In the seminal modern romance novel The Flame and the Flower, Kathleen Woodiwiss provided the blueprint for the future of the historical romance, at least the Regency ones. But it really wasn’t my kind of book. In fact, I never made it past the first sex scene. Why? Well, let’s just say that it doesn’t conform to contemporary standards of consensual sex. To be blunt, it’s kind of rapey. There are a lot of older historical romances like this and collectively they seem to have acquired the term “old school”. So what do people mean when they say old school? Is it synonymous with rapey?
I’m not using the diminutive here to be be cutesy. Rape is not cute. Ever. I’m using the term “rapey” to signify a particular brand of dubious consent hero-heroine sex that typically takes place early in a novel. I’m sure you’ve read the kind of scene I’m referring to here. The hero and heroine are alone together and the heroine wants a bit of convincing. In the worst ones, the hero takes what he wants without any positive signal from the heroine, and in fact, the hero steamrolls over some definitively negative ones. In the best ones, some form of generally non-verbal agreement from the heroine occurs before penetration.
Now, these scenes don’t bother everyone. Women with normal sexual experiences, histories and appetites have rape fantasies. And these scenes are usually written in such a way that the heroine ultimately receives some sort of reward for allowing the hero’s bad behavior. For the context of the period and the context of the romance genre, there’s an argument for including these books in a romance canon. Before the current raft of interest in and mainstream acceptance of BDSM ethics and norms, the forced seduction concept probably serves the same fantasy role. They still bother me. It’s what has turned me off to significant numbers of historical romances so it’s in my own interest that I ask this question. Because if I see “old school” I want to know if I’m getting into a book I might not enjoy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a little BDSM between consenting adults. Cuffs + flogger + some rough oral + a clever safeword = WIN in my book. Some of my favorite erotic romances have a pretty sharp edge: Willing Victim by Cara McKenna and The Theory of Attraction by Delphine Dryden. They get a little snarly, but at no point is the heroine’s consent ever in doubt.
There does seem to be a certain segment of the romance reviewer population that regards the term “old school” as being synonymous with those 1980s historicals that feature rapey sex. So what do you think? Should we be using these terms synonymously? If not, what are the features of an old school romance?
May 23, 2014 at 5:04 pm
I do not think the terms are synonymous. Not all old school romances are rapey, and not all rapey romances are old school, although there is a great deal of overlap. Old school romances are defined by a number of characteristics, including being told almost entirely from the heroine's POV. There is also usually a great power imbalance between the hero and heroine, and she usually has a great deal to gain financially and socially from the relationship. It is explained far better in the excellent book "Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels" (by the authors of the excellent blog smartbitchestrashybooks.com).
I started reading romance novels in the early 1980s, when old school was the norm. Many of them were consumed by women of my mother's generation, who had been raised with vastly different expectations and options. I knew that society expected me to make my own way in the world, but my parents had not really raised me to be confident and independent, and the idea of being taken care of was attractive, even while intellectually I knew it was a mistake to be dependent on a man. That is not unusual for teenagers and 20-somethings, and nowadays it usually takes the form of continuing to live with one's parents well into adulthood. That was less socially acceptable 30 years ago, so I suspect that old school romances fulfilled a certain emotional fantasy, even among those of us who had very different priorities for our real lives.