David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas


Twitter is great for snooping and horning in on things. I saw that two of my favorite bloggers, Amy of My Friend Amy and Iris of Iris on Books, were planning to read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas , and asked to join in. Then a fourth blogger, Zibilee, decided read along, too. Zibilee’s blog, Raging Bibliomania, is new discovery, another great thing about twitter. Our plan is to read a chapter or two a week, and rotate the posts around. This post is on the first two chapters.

First some background, from Wikipedia:

Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel, the third book by British author David Mitchell. It won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year award, and was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize, Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and other awards.



Cloud Atlas is now a film to be released in October. While I adore the films of Tom Tykver (Winter Sleepers, Run Lola Run, Heaven, Perfume), I couldn’t be less happy with the Wachowskis or the “ensemble cast” headed up by one of my least favorite actors, Tom Hanks, but maybe it will be great:

The novel was adapted to film by directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis. With an ensemble cast to cover the film’s multiple storylines, production began in September 2011 at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. The film is scheduled to be released in the United States on October 26, 2012.

Cloud Atlas has an unusual structure. It has eleven chapters, and six intertwined narratives. The first five chapters present the first part of each of five distinct narratives. How distinct? In terms of both setting and style, very. Ranging from mid-19th century Chatham Isles, near New Zealand, to 1930s Belgium, to a 1970s California political thriller, to a contemporary assisted living facility in London, to a near future Korea dominated by corporations and genetic modification of humans. The sixth chapter presents one whole narrative. Then chapters 7,8,9,10,11 present the second half of each of the first five narratives, in reverse order. So it goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Here’s a screen shot from the Table of Contents in my Kindle edition:


In an interview with The Paris Review, Mitchell says that

“Cloud Atlas” is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track’s beautiful title.

In the same Paris Review interview, when asked how he came up with the idea for Cloud atlas, Mitchell responds:

The first time I read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I thought we’d be going back to the interrupted narrative later on in the book, and I very much wanted to. Finishing the novel, I felt a bit cheated that Calvino hadn’t followed through with what he’d begun—which was, of course, the whole point of the book. But a voice said this: What would it actually look like if a mirror were placed at the end of the book, and you continued into a second half that took you back to the beginning? That idea was knocking around in my head since I was eighteen or nineteen years old and, by my third novel, had arrived at the front of the queue.

The first chapter is the South Sea Pacific journal of an Adam Ewing, a Californian aboard the Prophetess, who journals his experiences including the white Christian missionaries’ work on the islands. What I enjoyed about this one is Ewing’s moral compass getting all screwy as he navigates new fields dealing with colonizers, missionaries, native peoples, and seamen. His voice is not delightful to read (unless you love Defoe?) but when I fought through the priggish formal tone of his diary I liked what he said:

As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.

Mitchell, David (2008-11-13). Cloud Atlas: A Novel (p. 17). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


The second chapter is the letters of Adam Frobisher, a musical genius, rogue, sexual omnivore, written to his lover and best friend, Sixsmith, in Cambridge, about his life in the town of Zedelghem in Belgium where he is charming and lying his way to become amanuensis to a reclusive and irascible English musical legend Vyvyan Ayres. Adam is irresistable. A complete narcissist but astute and very compelling:

Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again.

Mitchell, David (2008-11-13). Cloud Atlas: A Novel (p. 75). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I could understand some readers who feel Cloud Atlas is gimmicky, or that it apes too seriously other literary styles, or is too precious, or too knowing. As the NYT’s Tom Bissell put it, “The novel is frustrating not because it is too smart but because it is not nearly as smart as its author.” I’m sure I missed most of the literary allusions. I certainly had to use the Kindle dictionary more in the first two chapters than in any other book I’ve read. But I like everything about Cloud Atlas so far. I like the structure, I like the fact that the style and tone changes dramatically to reflect the setting, I like the surprising but sense-making connections between the stories (will I destroy my nonexistent literary cred if I compare that to Crash?), and I like the implied author I sense behind the words. I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote, again from the Paris Review interview:

Is there such a thing as overreading? Just because it wasn’t part of my grand design doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Things do happen in books that the writer is too submersed in bringing the narrative to life to notice. To put it a little pretentiously, Cloud Atlas is a novel about whose echoes, eddies, and cross-references even its author possesses only an imperfect knowledge. That’s not unique—many writers can say the same about many books.


There is much more to say about this book, but alas, I chose the week I am on vacation with my family to post! Have you read Cloud Atlas? Any thoughts?

A Disability Rights Critique of The Sense of An Ending: Or, What Does Tony REALLY not Get?


Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending made a big splash in 2011, becoming an international bestseller and, in October, winning the Man Booker Prize. I love this author, who tends to take up philosophical themes, and I looked forward to reading it. The huge proliferation of professional reviews was to be expected (here’s a list on Barnes’ website), but what surprised me, noodling around the internet, was the ton of book blogger reviews and the long comment threads they inspired.Here’s the book blurb:

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?


After reading the novel I recognized that two features of the ending would generate a lot of comment: (1) Barnes leaves open a number of plot and character questions (an issue I hope to take up in a later post), and (2) more importantly, framing the bulk of the novel as a kind of emotional mystery (the bequest referenced in the blurb). All throughout the novel, it’s clear that Tony is an unreliable narrator, but at the end, there is a “double twist” that forces the reader to view herself as unreliable (or too complacent), and begs for a revaluation of what has come before (I would call it Shyamalan-esque but that seems too critical, and not really apt). Reviewers have referred to the novella, and especially the end, as “harsh”, “disturbing”,  and “unforgiving.”

***What I say in the rest of the post completely spoils the end.***

Continue reading

When a Heroine is too Horrid to Hate

For a project, I’m reading a good number of contemporary romances which feature author heroines, especially romance author heroines. I’ll blog about the project in more detail later this month, but for now, I wanted to perform a public service announcement and warn anyone reading this to never, ever pick up Improper English by Katie MacAlister. I would absolutely not have read beyond the third chapter of this awful Bridget Jones-inspired mess if I hadn’t had to.

Improper English is the story of a 29 year old American divorcee, Alix, who has failed at both career and love, and is trying one last thing, apparently randomly — moving to London for two months to write a romance novel and launch a career as a novelist:

Although it may seem that my one and only goal is being successful at writing a book — and the motivation for success is strong, since failure means I’d have to give up my life to stay in a hick town in a desert in eastern Washington taking care of my paternal grandmother’s bodily needs — more important than that is my need to prove to my mother once and for all that I can succeed at something. Anything. Just once, I’d like to come out on top and have her witness my triumph.

Already, you can tell what a charmer Alix is. She meets cute with her neighbor, a Veddy British Scotland Yard detective, named Alex,
Continue reading

Sex, Love, Dominance, Submission in Hesse's Steppenwolf

We finished Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf in class today. We’re reading it paired with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. It’s one of the many gifts of literature that no two encounters with the same text produce exactly the same reading, and this year, I thought a lot about the way a female character seems to dominate the male protagonist … but doesn’t, really.

