Georgette Heyer, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and “Bodice Rippers”
The establishment of companionate matches as part of the romance novel doesn’t really undergo much of a change from the style set up by Austen until over 100 years later. Georgette Heyer begins to write romance novels in the 1920s, a time when women were finally gaining legal control over themselves in and out of marriage. The previous model for heroines who still conformed to society while subtly subverting it would no longer serve its purpose. According to Regis,
the expression of the societal disorder is largely within the heroine and hero themselves and the twentieth century hero makes the largest new contribution of this kind of disorder and to its being made orderly by the betrothal at the end of the work. Ordering society is now an issue of taming or healing the hero (Regis 114).
The shift from the match promoting a “new” idea such as affective individualism to one exploring different ways that affective individualism and agency allow a woman to bring order from chaos comes from Heyer’s writing. Everything during this time period becomes a bit “more;” heroes start off more akin to Wickham than Darcy and heroines are much more assertive versions of Elizabeth. Despite these differences, they still make the same choice as their romance novel predecessors: marriage. Heyer is writing during a transitional phase for women as far as the choice to assert their own affective individualism versus social expectations. By writing more modern females into stories similar to Austen texts, she provides them with reminders of their own ability and agency. They can take on these strong males and make a life by their sides in a companionate marriage rather than behind them.
Unfortunately, women of the 1970s were still suffering from many of the same ambiguities of societal place that the women Heyer started writing for were. A new component was also added to their ability to exert their free will: their sexuality. Sexuality is a part of society that has always been there, but was never openly discussed prior to the advent of Second Wave Feminism. Women were not supposed to enjoy sex. According to Wendell and Tan, “no other fiction genre focuses sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular in the context of happy romantic relationships” (Wendell/Tan 864). Because romance is generally a genre for women by women, it was positioned to take on this newly public female sexuality in a positive way.
So how did romance writers of the 1970s make this new idea palatable to their readers while remaining socially acceptable and relevant? Continuing in the style of Austen and Heyer, they write from a female perspective, but they use the plot devices of old Gothic novels like those written by Anne Radcliffe to create an air of sexual danger that fulfills itself where those did not. According to Wendell and Tan, “The eventual taming of a sexually dangerous and aggressive hero thus allowed women a safe space to explore—and invert—the power relationships in a rape. Romance-novel rape ultimately placed women in control” (Wendell/Tan 2346). The language of force and danger of the novel allowed for women to not only come to terms with the idea that enjoying sex might be acceptable, but to also see the extremities of their own situations from a historical lens and find a way to take control of their own bodies by embracing their sexuality.
These highly problematic novels have become known as “bodice rippers,” mostly because of the sexually implicit covers favored in the marketing minds of the 1970s that have only recently been put aside. While there are obvious pitfalls within the rhetoric of this movement, particularly surrounding rape, these novels did serve a purpose within the overall progression of the role of agency and affective individualism in the evolution of the romance novel. Before exploring the positive aspects of the “bodice rippers” it is important to address the problematic elements and try and interpret them within the context in which they were written.
Kathleen Woodiwiss, the de facto “founder” of this movement makes very deliberate choices in her depiction and expression of the threat to the female body. In her second novel, The Wolf and the Dove, set during the Norman conquering of England in 1066, the language surrounding the early interactions between the heroine, Aislinn, the daughter of a Saxon nobleman, and Wulfgar, the Norman knight who takes possession of her father’s land, is steeped in a rhetoric of force and female objectification. Woodiwiss sets this book in the Middle Ages to allow for more danger and patriarchal absolutism to show a contrast in Aislinn’s situation by the end of the book. In one of their early encounters, before Wulfgar has literally forced himself upon Aislinn, Woodiwiss inserts this exchange, “’I had no inkling your strength was so lacking that you must chain me while you do your worst to me.’ ‘It saves energy,’ he laughed. ‘And I can see I’ll need all the assist I can get to tame the shrew’” (Woodiwiss 62). Now, he doesn’t go so far as to actually chain her during sex, but he does keep her chained every night prior to that. Not only does he try to threaten her with his mere physical size and presence, Woodiwiss has him take steps to include the trappings of slavery and complete subjugation. But even as he takes away all outward signs of her agency, Aislinn, expressing the characteristics of affective individualism, does her best to hold her ground and find a way out of her situation.
Wulfgar is very determined to “claim” Aislinn. Woodiwiss steps back past Jane Austen to a time when women had no legal rights in order to allow an extreme alpha hero to exist. What little we see of his point of view in the first half of the novel is all about making her “his.” This is very common language for romance novels, even modern ones, but there is an added intensity to this mission in the bodice rippers, probably due to the underrepresentation of the hero’s perspective. Directly after their first (forced) sexual encounter, Woodiwiss makes this claiming have a lingering effect on the heroine, even on the sensory level; “Wulfgar’s sweat still clung to her and she could smell his scent upon her” (Woodiwiss 127). In the mentality of Aislinn and the reader, even as she physical escapes from Wulfgar, it is only illusory at best. At this point in the novel, he possesses the upper hand because he has possessed her body, but she does her best to scrub away this evidence, still fighting for her own individuality. Aislinn is struggling to gain some sense of affective individualism but she doesn’t know how to do so yet.
