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Alive and Thinking in Cyberspace: Pam's take on just about everything

Innocence and Experience: Be My Baby Now, Part I

Beneath my writers’ uniform of flannel pajamas, I harbor two raging alter-egos in spandex, the dynamic duo of TheoryGirl and SuperEgoGirl. The first thinks the big fancy thoughts, the second (and more beleaguered) gets it onto paper (or into the ether), but only after I’ve promised to do so.

Which is why, in my last post, I announced (i.e. promised) that I’d be pulling together some of the thoughts I’ve been having about these issues, in response to Laura Vivanco’s brief provocative post at Teach Me Tonight, called Babies in Books, and the lively discussion it… uh, spawned? …engendered? about the pro-natalism of popular romance fiction, and what it’s meant for the genre’s implicit (or even explicit) political assumptions.

In my comment, I said that in my own romance fiction, I try to “square the genre’s prejudice not so much for babies, I think, as with an unquestioned view that a certain kind of ‘innocence’ must always be protected.”

To which Laura replied (quite understandably) with a kinder, gentler version of “huh?”

OK. Here goes. My own belief is that the romance genre’s preference for a heroine with “a nurturing streak  larger and warmer than the South China Sea” (thanks, Smart Bitches) is one of the ways that the genre responds to the problem of representing female desire.

Which didn’t used to be such a problem — at least when writing a certain kind of romance novel. Think, for example, of Georgette Heyer’s eponymous Frederica, just before she receives her first kiss, on the last page of the novel that bears her name:

“You see, [she tells the hero] I never was in love, so I don’t know…. It has always seemed to me that if one falls in love with any gentleman one becomes instantly blind to his faults. But I am not blind to your faults, and I do not think that everything you do or say is right! Only — is it being — not very comfortable — and cross — and not quite happy, when you aren’t there?”

“That, my darling”, said his lordship, taking her ruthlessly into his arms, “is exactly what it is!”

“Oh–!” Frederica gasped, as she emerged from an embrace which threatened to suffocate her. “Now I know! I am in love!”

The discussion might be about love, but the clincher is… well, the clinch. Frederica has loved and desired his lordship, but was so innocent she didn’t recognize it as such.  Not one of my favorite Heyer moments, or heroines (give me the ladylike but lusty Venetia, or the farouche boy-girl Léonie), but not atypical either (there’s a similar moment for Prudence at the end of The Masqueraders, a book I like a whole lot anyway). Frederica tells us that it’s the hero’s role to educate female desire (as quickly as possible here), after he’s been educated about his caring, care-giving side.

It’s an easy, productive, and formally satisfying exchange. Or was. Because (at least in the precincts of the vast romance landscape where I hang out) we don’t believe it any more. Even if it does tip the scales of narrative exchange, selfish, hungry desire is now the property (and the right) of heroines as well as heroes.

And a desiring heroine — one who knows and understands the nature and object of her desires — is no longer an innocent.

Unless, of course, she’s also cast as the defender of innocence — and who, or what, is more innocent, inexperienced, and entirely devoid of desire than an unborn child? A pregnant romance heroine can be as passionate, as single-minded, as dangerous as we want. Even if we’re not totally sure we approve of her (even if she’s not the good, nurturing, self-sacrificing girl we were told — and still almost believe — that we should be) we’ll always be on her side if she’s on the side of total innocence.

(And if you find yourself surprised by how much need there is for innocence in romance — check out this discussion of whether bad-girl romance heroines deserve a HEA ending.)

Of course, there’s a lot more to be said about this. I’m always a little bit suspicious of myself when I type out a bloodless phrase like the genre’s preference. How about the reader’s preference? The writer’s preference? My preference?

After all, as one of discussants of Laura’s post pointed out, “sometimes a baby is just a baby.” In a genre that delights in rewarding the deserving with all good things, isn’t a baby something I want to give my heroine?  Of course it is (as no one who’s read The Bookseller’s Daughter or Almost a Gentleman could doubt).

