Category Archives: review

A Woman Entangled Giveaway

Cecilia Grant’s third book, A Woman Entangled, is out in the world. Huzzah!

I’ve spoken quite a bit about Cecilia on this blog, because her writing is an inspiration. She also wrote one of my favourite posts from my guest series last year – the one that called romance fiction “a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair”.

I’d read quite a few mixed reactions to A Woman Entangled, so I wasn’t certain whether it would grab me the way A Gentleman Undone did. In the end it was a completely different reading experience – and I loved every minute of it.

The first thing I love is how Grant evokes a sense of time and place. I’ve said before that my favourite kind of historical fiction creates a character moving into their own projection of the future that is based in what they know of the world, not what we know of the world.

The first time we meet the barrister hero, Nick, he is standing in the Inns of Court, and–

Actually, let me interrupt myself and say that the first time we see Nick is thusly: Round the landing, down the stairs, and through the heavy oak front door, Nicholas Blackshear spilled out into the cold sunlight of Brick Court, black robes billowing in his wake.

Then he stands out on the street and thinks:

Blackstone and Oliver Goldsmith had each surely stood here – he had only to glance up at Number Two Brick Court to see where the jurist and the writer had slept and studied a few generations ago.

But so it was throughout the Inns of Court. Just as he always had to stop at the sundial, so must he quietly marvel, every time he took a meal in the Middle Temple Hall, at the serving table whose wood came from the hull of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. So must he always attempt, mid-meal, to picture all the details of the evening, some two hundred years ago, when the benchers and students had been privileged to witness the very first performance of Twelfth Night in that same room.

To be a London barrister was to live surrounded by the best of everything England had to offer, all from men who’d charted their own courses to greatness. A fellow might end up anywhere, who began here.

Gah, the loveliness and depth of that passage! The historical writer in me despairs. The reader in me rejoices.

The next thing I love about A Woman Entangled is that when we meet Nick we’ve just come from meeting our heroine, Kate, who also aspires to greatness – she intends to marry into the aristocracy and lift her family back to their rightful place in society. And it is so heartbreaking to see the difference in what she is allowed to aspire to, compared to this grand dream of Nick’s that stretches back through time and all the great men that came before him.

Grant has done an extraordinary thing in this book: she has embedded it deeply, and without overt commentary, in the sensibilities of the time. Kate isn’t a feminist heroine placed anachronistically back in time to fight against all the constraints placed on women; she is an intelligent, warm-hearted woman living unselfconsciously within the world she knows. Nick respects and admires her – and treats her accordingly. But he also hands down judgement (and advice) on her actions in a very Knightly-ish fashion, because as a man he naturally knows more of the wider world and how it works.

What an incredibly fine line this is to walk! To fully evoke the sensibilities of a time that was more constraining and unequal than ours, and to believably write a man and a woman meeting as equals.

As far as I’m concerned, Grant succeeded.

There are many, many more things I loved about this book, but I’ll just discuss one more before proceeding to the giveaway.

I utterly adored Grant’s previous book, A Gentleman Undone. It grabbed me in some visceral, emotional place and left me feeling scrubbed clean and quiet. When the heroine of that book, Lydia, says to Nick in this book, “The first thing I want you to know, Mr. Blackshear, is that I love your brother. My attachment to him is fiercer than my attachment to life.” I believed her without hesitation.

But A Woman Entangled shows Nick suffering because of his brother’s decision to marry a courtesan. Almost no briefs come his way anymore, and he doesn’t feel welcome in the society he needs to impress, in order to become a politician.

The unequal marriage is a romantic notion – the duke and the serving girl, the countess and the steward. But in romance we never see the cost of these marriages, because then we would have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: is love worth this? It’s a question that runs counter to the whole premise of romance.

Grant didn’t back away from that question. She forced me to wonder whether Lydia and Will – who I believed in so thoroughly – should have put family before love. Not a comfortable feeling. But one that feels closer to the real choices we make around love – and the real triumph love can be – than I usually find in romance.

Fortunately, she attacks the same question from the other side in the romance between Nick and Kate, and comes to – no surprises here – a happy conclusion. Not easy, but happy.

Neither Nick’s aspirations nor Kate’s are served by them marrying; each has connections that will cast a shadow over the other. But as they fall in love, each comes to feel how genuine, fulfilling human relationships make up the real stuff of life. They are still driven by what drives them, but they come to understand that aspirations are dreams that don’t take into account the daily living of life.

It’s a joy to read about the difference real human connection makes – and Grant answers her own question about love by suggesting that fulfilling relationships not only make life bearable, they give us strength to see ourselves clearly and pursue, in the long-term, what we really want from life.

I’m giving away a print copy of this wonderful book to one commenter! (All countries welcome.) Leave any comment you like, from “Gimme” to a thesis on literary analysis. I’ll be drawing the winner’s name on Monday morning, Australian time.

ETA: I have just done my usual, highly scientific names-from-a-hat, and the winner is Londonmabel! Congratulations! I hope you enjoy this wonderful novel. Thanks to everyone else for entering your names. I encourage you all to get your hands on the book without delay :-) .

the very problematic, the very romantic Mr Frank Churchill

I’ve been visiting my family in Canberra, which is beautiful this time of year. And what a weak word beautiful seems to describe how the odd, purpose-built, overlooked capital of Australia embodies autumn. How still and quiet it is, except for those screaming cockatoos, and how blue the sky looks against the fire-and-plum-pudding leaves.