Steppenwolf is the story of the psycho-spiritual journey of a suicidal middle-aged German intellectual, named Harry Haller, and is loosely based on events in Hesse’s own life. In one of many “magical realist” moments in the book, Harry is handed a pamphlet which he says describes his own life. In part, it reads:

There was never a man with a deeper and more passionate craving for independence than he. In his youth when he was poor and had difficulty in earning his bread, he preferred to go hungry and in torn clothes rather than endanger his narrow limit of independence. He never sold himself for money or an easy life or to women or to those in power; and had thrown away a hundred times what in the world’s eyes was his advantage and happiness in order to safeguard his liberty. No prospect was more hateful and distasteful to him than that he should have to go to an office and conform to daily and yearly routine and obey others. He hated all kinds of offices, governmental or commercial, as he hated death, and his worst nightmare was confinement in barracks. He contrived, often at great sacrifice, to avoid all such predicaments.

Obedience to bourgeois existence repels the “wolf” inside of Harry, yet, obedience — to a different master —  is what saves him in the end.

At the depths of his despair Harry walks into a bar and meets Hermine, whom he describes as a “pale and pretty girl” wearing a “thin dance-frock cut very low and a withered flower in her hair”. She has a “short tight curl” in front of her ear, a winged flapper style.

Hermine is a great character. Harry tells her his woes, and she basically says, “snap out of it”. She ends up introducing him to the world of sensual delights — jazz music, dancing, sex, and drugs. She coaxes him out of his suicidal tendencies, showing him how myopic his intellectual and aesthetic view of the world has been. And then he stabs her to death in a fit of jealous rage. The end.

No, no.

Actually, yes. More on that later.

The tendency of Hermine to control Harry leaped out at me. Despite her protestation, “Well, Thank God I’m not your mother”, and frequent textual references to their relationship as one of siblings, the controlling aspects of her care for Harry are obvious:

She treated me exactly in the way that was best for me at that moment, and so she has since without an exception. She took me under her wing just as I needed, and mocked me, too, just as I needed. She ordered me a sandwich and told me to eat it. She filled my glass and bade me sip it and not drink too fast. Then she commended my docility.

She tells him, “You’re a baby and you need some one to look after you.” And Harry thinks, “she was like a mother to me.”

What is emphasized in Harry’s relationship with Hermine seems to be less of her caring nature than the power imbalance between them. And Harry seems to relish playing a baby brother to her wise elder sister (even though she is younger than he by many years):

She admonished me with the look of a severe governess of sixty.

“Oh, I know,” I said contentedly. “Only tell me everything.”

Hermine abruptly ends their talk by going off the dance. She tells Harry to sleep, and he thinks, “It was good to obey such a voice, I had found that out already. Obediently I shut my eyes …”

Later, when they are discussing their odd connection, she asks:

“Doesn’t your learning reveal to you that the reason why I please you and mean so much to you is because I am a kind of looking glass for you, because there’s something in me that answers you and understands you?”

Then she informs Harry that:

Mind, don’t forget what you said to me. You said that I was to command you and that it would be a joy to you to obey my commands. Don’t forget that. You must know this, my little Harry–just as something in me corresponds to you and gives you confidence, so it is with me. The other day when I saw you come in to the Black Eagle, exhausted and beside yourself and scarcely in this world any longer, it came to me at once: This man will obey me. All he wants is that I should command him. And that’s what I’m going to do. That’s why I spoke to you and why we made friends.

From the moment they met, Hermine has reminded Harry of someone, someone he later identifies as a boyhood friend. He notes that “her boyishness welled up from time to time like a breath of life and cast the spell of a hermaphrodite.”

But she’s relentlessly demanding, pushing him to his limits and beyond:

“You like me,” she went on, “for the reason I said before, because I have broken through your isolation. I have caught you from the very gates of hell and wakened you to a new life. But I want more from you–much more. I want to make you fall in love with me.”

Alas, it is not as sweet as it sounds, for Hermine wants Harry to be in love enough with her to follow a seemingly impossible command:  kill her.

Before that ultimate act of obedience, Hermine introduces Harry to all matter of sensual delights, beginning with a bite of duck:

It seems to me you’ve still to learn all the things that come naturally to other people, even the pleasure of eating. So look, my boy, I must tell you that this is the celebration of the duck, and when you pick the tender flesh from the bone it’s a festal occasion and you must be just as eager and glad at heart and delighted as a lover when he unhooks his lady love for the first time. Don’t you understand? Oh, you’re a sheep! Are you ready? I’m going to give you a piece off the little bone. So open your mouth. Oh, what a fright you are! There he goes, squinting round the room in case any one sees him taking a bite from my fork. Don’t be afraid, you prodigal son, I won’t make a scandal. But it’s a poor fellow who can’t take his pleasure without asking other people’s permission.

Interestingly, if you look on a Quote site, Madonna, the singer,  is credited with that last line. She sang it in her song (co-written with Lenny Kravitz and Ingrid Chavez), Justify My Love, which was accompanied by a BDSM themed video that was banned from MTV back in 1990:


Later, Hermine gifts a young courtesan, Maria, to Harry. Again, he basically has no choice. Maria just shows up in Harry’s bed, at Hermine’s request.

At the climactic Masked Ball scene, where Hermine is dressed as a boy, and they seem to have sex with each other by having it with strangers:

We took the floor as rivals and paid court for a while to the same girl, danced with her by turns and both tried to win her heart. And yet it was all only a carnival, only a game between the two of us that caught us more closely together in our own passion.

Eventually, in a very Fight Club moment (thanks to my students for the connection), after he “kills” her,  we discover that Hermine was a part of Harry all along. The references to her boyishness, and to her dominating nature, which had seemed transgressive, were really just clues to the reader that she was a he, the selfsame Harry who is telling us the story. It’s possible then to read back and see that although Hermine had a “need” for him to kill her, the pleasure was all Harry’s.

Jane Austen's Persuasion: Random observations, current controversy, two questions and two finale scenes

This is a motley post about Persuasion, with mostly observations from other people. I make a couple of observations and ask two questions. At the end, I include the final scenes from the 1995 and 2007 adaptations, which make for an interesting contrast in interpretation.

1. In 2008, Sarah Frantz, an Austen scholar, reported on giving a paper on romance with several other romance scholars at the Jane Austen Society of North America. Among Sarah’s comments:

…for Janeites to disavow the romance label is, I think, at best disingenuous and at worst, willfully rewriting literary history.

This article, for instance, makes me crazy.

Of the new “chick-lit” style covers of Austen, Thompson argues: Of Persuasion: “Pure Mills & Boon, in fact; and sublimely inappropriate to the tone of this sad, shadowy novel.” Did she read the same novel I did? Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel because she takes a sad, autumnal tone and turns it into the most stunningly compelling expression of the power and optimism of romance you could ever hope to read: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.” Indeed.

