Saturday, February 25, 2017

Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire - Carol Dyhouse

Despite what they say about judging books by their covers I was instantly smitten with this one - I haven't managed to determine if the image is lifted from a vintage romance or if it was created for this book, either way it's perfect.

Inside the cover is a survey of the history of women and popular objects of desire (from Byron to One Direction via the Duke of Wellington, Rudolph Valentino, Liberace, and David Cassidy - amongst others) which is both informative and exceptionally readable. 

As someone with a slightly guilty relationship with romance novels (out and proud love of Georgette Heyer, quite happy to admit to the occasional bonk buster in the Jilly Cooper mould, less comfortable owning up to a Mills and Boon habit in times of stress) I was initially particularly interested in Dyhouses take on written objects of desire.

Dyhouse however wouldn't let me get away with picking out a single strand like that, because of course that's not how it works. Musicians, actors, public figures of all sorts have always been objects of desire. I wonder after reading this which causes the most disquiet; very public and vocal expressions of desire such as Beatlemania, or the more private escape from reality that comes from burying yourself in a book (an activity that can't even be unwillingly shared) in the relative privacy of the home?

What is clear is that women's desires and fantasies are still viewed with suspicion and fear, otherwise why would romance as a genre still be so easily belittled? It's also interesting to see how an appetite for mass market romance is dismissed along class lines - as shop girl romances - as well as being categorised as particularly low brow (hence that vague feeling of guilt if I choose to spend an afternoon with a cup of tea and a Mills and Boon instead of doing something more worthy or productive. I feel no such guilt if I'm lucky enough to find an old Gainsborough film on television though).

There are interesting revelations - for instance, it had never occurred to me to wonder what men thought of Mr Darcy - it seems they're generally unimpressed (what they think of Lizzie Bennet isn't recorded). Having given it some thought it's not surprising, in many ways he's a blank canvas. I also found the discussion of rape fantasies particularly useful. It's a theme I've always been uncomfortable with whilst begrudgingly understanding the have your cake and eat it aspect of the thing. Again though, what I hadn't really considered is that because it's a fantasy, ultimately the woman imagining it stays in control - which is marginally less creepy.

It's tempting at this point to just keep on picking out things I found interesting, but it's a long, long, list. There's a lot to consider here, and it's a book that I can't recommend highly enough. 


  1. The cover is marvelous. It reminds me a bit of old make up ads.
    This sounds like a very interesting book. I don't read romance but I'm fascinated by its appeal.

    1. It's an excellent book and does a lot to explore the appeal of romance, along with what I think of as public/shared objects of desire. It's well worth a look, I'm also tempted to buy some of her previous books.

  2. I don't have a romantic bone in my body, I am afraid so that genre has not impinged upon me. I agree with Caroline about the make-up ads.

    Are you aware of this: That link looks very clunky, I hope it works.

    1. Thank you for the link, I have seen that one but not had a proper look at it. The book covers - I guess common romantic fantasies and expressions of female desire is the best way to put it. I've concentrated on how that manifests itself in books, but there's a lot about film and tv heartthrobs as well as musicians and so on. I love the cover, not least for the reminder that the woman is the focus of the fantasy.

  3. Harriet enjoyed this book too, so now I'm doubly enticed to put it on my wishlist.

    1. I found it really interesting, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it, so definitely urge you to put it on wish list.

  4. Fascinating, you've really made me think twice about this book and I'm now far more inclined to read it than before when I thought it was just a loose commentary around literary heartthrobs that the author had liked growing up. I'm also a Mills&Boon fan but would never talk about it with my friends, although as they sell something like 100 million books a year, I'm clearly not alone!

  5. It's a much more general survey than just books, and an interesting overview - definitely worth a look. She doesn't specifically discuss why some women are so reluctant to discuss their romance reading habit, but that's something else that interests me.

  6. I find your blog witty and interesting, but Georgette Heyer? Oh dear. That sleight of hand by which she imposes her High Tory, consensus based view of the Regency Era has long perturbed me. She depicts the upper class, a few tame peasants, some devoted servants, a handful of socially aspiring bourgois and a number of comic rogues.
    That has no more to do with the real UK of the Regency Era than have Bertie Wooster, yet nobody confuses Bertie Wooster with reality; yet too many Heyer admirers seem to imagine that because she portrayed the habits of the upper class of that era in great detail, her artificial construct is confused with real history in popular understanding, particularly by those not well informed about the history of the UK and the role of social class.

