I’m done with the 1970s-early 1980s OG Old School. That was one of the most unpleasant reading experiences I’ve ever had, and I read The Phantom of Manhattan. I finished it because I was kind of interested in where this story would end (and how much shit can be heaped upon the head of the heroine), and I have a finely developed case of trainwreck syndrome. (Also, my copy didn’t stink, so that helped.)
I’m having a really hard time coming up with a Letter Grade, because I’ve read worse, and I’ve read better. I had a more entertaining time reading Passion’s Bold Fire than this, but Purity’s Passion wasn’t badly written, not by a long shot. I just hated reading it. But it doesn’t deserve an F. I’m going to call it a qualified C-.
The heroine is Purity, whose beauty and fine young body drive men wild. She is born in France on the eve of the French revolution, the daughter of the bailiff on the estate of the Marquis de Fayelle. When she is about 8 or so, the French Revolution shows up on the doorstep and kills almost everyone in the chateau. Purity witnesses all of it.
And it’s pretty clear what kind of a book this is when a woman begs for the life of her lover, and in exchange, goes to the bed of the riot leader, and finds herself orgasmically enjoying the rape.
It’s pretty awful.
So Purity is rescued from a life of poverty in France by Mark Landless (you can tell he’s the hero because the cover copy says he’s the hero) (Also he has a scar on his face that does not mar his hotness), and brought to Bath where he is her guardian. The reason Mark comes for her is because the Marquise was his cousin, and Purity’s father tried to help the Marquise escape from the evil Marquis, and Mark swore to take care of the bailiff’s family, or something. He did a bang up job, considering the bailiff and his wife were murdered by the French Revolution. If you think this makes no goddamn sense, you would be right.
Anyway, in the course of the next 8 years or so, Purity falls in Girlish Infatuation with Mark, and makes him the Ugliest Tea Cozy In The World, which he tosses into the fireplace (not realizing she made it) and she is packed off to an upper class, ladies boarding school. In her dorm, the other girls have found porn, and, as happens in all these stories, start experimenting in all ways that they can without losing their all-important virginity. They make a pact to tell each other everything about their sexual exploits.
In the course of all of this, Purity meets Freddy, a wastrel younger son who thinks she’s very pretty. At one point, to discourage his attentions, she shoves him in a fountain.
The lead Mean Girl, Phillida, hauls up the mentally deficient son of the gardener to experiment with, and when he is in bed with one of the girls, he rapes her and she eventually kills herself due to her loss of virtue. Purity is disgusted by all of this, and refusing to tell them about Freddy, so for her punishment, she is tied to her bed hand and foot. The Mean Girl tells her she is going to let the gardener’s son have his way with her.
One of the other girls knocks over a candle and unties Purity, she runs home to Mark, to find him in the process of screwing a maid, and she flies into a rage and goes to Freddy’s house, where she tells him she will marry him, and they go to bed. Mark is like, “Hey ’grats on the wedding, see you there.” After the wedding (where he is cold and indifferent) he goes off with the Army to go fight Napoleon.
And on the wedding night she discovers that Freddy is a sadistic rapist who beats her and ravishes her every night, he’s in serious debt and only married her to make his rich great-aunt happy so the rich great aunt wouldn’t disinherit him. At some point, she runs into this 18-year-old soldier who was about to leave for a rendezvous with fate at Trafalgar, so she very generously has sex with him so he need not die a virgin.
Her coachman saw all of this go down, and blackmails Purity into screwing him many many times to keep him from telling her evil husband. Purity falls pregnant, and doesn’t know who the father is- it might be the young soldier or it might be the coachman- but it’s definitely not her husband. The coachman takes her to a midwife who gives her an abortificant, and in the process the coachman gets killed by a Plot Mob.
Purity doesn’t take the abortificant, and the rich great aunt realizes she is pregnant and is so thrilled she confirms Freddy as her heir. Freddy is fine with the fact that he’s not the father, until his cousins overhear Purity telling him that she doesn’t know who the father is, they promptly go tell the great aunt, and Freddy beats the shit out of Purity, rapes her (again), and she loses the baby and….he dies, somehow.