2. I enjoyed reading Nandrea, Lorri G. “DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION IN AUSTEN’S PERSUASION.” Studies in the Novel 39, no. 1 (Spring2007 2007): 48-64. Some quotes:

At the very beginning, Austen defies such a narrative structure by repeatedly assuring us that everything is already over. The “history and rise of the ancient and respectable [Elliot] family” has been told already and has reached its “finale”; the “very awkward history” of Elizabeth’s courtship has ended, as has Wentworth’s courtship of Anne: “this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close”. No situation seems open to progress, complication, or development. Moreover, though most of the characters are in motion by the end of the fifth chapter, none seem to be moving toward anything.

Indeed, the plot of the novel will be composed of a complex series of repetitions.

Throughout this novel, Austen probes the relationship between foreseeable futures and unforeseeable events. The act of persuasion itself bears a special relationship to the future tense, often relying on the seductive articulation of a projected scenario.

Ultimately, the novel makes it possible to picture social hegemony itself as a continuously renegotiated product of persuasion, the result that obtains when many individuals are persuaded to share a particular point of view.

And yet the text also tells us that there is no such thing as too late. A sense of the ways in which present and future are underdetermined by the past works to preserve the chance of the future–especially its chance to differ from whatever has already happened–together with the revolutionary potential of every single “now.”

3. A controversy has arisen in recent weeks over Austen’s writing. From BBC News:

The elegant writing style of novelist Jane Austen may have been the work of her editor, an academic has claimed. Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University reached her conclusion while studying 1,100 original handwritten pages of Austen’s unpublished writings.

From Jane Austen Today, a good summary post of the recent brouhaha.

Sutherland is not new to controversy. In 2009 she accused another scholar of stealing her ideas:

Oxford academic and Austen authority Professor Kathryn Sutherland is claiming that a new book by award-winning biographer Claire Harman has copied her own radical ideas about the novelist, pulled together over 10 years of research and published by her in 2005.

“I have never accused anyone of using my material before,” said Sutherland this weekend, “but it feels a bit like identity theft. Claire has been very canny and she writes very well, but I am finding that I cannot write about my own research because people tell me it is too similar to the key arguments in Claire’s book.”

I liked what Jonathan Jones had to say at the Guardian books blog:

Jane Austen’s style is not a bit of polishing on the surface of her novels, it goes deep into their structure, which is why they are so satisfying. Elegant moral thought is embedded in the design of her characters, their comic voices, the ironies of her plots. At their most achieved, the effect is not just witty but profound. But they are not always perfectly achieved and that is significant. You can see evolution, improvement in her work and, some say, decline as well. It makes no sense to attribute her brilliance to the hand of a (male) editor when we can so clearly see her learning on the job, see her style grow. It is organic, it is not in fact a “style” but a voice. Jane Austen’s voice is special and it is unique.

It’s interesting to contrast Sutherland’s claims with the touching biographical notice of the author in Persuasion‘s preface her brother Henry:

The style of her familiar correspondence was in all respects the same as that of her novels. Every thing came finished from her pen; for on all subjects she had ideas as clear as her expressions were well chosen. It is not hazarding too much to say that she never dispatched a note or letter unworthy of publication.

4. “Austen’s triumph was to make everything connect” in “the kaleidoscope of her mind” (129) From Harris, Jocelyn. Jane Austen’s Art of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

5. Not about Persuasion, but this synopsis gave me a huge giggle:

JANE BITES BACK (Ballantine. 2009. ISBN 9780345513656. pap. $14), Michael Thomas Ford sends up both Austenmania and the vampire craze. Turned into a vampire in the 19th century, Jane today owns a small bookshop in upstate New York. She watches other people capitalize on her name while she attempts unsuccessfully to sell her unpublished manuscript. Complications include her fellow vampire Lord Byron and confrontations with Bronte fanatics.

–from Jerrit, Jessica. “No Persuasion Necessary: Jane Austen’s Eternal Appeal.” Library Journal 135, no. 15 (September 15, 2010): 107.)

6. My favorite negative review of Persuasion from Amazon.com:

I don’t know what all of you are talking about. I found this book to be boring, bourgeois and completely unsympathetic. I can not imagine anyone relating to any of these characters, unless you are extremely rich and live in 19th century England. It was, however, well written.

7. I was struck again in reading Persuasion what remarkable insight Jane Austen had, and more than that, the ability to express it. That’s my true joy in reading Jane Austen. For example, when describing Anne’s father, she writes,

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.

I think another writer would have ended her observation with “character”. But by adding “and of situation” Austen captures the way some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.

Or when Anne is thinking about the Musgroves, and how happily married they are:

Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance, but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments…”

To me, the phrase “saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority…” elevates this into a very astute observation.

The early scene when Anne stays home with her injured nephew is one of my favorites, because of the way Austen captures the way people lie outlandishly to themselves for their own selfish ends. Anne’s sister convinces herself that she doesn’t need to stay home, that Anne should do it, because:

…I am of no use at home, am I? and it only harasses me. You, who have not a mother’s feelings, are a great deal the properest person.

See, being a mom makes you a poor choice to nurse your child … because you feel too much. That’s the ticket!

8. Everything about Chapter 23 is magic. I especially loved:

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.

And of course, at that very moment, a man is writing something, that she allows to prove something very important.

9. A question: What do you make of Lady Russell?

10. And another one: Why did Captain Harville Wentworth say he had found Anne so altered?

11. There are many film adaptations of Persuasion. I watched the 1995 one with Ciarán Hinds, which I liked a lot. Here are two video clips of Anne and Captain Wentworth meeting after she reads his letter, the first from the 1995 version, and second from the 2007:

Although I think the 2007 Captain is better looking, I prefer Hinds in the role. how about you? Have a favorite (or least favorite) Persuasion adaptation?

Carolyn Crane's Double Cross: An excellent book that could have been WAY better

Carolyn Crane's Double Cross: An excellent book that could have been WAY better

I read Carolyn Crane’s debut urban fantasy Mind Games and loved it. So I was thrilled when she asked me to “beta read” its sequel, Double Cross, out this week. This was the first time a fiction writer had asked me to read her work prior to final edits and publication. “Just read it like you normally would”, Carolyn said, “and let me know if something doesn’t work.” I can do that, I thought.

In fact, once I got to thinking about it, I realized that I could do that and so much more.

I printed out the document, got out my highlighter, my red pen, and my scissors, and settled in for a long night. I slowly read Double Cross. I read it again, super fast. My Rabbi called on synagogue business, and, inspired, I reread it right to left, back to front. I read it while holding it up to a mirror and turning the pages slowly as I alternated crying jags with hysterical laughter. Finally, in an effort to free myself once and for all from the rigid linearity that sequentially numbered pages — and an author who perhaps underestimated my true talents, and therefore, extreme usefulness —  forced upon me, I removed them one by one and tossed them around the room, looking for new and unexpected juxtapositions as they glided to the floor.

