My friend Ben (of LOLPorn fame) came up with the phrase “conjugal enemies” during a conversation in which I attempted to describe old-skool romance novels to him—I think I was talking about Catherine Coulter’s ouevre in particular, especially the WTF factor of “he uses cream to ease the way of the rape, so it MUST be lurve!” However, I can’t be certain; at the time, I’d shotgunned five old-skool romances in a row as part of research for The Book, and my brain had been addled by all the punishing kisses, cynical smirks, pointless misunderstandings and non-consensual fuckin’.
Anyway: conjugal enemies? Hell yes. The protagonists in these old-skool novels couldn’t stand each other. The heroine’s loathing for the hero was writ large every few pages (at least, until the first orgasm, and then the loathing transferred to her own body as well), but they still couldn’t stop conjugatin’ all over the piece. This lack of control over their passions—even if it was passionate hatred—was often transformed into passionate love through a mysterious alchemical means I’m not entirely sure I’ve figured out yet. At some point in the book, the heroine suddenly sees the hero’s lack of control and little signs of tenderness (not raping her until she bleeds, not forcing her to meet his former mistress, allowing her the freedom to indulge in some unconventional-for-the-time activity like sailing or running a business or communing with the whales or whatever the fuck) as signs of affection, and she re-interprets her actions and reactions as being signs of True Luuuurrrrve as well. I don’t find these transformations convincing, but I know many other people do, and the different reading and interpretation process is fascinating to me.
This isn’t to say that adversarial relationships aren’t fun to read about, or that they can’t be used as convincing indicators of two people who resist falling in love with everything they have. When these relationships are more balanced, I tend to think of them as “loving adversaries”—circumstances or their own personalities don’t allow them to act on their attraction, so they spar and snipe as a way to act out some of their tensions in ways other than bonin’ each other six ways to Sunday. I recently watched His Girl Friday, and that was the term that immediately came to mind. Underneath the constant quipping and sparring and attempts to one-up each other between Walter and Hildy was a sense of attraction and true affection.
But there was more to it, too. I think what made it an adversarial relationship as opposed to one based on enmity was the way the two of them were portrayed as equals. Walter would try to pull a fast one on Hildy, but oftentimes, she’d be just one step ahead of the game and have blocked his move before he could complete it. Hildy, at least until the end, is a strong woman with enough power and experience to make her choices and moves count.
And that’s not something you can say about the old-skool heroine. Most old-skool novels make a point of systematically stripping power from the heroine—she’s young, she’s alone in the world, and most of the meaningful choices over when, how and to whom she wants to express her sexuality is denied her. The only true power she has is her hold over the hero, but she’s unaware of this until a significant part of the book is over; her constant expressions of hatred were a way for her to deny the hero his emotional hold over her. The power imbalance results in a much more virulent hatred instead of a more playful sparring, and it’s this hostility that raises my hackles and makes it difficult for me to accept the transformation from conjugal enemy to lover. Adversarial relationships, on the other hand, are not necessarily based on enmity, and I find the resulting clashes much more satisfying and believable to write about.
Interestingly enough, the old-skool romance and His Girl Friday end in much the same way: the heroine capitulates to the hero, and the resolution feels a bit limp as a consequence. Hildy’s transformation at the end of His Girl Friday is less than convincing for me because the writer made her pliant—almost wide-eyed and confused. It’s disappointing because Hildy has real power that she seems to cede over to Walter once she acknowledges that she still loves him. The old-skool heroine’s often abrupt about-face, while startling, is at least consistent with the worldview of the book—she gains power once she stops struggling against the hero and accepts him.
Not all romance novels end this way. One of the reasons why I love Midsummer Moon by Laura Kinsale so much, for example, is how Merlin and Ransom are locked in an adversarial relationship throughout much of the book, but you never lose sight of how much affection and love the two of them feel for each other. Ransom finally makes a significant power-grab when he takes what Merlin loves away from her (those of you who’ve read the book know what I’m talking about), but in the end, the power balance equalizes when he learns to love and live with Merlin as she is, not as he wants her to be.
Not all romance novels use the conjugal enemies/loving adversaries model; Patricia Gaffney’s best work, for example, as well as Barbara Samuel’s, don’t set up their conflicts that way. But it’s a fun way to set up a story, and like the Energizer Bunny, it’s easy to allow the conflict to go on and on and on. I also know that many people view the adversarial relationships between hero and heroine in old-skool romances than I do. What do you think about power structures and loving adversaries vs. conjugal enemies?