This is where feminist readings of bodice rippers usually stop. They only see this language of force and possession of the female body and don’t look further into the narrative. At one point early in their sexual relationship, Wulfgar tells Aislinn, “you resist me not, but yourself, and I would wager the time will come when I will but touch you and you will beg my favors” (Woodiwiss 139). Looking at this statement on first reading, it appears to be another sexist, arrogant statement. However, there is another layer to that statement that implies that Aislinn will come to enjoy her sexuality, to choose to have sex with the man she cares about and like it, which seems to be the whole point of the sexual content in bodice rippers. Yes, this enjoyment results from a relationship based on force, but the history of women is riddled with force. In order to fully understand the significance of bodice rippers within their society, it is important to look at the end result – women embracing their right to not settle for sex they don’t enjoy – rather than the means taken to reach it.
Gradually, Aislinn comes to love Wulfgar, even though he hasn’t realized his own love for her yet. Once she sees him as another human rather than a conqueror, she allows herself to enjoy sex with him. This shift in her views on sex comes after he shows her sympathy upon the unnecessary death of her horse. By showing compassion for his feelings, he’s beginning to show the emotional element Wendell and Tan identify as necessary for a true alpha hero. Directly after they make love, Aislinn reflects, “Her failure to curb her own passion when he gave no hint of love or regard for her upset her greatly. Her body was more in his will than her own” (Woodiwiss 275). What she doesn’t realize is that by opening up to him on his field of battle, she sets herself up to win the war. Within the arc of the romance novel, sexual compatibility often comes before the declaration of love. Love is built on the intimacy created by enjoying sex and deepening the relationship – another side effect of affective individualism. Is this an ideal depiction? No. But an important part of Aislinn or any of these early heroines accepting the fact that it is ok to enjoy sex is that they gain more autonomy and agency within the story.
Another common trope of the bodice rippers is that the woman almost always ends up pregnant at some point in the novel. This could be viewed as the heteronormative need to prove fertility and the viability of the marriage and there is probably some truth to that. However, Woodiwiss seems to use it as a vehicle in which the hero comes to realize just how strong the heroine actually is. No matter how much she fights with him or does to help their community, he usually does not realize her inner strength until he’s seen her survive childbirth. We can see this in Wulfgar’s reflections after Aislinn gives birth to their son, “The cost of her struggle to bring the child forth had etched its passing on the gentle features, yet there shone behind them a clam strength that made pride rise in him. She was indeed a wife to stand beside a man and meet whatever life could offer” (Woodiwiss 438). Seeing the strength she is capable of, Wulfgar’s entire perspective begins to shift, paving the way for his romantic declaration and the companionate marriage to become fully established. In recognizing Aislinn’s strength, her “merit” as Wollstonecraft would say, as different from his own but still present, Wulfgar recognizes her as a fellow affective individual and accepts her beside him as such, an alpha recognizing another alpha. Once that acceptance comes, he can readily admit his feelings for her and the end of the novel leaves the reader at the beginning of their partnership. According to Regis, “The new couple do not change the structure of society or retire from it…but they create within it an oasis of calm morality, free from its shame and danger” (Regis 141). Yes, all around Wulfgar and Aislinn there are still unequal marriages and forced relationships, but the happy ending comes because they have formed their own partnership within society and their lives are better for it.
The writers of bodice rippers did create somewhat murky waters for their descendants to slog through with the language of rape and force used, but Woodiwiss and her contemporaries created a huge shift within the genre. Because of them, “Romance fiction not only says women want that knowledge [of sex] and have a right to it, it often gives it to them explicitly on the page, telling them it’s not wrong to want a full sexual life and showing them how to get one” (Wendell/Tan 2537). Prior to this point in literary history, books still held the strong Victorian mores about sex and gender roles. The “bodice rippers” allowed sex to enter into literary discourse in a way that spoke to women and showed them that sex should be proudly enjoyed and not hidden from. Aislinn and her counterparts are alpha heroines because they find a way to “tame” their alpha heroes and show them that compromising for love is not a weakness, but a strength. These heroines reach their full strength when they learn that enjoying sex as much as men do is not a crime. By the mid-1980s when the bodice ripper faded quietly into the archives, women readers had come to understand and accept sex as a right. In public life, they were now working beside men in the same jobs, so why shouldn’t they enjoy the same things men did?