Tag Archives: a lady awakened

choice makes you human, human makes you interesting

I’ve seen two examples recently of a character exercising their human autonomy through the act of choice. Both of these characters were in complex circumstances that they could have used to explain away their actions. In both cases, doing so would have weakened their position.

The first was from Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. When Martha first proposes to Theo that she’ll pay him to get her pregnant, he questions what her options are.

“Then why do this?” He sat down again and reached for what was left of his tea. “Why not go to your brother at once?” Her hands folded one over the other in her lap and she went perfectly still, all light shuttered behind her dark eyes. “Because that is not what I choose to do.”

The effect of her autonomy is strengthened by the fact that we’ve been in her head, and know that going back to her brother is a desperate, claustrophobic thought to her. So often in fiction characters give their exact thoughts in argument – or they purposely misdirect, or simply avoid answering. She doesn’t feel the need to either confess or lie. It is enough for her that she knows her reasons, and she trusts herself to choose her own path.

Particularly for a female character, I found this to be a powerful declaration of independence.

The second was in the final Matrix movie. Neo is having his arse handed to him by Mr Smith, but he will not stay down. This enrages Mr Smith, because it’s a lack of logic particular to living things, and he cannot understand it.

MR SMITH: Why do you do it, Mr Anderson? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? I believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only the human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr Anderson, you must know it by now, you can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr Anderson? Why, why do you persist?

NEO: Because I choose to.

This is such a great line. I admit that in the rather dated trilogy it took me wholly by surprise. It’s especially excellent because Mr Smith has already torn down every single reason Neo might be expected to give. He harps on about love, and as we’ve just seen Neo sacrifice love for the good of mankind, you could forgive him for taking love as a reason to keep on fighting.

But Mr Smith is…kinda right. All those noble human emotions and ideals for which humans go to war and broker peace and push themselves beyond their abilities – depend on perception. They’re not true across all contexts, and for all people. Choice was the only irrefutable reply Neo could have made.

Choice doesn’t depend on morality, or truth, it just is. It is a personal action, a declaration of human autonomy.

Of itself, choice is incredibly simple. It’s always the context that makes it interesting. I think that’s probably why I’ll always root for the character who sees a situation clearly and makes the difficult, unpopular decision with far-reaching consequences. You have to be a particularly powerful sort of a human, to do so.

sexual attraction doth not our enmity unmake

There is a notion about female sexuality, that sex is (or should be) about intimacy. Before I go into whether it’s true or not, I first want to add that this ambiguous little gem applies equally to men, they’re simply less quick to claim it. Most of the time. We watched 50/50 the other night, and the two friends have a conversation that I think perfectly sums up what my post today is about:

ADAM: The relationship I have with Rachel is – it’s about more than sex.

KYLE *facetious*: What is it about, Adam?

ADAM: It’s about – each other, you know, we care about each other, we talk to each other. It’s great.

KYLE: Uh-huh. Yeah. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that and then bang the hell out of each other afterwards?

ADAM: Ideally, yes, but it’s not a perfect world, okay?

Cecilia Grant’s debut, A Lady Awakened, has been causing a lot of buzz in the romance world since it was published last year – and I finally got around to reading it. Because I’m going to be drawing heavily on the themes explored in it, here’s a quick rundown:

Martha’s husband dies, and she has to get herself pregnant within the month if she wants to keep the estate out of the hands of the Evil Heir. She pays a young man, Theo, who’s been exiled to the country for bad behaviour, to have sex with her once a day. He assumes he will be as a sex god to her. She refuses to take any pleasure from the task. He discovers that her mind is much more susceptible to seduction than her body, and that she loves to talk Improvements. Much talk of agriculture ensues, as do love and orgasms, eventually.

Part of what has made this book so talked-about is the novel approach to sex. Martha isn’t frigid, and unlike most historical heroines she isn’t unaware of her own body’s pleasure. So she doesn’t refuse to respond out of naivety or ignorance. She sees her decision as the best of two bad choices, and doesn’t want to lose the last of her principles by taking pleasure in a necessary act.

But more interesting to me is the simple fact that she feels she can’t be intimate with someone who is a stranger to her. She can only give herself over to pleasure when she likes and admires him.

If she had been naive of pleasure, this would have seemed old-fashioned to me, or like a backward step in a contemporary discussion about sex. She makes her decision fully understanding what it means, however, which complicates things.

Conservative female sexuality, out of which the romance tradition grew, certainly holds that intimacy is more important than sex. The romance is consummated with a declaration of love, not with sex, which will likely be had well before the end of the book.

It’s interesting that in the period when this view of sexuality prevailed, so did the quasi-rape variety of sex, which the heroine only realised she was enjoying once it had been forced on her. I tend to agree with the theory that this was a way for women to express the desire for sex without owning up to desire. A woman couldn’t initiate, but once it was forced on her – once she’d made every feminine objection – she could enjoy it.

This, to me, is not sex that depends on intimacy. It is sex for its own sake.

Then on the other end of the scale there’s Erica Jong’s ideal fantasy: the zipless fuck. She imagines seeing a man across from her on the train, and their desire is immediate, and fulfilled so perfectly that the fantasy isn’t broken for even the space of time it would take to unzip your trousers, and be brought back into reality.

She writes:

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

Once romance began to admit to the kind of female fantasy Jong describes – or at least to the idea that women are sexual beings, and can enjoy pleasure for its own sake – heroines no longer needed to justify their desires to themselves.

This creates a kind of sexuality where sex is what gives rise to intimacy, and leads to love, rather than the other way round.

In which context, you can understand why A Lady Awakened felt like something new. Not a lady denying her own pleasure, but also not a lady willing to find intimacy through the act of sex.

I’ll admit, I found her uncomfortable to read. It made me realise how rarely people voice this need, now, without any irony or shame attached: to know and admire someone before they can feel pleasure with them.

Martha is a particularly upright, reserved character, so I don’t think her needs reflect a common female need in its entirety. But talking about it with some friends the other night, I was reminded that there is a kind of loneliness in unattached pleasure – an eventual desire for some emotional fulfilment.

And of course, that emotional fulfilment is what romance is all about. It’s just difficult to find out exactly what relationship it has to sex.

I find this interesting on a personal level, but also as a writer. In romance, sex – and sexual attraction even more so – becomes a short-hand for intimacy. And that’s just lazy writing. Theo had to work for Martha’s admiration, and a writer should have to do the same.

I was struck by similar thoughts reading a Harry Potter fic called Bond. (This is Harry/Draco – you may read ahead if that’s not your thing.) Harry and Draco have been bonded to each other against their will. The bond forces them into close proximity and after a while creates sexual attraction. They need to consummate, but Harry can’t bear being so intimate with a boy he distrusts and dislikes.

It made me realise that normally, in that kind of fic – and in romance in general – once a character feels sexual attraction any objections to the person they feel it for begin to erode at that moment.

I liked that Harry’s attraction only made him less inclined to go near Draco, because it made him that much more vulnerable to him. Draco, like Theo, had to win him over before he would come near.

All that being said, though, sex has a power like few other things to force intimacy. I also think a person is completely different when they’re so physically close, and they’re less words than skin and sound and smell. So for me admiration, fully dressed, doesn’t necessarily equate to intimacy in the bedroom.

But it’s a fair reminder not to use sex, where conversation is needed. (That’s a truism for fiction, but it probably washes in real life, too.)