Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Merry Widows

Still a live one. Just snowed (or maybe sunned) under by my Shadowy Obligations.

Random Hist. Rom. related thought of the day: society rakes often seem to be sexually initiated in their early to mid teens by a bored wife or widow who apparently has nothing better to do other than corrupt the youth. Who is this woman? What's her story? It's a mystery!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thinking Person's Crumpet: Neckwear Edition

Photo by Inez & Vinoodh Matin/ILC

Wear rainbows; listen how they grow.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Self-Portait" (1847)
OK, self-portrait; but still.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Chow Mo-wan in In the Mood for Love (2000)
Swooniest movie; so swoony.
Tilda Swinton as Orlando in Orlando (1992)
Terrible adaptation; fabulous Tilda.
Fu'ad Aït Aattou in Une Vieille Maîtresse (2007)
Mediocre adaptation; excellent bedroom eyes all around. 
Kim Rossi Stuart as Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black (1997)
Terrible adaptation; fabulous cravats.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In Praise of Ivory, Part II: Bliss and Bale

Of Bliss and Dance, Judith Ivory's duet of books (published respectively in 1995 and 1996), there's so much to say that any short assessment is bound to leave out much more than it gets down. That caveat in the front of my brainbox, I've decided to split my post on these books into two parts, the first of which will deal with the earlier novel in the series, Bliss.

I ended my last post on Ivory by talking about how much I admire the way she builds character from cultural particularities specific to the time and place in which she's working (again, France in the first years of the twentieth century). In Bliss, some of the most conspicuous of these particularities are art, money, and drugs. 

When Bliss opens, Bernard "Nardi" de Saint Vallier, cadet son of an old French family, is a failure and an addict. The former wunderkind of the Parisian art scene, he has given up sculpture for ether and "Celebrity, [his] old darling" for "Intoxication and Notoriety, old bastard girls that they were, strictly for the sake of their being half sisters to the one whom he loved who had left him behind" (131). His terminally respectable older brother Sébastian has confined him to a cabin not far from the falling-apart chateau that has historically belonged to the de Saint Valliers. (A building, Sébastian observes, not unlike Nardi himself.) Now, however, the family has fallen on hard(er) times financially; they are an old name without the old money to back it up and Nardi's extravagant gifts, which once promised to be a benediction, are now a distant memory. The former child of precocity and light has dedicated his life to drinking ether, spiting his brother, and, failing these distractions, the occasional idle chiseling of a tombstone.

Like mythic Achilles, Nardi has chosen to burn twice as bright for half as long. And, in a sense, Bliss is largely the story of a man half-dragged, half-crawling from the anesthetized fog of his mistakes. (Ether isn't an idle choice--it speaks quite eloquently of fashionable decadence at the end of the nineteenth century.) Although this arc might seem familiar, what lifts it out of the ordinary is the incredible attention to the details of the world. Firstly, there's Nardi's art. (Descriptions of it have always reminded me of Rodin's work.)The innovations--or is it insults?--of high modernism are still in the making, so we can forgive Ivory the dedication to representational sculpture--Nardi himself is having a crisis of representation that mirrors the one going on in the early twentieth century. That is, he's wrestling with some key modernist questions: What's the relationship of art to what it represents? Does it make a difference or is it completely pointless? How do I make it new? Are skill and virtuosity really that important? How can I make the art outside my head match the world I see from inside my head? What do I do if people say it's ugly? Does beauty matter anyway? 