It was 5:00am when I was ready to send Carolyn my list of suggested changes, which I reproduce below in full:

Dear Carolyn,

Thanks for giving me the chance to read Double Cross. I made the following changes:

1. New title: Double Double Toil and Trouble Cross — to alert readers to the hidden Shakespearean themes and mystify literary types at the same time

2. Halloween tie in: Start with a new spookier title (see #1), and make one bold cover change: place a recently carved jack-o-lantern at Justine’s feet, to impart  multiple new meanings –domestic and feminine —  to the knife she wields, and to catch the eye of those Walmart shoppers searching for candy corn

3. More complexity: Mind Games introduced a love triangle. It was good, but that geometrical shape has been done to death. We need to kick it up a notch with a love trapezoid. To that end, I added a new character, Otto’s long lost twin brother, Blotto, whose personality is perfectly expressed by his nickname, “Beer Cap.”

4. The setting of Double Cross is futuristic. I like how you represent the new world with words like “highcap”, “zing”, “descrambler”, “glory hour”, and “disillusion”, but why stop at adding a few nouns and verbs? To really make the reader feel the difference, I’ve taken the liberty of eliminating all articles such as “the” and “a”.

5. Your book is written in the present tense. As luck — yours, of course — would have it, I recently found out this is no longer the thing. Doesn’t it make more sense to write urban fantasy in a future tense? And isn’t future perfect a delicious irony for a quasi-dystopian novel? And doesn’t your book need more irony, especially at the meta levels, by which I mean the levels only a dog or PhD in English can hear? I confess I chuckled to myself every time I changed a line like “It’s like cool velvet fire on my tongue.” to “It will have been like cool velvet fire on my tongue.”

6. More cucumbers.

7. I hesitate to criticize, but I think you may have taken the word “sequel” a bit too literally. Readers already know Justine as the morally tortured disillusionist. It’s old news that she doesn’t like using her hypochondria to “zing” the stuffing out of the bad guys. Readers want to be shocked. Have you heard the expression “wall banger?” Take it from me: that’s the sign you are really having an impact. So I added a chapter. We’ll call it Chapter 9 and 3/4: In Which Justine Finds Religion. She spends the rest of the book in quiet prayer and meditation, interrupted only by occasional visits to shut ins.

8. You mention that the book will be shelved with romance, despite the fact that it does not technically fit the genre definition. I am happy to report that I have added (a) special smells for both Packard and Otto (“sandalwood and highcap” and “woodsmoke and highcap”), (b) a shower masturbation scene for each major character, (c) a secret baby who grows up to be a virgin widow, and (d) 5,000 adverbs. Voila! It is now a bona fide romance!

Yours sincerely,


Alas, my suggestions were not incorporated into the final version of Double Cross. Carolyn explained that while she absolutely loved every single one of them, her editor was being a real PITA and refused to budge. I do understand how these things happen, and can only hope that Carolyn gets a new editor with a little more insight, balls, and vision for Book 3.

Ok, seriously now, I loved the book, I was very flattered to be asked to read it, I loved being able to make suggestions, and I loved it that one or two of them were actually taken up. For folks who have read the first book, this one is faster, lighter (not in tone, but in the sense of less worldbuilding), and more romantic (no HEA, but more emphasis on Justine’s love life). The main niggle for me as a beta reader was a switch in attitude of one major character towards another that felt too quick and thus a little jarring. It’s the kind of thing that I think an author may not catch, reading the book in small pieces, but that someone reading it front to to back will notice. It’s amazing to see how just a few new lines made that problem go away completely. It was a really fun, rewarding experience, and I feel like I have a little more insight on the writing and publishing process as a result. So thank you, Carolyn!

Does Kristan Higgins write romance novels? I'm thinking No.

I read my first Higgins recently, her 2009 release,  Too Good to Be True. I enjoyed it. I quickly read two others, Catch of the Day (2007) and Just One of The Guys (2008). And I’ve started — but haven’t finished (I need a break, for reasons I will explain below) Fools Rush In (2006).

You can hardly find a contemporary writer whose is more embraced by the mainstream romance community than Higgins. By my count, Kristan Higgins now has seven books in print, all with Harlequin. COTD won the RITA for best single title contemporary, as did TGTBT. The Higgins covers all feature romantic couples. Higgins books are reviewed in Romantic Times, on most romance blogs, etc.

But even though this defies all logic, I do not think Higgins writes romance novels. I think she writes women’s fiction.

Higgins novels (please understand this is the shorthand I am going to use for “the 3.5 Higgins novels I have read”) start with a heroine who is unhappily single. They are written from the heroine’s first person point of view. The heroine really wants to find (or, in cases where she has identified him already, get with) her true love, feels she is getting old, and envies her happy-with-spouse-and-children sister or brothers. She then hooks up with the wrong guy or guys — often comically, but sometimes with a fervor that takes her right into TSTL/unsympathetic territory. At the very end, she hooks up with Mr. Right.

And when I say “at the very end”, I mean it. Higgins heroes aren’t around much in her books.  The heroine spends so little time even thinking about the heroes that I don’t even get a sense of who they are through the narrator’s eyes. So, for example, in TGTBT, the hero went into business with his brother, to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, but the brother stole the money and ran, leaving the hero in debt, and in prison. In COTD, the hero had an early failed marriage and a teenaged daughter. In JOOTG, the hero had a troubled childhood, and, later, a broken engagement. These events are Very Big Deals. But the reader never gets to see, really, how these past events are overcome by the heroes. Higgins heroes have no – or almost no — character arc.

The journey to the HEA is hard to discern from the heroine’s journey toward self-acceptance, whether that means acceptance of her unorthodox or boring career choice, her unfeminine or otherwise unspectacular appearance, or something else. I believe it is this factor that has led so many to read these unquestioningly as romances. But I think it’s the heroine’s journey to self- acceptance that matters. It happens to involves, partly, a romance, but it could have involved anything else — scaling Mount Everest, fighting cancer, defeating negative influences, etc.. For me, a true romance novel convinces the reader that the ONLY way for that heroine’s character to grow was to fall in love, and specifically to fall in love with the hero.

All of the heroines have difficult families which pose the biggest barrier to their self-acceptance. These family relationships are, in my opinion, more central to the books than the romances. Higgins heroines have especially difficult relationships with their sisters. In TGTBT, the heroine’s sister actually stole her fiance. In COTD and FRI, the sister is the “beautiful/perfect” one, while the heroine feels inferior. There’s no sister in JOOTG (as the title implies), but it’s the relationships with the four brothers and the parents that delay the HEA.

