Curs and handkerchiefs

let she who is without Problematic Faves post the first call-out

HANDKERCHIEF, n. This word has nothing to do with anything in this newsletter, but it’s just delightful to me. “Kerchief” is from the French couvre-chef, literally cover-head. Like in “curfew,” couvre-feu or cover-fire, couvre reduces down to “ker/cur.”

And then “hand” is straight-up Old English, just tacked on the front. So a “kerchief” covers your head and a “handkerchief” is a thing that covers your head that also goes in your hand. Marvelous.

Naturally, “kerchief” and “curfew” made me wonder about “cur,” a word from an entirely different lineage. This insulting word for a dog is probably onomatopoeic in origin, since Old Norse kurra and Middle Low German korren both mean “to growl.” What does the bad dog say? Krrrrrrrr. (“Growl,” coincidentally, is also probably of onomatopoeic origin.)

This 1790 George Stubbs painting is called A Rough Dog, but it doesn’t look much like a cur to me.

In English, “cur” took on its meaning of a man of poor character (or low class) in the 16th century.

In Capital-R Romance, I did not read anything in French this week, but I am about halfway through Tom Reiss’s excellent biography of General Alexandre Dumas, The Black Count, lest any of you worry that a day goes by when I do not obsess over Revolutionary France.

General Alexandre Dumas, father of the novelist and grandfather of the playwright of the same name, is brilliant and righteous and not at all a cur—at least so far. I will write more about the book when I finish.

This week in small-r romance, I read two historical romances by Lisa Kleypas. Curs abound. (So do handkerchiefs.)

Dreaming of You (m/f, both cis het). Did you know 1994 was a long time ago? Lisa Kleypas has had a very long career that includes some of my favorite historical romances. (She’s also notable for a recent exchange where she apologized and changed the content of a book in response to criticism, which is rare behavior.) 

On twitter a few weeks ago, Romancelandia was talking about the hero of this book, Derek Craven, with a lot of nostalgia. As I said, Kleypas has written some of my favorite romance novels, so I picked this one up from the library to see what all the fuss was about.

Sometimes you come to a book at just the right moment for you and it changes your life and you remember it fondly forever, no matter how flawed. I don’t begrudge anyone else their love of Derek Craven—let she who is without Problematic Faves post the first call-out—and I understand that he has appealing qualities. He’s passionate. He’s ambitious and independent. He has a tragic past that explains why he’s so brooding and repressed. He uses his wealth for secret charitable purposes. He has a cool scar. Most of all, Derek Craven offers a specific kind of fantasy found in lots of romance novels, that The Right Woman can tame even the most powerful and dangerous of men.

But he is not the hero for me.

I’ve seen a few people on twitter observe that the way we depict consent in romance has changed a lot since since 1994, and boy has it ever. But it’s not like Derek’s behavior is exemplary outside the bedroom. A man who grabs a woman painfully tight when she suggests getting a minor haircut? A man who drinks and violently destroys things when the object of his obsession leaves—after he himself drove her away? That ain’t romance, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Admittedly, this book was hard for me from the beginning, because it has another old-school romance trope: the Evil Ex. We know Lady Ashby is irredeemably awful because she likes sex (a thing our Good Girl Heroine will also like, but only with one man, her violently angry True Love) and because she has had abortions. Birth control! Quelle horreur! (Naturally, the Good Girl Heroine ends the book nursing her baby.)

Yeah, yeah, Lady Ashby sends a man to attack Derek Craven after Craven dumps her. The Good Girl Heroine fatally shoots the attacker. She suffers a tiny bit of remorse over killing a man, as Good Girls are contractually obligated to, and then we’re supposed to cheer for her. Sure, I can get down with that. But don’t show me two female characters and tell me I’m only allowed to like one of them. My gay and contrary nature cannot abide that.

Here I reiterate: I always have time for difficult women. Give me your bitchy, your cruel, your scorned masses yearning to breathe free. When the Evil Ex’s abortions were mentioned, I said to myself, well, now I have to like her—if nothing else, out of spite. Abortion is not an acceptable shorthand for evil. Wanting basic bodily autonomy, especially in a historical moment when pregnancy was even more dangerous—it’s still pretty fucking dangerous for some of us—does not make you a bad person.