Well anyway, I’ve been visiting my family, and my sister and I decided to re-watch the 2009 adaptation of Emma (screenplay by the ever-marvellous Sandy Welch).

It’s a fabulous adaptation in so many ways. Emma’s father is hilarious and heartbreaking, and though her brother-in-law finds him impossible to deal with, it’s subtly suggested that he’s on his way to becoming the same neurotic, grumpy old man. And of course Emma and Knightly’s lifelong relationship is so real, and so much fun to watch. (And oh, that line, “Maybe if I loved you less, I could talk about it more.”)

But watching it this time round, it was Frank Churchill who caught my interest.

He’s awful. If I was Emma I would never have forgiven him so easily – and it grates on me, watching it, how he seems to get away with being an utter shit. But I also realised that he’s the Romance rake. He’s the difficult hero. Knightly, who’s good in every way (except that he likes to give patronising lectures) isn’t a very popular kind of hero in Romance.

And to be honest, I love the way Frank is mean about Jane to hide their relationship. It really tickles my id to have him explain away why he’s watching her by saying, “I was just thinking how poorly she has done her hair this evening.” At that point in the narrative she seems to be onside with it. She’ll be reserved and keep to herself; he’ll perpetuate the idea that he only visits her from obligation. It’s when he gets frustrated and genuinely mean that it stops being enjoyable.

But I think it’s a problem of perspective. We’re watching Frank as an antagonist within a romance that’s based on respect, moral judgement and kindness, so when he acts out it comes across as immature and thoughtless. If, on the other hand, we take his romance as the primary romance, he becomes what most heroes in Romance are: tortured by his feelings.

I think if I were reading that romance, I could enjoy how awful he is. I would revel in his lack of moral sense. He’s a man caught between what he owes to his manipulative family – and the fortune he’ll inherit from them – and love. I wouldn’t want to read about that as a simple moral choice.

It’s also a set-up that doesn’t discount the importance of money, which I like. We never get the sense he’s thinking about giving his fortune up to have Jane. In fact, he petulantly talks about running off to the Continent. He’s aware of the constraints love places on him – how it keeps him in this tiny, anonymous English town. He’s aware of the kind of life he could have – should have – were it not for love.

If Jane Austen were writing Frank and Jane as the primary romance, I can’t help but think that they would only be rewarded with happiness if they kept their feelings properly, achingly to themselves. I love that, as a secondary romance, she rewards them with happiness no matter how awful they’ve been. There’s no moral judgement on their feelings. As Knightly says, their happiness is just dumb luck: Frank’s aunt is in the way of their marriage – Frank’s aunt dies.

What redeems their romance in the adaptation (I can’t remember how it’s portrayed in the book) is the scene where we finally see them freely together. Frank waits in the village square, and Jane runs to him. When they meet they become – for the first time in four hours of TV – wholly, fully themselves (or wholly their best, brightest selves, anyway). All the fun and passion and impetuosity that has made Frank awful at times turns him into an irresistible man – a lover who will never let his love become bored, or feel unadored. All of Jane’s reserve and unhappiness fall away – though you feel what a frightening thing it must be to let them fall away – and she becomes the girl whose heart has been stolen, and is firm in the hands of her beloved.

 

some reasons why Dirty Dancing is the best

Seriously, if I was doing this post in gifs, I’d have to include pretty much the whole movie. The watermelons! The bridge montage! The awkward “woooaaaaaaah” noise they both make on the log when Patrick Swayze almost loses his balance! (Okay, that last one wouldn’t make a great gif, but it’s one of the moments particular to this movie.)

Let’s start with the watermelons. When Baby wanders out of bounds, into the staff only area, she encounters Johnny’s cousin (does anyone remember his name?) carrying three huge watermelons. He calls her names, she makes to leave, he offers her a watermelon to carry as a peace offering.

Why watermelons? Who knows. But that one random detail gives one of the best shots of the movie – Johnny’s cousin shouldering open the doors to the staff dance hall, then juggling two watermelons – and one of the best lines of the movie. When Johnny finally condescends to stop grinding every woman in the place and come talk to Baby, the only line she can come up with is, “I carried a watermelon.”

The whole sequence could have happened without the watermelons, but wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.

Baby’s relationship to her sister Lisa is a – hmm, I was going to say subtle, but I’m not sure anything in this film is subtle – wonderful small piece of feminism. Baby looks down on her older sister, who’s a superficial girly girl. Baby’s smart and serious – she’s going to enter the Peace Corps. So when Lisa first hooks up with Robbie, one of the waiters, Baby just rolls her eyes, because it has nothing to do with her. It’s just Lisa being easily distracted, as always.

Even when she sees Lisa storming out of the woods with Robbie, straightening herself up and demanding an apology, she doesn’t think it has anything to do with her. She even uses going to see if Lisa’s okay as an excuse to escape her awkward date, but never actually goes to see her.

