Consuming Problems

by Wardog

Wardog gets all consumed with irritation for Consuming Passion: 100 Years of Mills and Boon.
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I was cruisin BBC iPlayer (the innovation of kings) the other day and I ran across Consuming Passion: 100 Years of Mills and Boon, a one and half hour play written in celebration? acknowledgement? of the fact that Mills and Boon, despite being the publisher of perhaps some of the most universally scorned books ever written, have hit their hundred year anniversary.

Happy birthday, Mills and Boon!

Consuming Passion takes place over three timelines, involving three women connected only by Mills and Boon. There's the lonely, frustrated wife of Boon himself back in the early days of the publishing house, there's a lonely, frustrated secretary in the 1970s and, in the present, a lonely, frustrated English tutor at a generic university. There's a bit of a theme here, do you see? In the past, we see Mills and Boon flourish under its unique publishing doctrine: books by women, for women, published en masse. Boon himself is a lower-class workaholic with a desperate need to prove himself; his beautiful wife, a posh bird, adores him and supports him, attempts to inspire passion in him and keeps the business afloat when things are on the verge of going bum end up over a barrel. Secretary Girl lives a quietly unfulfilled life, working at an unsatisfying job, looking after her querulous mother, devouring Mills and Boon novels. When her mother needs a hip operation, she meets a smouldering surgeon who, naturally, turns out to be a sleazy bastard, but he does inspire her to write a Mills and Boon of her own. In 2008, English Lecturer Woman is in a rather tepid relationship with some dude she lives with. She teaches a course on the Romantics, which apparently culminates in a module on Mills and Boon. Like, what the fuck? It was hard to respect her after that, despite the fact she was played by the gorgeous gorgeous Emilia Fox. In what academic world would a course on Mills and Boon be part of a course on the romantic poets? Presumably a course that began with Chretian de Toyes? But putting my bitching aside, a hot student with a tendency to wander around sans shirt comes on her course and, partially inspired by their discussions of Mills and Boon sexuality, lo, they end up bonking.

So there you have it.

The 2008 story also affords excuse for some ham-fisted exposition about the history of the Mills and Boon, as well as some pseudo-academic commentary on whyever it is that women like theses things. Unfortunately it failed to provide any kind of context for the stories, or coherency to the overall message of the piece (assuming there was meant to be one). To me, at least, it felt neither like critique nor celebration and lacked anything like sympathy or understanding.

The Boon / Wife plotline has several rather heartbreaking incidents in it - she writes him a passionate letter while he is away fighting in the war, to which responds by inciting her not to get hysterical and to buy him some more socks, for example. It is resolved, if resolved it can be called, when his return and the death of Mills, sees him fretting about the future of the publishing house, without which he will have "nothing." Needless to say, this is the final straw for Mrs Boon who has devoted her entire life to him and she yells at him a bit. "But dear," he says, uncomprehending, "you're my rock and I love you". She explains that he has never made her feel as if he has. "But I do," he insists, kissing her tenderly. "How can you not know that." "I need to be told," she tells him. "Women need romance." They kiss more. Now, perhaps I'm unforgiving sort but I think "sorry dear, you're my rock" does not in anyway approach making up for years of neglect and a fundamental failure to understand the needs of the woman you have married. It's not even starting a point.

Secretary Girl conceives a wild, quite honestly stalkerish crush on the mean-eyed ruggedly handsome Doctor. Needless to say, it does not end well, she realises he is not a hero with a dark past, he's just at dickhead, but it's okay because Mills and Boon are going to publish the book she's written, inspired by him. We are told that leads on to a successful career as one of the most iconic and imitated Mills and Boon writers ever. We do not learn if she ever gets a personal life.

In 2008, Emilia Fox's antagonism to her arrogant but passionate, ever-shirtless student naturally gives way to lust and they go at it like bunnies for a while (God, Emilia Fox is gorgeous). This leads her to dump her uninspiring partner and, after a few hiccoughs, to move towards a tentative commitment with the A.B.P.E.S.S, despite the age difference and the fact that relationships never work out anyway.

