Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Walking the Historical Gender Tightrope: Lisa Kleypas's DEVIL IN SPRING

    (TRIGGER WARNING: rape scene in excerpt #1)

    "Don't," she choked, yet still the strange undreamed-of caress continued while she lay under him like a block of ice. It deepened, intensified until he was stroking the snug, shrinking tenderness of her virgin flesh, watching her stiff expression curiously. He continued until two wavering tears of humiliation wound their way down the sides of her face, yet still he did not appear satisfied with her response.
     "When are you going to stop?" the words fitfully issued from her lips, and Rand's mouth thinned. He discarded all efforts to make the act more pleasurable for her.
     "You would prefer a fast-paced finale? I'll endeavor to oblige you," he said, and before she could take another breath he thrust into her, hard and demanding, rending her feminine softness without restraint. Rosalie cried out in surprise and pain, her body arching sharply into his in immediate reaction. The disembodied feeling returned as he stared into her dazed face. Rand whispered something, a trace of some undefinable emotion in his tone. He remained unmoving as Rosalie endured the uncomfortable sensation of being filled, too much and too deep. He held her face between his hands, but she would not meet his eyes or accept the touch of his mouth. She had not wanted to be possessed by him, neither did she want his consolation. Patiently he let her adjust to the feel of his body, allowing the first shock to wear off before he began to ease in and out of her with exquisite care.   (Lisa Kleypas, Where Passion Leads, 1987)

     Tearing her gaze from him, Pandora quivered with frustration. "Why can't I own my business the way a man would, so no one could take it away from me?"
     "I won't let anyone take it from you."
     "That's not the same. It's all convoluted. It's compromised."
     "It's not perfect," Gabriel agreed quietly.
     Pandora paced in a small, tight circle. "Do you want to know why I love board games? The rules make sense, and they're the same for everyone. The players are equal."
     "Life isn't like that."
     "It certainly isn't for women," she said acidly.
     "Pandora . . . we'll set our own rules. I'll never treat you as anything less than my equal."
     "I believe you. But to the rest of the world, I would be legally nonexistent."
     Gabriel reached out and caught lightly at her upper arm, interrupting her pacing. There was a ragged edge to his calmness now, like a hem that was coming unstitched. "You'll be able to do the work you love. You'll be a wealthy woman. You'll be treated with respect and affection. You'll—damn it, I'm not going to plead like a street beggar holding out his cap. There's a way for you to have most of what you want—isn't that enough?"
     "What if our situations were reversed?" she shot back. "Would you give up all your legal rights and surrender everything you own to me? You'd never be able to touch a penny of your money, except by my leave. Think of it, Gabriel—the last contract you'd ever sign would be our marriage contract. Would marrying me be worth that?"
     "That's not a sane comparison."
     "Only because in one case, a woman gives up everything, and in the other, a man does."
                                (Lisa Kleypas, Devil in Spring, 2017)

I've always had a reading love/hate relationship with the romances of superstar Lisa Kleypas. Kleypas writes some of the smartest, and at the same time sweetest, banter between potential heterosexual lovers in the romance field. Her historicals are well-researched, if rather American-values-centric (she finds entrepreneurial men of far more interest than life-of-leisure aristocrats, even though the bulk of her historicals are set in England, not the United States). She is especially good at capturing class differences, and the rapidly shifting class boundaries of British Victorian society. And her characters are well-drawn, each with his or her individual personalities and quirks, rather than just cookie-cutter imitations of the stars of her earlier books. 

But many of her novels also feature some pretty hard to stomach (at least for a feminist) depictions of alpha-hole masculinity. She began her career writing Old Skool bodice-rippers, complete with initial sex scenes between her protagonists that qualify as rape, not only by today's standards, but by those of the times in which they were written (as in the above excerpt from 1987's Where Passion Leads, a novel notably not included on the book list on Kleypas's web site). And even while her female leads are rarely push-overs, they do often end up in peril and danger—threatened, kidnapped, attacked—and thus in need of rescuing by their dashing male counterparts. Strong and devoted, yes, but Kleypas's male characters all too often step far over the line that keeps protective from becoming controlling.

