I imagine most people reading this are aware of #HaleNo and the decision of some book bloggers (especially in YA and romance) not to run reviews of new books for a short period of time. (If not, here’s Sunita’s post on it, with links to more). Since reviews of new books are pretty much non-existent on my blog, my participation isn’t very meaningful, but this post is my expression of solidarity with their action.
I’m horrified by the incident and the way Ms. Hale has been supported by some people eager to cast amateur reviewers/bloggers as bullies and trolls, but I’m deeply grateful to bloggers for the way they have responded. Some blogger have decided, during the blackout, to focus on what brought them to blogging in the first place: a love of books and reading and a desire to discuss them with others. I’ve enjoyed Dear Author‘s posts on topics like who’s in your book-recommending trust circle, favorite book-to-film adaptations, and authors you miss, for instance.
Perhaps my favorite post has been Miss Bates’s, because so much of what she says expresses my reasons for and attitudes to blogging, too:
primarily, Miss Bates reads romance, she doesn’t review romance. She hopes to inspire fellow-readers to share in her thoughts about romance fiction. . . . She wants her blog to be an account of what she’s reading and how she responded to it and less about whether you, her reader, should, or shouldn’t read a book. She wants to, once again, engage with her reading emotionally and intellectually without worrying about spoilers and ratings and release dates.
My disaffection with bookish social media has made me want to refocus on reflecting on individual books as well. I’m tired of kerfuffles.
When I started blogging, I made a decision not to request ARCs or accept review copies because I knew they would make me feel obligated and perhaps lead me to be less honest about my responses (that’s a purely personal concern and I respect, admire, and rely on many bloggers who do read ARCs!). I want to talk about whatever I happen to be reading, however I want. My effort to get back to these basics has been hampered by a very busy and rather stressful fall. I have been tired and distracted and haven’t always used my free-time to read. I had to resort to setting a pomodoro timer for bedtime reading for a few days. It helped, and now I’m reading a couple of newish books that I’m really enjoying.
But today, I’m going to talk about some retro reading–or, actually, listening, because when I’m too tired to focus on the page, I turn to audiobooks. I’ve had a spate of really good luck with 19th-century novels on audio, and I’m going to talk about how I read them in light of my romance-reading experience. (Also, since these are old books, all the spoilers below).
Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
This is a Victorian novel I had never actually read (shh, don’t tell anyone! They’ll take away my PhD). I listened to a big chunk of it–read by Alex Jennings and Jenny Agutter–on a day when I was too sick to get out of bed. So I may have dozed through a bit and I definitely don’t have a worked-out take on it. But I thought a lot, as I listened, about how this novel is in many ways an anti-romance in its depiction of marriage to a rake. Arthur is charming and Helen imagines redeeming him (in explicitly Christian rather than romantic terms). But he remains selfish and self-indulgent and makes her increasingly miserable–going off to London to enjoy himself for weeks, hosting drunken house-parties, flaunting his affair, corrupting their son.
The novel makes very clear how hard it was for a woman–at least one who didn’t have the support of her family–to escape from such a marriage, especially with her child. It reminded me of one reason I love historical marriage of convenience plots: the stakes are so high. If the marriage doesn’t work, it really is a disaster.
The romance between Helen and Gilbert Markham didn’t really convince me: she seemed so much more worldly wise, had so much more experience, and he was kind of a brooding, jealous jerk. I didn’t think he grew up enough to deserve her by the novel’s end–but maybe I’ll have to listen again and I’m open to convincing.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
OK, this has nothing to do with romance. But it was a lot of fun (I read it years ago). The meandering, rather stream-of-consciousness narrative worked very well on audio. I picked this up because listening to Connie Willis’ Bellwether made me want to listen to more of her works on audio, and buying To Say Nothing of the Dog made me want to revisit Jerome. The version I chose was the one narrated by Steven Crossley, who also reads the Willis book. My only qualm was that he read the Romantic nature descriptions, and the incident where the three friends discover the body of a drowned woman, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, and I think these more sentimental passages are sincere. Though I could be wrong; there’s a lot of puncturing of conventional discourse in the narration. I can imagine revisiting this one when I need a good laugh.
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
After my success with one sister, and with other 19th-century fiction narrated by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, I decided to pick up Jane Eyre, which has been languishing with my TBL for some time. I’ve read the novel several times, but not since I started reading genre romance regularly, and that is coloring my listening to some extent. (I am only about halfway through).
I think it was Robin who said in a conversation that while there’s lots of love for Pride and Prejudice among romance readers, Jane Eyre is much more an ur-text of the genre. I think that’s right, and I can really see it as I read: the Gothic elements; the commanding, mysterious (older) hero; the isolated and subordinate young woman–all of these appear in different ways in many romance subgenres.
I think Bronte is well aware of the erotic charge of Rochester’s commanding ways, his literal mastery of Jane. But ultimately the novel and Jane resist that pull. Part of Jane likes obedience and submission, wants to please him, but she won’t do it if it means not being true to herself and her conscience. I couldn’t read some of this dialogue without thinking of BDSM romance (probably because someone retweeted Megan Mulry saying Rochester is a Dom) but I think few romances work this way. Usually, the submissive heroine in BDSM romance surrenders to the erotic pull of the master before considering whether he is worthy of her submission (aside from his ability to bring her sexual pleasure). The ethical questions Bronte raises are missing. And the Dom, of course, does not have to be blinded and maimed before getting the girl–I’ve always had mixed feelings about Jane Eyre‘s ending. I’d prefer her to become his equal without his having to be reduced somehow. Perhaps that was impossible for Bronte to imagine; in any case, being “brought low by love” wasn’t low enough for her.
The romance between Jane and Rochester has never been my favorite part of the novel. I’m more interested in Jane’s childhood, and how the tensions between independence/rebellion and submission, isolation and interdependence, judgment and feeling, play out with the Reeds and at Lowood. But their relationship did make me reflect on when and why similar pairings work for me in romance: I can do alpha-ingenue, but not alpha-doormat. Jane is young and powerless, but she is always true to herself and thus essentially unbreakable. Love is never more important than self-respect for her, and she never completely surrenders herself to or subsumes herself in another, even when it is most tempting. And that’s why I love her.