And yet there are subtleties, shades, differences — to be examined in a follow-up post., where I’ll try to talk about ways that it might be possible to mix it up a little. About what I think of the politics implicit of claiming total innocence for your side (hold the presses — I’m not for it).

But today, I want to end with two RIPs. First, of course, for Senator Ted Kennedy, who lived one of the great, imperfect lives in recent political history (I’ll always go for the younger son, who misses the alpha spot in life, faces his losses and his flaws, and goes on to do something beautiful, lasting, and memorable instead).

And second, for Ellie Greenwich, who died the day after Senator Kennedy, and who wrote some of the most glorious, romantic, passionate girl group songs, imo… well, ever:

The one I found myself singing all through my pregnancy…

The one that might stand as an ode to orgasm…

The one for all you alpha male fans…

And many, many more.

19 Comments

  1. the politics implicit of claiming total innocence for your side (hold the presses — I’m not for it).

    My impression is that in Western culture it’s often been thought safer and better for everyone concerned for women to remain innocent.

    The story of Eve and the Tree of Knowledge has tended to be read as a demonstration that knowledge leads to sin, particularly when it’s women who gain the knowledge. So if knowledgeable women are sinful women, those who are innocent (or who are protecting the innocent) are on the side of Good/God.

    Pseudo-scientific ideas that existed in the Victorian period about how too much intellectual activity would render a woman infertile maintained suspicion about women having access to particular kinds of knowledge. I also wonder if there may have been fears which were in some ways similar to the fears which led to some US states prohibiting slaves from being taught to read or write. As the 1831 North Carolina legislation acknowledges quite explicitly: “the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion.” Kate Flint, in her study of women readers from 1837-1914, to quote one review of her book, “shows how advice on reading is part of a wider agenda: boys’ books must be ‘mental food for the future chiefs of a great race’ and girls’ for ‘the wives and mothers of that race’.”

    Getting back to romance, I think there’s a different power dynamic in romances in which a heroine is innocent compared to romances in which she’s as knowledgeable as the hero. But I’m not sure that protecting the innocent (and thus being on the side of good) means one is oneself innocent. It doesn’t seem to work that way when heroes are single fathers or soldiers fighting to protect women and children: they remain defenders of innocence, but their actions don’t make them into innocents themselves.

    So logically, I’d have to conclude that heroines should be able to defend the innocent without this making them seem innocent.

    However, I wonder if motherhood confers some pseudo-Marian attributes on a woman. Through motherhood she resembles/recalls the “second Eve” who reverses the destruction caused by the first Eve’s knowledge. Is that what you’re getting at?

  2. Pam says:

    I knew you’d say something fascinating, Laura. As in that “second Eve” stuff. (I’ve just begun reading the JD Robb IN DEATH series, and all sorts of alarm bells are going off in my head — I think, though, that I’ll save any comments on that until I’ve read at least 10 of ‘em).

    But as for the more general concept — yes, I do think that “reversing the destruction caused by the first Eve’s knowledge” is entirely apposite. Because I believe that a hugely current (and recurring) theme in romance is redemption: Northrop Frye 101, as I called it in my PCA talk last year — it’s one of the ways in which popular romance recapitulates its religious and ritual antecedents.

    I’m often struck, especially in romances with a wounded hero OR heroine, how the character carries that suffering inner child around like a fragile little egg at an egg race. (I’m struck by it when I read it and also when I do it myself.)

    I’m troubled by it sometimes as well — partly because I can remember my own fierceness as the mom of a newborn. You can justify just about anything if you’re protecting the innocent: it’s a really easy way to draw boundaries between who’s worthy of sympathy and who’s not (again, not my favorite move, in pro-natalist literature OR politics).

