Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
May 23rd, 2016

Pistols and Petticoats: How Women Write the West

The myth of the frontier or the border, as perpetrated by male writers, has centered on the loner, the “fugitive from civilization,” (Smith 54) whose role is to clear the path for settlers and be the bridge between savage and civilization, yet whose synthesis with the wilderness bars him from the possibilities of a domestic life. Of the texts read in class, Louis L’Amour’s Hondo comes the closest to integrating the “Natty Bumppo/Leatherstocking/Hawkeye” archetype back into civilized society, and is also the most “feminine” of texts. Through the character of Hondo, one can see the germination of the work done by women writers of the West, who use the frontier setting and its accompanying myths in a uniquely feminine literary form.

According to statistics listed on the website for Romance Writers of America (RWA), the romance genre is a one billion dollar-a-year industry that makes up thirteen percent of adult fiction sold. It is a complex genre made up of multiple subgenres, ranging from Christian/Inspirational to contemporary to paranormal to erotic to suspense to historical to LGBT, and inside of each subgenre exists categories (and many combine subgenres or categories). Westerns are primarily considered to be a category of historical romance. Written primarily by women (the only known deviation from this is Howard Lowery, who writes Western romances under the genre neutral pseudonym Leigh Greenwood), this category of historical romance more explicitly focuses on the taming of the West alongside the “Hawkeye” character—and many flip this narrative, with the female protagonist as “Hawkeye,” or both male and female protagonists as “Hawkeyes.”

Overall, in the romance genre, the heroine is the hero. The West remains a masculine space in romance novels, with the archetypical stock characters and plots seen in male-written Western media, but the heroine drives the novel; she “is the one with choices to make, she is the one to take control, to triumph at the end,” states best-selling author Penelope Williamson in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. (Williamson 126) Williamson grants her heroines “the traits and qualities traditionally reserved for the heroes in other types of fiction: honor, loyalty, integrity, courage, intelligence, and good old-fashioned grit…she is a survivor.” (Williamson 128) These elements, and the woman writer’s view of the West as a uniquely hybridized space—feminine and masculine, “savage” and civilized/domestic—are present in the three Western romance texts discussed in this paper: Jezebel by Katherine Sutcliffe (1997), Fair Is the Rose by Meagan McKinney (1993), and Fall From Grace by Megan Chance (1997).

As is common with the genre, all three novels take place within the decade after the Civil War—1870 Texas, 1875 Wyoming, and 1876 Texas/Mexico respectively—, a period before the so-called closing of the west, or end of the frontier, as Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill’s individual narratives at the turn-of-the-century claimed. Sutcliffe’s Jezebel conceptualizes the West as a hell on earth, an area where white Americans reside to escape the laws of civilization and society, and where they can only remake and refashion the land and the people through violence.

The male protagonist, Rafael de Bastistas, is referred to throughout the novel as a walking dead man; his narrative directly mirrors that of William Blake in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in that an unexpected encounter with violence turns a meek farmer into “Hawkeye” or “Hondo.” The female protagonist, Charity Bell, has been brutalized by the West and her attempts to tame it. When the story opens, she is widowed, pregnant, and on the verge of insanity.

The initial meeting of Rafe and Charity echoes Hondo’s meeting with Angie Lowe and Johnny: Rafe delivers the delirious Charity’s son when he takes shelter from a snowstorm in her house, and is diverted from his quest for revenge when he is forced to care for the newborn. In this opening, both the landscape—the snowstorm—and civilization—a helpless newborn baby—conspire to force the protagonists to merge both elements in order to survive on the frontier.

In contrast, gender roles in McKinney’s Fair Is the Rose are flipped. Christabel (Christal) Van Alan escapes West after breaking free of the insane asylum to which she’d been wrongly committed, and her stagecoach is held up by a ruthless gang of ex-Confederates turned outlaws. Initially, the male protagonist, Macaulay Cain, is presented as a cold-blooded outlaw, but he is eventually revealed to be a U.S. Marshal. Civilization has brutalized Christal, and where Cain yearns to leave the West behind, she finds her own form of justice in the frontier. McKinney also presents a more multicultural and multi-ethnic West than Sutcliffe, as well as other texts read in class: not only ex-Confederates and ex-Union soldiers (with an on page appearance of Ulysses S. Grant), but African-Americans and Native Americans, exist in her concept of the frontier.