But after baby falls in love, and starts having sex – after she comes to realise how important romantic experience can be – she sees Lisa in a new light. She also knows what a scumbag Robbie is, first hand. So for the first time she tries to talk to her about what sex means, and asks Lisa to think about it and be careful. Lisa doesn’t listen, of course, because why on earth should she?

After Lisa also realises, first hand, what a dick Robbie is, and sees Baby ostracised over Johnny, they start to see each other more clearly. Lisa can see that her sister isn’t all high-and-mighty anymore – she has walked into that murky, uncomfortable, human space where she lets other people affect her. They’ve both had their hearts broken.

For the final concert, Lisa offers to do Baby’s hair. Baby understands this gesture is how Lisa can show her love, show she’s sorry. And Lisa, pushing Baby’s hair back into a style, lets it go, realising Baby doesn’t need to be anything other than what she is. They will never be the same kind of person, but they’ve found a way to understand and stand up for each other.

Also, Lisa singing Hula Hana is hands down one of the best bits of the movie. Especially because it’s just background to a transformative emotional moment. (Another of those perfect details, like the watermelons.)

And then there’s the romance.

It starts out with a conventional romance vibe – a naive good girl falls for the bad boy from the streets. But gradually the dynamics start to shift. Baby lives an undeniably privileged life. She can go to university and join the Peace Corps. Not because she’s smarter or more moral than anyone else, but because she’s in a financial position to do it – and more importantly, because she’s been raised to believe she can do anything.

Her privilege isn’t sneered at, or turned into a negative trait. Johnny sees that it gives her power. It puts her in a position he’s never been in in his life. It makes her something that’s difficult for him to understand, but so seductive and inspiring. It makes him look up to her. It makes him want more.

And Johnny, the bad boy with the incredible body and dance moves, isn’t as powerful as he first appears. In that conventional romance set-up, he has all the power. He can desire her or not, choose to dance with her or choose to sneer at her. But then we realise how rich women take advantage of him. He’s a fantasy to them, not a person. He’s a weekend getting back at their husbands. He’s a break from real life.

He’s talented and passionate, but if he wants to keep his job he has to keep the guests happy. And if he steps out of line, well his dad has a place in the House Painters Union lined up for him. His world is a tenuous place.

What’s even better about the romance, though, is that Baby’s privilege does make her naive, and Johnny’s background does keep him in his place more effectively than any outside influence. These big, obvious themes are complicated.

The moment when Baby comes to Johnny’s hut and asks him to dance (have sex) with her, his face is amazing. (I don’t care what anyone says – Patrick Swayze brings it in this movie.) He’s so completely terrified. He wants so badly, he’s burning up with hope, but he doesn’t know how to trust it.

Baby, much as we love her and believe in her, is just one more privileged woman enjoying the fantasy of Johnny.

The romance doesn’t actually happen until the moment Baby tells her father she’s been sleeping with Johnny. Until that moment she could leave, leave Johnny’s heart in tatters, and no one would be any the wiser. Until that moment she’s playing at being in love. It’s also the moment she proves she’s not just going to ride out on her white horse and save the world from on high – she’s actually going to act on her convictions, and get her hands dirty. The world, when you really engage with it, is a messy place.

And how great is it that when they say goodbye they don’t pretend they’re going to be together forever, or even see each other again? It’s just this beautiful thing, that neither of them will ever regret.

And lastly, there’s that incredible call from the heart, when Johnny’s walking away, and Baby calls out his name.

So if you’ve made it through this love-fest: What are your favourite bits of the movie? Or do you, travesty of travesties, not like it?

princes in love

I’m in the middle of writing a post about my favourite fairy tale, because it’s not all that well known and I need to talk to you guys about it. But today I had to post about another kind of fairy tale with two princes and way more vicious dialogue and the kind of romance you would give your teeth for. (Those of us who’ve seen Les Mis the movie now have a much better idea of what giving your teeth can lead to.)

I talk about Cat all the time, and she wrote an incredible post on tension in my guest series. That post is probably the best insight you’ll get into why you can’t put her books down once you start reading them – and why it’s a bit like being twisted up tight, then tighter, then tighter again.

On Monday, volumes I and II of Captive Prince will be live on Amazon. I’ve already pre-ordered my paper copies, and I can’t wait to get them in the mail. They are so pretty!

    

But I should really tell you what they’re about. Damen is the crown prince of Akielos – but the day his father dies he’s betrayed by his bastard brother and sent to serve their enemy’s prince as a slave. Laurent, crown prince of Vere, is beautiful, petty, spoilt and frigid. (Why do I love that string of adjectives so much?) He is the antithesis of Damen, but for the first time in his life Damen can’t act. If his identity is revealed it will mean Death By Beautiful, Petty, Spoilt and Frigid Prince.

So because he can’t just act, he has to start thinking, and he starts (slowly – oh, Damen) to realise Vere is a complex, intricate place and that its prince makes it look simple in comparison.

Then in volume II there are battles and hijinks and so much repressed desire you’ll practically choke on it.

Cat’s writing is sparse and stylised, dry, hilarious and punch-you-in-the-guts emotive. From an exchange between princes, about the battle where Damen’s people fought Laurent’s people and Laurent’s golden brother died:

* * *

In fact the baths were empty, except for one person.