    Which is why Blake is so important to me — I love how in Songs of Innocence and Experience he recasts the same voice or event as innocent and then not. Judith Butler’s figure for this way of knowing is the mobius strip (which I also used in the PCA talk). I love it when a hero or heroine can sympathize with a villain. I love it when romance characters can stop protecting some part of themselves and open up to experience — as I tried to have Marina do at the end of The Edge of Impropriety.

    More positive examples coming in the next post.

  3. Jane George says:

    RIP Ellie Greenwich!
    I hadn’t realized she was so instrumental in Neil Diamond’s early career. I read that in a recent article about her.

    Thanks for the post to get my grey matter going this morning. My reaction to babies in romances is usually to wrinkle my nose in distaste. Babies are not romantic. Babies are a third party coming between me and the experience I crave as a romance reader. And babies are vulnerable, but I’m not convinced of their innocence. We’re all born human. I’m not talking about “original sin,” just the array of desires and emotions we all have as soon as we pop out onto the planet.

    I loved my pregnancies and relished my time with my young children. But romantic? Nuh-uh.

  4. Pam says:

    Terrific, Jane. Definitely another way of looking at it — THE DESIRING BABY (as anybody who ever had one knows full well they are).

    Somehow linked to all of this, I think, is an essay I wrote a million years ago (for some zine that never paid me the $25 they promised, but who’s counting?) called IN BED WITH GROUCHO AND HARPO: THOUGHTS ABOUT IRONY, HUMOR, AND S/M PORNOGRAPHY, which I embedded into a blog post sometime back, at http://pamrosenthal.com/blog/2008/07/extra-thursday-post-what-gives/. Oddly (and quite accidentally) resonant of a book that’s been very important to me: Richard Rorty’s CONTINGENCY, IRONY, SOLIDARITY.

  5. “I believe that a hugely current (and recurring) theme in romance is redemption”

    I do too but I have to admit that I haven’t read much by Blake apart from his poem about the tiger and the hymn version of “And did those feet.” I haven’t read Judith Butler, either.

    “I love it when a hero or heroine can sympathize with a villain”

    Looking back at the post I linked to earlier, which is about sin and redemption in romance, I noticed that I’d commented on villains. I wonder if, when they’re depicted as being utterly evil, they’re meant to be compared with a protagonist who seems bad (e.g. the tortured hero) in order to suggest that the latter is really still very redeemable.

    How do you feel about series in which the villain of one book becomes the hero of another? I suppose it partly depends quite how villainous a villain the character was to begin with.

  6. Your link had an extra pair of inverted commas at the end, I think, so it didn’t work for me but I found the essay anyway.

    I can see how what you wrote there, particularly the bit about “You can do sex, after all, with your eyes closed. You can pretend you didn’t know what came over you” would perhaps explain why so many romance heroines are virgins/lack knowledge about sex/are constructed as being innocent sexually.

  7. Pam says:

    Fixed the link. Thanks, Laura (actually one too few sets of inverted commas). More soon.

  8. Tracy Grant says:

    As a writer who’s put children in just about every book I’ve written and who also likes to write about flawed characters, I find this discussion fascinating. I have to say, I never particularly thought about children as representing innocence (though I can see the argument). I think one of the reasons I like to put children in books is that being parents or surrogate parents forces the characters to be grown ups, and I like reading about grown ups. Kids can also bring out different sides in characters (very much including nurturing, which goes to Pam’s argument). And they’re a great source of conflict in that protecting children is a strong motivation (which again goes to Pam’s point). I also just enjoy kids as characters.

    Now I have to ponder if I made Mélanie a mom to make her more sympathetic…

  9. “being parents or surrogate parents forces the characters to be grown ups”

    It may have that effect on your characters, but I don’t think it’s universally the case that having children makes all parents become “grown up.” Conversely, many people become “grown up” for reasons other than becoming parents.

    I think the following trend is on the wane, but my impression is that in romance women who choose to be child-free have often been cast as the evil/selfish “other woman” who’s

    (a) vain and obsessed with her keeping her figure, and/or
    (b) is lacking in emotion and more interested in her career than motherhood and/or
    (c) is promiscuous and feels children would impede her in her constant pursuit of pleasure.

