Women and silence…and romance novels

I should start with a caveat or two:  (1) being long-overdue for an analysis, I am here introducing a somewhat difficult topic, and I do not reach any sort of conclusion about it, and (2) I wrote the second half of this post and edited it under the throes of a migraine…  I welcome all manner of comments, but I totally understand if this is a pond that no one wants to jump into.

There are a lot of things that women are told, whether by our mothers, through advertising, or through peer messages in school, that we should not talk about.  The results of this oppressive silence are never terribly pleasant.  We don’t have open, honest conversations with our daughters about sex or our bodies, so our daughters, flooded by confusing messages in the world (be thin, don’t be too thin, be sexy, don’t be too sexy, curves are good, fat is bad, be attractive so you don’t end up an old maid, don’t be too attractive or you’ll end up one of those girls), have no idea how to grow into their own sexuality or how to see that their sexuality is but a part of who and what they are.

And we don’t talk about it.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was horrified by exactly how much occurs during pregnancy that we don’t talk about at all.  I got the What to Expect books, and they casually mention a few things that a pregnant woman might experience: embarrassing gas, constipation, bone pain (pregnancy hormones soften your skeletal system so your bones can move, did you know that?), discomfort, itchiness from stretching skin, more embarrassing gas, heartburn, belching, etc.  But the neutral words do not prepare one for the realities of pregnancy.  Having gone through all of that nonsense twice now, I have become an advocate for speaking out.  Sometimes it’s awkward, like when I regale an entire dinner party with the real story of afterbirth (ewwww), but I would rather inflict momentary awkwardness on all my friends than act as if pregnancy/childbirth/life is shameful.

Silence has a way of stifling women (perhaps men, too, but I don’t know; I’ve never been a man).  I am wholeheartedly in favor of any works of art or social campaigns that promote openness and dialogue about topics that have long been considered taboo.  It is, of course, uncomfortable to talk about such subjects (e.g. the unpleasant aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting; rape; child abuse; etc.), but we are a better society when we openly acknowledge that such things happen (that, for example, June Cleaver is a fictional character, not a prescribed role model) and provide a space for a real dialogue to happen about what our expectations as a society are, what our reality is, what the difference between those two is, and why there is a difference.

But this is my blog, so, of course, there is a romance novel tie-in.  I don’t believe that literature (or nonfiction) holds the corner on the market of reading material that is thought-provoking.  In (many of) the romance novels that I read, I frequently encounter situations or treatments that make me stop and think about the world we actually live in and the kind of world I’d like to live in (balanced sometimes–since I mostly read historical romance–with the often stunning difference between the world that is presented in the novel and the world that one could reasonably imagine actually existed in the novel’s time period…).  The fact is, I like my romance novels to be modern and subversive even in a historical setting.

Cover image, The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Enter Courtney Milan and her novella The Governess Affair.  This book is historically subversive in the best possible way.

I mentioned earlier that I tend to stir up awkward conversations at dinner parties.  I wasn’t being hyperbolic.  A few weeks ago I stirred up a real whopper for all my guests to appreciate: rape, rape culture, and silence.  I suppose I exist as a cautionary tale of what not to do as a hostess…  Anyway, the conversation was fascinating, because we kept getting stuck on our own culture (in a conversation about how rape is rape regardless of what either party is wearing, it was still important to point out and consider that if one chooses to wear revealing clothing, one should not be surprised at the inevitable result.  That point seemed to me to be very strange: the very inevitability of rape, means, I think, something different to women than to men, as women are likely to be the inevitable victims whereas men are cast in the role of inevitable perpetrator.  Both bits of type-casting seem terrible to me…), and even when we tried to escape it, to listen to one another neutrally without the cultural dialogue of victim shaming, misogyny, and, failing anything else, quelling silence, it was overwhelming.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to have a casual or neutral conversation about rape.  (And ill-advised to have one about afterbirth. Just saying.)

As an aside, I am tempted to edit myself, to wonder why one would want to have a casual conversation about rape, but I don’t want to edit that word out.  This is a topic we should be able to talk about, and, as humans, we’ll never choose to have these conversations willingly if they are always fraught with difficulty, misunderstanding, sub-context, and emotional realities beyond comprehension.