Which was why I found Kleypas's latest, Devil in Spring, so interesting. The third book in her Ravenels series, DiS focuses on the awkward, socially-inept Ravenel sister, Pandora, whom Kleypas indicates in a video has what we today would label ADHD. It's a rather benign depiction of the disorder; all in Pandora's family circle find her inability to sit still, her restless energy, and unconventional manners charmingly appealing. As does the man labeled "a cynical rake" by the book's flap copy, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent:

He hardly recognized himself in his reaction to her. She was full of life, burning like sunflowers in the rime of autumn frost. Compared to the languid and diffident girls of London's annual marriage mart, Pandora might have been another species altogether. She was just as beautiful as he remembered, and as unpredictable.  (70)

In truth, Gabriel is not a rake at all; he's just been tarred by the rake's brush because he looks so much like his father (the truly rakish hero of Kleypas's earlier Devil in Winter [2006]). Though his offer of marriage to Pandora came about through an accidental compromising (he helped her escape from where her dress was caught in the openwork of a garden settee, which led to the ripping of said dress and the appearance of impropriety), perfectly correct Gabriel finds himself immediately drawn to the unpredictable (and young) Pandora.

Pandora's game, too, is all about shopping...
circa 1898
But Pandora has no wish to marry; she has already begun plans to develop the board game she invented into a commercial product, with the help of her department-store-owning brother-in-law. As she explains to Gabriel

"As things stand now, I have the freedom to work and keep my earnings. But if I marry you, everything I have, including my company, would immediately become yours. You would have complete authority over me. Every shilling I made would go directly to you—it wouldn't even pass through my hands. I'd never be able to sign a contract, or hire employees, or buy property. In the eyes of the law, a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband. I can't bear the thought of it. It's why I never want to marry." (90)

Not a passage you'd be likely to find in a Kleypas novel from the 80s. And not a pronouncement that Gabriel hears without being taken aback: "The little speech was astounding. It was the most transgressive talk Gabriel had ever heard from a woman. In a way, it was more shocking than any of his mistress's most salacious words and acts" (90). Unlike many a current-day historical romance author, Kleypas does not ignore the gender norms of the social milieus in which she sets her stories. Pandora's desire is transgressive, shocking, revolutionary.

Gabriel's attraction to Pandora, though, is such that he is willing to offer her as much legal concession for her grievances about losing her financial rights as he possibly can, given the laws at the time. But as their conversation (quoted above) reveals, those concessions are not the same as granting Pandora legal control. And those concessions are not at all satisfying to Pandora: "It wouldn't be ownership, but it would have the appearance of it. Rather like wearing a tiara and asking everyone to pretend she was royalty, when they all knew it was a sham" (155).

But only two scenes later, after a trust-building exercise Gabriel engineers, Pandora has completely changing her mind:

In that moment, Pandora realized it would kill her not to have him. She might actually expire of heartbreak. She was becoming someone new, with him—they were becoming something together—and nothing was going to turn out the way she'd expected. Kathleen [her sister-in-law] had been right—whatever she chose, it wouldn't be perfect. She would have to lose something.
     But no matter what else she gave up, this man was the thing she couldn't lose. (165-66)

And only a few pages later, she and Gabriel are off on their honeymoon. Pandora's transgressive feminist desires have been abruptly recast as an immature girl's unwillingness to compromise, the need for heterosexual love held forth as the most important thing in Pandora's (any girl's?) life. This is, of course, a love story; given the laws on Married Women's Property of the period (as Kleypas points out in her Author's Note), there is no way that Pandora can both be married and be a business owner. But the speed of Pandora's about face is more than a sign of her impetuous personality; it suggests a deep need to paper over the obvious tension between the desire to be a wife and the desire to be a business owner that Kleypas points to so well earlier in the book.

Chapters 15 to 23 of DiS, which take place after Pandora and Gabriel's wedding, focus little attention on Pandora's former wishes. Instead, she is thrust into a "lady in peril" plot, when, while she is out searching for a printer for her board game, she inadvertently comes across a Fenian plot against the crown. I groaned when I read the first of these chapters; was Pandora's capitulation to marriage just the first of many capitulations to follow, ones that would make her even more of a conventional historical romance heroine than she had already become?

