, popular culture encouraged men to appreciate and cherish their woman. That is no longer the case, though, which may explain why women are so happy wrapped in the loving arms of a romance novel.
A young Yale grad, Nathan Harden, has just published a new book that reveals both a symptom and a cause of the unloving culture we’ve created for young American women. The title pretty much tells its own story: Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad. I haven’t read Harden’s book, but he spells out the premise in a recent Daily Beast post, descriptively entitled “When Sex Isn’t Sexy: My Bizarre Education at Yale University.” That premise is a simple, and sad, one; namely, that Yale has become one of American education’s major sex purveyors, and that the sex it sells to students has nothing to do with romance, love, and respect, and everything to do with commerce and impersonal relationships:
When the average person thinks of Yale University, sex probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Nevertheless, in recent years Yale has positioned itself as a leader in a radical new form of sex education, complete with sex toy pageants, porn star lectures, sadomasochism seminars, and fellatio demonstrations. What does any of that have to do with the mission of Yale University? That’s the question I set out to answer in my new book, Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.
Yale’s cozy relationship with corporate interests in the sex industry—including numerous major porn production companies and some of the nation’s largest sex toy companies—has been the backbone of its infamous “Sex Week at Yale” event for the past ten years. Other elite universities, including Harvard, Brown, and Northwestern, have begun holding sex-themed events modeled on the corporate-backed events at Yale. Yale’s leaders say that academic freedom requires them to allow these activities. But I think they need to learn a basic business lesson: When a company comes into a classroom to market and sell its products, that’s called advertising, not education.
Yuck. Pardon me while I go refresh my mind by spending some time with Lainey and Caleb, or maybe Rob and Karen, or perhaps I’ll ask the imaginary Brad to help me out around the house.
UPDATE: Somehow it seems apropos to note here that the First Lady has found herself guest editing a website that includes her fitness and lifestyle tips alongside sex advice from prostitutes. Michelle Obama, of course, has nothing to do with sex advice; it’s just that the commercialization of sex, and its uncoupling from romance (pardon that pun) is everywhere.
UPDATE II: As Abercrombie & Fitch is discovering, in a market glutted with sex, even sex stops selling. Maybe they should raffle off their male models with the promise that the guys will come to the lucky winner’s house and do the dishes.
I’ve already confessed to having a weakness for romance novels. My problem with this shameful weakness is that there was only one Georgette Heyer. Everything else is second best, with most books being more secondary than others.
Because of my fondness for Heyer’s wit and delicacy, I prefer true romances — the literary dance that takes two charming individuals right up to the kiss — as opposed to bodice rippers, many of which are just rather boring soft-core porn. I thought that I had found one of those true romances the other day, but I’ve been terribly disappointed, not only because the romance part was ultimately a failure, but because it was a stealth Progressive book.
The book that so disappointed me — and that leads me to a riff about good romances and about non-political romances — is Kissing Adrien. The book’s premise is a good one: Claire, an extremely buttoned-down American woman goes to Paris to help wrap-up a distant, and deceased, relative’s affairs. While there, a young man — the Adrien of the title — whom she’s known and loved since childhood, takes her under his wing.
The novel’s correct trajectory would have been for Adrien to have viewed Claire simply as a childhood friend but then to fall in love with her as his joie de vivre and sophistication help her become happy with herself and with life. The novelist, however, chose to have Adrien’s love date back to Claire’s childhood, which is an impossible premise. As written, Adrien is charm personified, and Claire, who seems “likeable enough” when the book begins, proves to be a repressed, unhappy, rigid lump. Adrien’s love is not believable, destroying the book’s central premise.
I can forgive a bad plot. Finding a romance novel built around a person growing and changing, rather than a person ripping her clothes off in the first chapter, is pleasant enough for me to stick with the book. What I can’t forgive is that, three-quarters of the way through the book, after Adrien has taught Claire about the pleasure of fine wine, good food, relaxation, and beautiful clothes, Adrien also teaches Claire (a self-professed Republican) that capitalism is cruel and evil, and that socialism is the most civilized, humanist way to go. Claire is overwhelmed by the force of his argument, and from then goes on happily to embrace the notion that Communism is consistent with Christianity, because the original Christians were probably communists. (Never mind that they voluntarily embraced a communal life, rather than having it thrust upon them by a totalitarian state.)
There is no greater turn-off in an ostensible romance than suddenly having someone’s political views thrust in ones face. Talk about romanaticus interruptus.
The only good thing in all this is that, having gotten the book as a free Kindle download, I’m not feeling cheated. Ultimately, it proved to be worth precisely what I paid for it — namely, nothing.
I happen to be extremely fond of Georgette Heyer who, in the mid-20th Century, picked up Jane Austen’s mantle. Here is a lovely character description she wrote about the romantic lead in her book Black Sheep:
He was not a rebel. Rebels fought against the trammels of convention, and burned to rectify what they saw to be evil in the shibboleths of an elder generation, but Miles Calverleigh was not of their number. No wish to reform the world inspired him, nor the smallest desire to convert others to his own way of thinking. He accepted, out of a vast and perhaps idle tolerance, the rules laid down by a civilised society, and, when he transgressed these, accepted also, and with unshaken good-humour, society’s revenge on him. Neither the zeal of a reformer, nor the rancour of one bitterly punished for the sins of his youth, awoke a spark of resentment in his breast. He did not defy convention: when it did not interfere with whatever line of conduct he meant to pursue he conformed to it; and when it did he ignored it, affably conceding to his critics their right to censure him, if they felt so inclined, and caring neither for their praise nor their blame.
Miles is a hero Heyer likes. Here is what she has to say about an amiable but shallow society woman who hosts the eponymous heroine in Arabella:
She expected nothing but pleasure from Arabella’s visit, and although she knew that in launching the girl into society she was behaving in a very handsome way, she never dwelled on the reflection, except once or twice a day in the privacy of her dressing-room, and then not in any grudging spirit, but merely for the gratifying sensation it gave her of being a benevolent person.
If you like graceful writing, social satire and humor, and you’re willing to have a bit of romance on the side, I can’t recommend Georgette Heyer highly enough.
If through some magical alchemy I could get some of my favorite authors to write into being the man in my next life (I’m planning on being reincarnated), the authors, in chronological order, would be: Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, Neville Shute and Linda Howard. Do any of you have writers who create characters who resonate with you beyond the ordinary pleasure of just reading a good book?