It is no secret that I am not a fan of violent language in romance fiction (and, indeed, any fiction). I’m referring specifically to violent language in the context of romance – you know, the old romance trope of the ‘punishing’ kiss, the ‘painful’ grip as he whisks her away, ‘rough’ grabs’, ‘savage’ growls… and that is all just from me flicking through the first thirty pages of the romance novel I have sitting next to me.
This novel is ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas, and, as the name suggests, it is yet another virgin heroine novel. This particularly virgin is called Rose, who has made it to the age of 29 without ever being kissed. She seems to have managed this by having a spectacularly inactive libido – as far as I can tell, she has never once experienced desire before she meets the hero, Xerxes Novros. This is despite the fact that he kidnaps her from her wedding to another man, Lars, who is trying to pull a bit of a Mr Rochester on her – marry her even though he has an invalid wife somewhere else – purely so he can sleep with her. Hello, fetishisation of virginity.
Before I continue, two fun facts about this book:
1) The hero is called Xerxes. Despite being Greek. As someone who knows their classical history pretty well, I find this humorous.
2) This book contains an actual bodice ripping. And I quote:
‘Xerxes’s hands slowly moved down her arms, against the see-through lace of her sleeves. His lips turned down grimly.
“I told you to take that dress off.”
With a rough motion, he ripped apart the shoulders of her wedding dress, tearing through the layers of white lace and opping the line of tiny white buttons off the back. He yanked the sleeves down her arms with such force that she stagged forward, nearly falling to her knees.’
Lucas, J., 2010, The Virgin’s Choice [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p.36
I’m pretty sure this bodice ripping is meant to be a tongue in cheek reference to ye olde worlde bodice rippers, but I don’t need to spell out all the reason’s why this is troubling. There is a sort of love triangle in this book – as much as you can fit into a category novel, anyway – and there is a lot of fighting over Rose between the two dudes, hero Xerxes and villain Lars. She figures essentially as the shiny new toy that the two dudes are fighting over. In fact, she figures exactly as the shiny new toy – Xerxes steals her from Lars to trade for Lars’s invalid wife, who (spoilers) is Xerxes’s sister. And then it’s a sort of game of first-one-to-bone-her-wins. Which is… troubling.
As for Rose’s agency in this matter… yeah, there’s not so much of that. For example – this is from that bodice ripping scene:
‘He should have known she’d be wearing tarty white lingerie for her wedding night to the baron. Pretending to be a virgin – just pretending, because he’d obviously been bedding her for some time. No man would resist Rose’s charms, her soft blond beauty, her lush body.”
Note how, in Xerxes’s reckoning of the world, Rose seems to have no choice as to whether she’s ‘bedded’ by Lars or not. There is a current running through this book of the fairy tale – the first line of the book is ‘It was a fairy tale come true’ – and Rose figures very much as the sleeping princess in the tower. She has an extraordinarily little amount of control over her own actions. She is whisked off her feet by Lars – he seems to sort of decide he’s going to marry her and she goes along with it – and then whisked away by Xerxes, who then promptly sexually assaults her. See below:
‘”Don’t think that you can bully me into being afraid of you, because I will never -“
Her words ended in a gasp as Xerxes seized her in his arms. Lowering his mouth to hers, he brutally kissed her.’
Xerxes’s awesome rationale for kissing her is that if she were a gold digger, she would try to seduce him and change sides. He is obviously a real prince.
But this isn’t actually what I wanted to write about – yes, it’s only taken me about 750 words to get to the point. What I actually really noticed when reading this book was the way that Rose’s virginity functions like a fortress – it is something that is besieged and then something that is won. It’s a race between Xerxes and Lars as to who sleeps with Rose first and the one who wins, possesses her. In fact, choosing which one to sleep with, which one to let into her castle, is the only real power Rose has in this book. And yet, even though she has remained a virgin for 29 years, the thought of sleeping with neither ever really occurs to her.
There is no notion that Rose belongs to herself (before or after her defloration). Seduction is a siege to which she must succumb. It is directly figured as such:
“Overpowered by her captor’s strength and the intensity of his commanding embrace, she surrendered.”
The dialogue of possession and surrender is something that flows through a lot of romance fiction, and, indeed, modern parlance. Sex is often talked about as the man ‘taking’ the woman or ‘having’ her – this book is (unsurprisingly) no exception. Since I’m in an example-y mood, here’s one:
‘He moved closer to her, so close that she felt consumed by the black fire of his gaze. “He wanted to make sure no other man could have you.”‘
This, of course, is not just true of virgin heroine novels. But I think that often in these books – particularly when you know that once the heroine sleeps with the hero, that’s it as far as other sexual partners are concerned – the dialogue of siege and possession is heightened. Once the heroine has let the hero into her castle, she is his for always. And yes, I do realise how dirty that sounds, and I would like it noted that there were a number of other dirty wordplay options open to me that I nobly did not take.
Quite apart from the gender dynamics inherent in the concept of hero possessing the heroine – and much as she does remake his sexuality in the model of her own, I would contend that he possesses her more than she possesses him, because her identity only exists in respect to his after he defines her sexuality (yes, that was long and convoluted, but I promise it makes sense) – one of the major problems inherent in this dialogue of siege and surrender is that it is violent language. (Look how I came back to the point there!) There is a fine line between seduction and destruction, and this line is often blurred. It certainly is in this novel – the way that both Xerxes and Lars attempt to seduce Rose is very violent. Their desire to possess her leads them to enact violence on her. They would rather destroy her than let the other win. (And by sleeping with her, they are destroying her for the other one. Because we are all about those ideals of the ruined woman. Oh yes we are.)
So… that was a long and quote-filled ramble. But here is my point in a nutshell: in many books, and in this book in particular, virginity is figured as a fortress which must be besieged. And once the heroine surrenders, and lets the hero into the castle, his possession of her is total and complete. This model not only has very fraught gender dynamics and figures the heroine as a thing rather than a person, it is also violent, which promotes a dialogue of abuse and assault.