The Deadly Beauty Regime: Historical Practices of Risky Cosmetics


From the mountainous region of Styria, Austria, to the high society salons in Mayfair, London, the quest for beauty has taken humans on a dangerous journey.

This journey, spanning centuries, has been marked by the use of deadly substances such as arsenic, radium, mercury, cantharidin, petroleum, and X-rays as cosmetics and remedies.

Arsenic: The Austrians’ Potion of Beauty

In the mid-19th century, Styrians in southeast Austria were known for their unusual practice of consuming arsenic trioxide, also known as ‘white arsenic’.

Arsenic was not just a feared poison but was used as a medicine and a beautifying agent.

The Styrians reported increased stamina and enhanced complexion, attributing their rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes to arsenic consumption.

Arsenic’s popularity soared as it offered short-term benefits, including a temporary flush to the cheeks due to capillary dilation.

The late 19th-century cosmetic market saw arsenic-brd products like ‘Dr James P Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers’ and arsenic-laced soaps that stayed in demand well into the 1930s.

Radium: The Radiant Element of Beauty

Around 1911, Helen Cavendish in Mayfair, London, introduced a line of beauty products utilizing radium, a radioactive element discovered by the Curies.

This line, known as Caradium, contained products like shampoos and face creams made with radium water and herbs.

The theory of mild radium therapy suggested that exposure to small doses of radium triggered a chain of psychological reactions, improving joint movements and boosting the immune system. 

Despite the known dangers of radium, these products reportedly caused minimal harm due to the minuscule amounts used.

Mercury: The Quicksilver Cure

Dating back to the 1300s, mercury or ‘quicksilver’ was used to treat skin issues like psoriasis and leprosy. In the 17th century, mercury was part of the recipe “to procure Beauty” published in Hannah Woolley’s book.

The effects of mercury, however, were detrimental. Its accumulation in the body resulted in tissue damage, stomach ulcers, loosening of teeth, and damage to the nervous system. 

Mercury was finally struck off the British Pharmacopoeia, a register of approved remedies, in the 1950s.

Link to the rest at

Not exactly about books and writing, but potentially of interest to those who write historical fiction.

7 Novels About Falling In (And Out Of) Love in London

From Electric Lit:

London has served as the setting for many a novel—the backdrop to tales of scrappy orphans and drunk, dancing thirty-somethings, of marmalade-adoring bears and magical nannies. It’s also, of course, the setting for so many love stories.

Not quite as romantic as Paris, nor as hustle-and-bustle-y as New York, London sits somewhere in the middle, a charming city with grit, a gritty city with charm. And its greatest love stories often walk a similar tightrope. Sure, some feature the type of happily-ever-after in which the music swells and crescendos at the end; but, like its own identity and character, the majority of London’s love stories are constructed from a combination of toughness and tenderness, of joy and complications. They capture the beauty of falling in love, of course, but they also capture the reclaimed power that comes—sometimes—with falling out of it. 

It’s a balance I’d like to think my own novel, Adelaide, has struck. Set in London, it details the rise and fall of a torrid and toxic relationship between the titular Adelaide Williams and a foppish-haired, emotionally unavailable Englishman named Rory Hughes—a relationship Adelaide eventually (and somewhat disastrously) exits, choosing instead to put herself first. Toeing the line between commercial and literary fiction, Adelaide, like London, hopefully balances light with dark—something so many brilliant writers, and their London-based novels, have done before. 

This reading list features seven books that strike a similar balance—each telling its own version of what it means to fall in and out of love in the British capital.

. . . .

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

I’ve heard other writers describe Dolly Alderton as a millennial Nora Ephron—big shoes to fill, surely, but if anyone can wear them with confidence, it’s Dolly. And Ghosts, her debut novel, is a shining illustration of why. 

It follows Nina Dean, a food writer in her early thirties living in north London, as she navigates the shifting nature of a number of relationships: with friends, with parents, with ex-boyfriends, and one, notably, with a beguiling man named Max. Alderton brilliantly captures the twists and turns of modern dating—the joy of late-night dancing, the distress of being ghosted—with sharp humor as well as big-hearted tenderness. An Ephron-esque talent, no doubt. 

Maame by Jessica George

Maame by Jessica George is predominantly a coming-of-age story about 26-year-old Maddie Wright, but it’s speckled with romantic adventures (and entanglements) throughout. George tackles everything from the magic of first kisses to the hellish nature of apps (including the fetishization and microaggressions to which Black women are far too often subjected) to the challenges of dating while grieving with unparalleled grace and wit, painting a painfully accurate portrait of one young woman’s love life in London.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Writing Action-Adventure for Women

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Unexpected female main characters have always held a particular fascination for me. I recently watched Enola Holmes with my daughters, and it fed my soul to see a young woman as a smart, resourceful fighter. and not a helpless creature incapable of saving others. Women can be fierce, active participants in the world around them. I write historical action-adventure for exactly this reason.

I have my doctorate degree in physical therapy, and have spent my entire adult life learning about kinesiology. How people move has always fascinated me. We’re trained to examine body language and how that conveys emotion, so naturally, adventure books called to me. Unfortunately, so few feature women in main roles.

