Sunday, January 10, 2010

A False Deluding Young Man

I was listening to Steeleye Span's wonderful version of a traditional ballad, All Around My Hat, today and for some reason the lyrics really leapt out at me, reminding me of the chasm that looms between you, me, and all the women who lived in the time periods we historical novelists like to write about.

This chasm involves the way we now perceive virginity.

The lyric in question is this:
Other night he brought me a fine diamond ring
But he thought to have deprived me of a far better thing
But I being careful like lovers ought to be
He's a false deluding young man let him go farewell he
The premise of the song is one you will rarely see explored in a mainstream romance today outside of the Christian market, for the modern reader no longer views virginity as a precious possession.

But the need to preserve virginity dominated the lives of all women world-wide until the 1960s. It still dominates that of the majority of women living in traditional societies around the world. It does so for the reason that any woman who has sex in a culture that does not give her access to reliable birth control is almost certain to become pregnant. Marriage is the way that traditional cultures provide for children, since these cultures rarely allow women to earn enough money to support children on their own. So in traditional cultures, a pregnancy that takes place outside of marriage is an economic threat--someone will have to pay to raise that child--usually the community. So society attempts to prevent unwed pregnancy from occurring by treating it with fear, censure, and shame.

Traditional cultures are also dominated by the double standard, which was still very much alive in my childhood. They do not blame men for attempting to seduce young women, but shame and shun unmarried women who fall for male wiles.

The invention of the birth control pill, which unlike earlier forms of contraception, worked, changed this within the blink of an eye. The cultural expectations that women would stay "pure" lingered on for a decade or two in the more traditional segments of society--but when women realized they could have sex safely and without "paying for it" our overall cultural expectations changed in ways that won't go away.

But when we modern women write Romances set in the world where there is no effective birth control we face a challenge. To relate to way our modern readers' expectations we have to completely disrespect the reality faced by the women we are supposed to be writing about.

Our readers want our characters to have sex, lots of it. And that's what they get, but the only way we can do this is by completely ignoring what sex meant to people in the Regency or Victorian era.

A properly raised virgin in the Regency or Victorian period who had sex with a man she wasn't married to was either a) making an extreme political statement, b) ignorant of what she was actually doing (which happened more than you'd think since women were given no sex education until the eve of their marriage, and sometimes not even then.) c) drunk or drugged, or d) mentally abnormal.

Editors and agents tell us we have to ignore all this to sell books, and we do. But the recent trend, which makes the loss of virginity a nonissue for our historical heroines the way it is for today's teens, drains away rich sources of conflict that could provide emotionally compelling stories that readers might prize.

When we create a heroine whose decision to have sex outside marriage is a radical act with frightening implications, we raise the stakes. If you don't think this can be done in a way that will move the modern reader, go reread Laura Kinsale's Flowers from The Storm.

My characters do have sex--and sexual tension drives my plots, but my heroines are rebels. They know their willingness to give themselves to a man outside of marriage is a heroic act, courageous or foolish, but never routine.

I'd love to put the narrator of "All Around My Hat" into a story--a woman who fights her own heart to withstand the advances of a man who as much as she loves him, shows her through his willingness to seduce her that he isn't worthy of her.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I think there was a lot of sex going on back then. It was only the upper classes that had chaperones to try to prevent it. Everyone else had 'shotgun weddings.'

cecilia grant said...

Boy, do I struggle with this. (Hi there, by the way. We share an agent as well as a subgenre and I'm so looking forward to the release of Lord Lightning.)

Even in marriage, regular sex usually meant constant pregnancy, repeated childbirth, and an ongoing flirtation with death. I don't know that those of us born in the reliable-birth-control age (not to mention the modern-medicine age) can really grasp the fraught relationship a Regency woman must have had with her sexuality.

There's a good book to be written out of it, anyway. Only I'm not sure it's a romance!

Jenny Brown said...


I'm also looking forward to reading yours. I saw the announcement in Publishers Marketplace and figured it must be VERY good indeed!

I would very much like to write a novel set in my period that is not a romance, but also one that is not the perversion drenched anti-romance so often seen in mainstream historical fiction. But I'd love to bring alive what it was really like to live in a culture so different from ours and one where death was so much more common than it is for us now.

Supermouse said...

I *don't* want sex and I am having a lot of trouble finding new Regency romances without it! There's such a power imbalance in that society between men and women that it just ruins it for me. I want my sex modern and my historical romances chaste.

I'm not alone in this either. There's an under-appreciated audience of fans who actually like their Regency sex firmly in the background and their romances to actually be romantic, not sexual. I can pick up porn for free anywhere, including Regency porn, but can I find decent romance, minus throbbing cocks and pert nipples? Not really.

Anonymous said...

One of the worst things about sex scenes in Regency novels, in my opinion, is... you can't go away and do something else whilst they're getting it on. Oh no. You either have to sit through the steamy prose *yawn*, or you have to flip over a few pages and try to avoid the throbbing cocks, heaving bosoms and twirling nipples. Or, if you're me and it was yesterday, you might be lucky enough to be reading the same book as someone else, and then you get to snark at it.

(I enjoyed Lord Lightning, but when it came to the sex scenes? Closed my eyes and thought of H M the Queen. *grin*)

But I *like* Regency novels. And nothing will deter me in my hunt for a decent one. I already have a few good authors - I just need to find someone else who writes great stories without all the purple prose. They don't need it.