Chapter One: A Seduction

In a Twitter discussion of clergy heroes hot vicars @JanetNorCal suggested Jo Manning’s Seducing Mr. Heywood. I requested it from the library, picked up the hold yesterday, and dove in. Manning’s book was published in hardcover by Five Star, and later released as a Signet Regency paperback; if Amazon is to be trusted, a Kindle version is coming in August. Nice non-clinch cover from that small press, huh?

Then I remembered that I was planning to do a close reading of the first chapter of a romance. And I feel like I’ve stacked the deck against romance. I didn’t choose Siege of Krishnapur at random, after all. I was inspired to write about the first chapter because I found it so dense with symbolism and meaning, requiring and rewarding careful attention from the reader. If I follow that immediately with the first chapter of a romance chosen at random, am I going to confirm the idea that genre writing is lesser? Well, I hope not. After all, a lot of literary fiction first pages would seem “thin” in comparison to Farrell’s. And my purpose isn’t to compare, but to read each novel on its own terms.

Still, this exercise has made me realize that I read romance, to some extent, evaluatively: I choose it to entertain and make me happy, and when it doesn’t, I am disappointed. I write reviews in which I talk about whether I liked a book. When I choose literary fiction, even for leisure reading, I tend to read critically, which is not quite the same thing: I want to see what and how it means, and even when I don’t like a book or don’t think it’s very good, I can find it interesting from a critical perspective. I don’t feel . . . let down in the same way by a work of literary fiction I didn’t enjoy or thought was bad. That’s really about me, and not about the books. But I had to shift my thinking to approach a romance in a more purely critical way.

Manning’s first chapter opens with an epigraph from Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son: “Men, as well as women, are much oftener led by their hearts than by their understandings. The way to the heart is through the senses . . . .” An epigraph tips the reader to look for a certain theme in what’s coming up, and we do find a man pleased by his senses in this chapter. But what struck me about this epigraph was its partial reversal of one of the typical gender paradigms of romance (and our culture in general)–the association of the heroine with “the heart,” the person who’s led by emotions, while the hero often can’t or won’t love until he meets her. Since I know from the synopsis that Seducing Mr. Heywood features a rakish London heroine and a (presumably) more innocent country hero, the epigraph increases my expectation that Manning will play with romance conventions.

The chapter’s first sentence is in an omniscient point of view: “Blond [sic], elegant Lady Sophia Rowley, clad in clinging ivory muslin, strode briskly into the drawing room, her cerulean eyes searching for the vicar of St. Mortrud’s. Her signature Floris fragrance, Frangipani, perfumed the air in her wake.” That’s not Lady Sophia’s own point of view, surely–the next sentence will slide into that. But its vaguely flowery language (cerulean?) may suggest something of her arrogant confidence in her own ability to appeal to a man’s senses, as well as the way the vicar is dazzled by her. Romance typically avoids omniscient narration, but here I think it works, combining elements of what both hero and heroine might be thinking at this moment. There’s a hint of tongue-in-cheek, too. And hey, the omniscient, ironic opening line worked for Austen.

In the drawing room, Lady Sophia (who should be Lady Rowley; there are some errors and inconsistencies in title use **ETA: Janet reminded me she’s the daughter of an Earl, I think that would maker her “Lady Sophia” until she married a baron. Then she’s “Lady Rowley.” In any case, it was more the inconsistency–she’s referred to both ways–than the error that stuck out. This isn’t a big deal to me, but I did notice it**) is confronted by her own portrait, in which she figures as the virginal goddess Diana, her fair hair the same color as the moon. And there’s Mr. Heywood, the vicar, “gazing fixedly” at it. She’s pleased his senses and found a way to his heart (or some part of him) before she even enters the room. Sophia sees the portrait as ironic–she’s just been widowed for the third time, and she’s notorious for her love affairs, though they’re not as numerous as gossip suggests. But is it, entirely? Diana is a huntress, and the novel’s title suggests that Sophia is too, and that she’s going to pursue Mr. Heywood. Moreover, while she’s certainly not virginal, if she’s going to be a romance heroine, she’ll need to be redeemed in some way, to prove purer of heart than anyone might think her at the novel’s beginning. The husband she’s cuckolded (with his consent), and who didn’t love her, commissioned the portrait and kept it on prominent display, suggesting that he may have seen something in her that others, even Sophia herself, can’t.

The vicar, whom we see through Sophia’s eyes, is described as a “young” man, with a “clear, fresh, young complexion.” Sophia is 30, old only by romance heroine standards, but these terms suggest she sees herself as somehow tarnished by experience, in contrast to Charles Heywood. Her beauty is real, but enhanced by artifice–elegant, expensive gowns and perfumes. His is “artless.”

