The Consolation of Genre

I have found that almost all of the romance novels I have read achieve something that sounds mundane, but remains quite radical: they model a form of female happiness and fulfillment still lacking in most canonical works of literature. Imagining stories for women (too often, but not always, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and monogamous) that end optimistically, these novels not only depict relationships that involve negotiation and growth, but also allow female protagonists to experience a kind of personal, sexual, and professional fulfillment that does not feel like an unattainable fantasy.

– Cailey Hall, The Consolation of Genre: On Reading Romance Novels

Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn (1936)

What strikes me most about Jamaica Inn is just how much Daphne Du Maurier’s writing improved in the novels that followed this romantic thriller. If she’d written nothing else, I suspect she’d have fallen into obscurity along with a lot of other popular women writers of her day.  I read Jamaica Inn at the same time as I was reading a collection of her late stories from the 1970s and while I enjoyed both books, if it wasn’t for the same name on the cover, I probably wouldn’t have recognised them as works by the same author. But, having said all of that, Jamaica Inn does point the way towards Du Maurier’s later works.

The novel is set in Cornwall in the 1820s. Our orphaned heroine, Mary Yellen, goes to live with her mother’s sister Patience at the isolated Jamaica Inn. To her alarm, she finds her aunt a shadow of her former self, utterly dominated by her brutal husband, Joss Merlyn.  Worse is to come when Mary realises there are wicked doings afoot at the Inn, the least of which is smuggling. Determined to discover the truth and get her aunt away from Jamaica Inn, Mary finds herself locked in a dangerous battle of wills with her uncle. Matters are further complicated when she meets two other men, Joss’s devilishly attractive younger brother and the strange, elusive Vicar of Altarnun. Who can Mary trust to help her in her predicament?

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Emma Donoghue, Landing (2007)

Emma Donoghue is a lesbian writer with an impressive range.  She’s produced literary history, plays and short stories, as well as her novels which cross the genres of historical fiction, contemporary realism and, in the case of Landing, light romance.

In a chance meeting, Sile, a glamorous, 39 year-old, Irish-Indian flight attendant falls for Jude, a twenty-five year old Canadian Quaker from the tiny town of Ireland in Ontario. The book follows the progress of their relationship over the course of a year and, though light in tone, Donoghue includes just enough serious issues to give the story an edge.

As this review notes, Jude and Sile have to deal with generational, economic, cultural and spiritual differences.  Landing also uses the theme of the long-distance relationship to explore broader questions around the ways in which technological developments have created new possibilities, but also new problems, for relationships. What should a relationship be based on? How much should you be prepared to give up for a relationship? What are the limits of compromise?

Although Sile is probably the more vivid character, I felt that Donoghue had slightly more sympathy with Jude’s simple lifestyle, an impression created most strongly by the representation of Sile’s atrocious yuppie friends. But both women have to change if their relationship is to succeed and, all in all, it’s a good story about taking risks, compromise and personal growth.

If I have any criticism, it’s that Donoghue creates a narrative problem for herself by having Sile in a long-term relationship when she meets Jude. This creates conflict, which is good for fiction, but Donoghue doesn’t seem to want to risk the reader losing sympathy with Sile, which leads her to create a rather unbelievable relationship and the girlfriend quickly turns into a cardboard cut-out nasty lesbian ex.

Landing resonated with me personally because my partner (who also reviewed Landing here) and I met in inconvenient circumstances and did long-distance between the UK and the States for two years, so we had to deal with a lot of similar issues.   I especially enjoyed the emails which reminded me so much of the early days of our relationship when we were very dependent on email – the agonising over sending the message, the excitement of getting a reply, the misunderstandings caused by language differences and the inevitable problems that occur when trying to communicate without the use of voice and body language (thank goodness for emoticons). Donoghue herself emigrated from Ireland to Canada to be with her partner, so I suspect a lot of the emotions attached to that experience went into the writing of Landing.

This is a good holiday read (it was exactly what I needed while having a hard time in the spring).  It’s definitely one for fans of lesbian romance, and I’d say worth a look even if  (like me) you don’t usually enjoy the genre.