How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Romance

I am struggling with a post on Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion.

When I write about a book like this here, I expect two kinds of response. There are the people who will already have read Cotillion, along with all the rest of Heyer, and who will be interested in talking about the misdirection Heyer employs to make the end surprising. And then there are the people who only want to know why anyone would ever want to read a Regency Romance in the first place.

How did I go from being the second kind of person to being the first kind of person?

I am female. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, as I’ve never done anything to disguise my gender — far from binding my breasts and running away to sea, I don’t even use a male name online or write under just my initials. (That isn’t to say I’ve never thought about it. Sea, the Foreign Legion…) All the same, as “Jo” is an unusual name in that it’s the masculine and not the feminine version that ends with an E, I do sometimes get misgendered by people quoting me. I never quite know what to do about that. I’m cisgendered and straight, and my gender presentation is “this is a normal way to be female.” Whenever somebody misgenders me when quoting I feel as if the fact that women say things worth quoting is being suppressed and I ought to speak up and request my correct pronoun, but on the other hand it’s not a huge deal and why does it matter really and I shouldn’t make a fuss.

Despite being female, I didn’t grow up reading romance novels. Indeed, I grew up despising romance novels probably more than most men tend to. Romance novels were associated in my young mind with a way of performing femininity that repelled me. They seemed to be bait in a trap — offering a kind of love that isn’t possible as the only kind of love that is desirable, and offering love itself as the only worthwhile life goal for a woman. They held up passionate heterosexual romantic love as the ultimate and only possible fulfillment. Women needn’t expect to have adventures or achieve anything, they would have looooove, twoo wuv, and it would be enough.

My response to this was: “If I heed your words this is all I shall ever have. If I have no sword, where then shall I seek peace?”

To have formed this violent antipathy, I must have read some romance novels, and in fact I had. In addition to any number of nineteenth century romances, I’d read twentieth century ones by Barbara Cartland, Anya Seton, Mary Stewart and Madeleine Brent, and I had read some romance short stories in British women’s magazines. I’d read them because we had them lying around at home. I’d also read some fiction critiqueing romance novels — Gail Godwin’s Violet Clay (1978), Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) and Mary Renault’s contemporary (1930s and 1940s) novels, especially Purposes of Love (1938), which is a romance novel about the struggle between being a lover and a beloved. The Godwin and the Atwood are both directly addressing the idea of women being offered this impossible love dream in romance novels and ending up losing what they really wanted in marriages where they’re essentially trapped as miserable unpaid servants.

So by the time I was twenty, I was not only somebody who didn’t read romances, I was somebody who was actively opposed to genre romance and saw it as literally a snare and a delusion.

It isn’t only romance novels that were pushing that agenda, of course — advertising and other popular media were also pushing it hard. But the specific lie of the romance novel, the way female arousal was described as an emotion rather than a physical sensation, the way an orgasmic kiss and later an actual orgasm was directly equated with love, really did strike me as the bait on a trap, and a trap being specifically laid for me as a straight woman growing up female. As a myth, it encumbered the possibility of realistic relationships.

So what changed?

Well, on the one hand I grew up. I started to feel less trapped by my gender and other people’s expectations of me based on my gender. I got married, and divorced, and married again, and neither of my marriages stifled me in gender expectations. And just by getting older, I was no longer standing so precisely in the place where the trap was laid. Also, second wave feminism was a game changer. I no longer had to struggle absolutely all the time to have men take me seriously. I no longer had to do that wearying stuff and accept being unsexed and seen as an honorary man if I wanted to be heard — or anyway not so often. And then geek culture took over the world, and that was a big help. There’s a generation of geeky women only fifteen years younger than me who grew up with the expectation of being heard in the same way men are. There’s still sexism and irritating gender expectations, and they still drive me up a tree when I run into them, but things are vastly better than they were in 1984. It’s a lot easier to stop being defensive when you’re not constantly being attacked. And if you’re feeling less defensive, it’s easier to pick up a romance novel without feeling it’s about to chain you barefoot in the kitchen.