Chance presents the most violent West in Fall From Grace, and the romance that most explicitly falls in line with Williamson’s argument of the romance heroine as hero. Lily Tremaine is orphaned by an outlaw gang, who adopt her and mold her into a ruthless, sexless killer. The gang leader’s son, Christian “Texas” Sharpe, later marries her. There is something ironic in Chance’s narrative that Texas, a fellow gunslinger, attempts to tame Lily through such a civilized concept as marriage, and that it is Texas’s sheltered half-sister, Jocelyn, who is the key element in bringing Lily out of the frontier—bodily and mentally. At the same time, Jocelyn undergoes a transformation when her desire to experience the frontier as Lily has, draws her away from domesticity. In the end, Lily is akin to the Uncas character, while Jocelyn has become a “white Indian” through her experiences in the West.

In the Western romance, as presented by female writers for a primarily female audience, the frontier myth is strong, particularly Turner’s thesis that the West was “‘free land’ into which the pioneers moved [and] was available for the taking, and that American progress began with a regenerative retreat to the primitive, followed by a recapitulation of the stages of civilization.” (White) All three novels end in some degree on a farm, with little interrogation as to how it is be acquired, but with the implication that it—domesticity through landownership and homesteading—is necessary for a believable romantic ending.

After Rafe has succeeded in his quest for vengeance against the men who murdered his family and left him for dead, he returns to Charity’s homestead to marry her and finish cultivating the land. Christal clears her name of the murder she’d been committed for, leaves her wealthy family, and returns West with Cain. Lily leaves the outlaw gang behind after a disastrous train robbery nearly gets the entire gang killed, and after living in Mexico for a year, returns to Texas and Jocelyn to fulfill their mutual dreams of settling down and running a farm (in this novel, their outlaw habits die hard—they plan to rustle cattle to start their ranch).

Unlike James Fenimore Cooper, who struggled to make Natty Bumppo into a hero of a romance, Western historical romance novelists of the 20th and 21st century do not necessarily work hard to place the white Indian/Hawkeye/hunter character in a romantic narrative. It could be the distance of time—1870 is far from 1997, and especially far from 2015, when compared to Cooper writing about the 1750s in the 1820s.Or, as I believe, it is the changing role and experiences of women that plays a part with this ease. Contrasting the Michael Mann adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) to the 1936 version reveals that the increasing agency the heroine (Cora Munro) and the audience’s changing perception of women on the frontier, makes Hawkeye’s position as a romantic hero easier to write.

The agency of the heroine, and the construction of the hero as open to love and domesticity, turns the frontier into a hybridized space in the Western romance. More recent texts, such as Genevieve Turner’s Las Morenas series, and Beverly Jenkins’s Destiny trilogy, further hybridize the frontier through a multiethnic cast of characters (both series’ take place in turn-of-the-century California, with a Mexican-American family and an African-American/Mexican-American family, respectively), thus increasing agency for marginalized communities and restoring them to their place in the frontier myth.

This isn’t to say there are no problematic elements similar to those seen in Cooper or L’Amour, or in the myths perpetuated by Turner and Buffalo Bill. Similar imagery—covered wagons, dangerous Indians, white women in peril, fears of and the presence of miscegenation (Hawkeye’s constant declaration of being a “man without a cross” and the futility of the pairing of Uncas and Cora), etc, are passed down through time and disseminated across many Western romances. However, the adherence to a hybridized space in the West purposefully molds this imagery and the myth of the frontier to create a satisfying romantic ending that often pulls the protagonists out of an historical reality to formulate its own myth about the West.