  7. Yes, Georgette Heyer! I've a 30 year relationship with her books which I continue to find entertaining. I find her world view intrudes rather more into her detective novels which may be one reason they're less popular but when it comes to her historical novels I disagree with you. Whilst she certainly includes lots of detail about dress, snuff, tea and the like, I consider it to be window dressing rather than any sort of social history, and doubt she intended it as more except perhaps when she describes military campaigns in detail. Otherwise she's basically conforming
    to common themes in romance (where part of the appeal is in reading about glamorous accessories).

    reading Heyer certainly encouraged me to read first Jane Austen and then Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell, Walter Scott, Byron, Caroline Lamb, Richardson, Fielding, Walpole, Radcliffe, and so on (all of whom have a roughly similar cast of characters). But even with their contemporary status they only provide background and colour to the history of the period.

    I'm also pretty sure that there are more than a few people who do confuse Bertie Wooster with reality, but I don't think that either Wodehouse or Heyer can be blamed for their readers being unable to tell the difference between romance, comedy, and history.

    I do accept that she's not everybody's cup of tea, but for me she's an excellent story teller who does some interesting things within the romance genre, I don't share her high Tory principles, but they no more stop me enjoying her books than they do Anthony Trollope's. I think we might have to agree to disagree on this one.

  8. Thank you for responding. (Winks). I sometimes say on the web, ‘I think we may have to agree to disagreee’ as shorthand for, ‘We could never reach common ground'.

    And now I can't log in! I think my PC is a Heyer fan, with a reactionary purpose...

    It is good to met someone else who has read Austen, Fielding, Burney, Gaskell, Scott, Richardson, etc. I would contend that though consensus based, they do depict a wider social basis than Heyer, ie, Gaskell the whaling and tenant farming community in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, while Austen never shows any hero higher born than Darcy, grandson of an earl.

    Whether or not we could reach agreement, I wonder if you, as an intelligent and critical reader of romance and Heyer – who doesn't subscribe to the general view of members of the ‘Romance Community’ that all criticism is unfair, would be interested in taking a small part in some research I plan? I’m only on the initial stages and there is my daughter to get through a vet med course first.

    I am interested about the emotional investment of the women reader in historical romance, and Heyer in particular. What is it that is so addictive? It seems more than entertainment. Is it a form of comfort reading – if escapism,what mechanisms operate?

    My own view is that Heyer created an imaginary Golden Age in the Regency, in reality a time of great social change and social upheaval, because by her own account she despised and felt threatened by the modern age with the rise of the meritocracy and the welfare state.

    Like Laura Vicanco, and this critic, who is a fan

    I would argue that there is a subtle ideological message on social class and sex roles (for all Sophy and Deborah) in Heyer’s Regency Romances besides the detective novels, though subtlly. It isn’t merely that she adds colour with details of dress, clubs and slang taken from the original ‘Tom and Jerry’ etc – but a social message.

    That is why the lower class characters are limited to those forelock tugging peasants in ‘A Civil Contract’ and the string of doting nurses and faithful retainers. Anyone else is depicted as contemptible, ie, the drunken blacksmith father and son in ‘The Unknown Ajax’.

    Heyer fans insist you only need to read one and you will be won over. I seem immune, having read twenty.

    I really detested ‘Devil’s Cub’ with its abusive, would be rapist hero. As for ‘The Talisman Ring’ with that pair of idiots Eustacie and Ludo Lav, that scene of purple prose, when he lay wounded and croaked out, ‘Is that a tear, little cousin? Don’t you like your cousin Ludovic?’ was so cringe making it was like Charles Garvice at his worst (I believe both Garvice and Jeffrey Farnol had an unadmitted influence on Heyer).

    I hope you will let me know.

  9. I'd be happy to talk to you about Heyer, or romance as a genre generally, my email address can be found in the view my profile bit. As far as liking Heyer go s I think you could tell after one book if you're going to like her or not, but i don't think it's a for gone conclusion that everyone should, and when a writer rubs you up the wrong way that can be pretty much it.

    I started reading Heyer when I was about 12 on the advice of my English teacher, I was obsessed with the scarlet pimpernel at the time, which is far worse when it comes to the stereotypes you mention. At that age I wasn't a particularly critical reader, and I loved 'Devil's Cub', if I was reading it for the first time now I'm not sure I'd get past wondering why anybody would think it was a good idea to pretend to be their sister in those circumstances, but as it is I don't care. I would argue that Heyer does something really interesting with rape fantasies in that book when instead of succumbing to the man we know she wants, Mary shoots him, and then continues to emasculate him by hiding his trousers. When she continues not to fall into his arms but decides instead that she can always look for a job, even though the end outcome is in no doubt, she's still messing with the conventions a bit, and again when Vidal admits he would quite cheerfully have raped Mary I think Heyer is making it very clear that this isn't okay.

    As for the social message, I don't think it's hidden, but nor do I find her world view particularly unusual or unpalatable for a woman of her vintage (my grandfather would have been in complete agreement with her). Her regency world is undoubtedly an imaginary golden age, but as her books are basically light hearted escapism I'm quite happy with that. Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh worry me more when it comes to class.

