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Only for Gentlemen: Thoughts on Sexy Fiction

A funny thing happened to me when I set out to write a response to AgTigress’s remarks on how to distinguish between erotica and pornography, posted on Teach Me Tonight, the blog for literary scholars who enjoy romance fiction and respect it as an area for study and discussion.

Suddenly I found myself remembering some words I’d written. Two young people looking at some books and papers spread out on a writing table.

“Latin,” [Kit…] said carelessly. “Very complicated. Difficult. Only for gentlemen.”

[Mary…] took a peek.

“Poo,” she said. “You’re only in Caesar?”

It’s from The Slightest Provocation, my 2006 historical romance about domestic espionage and erotic entanglement in post-Waterloo Britain. Mary’s twelve; her father’s a wealthy brewer with recently purchased country property. Kit’s thirteen; his father, the Marquess of Rowen, is the local lord. My fledgling heroine and hero have taken shelter from a storm in a cottage at the disputed boundaries of their fathers’ estates, while I, their author, am doing my best to implicate them in some familiar recent and classic romance themes:

  • Girl outdoes boy on his ostensible turf
  • Class barriers are set up to be challenged
  • Female selfhood is rooted in wit and intelligence

I probably don’t have to tell you that you can find plenty of this sort of thing in the work of Loretta Chase, Laura Kinsale, Janet Mullany, Candice Hern, Kalen Hughes, Tracy Grant….

In The Slightest Provocation, a sharp-eyed reader may also discern a Paolo and Francesca theme in the making. Two years later, by the time Kit is almost fifteen and doing Ovid in school, Mary has “made something of a Latinist out of him,” thus enabling him, upon the occasion of a later visit to the cottage, to raise the erotic ante:

“Hullo,” she[…] said. “Been busy?”

He[…] shrugged. “Rather. Bit of a problem with my Latin.”

“Let me see.”

The Tiresius story, which begins, as Ovid begins so many of his stories, with the gods at celebration. Jupiter is rather in his cups, jesting with his wife Juno as to whether . . .

“But you can construe this perfectly well, Kit. You know that what he’s asking is whether a man or woman gets more pleasure . . .” Her voice […] trailed off.

“You were saying?”

voluptus . . . from making love.”

He’d tricked her into saying it.

I was reminded of these moments in my own writing when I followed the link in AgTigress’s post to the legal language resolving that:

“an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect […] is […] such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

From Britain’s 1959 Obscene Publications Act, it’s a fair description of fifteen-year-old Kit’s plan’s for Ovid, Mary, and himself.

And then, when I read this question, in reference with such an “article”:

“Would you want your wife or your servant to read it?”

Usefully quoted by AgTigress, these are the words of the barrister for the prosecution, during the 1960 trial in England of Penguin Books (which had laid down a challenge to the Obscene Publications Act by producing a reasonably priced paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover).

The combination (and thanks so much to AgTigress for making it so clear) shows the paternalistic articulations (crucially, re class and sex) of this episode in the history of literary censorship. And the combination also shows me, in my own work (and the work of other romance writers) how deeply and freely we draw upon a history we may not entirely or explicitly understand.

Once again, it seems that someone’s been speaking prose without knowing it.

But then, isn’t that always how it works? The sphere of romance reading and writing is an extended multivocal discussion of what’s possible and what’s desirable for women in the serious business of living a life and having a love (and whatever else you think of the romance genre, I defy you to find a set of questions more central to a wider group of people).

But it’s a mixed bag. As all fiction must, romance presents a discursive, imagined set of solutions: a idealized couple in a world shaped by the difficulties and obstacles truly apprehended yet yielding to resolution in the space of some hundred thousand words.

Whatever the mix, it seems that these days the difficulties and obstacles we apprehend are the limitations placed upon women (and others) whose abilities outstrip their opportunities – even if we might still find the notion of power conferred by birth or brawn oddly, guiltily sexy and the source of ultimate resolution rather than an obstacle to it. (I mean, wouldn’t you rather marry a Mr. Darcy, who is after all adored by his tenants, than send him packing and set up an agrarian cooperative at Pemberley?)

The romance discussion continues to change, to follow history and also the market. So it’s no surprise that witty, educated – even, or especially, sexually educated — women have stepped to the forefront in recent years: check out this interesting discussion at Tracy Grant’s blog about the current popularity of courtesan heroines in romance fiction.

But I’m beginning to realize that I’ve found more in AgTigress’s introductory argument than she might have intended. For her idea was only to stress how rapid and far-reaching the change has been in our expectations of what sort of erotically explicit material might be generally available, in the mere half century since the Lady Chatterley trial. The barrister’s argument about wives and servants (in 1960!) was included largely to highlight what must seem its quaintness, not just now but even back when he delivered it.

So it says something about the direction of my own thoughts, that the words of that gentleman barrister resonated so strongly with me as a writer of erotically explicit historical romance fiction.

AnTigress’s stated task is to help us distinguish between certain modes of sexually explicit fiction in an era of rapid cultural change, and to help us “understand why the current classifications of novels containing explicit sex seem to give people a lot of trouble.”

And yet the very archaism of her barrister’s argument — based upon a belief in the privileged position of the gentleman – constitutes an major armature upon which hot historical romantic fiction is built today, producing the charged field upon which erotic romantic struggle is waged and never entirely decided. In its way of looking for narrative solutions, erotic romance (historical and perhaps other subgenres as well) cheers for both teams: we want the full humanity of those who aren’t gentlemen and the powerfully, seductively oxymoronic notion of human hierarchy and natural aristocracy.

So before even confronting the main point of AnTigress’s argument — which is how to distinguish between pornography and erotica – I find myself needing to complicate what was meant to be introductory material. Nineteenth and early twentieth century literary censorship may well have been a matter of class and gender paternalism written into law. But although the laws have changed, the assumptions survive — simultaneously celebrated and contested in the themes of much romance fiction (and, I believe, constituting some of its sexiest elements).

While as for the pornography/erotica distinction and its word origins (also coming from the mouths of aristocratic gentlemen, as it happens) I think I’m going to have to finish off that one in my next Tuesday post.


And since it’s Friday, here are some other hot links:

We’ve been on a roll at History Hoydens — great posts and wonderful comments. Check out “On the Road,” Lauren Willig’s post on servants, travel, and entourages.

While my own post on fan fiction at The Spiced Tea Party could use a few comments. Do you read or write fan fiction? Let me know about it.

And if you’re going to San Francisco (sorry, couldn’t help humming it — old boomers never die) for RWA’s National Conference, do check out Candice Hern’s San Francisco Survival Guide.

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