What we are meant to take from these stories, I am not entirely sure. I suspect they are meant to simultaneously celebrate and critique the typical Mills and Boon romantic arc: each of the women finds happiness but in each case it is shadowed by compromise. Mrs Boon is still married to a passionless dickweed, albeit a passionless dickweed one she purports to love, Secretary Girl is a successful writer but still, probably, a lonely wallflower with obsessive tendencies, and the relationship between Emilia Fox and her A.B.P.E.S.S may fall apart within a few months or a few years. Although the relationship between Emilia Fox and her student develops along Mills and Boonish lines, with antagonism turning quickly to - or always having been a more readily owned substitute for - passion, the other two stories eschew such familiar tropes. Mrs Boons' story begins after she is married, whereas most Mills and Boons (bar "convenient marriage" historicals) end with marriage and Secretary Girl neither wins her cruel Doctor nor learns enough to reject him for his obviously much nicer friend.

But none of these stories, together or individually, every really say anything - either about women or about Mills and Boon. Emilia Fox's lectures introduce the viewer to the facts and figures behind Mills and Boon; but even though the programme seemed willing enough to acknowledge, and perhaps even admire, the prevailing popularity of the books, I felt there was no real understanding as to why people continue to love them. Obviously Secretary Girl reads them and adores them, but she is such a pathetic (in the sense of pathos) and unattractive character that we feel sorry for her, rather than identify with her. Emilia Fox's character seems actually embarrassed to be teaching a course on them - in the opening scene she drops one of the books on the way into the lecture theatre and the hot shirtless student picks it up for her. "Interesting choice of reading material," he says, smiling provocatively. "Actually I teach them," snaps back Emilia, as if the idea of any educated woman reading them for the pleasure of it was something she could not bear to countenance. There is some rather discussion of the Mills and Boon phenomenon, but it is always presented as something faintly alien as if reading Mills and Boon is something other people do. Emilia Fox trots out the old "they're actually feminist because it is the man who is tamed into the female domestic sphere, not the woman who surrenders" line. Hot Student is particularly bewildered by the prevalence of "force fantasy" in the modern sexed up incarnations of the imprint, and eventually concludes that it is a way for women to enjoy sex without guilt or responsibility. Well tried. Have a B+.

He, like the show itself, has failed to understand the nature of fantasy. There is a difference, surely, between what a woman fantasies about and what she wants: Consuming Passion seems to assume they are one and the same, or at least come from a very similar place in the female psyche. Why can the world not give romance readers any credit? Secretary Girl's engagement in the Mills and Boons she reads is portrayed through fantasy sequences and she is always the heroine. Similarly, when she writes her book, she, again, casts herself as the heroine and the Doctor she met at the hospital as the hero, essentially experiencing through the medium of her book a romantic relationship she could never have with him in real life. The more she writes, the more she is drawn into the fantasy, even so far as to address the Doctor by the fictional name she has given him and to throw herself at him, believing him to truly be the wronged-in-love dark hero she has re-invented him as. The result of this is to portray the writing - and the reading - of Mills and Boon novels as the act of women who have only a tenuous grip on reality and use them to escape into lives they would rather have. There is a difference between indulging a fantasy and actually wanting that fantasy to happen to you, and most people can tell the difference. (Of course, there are also fantasies we do want to happen us but that's a different story...)

There's a fascinating essay by one of my favourite romance writers, Laura Kinsale, called 'The Androgynous Reader' which posits the idea the heroine in a romance novel is a mere placeholder and it is the hero who the female reader actually inhabits for the majority of the novel, although she can also inhabit both the hero and the heroine, thus experiencing (and feeling) the courtship from both directions, while retaining her sense of self. But through the hero, the female reader can experience aspects of her own "maleness" denied to her by the binary construction of gender identity, and the traits she may associate with it, power, ruthlessness, pride, protectiveness, and so on and so forth. The final union of the hero and heroine, far from being about submission of either masculinity to femininity, or individuality to conventionality, dramatises the harmony a woman may find in the working through of her various selves, finally reconciling them in a "happy ending" of her own.