As yet untouched by the steam, clothed from toe-tip to neck, and standing in the place where slaves were washed before they entered the soaking bath. When Damen saw who it was, he instinctively lifted a hand to his gold collar, unable to quite believe that he was unrestrained, and that they were alone together.

Laurent reclined against the tiled wall, settling his shoulders flat against it. He regarded Damen with a familiar expression of golden-lashed dislike.

‘So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?’

‘I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone I first check to see if their voice has broken,’ said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

‘Did you fight at Marlas?’

Damen did not react to the smile, which was not authentic. The conversation was now on a knife edge. He said: ‘Yes.’

‘How many did you kill?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Lost count?’

Pleasantly, as one might inquire about the weather. Laurent said, ‘The barbarian won’t fuck boys, he prefers to wait a few years and then use a sword in place of his cock.’

Damen flushed. ‘It was battle. There was death on both sides.’

‘Oh, yes. We killed a few of you too. I would like to have killed more, but my uncle is unaccountably clement with vermin. You’ve met him.’

Laurent resembled one of the etched figures of the intaglio, except that he was done in white and gold, not silver. Damen looked at him and thought: This is the place where you had me drugged.

‘Have you waited six days to talk to me about your uncle?’ Damen said.

Laurent rearranged himself against the wall into a position that looked even more indolently comfortable than the one before.

‘My uncle has ridden to Chastillon. He hunts boar. He likes the chase. He likes the kill, too. It’s a day’s ride, after which he and his party will stay five nights at the old keep. His subjects know better than to bother him with missives from the palace. I have waited six days so that you and I could be alone.’

Those sweet blue eyes gazed at him. It was, when you shook off the sugared tone, a threat.

* * *

The paperbacks are up for pre-order on Amazon, but you’ll have to wait till Monday to buy the e-books. They’ll also be available on iTunes from Monday.

Amazon: VOLUME I  | VOLUME II

 

I had no thought for your reputation

Sandy Welch can do no wrong. She wrote the screenplay for the playful 2009 adaptation of Emma and the gorgeous 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre. And, of course, the 2004 adaptation of North and South. Ah, North and South.

I recently sent special k out in 40-degree heat to buy it for me because I had to watch it again. Immediately. I’ve also read the book, and for me Welch screwed all the relationships that bit tighter, and made what is an extremely polemic book slightly less so. Or slightly more human, at least.

I want to talk about the proposal scene, because it is so, so wonderful. I can’t help but compare it to the Pride and Prejudice proposal scene: they both occur about half way through the book, and both turn into a hot mess and alienate the hero and heroine from one another. But they function completely differently.

As I put it recently on twitter: Darcy’s feelings drive him to propose, against all logic. Circumstances drive Thornton to act in concert with his feelings, though it terrifies him to do so.

Darcy is genuinely horrified by the idea of marrying into the Bennett family – and Elizabeth is genuinely offended by what he says. Each is secure in their own world, and cannot meet the other on common ground.

John Thornton and Margaret Hale are trying to understand each other, but their worlds are so different that it’s almost impossible. Their misunderstanding is more subtle and more heartbreaking, because it’s all in their characterisation.

Here’s the scene, so that you can get the full impact of Richard Armitage laying his heart on the chopping block:

And here’s my breakdown of why I love it so much:

J: I’d not noticed the colour of this fruit. [A brilliant opener. What he has to say is too terrifying to just say. So instead he talks about fruit.] Miss Hale, I’m afraid I was very ungrateful yesterday.

M: You’ve nothing to be grateful for.

J: I think that I do.

M: Well I did only the least that anyone would’ve. [This is where Margaret starts subtly lying. She believes every word she’s saying, but it’s clear to us, because we’ve seen their relationship developing, that this can’t be true.]

J: That can’t be true. [Well said, John.]

M: I was, after all, responsible for placing you in danger. I would’ve done the same for any man there.

J: Any man? So you approve of that violence – you think I got what I deserved.

M: No of course not. But they were desperate. I know if you were to talk—

J: I forgot. You imagine them to be your friends.

M: Oh but if you were to be reasonable. [Margaret is hopelessly naïve – but there is some truth in what she’s saying, so we can’t just dismiss her for it. Margaret and John see the world through completely different lenses, and it makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other, even though they want to.]

J: Me? Are you saying that I’m unreasonable? [John’s pride and quick temper start to take over, which will only skew the conversation further.]

M: If you would talk with them, and not set the soldiers on them, I know they would—

J: They will get what they deserve. [John does shift from this position eventually – but I can’t help loving how certain and uncompromising he is. He’s here, trying to tell the woman he loves that he loves her, and still he won’t be anything other than what he is.]

*Pause. How did the conversation get here?*

J: Miss Hale, I didn’t just come here to thank you. I came because. I think it very likely. I know I’ve never found myself in this position before. [With this line, John becomes the naïve one. We know Margaret has been proposed to before. John’s doing something completely terrifying and unrehearsed. This is utterly unique for him. It’s not for Margaret.] It’s difficult to find the words. Miss Hale, my feelings for you are very strong—

M: Please. Stop. Please don’t go any further. [This is more or less what she said to the other guy who tried to propose, and he backed right off, apologising for having misunderstood and staying silent about his hurt.]

