books,  history

Romance and Rape in Historical Fiction

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How would you write a romantic novel about a historical time-period where  the most likely relationship would be at best bordering on rape? Could you write a romantic novel about the love a slave owner felt for his slave mistress? What about the Biblical Abraham’s relationship with Hagar, or Dinah’s relationship with her husband?  If you smoothed out the character’s rough spots and make them loving and kind can it count as romantic, despite the women’s total lack of power or choice? Can you say that the inherent violence in the relationship doesn’t matter because that’s just a consequence of the time period and what matters is that they really love each other?

I ponder this question as I think about historical fiction in general, and the young adult novel Richard the Lionheart by Tracy Kauffman. It is a self-published book that claims that King Richard met buccaneers flying the Jolly Roger, that without the crusades Christianity would not have survived and that the Muslims were cannibals, but I’m going to leave aside those issues right now and look at the issue of historical accuracy in personality and relationships.

I remember fondly a history professor asking us not to compare the ideas in our readings with modern believes but to enter into the mentality of the time period they were written and explore them from within that. No matter how strange the ideas are from a modern perspective they were part of the evolution of western thought. “You,” he would say, “are standing on the shoulders of giants.”

I think that same idea of entering into a different era and its different sensibilities applies to historic fiction too. Love doesn’t always look the same and it isn’t always expressed the same. Sensibilities change over time. I think there would be a way for a skilled author to examine the feelings of Abraham and Hagar in a way that is respectful of the power dynamic and the emotions that could potentially exist regardless. People might accept Abraham’s love despite his actions out of a sense that within the situation in which he is placed he is acting the best he can and that the morals and ideas that bind him, however strange they might be to us must be respected. There is plenty of historical fiction that involves situations where a marriage is made for strategic purposes and yet the author finds a way to incorporate romance into it.

On the other hand there is the young adult novel Richard the Lionheart by Tracy Kauffman. Here’s a small part of one dialogue. Elezebet is talking to her roommate Mia.

“If you must know. I have been with Sir Patrick. We have been seeing one another. Please do not tell anyone that I am secretly dating a knight,” Mia begged.

“I promise. I am glad you are happy. I hope when I marry in May, that I will be as happy as you.”

“You will Elezebet, you just have to allow yourself to fall in love. You only have three months until you marry, so you better enjoy being single for a while,” Mia said.

The story isn’t about love that grows between human beings even in realistically bad situations. This is the transplanting of modern notions of love, sex and marriage into a historical context.  I’m pretty sure dating was not a term used then and having fun before one marries doesn’t seem right for the time period either. According to Judith M. Bennett’s article Writing Fornication: Medieval Leyrwite and its Historians “For medieval peasants, marriage-making was a process, a sometimes lengthy process that blurred the line between marriage and cohabitation that, if derailed, could render legitimate sexual intercourse illegitimate.” If Elezebet was engaged what she does with Richard would have likely been considered adultery, not premarital sex and it would make no sense for Mia to be recommending she enjoy her time being single.

On the other hand Judith M. Bennett’s article includes the implication that premarital sex was very much tied up with the expectation of economic gain. Certainly a character like Elezebet could have been hoping for economic gain, and perhaps that explains Mia’s reference to make use of the time before her matrimony. In that case she must have been disappointed as she is turned out of the bedroom without any gifts, perhaps in recognition that for him to hand her some sort of physical payment would be against modern sensibilities. It wouldn’t fit the notion of romance to have her accepting him for the sake of acquiring goods for the new household she will be establishing, would it?

Here’s another snippet of conversation from the book. This takes place a few pages before the previous one and is supposed to be King Richard’s friend, Prince Louis, advising him to stay away from Elezebet because Elezebet is engaged to someone else (a stranger she has not met). Richard has just pointed out that Elezebet never told him of the engagement. Louis responds:

“She wouldn’t now would she. You are a superior in her eyes. She wouldn’t dare refuse you. Even if it meant dishonoring herself and her future husband,” Louis responded.