Basically I think it's a rockin' essay (that's a technical term, I learned it at Oxford) and it makes a lot of sense to me, more so than the tired female empowerment messages Emilia Fox mentions, or the equally tired musings about why it is that heroes in romance novels so regularly enact sexual violence upon the heroines. And I mentioned it specifically because Consuming Passion's portrayal of Secretary Girl's engagement with Mills and Boons is based upon, and entirely locked up in, assumptions about romance novels and romance readers which simply aren't true. There is far more involved in reading and writing a romance novel than simply pretending it's you at whom the hero is growling.

I won't say that Consuming Passion isn't mildly entertaining, but so is watching someone you don't know miss a bus. I think part of the problem was that it tried to do too much at once, and that it was trying so hard to "say something" that it wouldn't let itself just let its hair down and celebrate Mills and Boon. The only conclusion it seemed remotely comfortable coming to was that "women just need romance" in their lives, which is what Mrs Boon tells Mr Boon after he's spent their whole marriage being crap. This is almost as misguided and borderline offensive as its attitude to reading romance novels. Perhaps I am, ironically, too romantic for my own good but surely people generally would fare better with romance in their lives, not just women? Obviously I'm not a man (just an androgynous reader) but I can't believe a desire for romance is the sole provenance of women. Isn't romance something that exists between two people? Something they create together, not out of red roses and diamond rings, but through their love for each other? Consuming Passion presents it as something that women want, and men provide. Which has to be the least romantic thing I've ever encountered.
Themes: TV & Movies
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Comments (go to latest)
Shim at 21:09 on 2009-01-08
Ooh, a nice juicy article. Let's see now. I notice a link between this and "Rapetastic" (not a word I ever envisaged myself using, but then neither is 'envisaged') in terms of the fantasy/want dichotomy. I do think that's quite interesting and comes up more than people think when looking at media trends. I mean, fun as it can be to imagine yourself into a great fantasy series (or Brother Cadfael for that matter) I can't say I'd want to be plunged into a life of nonexistent hygiene and pottage for every meal, let alone the practicalities of actually fighting hideous evil* all the time.

It sounds like the programme took on at least two different projects and failed to achieve any of them. Disappointing, it could have been good.

In terms of romance writing, it's quite noticeable how much gender divide there seems to be. There's a lot of romance aimed specifically at women, but I'm not aware of any aimed specifically at men (except gay romance). And general fiction aimed at women seems to focus more on the romantic aspects of relationships and situations, often in a fairly calm way; men's fiction either emphasises how embarrassing and awkward romance is (trying to impress women, being a prat, how useless men become in the presence of a crush), or skips it altogether. It seems like popular culture says that romance is one of those resources that men provide for women, you know, like expensive shoes and red roses and divorce settlements. Some writers do manage very well, though. Georgette Heyer springs immediately to mind.

*And why do I assume I would be the one fighting hideous evil, as opposed to the hideous evil?
Wardog at 22:35 on 2009-01-08
Why, thank you. I wasn't intending to have a theme but I suppose the brain just makes connections. Or else I've just watched too much squishy romance recently ;)

As a kind of tangent/connection to musing on the nature of fantasy and reality, I don't know if I saw you Nildungsroman which Dan wrote a couple of months ago - I think it sort of ties in with what seems to be the prevailing attitude towards fantasy i.e. that fantasy is something we want to do/be rather than something we enjoy precisely because it's something we're not doing/being, and that what makes a trip to fantasyland meaningful is the return to reality after.

I can't really think of any romance writing aimed at men either (interestingly the largest market for gay romantic fiction appears to be women) - but I suppose that's because, as you say, 'romance' is understood and presumed to be something women want, and men don't really understand and reluctantly provide (hence the emphasis in the male perspective being feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy).

