ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

November 13, 2010

Besieging the Fortress – ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas

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.”

He felt her shiver, even as she stuck out her chin and glared at him with her beautiful turquoise eyes.

“No.”

“Then I will take it off for you.”

Her eyes widened. “You wouldn’t dare to -“

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.”

ibid., p.37

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.’

ibid. p.39

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.”

ibid., p.40

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.”‘

ibid. p.65

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.

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4 Comments »

  1. […] Besieging a Fortress – 'The Virgin's Choice' by Jennie Lucas … […]

    Pingback by The Power Of Fiction Books | Snow Chains — November 13, 2010 @ 11:42 am | Reply

  2. virginity is figured as a fortress which must be besieged.

    As a medievalist, this is a metaphor I’m extremely familiar with. I did a quick Google and here are some later examples of the reversal of the metaphor, in which besieged cities are described as virgins: Tournay (1513) and various later German examples.

    It seems to me that the virgin as castle/fortress/city metaphor is a subset of a metaphor which Lakoff and Johnson give describe as “love as war.” They give a variety of different examples:

    LOVE IS WAR

    He is known for his many rapid conquests. She
    fought for him, but his mistress won out. He fled
    from her advances. She pursued him relentlessly. He
    is slowly gaining ground with her. He won her hand
    in marriage. He overpowered her. She is besieged by
    suitors. He has to fend them off. He enlisted the aid
    of her friends. He made an ally of her mother.
    Theirs is a misalliance if I’ve ever seen one. (49)

    It’s not the only metaphor used about love, of course. Lakoff and Johnson give several others, and there are probably more that they don’t mention at all, but it may nonetheless have serious implications. As Lakoff and Johnson have written in their Metaphors We Live By:

    The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor. (3)

    I think that view of metaphor as something which isn’t confined to texts, but has an effect on people’s thinking and actions, fits well with what you say about the metaphor of the virgin as a fortress:

    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.

    ——
    Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 1980. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 2003. [There’s a condensed version of a number of chapters from Metaphors We Live By in this chapter of someone else’s book of readings. I think it gives the gist of Lakoff and Johnson’s argument, though, and if you find it interesting you might want to get hold of a copy of the original book.]

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — November 13, 2010 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

    • Hi Laura – I am definitely going to try and get a hold of that book! Thanks for the recommendation. I’m very interested in the way language has an effect on the way we think and how that is articulated in popular culture, and there’s definitely a rich vein of material for me to explore in this context with romance fiction, particularly with the way virginity is often figured.

      Comment by Jodi — November 14, 2010 @ 12:41 am | Reply

      • Most of it isn’t specifically about love metaphors. They also discuss how the emergence of capitalism may have influenced metaphors about time, for example, but I found the whole book fascinating. As you can see from the bibliographic details I gave, it’s been reprinted recently (with a new afterword), because it’s been so influential in a wide variety of fields.

        It seems to me that female virginity in romance does often seem to function as a commodity with a very high value (perhaps partly because of its perceived scarcity) which offsets the fact that the heroine is generally much poorer in financial terms than the hero.

        Comment by Laura Vivanco — November 14, 2010 @ 10:15 am


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