Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Tuesday, 29 April 2008


I got Vampire Lover in the post recently, which I bought for a dazzling £0.01 (how is that even possible?!)

The cover impressed me immensely: how cool is the cover? I love that it's the heroine who is biting/ drinking at the hero's neck, I love what it suggests about the power dynamic in the relationship. I love that she might be the 'vampire lover' in question. (I haven't read it yet, so I have no idea how truly subversive/ innovative it is. Right now, I'm simply content to anticipate).

Trying to find an on-line image of the cover led me to the discovery of another picture, called The Vampire by Sir Philip Burne-Jones (1897). I love this image, too. The senseless, supine man laying helplessly as the vampiress straddles him, neck arched and teeth bared. It might have been a direct inspiration for Vampire Lover.

It certainly inspired Kipling’s popular poem of the same name:
The Vampire
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair--
(Even as you or I!)

Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste,
And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent,
(Even as you or I!)
Honour and faith and a sure intent
(And it wasn't the least what the lady meant),
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(Even as you or I!)

Oh, the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn't know why
(And now we know that she never knew why)
And did not understand!

The fool was stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you or I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside--
(But it isn't on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died--
(Even as you or I!)

``And it isn't the shame and it isn't the blame
That stings like a white-hot brand--
It's coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing, at last, she could never know why)
And never could understand!''

As it turns out, this notion of the Vampiress, or the femme fatale was at its height towards the end of the 19th century; besides Kipling and Burne-Jones, there was Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler, the art of Klimpt and Audrey Beardsley to name a few. (Edvard Munch’s painting Love and Pain is more commonly referred to as ‘Vampire’ and depicts a helpless man in the embrace of a red haired ‘medusa like’ woman.)

The Victorian obsession with the femme fatale has obvious roots: prostitution and syphilis, feminism and the New Woman, which led to a fear of female sexual power and its potential malevolence. As Meier observes -
The myth of the femme fatale, a female character that erotically fascinates and enchants a usually male partner who eventually is ruined or destroyed by this relationship, seems to be a male myth from the very beginning. The various explanations of its origins converge in the concept of patriarchal fear in the face of the suppressed female principle in general - and of female sexuality in particular.

Which brings us to the flip side. Far from empowering women, feminists have long noted that there is an underlying misogyny inherent in the early depictions of femme fatales, a hostility stemming from fear, be it of economic marginalisation or the threat of that ‘dark continent,’ female sexuality. Bram Dijkstra goes so far as to suggest that these images represent the transition of women from victims to the victimizers of men.

So where does that leave me? I love the idea of the empowered, sexually confident vamp, the anto-heroine. But is she a male creation, a combination of masochism and wish fulfillment? A cautionary tale? I can think of hundreds of femme fatales in romance - most of them evil, and punished in the end for their rapacious sexual drive, for shamelessly exploiting men with their sexuality.

Is there a place for the femme fatale in romance as a heroine, and can you think of any good examples? (though I am loath to admit it, Shannon McKenna’s Tamara springs to mind).

The Climax
"Salomé", Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley (illus.)
1907 ed.

Monday, 28 April 2008


This is a subject many non-Londoners will be tired of by now, but on May 1st, we get to vote for the next Mayor of London.

Politics has no place on a romance blog - right? - but I really can't keep quiet about my hatred for the Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson. The video below does a good job of listing all the reasons why, but it is also the fact that Johnson represents the 'anti-London' vote. To me, living in a city as vibrant, diverse and welcoming as London, a place where multitudes of cultures and communities come together, the idea of an old Etonian toff, a member of the detestable Bullingdon Club - which one blogger describes as "an elite network whose general agenda involves gorging themselves on pate de foie gras and suckling pigs, then wrecking restaurants while singing "Rah, rah, rah, we're going to rule the world". Then they rule the world." - is repugnant.

Like Charlie Brooker (a miserable bastard), I am predestined to hate everything about Boris Johnson because a) he is a Tory b) he is a product of his privileged, upper class upbringing and c) he has said and written things that should immediately disqualify his eligibility to run for public office. In Brooker's words -
Johnson - or to give him his full name, Boris LOL!!!! what a legernd!! Johnson!!! - is a TV character loved by millions for his cheeky, bumbling persona. ... he's magnetically prone to scandal, but this somehow only makes him more adorable each time. Tee hee! Boris has had an affair! Arf! Now he's offended the whole of Liverpool! Crumbs! He used the word "picaninnies"! Yuk yuk! He's been caught on tape agreeing to give the address of a reporter to a friend who wants him beaten up! Ho ho! Look at his funny blond hair! HA HA BORIS LOL!!!! WHAT A LEGERND!!!!!!

Basically, the thought of this buffoon becoming the Mayor of my city makes me ill. It's like taking my identity as a Londoner (which I prize) to a dark, smelly alley and mugging it.

So if the worst happens, if my beloved City becomes the playground of this raging idiot, I'm packing my bags. I'm moving to Scotland. I hear it's great. Although the Scots might not see it that way...

(Warning, the video contains some swearing)

Many more videos here
. The Rainbow debate is priceless.

Sunday, 27 April 2008


Aren’t I supposed to be reviewing books, or something?

This endeavor is hampered somewhat by the fact that I haven’t been reading a great deal recently, and what I have been reading doesn't neatly fit into the definition of ‘romance.’ Next on the list is Lee Child’s latest testosterone fueled offering, Nothing to Lose, so unless I want this blog to wither on the vine, I thought I’d just go ahead and review something.

Lewis Aldridge is the Outcast in question, a 19 year old boy straight out of jail. The year is 1957 and Lewis returning to his middle class home in the English suburbs, where he has long been an outsider, treated with suspicion and distrust because he won’t - can’t - conform to the norms of this closed and affluent community.