One common way to define romance is to use the industry definition from RWA. According to that, first, a romance requires:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

In my view, there is a difference between the heroine’s search for love and “two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.” Higgins books are about the former.

Second, a romance requires:

An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

I would say this condition is met, with reservations. As I’ve said, a lot of the Higgins books are about other relationships — the parents, the sisters, the brothers — and these are often going very, very badly. People are left at the altar, cheated on, and some of these marriages end in divorce. So while, as a reader, in feel optimistic about the hero and heroine, there is so much pessimism in the other important relationships, that it is hard to feel optimistic overall about love. This is perhaps more true to life, but less true to the spirit of the genre. I don’t know if “emotional justice” really triumphs in Higgins’ fictional worlds. In this, she reminds me of Jenny Cruisie.

So those are the formal elements of romance. But there is also a set of informal expectations readers have, to which I now turn.

One informal expectation is that contemporary romances which are not inspirational let the reader in on the developing sexual relationship of the h/h, with varying degrees of explicitness. Failing that, the reader is let in the sexual tension which builds in an unconsummated relationship. With Higgins, there is neither sexual explicitness, nor sexual tension. She closes the door on the hero and heroine when they enter the bedroom. Other writers, like Julie James, have done well with the more subtle approach to sexuality, but James excels at sexual tension, which serves just as well.

Again, while it is not a de jure requirement that the hero and heroine stop sleeping with others after they meet, it is uncommon to have, as we do in JOOTG, the heroine sleeping, regularly, with another man, and accepting his marriage proposal, 77% of the way into the book, while the hero is also sleeping with someone else, with whom he has a long term relationship. Again, in TGTBT, the heroine makes out with her former boyfriend toward the end of the book — after she has started sleeping with the hero — and kind of enjoys it. In FRI, again, the heroine is sleeping with another man regularly, well into the book, long after she has met the hero. This is probably more realistic, but less romantic.

Putting all of these things together, I contend that Higgins breaks both formal genre rules and unofficial genre expectations, and she breaks too many, all at once, to count as a romance writer.

So what is she? A women’s fiction writer.

Here is women’s fiction writer Marilyn Brant on the difference between Romance and Chick Lit:

I used to be a book reviewer for Romantic Times, and I read quite a few of both. My way of differentiating between romance and any other genre is that, in romance, there is one hero and one heroine. The protagonists may have had multiple relationships in their past, but neither of them becomes seriously involved with anyone else once they get together. The romance requires a relationship arc, which results in a happy ending, in addition to an individual character-growth arc. For chick lit or light contemporary women’s fiction, the heroine’s romantic interactions are often elements in the novel, and they may even play a major role on occasion. However, the main focus of the story is on her personal journey to greater self-understanding. Whether she ends up with a man or not is irrelevant, but she needs to have learned something from her experiences over the past 300-400 pages and, in my opinion, be in a better place (mentally, spiritually, etc.) than she had been at the beginning of the book.

For romance, the HEA is a necessary condition for everything else. In women’s fiction, while there may well be an HEA, the other elements of the book don’t require it — it’s contingent. Kristan Higgins is a very funny writer, a compelling writer, a writer I feel happy comparing to Jenny Cruise and Susan Elizabeth Phillips in certain respects. When she focuses on the romantic elements of her plots — that first kiss, the HEA — I am riveted. If she decided to write a straight romance, I am pretty sure it would be one of the best romances I ever read. But she hasn’t, in my opinion, written one yet.

Romance Roots: Dracula, by Bram Stoker (part 2)

(Part 1 here)

This post assumes you have read it. Here’s a cheat summary if not.

Did I enjoy Dracula? The first four chapters, when Harker is visiting Count Dracula on business in Transylvania, were terrific. Gothic, tense, absorbing. When Harker cuts himself shaving, when he looks out the window and sees Dracula scaling the castle wall like an insect … that’s great stuff. Then I noticed that Harker started doing things that were unintelligent, like breaking into locked rooms that his scary host has told him to avoid, but, remembering that as a 21st century reader I know what all of Dracula’s odd behaviors signify, while Harker doesn’t, I tried to be charitable. Another great scene is when the ship carrying Dracula, the Demeter, arrives in the midst of a great storm (the Gothic flourishes are so fun) on the English shore, with the crew is disappeared and the dead captain, clutching a crucifix, tied to the wheel. There’s a lot of great story telling here.

The novel is an epistolary one, meaning it is written as a series of letters, and sometimes news clippings (more on this below). I guess the book was originally conceived as a play with one of Stoker’s good friends as Dracula.  The effect is to mute the action, because as a reader you are never “there” when the good stuff is going down. It has already happened. I guess the fact that the letters are written from the point of view of characters who only know part of an unfolding series of events might enhance the suspense, but I found most of the vampire slayers so incompetent that it didn’t work that way for me. Surprisingly, there isn’t all that much action, perhaps because had the story been staged, complicated action sequences would have been too difficult to enact. There is talking. A LOT of talking. I would guess the ratio of talking about what to do to actually doing it is 10 to 1.

I did enjoy the book, although I was always reading it through the lens of all the other vampire stories I consumed first: Stephen King, Ann Rice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampire romances, etc., and a lot of the time I was thinking about how this version was similar to and different from those others, as well as about big picture themes like gender and sexuality, science versus superstition, etc.

There is so, so much to say about this book. But here are a few things I wanted to talk about:

0. Writing

These people are obsessed with writing things down. I know it’s an epistolary novel, but still! They even write about writing. This journal entry from Mina is typical:

There may be a solemn duty, and if it come we must not shrink from it. I shall be prepared. I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing. Then we shall be ready for other eyes if required.

Yes, because the typewriter is just the thing to foil the undead!

Also from ch 14:

I am so glad I have typewritten out my own journal, so that, in case he asks about Lucy, I can hand it to him.

I am sure there’s a lot to be said about the power of the written word, about publicity and privacy, about writing as exorcism, as therapy, etc. But my super intelligent reaction was “WTF”?

1. About Mina

She is strong and smart, but she’s also got that masochistic streak — and not the fun kind. After nearly being killed in a traumatic encounter with Dracula, she says:

“And oh, my God, my God, pity me! He placed his reeking lips upon my throat!” Her husband groaned again. She clasped his hand harder, and looked at him pityingly, as if he were the injured one, and went on.

She also gets kicked out of the Scooby Gang after their first meeting. It’s like Stoker changes his mind mid stream. At the end of Mina’s Journal in chapter 18 we get this muddled logic from Van Helsing:

Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain, a brain that a man should have were he much gifted, and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us, after tonight she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great. We men are determined, nay, are we not pledged, to destroy this monster? But it is no part for a woman. Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors and hereafter she may suffer, both in waking,from her nerves, and in sleep,from her dreams. And, besides, she is young woman and not so long married, there may be other things to think of some time, if not now. You tell me she has wrote all, then she must consult with us, but tomorrow she say goodbye to this work, and we go alone.