Possibly it's the weird transaction to which popular culture tends to reduce relationships: the man gives the woman romance, in return she gives him sex. When both should surely be mutual activities =P

Georgette Heyer, huh - that's impressive, at the risk of generalising horribly I don't know many men who've read her, let alone would admit to enjoying her. Most girls discover her at the age of 14 or thereabouts...
http://liadlaith.livejournal.com/ at 22:49 on 2009-01-08
Yay! You have OpenID now so I can comment without pestering you to remind me of my password (yet again!).

I don't have much to say, it's a great article and I enjoyed reading it. Oh, except - I lent a copy of the Corinthian to a male friend of mine, and he loved it and has now raided his wife's collection for MOAR HEYER. I have yet to persuade Andrew to read her yet, though, which is a shame.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:13 on 2009-01-09
"She teaches a course on the Romantics, which apparently culminates in a module on Mills and Boon. Like, what the fuck?"

That's... fantastic. Or horrifying. Or hilarious. Can't decide.

I'm heading off on a tangent now, but... Regarding romance aimed at men, I think maybe it sometimes disguises itself. I rather like trashy thrillers, though I'm no expert, and a surprising number tend to feature love and relationships rather than just sex. Matthew Reilly (terrible author I adore) strung what was actually a sweetly tentative relationship between two soldiers (one male, one female) over several books. It did recognise that being nervous and finding a single date a big deal didn't undermine the military competence of the male commanding officer, and conversely that a guy in a highly masculine profession who shoots people for a living isn't necessarily an over-confident womaniser. Even Dean Koontz (terrible author I dislike) took a look at the nature of long-term love in The Husband.

Of course not all readers of thrillers are men (maybe not even *most*, I honestly don't know), and there's less of a gender divide than Romance. However as far as marketing goes, they're still seen as men's books. I also appreciate that there's a difference between a book that is principally a romance and books that have romantic elements. However I think that the way these elements are portrayed is still interesting, and thrillers aren't all about shagging her and forgetting her name.

And the article was very interesting :-)
Shim at 19:57 on 2009-01-09
Generalise away. I pretty much read anything with letters on it when I was a kid, so moving from The Girls of St. Clare's to Georgette Heyer wasn't a big step. Also my mum liked them, which normally means I will. The Corinthian is great, but I think Sylvester may be the best. It's so hard to pick, though.

Maybe I'm just looking at the wrong books... I tend not to pick up general fiction these days because most of it annoys me, or stick to things I've had recommendations for. I should probably be more adventurous. It's just so much of it seems to be either killing or shopping (occasionally both). I think you're probably right about thrillers being more neutral (Brother Cadfael again, which has decent romances) - I was thinking more of the 'action/adventure' stuff that gets pushed at men, or the metropolitan career-money-booze stuff. Or I may be talking rubbish, because as I said, I avoid them.

For some reason, I think short story collections seem to do better at providing romance for both sexes, or covering both angles.
Wardog at 10:33 on 2009-01-13
Yay! Hello Lia - and I'm glad openid is drawing you out of the woodwork again. I'm genuinely interested by all these men in reading Heyer, I have never yet persuaded one but then I suppose I haven't really tried very hard. Curious, though, why did you choose The Corinthian as your Introduction to Heyer text?
Wardog at 10:39 on 2009-01-13
Thank you for the kind comments about the article, Sonia, I am all chuffed to have generated lots of comments :)

Possibly I'm being overly harsh on the so-called Romantics Course - but it did just leap out and bite me. I mean, I'm all for the teaching of Mills and Boon (maybe?) but surely it would have more place in a "Genre Fiction Through the Ages" or "Popular Culture 101" or even "Defining Movements of the 20th Century".

