In May, I traveled with my mother to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; in addition to Hamlet, and some other fine plays, we saw Ruined by Lynn Nottage. From the time I saw the title on Mom’s itinerary, I had historical romance in my head. Then I saw the play, which is about women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, raped and abused by soldiers on both sides in the civil war. These women are cast off by their families, rejected by their husbands, considered unmarriageable and therefore unwanted, because their treatment at the hands of men has damaged them — their genitals are literally ruined, torn apart beyond function. It’s a violent, painful play, and it really made me think about “ruin” as a device in historical romance.
Of course in most romance novels, “ruin” applies to a woman’s reputation or her virginity. Rarely do we see in romance the kind of violence that results in the ruin of a woman’s body. But while the degree is less, the concept is similar — a woman’s value rests in her reputation and marriageability. “Compromised” women trying to salvage their reputations or contract marriages are a staple of historical romance; social ruin is the fate that awaits them if they cannot.
I had real trouble reading historical romance that seriously featured the idea of social ruin for several months after seeing Ruined. I actually preferred books that treated the idea somewhat light-heartedly, because it was hard for me as a reader to put my head in a place where mere social ruin was something serious. There are a couple of books I will probably need to try again when my head’s in a different place. It wasn’t that I thought they were bad books, they just really weren’t books I could read at the time.
Two books were notable exceptions; each features the threat of the heroine’s social ruin quite prominently, and yet I enjoyed them. In both books, the heroine chooses to be in a (very) compromising situation, but the man with whom she is caught has set up the discovery in order to force her into marriage. And in both books the heroine resists being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want by the (very real) threat of social ruin for herself and shame for her family. There was a joy in watching these heroines make their own choices and work out their own happiness in the shadow of ruin that reminded me how uplifting Ruined was too, in the end.
The first of these books was A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl. It opens with a bold, original scene: a young women being deflowered, and wishing the gentleman on top of her would just get it over with. This is our heroine, Marissa; fascinated by men’s bodies, intrigued by the hints of sexual pleasure she has experienced, she engages in sex and then is disappointed by the experience. Even more disappointing is the realization that her partner in this encounter is determined that they must marry as a result. Indeed, this was his plan all along.
Almost as refreshing as Marissa’s honest curiosity about sex is her refusal to marry just because she has been compromised. If she must marry (that is, if she is pregnant as the result of this disappointing experience), she will not marry the man responsible. Fortunately her family agrees, once they learn that it was a scheme to trap her into marriage. Jude, a friend of her brother’s volunteers to marry her if necessary, and the rest of the book is devoted to Marissa finding her feelings for Jude while they work together with her family to defeat a blackmailer who threatens to expose Marissa’s ruin.
Marissa is a bit shallow at the beginning of the book, but Dahl uses her to invert a fairly standard romance device. We often encounter a hero in romance who choose women based on certain physical standards of beauty, and who has to learn that the heroine who doesn’t meet those standards is nevertheless the woman he loves; in the process, he usually acknowledges that his original criteria were shallow. Marissa goes through this same process, coming to realize that while Jude does not meet her ideal of male beauty and charm, he is in fact better for her than the men who do. Along the way, she learns and grows, but she also calls into question the double standard of gender expectations:
My God, how stupid she’d been. How foolish and reckless. It must have been the wine. Yes, the wine. And the fine cut of Peter White’s new coat. And as he’d danced, his trousers had tightened over his thighs, revealing ever line of their … elegance.
Men’s legs were just so lovely. Slim and strong and exposed in a way that ladies’ legs never were. How could they expect that girls should not be affected by the sight? Gentlemen obviously intended to be admired, the way they flashed their thighs about, hardly covered at all in the tight cloth of their trousers.
What hypocrites they were, showing off their bodies and expecting her not to look. Or touch.
Marissa’s determination to marry a man to whom she is attracted is not unusual in romance, but her focus on what makes a man attractive to her, and her determination to have sexual pleasure, are definitely outside the norm. Even though she regrets being compromised, it is the lack of pleasure in the experience and the potential for social ruin that she really regrets. Yet even faced with that potential, she remains determined to get happiness from her situation, rather than taking the socially acceptable option of marrying the man who compromised her.
In A Season of Seduction by Jennifer Haymore, the initial situation is similar. Rebecca is a widow; she isn’t interested in marrying again, but she is interested in a sexual liaison with a man. She expects to begin a no-strings arrangement with Jack, meeting him at a discreet hotel, but they are discovered just before consummating their plans. Rebecca does not know that Jack arranged for them to be caught because he wants to marry her for her money. Nonetheless, she refuses to succumb to the obvious pressure to marry in order to save her reputation.
Rebecca risks her version of ruin because she has already been married once for money and social position (and revenge). She hadn’t planned t0 marry again at all, and although she agrees to consider marrying Jack, she is not prepared to sacrifice her independence to save her reputation and social standing. She insists on getting to know Jack, and when she does agree to marry him, it is for love, not just to avoid ruin. Of course Jack comes to love her as well, but he pays a hefty price for his manipulation when she eventually learns of it.
Rebecca’s effort to have sexual pleasure without marital entanglement is more focused and informed than Marissa’s. Marissa is exploring new territory, while Rebecca is trying to revisit familiar pleasure without the loss of freedom and of self that she experienced in her unhappy marriage. She is willing to accept social ruin to avoid ruin of another kind.
Oh, Lord. Perhaps it made her selfish beyond endurance, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t ruin her life yet again. Not even to show the world that she could hold her head high and take responsibility for her sins. Not even to end a scandal. Not even because this man could give her a life-altering orgams with just a few strokes of his fingers….She couldn’t traipse into marriage knowing she had so little understanding of the man she shackled herself to.
Rebecca will eventually have to forgive the man who compromised her in order to marry for love, while Marissa can continue to hate the man who tried to ruin her. Haymore’s book focuses more on working out the complexity of that central relationship, and how Rebecca can ever trust Jack enough to marry him, while Dahl’s is more concerned with Marissa learning to accept a man who embraces her “wicked” side, who stirs her sexually and emotionally, but who views her with sometimes brutal honesty.
I certainly don’t want to overstate the similarity between these two books, but what really struck me was the way that both heroines resisted the obvious solution to their plight and looked for alternatives that would allow them to avoid the automatic price associated with sexual/social ruin. Their willingness to separate sex from love, and to assess their personal worth in terms that challenge the standard values of their society, reminded me (in gentler, safer terms) of the bravery and resourcefulness demonstrated by the Congolese women in Ruined.