So what kind of a brains do Van Helsing and his crew posess? Hmmm…. well, Mina starts exhibiting the same symptoms Lucy had, and Dracula lives thisclose, yet nobody thinks for a second that Dracula has gotten to Mina. Is it because of her “man’s brain”? They notice she is tired, and send her to bed. Over and over. Finally, Renfield enlightens them, they arm themselves and rush to Mina’s room, where they have this exchange:

Outside the Harkers’ door we paused. Art and Quincey held back, and the latter said, “Should we disturb her?”

“We must,” said Van Helsing grimly. “If the door be locked, I shall break it in.”

“May it not frighten her terribly? It is unusual to break into a lady’s room!”


3. My favorite scene

Of course, it’s when they do break in and find Mina with the Count:

His right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white night-dress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare chest which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink. As we burst into the room, the Count turned his face, and the hellish look that I had heard described seemed to leap into it. His eyes flamed red with devilish passion.

How many dissertations were launched by this tableau? So many overlapping metaphors and allusions. Mina as mother giving her blood. As suckling babe. Sex kitten.

Dracula even sounds downright Biblical when he says:

And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, kin of my kin, my bountiful wine-press for a while, and shall be later on my companion and my helper.

4. The menages

Dracula escapes  (of course) and then there’s this weird moment between Mina, her husband, Jonathan, and Van Helsing:

Then she raised her head proudly, and held out one hand to Van Helsing who took it in his, and after stooping and kissing it reverently, held it fast. The other hand was locked in that of her husband, who held his other arm thrown round her protectingly.

Mina has already shared her literal marriage bed with Dracula. So how many people is she married to, exactly?

And that isn’t even the first suggestion of a threesome in this book. There was this exchange earlier, when Van Helsing was transfusing Lucy. He mentioned Holmwood’s notion that exchanging blood makes Lucy his bride:

Said he not that the transfusion of his blood to her veins had made her truly his bride… If so… Then this so sweet maid is a polyandrist, and me, with my poor wife dead to me, but alive by Church’s law, though no wits, all gone – even I, who am faithful husband to this now-no-wife, am bigamist.

Everyone says Dracula is a book about transgressing boundaries — geographic, gendered, sexual, bodily, material and spiritual. So why not have three — or 4 —  people in a marriage?

5. Bloodsucking = sex, blood = semen.

I always knew that there were these linkages, but I never realized how darned obvious they would be. Then again, perhaps they are obvious to me because I am a 21st century reader. For example, this one from Mina, after her episode with the Count in her bedroom:

When the blood began to spurt out, he took my hands in one of his, holding them tight, and with the other seized my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some of the – Oh my God, my God! What have I done?”

What? Some of the WHAT? I am dying to find out what she meant, because I have NO IDEA. ! ;)

And when Van Helsing says not to tell Arthur that other men have given their blood to Lucy, it’s because he might get jealous (chapter 10)

No man knows, till he experiences it, what it is to feel his own life-blood drawn away into the veins of the woman he loves.

6. The gang rape of Lucy

But all of this pales (heh) in comparison to the top scene for the kind of deep analyses favored by a certain type of highly educated literary critic   — the stabbing of Lucy. Lucy had been beautiful, the perfect chaste, virtuous woman, with no fewer than three suitors. But somehow — and it was never clear to me in reading the text — she was susceptible to Dracula. She had to have invited him in at least once, naughty girl. Or maybe she thought he was a homeless person in need?

Eventually, after multiple fuckings blood suckings, she is turned, and starts killing infants. This makes sense. If the perfect woman is maternal, then the opposite of the perfect woman is a baby killer. I loved it that Lucy went around killing babies and trying to seduce everyone. Terrifying stuff.

The more evil she is, the more beautiful and the more alluring. Or is that the reverse? From Chapter 16:

She still advanced, however, and with a languorous, voluptuous grace, said, “Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!”

There was something diabolically sweet in her tones, something of the tinkling of glass when struck, which rang through the brains even of us who heard the words addressed to another.

In other words, they are all getting off. Together.

As horrible as it is to the men, several of whom are in love with her, and one of whom — Arthur — is engaged to her, they must go to her grave and kill her. Here’s how it is described:

Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercybearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it.

Whew. I need a cigarette. How about you?

7. Dracula as alpha male

Ian Holt, a Dracula authority and coauthor of a sequel, has written that:

There have been many schools of thought on why Dracula and vampires hold such sway on the masses. In my opinion, the root is that Dracula represents freedom. Dracula is not bound by the rule of law or man’s self-imposed morality. He has the strength of ten men. His powers over the human mind allow him his pick of women. These are all powerful fantasies to many an adolescent boy.

For women, Dracula represents the ultimate alpha-male. Wealth, power, will and strength define him. He exists on a higher plane than human men, appealing to the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality.

Holt here assumes that female readers place themselves in female character positions in the novel. We know better than that. But does Dracula represent the alpha male? Is this a romance, with Dracula trying — but failing — to find his soul mate? I know that’s how the 1992 film adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola understood him, but I don’t see it in the book at all. While I find a lot of sex in this book (assuming a depth reading) I don’t see much romance. I was never sure what motivated Dracula, exactly (he’s upset that his former glories are former. He wants control and power, but over what, and why? Or maybe I am not supposed to ask why someone would want control and power), but it’s not love.

It is easier for me to connect Dracula with the alphhole heroes of the past in romance than with the vampire heroes of today’s romance novel. The obsession with consent and coercion, with moral and sexual purity, with control of women, was there in Old Skool romance.

Consider these passages:

With a mocking smile, he placed one hand upon my shoulder and, holding me tight, bared my throat with the other, saying as he did so, `First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions. You may as well be quiet. It is not the first time, or the second, that your veins have appeased my thirst!’

And Mina, confused about her complicity:

I was bewildered, and strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him. (chapter 21)

Women engaging in sex against their will, or their better judgment, impossibly alluring men, the attempt to find happiness with the average Joe, all of that is echoed in some ways in older romance novels I have read. And not just older ones: the idea that female sexuality is dangerous, fraught, powerful, debilitating, and in some way bad for women (and men), is still with us in many a romance novel today.

But, to get superficial for a minute, Dracula was not good looking, a prerequisite for a romance novel hero. Here is Harker’s description when he first meets him:

His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Except for the strength and vitality, and the “cruel-looking” mouth, there’s little here to compare to romance heroes of today or yore. But Dracula is the strongest, the most free, the most alluring and intense. And that’s who the hero is in most romance novels.

There’s so much more that could be said about this book. For example, I was very interested in Van Helsing as physician/researcher, and of course in Dr. Seward and his patient in the asylum, Renfield. I think I am going to use Renfield as a case study the next time I give a hospital talk on waxing and waning decisional capacity! But this is long enough.