J: Excuse me? [Best line ever. John is his own man, and is not just going to be fobbed off with some polite dance that everyone is supposed to understand. As I said, this is unrehearsed, for him.]

M: Please don’t continue in that way. It’s not the way of a gentleman. [Margaret’s retreating into the world of manners, rather than being emotionally true with John. I don’t think she loves him enough to actually accept him right now, but she’s not paying him the respect of being honest, when he’s been so heartbreakingly honest in turn.]

J: I’m well aware that in your eyes at least, I’m not a gentleman. But I think I deserve to know why I am offensive. [He calls her on it. Demands something true.]

M: It offends me that you would speak to me as if it were your – duty to rescue my reputation! [Another brilliant line. She is wilfully misunderstanding him. She’s decided what his proposal means, and is playing that scene out in her head.]

J: I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you – I had no thought for your reputation. [Right on!]

M: You think because you are rich, and my father is in reduced circumstances, that you can have me for your possession. Well I suppose I should expect no less from someone in trade! [Again, she’s ascribing intentions to him that he simply doesn’t have. The narrative has positioned him in this way – you can understand why she draws the conclusions she does. But she’s reacting to those conclusions, not to the man standing in front of her.]

J: I don’t want to possess you – I wish to marry you because I love you! [His vulnerability and honesty are so amazing. Especially because we know he isn’t confident he could deserve someone like her.]

M: You shouldn’t, because I do not like you. And never have. [Lying to protect herself from scary, adult feelings. There’s a subtle immaturity about Margaret in this scene that I love.]

J *shot through the chest*: One minute we talk of the colour of fruit. The next of love. How does that happen? [Again, the fruit adds something to this scene that it wouldn't have if it were all just straight emotion.]

M: My friend. Bessy Higgins. She died. [This line is so wonderful – it has nothing to do with what they’ve been talking about, but it suddenly recasts what Margaret must have been feeling, coming into this scene.]

J: And that of course is my fault too. [Also wonderful that John doesn’t let her get away with emotional diversion. (And because this dialogue is so layered, also John reacting in pride, and not listening to what she’s trying to tell him.)]

M: I’m sorry—

J: For what? That you find my feelings for you offensive? Or that you assume because I’m in trade I’m only capable of thinking in terms of buying and selling? Or that I take pleasure in sending my employees to an early grave?

M: No! No, no, of course not! I – I’m sorry to be so blunt. I’ve not learnt how to – how to refuse. How to respond when a man talks to me as you just have.

J: Oh, there are others? [John begins to see that while he’s been completely open and put his heart on the line, she’s been trying to keep to some mannerly script, just as she would with any other man.] This happens to you every day? Of course. You must have to disappoint so many men that offer you their heart.

M: Please understand, Mr Thornton—

J: I do understand. I understand you completely. [Haha, he doesn’t really. Well, in some ways he understands her better than she understands herself – she believes the things she was saying, even though they’re untrue. But he’s never fully put aside his pride and his point of view to understand where she’s coming from.]

It’s difficult to write two people at odds, who want to love each other. Most often it produces the kind of annoying bickering or unfounded antagonism found in so many romance novels. This scene is a study in the layering of character that creates believable, heart-breaking misunderstanding. Their world views are each valid, and each flawed. His pride, and her immaturity don’t allow them to have a completely honest conversation.

I will now go and think about how to become Sandy Welch.

reader reader writer reader

There was a post on Romance Novels for Feminists recently about the way we read “feisty heroine” as “feminist heroine”, even though this is often not true. In the comments, Jackie and I talked specifically about the feisty heroine who sees some “wrong” and runs about fixing it as she sees fit. She either makes this pig-headed mess that the hero has to clean up afterwards, or comes to realise her strongly held beliefs were wrong and wouldn’t be strongly held by anyone with more sense than a worm.

Doesn’t exactly scream intelligent, competent woman.

So it was a joy to read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War the next day and see her tackle this heroine trope head-on. Her heroine, Minnie, has declared war on her hero, Robert, when he refuses to give up the dangerous activity he’s involved in. She tells him she’s going to find proof of his involvement and turn him in to the authorities. Robert proceeds to think this:

In reality, he suspected that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of amateur sleuthing. Bad disguises, ham-handed questions, attempts to go through his rubbish in search of clues… Miss Pursling was undoubtedly the sort of hotheaded young lady who would throw herself into the chase with abandon.

Instead, she ignores him. And then they have this conversation:

He swallowed and cleared his throat. “This isn’t what I expected when you said you’d go to war with me.”

“Let me guess.” She fingered her glove carefully, and he noticed that she was worrying at a tiny hole in the tip. “You thought I would simper if you smiled at me. You supposed that when I said I would prove what you were doing to everyone, that I planned to engage in a bumbling, graceless investigation into your surface activities.”

“I–no, of course not.” But Robert felt his cheeks heat. Because that was precisely what he had thought.

She bit her lip, the picture of shyness. But her words were the opposite of shy. “Now,” she whispered, “you’re surprised to find that I overmatch you.”