Unlike many other Heroes with Talents, Nardi cannot be divided from his craft; his relationship to art isn't window dressing, it is, rather, the defining measure of his character. Even Nardi's addiction (his other defining characteristic) is secondary to his identity as an artist, if only because it is predicated on his failure as an artist. It is the skill that has taken the place of that other skill: "The first time you turn your backs, I will have a pint of ether down my gullet with another pint in my pocket! I can play this game blindfolded--and straitjacketed--because, you see, getting ether may be the only thing I do well, but, by God, I do it with practiced, predictable proficiency!" Nardi's preoccupation with line and form, his unerring faith in his own virtuosity, aren't present to us in the direct action of the novel. We can see the ghost of this youthful Nardi, the enfant terrible, the prodigy, not through flashback or extensive expository speeches but through his art, which is intimately connected to his fascination with the heroine. For instance, when Hannah Van Evan, the aforementioned heroine, finds an old sculpture of Nardi's entitled The Separation, Ivory describes it as one statue that appears to be two. The artwork depicts a pair of lovers: 

"not 'these' de Saint Valliers but 'this' de Saint Vallier. It's a single work, cut from a single stone . . . If you face them toward each other, each set of empty arms reaches out to the other set, with what might be disconsolate longing. But when you put them together . . . they embrace  . . . It's very difficult to do . . . to control the break so completely, then use it properly, and he did it in Paros marble, a stone particularly susceptible to cracking" (192).  

It's very telling, this little statue. In fact, it seems to serve as a metonym not only for Nardi's character--also "particularly susceptible to cracking"--but for his relationship to Hannah as a whole. An American secretary to an ambitious assessor and critic of art named Amelia Besom, she is a salvager of lost, fragile things. (Nardi is in the habit of making and then breaking them.) She recognizes value when she sees it and isn't afraid to insist on her share. (She demands a portion of the sale price when the statue goes to auction.) It only matters that the stone lovers fit so well together because the delicate substance of which they're made shouldn't allow it. The lovers are small and breakable. They can so easily be divided and sold off. The Separation describes in miniature the feat Ivory's book hopes to achieve--a union of creatures at once hard and soft, friable and flexible, appealing and impossible and rare. It's one of many mischievous, playful gestures in her writing. (The frequent use of epigraphs is another.)

Equally telling is that, when Nardi finally gets around to sculpting Hannah, he remakes her statue out of a poorly reviewed sculpture from one of his old exhibits. The sculpture is of a woman chiseling herself out of stone--Nardi's compliment to Hannah's stubborn, persistent self-fashioning. For if Nardi has a legacy of prima donnaism and substance abuse to overcome, Hannah also has a past to outrun back in Florida, where an ambiguous sexual incident has left her with no references and the questionable nickname "Miss Seven Minutes of Heaven." Hannah's arc has much to do with her learning to trust her own judgement, her own taste, her own body--and Nardi is the catalyst for many of these developments but never (thankfully) their architect. Hannah likes money and comfort and bright, loud petticoats and pretty men and sex--and for most of the book she is trying with all her might to override these instincts. She has good reason; these "weaknesses" have made her nearly unemployable and she has felt their stigma in other ways, too. And for this reason, the conflict feels entirely legitimate and entirely organic. But what I love most about Ivory's framing of these issues is how she allows Nardi to argue (not disinterestedly; he wants to sleep with Hannah very badly at this point) that pleasure and virtue aren't mutually exclusive, a lesson about women's sexuality I wish a lot more romance novels would take to heart. Nardi (losing command of his rather rudimentary English): 

"Sacredieu, you are good . . . You are, ah, érotiquement . . . eh, charnelle . . . carnal, tu sais, you understand carnal? . . . These qualities  . . . do not prevent that you are also pure and good. The one does not contradict the other . . . You must understand. There are times when it is good to be wanton. With me, par example [sic] . . . Now" (276). 

