Romance: 90s-Era Bodice Rippers

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Through a Dark Mist, by Marsha Canham

Marsha Canham was one of my favourite romance authors when I was young. Her historical romances are always steamy, and Through a Dark Mist was my favourite, delving into a sexy retelling of the Robin Hood tale. Although, let's be honest, Robin Hood is always sexy. We can all agree that Robin Hood is a fox, yes?

The delicate (18yo) widow Servanne de Briscourt is on the way to meet her next husband, as she has once again been sold to the highest bidder by the dastardly Prince John, since noblewomen were generally pawns used in strategic political games. But her future husband-to-be, the Baron Lucien de Gournay, is kinda sexy, so she's into it. Until she is kidnapped in the forest and stolen away by a man who claims that he in fact is the Baron de Gournay and the man she was on her way to meet is an imposter. Epic romance ensues.

This book was published in 1991, and this was a different time, for women and for romance. What was possible and even considered sexy 30 years ago is not necessarily what works in the modern, #metoo era. So how does my favourite adolescent romance stand up to time?

Well, in fact, not great. One thing I need to mention is that books, all books, were written quite a bit differently back in the day, and there have been some pretty big structural changes to what we look for in a novel. For one, the writing is quite a bit more dense and descriptive than an audience would allow for now. For all this is supposed to be a swashbuckling adventure, not tons actually happens in the first two-thirds of the novel, but there are a lot of descriptions of forests. So there's that. Also, there is an intensely melodramatic flash-forward prologue here, which I feel nowadays would make a publisher cringe. I'm not picking on this book in particular - that is just what was popular in the 80s and 90s. Through a Dark Mist is representative of romances of the day, not standing out as something different.

Interestingly, though, the cover could almost (but not quite) be modern. A lot of new covers coming out are just the title with a pattern around it. While the font here is dated, the idea is not, as we see this especially with YA books coming out. Not romances though, I'll discuss modern romance covers in my next blog!

To the meat of the issue, though. Through a Dark Mist is guilty of some of the worst crimes endemic in romances (for the record, some of these crimes still exist and can be found across genres). For one, the characters are all perfect specimens, and exactly the stereotypical most attractive of all things. The men, like Lucien, are all enormous muscle-bound warriors. They probably have a dangerous temper and are always brooding or angry, probably over something that they need to get revenge for. The women are ALWAYS tiny, usually short but definitely very slim. Servanne is described as willowly, sylph-like and delicate like a flower.

And of course, like all good romance heroines, Servanne is pious and prim, and fights her desire for Lucien because to give in to passion, to have sex, means that he wins and she loses.

"She stared at [his hand], knowing that to touch him of her own accord, would be to admit defeat, to be defeated by the heat and flame, the passion of desire that raged through her with such incomprehensible urgency."

It's also common knowledge that a woman is allowed to be smart, as long as she's not smarter than her man. If Servanne says anything remotely observant, she is chided for being too smart for her own good. She's also referred to constantly as a breeder. She is continually rewarded for behaving helpless and dumb.

So, we have established Servanne is a good girl because, while a firecracker in bed, she only behaves like that when she is being controlled by a stronger, more superior man, who is allowed to bring this behaviour out of her, and never questioning her place as subservient to him.

What about women who don't want to bend to the men around them, and actually seek out sex? Enter Nicolaa de la Haye, who was probably the best character in the novel. She is intelligent, ambitious, powerful and in control of her sexual agency - so obviously she must be evil. And not just a little bit evil. She's vain and greedy, sure, but also a complete psychopath, torturing and killing her way through a swath of rivals who rouse her unending jealousy. She had a seamstress boiled in oil because the offender dared to scratch her skin during a fitting, and she had a woman mutilated and her entire family killed and tortured in front of her because she had earned a wink from one of Nicolaa's many lovers. Like ... it's a little extreme.

There's not a lot of subtlety here. The bad guys are really, really, bad, while the good guys are really, really, good. Except when it comes to the behaviour of the hero when it comes to the heroine, because he can't be expected to control himself around her.

And that's the worst part of this book, which is super commonplace in bodice-rippers: the rape fantasy. Even the descriptor "bodice-ripper" suggests some level of violence. But the hero constantly threatens the heroine with rape, and this is supposed to be sexy because he holds himself back from his out-of-control passion, and this is romantic and sweet. But the threat is always there that a big, strong man can take the woman if he wants to, and this is supposed to be hot.

Lucien threatens to rape and murder Servanne several times throughout the book, but apparently this doesn't deter from his good-guy status, because he's also doing other noble things that make him a good guy. In fact, he admits to having raped many women in the past, and it is stated that the only reason he doesn't just rape Servanne as planned is because she is so beautiful.

So, yeah. There are a lot of really icky things to deal with here. And really, it's not stuff that teen girls should be reading, because girls should not be internalizing these messages of submission to men and that rape or control over her life and body is somehow romantic and sexy (I'm looking at you, Twilight). Okay, rant over. I think you would not find these tropes in mainstream romances nowadays, although I can't speak for romance novels that sit firmly on the erotic side of things.

Romance novels seem to be moving into a place where feminism exists, and that is a good thing. It's easy to find tons of sexy romantic books that don't follow these violent sexual scripts, see here. And that's an awesome thing. Because as a grown woman who understands her own sexual agency, this bodice ripper did not do it for me. At all. But stay tuned! Because next week I'm covering modern romance novels that are diverse, inclusive, and understand the term "consent."

Thoughts on this? Comment here or on my Insta at @bookoracle1, I would love to chat to you about this!