Back to The Governess Affair: this book is all about breaking silence, and it is handled beautifully.  Once I caught on to what it was about, I was tempted to put it down, because I worried that it would be disturbing to me.  After all the political nonsense over the last few months, I have to admit that I’ve been having a difficult time dealing with my own sad story.  I am so glad that I continued to read this book.  It was comforting, healing, amusing, heart-warming, and relentlessly enjoyable.

This book takes a few modern ideals, including practicing openness and honesty towards one’s children and breaking silence, and applies them to a historical setting in which they are somewhat incongruous (but not jarringly so).  The story is set in London in 1835, and tells the compact tale of one Serena Barton, who is tired of the silence that has been forced on her by her gender and class, and one Hugo Marshall, who is tasked with ensuring Serena’s continued silence.  Both Serena and Hugo undergo significant but natural-seeming changes over the course of the short book, and the story ends with a teaser introduction to the new series.  The book provides a commentary on society–both the society of 1835 London and our modern society–but it’s like a commentary in negative space: in the absence of a narrator pointing out all the things that are wrong with both societies, the reader cannot help but jump in and reach a few conclusions.  It is brilliant and beautiful and bold.

I loved every single thing about this book, and I am so excited about the new series (the Brothers Sinister Series).

17 thoughts on “Women and silence…and romance novels

  1. I hope the migranes pass soon! I haven’t read The Governess Affair (yet), but I totally agree that women are often shamed into silence, when it comes to a lot of things. Our voice is our most powerful tool, whether it comes from images, the spoken word, the written word, etc.; but so often with women our voices are suppressed or shamed into silence.

    There’s an article you might be interested in reading at DA that kind of ties into this subject and reviewing: http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/something-is-very-wrong-with-us-and-its-not-bad-reviews/

    On a side note, my mom still yells at me when I say “vagina” like it’s a dirty word. But then she also yells at me when I say “crap,” so…

    • Yes, that DA article hits it very well. Thank you for sharing the link!

      I hate the double standards in our society that we women help perpetuate, and that hatred translates into interesting parenting choices that may or may not turn out to be a good thing. For example, after all that ’embarrassing gas’ from my pregnancies, I am now totally comfortable with farts. I refuse to allow my digestive system the power to mortify me, and we are open about farts in my household. When my daughters start school, I imagine the social double standard relating to gas (it’s OK for boys to fart, but girls must be made of sunshine and roses–no gas allowed) will present difficulties for them, but I just can’t bring myself to teach them to be embarrassed about their bodies and the weird things their bodies do.

      All that to say: shaming silence comes in many guises.

  2. I’ve read The Governess Affair (I adore Milan romances) and liked it very much. Not only because the main heroine was strong and open but also because she took a risk of sharing her trauma with another human being and she chose a man.

    I mentioned earlier that I tend to stir up awkward conversations at dinner parties. I wasn’t being hyperbolic

    I would love to be your dinner guest, you know. I suppose we two alone would be able to clean the house in no time.

    • Yes, that would be excellent! There’s an extra layer of amusement in there for me: I mean, who throws dinner parties anymore?

      I think my favorite thing about The Governess Affair is that Serena does not identify herself as a true victim, per se, even though she is one, but she still fights for the right to speak about what happened, and it is Hugo who insists that what occurred was assault and was not Serena’s fault. I think that might be the most delicious bit of subversiveness in the whole piece, because it’s exactly as it should be and exactly what so rarely ever occurs.

      My husband doesn’t know it yet, but my plan for the next few days is to devour all of Milan’s published books. 🙂

  3. I loved The Governess Affair and am waiting, not so patiently, for the rest of the series. When I started reading romance novels, I was surprised at how many romance narratives addressed sexual and relationship violence. That trauma is sadly part of many women’s lives but representations of it are largely absent from our culture. (And when rape is represented in American culture, the perpetrator is almost always a psychopathic stranger, etc.) (And also your point about how rape shouldn’t be considered inevitable is well taken.) I don’t think every story of recovery from trauma is as well handled as The Governess Affair, but the fact that romance writers and readers seem interested in exploring it is part of both why I think romance can be subversive but why I think the genre will also continue to be marginalized.

    When a novel discusses sexual violence, it almost immediately gets coded as women’s fiction or otherwise denigrated. The very presence of rape in a text seems to ghettoize it for many critics. Even with the work of male authors, there tends to be a difference between the novels that are thought of as artistic or masterpieces and those that are thought of as less important and discussion of sexual violence seems to be one of the things that moves a book from one category into the other. As just one example, William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary — which features rape — is a pot-boiler and The Sound and Fury — which is in part about policing consensual sexuality — is a contender for the great American novel.

