Monthly Archives: September 2012

the romance genre is way ahead of the Australian government on this one

Yesterday the Australian Parliament voted against the Marriage Amendment Bill. It’s times like this when I think, “Thanks for maintaining the roads. I like the roads. But you do not represent me at all.”

But Penny Wong put it much better than I can.

Particularly to young gay and lesbian Australians, to those who may not have come out yet, or are finding their way – I want you to know that the prejudice you have heard in this debate does not reflect the direction in which this country is going.

Those who oppose this Bill speak to the past. I and my colleagues are talking to a better future.

Because whatever happens in the Parliament this week, our relationships are not inferior, our relationships are not less equal, and our love is no less real.

I handed in the first draft of my teen romance last week, so as a reward I took this week off. I’ve pretty much been reading without breathing, and mostly I’ve been reading m/m (male/male) romance.

I’ve been reading about repressed bankers in late 19C Manhattan, who can’t share their relationship with even their closest friends and families for fear of going to prison. I’ve been reading about Scuba Cowboys and trauma surgeons in present-day Florida who had to deal with family prejudice, but get engaged anyway, against the day their state allows them to marry.

Yesterday, when I saw on the news how very backward my government really is, I happened to be reading about a mismatched, gorgeous, crazy-romantic pair in present-day Britain. At the end of the story they get engaged. And then…they get married, in a civil ceremony, at Cambridge University where one of them is a lecturer.

It kind of blew my mind.

In the context of what happened in Australia yesterday – in the context of a not-so-distant past when gay couples couldn’t even share their relationships with the people nearest to them, and even of a present day in which gay couples are still waiting for marriage to be legalised before they can express their love out loud in the most fundamental way – that ending felt revolutionary.

The couple in that story didn’t have to wait, didn’t have to hesitate. They just got married.  And it’s not a fairytale, either – it’s just present-day Britain.

This is one of the things I love most about the romance genre. It made that experience real to me. It’s so unfalteringly optimistic when it comes to love.

I know there are conservative romance writers and readers out there, but for me, yesterday, my genre was one of the most powerful revolutionary forces operating inside this political debate. Romance doesn’t come into political speeches or reports – but it makes gay equality a reality for its readers, out in the world where change is happening no matter what our governments say.

death is my independence

The dissolute rake falling for the pure virgin is a classic romance trope. In Romancelandia it means watching a man beyond redemption become redeemed through love. In the original rake/virgin novel…not so much.

Clarissa, written in 1748, is the story of a virtuous woman pursued by an irredeemable man, Robert Lovelace (aka Best Rake Name Ever). Modern romance readers are allergic to “bad” heroes, which means that all rakes must be Tragically Misunderstood for Tragic Reasons (see sympathy coupons). Not so Lovelace. He is a genuinely Bad Man. Also a Very Beautiful Man. (Here’s where I admit I haven’t read the book, only watched the BBC adaptation. Sean Bean in makeup and lace is a Very Beautiful Man, at any rate.)

He works outside of the morals of society, so he’s a powerful agent for change. He alone can help Clarissa escape her restrictive family. But the same qualities that make him powerful also make him unable to love her in the right way. For the first time he feels love, and it unsettles him as it should unsettle any rake. He reacts the only way he knows how, and tries to force Clarissa into marriage. Instead, he drives her to starve herself to death in obscurity.

The priest who’s caring for her tells her that the bible absolves her of any shame, and that she must choose to live. She says to him, “Death is my independence.”

This is apparently the longest novel in the English language, but I reckon that single line makes every other word in it worthwhile.

Historical settings are romantic to us romance writers because the social restrictions a woman has to overcome to choose a selfish, personal kind of love are much more obvious. Her journey to personal autonomy and sexual expression is clearer, because she exists in a context that doesn’t allow her these things.

But aside from the occasional fluke, I’d say Clarissa’s a much more realistic picture of what a woman’s emotional journey would have been if a more experienced man became infatuated with her.

It’s a kind of independence that’s mirrored almost a hundred years later in Jane Eyre when she withholds from Rochester the only thing that’s still hers to withhold. Her body is wholly in Rochester’s power – there’s no one to interfere on her behalf. But Rochester, despairing, says, “But whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want.”

Even if a woman found love with her husband, it would take a pretty extraordinary woman not to have been somewhat subsumed inside her husband’s desires and society’s expectations of her as a married woman.

Let me say here that I don’t want romance heroines to die for the sake of their purity. Er, no. Having a woman overcome the obstacles imposed by her gender is a wonderful allegory for modern women, whose obstacles are far more ambiguous. But I wonder whether the historical context could also be used for a story about personal independence.

There’s a romance trope that goes something like this: The wallflower, who’s fast approaching her late twenties *gasp!* with no sign of marriage on the horizon, decides to remake herself. She starts to follow her own desires. She becomes unreasonable, and powerful. And then she gets the man.

I get it. It’s a statement about the autonomy that’s necessary, even in marriage. It’s a clear declaration of the fact that you’re always at your most charismatic when you’re being purely yourself. But there’s also something in there that goes: Independence is one more trait you need to acquire in order to get a man.

The next romance series I plan to write will be five books long. It’s the story of an enigmatic man and his adopted children who drive Britain’s industry in the mid-1800s. The series begins when a genteel woman, Hadrienne, is engaged to the eldest son, Primus. Primus ends up marrying her companion instead, and Hadi gets engaged to the next son in order to stay with the family who have become her family.

My initial idea was that Hadi’s romance with the father would be the series-arc romance. The father has turned his back on his aristocratic beginnings, and Hadi is everything he thinks he’s disowned. She subscribes to very classic “female” behaviour, and as she comes into her own the father can no longer discount her.