I definitely think you're onto something with thrillers - I hadn't even thought of that. Interestingly, I don't think I've ever read a thriller. Is that shocking, or what? I think I have them dismissed in my head as "dull books for boys" which just goes to show that I have no right to whinge about men ignoring the romance genre. You could do quite an interesting comparsion actually - especially since highly "masculine" professions (like soldier) tend to be used by romances as your one-stop-alpha-shop.
Wardog at 10:45 on 2009-01-13
(Sorry to have written three different responses but I wanted to avoid Big Block O' Text)

J, that's funny, Sylvester always used to be my favourite because I loved the slightly meta plotline about the heroine having written a romance novel about the hero, turning him into a villain because of his villainous eyebrows. But I read it again semi-recently and the plot seems to lose its way in the final third, with some really weird business involving a boat and Sylvester's son. Wtf? I always used to have a soft spot for Faro's Daughter, as well, because the heroine ties the hero up in her basement (in all innocence, to be fair) - but I think Cotillion or Venetia probably take the prize, Venetia because the relationship between hero and heroine is genuinely enchanting and sexier than usual for Heyer, and Cotillion because I Freddie is such a lambkin, and an unusual romance hero.

Also I'm horrified at the idea of Brother Cadfael getting his end away. Surely not!

I'm always unfairly dismissive of short stories. I recognise that they're hard to write and have merits etc. etc. but whenever I read a short story I can't help thinking "I would have enjoyed this so much more as a novel." Although I was very impressed by Magic For Beginners which made a splash on the internet awhile back. Also it is free. Yay.

Shim at 23:19 on 2009-01-15
(I'll just dive right into BBO'T)
The last bit of Sylvester does seem disconnected. I wondered if it's a slight parody of the genre Phoebe herself is writing in, with ridiculous affectations (Nugent's coach etc.) and silly behaviour? Though it's described as being Lady Henry being influenced by the book, which is a similar thing.

I love Cotillion, it seems quite different from the others in some ways - maybe because the main characters are tied up at the start and it focuses on the sideline romances? The Grand Sophy was the first I read, so I have a strong affection for that one. Myself, I recommend either Sophy or The Reluctant Widow as a starter for boys.

I don't think there's any romances with Cadfael himself (took me a while to work out how to phrase that in English! Not a good sign), although it's pointed out he's had an adventurous youth and GO ON READ ME I'M A SPOILER has a son.

Beautifully tying up some disparate threads, what about Pistols for Two? It's got some really nice stories in that would never make a whole book. Some stories should be a novel, but it's a really good format for exploring a little idea. Sci-fi does particularly well out of the format, I think, and there's some excellent detective stories too. A Second Century of Detective Stories is an excellent read if you can find it anywhere.
Wardog at 10:55 on 2009-01-16
Yay for BBO'T.

Mmm, I suspect that might be the case with Sylvester but it still doesn't quite wok for me - on the other hand, Sylvester's mum is simply too cool for words.

Cotillion is lovely because it's such a rare format for a romance. I'm not really that into alpha men myself although I can appreciate them as a fantasy, so it gives me the warm fuzzies to see Freddie - the ultimate beta hero - in action. And I love the way he slowly develops confidence and learns to appreciate the value in himself; on some kind of weird meta level, it's like he finally stops thinking he should be an alpha hero :)

In terms of gendered responses to Heyer, it's interesting that the two you recommend as starters for boys are not two towards which I ever felt particularly warm. But maybe that's just me, because I know The Grand Sophy is universally adored. But I would probably go with The Quiet Gentlemen and/or Frederica for boys, and maybe Venetia and/or Cotillion for girls. Again, though, those are primarily influenced by my preferences rather than any particularly well formed ideas about what girls like and what boys like.

(I didn't really think Cadfael was up for romance, it's just the idea of it was so amusing I couldn't resist).

I did skim Pistols For Two years and years, ago, and although I thought there were some interesting ideas and some nicely excuted stories, I still would have preferred a novel. I like to see romances develop ... so that by the end of the book I am very sure these people are well-suited and will have happy lives together. Yes, I know, it's mushy.