So yeah. Lady Ashby, Evil Ex, is hot and mean and exercising agency over her own body. She feels Derek Craven wronged her and now she wants to stab him. Girl, I get it.

And then the book has the Evil Ex kidnap the Good Girl Heroine and threaten to lock her in a tower and have sex with her!

Friends, this is practically an embossed invitation for me to start writing fanfiction.

Perhaps it’s hypocritical of me to fantasize about violent, powerful women while decrying those same qualities in a male character. I do not have the time or the energy to address this argument. I am too busy writing about Lady Ashby locking up a good girl in her sex tower.

Content warnings: violence, murder, heroine is threatened with rape several times, abuse, alcohol abuse, arson, kidnapping, pregnancy, the only hint that queer people even exist in the world is a threat made by an awful human being.

The Devil in Winter, (m/f, both cis het). Remember when I said Lisa Kleypas had written some of my favorite romances? This is it. This is the one. My Problematic Fave. I reread it this week for the first time in a decade.

The Devil in Winter has a similar premise to Dreaming of You: a small, inexperienced young woman tames a powerful, dangerous man. He seems heartless but secretly has a heart; she seems fearful but secretly has an indomitable will. The redemption of a rake is a classic romance plot, and Kleypas does it well. Lord St. Vincent, the titular devil, differs from Derek Craven by his aristocratic hauteur, but he is a true villain. Readers who have read the Wallflowers series in order will recognize St. Vincent as the financially desperate viscount who abducts a previous book’s heiress heroine in the hopes of marrying her and saving his family’s ruined fortune.

Kidnapping is, obviously, an awful thing to do. And had St. Vincent succeeded in dragging his victim across the border to Scotland to marry her, he would have had to rape her to consummate the marriage. Evie, the heroine of The Devil in Winter, brings it up twice: once early in the book to point out what a terrible person he is, and then again later to say that now she knows he couldn’t possibly have brought himself to do it.

In and out of context, this is deeply fucking distressing. How many rape trials involve character witnesses saying “I know him, he couldn’t possibly have done it”?

I have been racking my brain all week as to why I like St. Vincent and not Derek Craven. There is no good answer. You can’t ever fully explain why you like something.* Like I said above, sometimes a book hits you just right. You see its flaws and you let them slide. I distinctly recall thinking, when I picked up The Devil in Winter for the first time in 2010, “How the fuck can St. Vincent ever be a likable hero?”

The magic of the book—if it works on you—is that St. Vincent eventually becomes not just a likable hero, but the most lovable hero.

I would not blame any readers for whom the magic of the book didn’t work. In addition to St. Vincent’s monstrous past, there are other problems. The Devil in Winter is viciously fatphobic in its portrayal of Evie’s unwanted suitor. I had completely blocked that out of my mind from previous readings, but this time it really upset me. The unwanted suitor is a coward who won’t protect Evie from her abusive uncles, which is more than sufficient reason to reject him. How he looks has nothing to do with him being a piece of shit, so all the descriptions of his body just feel like Kleypas being cruel to fat people as a whole. Devil also heavily features Cam Rohan, a half-Romani character, and while I love him, some of the descriptions of his heritage feel fetishizing. Cam is repeatedly described using a word that is historically accurate but now considered a slur. (This is a thorny problem for authors of historical fiction, one I am not sure how to solve.) And while I think the book’s attitude toward consent is less cavalier than what you find in Dreaming of You (Devil was published in 2006, twelve years after Dreaming), there are still at least two sex scenes where one partner says “no” before things get started. The “no” is not meant as a real protest, of course, but a hollow performance of resistance. I suppose it’s meant to give readers a little thrill at the illicit nature of the scenes, but instead it just made me sad and uncomfortable.

So. That’s the Problematic stuff. Now let’s talk about the Fave part.

The Devil in Winter is brilliantly constructed. Kleypas is already a good writer in 1994 when she publishes Dreaming of You, but having read these two books side-by-side this week, Devil is sleeker in style and plot. (And mercifully free of Evil Exes!) The narrative point of view is narrower, not switching between characters in the middle of a scene, and that ratchets up the tension between Sebastian and Evie right from the start.