    This is getting tangent-y, but I liked your post!

    • Thank you for stopping by and commenting! I think I sold us all a bit short when I assumed the response to this post would be silence…

      Regarding your second paragraph, I think it may depend on the way sexual assault is discussed in a literary work written by a man. I’m thinking of A Streetcar Named Desire, here (and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which I hate with the burning intensity of a thousand suns). I have a difficult time tolerating what our society considers (for good reason) the typical male response to these topics (all that ‘legitimate’ and ‘forcible’ nonsense, all the awful ‘what was she wearing’ nonsense, etc.), but I am cognitively aware that every bit of dialogue–good or bad–ultimately contributes to a desirable end: our being able to talk about these things. Is it hypocritical, though, that I still prefer to have this dialogue with women (either face-to-face or through romance novels) to whom one never needs to explain just why ‘what was she wearing’ is such a damaging question? I don’t know, but I hope the answer is no.

  4. Yes! More of this. Excellent post, Kel. As far as the “inevitability of rape” is concerned, I am shocked that people still use that as an argument. That basically says that the perpetrator couldn’t help but force sex on an unwilling party, that they didn’t have a choice. That is obviously bullsh*t and wrong on so many levels. Taken to its logical conclusion, anyone who truly believes that rape is inevitable is a very dangerous person because they are admitting that there can be a set of circumstances where they, themselves, could be driven to be a rapist. If it is “inevitable” then they wouldn’t be able to stop themselves. I certainly would never want to be alone with that person. I know a lot of the people who go to your dinner parties, and I am completely shocked (and apparently a little pissed) that those otherwise intelligent people can be so blind and ignorant.
    I may have to read this book. I got Tim the new Kindle Fire HD for his birthday, and he said that we can share it so we can decide if I need to get my own, or if one is enough.

    • It was surreal, but we just kept getting stuck on that point. I don’t know if I can articulate exactly how it was… OK, so you know how I have a lot of built-in Eddie Izzard auto-replies, like if someone says, “I’ll have a top up, please,” I can’t stop myself from blurting out, “Top up? I want fucking stays up!” even if the top-up seeker is a total stranger, and I just barged into their conversation for no apparent reason, knowingly inviting Eddie Izzard to a conversational party at which he wasn’t a guest (and neither was I)? Right. Well, it was like that. Every time I brought up the idea of victim shaming and how it’s a problem in our culture, how we can’t really talk about rape seriously (and compassionately) when we immediately engage in victim shaming, the response was, “yes, it’s terrible that we do that as a society, and it’s obviously not the victim’s fault, but at the same time, don’t you have to wonder what someone expects to happen when she walks out the house dressed like a whore?” That whole “but at the same time, don’t you have to wonder…” bit was like my crazy “Top up? I want fucking stays up!” auto-response. I think we’ve been programmed, ish, to ask that question, even when we want to be sensitive and avoid victim-shaming.

      I guess that’s why I didn’t go berserker during the conversation, because there was always this attempt to reach consensus, to understand one another, to be sensitive, but we just kept getting stuck on stupid shit. And we all knew it was happening, even those of us saying the stupid shit, and we all felt bad about it. I’m really glad we had that conversation, even though it was a bit strange.

      • Not having been there, I shouldn’t pass judgment. I agree that there is a societal or religiously programmed response to put responsibility on the victim… and it’s wrong. We need to move past it and stop letting the privileged perpetrators of this victim-blaming mentality continue to get away with it. Those in power will always blame and shame the weak because it helps them keep their power. I’m sure that it was a very good conversation to have had. Even if it may not have felt like a winning conversation, just the fact that there was open dialogue about the subject is important.
        This post prompted a rant over at my other blog. I linked this entry over there, and would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • No kidding!!! It would be full of all sorts of interesting little tidbits like, “Did you know your intestines have to move out of the way to make room for the baby, and then they have to move back to their (you hope) normal location after the baby has vacated the premises, and that you will never ever want to talk to your doctor about the hijinks that ensue because you were raised not to talk about poo in polite conversation, which apparently also applies to your doctor? Dude, it’s true.”

      I should write that book.

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