I think Arthur has good some recommendations for horror anthologies... and actually, now I think about detective stories, Hammet wrote some absolute short classics. So I take it back :)
Arthur B at 11:35 on 2009-01-16
I think horror shines in the short story format for several reasons:

- The modern horror genre coalesced out of ghost stories and pulp shockers, both of which established reasonable models for getting across a horrific mood. Sure, you also have the Gothic period bricks, but it was the likes of M.R. James and Arthur Machen and Poe who gave the genre the momentum it needed and which the ponderous likes of Otranto or The Monk couldn't quite deliver. (They also did a lot to popularise the genre - Poe got published in newspapers, after all.) It is no coincidence that the best part of Dracula is the opening sequence where the lonely estate agent is trapped in the castle and is helpless to prevent Dracula's departure to England - and that's the part which was originally published as a short, before Stoker chose to expand it.

- There are some ideas and plots in horror for which short story suffice when a novel would be too much. This is especially true of plots along the lines of "Protagonist stumbles across a Horrific Thing, and is then killed (or eaten, or possessed, or whatever)". The sort of quick and brutal shock that a good horror short can deliver would suffer in the novel context: if the novel is just about the shock, then there's going to be too much filler, and if the novel is about more than the shock then the simplicity of the slap in the face is lost.

- Brevity is a lost art in almost all genres and if authors are encouraged to write more shorts they might rediscover it.

As far as recommendations go, Stephen Jones' Year's Best Horror series is good for getting a reasonably broad and balanced overview of where the genre currently is (at least as far as its top authors go), although you will have to put up with sloppy editing and long autistics-on-wikipedia-style lists of everything vaguely horrific which was published in the past year. The Read By Dawn series showcases new talent and is a bit biased towards the choppy-choppy gorey Saw style of horror - very influenced by the movies. There's a companion series of Classic Tales of Horror from the same publishing house which seems to have reasonably good picks of major early contributions to the genre, and Wordsworth are currently doing a series of reprints of out-of-copyright horror material which includes some nice finds (such as the downright weird Carnacki the Ghost Finider tales). If you are interested in slightly oblique existential hints-more-than-it-shows stuff with a side order of social commentary and/or character development, if you don't like Ramsey Campbell you're not likely to enjoy anything else in the same vein.
Wardog at 11:36 on 2009-01-16
Brevity certainly gets a good kicking here at fb ;)
I just discovered this article, and it was very interesting reading! I just wanted to say that anime and manga are a good place to go for examples of romantic stories aimed at a male audience. Some of the real classics such as Oh My Goddess, Maison Ikkoku, and Kimagure Orange Road are classified as shounen or seinen romance.

As for Georgette Heyer, I think my favorite was either Frederica or The Nonesuch, though I also have a soft spot for False Colo(u)rs. I never really understood why Venetia was so popular; I thought the hero was tiresome and couldn't see why V. went to so much trouble to win him over. But then, Heyer's heroes basically come in two flavors, and for me the Well-Dressed Wits > the Byronic Brooders.
Wardog at 11:19 on 2009-10-05
Hello, welcome to Ferretbrain and thank you for the comment. I know so very little about anime and manga that I always feel a bit of a fool reading it, in case I'm missing some important cultural background that would change my understanding of the whole text. Sounds fascinating though since, although there are genres that are read primarily by men and the texts within them may *contain* romances, these are rarely admitted to be romances.

I always felt there was a degree of irony and self-irony in Heyer's Byronic Brooders, which makes them bearable for me. There's something extremely arcetypal about Damerel, even for a romance hero, I think - and I love the humour with he and Venetia deal with his rakish past and nature. False Colours is the one with the million sets of twins isn't it? I never really rated that one, truthfully, but I find now I'm older there's been a definite development in the Georgette Heyer's I enjoy. Friday's Child, although still adorable, appeals to me less and The Civil Contract which I never used to like now really moves me. Maybe I'm just getting depressed in my old age ;)

I think what's striking about Federica is the extent to which it's the hero's book. She's barely in it, really, except a catalyst for his journey from a cold selfish man who cares about nothing to, well, a cold selfish man who really loves Federica :)
Cressida at 14:13 on 2009-11-13
I know so very little about anime and manga that I always feel a bit of a fool reading it, in case I'm missing some important cultural background that would change my understanding of the whole text.

