This morning I’m thrilled to bring you a guest post by Willaful, one of my very favorite romance bloggers and a long-time category romance reader. Her post is on 1983 Harlequin Presents SIROCCO by Anne Mather. We’re skipping ahead a bit in time because this post builds on some of what we discussed last week: the prevalence in older Harlequins of heroines getting physical with men not the hero. And with that I leave you in Willa’s capable hands. ~ Elisabeth
I’ve been fascinated by the sexual, political, and historical mores of Harlequin Presents since I started reading them again, after a 30 year hiatus, so Elisabeth’s summer project is right up my alley. Sirocco is noteworthy for a very early mention of oral sex, although it’s not the earliest. (That is generally thought to be the rather memorably named Antigua Kiss by Anne Weale.) But it’s interesting in other ways as well.
Our heroine is Rachel, a young woman who works for her living, despite having a trust fund and a wealthy father. (Or is he?!) She’s happily engaged to Roger, a name that only a man who will not be the hero would ever have in a Harlequin Presents. (To give you an idea of Roger, he tries to convince Rachel that her housemate and close friend is too fat to be a bridesmaid.)
Rachel discovers that no good deed goes unpunished when she tries to help a man she sees lying unconscious in a car. That man, Alex Roche, appears to become obsessed with Rachel, and begins to insinuate himself — sometimes by force — into every area of her life.
In her commentary on Charlotte Lamb’s Possession, Elisabeth wrote:
“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.”
I’ve noticed this before in older Harlequins: Janet Dailey’s Sweet Promise, from 1975, opens with the heroine genuinely in love with another man, and quite interested in being physical with him. In Sirocco, Rachel is a virgin, which is pretty much de rigueur for an unmarried heroine. (Although in a very early Anne Mather Presents, The Pleasure And The Pain, the hero and heroine had been lovers in the past.) However, her fiance has “taught her ways to please him without their going to bed together.” This is made slightly more explicit later in the story:
“‘Oh sweetheart, I’ve missed you,’ he murmured, drawing her reluctant hands to his body. ‘Hmm, that feels good. Go on, go on: make love to me…'”
Although this example of sex with a man not the hero (in the middle of the story, even) is historically fascinating in itself, it leads to something even more noteworthy: Rachel gets fed up with not having her own needs met.
“She couldn’t dispel a linger sense of dissatisfaction that had no real foundation in their association, something that had not changed over the months they had been together. It concerned the — from her point of view — totally unsatisfactory sexual relationship they shared, and Roger’s apparent indifference to her needs.”
“When Roger joined her at the breakfast table, he was looking decidedly pleased with himself, and Rachel couldn’t help the uncharitable supposition that he wouldn’t be feeling that way if he had had to be satisfied with her kisses.”
Of course, this is at least partially attributed to Alex awakening her. Still, it’s a far cry from the more modern Harlequin Presents heroine, who frequently has had no real sexual desires to speak of before meeting her hero. (And who will almost never have sex again — especially not enjoyable sex — if they’ve parted. This is just starting to change in the line, and many long-time readers absolutely hate that.)
Some of what goes on between Alex and Rachel is non-consensual, including some actual physical restraint. But by the time they have sex, she’s mostly into it; consent is not crystal clear, but it’s a very mild forced seduction. And even while she’s being swept away by passion, Rachel is aware of her needs being considered for the first time:
“This was not at all like being with Roger, she thought hazily, as Alex’s mouth beat a searing path across her breasts, then followed downward, over the quivering flatness of her diaphragm to the softness of her stomach. Roger had never given any thought to her pleasure, only his own, and while she told herself that Roger had had more respect for her, it rang a little hollowly in her ears.
Even so, she flinched in sudden panic when Alex’s mouth sought a more intimate invasion, and he gave a soft laugh as he slid over her to find her mouth again. ‘You have a lot to learn,’ he breathed against her lips. ‘But we will come to that later.'”
And the focus on Rachel’s satisfaction continues:
“It was all over too soon. Rachel had scarcely begun to enjoy the pleasurable sensations Alex’s thrusting body was evoking before she sensed his shuddering climax, and he slumped heavily on top of her. Not so different after all, she reflected bitterly, remembering Roger’s groaning convulsions, and the artificial mood of bonhomie that always followed them.”
This is unexpectedly realistic in a genre chock full of first time orgasms. But don’t worry — he makes it up to her.
The emphasis on domineering men who don’t take no for an answer in older category romance is generally taken to be an expression of the shame women felt around their sexuality. It’s interesting to see that in at least some respects, older category heroines may actually have been allowed a less restricted sexuality, one that isn’t dependent on one specific man to awaken and fulfill it.
I should warn readers that Sirocco is a slightly disguised “Sheikh” story and sometimes gets uncomfortably racist. I’d say it was a product of its times, in which anti-Arab sentiment was prevalent — but then lots of things haven’t changed all that much in 40 years, have they?
June 7, 2015 at 11:44 am
Great review Willaful! I love reading all about the sexual evolution of the romance novel so thanks for starting this Elisabeth. I haven't actually read an HP in at least 10 years (likely because I gravitate to the Blaze line or Superromance if I do pick an HQN) but I did pick up a few newer ones a few months ago at a rummage sale so I should remedy that.
June 7, 2015 at 2:57 pm
Yeah, these are all way, way earlier than Blaze. I've got a question about Superromance though. Have those always had "full docking procedures"? Because there's not really a straight-up "Harlequin Romance" line like there used to be, right? I'm wondering if they're just longer/more words or if the introduction of Superromance signaled any other changes. Because as far as I've been able to tell, none of the old Harlequin Romance (the old line) have any sex in them. Just kissing this far. I've got a couple "newer" ones (like, 80s instead of 70s) so I guess I'll find out. Sooo much I don't know. Too much.
June 7, 2015 at 11:15 pm
"That man, Alex Roche, appears to become obsessed with Rachel, and begins to insinuate himself — sometimes by force — into every area of her life."
Jeez. That sounds like the beginning of a terrible/terrifying Lifetime movie! But I know it's par for the course in those early category romances–and in many of the billionaire romances now, to be honest. Obsessive attraction vs. stalking…sometimes, the line is VERY fuzzy.
June 8, 2015 at 1:19 pm
It's been difficult for me to know how to take some of these, honestly. I haven't read this one, but you're right that it's a common thing even now. Like the forced seduction scenes, I'm torn between being appalled and intrigued: WHY were they written that way?
June 9, 2015 at 1:18 am
I kinda like the whole "one man is the best sex of your life and that's why you're perfect together" ideal in newer HP, well really in most romance period. I'm thrilled this love triangle stuff is long gone because I hate anything that muddies the water in my relationship between H/h. The whole obsessive Hero /stalker dub con sounds hot. Not sure what that says about me.:)
June 9, 2015 at 5:03 pm
My impression was that the Superromance was supposed to be (a) longer, (b) have more normal people in it (i.e. not billionaires and sheiks) and (c) more likely to tackle issues (usually in the sense of more normal family problems than the HP-style treatment of secret babies). I could be very wrong about that, though, because I haven't read as many of them as it seemed to be the HP/Modern, Romance and Historicals which predominated in my local library/shops.
But if I am right, it might mean that the level of explicitness varied, because that wasn't a key aspect of the marketing of the line.
June 14, 2015 at 1:01 am
That last quote is amazingly realistic. You don't even read much of that now in current romances. I can't say that I would want to read this book myself, but it does appear that the author was seriously pushing some boundaries. Good for her!