While I was growing up and the world was changing, romance grew up. I don’t think anyone is writing stories like the ones I read in My Weekly in 1978 anymore. Smart clever people like Jennifer Crusie started writing romances about grownups negotiating love. (I didn’t know this because I wasn’t reading them, but it was happening even so.) Second Wave Feminism was a game changer for everybody. Romance isn’t doing “love as sole destiny” any more. It’s an economic thing. Austen and then Victorian romances were writing about women who had absolutely no way to be financially independent — and they didn’t do this “destined love is everything” thing. Then in the twentieth century there was a transition period during which women could be financially independent with a lot of effort and romance, the One True Love Romance, as found in romance novels, was one of the tools deployed to persuade them… not to be. But young people now can’t quite get their heads around this, and that’s a good thing.

But that doesn’t explain how I can love Heyer, because Heyer really is doing that, and she was writing during precisely the decades when that meme was being pushed hard.

I didn’t mind romance when I met it in SF. If I ran into people on spaceships or exploring other planets and they fell in love while dealing with aliens, I had no problem with it. It helped that the heroines in books like this tended to be starship captains, rather than shopgirls.

I started to read Heyer because people kept saying that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was like a romance novel. And this made me grumpy every single time. People (men) generally said this as a put down, but sometimes people (women) said it in a positive way. It made me grumpy when it was said as a put down because if a man writes an SF novel that contains a sweet romance, nobody dismisses it as just a romance novel in space, but when a woman does? Gah. But it made me just as grumpy when it was said in a positive way, because it was quite obvious to me it wasn’t doing this “love as beartrap” model that the twentieth century romance novels I’d read did. So if it was like a romance novel, I said, grumpily, well, where were the romance novels it was like? And people (some of them men) pointed at Heyer.

Now Heyer’s Regency Romances are not really like Shards of Honor. (I wish!) The only real similarity is the banter. But by the time I’d read enough Heyer to demonstrably prove that they aren’t like Shards of Honor, I was having enough fun that I read all the rest of Heyer, and then I read some of them again. (Some of Heyer is a little like A Civil Campaign. But this was before A Civil Campaign.)

What I like in Heyer is the worldbuilding — and if it is an imaginary world in historical clothing I have no problem with that. I do like the banter. I like the way she makes the endings go down like dominoes when she gets it right. I despise her anti-Semitism and her classism, and I often disbelieve her romances. (In Sylvester for instance, I can’t believe the hero and heroine will stay together for five minutes without squabbling again.) And some of her plots are awful — she’s much better at writing books where nothing happens except people going shopping and dancing at Almacks and looking after ducklings. It’s the clothes and the scenery and the conversations along the way that make it all worthwhile. I still don’t really care for the true love stuff, but sometimes the very predictability of these kinds of stories lets people do interestingly baroque things around the edges, as in Cotillion.

With classic mysteries, some people like figuring out who the murderer was. Some people like following the detective and not figuring it out and then seeing it at the end. Other people like the tea and crumpets and the inside look into families at moments of crisis, but find the contrived mysteries nonsensical. I always suspect that mysteries are written for the first two types of people, but the writers don’t mind me coming along for the scenery. Similarly, I think romance, even modern smart romance about women with lives and careers, is mostly written for people who want to read about people being swept away by a feeling they have never felt before. (The one time I wrote about somebody feeling a feeling like that it was Stockholm Syndrome.) But again, I expect the romance writers similarly don’t mind me coming along for the scenery. (What kind of scenery? Well, in Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman, Agnes hits somebody with a cast iron frying pan. The problem is that she’d previously been on probation for hitting somebody else with a frying pan. A friend asks her why she has a habit of hitting people with frying pans, and she says she doesn’t, it’s just that she’s a cook, she always has a frying pan in her hand when things happen…)

I still like romance novels best when there’s something going on besides the romance. But I also like MilSF novels best when there’s something going on besides the shooting. And I’ll write a post about Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion soon. It’s a lovely book. You’d like it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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