There follows a slapstick scene in which Charles trips, spills brandy on her, and tears her dress. The butler comes in, finds his mistress panting on the floor with her bosom exposed and skirts up about her knees, and backs discreetly out, assuming the tales from London are all true. Poor Charles, meanwhile, is unconscious, having banged his head on the hearth, but he managed to get an eye-full of her bosom and feel all her curves against him first. So the butler’s impression is both ludicrously wrong, suggesting a theme of misperception and false assumptions (the servants immediately begin gossiping about the incident), and exactly right, in the sense that Charles does desire Sophia and she’ll shortly decide to seduce him. For now, Sophia is outraged by the scene, and revealed as selfish and nasty in her lack of concern for Charles’ injury or knowledge of her servants’ names.

In the first pages of Siege of Krishnapur, Farrell wandered the Indian landscape. Even when we got to characters, I’m not sure they were the main ones. Manning, like any good romance novelist, gets straight to business: we’ve met our hero and heroine, they’ve met each other (disastrously), and we can see the conflict arising from their different characters and the antagonism that’s been established. They can’t avoid each other, though, because Charles is the guardian of Sophia’s sons. I’m not at all sure what to expect from Farrell’s story. From Manning’s, thanks both to its genre and the way she opens it, I expect a story of how their appeal to each others’ senses will eventually reach Charles and Sophia’s hearts; given the distance between the Sophia of the first chapter, cursing like a stable hand, and that portrait of a pure goddess, I’m expecting it to be the story of her redemption, too.

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6 Responses to Chapter One: A Seduction

  1. Great post – you’ve really made me want to pick up this book. Personally I think there are some romance novels that stand up really well to this level of close reading – Lightning That Lingers by Tom and Sharon Curtis springs to mind – and others that don’t. Both are capable of delivering on the romance though. And where I’d really like to get to in my own mind is nailing precisely what *that* is. Interestingly, yesterday I was reading a blog review of a book by a well known romance author who gets excellent reviews for her lyrical writing. I’ve read two of her books – and agree her writing is lovely – and I enjoyed those books. But I’ve never felt compelled to glom her other books. The 2 I read were definitely missing something, romance-wise, for me

    The idea of reading different books in different ways is interesting too,especially with the professional element- I’ve always wondered if being a literary critic would ruin reading for a person, lol! From a different perspective, I now quite often find myself reading in a write-y way. Admiring character sketching and plotting and so on and doing it from the perspective of someone who is trying to do the same things, rather than as a reader. It’s technical admiration but it can exist hand-in-hand with being immersed emotionally in the story. I get that a lot reading Josh Lanyon.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I find reading as a critic is a lot like how you describe reading as a writer: it can actually add a new layer of pleasure. I used to be afraid of teaching absolute favorite books, but generally I find they become even richer after classroom discussion. And, as in this case actually, reading with critical attention can add to my enjoyment of a book. I’m not totally sold on Manning’s novel, and I find I’m more engaged by it now I’ve written the post.

      For instance, the first time I read it, I just thought the opening lines were poor handling of point of view, veering from omniscient to Sophia’s POV. But when I read that thinking not “is it good?” but “what’s the effect?” it seemed more interesting.

  2. VacuousMinx says:

    Your point about the focus on the hero and heroine is such a good one. I hadn’t thought about that, but in literary fiction, you’re much more likely to get establishing scenes/context in the beginning. Whereas the first page discussions at DA reiterate over and over again that people want to know what’s going on immediately in romance.

    Joanna, it seems to vary, whether and how being a literary critic affects the reading experience. There are clearly some trained academics who are able to turn off their inner critic and read emotionally/intuitively, but other critics and authors can’t.

    Ah, Jo Manning, one of the original authors behaving badly. I’ll take your word on the book since I’m totally unwilling to read her. She went after one of the nicer and more knowledgeable online readers many years ago (not to mention the whole idea of reader-reviewers and review blogs for romance). I still have a visceral reaction when I see her name.

  3. What’s interesting about older traditional Regencies–or older romances in general–is the use of third person omniscient POV. It’s almost as though these older books were merely telling a story, as opposed to using the characters to guide the reader through the plot. Did you feel this created distance within the context of the common “language” shared by romance novels? Perhaps it was just a nod to Heyer/Austen methods of storytelling?

    • lizmc2 says:

      That is a really good question. I think my answer is probably different from the average romance reader’s (if there is such a person) because I am a pretty recent convert to genre romance and my academic background is in Victorian lit. So I am fine with omniscient narrators, and I am fine with stories with more emotional distance, stories that engage you intellectually as much as emotionally (I like some emotion, of course!).

      Omniscient narrators often “zoom in” to a deep character point of view for emotional moments, then zoom out to comment on them. So you *can* get both closeness and distance. I think genre romance today aims to give us primarily an emotional experience, and distance is seen as bad. I don’t mind more variety in fictional aims.

      I wrote a post (a couple ahead) on why I ended up DNF’ing this book, and I cited the fact that it didn’t seem emotionally/psychologically realistic and I wasn’t emotionally engaged. Maybe this was an effect of narration–we were told what characters felt, but not with the kind of depth and detail that would *show* us. I think omniscient narration can bring us in close (and Manning’s narration was not consistently or mostly omniscient, either) but in this case, the book didn’t pull it off.

      Huh, that’s a rambling, not very clear answer.

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