He owes a crap ton of money to everyone in the world, so she’s left with nothing, so she heads off to go find a job, because going home to Mark and his slutty screwing of the maids is not acceptable. This does not work well, since she went to a ladies finishing school and knows NOTHING about ANYTHING. She gets picked up by a woman who offers her a “position” as a “ladies maid” to a “family” but really it’s a position “on her back” as a “high-class whore” to “men who can afford the fee.” Purity runs out of the house, nekkid, and is picked up by Alastair Monmouth, who does “stuff” but is also pretty clearly a hypnotist. He hypnotizes her into taking a bunch of men to her bed. She knows that she did all these things, but had no control over herself when doing them. The men, I mean.
The shit hits the fan when Mean Girl from boarding school shows up at the same time as Mark (who showed up because Hypnotist is a war criminal) and Mean Girl throws all this crap in Purity’s face- hypnotist was using her as part of the payment to get these men to do things to further his Evil War Criminal Agenda. Mark is completely enraged that Purity would fuck men at Monmouth’s command and rapes her as she’s shrieking “Don’t rape me, Mark! Please don’t rape me!”
We’re at the midpoint of the book, and let us tot it up: Purity has had consensual sex twice, been raped by six men (two of them multiple times), and nearly raped by a seventh.
So she runs away from Monmouth and finds a Gypsy man that she knew in her previous term of homelessness, and he nearly dies in a prizefight, and while he is in recovery, they trek to Wales and become lovers. After a year or so, the Gypsy leaves her, and she goes back to Mark’s house in Bath with the intent of confronting him. And saying that she now knows what she had for him was just Girlish Infatuation, but now that he’s raped her and she went off on a Gypsy hermitage for a year, she’s forgiven him and loves him. And if he’s still angry with her for all the things that weren’t really her fault, that’s fine, she’ll leave. Mark has resigned from the Army and spent the past year looking for her, because he realized that Raping The Woman You Love Is Bad.
Oh, well, then. Good for him.
Turns out, Purity is not the daughter of the bailiff at the chateau in France, she was the daughter of the Marquise and some dandy at Versailles, and was smuggled out to be raised by the bailiff and his wife. And the Marquise was the childhood sweetheart of Mark, who fell in love with her daughter (That’s Purity), and was angry at the Marquise because he never got to have sex with her, so he took it out on Purity.
As long as he can identify his anger, or something.
So they get married, he rejoins the Army to defeat Napoleon once and for all, and she follows him to the Iberian Peninsula. Where who should show up while Mark is away killing Frenchies but Monmouth, who tells Purity that he has proof that Mark let him get out of the country ahead of a charge of High Treason, because of her, thus committing high treason himself, and in order to get possession of that evidence (a letter), she must allow him to fuck her in her marriage bed.
So she does, many times (because he can set a world record for turnaround time). And then in the morning, he tells her that Mark wouldn’t be so stupid has to put that kind of offer in writing, Monmouth just wanted to fuck her while she was in her full possession of her senses. And then Monmouth leaves and Mark comes home and it’s all good, except for this whole shame thing she’s got going on, and Monmouth shows up as the guest of honor at a dinner party they were invited to. Monmouth tells Mark EVERYTHING, all the depraved stuff he got Purity to do, Mark kills Monmouth in a duel and Purity is like “well fuck this noise” and goes back to the Chateau where she grew up and whips all the peasants into shape.
Mark goes on to Waterloo, where he finds a bunch of French POWs that are also Purity’s Peasants, and finds her and they run into each other’s arms and… curtain.
Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack here. And I really can’t separate the fact that I am a woman in 2010 reading this, with the benefits provided to me by second and third wave feminism, the fact that I live with an activist whose primary goals are ending rape and promoting healthy sexuality (I’ve learned a lot from her), and just the changes in perceptions of women’s sexuality that has happened in the 30 years since this book has been written. In addition to all of that, there has been several sea changes in the romance genre since the 1970s. I can’t look at this book in the context in which it was written; because that’s not the context I read it in.
This is about as subjective as you can get. I admit that.
First and foremost is all the rape. ALL THE RAPE. Seven rapists (three may not have know she was not consenting to sex with them, but we’re looking at her POV), including the hero. Six near-rapes I can think of. Four partners consensually, two of which raped her before or after she consented. It’s seriously fucked up.
