Comparative Romance: An Accidental Opportunity

I have found myself simultaneously reading a Barbara Cartland romance novel and a Jane Austen novel. I actually can’t stand romance novels (well, ok… medieval french romance gets a bit of a pass, but I like the merveilleux and the bawdy, cheeky fabliaux far better). SO… because I have obstinately refused to give any sort of non-medieval-novels-billed-as-romance any attention at all, with the exception of the first few chapters of a Danielle Steele novel back in 1990, I am completely green when it comes to such things. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve never read Jane Austen before. *hangs head in shame* As well, I have only seen Mansfield Park and, well, if we’re stretching things considerably, Bridget Jones’ Diary.

I’m about halfway through Pride and Prejudice, and I love it. It’s utterly intellectual without entirely sacrificing the emotions and just brilliantly written. I can’t stand how repressive the culture is, but I’m learning quite a bit on a historical level.

The Cartland novel I’m reading is called The Magic of Love, a Jane Eyre takeoff with a little Martinique voodoo thrown in to spice it up a bit. I find the writing pedestrian, even adolescent at times. I feel like it’s something I would have written as a rough draft, just to get the ideas out on paper, so then I could edit it to make it all sound better. But no, there it is in fairly raw form. It’s historical fiction, so I get to compare it with Austen’s work in that respect, as well — Austen’s being primary source material and Cartland’s being secondary, so to speak.

A few months ago, in somewhat of a dare, I was challenged to give Cartland a go. When my friend bet me I wouldn’t make it past five pages, I narrowed my eyes, set my jaw, and moved my mouth into a smirk. Challenge accepted. I put a Cartland novel on hold at the library that night and nigh two months later (they’re apparently very popular), it finally made its way to me.

While I had the book in hand, wanting to open it for the first time, I was with my younger son. He was pleading with me to read Tough Trucks to him for the fortieth time. It was then that I had to laugh, realizing that over the years, I have developed a much higher tolerance for reading insipid tripe than, say, people who tend not to make a habit of reading books to children. This is not to say that children’s books are all terrible — they’re most assuredly not. BUT. Do you have any idea how much intestinal fortitude it took to read Garfield Discovers America aloud to my young, impressionable children? I did it once and never again will I stoop so low. That book needs either to be burned or to be hidden away for a few years and then brought out as a teaching tool for how problematic colonialist beliefs have shaped our world. I digress.

I sailed past the fifth page. In fact, it took until page 45 of the 150-page Cartland novel before my jaw dropped. This was merely at a particularly ill-suited choice of adjective. For slight backstory, the father of the young, French-speaking girl had taken a backseat in her education and had left it to her second cousin. Now that the attractive governess has arrived — to teach her English, bien sûr — the father has had a change in attitude. The cousin tells the governess that she will give instructions regarding the child in the morning and this exchange follows:

“I shall do that,” the Comte said in a quiet voice.
“You?” Madame Boisset ejaculated. “Why? Why should you wish to interfere?”

Ejaculated. My goodness. What an evocative word there. And just… no. No no no no no. Non non non non non. You know, I would actually have been fine with ‘spurted.’ I may have snickered to myself because I’m 12, but I would have trudged forth without much of a second thought. But *ejaculated*?!? Oh no. Nope.

Earlier, I mused that I wished I could put it down but found myself compelled to continue. ‘Really,’ I keep telling myself, ‘it’s only 150 pages. The writing is ridiculously simplistic. I could be done with it by end of day tomorrow.’ It’s research. I’m curious. I feel like Gail Dines sorting through all those issues of Cosmo.

It wasn’t until I was reading on the subway later that I had to just put the damned book down. Things had become obvious to the governess and the Comte that there was a mutual attraction when I got to this little gem of a passage:

  “Do you mean,” she asked hesitatingly, “that you… love me?”
  The Comte smiled.
  “Love?” he questioned. “It is such an inadequate word to describe what I feel and what you mean to me. You are mine, Melita, mine although I have not even touched you, mine although for the moment I dare not ask you to marry me.”
  She was trembling as he went on:
  “But you are my woman, my real wife! Mine because our souls have met across eternity and we have found each other after who knows how many centuries of seeking?”

Yes, it really ends in a question mark. Why are people (women, mostly!) SO ENAMOURED with tripe like this? All I could think of at that moment was, “What is this ejaculate?!?” It immediately brought to mind the end of the Jean de Meun section of Le Roman de la rose where the protagonist spills a little of his seed on the rose. Meant to be literal and figurative, ironic and base, but this Cartland business is not. It’s a travesty. It’s a big wang-fest of ownership of the female. But they’re SOUL MATES! *clasps hands, bats eyes, looks dreamily off to the upper right while little red hearts appear and float to the heavens* Pardon me while I find a waste bin to gak in. Why doesn’t he just pee on her to mark his territory and be done with it?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing the idea of soul mates or the notion of feeling that inexplicably intense bond with someone you barely know. It happens. It’s happened to me. What I’m reacting to is the way in which this situation is presented to the reader. When the only tool you have at your disposal is words, it’s imperative that you make good use of it. I’m not at all seeing much finesse from the author here.

Needless to say, I happily switched to Jane Austen for the transit ride back home. Mr. Darcy has just given his letter to Elizabeth and, after supplying the contents of the letter to the reader, Austen describes Elizabeth’s reaction:

She read with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes.

Well, I stopped right there because I realized that that’s exactly what I was doing while reading her reaction! Consumed with impatient curiosity, I was barely grasping what was happening as I flew by the words. And in that moment of realization, I felt then and there, “Jane Austen KNOWS ME!” Which made little red hearts appear and float to the heavens as I smiled wistfully and looked dreamily off to the upper right.

Seriously. The quality of Austen’s observations of human behaviour is far superior to most of what I’ve read, regardless of author or genre. Being the sort of person who feels keenly aware of how others are feeling in a given moment about a given topic purely from watching reactions, facial expressions, and listening to word choice, Austen’s approach, at least insofar as Pride and Prejudice goes, is far and away more suitable to my sensibilities than most other fiction. In my estimation thus far, her reputation is much deserved.

I look forward to seeing how the rest of the intrigue plays out and whether she is able to maintain the much-appreciated balance between intellect and emotion. I also look forward to having finished the Cartland novel, noting how many times I want to retch, etc. I fear I may have to subject myself to more of this dreck to gain a more complete understanding of how romantic love is portrayed and why the general population of women are such suckers for it. If I continue on in this vein, I actually may have to deign to read the Twilight trilogy and Fifty Shades of Grey. God help me, let it not come to that! Stupid curiosity. Stupid intellectual masochism.

Onward, ho!