The story switches from the present (the summer of Lewis’ return) to the events that led to his incarceration; his father’s return from the war, the death of his mother and the emotional isolation that followed this devastating tragedy.

I haven’t read a great many books set in the 50s (oddly, though, I’ve started to watch the excellent Mad Men and it bears an uncanny similarity to The Outcast in its depiction of affluence and dysfunction), and I wasn’t sure I’d like this. But I read it in one sitting. In one sitting, with tears streaming down my face (I’m easy) and my heart utterly wrenched for poor little Lewis. Why won’t someone hug him, I wondered, wiping fat drops from my cheeks.

Jones has a distinctive writing voice, spare, matter of fact, and she moves the story along very briskly (interestingly, she started out as a screenwriter and this has served her well; the pacing is excellent). I found the writing style - with its very long sentences and multitudes of ‘and’s and then’s - annoying at first, but it’s a deliberate choice to get us inside Lewis’ active ten year old mind. As Lewis grows, so the voice shifts and matures.

What I liked best about the book was the world itself, the claustrophobic, affluent world of the middle classes in the 50s, the glossy exterior and the seething, dark underbelly - best demonstrated by the wealthy Carmichaels, headed by the violent and brutish Dicky:
Dicky often hit Claire, it was his habit, and part of the pattern of the family, and it wasn’t questioned between them at all. None of them had ever, ever referred to it, but Kit got so angry it made her cry with rage.

This from the point of little Kit, another outcast.

What I found absolutely fascinating was the almost ritualised nature of the violence Dicky inflicts on the women in his family, and their acceptance of it, which often bordered on complicity.

Jones’ depiction of the women in this period is also fantastic; from Lewis’ mother, the vibrant, unconventional Elizabeth; the cold emptiness of Claire Carmichael and the growing discontent of Alice, the pretty trophy wife. Again, on the surface everything is fine, but just beneath it, these are deeply unhappy and dissatisfied people, who drink too much, who are abused or neglected by their husbands, who have no means of escape.
She tried to have strict rules about her drinking, but the wait for her sherry at half-past twelve made the morning seem very long. She absolutely wasn’t allowed a drink after her coffee at lunch, so that meant fitting it all in and knowing she then had to wait till half-past six for her cocktail. She knew it shouldn’t mean so much and it was important to stay in control, but she often found it hard to remember why...

Of course, the heart of the story is Lewis. Bright, thoughtful, sensitive Lewis who is very close to his mother and whose death leaves him utterly adrift in a world where he cannot express his grief, and where his repressed emotions leave him prone to violent outbursts. He becomes an outsider, because he cannot be like the others, and his obvious dysfunction is not tolerated by a tight knit community determined to pretend everything is just fine.

I could go on. There is Lewis’ grieving father, who cannot console his son and is the unwitting agent of his son’s downfall. There is Kit, the observer, who knows everything is wrong but it powerless to do anything about it. Beautiful, vain Tamsin and the weak wiled Alice. Then there is the powerful, evil, monstrous figure of Dicky Carmichael, the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world.

There are many dark moments, and few bright ones. At times, I wondered if things could get any worse - and they did. It is a desperately sad story, but ultimately uplifting. If you’re wondering why on earth you should pick this book up - well, there are moments of grace, and the story ends on a good note.

Sadie Jones said she wanted to write about an outsider, an outcast, someone who is rejected by society, but it is society itself that is damaged and corrupt. I think she did a really good job. This is her first novel, and it has been nominated for the Orange Prize (which she is strongly tipped to win).

I met her at a reading a few days ago and I can only add that she is also quite the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Doesn’t really seem fair.

An A. Not a romance, exactly, but an engrossing and intelligent read.

Saturday, 12 April 2008


I've decided to change my profile picture to something a little more representative of me (if you look at the new picture sideways, through squinted eyes, it looks vaguely Mariam-like). But it is with regret that I say goodbye to Lady Colin Campbell.

A few years ago, I read a fascinating account of her notorious marriage and divorce to Lord Colin Campbell, the second son of the Duke of Argyll: Victorian 'Sex Goddess.' Lady Colin Campbell and the sensational divorce case of 1886 by G. H. Flemming. This very public divorce case enthralled the country and filled the pages of newspapers with salacious detail, containing as it did all the elements of a good scandal - sexually transmitted disease (syphilis), various infidelities, allegations of cruelty and endless other examples of the upper classes behaving badly.

Her husband accused Lady Colin of conducting affairs with some of the most eminent men in Victorian society, including George Spencer-Churchill and Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, Chief of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Although found not guilty on these counts, she was nonetheless a intelligent and attractive woman who attracted many notable men, including George Bernard Shaw (who described her as a 'goddess') and the artist Whistler.

Born Gertrude Blood, Lady Colin stands out for many reasons unrelated to her sensational divorce. Her first article was published at the age of 14. Her first work of fiction (published when she was 21) went through seven printings. She was a singer who often gave recitals and her art was frequently exhibited. After her separation from Lord Colin (she was not granted a divorce, though it was accepted her husband had given her syphilis), Lady Colin survived on the proceeds of her writing, principally for newspaper articles and journals. She contributed to the Saturday Review and eventually became one of the first female editors of a London paper that was not for women (World).

Although I can't find any reference to it just now, I think she also wrote an impassioned defense of smoking, which is also kind of cool.

An astonishing, unconventional woman brought to life through a series of newspaper articles, transcripts, letters and reminiscences. In the words of one journalist, she posessed -
the unbridled lust of Messalina and the indelicate readiness of a common harlot.

I prefer to think of her as the kind of kick-ass Victorian I would like to see between the covers of more historicals, a bright, intelligent, unconventional figure who is no less admirable for all her flaws and foibles.