Action-adventure is often geared toward a male audience. A hero’s journey is much more solitary, with women often serving the purpose of being the hero’s conquest, with the all-too-common sexualization of women’s bodies. Writing action for women doesn’t always have the goal of power and conquering. For me, these stories focus on family and sisterhood, bonding women and encouraging them to stand up for themselves. How truly refreshing to use a woman’s body for power and strength and courage, rather than to satisfy a man.

Young women have always been a quiet but persistent force in history, but their stories have been largely ignored. I write historical action-adventure to celebrate women working together as an impetus for change. Women are taught far too often to see each other as rivals from a very young age. I think this might be because women together are a force—dangerous even—to the power systems that keep women passive and quiet. I’d like to believe that when women read about trusting each other, supporting each other, and making the right choices for themselves, we can unlearn some of the toxic beliefs we’ve learned.

So much of women’s history has been hidden and washed away and minimized. Once I started searching, I discovered stories of incredible women who broke all expectations. Female acrobatic pilots and Victorian tattoo artists, women kings from the Middle Ages, survivalists and medieval entrepreneurs. Women who take an active role in their destiny and fight for their dreams have always existed, just rarely celebrated.

Maybe I’m tired of the narrative that women can’t be loud and difficult. The idea that women can’t take up space infuriates me. I want to see those daring women and travel on their adventures. I want to watch them fight and battle for what they want.

In my March 30th release, Daughter of the Shadows, 17th century heroine Isabelle mentors under a female Huron warrior, and she in turn teaches others. She fights to save her fellow Protestants from certain death at the direction of her devious husband and Isabelle learns to put her own needs aside to save everyone she cares about. The heart of action-adventure for me is a journey of the body and the mind, driven by empathy and courage.

Action must go beyond the simple pronoun + verb. Movement can show us who a character is by their body language, how they react, what they notice in their environment, and most importantly, what they’re trying to prove. Why are they traveling/fighting/running? If you don’t have an answer for that, the action will feel shallow. Understand their motivation and their adventures will have meaning.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

PG notes that, once again, the publisher of this book, Black Rose Writing, doesn’t have any preview on Amazon for interested prospective purchasers to examine the first few pages of the book.

As he has mentioned before, PG thinks this is a foolish habit of more than a few publishers. If the author helps promote the book prior to publication, as is the case with this article from Women Writers, Women’s Books, why disable one of the best ways to hook curious readers into preordering by not allowing them to examine a few pages of the book?

Anyone who has spent serious time in a physical bookstore has observed dozens of shoppers open a physical book and read through a few pages while deciding whether to purchase it or not.

Amazon, which has learned a thing or two about selling books online, developed its Look Inside feature to allow shoppers to continue that same book-buying behavior and enjoy it on their various screens.

In this case, Women Writers, Women’s Books, includes a detailed description of the book at the end of the OP, but giving interested viewers an opportunity to check out the actual book could well close the deal for more than a few who planned to take a wait-and-see strategy until they could actually examine what was inside the book to avoid the hassle of trying to return a book they wouldn’t like.

Nobody Knows Marketing Like Romance Authors

From Jane Friedman:

KRISTEN TSETSI: What did you like to read when you first got into book reading, and how did you veer into reading—and then writing—romance, whether paranormal or, as a few of your novels are, darker?

KITTY THOMAS: I used to love the Goosebumps books as a kid. I wanted to be RL Stine. I was a snob about romance for the longest time, even in my Goosebumps days. Even in 8th grade, romance novels weren’t “real books.” I have no idea why. I guess internalized misogyny, which is really fancy talk for… the culture disrespects it because it disrespects the feminine. I picked up on that even though nobody sat me down and told me they weren’t real books. There was just this sneering derision about them. And a lot of eye rolling around Harlequin novels.

And I certainly don’t want to crap on Harlequin novels, but romance is so much bigger than one publisher, and yet they were all lumped in together as one thing.

As a side note, I was also a snob about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I didn’t realize it was poking fun at itself and such a smartly written show). Ultimately I became a romance author because I couldn’t find the TV remote to change the channel and got sucked in to the Buffy and Spike drama. (I think it was a rerun of season 4.) I was beyond upset that Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together. I mean it was A. Thing. with me.

So when Buffy and Spike didn’t end up together (I know, spoiler, but the show is SO old. You know, Old Yeller dies at the end, too), I ended up writing fanfic to soothe my battered soul over it. Then I realized that I actually DO like romance and that maybe the love story is all I really care about, after all. (Now romance is all I really read: paranormals, dark, romcoms, sometimes alien/sci-fi.)

So I started reading paranormal romance and then writing it. But Pauline Reage’s Story of O was what inspired Comfort Food, my first darker book. It just made me mad that all these erotic books had to moralize, and the couple couldn’t be together in the end because it was “wrong.” Screw that. When you’re an island unto yourself, who cares what society thinks?

What does paranormal romance (PNR) offer that traditional, human-on-human romance doesn’t, both to the writer and the reader?

I think PNR filled the gap for bodice rippers when those started disappearing off the shelves. Publishers decided that because of sexism bodice rippers were no longer socially acceptable. I totally love when an organization makes a blanket decision about what women shouldn’t be allowed to read because it’s sexist. Ummm, did they not pause to self-reflect and consider that maybe policing women’s fantasies and acting as though we can’t handle our own reading choices wasn’t itself sexist?