Then the other day something happened. I realised that one of the kids’ biological mother is, contrary to popular belief, still alive. And that she’s the love of the father’s life. This felt absolutely right…but it left Hadi hanging.

Her engagement starts the whole series. Her story gives the series its arc. I couldn’t leave her romantically unresolved, could I, in a romance series?

My first reaction was a categorical No. And then I thought, Yes.

The more I think about it, the more right it feels. Her journey was always one to personal independence. It’s not easy for her, but she has to face the women’s movement and decide for herself what she thinks. She takes up photography and documents the lives of women. She becomes someone who would once have seemed disgusting to her.

And it’s right that her actions aren’t rewarded with a man, but with herself.

I recently came across photographer Clayton Cubitt’s portraiture project Hysterical Literature. He films women reading aloud and being brought to orgasm. They’re fully clothed, and they appear to be sitting alone at a table. Cubitt’s interested in catching genuine glimpses of people in an age that’s obsessed with self-documentation. He’s referencing the idea that female hysteria was once treated with medical orgasm, and the sensual relationship women have to the written word. He’s also interested in exploring concepts of high art and low art. The project obviously edges onto the space occupied by pornography – but is also wildly different.

He never explicitly draws the parallel, but to me the idea of high literature and low literature was so present in the videos – especially the uneasiness around what women read and the arousal that’s often part of what they read.

The videos are…not explicit in the pornographic sense. You see nothing. But you do watch a woman come to arousal and come. So don’t watch them if that kind of thing disturbs you.

I found them extraordinary. They depict a female sexuality that has nothing to do with a partner. It’s intensely personal. It’s something I’ve never seen so explicitly depicted before. It’s the kind of romance that I want Hadi to embody, so that her story is not to do with a man but is deeply, powerfully romantic anyway.

4 more things to adore about Miss Marple

Special k and I watch a lot of who-dunnits. Sherlock (Holmes), Poirot, Whitechapel, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. But my very favourite is Miss Marple.

The show, for one thing, is ridiculously well made. Sharp scripts, beautiful sets, well-shot and chock-full of Britain’s best actors. There’s something about Miss Marple, too, that sets her apart from other detectives. She’s unassuming (she doesn’t, like Poirot, introduce herself as The Best Detective Alive) but never submissive. I love watching the people around her underestimate her and then gradually change their minds – though her behaviour remains constant. I love the melancholy wrapped up in this woman people assume is doddering or numb, because she’s old.

The latest episode to air on the ABC was ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’. Here are four things I adored about it:

1) Miss Marple’s assistant for the episode is one of the hotel’s maids, a woman called Jane. The first time she talks alone to the war-stricken detective she says to him, “Just because I’m in a pinny, don’t make me stupid.” “Well,” he says. “That’s me told.” Her sister worked in munitions during the war, and told her that women’s equality had arrived. Then the war ended and Jane found herself in service. Like nothing had changed at all.

Working with Miss Marple to solve the murder she proves herself to be quick and clever – catching on about ten times faster than the detective to everything that’s going on. At the end of the episode she quits her job at the hotel, because she figures the police force will be recruiting women soon. “What do you think?” she asks Miss Marple. “I think,” Miss Marple replies, “it sounds exactly the sort of thing I’d never have done at your age. And always wish I had.”

Oh, and this conversation begins with Jane telling Miss Marple that Detective Bird has asked her to go away with him – not to get married though, no, just to live together for a while and see they get on. Her idea.

2) Which brings me to the romance. Detective Bird is a disillusioned soldier who seems to have been exhausted by the war. His declaration of love is the very best kind.

“Miss Cooper. Jane. Um. I wondered if I could. If you would be so good as to, er. If you would maybe like to consider.” *long, nervous pause* “You’re the most wonderful, intelligent, beautiful woman I’ve ever met. When I first saw you, you took my breath away. And it hasn’t come back yet. When I’m near you I feel drunk. Or dizzy. Or drunk and dizzy. And like I’m walking on air.”

“Inspector Bird–”

“And if whatever you may think of me is a fraction of what I feel for you–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“If there’s any hope you could in your heart–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“Yes?”

“What’s your first name?”

My favourite thing about this gorgeous declaration is that when he says “And like I’m walking on air” he’s uneasy, unsettled, like walking on air is terrifying.

3) ***SPOILERS FOR THE MYSTERY***

This is just one example of Agatha Christie’s mastery of her genre.

A set of identical twins are staying at the hotel, and early on Miss Marple notes that she can tell them apart because one of them is left-handed, one right-handed. The twin she’s talking to thinks she observed his left-handedness because he held his paper under his left arm. It feels like a fairly obvious set-up for a case of mistaken identity.

Indeed, during a critical scene one of the twins appears looking for the other, with a book tucked very definitely under one arm. The other twin arrives soon after, with a hat in his other hand. It felt a little deflating, because it was so obviously the same twin.

During the “all-is-revealed” scene Miss Marple calls them out on it – but absolves them of the murder. They were off stealing jewellery.

The actual murder is much more complex, and involves two girls passing themselves off as one girl, so as to be in two places at once. And what gave them away? One shoots with her left hand, the other with her right.

***END SPOILERS***

4) Miss Marple’s first name is also Jane. Jane-the-maid is quite clearly a girl after her own heart – one who will take after her in a new era. Sharing a name signifies all the other qualities they share. It also allows for a subtle, heart-breaking moment at the end.

The two Janes are talking, and then a man calls out, “Jane!” in a passionate, joyful way. The camera is on Miss Marple as she looks up, a kind of wonder in her face. Then pain. The man is Detective Bird, and he’s calling the younger Jane who goes blithely to him, to embrace him, to walk into the future with him. Jane the elder, whose love was killed in the First World War, remembers that she is an old woman, and her time for young love has passed.

For any Aussies who want to watch it, it’s up on iView at the moment.