HEART of CRUELTY: on ‘romances about brutal men’

One of my Amazon.com reviewers has written that the ending of HEART of CRUELTY annoyed her so much that she ‘wanted to throw it across the room.’ Spoiler alert: my novel isn’t intended as a standard romance.

In the standard romance – think of a cover featuring large male muscles and a lady in satin – the alpha-male hero is in some kind of conflict situation with a vulnerable yet feisty heroine and the conflict is overtaken by their mutual attraction; they have a big showdown and separation four-fifths of the way through the book, but end up rapturously united.

I’m not doing that, sorry.

Those alpha-male heroes are hugely suspect individuals and if we met them in real life we might want to run a mile. Ruggedly handsome, brutally strong, devoid of self-criticism, they occupy positions of high social status: royalty; aristocrats; billionaires; warlords. It’s arguable that mostly they maintain their roles by exploiting other people. The elegant and leisured lives of Jane Austen’s heroes were dependent on someone else’s labour, whether that was down an English coal mine or on a Jamaican sugar plantation. And however blissful the marriage, a heroine would still have had to make sure that their husband’s socks were washed and their shirts were ironed, even if this was by the servants.

Have you stopped trusting them yet, ladies?

It makes me wonder if these romances are actually a way of trying to persuade women that these stereotypes are desirable. Does the romance fiction genre promote a patriarchal society?

And a further question: does the notion, widespread in fiction, that good must triumph over evil, promote negative judgments of the down-trodden? ‘Loser’ is a favourite Trumpian insult: what if the loser is in fact a victim?

Here’s an extract from HEART of CRUELTY in which I explore these ideas. Doughty is talking to Jane:

‘If you read a work of fiction, or see an opera, or a play at the theatre, is it the hero or the villain that triumphs?’

‘The hero, naturally. Good triumphs over evil. It is the natural order.’ 

‘But our prejudices of the natural order corrupt our view. What I have found at inquests is the difficulty in persuading the jury that the deceased are not villains, but victims. The woman who is cruelly violated and murdered is argued to have provoked her attacker. The abandoned infant is deemed illegitimate, unbaptised, it has no place in society. We withhold pity from the weak and the defeated, and instead we forgive their abusers. I blame the scribblers of novels for this pernicious state of affairs…’  

I wondered whether his mind had been running on what I had told him but could not ask. He was too caught up in his own argument: ‘…Why, some ladies are only content when reading romances about brutal men.’ 

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