It’s not as though these books were written by and for men. They were written by and for women, and then roundly rejected by mostly male-led publishing companies.

Of course now there is dark romance, so in some ways that’s the new bodice ripper. But people still do like their vampires and werewolves.

What do you think the new trend (if that’s the right word) in romance might be? Or, maybe, what would you like it to be, if you could choose?

Well, one new trend I notice popping up is reverse harems. This is where you have a story with one heroine and multiple males. But it’s not a triangle. It’s not like she’s going to “pick one.” It’s “Why not have all of them?” And it’s not two guys and a girl. That’s menage. This is usually three or four, sometimes five males who are all in a relationship with the heroine. Though honestly I think three is the perfect number for these books. After that it starts to get unwieldy. Usually this is also a paranormal romance.

A common trope is werewolves who all share the same fated mate, though I’ve seen it done other ways. I’ve also seen it done without the paranormal element. I’ve got one called The Proposal in my dark wedding duet. The heroine has decided she’s tired of men stringing her along and wasting her time when she wants to get married and have kids, so she starts rotational dating. She’s chosen to remain celibate and just date a man harem until somebody gives her a ring.

Amazingly this actually works, but as she upgrades her man harem she doesn’t realize she’s dating three men who all know each other and have decided to just share her, like forever.

I don’t think I have to explain why this sort of thing is a fantasy for women. LOL! I trust the intelligence of your readers to work it out. Though the interesting thing is reverse harems aren’t erotica. They may have sex in them, but they are romance where by the end there is a functioning and happy polyandrous unit, so it’s not just about the sex. It’s also about the feelings.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

For PG, the romance category is terra incognita. Mrs. PG has written quite a number of Regencies in years past and prior to closing down his law practice, PG provided services for several romance authors, including some who were very successful, but PG is still a naïf where romance is concerned.

For the record, if PG were to rank his author clients based upon the level of business savvy he sensed during his discussions and email interactions with them, several romance authors would be at the top of his list. They ran their careers very effectively and asked PG questions that most published authors would not have considered.

He had no question in his mind that these women (he knows men write romance as well, but these were women) were operating with more business savvy than any of the numerous traditional publishing executives and lawyers with whom he had held business/legal discussions.

Incidentally, in the OP, PG enjoyed the term, “upgrades her man harem” quite a lot.

Sex, drugs, celebrities, vampires – Just another day in the Regency

From The Austen Connection:

Lately we’ve been thinking way too much about the real life of the Regency.

And what’s got us thinking about this is not only the recent discussions about what’s historic and what’s not in the recent Persuasion film, but also a big book – Robert Morrison’s history The Regency Years: During which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern.

It appears, friends, that in Jane Austen’s real times it was of course (we know this, but we forget!) not just manners and romance among the privet hedges but also was an awful lot of chaos, and violence, and injustice based on gender, on race, on class, on ability, and on whom we chose to love.

. . . .

Here’s our list of some serious Real Regency things – just a few – that you can often see in the subtext of Austen but that you might not find in the bold glare of the screen version of your favorite Jane Austen adaptation.

. . . .

Lady rakes! 

We have on the side of the Rakes, not only Willoughby, Wickham and Henry Crawford breaking hearts, but we also have Lydia Bennet, and also: Mary Crawford, who in this day and age we’re always tempted to like! We have lady rakes! 

Other Real Regency Lady Rakes, to list just three obvious ones, include Lady Libertines like:

  • Real-life Lady Caroline Lamb, and her novel Glenarvon
  • Real-life Duchess of Devonshire, and her novel The Sylph
  • Real-life Claire Clairmont, half-sister of Mary Shelley, who labored away pursuing Percy Shelley in a love triangle with Shelley and Shelley, and then pursued Byron, with whom she had a child, Allegra. 

Yes, the Lady Libertines might have more at stake and more suffering at hand than their male-identifying counterparts – but like their Libertine male cousins, they do operate from a position of privilege that powers their carelessness.

It’s a class thing: Rakes and Privilege

And Austen for one is not here for any of it.

These rakes like Byron, Shelley, and the Prince Regent himself were able to simply ignore social strictures of their day. They “reveled in almost unfettered sexual freedom” of the “libertine creed,” writes Morrison. “The Regency era was the last great brazen huzzah for rakes” before the Evangelical forces won out for the Victorian age.

Yes these rakes are present in the adaptations, but in the Real Regency they were a dominant force, and part of the power base.

So next time you are enjoying your Austen adaptation’s rolling bucolic countryside drive into an English Great House like Mansfield Park, just remember that Austen was de-fanging, parodying, and turning upside down the immense powers of rakery, privilege, exploitation, and carelessness exemplified by the gentleman sitting on top of it all – whether it’s Mansfield’s Henry Crawford, or the Prince Regent himself, chief rake of the Regency. 

Link to the rest at The Austen Connection

The Sublime Danielle Steel: For the Love of Supermarket Schlock

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1978, BILL GROSE, editor-in-chief at Dell, decided to make a star of a young author from San Francisco. Grose was a thumper of novelizations from popular film and television, a fan of media tie-ins, a man with his finger in the air to feel the direction of the wind. Dell, a mass-market house, had recently been acquired by the trade giant Doubleday, which also owned radio and television stations and would in two years buy the New York Mets. Grose and Dell were looking for the next big thing. This woman, Grose thought, was it. She had a made-for-marketing name, too. Danielle Steel.