Oh, I don't think you should let that intimidate you! I didn't know much about Japanese culture when I started out either, and I still found the stories enjoyable. And it's much more fun to pick the cultural stuff up along the way, I think. You could always pick one series and then check fansites to see if they have any background.

To see if it whets your interest at all, here are links to the TVtropes writeups of the series I mentioned. These are all older series by anime/manga standards (80s and 90s), but that means they've stood the test of time.

Oh My Goddess! http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AhMyGoddess

Maison Ikkoku: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MaisonIkkoku

Kimagure Orange Road: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/KimagureOrangeRoad

It occurs to me that part of the popularity of romances aimed at men and boys in Japan probably has something to do with the popularity of a type of video game that is virtually nonexistent here--the dating simulation. This is probably behind the genre known as the harem show, where a guy gets into a situation where he's surrounded by large numbers of attractive girls, any of whom is a potential romantic possibility. In the show versions, the guy usually ends up with a main girl eventually, but in the games, the player can pick any of them and pursue a romance with her through conversation scripts.

Will return later to comment on Heyer!
Shim at 17:48 on 2009-11-13
You could always pick one series and then check fansites to see if they have any background.


I'm not trying to belittle your knowledge of Japanese culture, at all. However, I'm personally very sceptical of how much fansites (especially English sites for foreign-language media) might teach about culture. I'm not saying you can't pick anything up, because you blatantly can (they're quite good at highlighting cross-references or links to local traditions or translation issues), but it's not going to give you a broad grasp of the culture as a whole that sets everything in context. Kind of like how a PG Wodehouse fansite might explain references to places, or lifestyles of the Gentry, or regional stereotypes; but they probably won't convey the complicated place of police officers in British culture relative to the social structure of the time, which illuminates the way they're portrayed in the books.
Cressida at 18:31 on 2009-11-14
(Very long! Sorry!)

Shimmin,

It's certainly true that deep cultural study can be a life-long thing. I just don't think a person needs to be at that level of study in order to experience or enjoy entertainment that comes from another culture. You've got to start somewhere, after all, and if the stories themselves don't grab you, then what's the point of going any further? And fansites can explain some of the stuff that might be unfamiliar--like the duties of a miko or the fact that Christmas is a romantic date night while Valentine's Day is when girls give chocolate to boys.

I think Wodehouse is actually a pretty good comparison. Sure, you may get another level of appreciation out of it if you know all the nuances of class portrayed in his stories, but you hardly need to take a college course in early-20th-century English society to find them funny. I'd never suggest that anyone should hold off on experiencing Wodehouse if they hadn't studied the period.

Kyra,

I guess I just have never gone in much for the "reformed rake" archetype--which limits my enjoyment of romance novels in general, given how very many of their heroes fall into this category! But I do remember liking Venetia herself, and particularly the twist where she found out the truth about her mother.

Yes, False Colours is the one with the twins. I freely admit that it's complete fluff, but I must have been in just the right mood when I read it! Maybe I'd feel differently if I picked it up for the first time today.

I don't think I've read Friday's Child; do you recommend it?

As for A Civil Contract, I recall thinking that it was a fine novel and a realistic portrait of a relationship such as thousands of couples would have lived at the time, but I didn't find it very satisfying as a romance; there was less "Ah, I have found my love!" and more "I guess, with a little effort every day for the rest of my life, I can be fairly content with this state of affairs."

