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The Haunt: The Valentine`s Day Special (10 Feb 2016)
From Romance to romance: Gothic tropes in Harlequin Mills & Boon novels
By Val Derbyshire
Everybody knows there’s a big difference between the “Romances” of Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve, Eliza Parsons et al and the “romances” of Harlequin Mills & Boon. The first you are proud to be seen reading on the bus; the second you feel slightly ashamed of reading in the privacy of your own home, behind a locked door and possibly hiding under the bedcovers at the same time. Yet, are they so very different? There’s a case to be made, I feel, for a relationship between “Romance” and “romance”, and one of the ways they can be linked is in the gothic tropes that both rely upon to develop their stories.
With a restricted word count, the Mills & Boon modern romance author’s job is to ensure that the hero and heroine are manoeuvred into the position where all they can do is fall in love. It’s the only acceptable outcome in these novels. Rendering the heroine alone, helpless and utterly reliant upon the hero for help and support is one way which many HM&B authors use in order to outmanoeuvre their heroines and ensure they spend enough time with the hero for them to fall in love. Bestselling HM&B author Penny Jordan wrote 187 romances for the company, mainly in the modern romance genre. There are very few of her works where the heroine has a complete set of parents to rely upon. Instead, the heroine’s parents will frequently be wiped out in a variety of accidents/unfortunate events including: plane crashes, aeroplanes being struck by lightning, sinking yachts, outbreaks of disease and, once, a freak wave accident; thus rendering the heroine completely alone and (Emily St. Aubert-like) at the mercy of the machinations of whichever villain happens to arrive on the scene.
Sometimes the villains are heroes in disguise. Consider the following: it’s 1982 and in Penny Jordan’s Mills and Boon romance Blackmail, the heroine, Lee, is a modern woman with a job as a wine buyer for a large supermarket. Everything is going just fine in her life until she visits the Château de la Comte Gilles on a wine purchasing expedition. It’s just the sort of expedition she’s done hundreds of times. Nothing can go wrong... Right?
Wrong. The Château is like no place Lee has ever visited before. A vast rambling mansion, she quickly loses her bearings and finds herself exploring increasingly ramshackle rooms with crumbling furniture stored under covers. The owner of the castle, the Comte Gilles, is also like no man she has ever met before. Dark and brooding, he is harsh and critical of Lee to the extent that she is soon living in fear of him. Within the course of the first chapters, Lee has somehow stumbled from the safety of the aisles of Tesco into the otherworldly provinces of Ann Radcliffe’s classic Gothic Romance of 1794, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Before long, the Comte has blackmailed Lee into marrying him and is virtually holding her prisoner in his castle. He even speaks to her like a Radcliffean villain. When she argues with him, he shouts: “Silence! You go too far! Do you goad me because I refuse to join you in the gutter? Be careful that I do not teach you the real meaning of degradation!” (Jordan, Blackmail, Chapter 3). Indeed, he is so cruel and abusive that this renders the nature of the romance in this romantic novel somewhat problematic. Initially, he seems just too harsh and forbidding as a character to be a true romantic hero. He consciously models himself upon a previous count who kidnapped his bride and held her captive until she came to love him (criminal tendencies obviously run in the family). He even has a horse affectionately named “Satan”.
However, it’s a Mills & Boon, so, of course, love will find a way; and despite the Comte’s bullying, humiliation and threats, he will eventually prove himself to be the true romantic hero when Lee is really in danger. The true villain in the tale proves to be the Comte’s housekeeper who really doesn’t want Lee on the scene. In a desperate attempt to be rid of her for good, she locks Lee in the wine cellars, telling her that no matter how much she shouts for help, no one will hear her imprisoned within the bowels of the castle. Lee’s fate, it seems, is one familiar to many Radcliffean female characters: to be immured for all time in a cold, dank cellar/cave, and be forgotten. Fortunately, however, Gilles, realising that he cannot bear to lose Lee, searches for, and finds her in a dramatic (and romantic) rescue attempt, thus redeeming himself and paving the way towards the essential happy ending. The novel concludes with Gilles promise: “You’ll never wake up anywhere ever again except in my arms.” Of course, given his past behaviour, this could all too easily be construed as a threat.
Fast forward to 1995, and one of Jordan’s many offerings for that year was An Unforgettable Man. The story is as follows: Courage (a misnomer if ever there was one) gives up her highly paid, high-flying job in the hotel industry to return home to Dorset to look after her ailing Gran. Needing money for her Gran’s operation, she accepts a job with Gideon Reynolds (a man she admits to being afraid of from the beginning) and also accepts a loan from him to pay for her Gran’s surgery. Now Courage is very romantic at heart and has secretly cherished a dream romance with a man she encountered almost accidentally in a summer house when she was 16. This man (the gardener’s assistant) had kissed her believing her to be someone else and she had immediately fallen in love with him (although he, unfortunately got the sack after their tryst was discovered).
A decade or so later and Courage thinks there might be something familiar about Gideon (hmm... what can it be?). Well, when he kisses her, she realises: the last time she didn’t see him was in a summer house in the pitch black, doing something very similar. Gideon, unfortunately, has realised who she is from the very beginning and is out to punish her (for getting him the sack from that coveted job of gardener’s assistant). His mode of punishment is not nice at all and makes for some very uncomfortable reading.
There are a lot of things going on in this book, but Jordan also does something which I’ve never noticed her do before and which links her work to eighteenth-century Romances: she puts herself in the novel. The novel features an older, much wiser woman (“Jenny”) who eventually saves Courage from Gideon’s machinations. Jenny gives Courage all kinds of advice and insight into how she feels as an older woman and I couldn’t help but compare it to the novels of Charlotte Turner Smith (a writer of Romances during the eighteenth-century) who often placed herself in her novels in the role of giving advice to the benighted heroine. It is one further illustration of how the gap between the respected “Romance” of earlier times and “romance” with a small “r” which is often viewed as trash, is not really so wide.