She wasn’t born with that name, exactly. She cut it from Danielle Fernandes Dominique Schuelein-Steel. Her mother was a Catholic Portuguese American and her father a Jewish German refugee who fled to New York City from Hitler’s Third Reich. They divorced when Steel was eight. She had a lonely childhood living with her father in Manhattan at 45th and Lexington, “a very adult kind of childhood,” she said, attending dinner parties and watching adults flirt or talk politics. She attended the elite Lycée Français de New York, fantasizing about becoming a nun. In her teens, she attended haute couture shows in Paris and fell for fashion. Her grandmother gave her her first couture suit when she was 17. She married a wealthy French banker, Claude-Eric Lazard, when she was 18 and studied at Parsons School of Design and NYU. In 1968, at 20, she gave birth to a daughter, Beatrix, but she wanted more than to be a mother. She saw two women on The Tonight Show talking about their PR firm, Supergirls. The next day she called to apply for a job.

Steel arrived at work looking like Audrey Hepburn: big eyes, short hair, outfitted in the season’s high fashion. She was quickly named director of public relations and vice president of marketing. She buzzed around the office with incredible energy, chain-smoking, making needlepoint kitsch, and typing letters to prospective clients in French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese (if not always with perfect grammar). One of her clients, an editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, saw promise in Steel as a writer, and told her so.

She took him seriously and wrote her first novel in the summer of 1971. She hired an agent and sold the book to Pocket Books, which published it in 1973. The protagonist is a woman who works for advertising campaigns and women’s magazines, a young divorced single mother who moves to San Francisco from New York to restart her life. There she falls in love with a filmmaker who also works in advertising, a bad boy who gets her pregnant and, when she refuses an abortion, sends her back to New York. But she can’t quit him — until he dies in a freak accident on set. She has the baby, but the baby dies within the day. In the end, our heroine runs off with the art director of the women’s mag where she now works.

It’s a bawdy post-feminist romance, closer to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which came out that same year, than Kathleen Woodiwiss’s chaste The Flame and the Flower from the year before, which helped build a massive audience for historical romance. Steel’s debut bears traces of literary ambition, expressed by her avatar-protagonist who brings a short story anthology with her to set just in case she has time to read and is thrilled by a dinner party where the discussion rushes from “Japanese literature” to “the political implications of American literature vs Russian literature at the turn of the century.” But the novel was primly panned in Publishers Weekly; its protagonist, “for all her beauty, sophistication, and use of the proper four-letter words, is not very interesting, and neither is her story,” read the verdict. The book sold modestly.

Steel, like her protagonist, moved to San Francisco. She had separated from Claude-Eric and lived for a spell in a commune with a band of street musicians. She often visited a friend in the hospital who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam but who had negotiated an early release to participate in a medical study for NASA. The patient in the next room, Danny Zugelder, an inveterate bank robber, developed a crush on Steel, and the two began corresponding, which continued after he was sent back to Lompoc Correctional Institute. He says that they consummated the relationship in the prison’s women’s bathroom. She rented a flat in Pacific Heights and took a job as a copywriter for an ad agency and wrote fiction at night. Zugelder was released in 1973 but was arrested again and sent to the state penitentiary in Vacaville in 1975 for robbery and sexual assault. He and Steel married in the prison canteen that year. She published her second novel, a romance about a socialite and her ex-con, prison-abolitionist lover, in 1977, and her third, about a man falsely accused of rape, in 1978. Both did decently well for Dell, selling several hundred thousand copies.

That’s about when Bill Grose decided it was time to make her famous.

. . . .

When I met Sean Fader, he was wearing a pink tee that said, “Ask Me About Danielle Steel.” His beard was auburn, thick, well trimmed, and flecked with gray. His eyes were cobalt and intensely present. Fader is a conceptual artist working with photography and performance and at the moment he — like I — was obsessed with Steel. “Please,” he said, “come into my studio.”

There, on a small table, sat a typewriter, a bowl of grapes, and a copy of Steel’s novel Daddy. On learning that Steel writes on a 1946 Olympia, he rebuilt the closest he could acquire, a 1954 Smith Corona Silent Super, and used it to type her a very long letter with a strange request. He wanted her to collaborate with him on a photographic project about the original sugar daddy.

In 1990, Steel bought the Spreckels Mansion, a French Baroque chateau in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, built in 1913 by Adolph Spreckels for his wife, Alma. Spreckels inherited a Hawaiian sugar plantation staffed by Japanese immigrants and the largest sugar refinery on the West Coast. Fader wrote to Steel, “Since he was 24 years older than her and his money came from sugar, she called him her ‘sugar daddy.’” (Fader acknowledges that the couple didn’t popularize the phrase: that happened a few years later with a serialized story in a Syracuse paper and then the still-extant candy, which rebranded after trying “Papa Sucker.”) Alma chose the site for the chateau because of its views of the San Francisco Bay. “Is it still true that you can see six counties from the circular observatory?” Fader asks Steel. “Did you know that she put the pool in her/your backyard to swim naked while drinking pitchers of martinis in order to piss off the neighbors?”