Funnily, I don't really remember the hero from Frederica. I think what I liked most about that book was the historical detail. I seem to remember the characters went to an exposition, and didn't Frederica have a little brother or something who was interested in science?
Shim at 18:51 on 2009-11-15
Cressida,

actually I agree - I'm quite fond of books, films, music etc. from other cultures/languages even when I know little or nothing about them. My comment was meant to be a reply to your reply to Kyra: i.e. I meant to suggest that while fansites are good for detail, they won't necessarily solve Kyra's problem of missing some important cultural background that would change my understanding of the whole text. The explanatory sections in Genshiken books, for example, are really useful for explaining trivia and references. I'm still bound to miss out nuances of clothing, speech styles, building design, body language etc. that might actually carry a lot of information about the characters. Or the use of colours and seasons and locations in Hero, which is probably very meaningful to Chinese people but just kind of pretty to me.
Melissa G. at 03:36 on 2009-11-16
Sadly, (I can't speak with certainty toward anything but Japanese, but I'm sure it's true of other languages as well), as soon as you change the language, lots of the nuances kind of disappear. And it's not necessarily the translator's fault, but just a complicated difference in language. I'm not making any argument here, just stating a kind of sad fact about watching/reading things from other cultures. But I thoroughly support the practice of course!
Wardog at 10:03 on 2009-11-16
How did we get from Mills & Boon to here? Hehe, not that I'm complaining.

To use the Wodehouse example again - I think, as Shimmin suggests, it's not so much the difference between being somebody who reads Wodehouse and somebody who has also done a class on early 20th century society but, well, the difference between being English and being Mongolian and trying to read Wodehouse. As Shimmin says, there are just cultural nuances you will *never* intuitively understand and cannot really be replaced with book learning that you will never really be able to tap into if you're nto born as part of that society.

But I would never *not* read a text in translation because, as Melissa says, of course it still has value... but whenever I do I am always conscious of being at a remove. The point is that you're not reading the text, you're reading somebody else's interpretation of it.

But back to Georgette Heyer:

I love rakes and their reformations - probably one of my favourite romance novel tropes, to be honest. But Heyer wrote some utterly enchanting non-rakes: do you know Cotillion? That's quite remarkable, actually, for having an absolute successful and completely romantic hero who is neither alpha nor rakish. And Friday's Child is wonderfully fluffy - the hero and heroine are very young and very silly, but I do quite enjoy it. Frederica is a bit interesting since it's very much from Alverstoke's perspsective rather than Frederica's: the result is ... hmm ... intriguing. It's strange to have a romance told from the POV of a cold, unromantic person and the heroine seems a bit of a blank as a consequence.

And, yes, you're right about A Civil Contract - it's not especially romantic but there's something rather special about it.
Cressida at 04:13 on 2009-11-18
Kyra (and Shimmin),

I see what you mean about cultural context, but I still think that you (Kyra) shouldn't let that stop you from giving anime/manga a try. Why not just dip into a series or two and just see whether it connects with you, without worrying about whether you're reading it "right"? Then research or ask questions about anything that especially intrigues or puzzles you. Over time, with intelligent observation, I do believe it's possible to build up a respectable level of cultural understanding in that way. If you enjoy the art, the stories, the characters, I think the rest will come. And if you don't enjoy those, then there probably isn't much point in going on with the exercise; the most perfect cultural understanding, without enjoyment of the stories as stories, is pretty sterile.

Consider also that sometimes an outsider can spot patterns that people born into the society never think twice about. So it isn't solely a disadvantage not to belong to the culture that produced a work.

Heyer again:

I haven't managed to get my hands on Cotillion, but it does sound interesting! I actually discovered Heyer through her detective stories and only read the romances much later. You're reminding me that I have a few tucked away for a rainy day that I haven't read yet...

Getting back a bit to the subject of this article: I find it interesting how many Regency romance writers, starting with Heyer herself, are experts on the period. It's almost scholarly, which may make Regencies slightly more respectable than other types of romance novels. (This isn't true across the board, of course; I remember once, during my last Regency-reading kick, rolling my eyes at a book and muttering, "No Regency romance should ever contain the words 'biological parent.'")
Cressida at 14:46 on 2009-11-18
Oh, a P.S. to an earlier part of this thread: Although the heroine of False Colours is named Cressida, that isn't why I chose the name! I was already using it online before I read the book. But that might have something to do with why I enjoyed it as much as I did.
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