Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Publishing News

Over at Teach Me Tonight, I have been blogging about a new book Palgrave Macmillan have recently published on female-centred historical fiction, The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction, which includes an essay I wrote on Mills & Boon historical romances set in the Middle Ages: "Do knights still rescue damsels in distress?: Reimagining the medieval in Mills & Boon historical romance".

The article is based on a conference I attended on historical fiction in Newcastle in 2008 and it is great to finally see it in print! The book is available via Amazon and you can read the introduction here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Autumn Happenings

Illustration from the fourteenth-century Tacuina Sanitatis
It's been a while since I have written a blog post, largely because I have been busy with all kinds of things which have been going on.

The most significant recent event was that I submitted my PhD thesis. Finally, after four years of work, it is finished, printed and handed in. I have shared some parts of the thesis on this blog and plan to share more over the coming weeks as I revisit it in preparation for my viva.

I have also been busy with co-chairing the Fourth International Conference on Popular Romance Studies which was held in York from 27-29 September. The conference went brilliantly, and has been written about by others here and here. I gave a paper on abduction in sheikh romance and the Middle English romance Octavian, which I plan to post up here in the not too distant future.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Response to Reflections on EUPOP 2012

Following my previous two posts reflecting on my experiences at EUPOP 2012, the conference organiser, Pamela Church-Gibson (PCG), has kindly offered a clarification of the conference and EUPOP as an association. Pamela hopes that her coments will clarify some of the issues raised in my blog post and by commenters and also invtes any ideas for papers, panels and / or the future direction that the conference and the association might take. She can be contacted directly by email: p.church-gibson@fashion.arts.ac.uk.

Regarding the issue of a keynote / roundtable presentation:
  • The first EUPOP conference was formed as an international affiliate of the PCA / ACA  and was part sponsored by the PCA. Therefore as with POPCAANZ and the East Asian Popular Culture Association conferences, EUPOP2012 had to follow guidance from the PCA's President as to the dates, format etc.  The PCA apparently do not fund invited keynote speakers. It is planned that for the second conference in Finland 2013, there will be a keynote / roundtable as the  European conference becomes more autonomous.
  • PCG had hoped (and had requested) that the issue of 'what is European Popular culture' would be addressed in the plenary session on the first day.  The plans for the plenary were in part thwarted by Di Holmes being unable to attend at the last minute. Therefore it was not the 'roundtable' discussion and debate that she  hoped would take place and the session took a very different direction to the one that she had originally planned. 
  • In addition a second delegate who had been invited by PCG to explore issues of European identity and ethnicity in media industries in an 'un-keynote' address also had to unfortunately withdraw at a late stage due to mitigating circumstances.  Prof. Daniela Berghahn (Royal Holloway) was invited by PCG in order to deliver a paper which explicitly addressed issues of ethnicity and transnational migration in European popular culture.
  • Due to the very low number of delegates at the final session on the Friday, it was decided by PCG that the session should focus upon feedback and planning for future conferences, building collaborations etc.  Had there been more delegates in attendance PCG would have started the closing session with a reflection and discussion about the range (and thematic absences) of papers that were submitted.

With regard to the issue of EUPOP as an 'Association'

The inaugural EUPOP conference was intended to 'kick start' the association by bringing together disparate interdisciplinary scholars working on not just 'popular romance' (as you mention in your blog), but all forms of popular culture in Europe. 
PCG is aware that the name 'European Popular Culture Association' implies a formal membership system, but at the moment it is not an association to be 'joined' as it is in its fledgling stages.  The aim is to build a strong connection to the European Journal of Popular Culture (Intellect) and the other Intellect journals - and therefore there is somewhat of a chicken and egg issue - to implement the plan of 'membership and a journal subscription' requires journal content to be ready and the conference was intended in part as a place for potential contributors to be sourced.

In addition, a key issue with forming an 'association' is how EUPOP / EPCA will work with the other European branches such as those in Scandinavia, France and Spain.  Decisions need to be made as to what extent EUPOP / the journal will be discreet and / or collaborate with other existing branches.  PCG will be meeting with other key representatives in late August in order to discuss next year's conference and the direction that the association might take in the future. 