After seven typed pages, including a description of how he worked with a milliner to build a replica of a flamboyant wool-and-ostrich-feather hat of Alma’s, Fader comes to his request: “I want to take a picture in your home with me as Adolph and a twinky boy 24 years younger than me as Alma. I want to model the photograph after several Rodin sculptures and a few early 20th-century paintings that Alma had in her collection.” And he wanted Steel in the background.

Trying flattery, he wrote, regarding her Instagram, “If you find you are getting a lot of followers in the Southeast, it may be because of me.” To be candid, reader, it may also be because of me.

. . . .

It was unexpected. She used to be like Muzak to me, or JonBenét Ramsey: supermarket schlock. I have no memories before she was there, so I assumed she always had been, ageless, outside of time, a brand like little Debbie from Little Debbie is a brand.

But then I started studying the publishing industry. Why, of all possible book worlds, had we ended up with ours? Once I posed that question, I could see that Danielle Steel was a cosmic accident whose story revealed the hidden logic of contemporary publishing, what I call the conglomerate era for reasons I will explain in a moment. This is to say, at first my interest was professional. How long could it stay that way, though, given the life she’s led and the books she’s written? The more I learned about her, the more obsessed I became. Soon she was the only topic I wanted to talk or tweet about. I went out with friends and harangued them for hours: Claude-Eric, Supergirls, the Vacaville wedding; the vault into superstardom; novels with titles such as Message From Nam, The Klone and I, and Toxic Bachelors. Eventually we’d arrive at the difficult present.

Something unsettling has happened to Steel. For the first couple decades, she published one or two novels most years. From 1997 through 2014, she plateaued at a steady three. In 2015, she ticked up to four. Then, in 2016, an alarming six. She’s done six or seven annually since. That’s a novel every 50 days or so for a woman now 74 years old.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books and thanks to K. for the tip.

Don’t Call Them Trash

From The Atlantic:

One of my most enduring school memories is of an austere English teacher urging us—a class of two dozen 13-year-old girls with all the raging hormones of a Harry Styles arena tour—not to succumb to the books of Jackie Collins. “If you read trash, girls,” she articulated, with icy precision, “you will write trash.” Thinking back on this, all I can summon is: I wish. Collins sold half a billion novels during her life, made more than $100 million, and had a Beverly Hills mansion and a gold Jaguar XKR with the license plate lucky77. We should all be so blessed as to write like she did.

Still, for me, the message stuck—not a moralistic warning about the dangers of sexually explicit popular fiction, but an aesthetic one. The idea that “bad” novels could poison someone’s thinking, could plant roots in the recesses of her brain only to send out shoots of florid prose years later, was an alarming one. I read all of Jackie Collins anyway, while feeling slightly embarrassed about it, my initiation into a world where virtually everything that’s pleasurable for women is shaded with guilt. Her characters—bold, beautiful women striding through Hollywood in leopard-print jodhpurs and suede Alaïa boots—embodied a combination of desirability and ambition that was totally intoxicating to a British teenager with a school uniform and a clarinet. And her writing did settle into my subconscious, I can see now, but not at all in the ways my teacher feared it would.

Dip even a toe into the pool of popular fiction by women writers, and you’ll discover that this word, trash, has a long lineage. George Eliot, in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” excoriated what she interpreted as “the most trashy and rotten kind of feminine literature,” a genre of contemporary fiction that concerned itself merely with “the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces,” written by ladies in “elegant boudoirs, with violet-colored ink and a ruby pen.” One year earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a fit of pique, had vented to his publisher about the “damned mob of scribbling women” dominating the American literary market. “I should have no chance of success,” he pouted, “while the public is occupied with their trash.”

The intellectual disdain for novels enjoyed by women often went hand in hand with a paternalistic sense of unease about how these kinds of stories might influence the innocent, unsuspecting reader. “Let us go into the houses of the poor, and try to discover what is the effect on the maiden mind of the trash which maidens buy,” Edward G. Salmon suggested in his 1886 essay “What Girls Read.” “We should probably find that the high-flown conceits and pretensions of the poorer girls of the period, their dislike of manual work and love of freedom, spring largely from notions imbibed in the course of a perusal of their penny fictions.”

Salmon might have been onto something. I’m not here to suggest that all, or even most, romance novels aspire to be highbrow endeavors (the works of E. L. James in particular are still the most brain-meltingly awful and regressive things I’ve ever read), or that a novelist’s popularity is a metric for literary accomplishment. Or that no “literary” fiction these days devotes sexually graphic attention to female ambitions and appetites. But it’s worth considering where so much of the anxiety over popular stories written by and for women, especially romances, might stem from. The history of fiction is full of stories about men who do; their deeds, wars, journeys, heroic triumphs are the texture of the tale. In stories about women, by contrast, characters primarily are: The action lies in their inner lives, dreams, conflicts, desires.

“Admiration for the heroine of a romantic novel … is love for an idealized image of oneself,” Rachel Brownstein wrote in her 1982 book, Becoming a Heroine. The subversive potential of so many works derided as trash is that they focus on female interiority, female pleasure, female aspiration. The “notions” sparked by romantic fiction and Nancy Meyers movies alike are that women’s earthly desires—for love, for sex, for chocolate cake, for professional elevation, for pristine Poggenpohl kitchens with white-marble backsplashes—can and should be gratified.