In the hands of women writers, the West is where Hawkeye type characters are allowed a domestic life, whether they be female or male. In most—if not all—Western romances, the fugitive from civilization is the most acceptable romance protagonist of all. “Hawkeye” redeems and is redeemed through love and romance, and s/he actively yearns for domesticity. For women, the frontier myth is not masculine and white/European. Women and ethnic groups are permitted to undergo the transformation into “true Americans,” while preserving the hybridization that allows them to escape the “urban wormdom [that] seemed the inevitable destiny of most Americans.” (White) It also isn’t restricted to male/female romantic relationships, as seen in Chance’s novel. Ultimately, freedom, independence, and autonomy, as conceived by women writers in Western romance, is not built solely through the experiences on the frontier, but built through love.

Works Cited

Chance, Megan. Fall From Grace. New York: Harper, 1997. Print.
Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print
McKinney, Meagan. Fair Is The Rose. New York: Island Books, 1993. Print.
Ramsdell, Kristin. Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012. Print.
“Romance Industry Statistics.” Romance Writers of America. RWA. 2014. Web. 13 June 2015.
Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.
Sutcliffe, Katherine. Jezebel. New York: Jove, 1997. Print.
Wendell, Sarah and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Print.
White, Richard. “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill”

September 17th, 2013

Historical Romance Week: Kaia Alderson – My Search for Historical Heroines Who Look Like Me

Historical Romance Week

I have been a historical romance junkie since I stole my mother’s copy of Proud Breed by Celeste De Blasis when I was 10 years old. My mother, seeing that I had enjoyed the book I had “borrowed” so much, then turned me on to De Blasis’s Wild Swan series (which spans from Regency England through the U.S. Civil War and ends at the dawn of the 20th Century). Those books pretty much sealed the deal on me becoming not only a historical romance fan, but a junkie of all things historical for life.

Buffalo Soldiers Then my father gave me a copy of When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis when I was 12. (You mean there was more to African-American history than the slave ships and picking cotton? What!) I think I devoured that book in two days. My father then told me the stories behind Bob Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier” and about other famous black people in the Old West like Wild Bill Pickett. From that point on, my trips to the local bookstore resulted in a variety of African-American history books and historical romances mixed in with my monthly Sweet Valley High fix. However, it never occurred to me to question why there weren’t any historical romances about women who looked like me. (Note: I am African-American.)

Winds of the Storm by Beverly Jenkins I stopped reading for fun while I was in college. As a result, I missed the very short lived “boom” of African-American historical romance authors in the mid-to-late 1990s: Jane Archer, Anita Richmond Bunkley, Gay Gunn, Shirley Hailstock, Beverly Jenkins and Mildred Riley. Luckily, I discovered Beverly Jenkins’s books in 2002. Reading her work re-ignited my forgotten addiction to historical romance. And what made Jenkins’s books so great was that she merged all of my reading addictions into each story she wrote.

I began hunting for other books like hers with a vengeance and came up with nothing. By that time, she was the only from that original group who was still publishing African-American historical romance. All those other novels were out-of-print. A few titles by other authors have been published in the eleven years since then. But, Beverly Jenkins is the only author who has been consistently publishing African-American historical romance to this day. So unlike my teen-aged self, I began wondering why there weren’t more historical romances about women who looked like me.

I informally asked some African-American authors about this lack of historical romances about us. The typical response was along the lines of “I’d like to write one but I don’t have time to do the research.” I am an aspiring author myself and I also came to the same conclusion.

Then, I had a conversation with one of my girlfriends about the portrayal of African-American women in reality television shows that somehow turned into a discussion about young African-American girls not knowing their history. After about 45 minutes of listening to me ramble off a litany of obscure facts about the accomplishments of African-American women during the first half of the 20th century, Heather stopped me. “Why aren’t you writing all this stuff down? This is what you should be writing about in your stories.”

I couldn’t use the “I don’t have time to do the research” excuse anymore. I realized that I had already done much of it during my teenage years (And I had done all that research for fun, no less). So thanks to Heather and a few other influences, I currently have three African-American historical romances in progress with settings as varied as 1920s France, 1910s Washington, DC and World War II era New York.