Have you read Dracula? What did you think?

Romance Roots: Dracula, by Bram Stoker (part 1)

An interview with my spouse, Stephen M. Miller, Ph.D., F.R. Hist. S.. He’s a historian specializing in the British Empire (the “F.R. Hist S.” is the Royal Historical Society to which Stephen was elected a couple of years ago. I swear he doesn’t normally use it, although he may or may not have asked me to shout it during intimate moments).

Before we start, he wants me to say that he has absolutely no expert knowledge of Victorian fiction and is being dragooned into this. Also, we’re assuming you have read it. If your recollection is rusty, here’s a character list.

In this interview, we talk history. In my next post (coming later today), I talk Dracula as fiction and relate it to romance.

Jessica: Is this an imperial novel? What about the theory that Dracula represents the Other in that political sense?

Stephen: Well, I would say yes and no. There were lots of improvements in transportation in late Victorian Britain, among them the introduction of electric trains in the London underground system in the early 1890s. Railroad expansion is occurring rapidly throughout Britain and most of the continent.  Remember when they are trying to catch up with Dracula, he says there are three ways they can go after him, land, sea, and railroad?  That was a bit odd because Eastern Europe was well behind the north and the west in linking its cities via rail.  But of course there were some lines, and Stoker mentions the Orient Express whose service was about ten-fifteen years old when he wrote the book.  These improvements made it easier not just for Britain to go out to the rest of the world and subdue large tracts of it but it also made it easier  for the rest of the world to come to Great Britain, and that was a  very scary notion, albeit it opened up exciting possibilities as well. All in all, the world seems smaller, and thanks to improvements in communication (telegraph, submarine cables), it got smaller still.  Technology — like electricity, lighting, use of gas — would have been on people’s minds at the time, but there was little of that in the book.

But I think Stoker uses these advances as a device to set up the book, and then kind of leaves it.

Although there are some references to empire, and it’s written in an era in which empire would have been in the minds of the British public, it is not, in my opinion, an overt book about the empire. To read it that way assumes a level of subtlety in Stoker’s writing which in my opinion he doesn’t possess. One of the things Stoker often does is repeat for emphasis any point he is trying to make. If he is trying to say something, the reader knows it.

So, for example, to speak of Eastern Europe … they only meet one Jew in the book. If it’s about Eastern Europeans, there are few if any references to them in London, but there would have been many recent immigrants about. Although there are references to gypsies in Dracula, and references to Slovaks, there’s very little about their culture. If someone was really interested in the Other coming, they would talk more about that. So to me, it is more of a setting.  This is not Joseph Conrad or even Haggard writing about setting, for example, in which the setting takes precedence regardless of the author’s intent.  This is Stoker re-telling a well known tale, and the road to Transylvania was well-worn before 1897.

There are a few references to India, which suggests that Stoker had some knowledge about the empire. There are no references to Africa. In late Victorian Britain, the British army was engaged on the average in two to three wars a year. Most of those were fought along India’s frontiers and in Africa. Some of the other big events going on would be the French threatening British interests in Egypt, which would bring Britain to war in the Sudan against an Islamic theocracy (again). Stoker was writing at a time when Islam would have been feared, yet there is no mention in the book. The British public held certain beliefs about the followers of Islam, most of which today we would consider prejudicial and inaccurate. Yet war and religion do not appear in the book.

J: Yeah, why don’t they get a priest? Why are no characters going to church? Wouldn’t the church have been important to Londoners at that time?

S: Those are good questions. There is no doubt that the Church of England’s influence over British society is in decline, but it is still a force, especially among the respectibility-seeking middle class.

J:  I found it really interesting that the person in the book who seemed the most religious was the one who worshiped Dracula, Renfield. He has the ecstasies, blind unselfish devotion, all the hallmarks of a kind of intense religious experience. While Van Helsing and the gang use religious artifacts like the host, they do so in a very detached, scientific way, almost draining all the spirituality out of them.

What do you make of Van Helsing’s nationality, by the way? Van Helsing is the one who realizes that natural science alone will not defeat the enemy. He is open to supernatural possibilities.

S: That is a mystery to me. The British viewed the continent as very different, but the border is pretty open. The British elite travel throughout Europe. Many speak French, German. The British and German royal families are closely connected. From the 1870s especially (until the buildup of the German navy around the time Stoker is writing), there is a strong interest in all things German and much sympathy.

J: Does Van Helsing have to be from the Continent to recognize what Dracula is? Is Stoker trying to say the British are of such pure mind they can’t even contemplate a Dracula?

S: Maybe*, but the problem with that theory is Morris, an American, doesn’t recognize Dracula. Stoker praises Quincy Morris for his “American” traits, like his spirit. So perhaps he is trying to say that Dracula represents the old Europe. They do talk about a few of the old battles that Dracula participated in. Oddly, those were battles in which Dracula fought Muslims, so in that way he would be viewed as a protector against Islam. So we don’t want to read too much into this … because in my view it doesn’t all cohere on this level of analysis.

*You have to hear how he says this. It sounds like “maaaaaaaaaay -bee and he’s always looking down when he says it. I have been married to this man for almost 15 years. “Maybe” is his way of saying “God you are clueless.”

J: How about economics?

S: The Great Depression (not what most people in the US think of, but one that affected industrial Europe from 1873-1896) was coming to an end. It had been caused by excess capital and led to a decline in interest rates, causing investors to look for new sources overseas, rather than investing at home. Economically, though, things in Britain were fairly good at the time. That said, the landed class are not as wealthy as they once were. The reason to include the elite character — Arthur Holmwood (later Lord Godalming) — is not so much for his money, but for what he represents. In a way it’s like a throwback — the Christian gentleman. Arthur has to help them, by bankrolling the vampire hunt, but his title is just important, as is his moral fiber. He’s the one who ends up freeing Lucy’s soul.

In 1897 London, it would have made more sense to have an industrialist, a banker or merchant in that role, but in this book money is portrayed as kind of negative.  Dracula pursues and talks about money in away Stoker seems to criticize, to find ungentlemanly.  There is no Dickensian condemnation of utilitarian middle class virtues, but more of a praising of the virtues of the upper class.

J: So when we look at the Scooby Gang: in Harker and Seward he has science, in Van Helsing, a kind of spiritual openness, in Arthur, a pure knight of Old England, and in Morris, a fresh fighting innovative spirit from the New World. Now what about Mina? Is she a kind of ideal in Stoker’s view?

S: Maybe, but Mina is much too strong a character to represent the ideal Victorian woman, She would have to be seen as a new ideal, an ideal for a very small educated class of women, that ten years later will be the ones that take to the streets to fight for the vote. She’s almost like a Florence Nightingale. I don’t think of that as an ideal for Victorian women.

J: I think we disagree about Mina, but thanks a bunch! You are the sweetiest.