How fitting, then, that many of the ideas this genre draws from were pioneered by a woman whom hardly anyone remembers. So argues the historian Hilary A. Hallett in Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood. Glyn’s 1907 novel, Three Weeks, about a young man drawn into an obsessive romantic relationship with a married European royal, was more explicitly sexual than a mass-market novel had ever been (the bookseller WH Smith & Son refused to stock it) but also, Hallett insists, more progressive. It made the case, while the Victorian era and its mores still loomed large in the popular imagination, that women’s sexual desire not only existed—a heretical concept—but burned with an intense heat. (Glyn’s female protagonist describes love in one scene as “a purely physical emotion … It means to be close—close—to be clasped—to be touching—to be one.”) Its power was so great, in fact, that it threatened the patriarchal structures that the 20th century was built on. If women experience desire with a fervor equal to men’s, what else might they also secretly be craving? Glyn, in her autobiography, described the furious response to Three Weeks as “a curious commentary on the stupendous hypocrisy of the Edwardian age.”

Glyn enjoyed unprecedented success as a novelist during the early 1900s—by 1917, Three Weeks had sold more than 2 million copies—and went on to become an equally successful Hollywood screenwriter. Yet more than a century later, her radical vision of sexual politics seems to have all but vanished from the screen, as mid-budget movies have waned and audiences for streaming have become more segmented. The romantic comedy, after an ’80s and ’90s heyday that at its best furthered the idea that men and women could meet on equal terms, is essentially dead in the U.S. (with sporadic, gloomy attempts at resurrection—2022’s Marry Me, starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, featured an extremely silly odd-couple setup and almost negative sexual tension between its stars). Sex on television is largely relegated to the dead-eyed, joyless teen couplings on Euphoria and the bouncy, intimacy-avoidant bonkfests of Sex Education. Even adaptations of romantic fiction such as Outlander and Bridgerton struggle; sex is lamentably suffused with violence in the former, and was quietly sidelined in the most recent season of the latter. Meanwhile, romance novels, reliably one of the most profitable and well-read genres in book publishing, have for decades featured a degree of diversity and (not always heteronormative) sex positivity that puts mainstream culture to shame, yet are still derided.

. . . .

Three Weeks, written in what Hallett likens to a haze of longing for a recently departed paramour, was an extraordinarily bold work for a writer in 1907 to publish under her own name. The so-called sex novel had already existed for centuries alongside its more sedate cousin, the romance. (John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, published in 1748, was so graphic in its biography of a former sex worker that it was banned in the U.S. until a Supreme Court ruling in 1966.) But Glyn brought the two genres closer than any other writer had managed. Three Weeks is told from the perspective of a well-off young Englishman banished to Europe after a flirtation with an unsuitable local girl. There he becomes sexually enthralled by a woman he notices one night dining in his hotel.

She has—unbeknownst to him—fled the clutches of her husband, a cruel and psychopathic Slavic king; she’s smitten with the Englishman, Paul, and decides to take his sexual and romantic initiation into her own hands. Paul is young and handsome and what we might now call basic. His passions include hunting, clothes, and ogling “perfectly virtuous” young women at the theater. The lady (who is only ever referred to as such) gently mocks him as a “great big beautiful baby.” Before he can be her lover, he has to submit to her authority and accept her terms. “I don’t belong to you, baby Paul,” she tells him when he tries to pay for lunch during one of their outings in the Swiss mountains. “You, for the day, belong to me.”

Three Weeks, in so many ways, predicted the formula for the romance novels that would follow it. The genre tends to be structured around accumulation: of pleasure, of possessions, of status. The protagonist, who is almost always female, begins the novel with next to nothing and emerges having gathered all kinds of capital. In a world in which marriage has been enshrined as “the one great profession open to our class since the dawn of time,” as Virginia Woolf wrote, love and wealth were already tied in the popular imagination. Three Weeks, though, bucks the marriage plot (the lady pursues the man because she desires him, and is more intent on having his child than his hand). It emphasizes the sensuality of luxury, the headiness of comfort, “the redemptive powers of sexual pleasure when performed in the key of glamour,” as Hallett writes.

The novel contains all the tropes of popular escapist fiction: exotic locations, extravagant sumptuousness, an older, experienced person seducing a naive ingenue. But the seducer is, crucially, a woman. And the most rebellious feature of Glyn’s writing is that the lady insists that Paul indulge her, meet her on her terms. “I must try to please you,” Paul learns, “or you will throw me away.” In positioning Paul as the ingenue transformed by his entanglement with the lady, Three Weeks was more subversive than most standard romantic fare. Callow and two-dimensional at the beginning, he grows more intelligent, more sensitive, and more fascinating to the people he encounters.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

He’s a 10 but …

From The Austen Connection:

{W]e loved your “He’s a 10” threads and found that the Jane Austen and classic literature versions were by far the funniest of the craze. And this is not surprising since Jane Austen is after all the queen of satire, sarcasm, wit, and meme-friendly moments.

So today to kick off our weekend we’re simply compiling and sharing (you might say: curating) some of these moments that you have created for us – thank you! And a huge shout out to the creators here who are cracking us up on social.

. . . .

He’s a 10 but his first name is Fitzwilliam.

Kicking it off here right away with the most romantic hero of classic literature: That’s right, your beloved Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Or to be more precise, as Margaret McDeadlines Owen reminds us, it’s: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (do we know his middle name? Please advise!)

