1980s Romance Novels: Hair-Raising, Lip-Mashing Horror Shows

A few years ago, I became fascinated by the Harlequin romances produced in the late 70s and early 80s. In what I can only assume was a backlash against the feminist movement and increasingly independent portrayals of women, these romances contained an appallingly misogynistic bent made even more disturbing when you think that they were written both for and by women. The plots feature doormat heroines and sadistic, domineering males who see through their feeble protests and know that 'no' means 'yes.' Sometimes a woman has a career (see: A Passionate Appeal, about warring lawyers) but the 'hero' always manages to break through this shell to the soft, feminine woman beneath. For reasons that have never been clear to me, there are a lot of fake engagements in these books, as well as pretend marriages (for legal purposes) and mock-up affairs (generally to arouse jealousy.) Invariably these deceptions turn out to be elaborate ruses perpetrated by the man to trick the woman into marrying him, since he's been in love with her all along, even though he seemed cynical and abusive. A lip-mashing kiss follows.

[On a frivolous note, it should be said that these books do have great clothes: lots of polyester pants suits, neck-tie blouses, the occasional shawl and dresses that hint at "soft feminine curves." If approached by New York Magazine's "Look Book" or even the Time Out's "Public Eye," - hasn't happened - I always planned to characterize my look as "Harlequin heroine circa 1981, pre-makeover" (since I still have the undesirable specs, curly hair of a woman denying her femininity.)]

I recently came across the most appalling specimen of this genre I've ever encountered: 1980's Promise at Midnight by one Lilian Peake, which might be called the ur-HarRo. Shona Carroll is a sad-sack pianist engaged to a flautist named Calvin, who's always insulting her. 'Average, Calvin had called her, not good enough to carry her far in the world of music. Certainly not to the heights to which he aspired. And she agreed with him uncomplainingly.' She joins him on a cruise as his accompanist, ('she knew it was praise because he didn't curse her') where she is promptly thrown against The Hero, Marsh Faraday, by the ship's tossing.

Marsh Faraday, naturally, has a granite-like profile with 'etched lines betraying a worldly cynicism' and seems to have no expressions other than "mocking smiles", "taunting looks," "faintly derisive" eyes, "cynical amusement," and, just to shake it up, the occasional "unsmiling gaze." Due to turbulence on the high seas, Shona gets thrown against his steely thighs every couple of pages. "If he thinks, she told herself, he can reduce me to simpering adulation of his male physique and magnetic good looks by assessing me as if I were being auditioned for his harem then he's mistaken."

Long story short: fiance takes up with a blonde and declares they need to keep their engagement secret; Shona agrees; Marsh Faraday suggests they have a pretend affair for unclear reasons; sexy abuse ensues.

His mouth hit hers with a force which ground her lips against her teeth." She breaks away but, "as her muscles had tensed, so his hold had tightened. Now, in his anger at her body's repulsion of him, his arms became like cruel bonds. 'After that supreme bit of 'I'm your for the taking' act, you have the cheek to imply, with all the female 'no-go' signs you can muster, that you want me to get the hell out of here?' In his anger his nails were making piercing dents in her flesh." She says she's engaged. "'The devil you are!' He threw her from him and she staggered. 'Not judging by the way you pressed yourself against me when I caught you, the way you kissed me back when I kissed you. You felt like a woman who's been wandering in the desert for months, devoid of all male contact - and do I mean contact!

"That's not true,' she flung back, knowing he was right but knowing, too, that nothing would make her admit it. 'It-it was a reflex action, pure and simple. I-I hated it, really. I hate the - the very taste of your lips.' With the back of her hand, she wiped her mouth. The ship pitched again and again she was thrown off balance. This time he let her fall. She went backwards against the bed, hitting her head against the telephone and radio as she went down."

Wait, you're not entertained? Aroused? Huh. And we haven't even gotten to the part where he throttles her. Or spanks her in public. And by the way, I'm also leaving out, like, twenty pages of insults from both men, indulgent 'my-son-is-such-a-scamp' talk from his mother, a speech about how "when the prey is juicy and desirable and casts scent trails behind it, then it can't complain if the predator springs and captures it and proceeds to tear it apart" and a couple more fake engagements.

And then, of course, he explains how it was all for her own good because he loves her.

"I know what you deserve,' he said, and his hand reached out to close her lips which were opened on a gasp of protest. 'Marriage to me, and that's what you're going to get.'

'Are you proposing?' she asked, her body trembling now for a different reason.

'Not proposing - informing, demanding, stating. And you're agreeing. Right?'

Her brown eyes melted as they gazed into his. 'You're dictatorial and you're overbearing and you're a tyrant, Marsh Faraday, but -' she curled into him, 'I love you so much and I've loved you from the moment-'" He mashes her mouth.

For all our sakes, let's hope our mothers weren't reading these while we were in utero, as they remain one of the most disturbingly perverse phenomena I've ever encountered, a slap in the face to any women's rights gains that were concurrently taking place. (I'm guessing that my own mother, a member of the short-lived "Women's Bank of New York" at the time, was probably not receptive.) Oh, and if you see any, send 'em my way - lest we forget and all that. And, um, I need the fashion inspiration.

Promise At Midnight