A lovely instance of what Evangeline Holland would call Ivory's Gallic frankness! It's also a more charming way than most of evening the sexual playing field. (There's no getting around the gendered fact that, for women in heterosexual historical romance, the stakes of an erotic encounter are almost always going to be higher than they are for men. Sure, the carpe diem pitch is seductive but it's also unfair as hell.)  Indeed, much of what I love about Bliss has to do with the way Ivory manages sex. There's not so much of it (other books have many more--forgive me, I just can't say love scenes--sex scenes) and yet sex is everywhere. Each scene in which an explicit erotic event occurs is heightened by the way in which these sequences reveal something about the conflict between Nardi and Hannah--in the passage above, it's two very different ideas about how to be mature about sex that create the...uh...friction that powers the scene. Another way of looking at Bliss is an evolution of desires. In the first part of the novel, bliss is chancy, destructive, explosive, immature: it's about wanting things that aren't good for you, whether it's a pint of ether or acclaim or a fling with your fiancée's best friend. The bliss of the latter half is, perhaps, no less risky or dangerous. The best you can say of it is that it's adult. It is, to use one of my Ivorian watchwords, sophisticated. It's a knowing kind of bliss, one that recognizes that any desire fulfilled comes at a cost--whether that desire is erotic, emotional, artistic or economic. As Nardi puts it (in one of my only favorite epilogues):

 Unjust criticism is not nearly the problem unjust praise is. I underline this, for, you see, though the critics disliked the show, the Vatican loved the statue of St. Joan and has asked me, in language that exudes wonder and admiration, to do the monument at the Duomo in Florence. I can't of course . . . but I blush at how flattered I was. I couldn't eat my breakfast once I'd opened the letter. I only wanted to read the words over and over. I wonder if I shall ever understand this about myself, why I am so needy. I am like a beggar on the street--throw me anything--when it comes to the good opinion of strangers. 

  --From a letter to his wife in Paris, 
    Bernard de Saint Vallier, sculptor, in Rome,
    from the Sébastien de Saint Vallier translation,
    The Collected Papers, Bouvier: Paris, 1933 (373)

Bliss ends not with an admission of strength but an admission of a vulnerability that looks to be permanently scripted into the HEA. (We know it's an HEA because 1) Nardi's writing these things to Hannah and 2) his relationship with his brother has been repaired to such a degree that Sébastian has been granted permission to translate and publish his famous brother's letters.) I find this epilogue moving and effective precisely because it maintains its claim that bliss is a hard won and not at all comfortable thing, that happily ever after is process, not product. The epigraph (drawn from Henry James) with which Ivory begins the book sums it up best: 

No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connexion of bliss and bale.

I will take my bliss and bale together, thank you, for the one means nothing without the other.

Next up: Dance

Monday, July 25, 2011

History & Historical Romance Round-Up

Some great posts around the web on Historical Romance & the uses of history, some of which anticipate my own thoughts here, some of which respond to them: Liz Mc2  thinks about history in Grace Burrowes's The Heir, VacuousMinx responds to my thinking in a manner anything but vacuous, Sarah Frantz (who is as a goddess to me) contemplates history and m/m romance. (Great discussions in the comments, too!)

These posts have definitely helped me refine and revise my own ideas!

Some addenda:

1) Sunita revises my original thesis in important ways by talking about how historical worldbuilding might differ from SFF worldbuilding. I agree! The register in which historical worldbuilding happens is generally more constrained in important ways. Again, I want to highlight the idea (as I should have done more effectively in my original post) that historicity is predicated on how facts get employed--and also how they get bent--and what kinds of facts are ripe for bending in the first place.

One question that I'm pondering has to do with why we would never ever mistake a Historical romance for a document of the period, fictive or non...

2) ...which brings me to the divine Sarah, who writes that romances to me are about the way people THINK and that is as historically contingent as how they dress.

She points out (crucially) I think, that our contemporary ideas about self/identity/romance evolved out of eighteenth century discourses of ideas--as did the psychological novel in the west! (Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji is often cited as the first real psychological novel but it doesn't get Englished 'til the 20th century.) I hadn't thought of it in so many words before but, to write a psychological novel about an historical period pre-dating the eighteenth century is already indulging in a kind of creative anachronism. 