The first quarter of this book is a masterclass in pacing and characterization, and I have reread it enough to have some sentences memorized. Evie, desperate for freedom from her abusive uncles who intend to marry her off and then murder her for her fortune, recognizes an equally desperate person in Sebastian, who is fresh off his failed kidnapping/marriage attempt. He needs money, she needs legal protection. The only possible answer is a marriage of convenience.

(God, I love romance novels.)

Sebastian and Evie undertake a freezing, exhausting, breakneck journey to Gretna Green, across the border in Scotland, which is sort of like Regency Romance Las Vegas—a place where people can get married fast and without scrutiny. Their journey is my favorite part of the book. Not that there’s nothing to love about the more deeply emotional later passages, but I’m partial to beginnings in the first place, and this one is both elegant and compelling. We immediately know Sebastian and Evie’s goals and motivations, and we get to watch them begin to reveal themselves in small ways. The dialogue is perfect:

“You’re a dr-dreadful man.”

“True. But it’s a fact of life that dreadful people usually end up getting far better than they deserve. Whereas nice ones, such as you…” He gestured to Evie and her surroundings, as if her current situation was a perfect case in point.

“Perhaps I’m not as n-n-nice as you might think.”

“One can only hope.”

She’s shy and has a stutter, but she’s not afraid of him. He’s arrogant and sharp-tongued, but he makes sure she has a hot brick in the carriage so her feet don’t freeze. (Just thinking about that brick makes me verklempt. I’m restraining myself from putting 50 tearful emoji right here.)

And of course, in one of the book’s tidiest and most classic reversals, it is libertine Sebastian who is undone by the consummation of their marriage, not virginal Evie. She enjoys herself and then tells him they can never do that again, because he’ll break her heart, and he spends the rest of the book trying to prove her wrong—first by tempting her, then by actually being a better person.

Evie, who has suffered enough for the tragic back stories of ten different romance heroes and yet never takes it out on anyone, has a spine of steel. She bosses Sebastian around beautifully, but she’s wise enough to know that she can’t fix him. He has to fix himself.

“Do you ever think of anyone other than yourself?”

The question seemed to pull him out of his absorption, and his face became inscrutable. “Rarely, my love.”

They stared at each other, Evie’s eyes accusing, Sebastian’s opaque, and she understood that to expect any decency from him was to invite recurring disappointment. His ruined soul could not be repaired by her kindness and understanding. He would never become one of the reformed rakes that were featured in Daisy Bowman’s trove of scandalous novels.

Or would he? I love this wink at the reader, a tiny version of a beloved trope of mine, “character in a romance novel reads romance novels.”

And in the latter parts of the book, when it becomes clear that Evie’s ready to accept Sebastian, he’s too tortured by his past crimes to accept her. The plot centers on his ability to make amends for what he has done. A detail that I find particularly satisfying is that when St. Vincent finally apologizes to the woman he kidnapped, she doesn’t entirely forgive him. He just has to live with it. (In Dreaming of You, Derek Craven never makes amends for grabbing Sara and growling at her that she can never cut her hair. It’s just treated as a sign of his passion. What a cur.)

It’s strange to have spent so many paragraphs on Sebastian, as a person who recently tweeted “all m/f books are really about the woman, incl Devil in Winter, EVIE FOREVER, bye,” but I have less to say about Evie because she is an Unproblematic Fave. Brave, smart, kind, beautiful, stubborn as hell, can give as good as she gets in a verbal sparring match with her sharp-tongued husband, completely wrecks an older and more experienced man just by being herself. A perfect woman. I want her to get everything she wants.

I also adore that Evie starts the book off shy—the series is called Wallflowers, after all—and is allowed to remain shy at the end. She has a character arc of claiming her independence and speaking up for herself, but she’s not forced to become a social butterfly to prove it. She can wrap Sebastian around her little finger and still not enjoy going to parties.

A wonderful thing about romance novels and their required Happily-Ever-Afters is the way in which each HEA is specific to its characters. Everybody’s HEA is a little bit different. Some people want to go to parties, some don’t. Some people like Derek Craven, some people like Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, and some people don’t care for either. And that’s okay.

Content warnings: on-page death of a parent from illness, grief, abuse, heroine is threatened with kidnapping and rape and murder, a character gets shot, pregnancy, fatphobia, use of anti-Romani slurs, consent issues.

*But God damn it, I’m gonna try.