And even when she is having consensual sex, the author talks about the men “taking her.” As if she’s not really active in the sex. Even in the case of the Gypsy dude, where he’s broken and battered and “not yet a real man” she goes to him and offers herself for him to take. The lesson here is passivity in all encounters.
(I am SO SO glad I was reading Zoe Archer’s Scoundrel on my iPod during my commute to school while reading this book at bedtime. Archer knows how to write a heroine that knows what she wants from sex and life and is an active participant in both. Sometimes even the instigator. Thank you, Zoe, you may have saved my sanity.)
We have several tropes of female sexuality here, and they are all disturbing. First, there’s Purity herself, who is only allowed to be a passive recipient. She’s cursed with having this body that drives men wild (says so on the cover copy) and the only man that could bring her to orgasm (I think… if I’m reading the 70s euphemisms right) was Mark, until Monmouth comes along (and comes, and comes, and comes- shortest turnaround time known to man, for real) and he deliberately brings her to orgasm several times because that’s the revenge on Mark that he wanted. (Instead of flinging herself off a mountain, she’s flinging herself into a pit of perfect despair. I don’t even know.)
The second trope is “those women who embrace their sexuality are evil whores” and we see this is Mean Girl Phillida. She was the one who organized the whole “let’s experiment with the porn!” thing, and she’s presented as mean, conniving, evil, and without morals- she’ll screw anything that moves. She told Purity that she fucked Mark just to make Purity upset. She told Mark about Monmouth being Purity’s pimp and being a war criminal, and gets killed but Monmouth’s men on the way (and tries to fuck her way out of it, and fails).
The other girls from boarding school we run into both die as a result of sex- one I previously mentioned killed herself because she couldn’t prove her virginity to prospective in-laws, and the other becomes a low-class whore Purity runs into while with the Army in Portugal, and dies of the pox.
Purity’s own mother is said to have Purity’s same problem- her body just drives men crazy and they can’t help but fuck her, but Purity’s mother didn’t have the same strength of character or whatever that Purity has. I really don’t know what that means, except maybe Purity refusing to “give her heart” to any man but Mark is strength of character? I mean, her other options were to give heart to one of her many rapists, so….
I know this seems kind of disingenuous, since I liked Magnus from Season of the Sun (to an extent), yet I want Mark dead. But I do. I hated all the men in this book. I feel bad for Purity because her author give her nothing- not a backbone, not a personality, not a talent, not a scrap of luck, nothing. Hot guy with scar doesn’t make all this better.
Here’s another thing, and I don’t know if it’s a OG Old School issue, or just a result of my small sample size, but there’s no flesh to the character of Mark at ALL. He’s this guy who stalks in an out of the story with a stony expression, and sometimes Purity thinks wistfully about him (or gets mad at him for screwing the maids. In fact, she’s more mad at him for screwing the maids than she is mad at him for raping her), but there’s nothing about what he thinks, or feels, or wants. I mentioned in my review of Adora I want a romance to be a story about a relationship. Yes, they tend to be more about the heroine than the hero, but the hero has to have something to him other than a scar. This is all Purity’s story, not their story, and we have no idea what makes him tick, or why she loves him, or why he loves her. They do, because the story requires them to love each other.
But really, I want to have some words with the author, because who puts her heroine through all this shit? Seriously? And to have the end be “and they run across the field into each other’s arms to swelling orchestral music” and THAT IS IT? No conclusion to what happened with Monmouth? Does Mark know about the blackmail or not? WHY IS THE DANGLING END OF THIS ANNOYING THREAD BOTHERING ME.
The argument of “IT’S HISTORICALLY ACCURATE OKAY” doesn’t really fly with me, or at least, not when the abuse of your main character is this thorough. You don’t have to put your heroine through all of this shit. You don’t have to make your hero a cardboard cutout with a scar on his face. You can make your characters likeable, even with all the abuse and horror (okay, that’s more of a dig at Bertrice Small, I admit that Purity was sort of likeable, if you like your friends rather dim). You can be historically accurate and not make the reading experience so miserable.