This insight really helps me think about very rich, variegated historical worldbuilding in novels that depict, say, the early modern period. I'm thinking particularly here of stuff like Dorothy Dunnett's inimitable Lymond Chronicles  and Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine which, although beautifully, exhaustively researched and dense with detail, seem to me very idionsyncratic and highly personal views of what sixteenth century Europe or Classical Athens were "about."

Monday, July 18, 2011

In Praise of Ivory, Part I

Although Judith Ivory has been AWOL from the romance scene for several years now, her books remain very important to my standards and expectations as a genre reader. When I was first introduced to romance (don't we all have an origin story?), it was through a high school friend who brought me a bag of ten or so books to borrow. I don't remember most of what was in the bag but I do remember that it contained two books by a writer named Judy Cuevas: Bliss and Dance.

Cuevas would, of course, later go on to write a number of excellent things under her Judith Ivory pseudonym, almost all of which (to varying degrees) would find a place on my keeper shelf. The word that comes to mind is sophisticated. She's just so damned sophisticated. But it's not merely that--it's that she assumes readers are capable of a similar sophistication. There's something very dangerous and wonderful about a book that pays such an extravagant compliment to your intelligence. It's tempting to say that the richness of language and characterization in these books spoiled me for all others; it didn't. But, even still, every time I reread an Ivory, I have to wonder how I'm going to content myself with anything else. The appeal's that visceral. This will be the first in a series of intermittent posts that tries to analyze some of what makes up that appeal.

How about a list? Though I might make minor changes on any given day, depending on what mood I'm in, here's how I generally rank Ivory's books in terms of craft, skill, and delightful idiosyncrasies:

1. Dance
2. Bliss
3. Untie My Heart
4. Beast
5. Black Silk
6. Sleeping Beauty
7. The Indiscretion
8. The Proposition

(Note: I haven't read Angel in a Red Dress. I'll get around to it someday but, for now, it's nice to know that there's one Ivory out there still waiting for me.)

In thinking about Ivory as a stylist, I'll be focusing mainly on Bliss, Dance, and Black Silk--in part because these are the novels I happen to have at hand. A few introductory words about the former two: one thing I love about Bliss and Dance is that they feature a historical setting that doesn't often make its way into romance. I adore unusual historicals, especially those in which the background feels like an organic part of the story rather than token exoticism. While France in the first decades of the twentieth century doesn't seem particularly radical at first blush--it's still Europe, after all--it's definitely an underutilized setting in Historicals. But Ivory doesn't merely transplant generic characters and issues into an unusual landscape. It's paramount to both Bliss and Dance that plot and character derive from the unique confluence of culture, technology, and history specific to France in the early twentieth century. Freud, Marx, the Lumière brothers, modernist sculpture and painting, feminism, economics, law--all these features of the cultural landscape become a part of Ivory's worldbuilding without ever overwhelming us with detail. When they enter the story directly, these discourses of ideas are never impersonal fireworks displays of erudition, given to us in a cold, impersonal narrative voice. Instead, they are pressing issues for the characters themselves as they work out their relationships to each other and to the world...

To be continued.  

Friday, July 15, 2011

Progress Notes

Since it looks like my posts here will probably all fall in the tl;dr category, I'll try to restrict myself to one or two a week so as not to default on my other Shadowy Obligations. Some essays I've got in the works will touch on the politics of Historical romance, underrepresented populations, marriage, free love, and (of course) sex words!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bastille Day Musings: Discovery of a World Inside a World

For those interested in historical accuracy, I must mention a few stretches of fact I felt at liberty to take in the course of creating this fiction . . . It was pure fun making up this world from the facts, the above-mentioned having been bent a little to suit.

--Judy Cuevas, Author's Note to Black Silk

What do we mean when we call a romance historical?

