Whatever one thinks of romance novels, there is little question that they are an articulation of women’s fantasies. of dreams and desires that they might not feel comfortable speaking of. While they might have started with fairly traditional depictions of women and marriage – the beautiful young ingenue and the rich, powerful man – the range and breadth of characters have widened over the years.
[When I wrote about flawed heroes in Malay movies, I should have mentioned that such jerks are also romance novel staples – especially 20 years ago. The heroes in Malay movies might yet catch up.]
But its still not often that one encounters chaste heroes and experienced heroines in such narratives – and I do wonder why. Is it because without a hero with a dark side, the author will find it hard to plot? A story, like history, is about change, and guys who are already nice can’t change that much. Or perhaps its because romance novels emphasize a woman’s pleasure and women find it hard to imagine a pleasurable sexual encounter with an inexperienced guy? Or maybe authors eschew such dynamics because they are afraid that readers will find it unrealistic?
In any case, such books are not easy to find. I have only encountered two such books so far.
The first is Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon. (Also known as Outlander)
Synopsis: Claire Randall is a World War 2 nurse married to Frank and the couple had just been adjusting to life together after the war. She falls through a magic portal of stones and ends up in 18th century Scotland where she meets Jamie Fraser, a Highland warrior who takes her into the protection of his clan. In order to protect her, he had to marry her – and with some qualms she does. They fall in love and when the time comes, Claire finds it hard to decide if she should return especially with the ancestor of her 20th century husband at odds with her 18th century husband.
Since it was written about 20 years ago, having a virgin hero and a heroine who is someone else’s wife is quite groundbreaking. There are really a lot of novel issues at play here. Are you a bigamist if your husbands are in different time streams? Technically, neither would be alive at the same time, so its really like being widowed. Sort of. At the heart of this story is a very common question – what do you do when you are married to a decent guy but you meet someone who suits you better? The setup makes Claire less morally reprehensible than if she had met Jamie in the 20th century but this is quite a breakaway from the innocent ingenue.
Jamie is an unusual romance novel hero because he is younger and less experienced than Claire. (Or maybe he is still older because he is born in the 18th century? Argh, time travel is so confusing). But Gabaldon makes it clear that Jamie, despite his lack of sexual experience, is very much a man. He is excellent with a sword, is superbly fit and has endless stamina and often talks in the manner of a romance novel Highland warrior. (And there is quite a community of them, believe me. I wonder what a real Scots Highland warrior who time travels into the present will think of such depictions of himself. Would he laugh or cleave the author in two?)
This book is rather fun because of its unusual premise – which has since been adopted by quite a number of people – and the author’s attention to historical details. She has a PhD in biology, if I am not wrong and you can see that in the amount of research she put into making the details of natural history of the period just right. She even did research on 18th century toilet habits so that she can properly portray the jarring experience of a 20th century woman having to relieve herself in the 18th century. Big fun.
[ By the way, according to The Independent, one of the 101 things that Scots gave the world was flushing toilets. Along with Adam Smith and one of the best Dr. Whos]
The book was such a great hit that she is still writing sequels almost 20 years later. Each book is about 1000 pages each.
I stopped reading after the third book because by that time, Jamie and Claire got involved in a Scottish uprising, machinations in a French court and war in colonial America. All meticulously detailed. I love history but not when it involved one couple experiencing all possible upheavals in their lifetimes and beyond. Jamie and Claire are a great couple but such adventures when they are 80?90?100? (argh time travel again)..it gets difficult to follow. (Sorry about the age-discrimination)
The second book that I found where the hero is inexperienced, centralizes the issues of male chastity.
Unclaimed by Courtney Milan, in fact, features a hero who wrote a book about it.
Synopsis: Sir Mark Turner became London’s most desirable bachelor when he wrote ‘Practical Gentleman’s Guide to to Chastity’. He was determined to remain chaste before marriage even though as he puts it ‘chastity is hard’ (pun intended, I am sure). Jessica Carlisle was hired by a man competing with Mark for the position of commissioner to seduce him and ruin his reputation. As a courtesan, Jessica is quite happy to take up the challenge and take down the smugly virtuous man a peg ..until she (of course) falls in love with him.
Milan neatly inverts the stereotypes – Sir Mark is not just chaste, he is the nice one, he is sunshine. Jessica is the one with the dark past, the prickly personality and the sexual experience. It works because she puts a lot of thought into what it means to be chaste but to have normal desires. And how one can stay chaste. [The trick is to avoid being in a situation where one can be tempted.] I am not sure whether she intended to do so, but Milan also demonstrates how demeaning to men certain tropes of romance novels are. Eg. A typical romance novel hero sees the woman he is attracted to in a state of minor undress and cannot resist jumping at her. Sir Mark doesn’t and Milan makes him look like the normal one.
But what I find striking in this setup is the realization that Mark comes to in the end -“Women are the point of chastity not its enemy”. That line captures the social role of chastity of that time. These are arguments that people still put out there today – there wouldn’t be prostitution if men don’t purchase such services, there wouldn’t be women raising babies alone if people are chaste. Obviously, the availability of protection today complicates that argument and the choices available to men and women. But the emphasis on the social puts Milan in counterpoint with the intrinsically disturbing treatment chastity in Malay movies in my previous entry. It is disturbing because it puts chastity as a end in itself and women as either the temptress or the angel when they are actually humans. It is all the more disturbing because it is packaged as a religiously based depiction that one should support if one believes in the religion. But religion, whether one believes in it or not, has a social function. Without an understanding of that social function, without an understanding of why certain principles are defined as virtues, religion is an empty shell. Practising something like chastity without being convinced that it makes a difference to the world becomes equivalent to not opening an umbrella in the house because you vaguely feel it will bring bad luck.
Both Milan and Gabaldon skirt the role of religion in their novels. Rather, Milan took pains to separate Mark’s choice in wanting to stay chaste with the issue of religion. [He was raised by a religiously crazed mother who almost killed his siblings in her religious fervour. His full name is the Bible verse referenced by Mark 9:47 which shows how crazy his mother was. And consequently how little his chastity had to do with religion.] I always found it unrealistic that 18th and 19th century characters often marginalize religion in romance novels when it played such a big role in the past but perhaps it is necessary to attract a 21st century readership. I came across a comment in a forum recently – “ I would respect a character who chooses to save herself for her one true love (note: it doesn’t include ‘him’) but not someone who doesn’t stays a virgin out of fear that she is going to hell.” I don’t know if it is as clear cut as all that – for some people, sleeping with someone who you don’t love and doesn’t love you is some kind of hell, no matter which century you live in – maybe that is another social function of chastity.
The relative paucity of romance novels featuring chaste male heroes – and I have yet to come across one that is set in contemporary times – makes me realize how important sexual experience is in our construct of masculinity. Both Sir Mark and Jamie Fraser were depicted as unusually ferocious fighters as if to assure readers: hey, these are still our heroes. They are still MEN. And it does bring me back to the same question – if romance novels are a repository of what women want, then why do we want it that way?