Thursday, May 15, 2014
Ranting and Raving and the Art of Subtlety
Genre writers around the world have been contemplating the announcement that HarperCollins (specifically, their parent company News Corp.) has made a bid to purchase Harlequin. You can read all about the financial ramifications outlined at Dear Author here or Smart Bitches Trashy Books here. I’m not here to rehash anything that much smarter people have already said. I’m here to gripe about the dismissive coverage that screamed headlines like this “News Corp. buys “bodice ripper” publisher Harlequin”. Bodice ripper? Really? Even romance writers don’t call their novels “bodice rippers.” If any one of those feature writers had taken even five minutes to check out the romance lines that Harlequin produces, they’d notice the distinct lack of bodices and their being ripped. You’d likely find a Duke or a Navy Seal with ripped abdominals but that’s another story.
I’m not trying to be overly sensitive but the time is long past when popular romantic fiction involved any questionable plot line where forcible violence against women is acceptable. But it’s easier to take the lazy way out and drag outdated biases into the narrative. Forget about the fact that Harlequin had LONG been the money maker for TorStar (thus making it a viable asset for an entity in need of equity and/or cash) and that romance is a billion dollar industry. Yes I said billion, outstripping all other genre fiction including inspirational, mystery, science fiction/fantasy and classic literary, according to sources like Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2013 and Simba Information estimates. Somewhere out there, many men and women who discount “romance” novels owe their livelihoods to those same books being denigrated.
In a program at my local library, I discussed how romance and romantic threads throughout many works, both classics and popular, shape the narrative and add interest to their storylines. Imagine Dickens’ A Christmas Carol written without the heartfelt pathos of Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him what he gave up when he exchanged Belle’s affections for his pursuit of money. Who would want to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes if John Clayton, Lord Greystoke aka Tarzan hadn’t sacrificed his own happiness so that Jane Porter could live the life she’d been born to? What about George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones without Ned Stark’s love for Catelyn or Khal Drogo’s love for Daenerys Targaryen? Maybe John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War without John Perry and his love for Kathy manifesting itself in Jane Sagan? I could go on but the question remains--how are these tales changed without their threads of love and affection? Why are they considered literary whereas stories with predominant romantic themes are considered less than or low brow fiction?
My ire isn’t confined to literary or book reviewers but also movie reviewers. Why you ask? I’ll tell you. The Amma Assante directed movie Belle is out in theaters now, based upon the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Dido was the mixed race daughter of an aristocratic naval captain and an enslaved African woman. The interesting part of Dido’s tale begins when her father takes her to live with his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield at Kenwood House in Hampstead and asks that she be raised as if she were a daughter of the household. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Yes, Dido Elizabeth Belle lived and her true story was surely more fascinating than anything a writer living more than two hundred years later could concoct. But like all history, we don’t have the ones who were actually there to tell us about it, even if diary entries or journal accounts were left. With Dido, we have that beautiful painting of her and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray.
What we do know of Dido, the film conveys to the audience and fills in the blanks beautifully. Bruce Ingram from the Chicago Sun Times is mostly complimentary in his two and a half star review but leads his editorial with the dismay that Dido’s tale had been turned into “standard-issue romantic piffle.” Again, I say, what’s wrong with romance? Dido did indeed marry John Davinier and have children before she died young. Her husband also remarried and had more children which was considered his right and his duty. You know what women’s rights and duties consisted of in eighteenth and nineteenth century England? Getting married and having children, not going out into the world by going to college and getting jobs. Sons inherited estates, daughters had to marry to secure their places.The NewYorker offers a glowing review and makes a comparison of Austen's Elizabeth and Jane Bennet to Dido and her cousin Elizabeth. But the Boston Globe offers subtle and not so subtle disdain for the state of things even making comparisons to Merchant/Ivory in the way the storyline is constructed. Personally what I love most about Austen is that she shined a light on the all the ridiculous rules society placed upon women during her time. Yes, her novels are primers in what was correct but you’ll see that almost all her heroines are guilty of stepping outside those boundaries. Oh, sometimes it goes badly for them and how it might affect their families but she shows that even then, they didn’t want to be limited to embroidering cushions, playing the pianoforte and planting flowers. But that’s what their life was like and I can’t understand why some of the movie reviews seem to hold that against the filmmaker instead of accepting it as truth of the matter.
I saw Belle with some other lovely Janeites and we all loved it. The landscapes were lush and beautifully filmed. The dialogue was crisp and the actors all played their parts incredibly well. I thought the film, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, showed the conflicting emotions that might’ve coursed through Dido. The loneliness and ostracism caused by her inability to sit at dinner with her family, the apprehension when she encounters the London house servants and finds one of them to be a freed Black woman (since it appears the Kenwood House servants didn’t include any people of color) and the sadness at her treatment by the Ashfords and the others of the haute ton who viewed her as a curiosity. I also loved the way Assante planted the seed that Dido didn't want to be painted alongside her cousin Lady Elizabeth because of the way people of color had been portrayed in the art of her time. If you want a really wonderful visual of the way people of color are depicted in art, take a look at the tumblr blog MedievalPOC.
I’m going to see the film again, mainly because I’m on a one-woman crusade to see it stay in the theaters because we need films that show the diverse world in which we live and also because I love a good romance. Why not focus on the uplifting portion of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s life instead of acting like it didn’t happen or didn’t have the chance to happen that way?
Join my rant and tell me of books or movies that would be much less spectacular if their romantic thread were removed.