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.