Possession, a 1979 Harlequin Presents by Charlotte Lamb, is similar in some ways and different in others from last’s week’s 1979 Harlequin Romance, Sea Lightning. We still have an overbearing hero with a little too much confidence in his personal allure. He is in a position of authority over the heroine (actually her boss…again). He’s ridiculously sexist and assumes the heroine is available to him sexually because of her behavior with other men and her attractiveness. If you read last week’s post, this probably all sounds familiar.
But we’ve changed lines now from Harlequin Romance to Harlequin Presents. And Possession, trope-wise, winds up in the arranged marriage/marriage of convenience lane rather than the enemies-to-lovers of Sea Lightning. This seems to be an important distinction in early Harlequins. It raises the possibility of married-people sex, which given the time frame and publisher conservatism at Harlequin in this era, seems infinitely more acceptable than pre-marital sex.
And married people sex is what we get in Possession. While hero Dan Harland and heroine Laura Belsize are not yet quite in love, they do get married and have explicit sexual relations. Now, when I say “explicit” I don’t mean the pumping and gasping of today’s erotic romance. But it’s also a far cry from punishing kisses, a breast grope and a fade-to-black. We’ll get to all that in a minute though as it happens about two-thirds of the way through the book.
First, one place where I’m starting to notice a divergence in the way physical intimacy is portrayed in these older categories is in the characters’ experiences with people not their potential partners. These days, it seems like neither hero nor heroine is permitted any kind of sexual contact with a different character, while in the older books, I’m not sure I’ve read one yet that didn’t have some element of a love triangle involving at least kissing. In Possession, we get several such relationships. On page 9:
When they returned that night it was almost three in the morning. Max opened the flat door for her and then kissed her hard for a long time, his mouth warm and expert on her own.
‘Renata will wake up … no, goodnight …’
Reluctantly he kissed her again and walked away, and she closed the door, leaning against it, laughing softly under her breath, because it really had been the most wonderful evening.
So not only does Max, a relatively minor suitor, get to kiss the heroine, the implication is that she likes it. It’s “warm and expert”. And so in addition to the ratcheting up of sexual content from the Harlequin Romance from last week, in this Presents from the same year, we also get a total absence of guilt. Finally, when the heroine says stop, this guy Max actually stops. He’s “reluctant” but he abides by her wishes. We might assume from this that the Presents heroine has a bit more agency with regard to sexual matters?
Well, not quite. As the story progresses, it comes out that hero Dan has virtually taken over Laura’s family business. Laura’s ne’er-do-well father Jimmy has been in an accident and her grandfather is old and becoming frail. Despite Laura’s modern, career-girl notions, her grandfather appears to think that she is too young to take over the business and appoints Dan as trustee. If he could appoint Dan as her husband, he’d do that too and eventually the desire to please her grandfather drives her to agree to wed him. Her father is also pushing her into marriage because it allows her to keep an eye on “the enemy” since he is certain his father wants to cut him out of the business entirely. The daughter is basically sold into marriage to secure the family’s business, if not entirely against her will, then certainly against her inclination.
And that brings us to another interesting element of Possession: Laura’s disinclination to marry. We are told that she has “a positive phobia about possessive relationships” and “liked to be fancy free, not tied down” (page 51). There are several other instances of Laura thinking or saying similar things and it emerges as the main stumbling block to a relationship in the novel.
We still don’t have the hero’s perspective here, but a reader familiar with the trajectory of these category romances will pick up on the fact that the hero is emotionally committed long before the heroine. This exchange from page 87 hints at what I mean:
‘Arrogant, ambitious men usually get their comeuppance,’ she said, turning away.
He followed her over the stony ground. ‘And usually at the hands of an even more ruthless woman,’ he suggested.
Doesn’t that just read like poetry? In the confined space of the best category romances, every word has to mean something and this passage has her turning away and him following her over rough terrain while admitting the power she has over him. The book it put me most in mind of is actually Gone With the Wind: where the hero, reluctant to show his soft underbelly to a fearsomely confident, flirtatious heroine, resorts to sardonic wit and their magnetic attraction to eventually win her. Of course, he’s more successful at it than Rhett Butler was.
When Laura’s grandfather takes a turn for the worse and her father falls in love a woman who has been nursing him after his accident, Laura finally agrees to marry Dan and they go on their honeymoon. It’s here where they eventually fall into bed on page 139.
‘I’m not going back to England until you’re my wife in every sense of the word,’ he said thickly.
Her eyes widened. ‘Marcus needs you … the firm …’
‘Damn the firm,’ he snapped, his features harsh. The grey eyes flickered over her hungrily. ‘I’ve played a waiting game for months, but I’m not waiting another day, Laura. I want you, and you’re going to let me make love to you before you leave this room again.’
The fierce determination in his voice left her helpless. She weakly closed her eyes. He lay watching her without moving for a few moments, then his hands moved down, slowly touching her, running down over her body smoothly, stroking and caressing. She abandoned thought of everything but the sweetness of the sensations his hands were arousing in her. […] He drew away and bent to kiss her breast and she buried her face in his throat, kissing it hotly, moaning incoherently, a piercing tension in her body, aching along her taut bones, a frenzy singing in her blood.
The passage goes on for another five pages, alternating between description and Laura’s revelations about what this might mean for her and Dan. And while she does say no at three points, the scene plays more like dubious consent than non-consent. Though the point where Dan calls Laura a frigid bitch is a particularly low one. That said, her nos seem more emotional than physical in context.
That would not have mattered so much since she admitted grimly that she wanted him, too, that he was not going to take a thing she did not want to give him, but in that very fact lay the seed of her fear and panic. […] She was afraid of her own desperate need for love.
Laura begins to worry that she could care for Dan and, musing on her lonely childhood, recalls the lesson that it’s dangerous to care for anyone–that caring results in “rejection, humiliation, pain” (page 143). Now, in a real life encounter, Dan would have clearly stepped over the line. Frankly, anyone who called me a frigid bitch would not be getting into my pants. But within the context of their relationship, the scene, and the childhood backstory IN THE MIDDLE OF THEIR SEXUAL ENCOUNTER, I’m not so sure. The resulting climaxes and denouement are actually tender (page 144).
She fell into a silence, a warm, lazy, languid ease which was like the peace of a summer’s day. Dan’s head dropped on her body, his breathing slowing, his heart settling to a quieter pace. His hands stroked her body gently. She lay, eyes closed, her arms around his neck, feeling the tension, the panic, drain out of her toes.
Of course, their bliss is short-lived. Dan thanks her for their encounter and she reacts poorly, setting the stage for a third act where both feel betrayed before coming back together again.
Possession was an interesting read for me, mainly because it’s the first category sex I’ve read for this survey (and, not so incidentally, signals a need to back up and read some earlier works), but also because it’s the heroine holding up the loving-and-caring show, not the hero. If it’s possible to show a hero in hot pursuit without being inside his head, that’s what we’ve got here. It also exposed some of my assumptions about what sexual content in a book this early would look like: that it would involve more love and less direct language. Wrong. Though the couple being already married didn’t surprise me at all.
Next week, I tackle Sara Craven’s Harlequin Presents Flame of Diablo, which Jenny Haddon suggested might be the first Mills & Boon sex scene. Like Possession, it was published by M&B
in 1979, but it’s actually later by Harlequin reckoning: 1980. So it will be interesting to see whether 1979 was just a turning point or whether I really do need to go back further to see the advent of sex scenes that aren’t almost impenetrably vague.