Reading it again gives me tingles. She’s quiet, composed and confident. And she does outmatch him, and it surprises him. It worked for me as a kind of romance-trope satire because what Robert – and the reader – expect of her contrasts powerfully with what she really is. It’s creating character on the deepest level. However, it is still satire, in a sense. Robert doesn’t have any reason to expect silly sleuthing from her. He doesn’t think, “That’s how women are,” or even, “That’s how they are in silly romantic novels.” The expectation comes entirely from the genre itself, so it’s playing against the reader’s own expectations in a meta fashion.

Milan tackled quite a few romance tropes in The Duchess War. Some of them worked less well for me – they were less character-driven and more satirical, and so asked me to be conscious of myself as the reader and pulled me out of the story. This conversation between Minnie and Robert’s mother in particular (**CONTAINS SPOILERS**):

“Second,” she said, “you might consider not consummating the marriage.”

“What? Why? So it can be annulled?”

The duchess rolled her eyes. “That is a horrid myth. You cannot annul a marriage for simple lack of consummation. Trust me; I have consulted every lawyer in London as to the ways in which one might end a marriage. I know the law to an inch. … “

Perhaps women did hold the misconception back then that an unconsummated marriage could be annulled, and Minnie’s reaction is accurate. But it’s been one of the most pervasive, old-school misconceptions of historical romance, and I can’t help but feel that this exchange is a tongue-in-cheek jab at that, more than at any notions Minnie had or didn’t have.

The sex scene also challenged common romance tropes, though in this case it was absolutely wonderful, and served their characters before it served anything else. But it did make me think about social reading, and how it affects what and how we read.

There was a rash of Wish List posts recently, asking for more of certain romance trends. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex stuff in the comments: mostly requests for more bad sex and more virgin hero sex.

I’m not saying Milan is responding directly to what readers are asking for, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, she would have started writing this book ages ago. For another, she’s an author who writes consistently ahead of the curve. Also, she’s as engaged with the genre as any reader and would be as frustrated with certain tropes.

But her innovation isn’t read in a black hole. It immediately becomes part of the conversation.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but to me it felt one draft away from ready; some scenes felt as though they’d been changed from one POV to another and not entirely cleaned up, and there was one conversational exchange that should clearly have happened after, not before, an event. I particularly would have wished for Robert to depend on Minnie and her superior tactics for his end-game. She may not have been an unfeminist feisty heroine, but she was still not allowed to act in the crucial moment.

Maybe it’s because it felt unfinished that I could see more clearly than normal where Milan’s taking up the romance conversation, and what her book is doing to generate more of that conversation. The critical conversations around romance online is one of my favourite parts of the genre. There is so much intelligent, fascinating, engaged discussion going on, and I suspect we will see it affect what is written and published more in the next few years, just as what’s published feeds back into the discussion.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Okay, so you had to be there. And a man. And from the fifties.

We saw A Funny Thing last night at Her Majesty’s theatre. A musical about a Roman slave who has to match-make the hero and heroine to gain his freedom. I had problems.

So I get that it’s high farce, and camp as hell and in the first couple of minutes they even sing morals tomorrow, comedy tonight. But while I could kind of see the alternate universe where most of the audience was laughing, I just felt a bit horrified.

It wasn’t something I could just set aside, or lighten up about.

It wasn’t about me Making a Stand for Women Everywhere, or anything so complicated. It was simply that the story I was watching unfold on-stage appalled me.

Just to get it out of the way – yes, the farce is brilliant. The different story elements build seamlessly on top of each other then resolve like a deft magic trick. The slapstick was mostly funny, the script was mostly clever, and Geoffrey Rush on stage is a revelation.

But.

All the women in the show – with one exception – are courtesans/flesh. In the opening number they were wheeled on stage in a cage, dressed in skimpy bits of hessian. As cavewomen, maybe? It didn’t bother me – I figured it was just a kind of visual gag. Haha, treating women as just flesh? LOL, no. That would be stupid and wrong.

The next time we see the women, they’re paraded out one by one for the benefit of a lowly male slave who’s convinced their pimp he’s free now and cashed up. They weren’t in hessian this time – they were in gorgeous, amazing costumes. And it was somehow worse.

I think it was worse because although it was campy and over-the-top and slapstick – it had no layer of irony or self-awareness. The women were actually being paraded across the stage as objects of desire, for the audience as well as for the characters. And the men – lowly slave, airhead hero, pimp – were evaluating them.

Um, uncomfortable.

Not to mention the eunuchs (I’d kind of rather not). Apparently if you take away a man’s balls he becomes incoherent and baby-like. A kind of idiot animal.

Of course, the courtesan the hero is in love with is the one pure courtesan on the face of the planet. She’s a virgin. She is also apparently so stupid she can’t even count.

At this point I was trying to reason with myself and I was like, “Okay, but the hero’s a virgin and an airhead, too.” Yes, myself replied. He is also the free son of a senator; she’s a courtesan who’s been sold to a man she’s never met.

So, no – watching a woman play the blonde bimbo on stage, getting laughs for explaining that the only talent she has is being lovely, wasn’t funny. It just made me sad and uncomfortable.

There’s a distinction in humour here that was in force throughout the play, so I’m going to try and define it.

Because the tone of the play is funny, it’s easy to say, “Yes, but it’s poking fun at the idea of a blonde bimbo, it’s not taking the blonde bimbo seriously.” But who’s making the joke, who’s the butt of the joke and who’s laughing at the joke?