. . . .

He’s a 10 but I think his father might have murdered his mother.

Love it that we are getting into the mind of the naive Catherine Morland here, who turns out to be near- if not perfectly correct with her wildly imaginitive musings about the villainous General Tilney, father of our Northanger Abbey hero Henry Tilney. A reminder to use your imagination and keep your wits about you – and a reminder that whatever is going on in the family, a 10 is a 10 girl.

. . . .

He’s a 10 but his first wife is locked in the attic.

Now we are moving out of Austen and getting into Victorian and Bronte Sisters territory where things get rather extreme. Love “the moon wife” for boiling Jane Eyre straight down to the gruesome fact of the matter for us here. Discuss.

Link to the rest at The Austen Connection

A new oral history of the modern romantic comedy

From The Economist

In an enjoyable new book, “From Hollywood With Love”, Scott Meslow, a culture critic, explores the fortunes of the romantic comedy from the late 1980s to today. “No Hollywood genre has been more misunderstood—or more unfairly maligned—than the romantic comedy,” he writes. “Funny, charming and reliably crowd-pleasing, rom-coms were the essential backbone of the Hollywood landscape for decades, and yet they have been routinely overlooked by awards shows and snobbishly dismissed by critics.” Through a series of short essays on films including “When Harry Met Sally”, “Love Actually”, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, his aim is to celebrate the genre’s biggest hits and underline their cultural significance.Mr Meslow has interviewed film executives, directors, screenwriters and stars, and each chapter offers a kind of oral history of a particular movie. Readers learn, for example, that Al Pacino was at one point under consideration for the role of Edward in “Pretty Woman” (the part eventually went to Richard Gere). His reading with Julia Roberts was dire; Mr Pacino, shirt agape, “barked out his lines in his inimitable, spittle-flecked way”. Elsewhere, Mr Meslow describes Richard Curtis’s proclivity for dramatising real-life events: one friend complained that the screenwriter observed his nuptials pen and paper in hand. And it was the actor Hugh Grant who suggested that the fight at the end of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” should not be carefully choreographed, “full of right hooks and haymakers”. Instead, the two posh men in the scene, a human-rights lawyer and a publisher, should be left to scrap in a hilariously pathetic way.

“From Hollywood With Love” offers insights into the film-making process and the influence of tastemakers at major studios. Executives’ views about what constitutes a believable romance, or else a worthwhile investment, can be depressingly narrow. Nancy Meyers recounts male commissioners’ aversion to a reference to menopause in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), a film about lovers in their 50s and 60s. Major distributors did not care for the cultural specificity of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)—but it went on to become the highest-grossing rom-com of all time. Will Smith has said that, when Sony were looking for his counterpart for “Hitch” (2005), they didn’t want to cast an African-American woman as they thought it would limit the film’s appeal. But nor did they want to cast a white woman lest it anger bigots. (Sony has not commented on the claims.)

Regrettably, “From Hollywood With Love” emphasises anecdotes over analysis. The tale of “Hitch”, for example, raises the question of how much the film industry has changed in the intervening years and how many romantic stories produced today have interracial couples at their heart. Rather than exploring the history of an idea or a trope, Mr Meslow often remains tethered to the specifics of a certain film. He says that there are problems with the “gay best friend” stereotype (as in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) that are “worth unpacking”—but declines to discuss them at length.

At times the reader longs for more contemplation of what these films say about the attitudes and anxieties of their times. The ongoing debate over whether or not Bridget Jones is a feminist role model is summarised in a sidebar; there is surely much more to be gleaned about 21st-century masculinity in Judd Apatow’s films. Given the loneliness and yearning for human connection precipitated by the pandemic, might studio executives invest in more feel-good rom-coms? Netflix, as Mr Meslow observes, already releases several every year, recognising viewers’ interest.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Love triangles, from King Arthur to Beyoncé

From The Economist

n love, three is a magic number. Depending on the circumstances, that adds up to lies and betrayal, or the possibility of a brave new romantic world. Noël Coward gave us perfect proof of both sums. The first, “Brief Encounter” (1945), revolved around Laura, an English housewife, alienated, unsatisfied and deep in a crisis she can’t quite articulate. The other parts of the equation were Alec, a serious young medic, unexpectedly in love with a married woman, and Laura’s husband, Fred, sitting at home with the crossword unaware that his wife was listening to her doctor friend make a speech about lung diseases as if he were telling her that he loved her passionately, devotedly, hopelessly – because he does, and he is.

The film is now the textbook three-hanky weepie, though the test audience was less enthusiastic. (“Why doesn’t he just **** her?” shouted one dissatisfied customer, according to one of the movie’s producers, Ronald Neame.)

The other sum is illustrated above. Coward, sprawled on the sofa with actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, is laughing the way they laughed a decade before, when they were struggling together in 1920s New York, and Coward promised that one day he would write a play for the couple. It was a clever promise: Fontanne and Lunt were so dependent on each other’s talents that, after 1928, they never worked separately again.

“Design for Living” (1932) is a battle report on the merry warfare between the combatants in a Bohemian ménage à trois comprising a painter, Otto (Lunt), his writer mate Leo (Coward) and Gilda (Fontanne), an interior designer who keeps both men close, but only so close. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement,” we’re told. The play produced such a crackle that parodies soon sprang up: “Duets are made for the bourgeoisie – oh, but only God can make a trio,” sang the cast of a Broadway revue “Life Begins at 8.40”.