S: Wait don’t you want to hear about what I have to say about guns and why all the men know how to use them though none are in the army?

J:  NO!

S: O.K.  Now you have to read Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.

J: Er — I have to wash the cat.

S: You promised!

J: *sigh*

Marriage, compromise, you know the drill.

Part 2 here.

Romance Roots: Jane Eyre

My romance reading has mostly been confined to late twentieth and early 21st century titles, but of course the genre did not spring up ex nihilo. Pam Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) situates contemporary romance within a tradition she traces back to 1740’s Pamela. Among the earlier books Regis analyzes is Jane Eyre, along with Pride and Prejudice, Framley Parsonage, and A Room With a View). Regis chose them for their chronological distribution, representation of different styles of English literature, popularity with critics and public alike, quality, and vivid heroines. She writes, in a statement that may not be widely accepted by today’s readers, “In a genre whose focus is the heroine, novels portraying intense, vigorous women provide the purest account of the genre.” (p. 55).

Regis departs from earlier efforts to define the romance novel by focusing on narrative elements (courtship and betrothal) rather than themes (“love relationship”). According to Regis, a romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines. It has eight elements, and Jane Eyre has all of them.

1. Society Defined: near novel’s beginning; probably in some way flawed.

Society, especially Jane’s place in it,  is a major preoccupation of the novel

2. The Meeting: usually near beginning — hero and heroine meet.

A gripping meeting that brings together so many elements, including the Gothic, romantic, and feminist elements of the novel. An enigmatic man on horseback literally falls at our heroine’s feet!

3. The Barrier: series of scenes — reasons why they cannot marry.

The biggest one, obviously, is that Rochester is already married. Also class and gender issues (her I mean the internal barrier presented by Jane’s reluctance to be a charity case, even in the context of love). And then the fake barriers Rochester erects, as in his courtship of Blanche Ingram.

4. The Attraction: scene or series of scenes — reason they should marry.

Like an old school romance (by which I think is normally meant a romance written in the 1970s through the 1980s), we only directly get Jane’s version of falling in love. But how wonderfully Bronte captures the complex, uncontrollable, emotion, based on both things that can be named, particular qualities (his respectful treatment of her, his kindness, etc.), but also on the primal or inchoate, as when Jane says “he is not of their kind. I believe he is of mine; — I am sure he is, — I feel akin to him, — I understand the language of his countenance and movements: though rank and wealth sever us widely.”

Rochester holds his own, though, as in chapter 23 when he describes their connection as a “string somewhere under my left ribs tightly and inexplicably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame”.

They become beautiful in each other’s eyes, in that mysterious way love makes possible.

5. The Declaration: scene or scenes in which hero declares love for heroine and vice versa.

Chapter 23, baby. Jane says “whereever you are is my home — my only home”, and later Rochester says, “You-you strange-almost unearthly thing!– I love as my own flesh.”

6. Point of Ritual Death: moment when union between hero and heroine seems absolutely impossible.

For Regis, this is the moment when Jane, after feeling Rochester, finds herself on the steps of the cottage at Marsh end and thinks, “I can but die”. I would personally put it at the moment after Jane learns about “Bertha”, and is mechanically taking off her wedding dress and pondering what it all means (“I looked at my love … never more could it turn to him”.) Jane’s taking leave of Rochester might be another.

7. The Recognition: point when author gives new information overcoming barrier.

Jane dream Rochester needs her. She returns to Thornfield to find it burned down, and Rochester’s wife perished.

8. Betrothal: hero asks heroine to marry him and she accepts (or vice versa).

We get two of these.

Regis’s discussion of the novel is brief (as indeed is every discussion in this book. It is quite focused.). She notes that Jane Eyre showcases the flexibility of the form, and incorporates elements from other genres, such as the quest-plot, the northern (England) Gothic, Bildungroman, feminist themes. She notes the overriding theme of freedom — Jane’s — which supports a claim against the supposed natural antipathy between feminism and the romance novel to which she has already devoted a whole chapter. Indeed Brontë “finds the romance novel form a natural medium for this theme” (p. 87).

For Regis, the novel is all about freedom — not only Jane’s, but Rochester’s which is bestowed by Jane herself. Does Jane achieve “real equality”? Critics are split, with some arguing that while there may be a “mythical” equality, when romance triumphs, equality is necessarily sacrificed. Others note that Jane herself earned her triumphs, and was not saved by a prince.  The latter is Regis’s view. As she puts it, Jane “is profoundly bourgeois, but bourgeois values of independence, individualism, and freedom have been the goals of her quest: her marriage to Rochester is simply an extension of these, not a concession to literary form” (p. 91).

[What does “feminist” mean in discussions of Jane Eyre? In Regis, it seems to refer to a popular contemporary conception of feminism. Was Brontë influenced by the feminism of her day?]

A partial list of random things that remind me of contemporary romance novels:

  • Anachronisms (as in the apparent conflict between Jane’s comment that Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion is a new book (published in 1808), but then reading Byron’s The Corsair (1814). (see interesting discussion of chronology here).
  • Rochester’s diminutive pet names for Jane, as when he calls her “my little sceptic.”
  • The heroine as an orphan, as vulnerable, as isolated.
  • The dark, brooding hero who is older, richer, and more powerful (her employer) [Regis at one point claims that “Jane controls the courtship from the platform of her profession”. (p. 88) I found that very hard to see.]
  • In general, the power issues between hero and heroine
  • The heroine’s lack of bodily control (control of passions) around Rochester
  • The false courtships
  • Rochester’s guests and the scenes when Jane is forced to sit with them reminded me of Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold.
  • The hero in disguise!

A partial list of things that diverge from contemporary (by which I mean, published today) romance novels:

  • The hero is married
  • The extended courtship of Jane by another man
  • The emphasis on Jane’s journey, including her childhood
  • Jane’s religious identity

A few of many things worth thinking a lot more about:

  • Jane’s art — is it just a plot propeller? Or is it more significant? Does it express her self-image?
  • Christian morality — A contemporary reviewer wrote that “No Christian grace is perceptible upon her.” (more reviews here)
  • Postcolonial readings. How is to to read Jane Eyre after reading Wide Sargasso Sea? Can you root at all for Jane and Rochester the way one is supposed to in a romance?

Finally, did I like it?

I would say I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it. Like any good genre reader, much of my pleasure came from situating the text within the genre. As a moral philosopher, I enjoyed Jane’s struggles with principle and emotions and Christian morality. But as a reader simpliciter (whatever that is)? I wasn’t transported by the prose, although I found the plot gripping (despite knowing how it was all going to unfold). There were stretches of slogging. Glad I read it.

Tell me what you think:

Have you read Jane Eyre? Did you like it?

If you read romance, and this IS a romance, why wouldn’t you consider reading it?

They say this is one of those books that, while being widely assigned by English teachers in the US,  is also pretty popular outside the classroom. Why is that?

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