Nineteenth century writers like Austen and the Brontës--writers whose work is often cited as a precursor to genre romance--were often in the habit of setting their stories a decade or two prior to the date of publication. Austen started working on the earliest version of Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s, more than a decade before the official beginning of the Regency period; Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, careens from the 1750s to about 1807. Sir Walter Scott, who wrote "romances" in the catholic sense, is usually credited with the invention of the historical novel. When Waverley, set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, was published in 1814, it achieved a wild popularity; it would make Scott as towering a figure in the first half of the century as Dickens (or "Mr. Popular Sentiment"; Trollope's withering name for the writer) was in the latter. Scott's work would spawn countless imitations and tributes (The Brontës were fans; Mary Shelley thought about him a lot; Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot often felt the effects of his influence.). Prolific and popular, he was (nearly singlehandedly) responsible for establishing the reading public's taste for long-form fiction set in other time periods. In that sense, contemporary Historical romance owes as much or more to SWS as it does to Jane, Charlotte, or Emily.

But what are the uses of history in romance? There's obviously a spectrum of how history gets deployed in romance--how "historical" a piece of writing really is. When SWS was writing about twelfth century chivalry in Ivanhoe--jousts and disinherited knights and courtly love--he was also writing (in the figures of Isaac and Rebecca) through nineteenth British anxieties about the recent influx of Jewish immigrants. That is, there's not much attempt in Ivanhoe to pretend that the world of the story is an accurate picture of medieval life. The characters speak modern English, not pre-Great Vowel shift proto-Chaucerian dialect (Even Walter Scott is no Laura Kinsale.). There's Robin Hood bouncing about in merry outlawry and everyone is so bloody noble or so bloody mean they're practically archetypal. So if a gritty, precise picture of twelfth century England wasn't what Scott's contemporary readers were responding to, what was it?

My answer would be a word that primarily pops up in discussions of SF/fantasy rather than romance: world-building. Ivanhoe has a lot of flashing swords and maidens in arcane get-ups of silk and samite, of course, and window dressing of this sort has a powerful appeal. But it matters in Ivanhoe that people use swords to negotiate, the same way that it matters that manners are the weapons of choice in a Regency-set romance. What we're responding to is less history-proper than it is the completeness of an illusion--a dream of an historical period. What are the rules of the world? Are they consistent? The more consistent and complex a world the more complete it feels--dense, massy, solid, absorbing. One of the pleasures of the well-researched novel is that it's acquired and employed enough detail that the world--however far it may be from the reality of, say, London in 1880, feels as if it could have existed. A possible world.

We want worlds, as Judy Cuevas writes in the epigraph to this piece made "from the facts" because a world (as at least one nettlesome philosopher has said) is the totality of facts. But (how perverse we are!) we don't mind if the facts are bent, so long as they're bent with care and skill. Because on facts bent in just the right way, other larger truths may be built, truths about thinking and feeling and knowing, truths about how each one of us is a world and a part of a world and a maker of worlds.

A good candidate for the first major architect of SWS-style world-building in genre romance is, of course, Georgette Heyer. The Dream of the Regency on which many contemporary Historical romances draw seems to start with her finicky attention to period details of dress and deportment. That said, however, she was, in her canny way, much more of a fantasist than people give her credit for being. For instance, the Regency cant that forms the major dialect of her world was largely her own invention--inspired sometimes by historical sources and sometimes by the vibrant slang that was current among the Bright Young Things of Jazz Age London; her heroines also owe many of their characteristics to the figure of the flapper in popular imagination.

Ideology's everywhere, of course. We are creatures of our time. No matter in what era a twenty-first century writer chooses to write, she is always writing about twenty-first century concerns. This is a good thing. We need fiction that talks to us (if indeed we need fiction at all) but we also need fiction that shows us what could be and might be and may have been. Call it speculative fiction. Call it a concrete manifestation of the historical imagination. We need dreams we can walk into and inhabit, dreams where we can wander in and fiddle with all the moving parts. And this is, perhaps, what we mean when we call a romance historical.

Now all I need is for someone to write me a perfect Dream of the French Revolution romance with sans culottes and intellectuals and bourgeois revolutionaries and heaps of uninhibited sex. No aristocrats need apply. Happy Bastille Day.