The joke of the airhead blonde virgin never felt to me like it had a punch-line that was kind or powerful to women. I didn’t feel like it was going, “Haha, and this is what’s traditionally the ideal woman? Traditional ideals are crazy, yo!” It felt like, “Haha, women are so stupid and compliant.” And I know that makes me seem humourless – but I find the way humour obscures an issue troublesome. Because it’s really hard to define why it’s still not right, when it seems to be making fun of itself.

Maybe it’s simply the context of gender inequality. The airhead hero is funny because it’s playing against the existing/unquestioned assumption that a male hero is powerful, manly, intelligent and supreme. The airhead slave heroine is discomforting because it plays into the assumption that women are submissive desire objects. If the play itself had set up some other assumption about women for it to play against it wouldn’t have upset me in the same way.

I tried to read the kindest possible interpretation into the play, and came up with the airhead heroine as a subversive image of the feminine: When a woman is so deeply compliant that she’ll do whatever any man tells her to, she becomes somehow un-graspable. No man can have her when any man can have her. No man can ever grasp the woman as a person because she is reduced to an object.

But I just don’t think the play was being that complex.

The one woman who isn’t a prostitute is the hero’s mother. I loved the pants off Magda Szubanski’s performance! The mother is a powerful matriarch who is still a fully sexual being. I think this interpretation owes a lot to Szubanski’s performance, though, as the mother is treated in the story as a shrewish wife whose own husband can’t stand her – and finds a middle-aged woman’s sexual desires off-putting.

I enjoyed the second half of the show. I’d become a bit numb to the sexual politics and the farcical elements of the play started to really pay off. Also, there’s an excellent piece of cross-dressing by the head male slave of the hero’s household.

I honestly don’t understand why this play has been revived without a single speck of self-awareness.

I can think of so many interesting ways it could be subverted, the most obvious being a gender-swap version – parading men across the stage to be assessed by the women. Three women singing about how nice it is to have a male servant around to ogle when he bends over would at best be confronting and at worst vaguely refreshing. Three men singing about ogling the female servants they’re going to be sexually assaulting later on is just yuck.

The only reason I can think of to revive this naïve performance is as a celebration of cultural heritage. Like watching a movie from the 60s, but it’s a play. But that got me thinking – there are parts of our cultural heritage that just don’t beg reviving. If this play had been about white masters and black slaves, I just don’t think any amount of humour would cover up how deeply wrong it is.

The only way that play could be revived would be to have the black slaves prove some supremacy over their white masters, in a subversive commentary on the original play.

Our airhead virgin heroine? Well, she got the guy in the end, I guess. Woo women!

yes, but do you *like* me?

Like exists in a sort of sub-category of romantic love. When you are in love with someone, it’s assumed that you also like them. It’s assumed so unconsciously that we almost never think of it, much less question it.

I decided to question it last week. I can’t remember why, exactly. I suspect I was having one of those hopeless personal moments of thinking, Why on earth is special k so sure he wants to be with me forever? I could imagine that it’s mostly easy, that it’s habit to spend a lot of time with me. But I was suddenly curious whether there was more than habit and ease and – yes, and more than love and the kind of loyalty that love breeds. Whether there was an active desire to spend time with me.

So I asked him, “What do you like about me?”

It’s an exposing question. Surprisingly exposing. And of course it’s a difficult thing to quantify. The things you can say – the words you can put to your feelings – are more like roadsigns or clues to feelings than feelings themselves. I tried to answer the question back, and could feel a whole world of feelings that were frustratingly unexpressed. I could see special k’s answers were the same, like suddenly looking at each other across a wide space of things unsayable, but trusting and loving and smiling all the same.

Liking, I discovered, is sometimes more romantic than loving.

Love has a kind of “no matter what you do, no matter who you are” quality about it. It’s what makes families to fraught and so wonderful. But like is specific. It means, “only you, in all the world”. 

In romance, we don’t see people liking each other nearly often enough. There’s quite a lot of admiring or being confronted by qualities in each other. There’s more than a lot of loving no matter how painful love becomes. But hardly any sitting and watching the other person make tea because the particular way they make tea makes you happy inside; hardly any conversations that wind the other person out, then an admission of how very much you like talking to them.

After sketching out the ideas for this post I started reading Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. It shouldn’t have surprised me that her characters really like each other – and not only that, but we see them come to like each other. It’s not surprising because Grant’s interested in the personal qualities that make sex important. That is, the physical, animal urge for sex has a short-lived kind of meaning and most mature adults can resist it; when you come to know someone and admire and respect and like them – well, then sex becomes a much more complex thing.

Will and Lydia become friends over a scheme to earn money at the card tables of London. Lydia is a mathematical genius and a card shark – and she tries to teach Will to calculate probabilities.

He surprises her by being quick and intelligent in conversation; she doesn’t have to explain herself to him. He is also respectful and trustworthy despite, by his own admission, being quite desperate to sleep with her.

She dazzles him by being ruthless – by being able to calculate the odds of five hands at a time while cleverly incorporating signals for him into general conversation and flirting ineptly – on purpose – with the gentleman on her other side.