The curtain of “Design for Living” falls on a scene much like the image above. What happens next? The play is coy about that. Such trios rarely get played through to the end. And if they are, as the following examples suggest, the final notes are often melancholy.

. . . .

The Round Table didn’t have corners, but it did produce a triangle. It took a while, though. In the ninth-century versions of his story, King Arthur charged around, apparently carelessly single. Guinevere turned up in 1136, as a heroine of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”, in which, disappointingly, her only job was to be a damsel, distressed by the villainous Mordred.

The Round Table was delivered in 1155, in Wace of Jersey’s “Roman de Brut”, with the customary, hr-approved explanation that meetings structured in this way encourage a feeling of equality. Then, a couple of decades later, Sir Lancelot galloped in – from a French source, Chrétien de Troy’s “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” (published around 1170) – to disrupt married life at Camelot. From this point, it all goes a bit “Jules et Jim”. By the time Thomas Malory produced his “Le Morte D’Arthur” (1485), the affair, with an emphasis on Guinevere’s unfaithfulness, had become so conventional that he spiced things up by adding another lover for Lancelot, called Elaine.

. . . .

We needn’t worry about Elaine. Lancelot (virile, young, tempted), Guinevere (regal, untrustworthy), Arthur (ageing warrior, cuckolded) are the fixed vertices of this story. But Guinevere’s bad reputation should give us pause for thought. Much like Eve disrupting the bromance between God and Adam, the Queen of Albion is a very early example of a female figure who apparently makes alliances between men harder.

Not everyone used the Lancelot story to have a go at women. When Dryden and Purcell wrote “King Arthur” (1691), an allegorical work in praise of the joint sovereigns William III and Mary II, they dropped Guinevere and replaced her with a character of their own invention: Emmeline, a virtuous blind girl who gets lost in the forest. Casting aspersions on a mythical queen is one thing – implying to a real one that women aren’t up to the job of royal office has consequences.

. . . .

The Bloomsbury Group, said Dorothy Parker, lived in squares and loved in triangles. But some triangles have sharp edges, and some sexual radicals can be as hurtfully secretive as the generation they rebel against, as the life of mosaic-maker Angelica Garnett shows. In the summer of 1937, when she was 18, Angelica’s mother, painter Vanessa Bell, took to her one side and explained that her real father was not the critic Clive Bell, but her lover and Fitzroy Square neighbour, artist Duncan Grant. This information did not produce a great family realignment: Vanessa advised her daughter not to discuss it with Clive; Angelica never raised the matter with Grant.

A year later, another layer of secrets started to be overlaid. Angelica began an affair with a married family friend, David Garnett, nicknamed “Bunny” after a rabbit-skin cloak he wore as a child. He soon became a widower. In 1942 Angelica became his wife and one of the few people in their immediate circle who didn’t know that the groom had once been the lover of Duncan Grant and had even tried it on with Vanessa Bell. Incredibly, Garnett had been present at Angelica’s birth. When the baby was weighed in a shoebox on the kitchen scales, Garnett wrote to Lytton Strachey: “Its beauty is the remarkable thing…I think of marrying it; when she is 20 I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?” It wasn’t, because nobody really talked about it.

One of the key stories of Bloomsbury lore asserts that the modern world began on a spring evening in 1908, in a flat on Gordon Square. Lytton Strachey walked into the drawing room and pointed at a white mark on Vanessa Bell’s dress. “Semen?” he asked. “With that one word”, wrote Virginia Woolf, “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down…It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation.” The anecdote remained unpublished until 1976, once everyone in the room that day was safely and unembarrassably dead.

. . . .

Love depends on chance meetings, frail coincidences. So does cinema. “Casablanca” (1942) went into production because Jack Warner wanted his film studio to be aligned against Hitler. Its hero, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, a cynical bystander in neutral French Morocco, is on the journey that Warner wanted for America. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick declares, early in the movie. Then his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her antifa husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive like a two-person Pearl Harbour.

Rick’s and Ilsa’s song, “As Time Goes By”, was an old Herman Hupfield number that featured in the stage play on which the script was based. The film’s composer, Max Steiner, wanted to replace it. But the piano scenes were already shot and Bergman had cut her hair short to play the lead in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, so Steiner swallowed his pride and incorporated “As Time Goes By” into his score. One verse hit the floor, in which Hupfield expresses his “apprehension” about the “fourth dimension”. (“We get a trifle weary”, he says, “with Mr. Einstein’s theory.”)

It’s the lost key to the story of Rick, Ilsa and Victor. “As Time Goes By” is a song that rejects both general relativity and moral relativism – in the context of a story that demonstrates that some principles are too important, too fundamental, to compromise. Rick and Ilsa sacrifice their personal happiness for the good of the war effort. That’s what makes the movie so powerful.

But the universe had already rewarded them for their selflessness. In the first year of the conflict, they fell in love in France. (“The Germans wore grey,” recalls Rick. “You wore blue.”) Their memories of that affair are unassailable, eternal, sealed up in that famous flashback sequence. France may have fallen to the Nazis, but Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris.

Link to the rest at The Economist