It’s about to get serious …
Dear Kathleen Woodiwiss,
I know you are dead and thus won’t read this (did that come across as insensitive?) but I just had to write this letter. You see Kathleen (may I call you Kathleen?) I have both a deep love and an intense hatred for your books.
This makes things very confusing for me with my desire to re-read your groundbreaking prose at war with my self-loathing at reading your books.
Now please do not assume that my hatred of your books has anything to do with the romance genre as a whole. I love romance novels. I have read literally hundreds and I even have a few favourite romance author’s whose books I buy within a week of their publication dates. They are my favourite companion on date night, especially when paired with a nice Riesling and a comfy pair of sweats. I even love to write romance novels.
No. My issue with your books is more to do with the message that I have learned from them and the influence I believe they have had on my psyche.
You see, Kathleen, I was first given one of your novels when I was at the young, impressionable age of thirteen. My Mother gave me “Shanna” to read one summer and I devoured it within days, wide eyed and thrilled with every sentence. I didn’t know at the time that you are considered the pioneer of the romance genre, I didn’t know that your books are considered groundbreaking and that you are one of the biggest influences to the genre as it is today, and honestly I probably wouldn’t have cared.
All I knew was that I loved your books.
After “Shanna” I read “Ashes in the Wind” (which is probably still my favourite). Then it was “A Rose in Winter”. I read book after book of yours and when I ran out of titles to read I read them all again. Spines cracked and pages came loose but still I read.
I fell in love with your heroes, the dark brooding men who came alive in my imagination. Damaged men saved by the love of a feisty and independent woman. All of them fiercely protective and glorious in ways that no real man has ever duplicated.
And the sex scenes? My past and present boyfriends thank you for what I learned reading your books.
Your books carried me through my teens, making my awkward, lonely existence far more bearable. Your heroes and heroines joined the ranks of my imaginary entourage, inspiring me to write the angsty prose that filled journal after (live) journal. You helped me discover a whole world of novels that I never knew I would love. From Jane Austen to Julia Quinn, you were the gateway drug.
And this is why I love you.
But in recent years a few things have become far clearer in my mind. I understand that your books were written in a very different time (primarily the 1970s and 1980s) but I am concerned. These men of yours, these dashing heroes and swashbuckling knaves who became my obsession, they are kind of awful.
In “The Flame and the Flower”, your first novel, Captain Birmingham rapes the heroine after he mistakes her for a teasing prostitute. And then when he discovers she is in fact a high born lady and she is now pregnant he is forced to grudgingly marry her. Heather (the female lead) is a strong and lovely character who has an admirable amount of spirit and is able to face all forms of diversity head on, but still she falls hopelessly in love with Captain Bastard even as he abuses her, insulting her constantly for forcing him into this marriage.
Excuse me? Forcing him into marriage? What about her, forced to marry her rapist and then live with his constant verbal abuse?
Throughout the novel Heather only wishes to be better and to be more loveable so that her darling husband will fall in love with her. She knows that if only she can convince him how worthy she is that things will change.
And then when he inevitably does fall in love with our heroine, saving her from a disastrous situation, he becomes the most devoted and loving husband in the world. He is a paragon of husband-hood and the couple lives happily ever after, their love the envy of all (including their son who ends up with his own novel).
This isn’t romance, this is domestic abuse that has been glorified with pretty words and an eye-catching cover.
Now none of your other novels are as bad as the first one in terms of abuse, but your protagonists sure do love to belittle and deceive the women of your stories and this is what I find damaging.
My years of reading your novels when I was young and still learning what it meant to love shaped my life in many ways. They made me believe that self-worth really didn’t exist until you had a man that found you worthy first (something which “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Grey” have now done for a new generation, but that’s a different conversation). They made me put up with verbal abuse from men I should have walked away from in the beginning because I knew that things would turn around as soon as I made them love me. Your influence on me was a bad one that lasted for many, many years.
And while I will always have a soft spot for your novels I sincerely believe they should come with a very clear disclaimer, ensuring that no person should read them until they are fully able to understand how wrong they are.
Your novels are praised today for the spunky heroines with their independent streaks and their adaptability. They are the reason the romance genre exists today and that is something you should be proud of.
But your novels should also be ostracized for the horrible values they preach. They should acknowledge that the experiences they glorify are wrong.