The Book Stops Here: Regency Rape
It’s been awhile since I’ve had the chance to really devour and enjoy books.
Reading’s always been the most comforting hobby. Growing up, my godmothers and dad instilled the idea of reading. And it’s easy, time-consuming hobby where I learn things. Authors like Jo Beverley and Courtney Milan offer tidbits of history in the notes section, letting me explore with a few tantalizing leads.
Beverley’s death shook me. She was my go-to for really well written romance novels and the reason I found people like Milan and Tessa Dare. Gateway into amazing writers, really. The beginning genre love began a bit earlier however. I discovered romance novels around the same time I moved beyond Sweet Valley High (so probably around age 11). My elder godmom had stacks and stacks of bodice rippers. Turns out that was much more appealing than the other godmom’s horrors or my dad’s patriotic spy novels. I would sit in my closet, flash light on, and read the various novels until late into the night. A born book nerd.
But one thing always stood out in the romance genre, though. I never liked the rape trope.
As a young kid, I still knew consent was important. (Hey, 1980s daytime television did serve a purpose after all!) Crucial to not only create a couple worth rooting for, but even more important in letting a woman choose her own fate. Bev’s Ladies are strong-minded, agency-filled masterpieces. Probably inaccurate of the time, given the lack of rights for women until the mid-to-late 1800s, but still enjoyable. The women can and do say no. They have self-determination in not only their romance partners but their life decisions.
These are not simpering cardboard cut-outs working as wish-fulfillment creations. Dare’s Spinster Cove series is set around a group of young debs and women who aren’t willing to settle or lose their personality for the sake of family duty. I love that! I will read it every time. And The Governess Affair by Milan is absolutely a leader in how to write a survivor who doesn’t believe in losing herself. Instead she stays in the front, to remind her abuser, and sets up a great role model for future children.
Facedown in the dirt…
So all that lead up is why I had to put a book down nearly 20 pages in.
I love my local library, but there’s one issue I have: all the fiction is lumped in by alphabetic name. It’s annoying to locate favorite writers, but sometimes I find new ones. This summer I’m in a food murder mystery mood. (I love, love Cleo Coyle’s work.) Occasionally I want to read something else, though. Something with a little more social decoration. I happened to stroll down an aisle and see Total Surrender on the shelf. A Regency romance with a little intrigue and house parties? So there!
Now I wish I had returned it after I checked it out. (Always listen to your instincts.)
See the problem is simple: it’s a combination of the naïve ingénue being sexually assaulted by a guy without bothering to ask for consent and the damsel in distress by a loutish male relative. The ‘hero’ assumes things without asking and gets mad when the situation isn’t as planned.
Nope, that’s not erotic romance. Kit Rocha is erotic romance. Cheryl Holt’s work is nothing more than a rake without any kind of redeeming qualities. Readers are given insight into a lot of inner monologue, etc., but it’s missing any kind of connection between the two lead characters.
All I felt for Lady Sarah was a bone-deep tiredness at her life and annoyance at a lack of development or layers. She’s 25, apparently never bathed without a chemise, and doesn’t know how her body works. I’m not saying that she needs to be sexually aware, but in all her life, she’s never rubbed against her nipples while wearing layers and layers of cloths?
There’s something really unfinished from her. Like a dressmaker’s dummy with a half-completed dress in the wrong size. While I enjoy reading layers when the couple gets together, I’d like to have some idea of the woman in question beyond a dutiful daughter.
Instead Michael, the romantic lead, takes something very precious (her agency) and is angry at everyone for conspiring instead of easily concluding he was being a jackass. She has to point it out since he’s under the impression that he’s the victim. Male entitlement isn’t particularly endearing.
Stop it, authors!
I rarely put a book down unfinished, even if I just skip parts, but I couldn’t continue. Skimming several pages throughout the book showed a lack of character growth. Very paint-by-the numbers. I won’t be reading the author again. Yet it’s certainly not the first time I’ve come across these kind of tropes. It’s why I’m so careful in authors I consider worth reading. I want women with layers, with vulnerabilities and weaknesses that support their arc—not the romantic lead’s. I stopped reading a lot of authors for this reason, actually. I couldn’t handle the constant need to make the women weak to help propel the men.
Writers, remember that fridge’s weren’t even around in 1812! Don’t use them! It’s a lazy route to make a couple. Let the women have their personalities outside the male’s viewpoint. Needless to say, on Goodreads the book earned one star. I don’t like starring down, but I think sexual assault’s a damn good reason for discontinuing a book.
And others may find it useful, too.
Bev’s rakes have a very twisted edge at times—running a line between good and bad. But they’re layered. It doesn’t feel as painful to watch the women vacillating between arousal and anger. Accountability is a thing. Use it. Bury the trope and let women shine. If a man needs to have a dick measuring contest, there’s always cards without making a bet on a woman.
Spar at Jackson’s, piss away horses, or have duel over not paying a debt back. Not thrilled with the horses bit but at least it’s not a woman’s security in a pretty fucked up world. A world where a woman wonders “have you wagered me away” (5) to the person who controls their social position and physical security.
Authors: remember that the characters are meant to entice readers. Not make one recoil in horror at the treatment. That a relative knowingly sends a woman to a party meant for indiscriminate sex all for a lark and lack of care. Not exactly endearing. In a world where doctors are able to practice without facing consequences of sexual assault, it’s good to have characters who do get justice.