On a more shallow note, the writing was, on the whole, not bad. It wasn’t as over-wrought as Bertrice Small, (can you tell I really don’t like her?) and the dialogue sounded like the author had at least listened to how people talk (and then mixed it with a more formal “this is how people in Olden Times talked”). However, and this is another convention of the 70s, I’m pretty sure, while there was a LOT of sex (like a LOT), it’s not explicitly described. There are a lot of mountains of pure bliss, and jumping off mountains, and taking, but no specifics. Even when Monmouth is making her do all these depraved things, she revolts at his “most outrageous demand,” and he offers to get his servant to make her do it…. But I have no idea what that could be. Oral on him? Oral on her? Anal? Did they know about heterosexual anal in the 70s? Watersports? SERIOUSLY THIS DEMAND WHAT IS IT I NEED TO KNOW.
I know that the mores of how explicit a sex scene can be has changed over the past 40 years- I think we were talking in the Book Club Discussion in September about how nothing is complete without anal anymore, whereas about 20 years ago, the idea of her going down on him was like, DIRTY. I can’t be the only one that’s read The Pearl, the Victorian magazine of erotica. For the time, the stories are rather lewd, but not as graphic as they could be. And as I was reading the section of Purity’s Passion that takes place in the boarding school, it almost seemed like I was reading a cleaned up version of Victorian porn.
Someone in the comments of the Season of the Sun review talked about how these OG Old School books with all the rape are more like forced orgasm fantasies. Which, if the main audience for this type of book is women who are just old enough to feel like they missed the Sexual Revolution, and are still stuck in the idea that active enjoyment of sex is something forbidden, then yes, I can accept that argument. It makes me incredibly sad, that this is one of the few acceptable places where women’s sexuality is even up for discussion, and even then it’s all passive reception on the woman’s part. You are allowed to enjoy it, as long as you didn’t initiate it, and you’re not an active participant.
My own theory on rape fantasies is that part of the attraction is that the onus of the active portion of the sex on the top, so if the bottom has no idea what they are doing, it’s okay. This is a completely unscientific theory, and does not, obviously, apply to everyone.
Here’s something that’s been turning over in my head for the past week: In the time these were written, by women for women, we, as a society, were still deep in the throes of putting the onus of preventing rape on women (“She shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt” and “Well what the hell did she expect, being in a bar and having fun”) and still defining rape as unwanted sex that the woman resisted “to the utmost.” (You want an exercise in Rage? Look at the Model Penal Code’s suggestions on what rape statutes should be like. And then thank your lucky stars that very few jurisdictions even considered them). Anyway, I feel like there is some connection between the romance novels by and for women being so rape-heavy, and the culture being even more rape-culture-y than it is now. I don’t know if the rape culture created the trend in the literature, or it is just correlation, not causation. I’ve been pondering this for a while now, and haven’t reached any conclusions. Any thoughts, or am I just making shit up?
To conclude, as Abigail Bartlet says, “It’s our history. Better or worse, it’s our history. We’re not going to lock it in the basement or brush it with a new coat of paint. It’s our history.” The evolution from this leads to Vivian Vaughn (one of my favorite early 90’s writers, who we will be discussing in the future), La Nora, and the awesomeness that is Joanna Bourne, my beloved Caroline Linden, and my new favorite person, Zoe Archer. (SERIOUSLY. SAVED MY SANITY.) But just because it’s history and we can’t ignore the fact that it exists doesn’t mean I have to read it.
I don’t mind reading with a look of perpetual “WTF” on my face. I think I’ve made that pretty clear. But this? Reading with my lip curled in disgust the entire time? No. Many times no. No more OG Old School- I’m going to stick with the early 90s bubblegum.
EDITED TO ADD: I see while digging up the publication info that there is two more books in the Purity Series- Purity’s Ecstasy and Purity’s Shame (and no summaries for either, except apparently there are pirates involved (OF COURSE THERE ARE))). So I suppose that my complaints about the rather abrupt ending were addressed, and it’s possible that Mark and Purity have an actual conversation (but no money on that bet. Why would they start now?). However, looking at just the title for Purity’s Shame makes me go, “…my god, Seymour is going to heap another 800 pages of crap on her heroine’s head?” Of course my Trainwreck Syndrome is shouting, “Oooooo! We HAVE to find out how bad this gets. WE ARE A COMPLETIST IT MUST BE DONE” but I’m going to resist that urge for as long as I can.