So here there’s an acknowledgement of the power imbalance, but all this is brushed aside in the next few pages as the two have a one-night stand with Richard asking Elezebet “what do you think of me?” and her responding, “I’m here, aren’t I?” Richard takes it as an assumption she’s expressing desire for him, but in the context of the power imbalance this could also be a statement that her thoughts don’t really matter. The author misses that second meaning and plows ahead with the two of them caressing each other. The message is that it doesn’t matter if there are huge power imbalances you can still have modern sex-for-fun-and-love.

The author could of course argue that there is nothing modern about sex-for-fun-and-love. She could argue that the power imbalance would not be offensive but perhaps event tantalizing to a young woman. She would be in good company arguing that. An Oppressive Silence: The Evolution of the Raped Woman in Medieval France and England by Zoë Eckman describes how 12th to the 14th century literature brought a “return to legitimization of male force in socially approved relations between men and women” and she quotes a French poem of the 13th century that celebrated rape:

“Never would a woman dare say with her own mouth what she desires so much; but it pleases her greatly when someone takes her against her will, regardless of how it comes about. A maiden suddenly ravished has great joy, no matter what she says”.

Perhaps Ms. Kauffman’s lines about how Elezebet desired Richard’s body enough to seek out one night with him without regard for potential consequences fit with with how history has been recorded, from the perspective of the men. Does it make sense for today, to celebrate this? Literature holds within it assumptions about how things are and should be. Do you believe that a man’s desire is overwhelming and he cannot help himselves? Do you believe that women’s desire and sexuality is such the power and excitement of being with one more powerful would help override common sense? Do you believe it is okay to that a woman to be powerless to say no? Is that the romance novels you would want your daughter to read?My theory here is that if a person is going to apply modern concepts of love and relationships, we need to also apply modern concepts of rape and abuse. If she has no ability to say no, then it is rape, regardless of whether or not she says she desires him. An author can choose to bend the circumstances and allow a woman some choice in the matter, thus creating a romantic scene or the author can forgo having it romantic and acknowledge it is rape but to say that the woman simply enjoys the love is going into dangerous territory.What do you think? Are there historical fiction books that have done a particularly good job handling the portrayal of romance in different situations? Are there historical fiction books that have done a particularly bad job? Share your favorites and least favorites. Share your ideas.


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  • MamaMunky

    This doesn’t sound like historical fiction. It sounds like badly written, un-historical trash pretending to be historical fiction. I’d have stopped reading it. There are much better written stories with love and history.

  • David Lieder

    Part of me wants to defend the right of people to do what they want, read what they want, write what they want, but I agree that writers should feel a sense of responsibility about portraying relationships, especially to younger readers, and that the power issues of the past (and present) that constantly assault women are terrible. You could say that “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is about power issues, but at least the author of that book is honest about it. I think you are saying in this post that (blindly) writing about and promoting the same old ignorant and abusive stereotypes in a novel can be damaging to readers, and in the case of male/female power and abuse issues can make it harder for women to find freedom from this type of power-abusing oppression. Nice post!!

    • christyk

      Thanks for commenting!

      I definately don’t want to advocate censorship. I want writers to think about the attitudes they promote, and I also want readers to think about the attitudes they read.

      If writers don’t want to feel a sense of responsibility for how they protray relationships, I think readers should call them out on that. That’s one of the things about the internet and about amazon reviews section. We can speak to the authors, as well as the other readers or potential readers, in a way that we couldn’t before.

  • David Lieder

    One other thought is that men are also affected negatively by these types of stereotypes in novels and in culture, because it is equally true that men who dominate (or abusive men) are trapped in their own type of cage; even if they want to respect women, their own fear and society’s pressures rob them of real love and the benefits of mutual respect in a relationship.

  • Rachel Bradford

    I see it as two types of historical romance – fluffy romance in a pseudo-historical environment and historical fiction with a romantic leaning. I like to know what I’m getting before I pick up the book, of course. But if I enter into a book knowing that the point is simply romance, then I accept that the history isn’t going to be too great. Thing is, I don’t pick up books for simply romance very often, so I get disgusted when books aren’t well researched too. 🙂

    My Sunday Salon

    • christyk

      This one was advertised as having a romantic twist and being for young adults, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of research, and yet it is that label of “romantic” that makes the bad relationship stuff even more annoying.

      Fluffy romance for young adults should not be supporting the idea that its okay for the woman to not have the power to say no, she’ll love the guy anyway if he’s muscular enough.

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