Lucinda Elliot

Escapism and Empowerment

The Female EunuchToday, I’m going to rant a bit (did I hear you say ‘So what’s new?).

I came across some criticism in a feminist ezine that really dismayed me because it took the same sort of line as overtly sexist males.


Now, I know full well that there are all sorts of extreme opinions expressed on the web, and no doubt there are blogs out there advocating wife beating. If these comments had been made on an individual blog, I’d have passed them by with shrug. It’s because they were published on a feminist ezine that I am unpleasantly surprised.

As this remark – which seems to have gone unchallenged for two years – is part of a criticism of some opinions about literature expressed by Germaine Greer in ‘The Female Eunuch’, published some forty-five years ago, no less, I’d better explain why I think it matters, and the background to my interest in the issue.

I’ve been doing some research on romance reading and women’s oppression. I’m sure regulars will have noted that my own view is steadily moving towards a conviction that it is a contributory factor, at least in its curernt format. Should it embrace conditional Happy Ever Afters, and more realism, then there might yet be room for a lot of optimism.

Now, when I get into something, I out-Geek all Geekishness. I go into things deeply, even if it’s torture (and believe me, some of the reading I’ve had to  do for this has been; still, it’s self inflicted; I’ve only myself to blame).

So, I began my background research by reading some of the late Victorian and Edwardian romances of Charles Garvice. Virtually forgotten today, he was a best seller in his time. I remembered him initially because, when snow bound in the Clwyd Valley for some weeks in my teens, I ransacked the bookshelves in the house, and came across a copy of a melodramatic romance ‘The Outcast of the Family Or A Battle Between Love and Pride’ (1894) which my mother had acquired as part of a job lot in an auction. I read it and never forgot the sheer badness of the writing. About a year ago, I got through five of his.

I then moved on to Georgette Heyer. I’d read several of these during the same snow bound period, including, ‘Powder and Patch’ ‘Devils’ Cub’ ‘The Convenient Marriage’ ‘The Talisman Ring’ (the subject of my last post) ‘The Toll Gate’ ‘Friday’s Child’ and ‘The Foundling’ so I only needed to refresh the remains of what was once a good memory regarding those, and to read a few more, to have a fair working knowledge of Heyer.

Literary criticism of romantic novels is decidedly thin on the ground. This is unfortunate, as the few books I have come across on it seem to be recent, and are often  somewhat abrasive defences of the genre by its proponents rather than anything in the nature of an objective analysis. Some even claim that romantic novels have a long and respectable history going back to Jane Austen; I’d dispute myself that Jane Austen was a writer of romance, even in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, though she has certainly been interpreted that way. No  writers on romance seem eager to claim the obvious influence of Charles Garvice – or maybe nobody has heard of him.

In plodding about the web (I don’t regard it as surfing) I came on the said article in an ezine with the startling name of ‘The Ladies Finger’. It’s about Germain Greer’s well-known discussion of romantic literature, and of Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer in particular, in ‘The Female Eunuch’.

The author, who thinks that Heyer is ‘the best writer in the world’ (or in the next?) and has read each of her novels no less than five times, takes great exception to Ms Greer’s satirical treatment of Heyer’s 1935 novel, ‘Regency Buck’.

Greer says of the heroine, who is spirited within strict limits of ladylike behaviour: ‘Her intelligence and resolution remain happily confined to her eyes and the curve of her mouth, but they provide the excuse for her naughty behaviour toward Lord Worth, who turns out to be that most titillating of all titillating relations, her young guardian, by an ingeniously contrived mistake.’

She mocks the ‘Alpha male’ hero: –
‘Nothing such a creature would do could ever be corny. With such world-weary lids! With the features and aristocratic contempt which opened the doors of polite society to Childe Harold, and the titillating threat of unexpected strength! Principally, we might notice, he exists through his immaculate dressing–Beau Brummell is one of his friends…’

In this part of her ground breaking book on female oppression, Germaine Greer is investigating the masochistic, sublimating and passive elements of women’s romantic fantasies that are catered for in novels with ‘Alpha’ males who define the female leads’ destiny.

In this chapter, with acid wit, she analyses a story published in the teenage girls’ magazine ‘Jackie’, a novel by Barbara Cartland, and the one by Georgette Heyer.