    Linda Howard’s Now You See Her has an example of the kind of character I’m thinking of. The hero’s soon-to-be-ex-wife who had an abortion is described in this review.

  10. Pam says:

    There are so many strands here…

    I’m with Tracy, about how parenthood makes you grow up — but then, I’ve always felt a debt to Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game, for giving me permission to do a great many things.

    (and also, as I said in response to Tracy’s current post over at History Hoydens, because I always look for the secular, ironic solutions to these problems in my romance fiction)

    But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the roots of the genre aren’t deeply religious. I do. And I got a lot out of the sin and redemption post you linked to above, Laura (note to self: check in more regularly at Teach Me Tonight). It’s just my particular way to bang my secular, ironic head up against it again and again (another reason, I think, that Tracy and I love the late Georgian and Regency period, as an age of revolution).

    Note also the religious provenance of one of my master texts, Story of O, as I traced it in another essay a million years ago.

  11. Tracy Grant says:

    What a wonderful discussion!

    Laura, yes, absolutely, plenty of parents don’t grow up and certainly one can grow up without having children. But I do think being a good parent necessitates a certain amount of growing. And I think you’re spot on about how women who chose to remain child-free are often cast in an unflattering light. The sin & redemption post on Teach me Tonight is fascinating.

    Pam, I’m totally with you on the secular, ironic bit :-) .

  12. Pam says:

    Laura mentions a certain kind of romance’s suspicion of the “constant pursuit of pleasure.” Isn’t this a strange thing for a genre that proudly proclaims itself as escapist?

    What gives?

  13. “What gives?”

    I’m not sure that being “escapist” necessarily means that the work promotes sensual enjoyment. It really depends what the reader wants to “escape” into, I’d have thought.

    Lutz suggests that there are two strands in the romance genre:

    In her study of early romance genres (from 1674 to 1740), Ros Ballaster creates two categories of use here: didactic love fiction and amatory
    fiction. [...] didactic love fiction—romance [...] has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question). [...] Amatory fiction cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally, nor does it play out in a socially sanctioned realm. (Lutz 2)

  14. Pam says:

    Gotta go back and review the Lutz book in light of more recent thoughts and discussions — but one of my own axioms of our genre in our time is that its remarkable resiliency and durability lies in its ability to reconcile seeming unreconcilables. Which I attribute at least in part to its roots in religion as a belief in the victory over death (hence, I think, Pamela Regis’ symbolic death, which I think is often a successful trip to the underworld and back).

    And which, in my own writerly imagination I always take as a call to believing child beneath the secular adult (very much as Dominique Aury/Pauline Reage did when she had the wild fantasies that led to Story of O. This means WAR! my imagination shouts, and then I know I’m onto something, times when I’m lucky enough to feel I’m onto something.

  15. Lutz does say that the two can be found in combination:

    Contrary to all expectation, the dangerous subject appears in this form of didactic fiction. As we move back into our history, we will see this construction again and again: the hero set up as dangerous only to then be reformed in the end, brought from the outside into the domestic life of the heterosexual couple. (3)

  16. Pam says:

    Yeah, it’s that re prefix, as in “reformed” (or “redeemed”) that accompanies the double meanings of dangerous/domestic in romance. Often, I think (and wish I had world and time to study, expand upon it in depth).

  17. [...] by heroines who (in Stephanie’s apt description) are “pure as the driven snow.” A fascinating post by Pam Rosenthal on her blog and and the follow-up discussion got me thinking more along the same [...]

  18. [...] no, I haven’t deserted the books-and-babies theme. Sometime next week, I hope, for Part II. Written by Pam on September 12, 2009 at 7:21 am and [...]

  19. [...] had to leave off this argument to go post at the Hoydens about Sex and the Historical Sensibility. But I promised to come back and [...]

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