Yes, I’m now doing my part to help fertilize this romance subgenre desert by working on my stories. But that does nothing to satisfy me as a reader. And then that conversation about African-American girls not knowing their history continued to bother me. This is why I recently started a weekly blog called Aren’t I A Heroine?, the purpose of which is to talk about African-American women’s historical romance with other readers, to serve as an educational resource about African-American women’s history in general, and to encourage other authors to write more of the stories I love to read.

If you have any interest in reading or writing in these kind of romances, I have your back. A group of us readers have compiled a list of over 150 black historical romances and black women’s fiction this past summer. The blog contains information about the different settings, historical events and women who inspired these stories. There are references provided to get over that research hump as well as plot bunnies based on real-life romances. What more could you want?

Biography: Kaia Alderson is the self-proclaimed Head Historical Geek over Aren’t I A Heroine?, a weekly blog about African-American historical romance. Her favorite periods in African-American history are the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance. She is a graduate of Spelman College and the University of West Georgia. When she is not exploring all the historical landmarks she can find in the southeastern United States, you can find her either reading a book or writing one. You can contact her at aahistoricalheroine [at] gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter @KaiaWrites

September 15th, 2013

Historical Romance Week: Emma Barry – Ceci N’est Pas Une Histoire

Historical Romance Week

I fell in love with romance reading books written during or set in centuries before this one. First there were nineteenth-century novels like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (an aside: I’m not certain you can love both Austen and the Brontes, but that’s another post entirely). Then, about three years ago, I picked up Loretta Chase, Joanna Bourne, and Susanna Kearsley and I was done for.

I realized I had been reading for romance almost my entire life, I just hadn’t been reading genre romance. Giving myself permission to do so was like cutting out the middleman. Since then I have discovered (and even written) contemporary romance, but historical romance is the core of the genre for me.

In this essay, I want to argue several perhaps contradictory things about the allure of historical romance: 1) you’re not going to learn much about history reading it; 2) that’s okay; but 3) what you do learn is precisely what’s left out of the history books, and that’s what makes the genre significant.

My belief about why readers don’t learn history from historical romance is not the usual one. While there is undoubtedly such a thing as the wallpaper historical, and while it may have proliferated in recent years, I don’t think the absence of history or politics from historical romance is at fault for the inability of the genre to instruct.

In other words, I’m not arguing that historical romance should be more like historical fiction. If anything, I find the genre’s anti-didacticism to be one of its greatest assets. Rather, the culprit is the difficulty of recognizing and moving beyond the unarticulated aims and attitudes of our culture.

Implicit, diffuse, but prevailing cultural beliefs make translation difficult in the history classroom, in professional scholarship, or in our pleasure reading. It’s the problem the fish has in describing the water in her bowl. It’s the way we have difficulty seeing the historicity of a picture taken a few moments ago but no difficulty seeing it in a picture taken twenty years ago. Because we aren’t aware of our own historicity we can’t begin to see, let alone understand, the tacit dreams, rules, and desires of another culture.

Consider a middle-class reader in the contemporary United States reading a romance between two aristocrats in Regency England, either a text written in 1815 or one written in 2013 and set in 1815. Between the reader and the characters there are differences in the structure of government, in social class, in geography, in attitude toward race and colonization, in economic structure, etc.

Even when seeming similarity exists, the gulf is wide. Yes, everyone involved may speak English, but “to blink” had a different meaning in Austen’s time than in ours; eighteenth-century Protestants emphasized different stories about the life of Christ than those of today; and so on. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but at some point, these details add up to different worldviews. It’s not apples and oranges: it’s apples and buses, where one party can’t begin to imagine buses.

In my experience, people are optimistic about their ability to overcome cultural or historical boundaries. They believe that a trip to Colonial Williamsburg will teach them something about life in late eighteenth century America — never mind that the smells have been sterilized and the gardens aestheticized and the racial politics sanitized.

