by Marie-Louise Jensen
I'm writing this post on St Valentine's Day having just run the gauntlet of the pink-and-heart-strewn aisle of my local supermarket. And as Catherine Johnson so rightly says, on the blog today what single person wants to be reminded of Valentine's Day?
But what with the day of romance and all that plus a great conversation I had on twitter yesterday, the thought of romantic heroes and how they've changed has been going over in my mind.
I'm a Georgette Heyer addict. I admit that without shame or excuses. Whenever the going gets tough, the tough hide under the bedclothes and read Georgette Heyer. I discovered her historical fiction novels (almost exclusively Georgian or Regency) at 14 and have returned to them in times of illness and trouble ever since. They've also influenced my own writing.
But rereading a few of them more recently with a more heightened awareness of gender and power balances within relationships, a few of the male protagonists, the way they are portrayed and the female responses to them, make me uncomfortable.
Heyer's female characters are, like most women of their time in fiction, entirely concerned with finding a husband; a genuine constraint in a society that doesn't allow women autonomy. The desirable husbands were a range of dashing blades, dissolute bucks, witty dandies, brave soldiers and the like. Quite a swoony collection of men, in fact.
The ones that make me uncomfortable are the 'masterful' men - and the women who like to submit to this mastery, because it's what they've secretly been desiring all along. What makes me so uneasy is just how close 'masterful' is to 'controlling and abusive' and how close this submissiveness is to 'she likes it really'.
There's a difference, I feel, between a strong male character and one who is imperious and dominating. It's a fine line, and just which side of it we tread and find acceptable has changed enough in the last few decades to make a few of these older books (Heyer was writing mainly from the 1930s to the 1960s) jar with the modern reader. Strangely there is more that jars with me in Heyer's historical fiction than there is in Austen, the Brontes, Gaskell, Burney or even Radcliffe - many of whose heroes are positive paragons of virtue.
I've become gradually more aware, over the years I've been writing, of the need to portray mutual respect between the genders and around issues of consent. This is especially the case writing for a young adult readership. Romance writing is a responsible business. The romances you read as a young person are likely to shape your attitudes to and understanding of romantic relationships.
The rise of teen 'dark romance' with its borderline-abusive relationships, including stalking, voyeurism, danger of imminent death and other unsavoury ingredients, portrayed as romantic, trouble me very deeply. I know I'm not alone in this.
I've reacted by making my own male protagonist in my most recent historical novel, Runaway, more respectful. I probably need to go much further down this path, in fact and make my girls more assertive, although this is harder to achieve convincingly in historical fiction, where social norms were different. But consent and mutual respect are vital to portray. In fact, I think I'll end this with the wonderful words of one of the university guides my eldest son came across a year or so ago: "Consent is setting the bar too low, guys. Hold out for enthusiasm."