It is such a joy to watch them open more to each other with each conversation. To watch Lydia unfold herself under Will’s attention, because here is a man who actively likes who she is. When they are coming to know each other better, Lydia says:

“Why should you care at all what I think of you?” She all but squirmed in her skin at the notion, and one more fact about her became clear: I want you didn’t discompose her nearly so much as I like you and I want to you to think well of me.

Puberty Blues

I feel a little bit smug. I’ve been watching a couple of bloody brilliant Aussie TV shows, and for once the rest of the world has to wait! (And here’s hoping other countries have the sense to buy these shows up.)

One of them finished last night, and the ending was so perfect I had that same glow-y feeling in my chest I get from a really great book.

Puberty Blues is about two best friends, Debbie and Sue, growing up in Cronulla in the 70s. Cronulla is an outer suburb of Sydney in an area famous in the 70s for its surfer tribal culture and more recently for the racist riots in 2005.

I tried to express, recently, the idea that a historical context allows us to explore female empowerment in a more emphatic way – but also lends itself to the kind of female empowerment that has nothing to do with finding love.

Puberty Blues is a subtle, impressive example of what I was trying to come to grips with.

Debbie and Sue are desperate to get in with the cool kids, and they eventually manage it by being a bit naughty and a bit mean, and mostly by catching the eye of the boys. Being someone’s girlfriend has nothing to do with liking or even knowing – it’s all about status and belonging.

Girlfriend duties include: sitting on the beach for hours watching the boys surf; buying meat pies and chiko rolls for the boys to eat when they come in, when you will also hand them their towel; and lying back to let him root you. Oh, and bringing the Vaseline – very important not to forget the Vaseline.

The casual rape culture depicted is absolutely chilling. It’s there subtly in the girls’ expectation of sex: it is not something you enjoy, it’s something you lie back and take. And it’s there overtly in the girl lying in the back of a panel van, a catatonic lack of expression on her face, while the boys climb in and out by turn.

Seeing that unsettles Debbie and Sue, but it doesn’t particularly stand out to them as wrong, or as having anything to do with them. The way they react to it – by not really reacting at all – is what makes it so chilling. They have no context to understand why it unsettles them.

They enjoy being the cool kids and having boyfriends. They also begin to experience the way a girl’s worth comes entirely from her boyfriend. The way a girl becomes a laughing-stock in a second if she goes against her boyfriend’s wishes – all ties of loyalty and friendship cut.

Again, they don’t consciously rail against this stuff. They don’t understand it, even while they don’t like it.

Sue starts to feel more and more restrained and angry inside her relationship. Finally, when her boyfriend’s a complete asshole to her in front of everyone, she says, “You’re dropped.” She doesn’t mean to – didn’t even know it was going to come out. It’s that part of her she doesn’t understand – the part that’s unsettled and angry – acting for her. But she doesn’t go all girlpower I’m-better-off-without-that-dickhead. She doesn’t understand herself or her actions and still craves the social belonging that comes with a boyfriend.

Debbie is dropped by her first boyfriend for being frigid (turns out all the Vaseline in the world can’t make up for really not wanting to have sex), then falls in love with the beautiful Gary. In heart-stopping, world-stopping first love. Sue asks Debbie over and over again to tell her the story of how she and Gary sat in her room and just talked all afternoon. Just talked.

But even the beautiful Gary is only a fucked-up kid, dealing with life outside of school.

Debbie and Sue have seen the reality of what it takes to be a cool kid, and they start, tentatively, to see the world on the other side of school – a world that’s bigger than just the cool kids and the outcasts.

They start to realise that the superpower they have is each other. In a world where all ties can be cut in a second if you act out of turn, they have the kind of loyalty that can get them through anything.

They see the girl in the back of the van again, the boys climbing in and out to take turns. They still watch her from a distance, and vow to each other that the world would have to go through one of them first, to get at the other. Then they realise: That girl doesn’t have anyone to stand between her and the world.

And then they realise: Maybe she has us.

It’s such a superhero moment when they decide to walk over. “We’ll just get up and walk,” they tell each other. They challenge those boys who are the gods of this small world, and they get the girl out of there.

They’re so high on what they’ve done – so disbelieving and amazed – that they want to do it all over again. So they do the next best thing. They go down to the beach, with a surfboard, and run into the water, where girls are not allowed to go.

The cool kids sitting on the beach call them every name they can think of, but Debbie and Sue just laugh back at them and say, “Get us a chiko roll!”

The girls, watching fully clothed from their “girlfriend” stations, watch with contempt but also with a kind of dawning confusion. And awe.

Debbie and Sue are a product of their culture. They don’t have the means to stand outside it and understand it. This made their eventual liberation so much more powerful than if they’d been on a crusade from the start.

Their liberation came from acknowledging that their own feelings about the world are the only compass they need. That they get to say what’s wrong and right.

This is how I want to use the historical context for my heroines. Not to have them understand right from the start: I am oppressed, and my fellow-women are oppressed! But to have their experience and their knowledge not match up. For that to be an unsettling thing, and for their anger and frustration to become more than they can keep inside. And when it comes out it’s not necessarily going to be comfortable, and they’ll probably want to take it all back.

In the kind of society Debbie and Sue are growing up in, the love of a teenage boy cannot empower or liberate them. But their friendship with each other can.

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.