  10. I'll certainly be in touch. Thanks you. I'll have to look again for that email address.My wordpress site name keeps getting rejected.
    Baroness Orczy! Ha, Ha. I'm always meaning to read that nonsense.
    I think you make a good point that you do know soon whether a writer pleases you.
    I too, began reading Heyer at the age of 12. I didn't like the class stuff but I didn't really explore that then.
    I read 'Devil's Cub' at fourteen, and I thought a story where the heroine ends up with her would be rapist wrong, and wished she had aimed lower down.
    Certainly, it is intended as light hearted fun, and the character portrayal is shallow, but if ever there was a depiction of a woman heading starry eyed into an abusive relationship...
    That is the sleight of hand of romance - the conventions preclude that as surely as it precludes an attack of honeymoon cystitis or faeces in the streets.
    True,Heyer makes it obvious that rape is wrong (interestingly, she didn't repeat that ploy),
    I do find any story where the heroine ends up with her would be rapist repellent. There is Mr B in 'Pamela'. I was glad to find out that Richardson had later doubts about that in a letter where he says that she could only be happy 'with such a man' with an attitude of 'servile obedience' (I think that was the phrase). So much for Regis' defence of Pamela's autonomy.
    Then, he made his successful rapist lose his chance of marriage with Clarissa, as if he was alarmed at what he had done.
    The face that some feminists seek to justify the rape fantasy with talk of 'control' does disturb me. It rings hollow to me, if only because our psyches are shaped by patriarchy. A masochistic streak is surely the norm for a member of an oppressed class. Yet it is depicted as inherent by those who defend it.
    It is the current fashion to see it as a good thing at the moment; but these fashions change.
    Would I detest it if I hadn't had to resist three would be rapists, one of whom was a boyfriend? Impossible to say. I disliked that scene in 'Devil's Cub' before. There is the 'We can distinguish between fantasy and reality' argument, which I think again evades the point.
    Various readers find Heyer's social message less offensive in her historicals than her detective stories, and the historical distance aspect is usually quoted. But why can unease be set aside in one, and not in the other?
    It is escapism certainly - but it shocks me that it has led to so many readers particularly from outside the UK confusing it with reality. Can we blame her for that? Well, she may have known that would happen; she made slighting references to the average intelligence of her readership. She surely wished to extend a reactionary view of history.
    Great talking to you.

  11. Hello; it's Lucinda Elliot back, I had endless trouble with my wordpress account trying to log into google, etc. I do believe the problem is sorted out. I had to post as 'Anonymous' here before.
    Ha, Ha, would you believe I still can't find your 'contact me' details?
    I have at long last found time to write an article (with Noah Berlatsky) on Heyer's reactionary influence on popular understanding of the Regency era, but it's still with him at present, waiting for the editing pen. However, I have published a blog post on the similarities of Heyer and Kipling as good bad writers with reference to Orwell's anaysis of the seductive qualities of bad taste, and here it is:
    Watch that link not come out.

  12. Hello, Lucinda Elliot again, I was in contact with you back in the spring when gathering ideas for my proposed series of articles on Heyer's politics and her influence on public perception of the Regency UK.
    The editors at Public Books have accepted the edits on the article I sent to them, and here is the link if you're interested:

    Again, I don't think that a link is going to come out on your website, as with the former one. As to why - I am plagued by recalcitrant links. Still, as you were kind enough to give me your own opinios about the question of Heyer's making a Golden Age out of the Regency, here's the finished article.

    1. Thank you for the link, it works on notifications even if not when it’s actually published. It’s an interesting article, and obviously I disagree with almost all of it! I do agree that contemporary writers of regency romance are to ready to borrow wholesale from Heyer.

      I think it’s worth remembering that romance as a genre isn’t valued particularly highly, and also has its own set of conventions to follow, social realism not being one of them. I don’t especially want to read about chamberpots or any of the other messy, unpleasant, realities of life - I can live those and it’s not what we turn to romance for.

      I also think you’re a bit hard on Heyer the tax payer - who does enjoy paying their taxes, and post war the top tax band in the U.K. reached 95%. She undoubtedly worked hard, not just for the lifestyle she wanted but to support her brothers, mother, husband, and son as well in various ways. Her conservatism is hardly unusual for either her own time, or even now.

      Still, debate is good, and thank you for sending me the link.

    2. Just seen this.
      Thank you for reading my article. I was honoured; it got a mention by JUSTOR.
      My own view of romance is that it can never achieve literary respectability until it challanges two of its conventions - the obligatory HEA and its avoidance of realistic details, but many of its supporters take your view.
      Ha, Ha, bring on more taxes. I really wouldn't mind a higher rate of taxation myself; I think it's too low. I am sure that Heyer did not regard paying the civil list as fatuous.
      Yes, indeed; debate is always stimulating.