But Devil in Spring concludes its lady in peril plot with a rather more progressive ending than I had expected. Unlike the storylines of many of Kleypas's earlier books, Pandora's husband cannot and does not rescue her. In fact, it takes another woman, not Gabriel, to save her life.

After his wife's recovery from her brush with danger, Gabriel, like many a over-protective Kleypas hero before him, wants to keep his lover safe under lock and key. Rather than make this clash of "who will be in control" into a big, black-moment showdown between Pandora and Gabriel, though, Kleypas chooses to resolve their conflict in keeping with the comic tone of the rest of the book. Pandora's doctor counsels her that her husband has experienced a shock, too, and that he needs time to recover. When Gabriel insists on that the doctor issue his wife a prescription to calm her, the doctor scribbles the following and hands it to Pandora:

Enforced bed rest might not be so bad if you could do it here...
Take one overwrought husband and administer compulsory bed rest. Apply as many embraces and kisses as necessary until symptoms are relieved. Repeat as needed. (252)

Though Pandora does temper her controlling beast/husband with cuddles and sex, ultimately Gabriel has to accept that Pandora can and will continue to risk herself, even in the face of his absolutely forbidding it. What else should one expect from a lady who has, after all, gotten a special dispensation to have the word "obey" stricken from the wedding vows?

No, Kleypas may not be the most overtly feminist of romance writers. Yet Devil in Spring points to some of the continuing tensions of historical romance, at least historical romance like Kleypas's, that wish to take history, and history's gender norms, seriously: the need to create heroines who come across as "empowered" to contemporary readers, but who also exist within the constraints of the social mores of their times.

Photo credits:
Playing Department Store: Pinterest
Victorian bed: Victoriana Magazine

Devil in Spring
The Ravenels, book #3
Avon, 2017


  1. I thought it really interesting that there is no actual way to resolve the tension between Pandora's rights and her marriage. It does have to be handwaved if there is to be a conventional HEA. Nor is there an accounting of what happens when the kids come along and how that impacts on a woman's freedom. They are fortunate in their wealth which can buy them staff. I also think it is interesting to read DiS and the afternotes in the time of Trump and the assault on women's rights to bodily autonomy. DiS is a reminder of the things that had to be hard won and fought for. To read the term 'become legally dead' is chilling

    1. Yes, Merrian, I agree that it's really interesting, what needs to be handwaved. And that we have to cheer for Pandora's getting the concession about dropping "obey" from the marriage vows, because we can't cheer for her running her own business, as a person with legal rights. Because this couldn't have happened once she married.

      Love the idea of reminding people of the rights that women have had to fight for, and connecting that to what women still must fight for today, in the current American political climate.

  2. Fascinating, thoughtful piece. Thank you so much for this!

    1. You're very welcome, Damon.

      Looking forward to meeting you in person at the NECRWA conference next month!

  3. What a great post, Jackie! I have a similar plotline in a manuscript starring a professionally ambitious heroine in the Georgian period, and figuring out a satisfying way of resolving this very tension has been a struggle throughout writing it. Of course, you want the hero to be able to say "Marrying me should not be the end of your status as a legal person, my love! I shall summon my solicitor and have the matter corrected forthwith." But the reality is that marriage under the laws of couverture came with an absolutely heartbreaking loss to any woman who had ambitions outside the domestic realm. It is hard to write around the bitter taste of this concession in delivering a happily ever after premised on marriage. And yet, to have a couple fall in love and not marry in this period comes with equally tricky social consequences. I think you are right that as writers we have to be honest about the realities of the historical time period. After all, the more limited possibilities and stricter social codes have always been a part of what makes reading historical interesting. Imagining how plucky, imaginative, intelligent women got by - or even fell in love and explored their passions - in an era where so many facets of life were forbidden to them is an interesting way to spend a few hours. I'm so glad LK is addressing it head on.

    1. Thanks, Scarlett, for stopping by. I agree that exploring how women explored their passions—both romantic and professional—in times when gender norms (and laws!) were far different than they are today is one of the key appeals of historical romance.