The blogger in the ‘Ladies Finger’ article – who protests that she becomes impatient with theoretical debate because she ‘doesn’t have a college education’ takes the view that all opinions of romantic novels must be fueled purely by personal taste rather than any objective analysis, let alone so abstract an issue as moral principle, and writes: –

‘When I read Greer’s criticism I’m reminded of my second-wave self at 17, and I feel kind of sorry for her. The “ingeniously contrived mistake” is called a plot device, you! And it sounds perfectly natural! And now I’m going to say something more offensive than the entire genre put together: This scale and breadth of offense (sic) at the sexual fantasy reeks of deep and unwilling arousal…’

This is descending to the level often adopted by openly sexist men, and explaining any objection to sexual stereotypes by slighting references to the protestor’s psyche and supposed sexual orientation or frustrations.

While this can be a piece of fun with characters in books (as in my post touching on the unconscious passions of Sir Tristram Shield and Ludovic Lavenham in ‘The Talisman Ring’ by Heyer) for an article published by a feminist ezine to make such comments about another woman,and a bold feminist innovator at that, is dismal. It was published without a disclaimer from the editorial board.


Earlier in the piece, the writer of the article complains that Ms Greer’s research appears not to have gone beyond reading one book by either Heyer or Cartland, and that she would have changed her mind had she read more.

While it is true that Ms Greer only mentions one book, it isn’t clear how many she had in fact read, and going purely on anecdotal evidence, most women of her generation seem to have read more than one novel by Heyer at least. To object to only one book by each author being analysed is reasonable, though as ‘The Female Enuch’ is not primarily a work of literary criticism, this was presumably done through lack of space.

Now, as I have ploughed through a dozen novels by Georgette Heyer, I can hardly be accused of sketchy research. I was open to be persuaded that they have a feminist slant, as some argue, but I have yet to find it. I have to agree with all of Germaine Greer’s analysis in ‘The Female Eunuch’ (for all I know, she may have modified her position since).

I began my researches on women and romance literature with far more of an open mind on the issue than I could have had a couple of decades ago. Sadly, I am coming increasingly back to the conclusion that romantic fantasies to be found in the works of historical and other romantic novelists such as Heyer do serve to keep a significant element of women’s energies focused on fantasy rather than action, escapism rather than the will to implement change, and therefore play a part in women’s (sadly, often partly self-inflicted) oppression. This is especially true as part of this fictive dream is a wish to be taken care of and to have one’s destiny controlled by a man, and usually, an impossibly strong and devoted one.

The vague talk of ‘empowerment’ through female fantasy I have come across in several books and articles strikes me as nonsensical; nobody ever challenged the status quo by indulging in escapist dreams.

I would say that at the moment there is a significant reaction against the strong line of ‘Second Wave Feminism’. To some extent, this is understandable.

As a young girl I often fell out with purists who objected to my refusing to kit myself out in  the baggy dungarees and cropped haircut that so many ‘good’ feminists of the eighties wore. I pointed out that the image of feminism they projected was one which the majority of the female population would find highly unappealing, and so it has proved.

Some of their ideas were simplistic, others extreme; as with all revolutionary movements, humourless fanatics were often in the forefront.

Yet, these forebears gave modern-day feminists insights and a theoretical groundwork on which to build. It is impossible to explore, let alone to challenge, the mechanics of oppression unless one is able to define it.

One of their brilliant insights was to criticize the ideology of romance.

To dismiss all of the ideas of ‘Second Wave Feminism’ as outdated or in any way superseded is premature and foolish. Advanced patriarchal capitalism has a habit of incorporating all rebellious social protest movements into its status quo. Rather than hang on gibbets, it absorbs. Feminism is in danger of becoming an anodyne part of the establishment.

I remarked (under my real name) on that post in ‘The Ladies Finger’: ‘Do I normally have a sense of humour? Well, I think it sometimes wobbles under patriarchal advanced capitalism’s ability to transmute all threatening social movements into window dressing and vague talk of ’empowerment’.

I’m concerned that this is increasingly what is happening to a feminist movement which embraces sex roles, girly toys, pornography and pole dancing. That this post on a feminist ezine has aroused so little contention (I was one of four women to comment) serves to strengthen my concern.

2 Responses

  1. Such a brilliant post, Lucinda! Not really being a romance fan, I don’t feel able to comment. What really rang true to me was your comment that ‘rather than hang on gibbets, it (capitalism) absorbs’. Absolutely; and perhaps that is why it is so damnably strong (and I don’t mean that as a compliment).

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