At some level, I find this faith that understanding can overcome any impediment delightful, but it is naïve. To truly make the connection, we not only have to understand and describe the water in our own bowl, which we all too often don’t, but we have to comprehend how it distorts the water in the bowl of the fish two shelves over.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. We should watch foreign films, read books in translation, and wrestle with history. We should definitely read and write historical romance, but we need to be clear about the limits of this epistemology in addition to its horizons.

One such horizon is the potential of historical romance to amend History proper (capitalization so definitely intended). Even post-feminism and post-post-colonialism, the teaching of history in the secondary and even undergraduate classroom can be shockingly limited. We’re still largely telling students stories about Great Men, who, it just so happens, tend to be white and dead and rich and straight and able-bodied and cis-gendered and male (but I already mentioned that last part). Women, people of color, and the working classes show up more than they did pre-Howard Zinn, but in almost deliberately marginalized ways. Women’s history month, where we celebrate the things Betsy Ross probably never did, makes me want to scream.

Indigo by Beverly Jenkins But this is precisely where historical romance does interesting, imaginative work. To pick just one example, in Beverly Jenkins’ Underground Railroad romance Indigo, Hester and Galen have the following exchange early in the text.

“You have beautiful hands, Hester Wyatt. They’re like exotic indigo orchids.”

Hester could only swallow.

“You’re shaking,” he stated.

For the first time Galen could see that the smallest finger on her hand had no nail. It appeared to have been severed. He gently moved his own finger over the shortened digit and asked softly, “What happened here?”

“My mother did this a few days after I was born. She and my father hoped it would make me distinctive enough to be found by my aunt.”

Descriptions of bodies are de rigueur in romance, but here, Hester’s stained and maimed hands communicate a history that is at once personal and collective; they add dimension and texture to History, and they enter a broader literary conversation with novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Even the most staid and conventional Regency or Victorian romance is insightful about the state of upper middle class marriage in the period, a sort of nineteenth-century version of The Feminine Mystique.

When I read women’s letters and diaries from the early Victorian period, there can be an emotional dullness vis-à-vis the writers’ marriages all the more striking for its banality. What historical romance writers capture is the utter wrongness of a system that insists one party to the relationship be by definition the intellectual and emotional inferior to the other.

This is particularly important when we’re talking about intimate relationships because we have less direct information about them that we do about, say, treaty negotiations. In some cases, the evidence about sex, love, and marriage doesn’t get recorded at all. In many others, what we have is highly edited. In every case, we’re filtering what we know through those often unarticulated cultural values (theirs and ours).

Whether we’re scholars or romance readers or both, we’re analyzing what we have imaginatively. I don’t see why fiction can’t be an important mode for that process. In Indigo, Jenkins subjectifies the historical understandings we bring to the text. She and other historical romance writers are adding dimension and weight to history. However, we must always remember what we’re gaining is a charcoal study. It’s a metaphor for the past (which, yes, I’m explaining via metaphor).

Rene Magritte - This is not a Pipe Think of Rene Magritte’s famous painting The Treachery of Images, a painting of a pipe labeled, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. This is not history.

The treachery of representation is that when the process of creation is forgotten or obscured, all the ways it can be manipulated are lost. To forget representation is to forget its limits, to buy the myth of objectivity. In the case of metaphors, it’s to lie about either or both of the things being metaphorized. Difference, texture, and reality itself are causalities of metaphor.

I won’t indict the rest of you with the “we” here, but speaking for myself alone, all too often in historical romance I forget or read over the process of representation. I need Brecht to goose my understanding because I get lulled into complacence by successful writers.

Historical romance is not history – and that’s what’s wonderful about it. History is rarely going to tell us much about the subjective experience of individuals, particularly women. Historical romance, like mortar, seeks to fill in the considerable space between the stones, to give details that might be true. While there is much potential for emotional knowledge in this pursuit, we must always remember what we’re looking at. It is not a pipe, and that’s fantastic.

Biography: Emma Barry is a novelist and full-time mama and graduate student. Her first novel, Brave in Heart, a historical romance set during the American Civil War is available now. She loves hugs from her toddler twins, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, and Earl Grey tea. Learn more about her here or follow her on Twitter @AuthorEmmaBarry