The aim of the  inaugural conference  - as outlined in the original call for papers, was to promote
the study of popular culture from, in, and about Europe. Popular culture involves a wide range of activities, outcomes and audiences;  EPCA aims to examine and discuss these different activities as they relate both to Europe, and to Europeans across the globe, whether contemporary or historical.
As outlined in the CFP, PCG wanted to 'be guided by the submissions'  - making the call as open as possible, in order to let interested scholars shape the direction that would be taken.  She hopes that year on year the conference and the association will be both open and interdisciplinary and yet also respond to developments and absences that emerge. 

PCG was fascinated by the range of proposals that were submitted - for instance, she never expected a panel on post colonial postcards and was very glad to see that both the historical and contemporary were explored within papers across the conference.  She was inspired by the enormous energy and enthusiasm of young scholars embracing social media and blogging to come together, form panels and communicate before, at and beyond the conference and this is an aspect she wishes to fully embrace in the future.  She felt that really interesting ideas that were being explored across the conference and was also acutely aware of the (unexpected) 'whiteness' of the conference - whilst issues of nationality were explored there was not as much exploration of non Caucasian identities as she thought and hoped that there might be. Instead representational issues of gender, sexuality, class, transnationalism, regional and national identity were those more explicitly running throughout the papers.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reflections on the EUPOP Conference (Part 2)

The second part of my reflections of the EUPOP conference held in London, July 2012.

The second day of the conference kicked off with a panel simply called The Body. The first paper was by Janice Miller, entitled ‘Heroes and Villains: When Men Wear Make-Up’. Miller focused on musicians, pointing out that it is not so unusual for musical artists to wear ‘a bit of eyeliner’ (Adam Lambert). Miller discussed the idea of make-up as a mask, drawing on Joan Riviere’s ideas of masquerade. She gives the example of Freddy Mercury’s ‘mask of death’ in the video for I’m Going Slightly Mad.

The superhero is another figure who commonly wears make-up, and is channelled by Michael Stipe, the lead singer of REM. Miller contends that there is always a queer subtext to men wearing make-up and concludes that while a male musician wearing make-up is worthy of discussion and comment, a female musician (Katy Perry) not wearing make-up is far more controversial.

The second speaker was Niall Richardson whose paper, ‘Flex Rated! Female Bodybuilding’ reconsidered the sport from  the perspective of feminist debates. Richardson notes that feminism has both historically celebrated and rejected bodybuilding as a feminist resistance to sexualised femininity, as bodybuilding is seen as either resistance to or recuperation into hegemonic regimes of gender. The female bodybuilder transgresses the norms of femininity, but on stage most contenders display markers of femininity: blonde hair, false nails, breast implants. 

The crux of Richardson’s argument was centred on ‘muscle worship porn’, and we had the pleasure of seeing a couple of clips (if you are curious, we were informed there is plenty out there on the internet). Muscle worship porn is fetishitic, so is therefore more about the manipulation and investigation of the fetish object, not just coitus. When it emerged that many female bodybuilders were supplementing their meagre income by making money from muscle porn, there was a backlash from feminists who now considered female bodybuilding to be erotic spectacle, rather than feminist resistance.

Richardson concludes that the debate as to whether female bodybuilding is resistance or erotic spectacle is too simplistic. He does posit that bodybuilding is one of the queerest things in contemporary pop culture.

The final paper was by Jo Pickering who presented on ‘Social Class and Pregnancy in the UK’. Pickering examined the TV representation of the teenage/working-class mother, arguing that issues of gender and class collide in her body. Discussing such shows as Snog, Marry, Avoid, ASBO Teen to Beauty Queen and anything featuring Kerry Katona, Pickering points out that a middle class aesthetic is assumed to be universal and that class aspiration is very evident in these objectifying and panoptic programmes.

Pickering contends that the working class pregnant body is the representation of  an undisciplined body and an over-sexualised uncontrolled animalism. She concludes by pointing out there has been no such public debate about the representation of the working class in same way that there has for gender, race, and sexuality.

The second panel I attended was Television – And Other Modes of Representation. Gilly Smith began discussing Jamie Oliver in a paper entitled ‘Barthes on Jamie: Myth and the TV Revolutionary’. Smith posits that TV lifestyle food became more about lifestyle than food itself, and was intimately linked with class. Jamie Oliver as the Naked Chef was accessible and like us – the programme was marketed so that we can be ‘pukka’ too.

Smith points out that TV is real people doing real things but edited to present a representation of the truth/real. Smith links with the Barthes and mythology, noting how myth moves into the political, as Jamie does with his school dinners project, concluding that Jamie exploits the idea of myth to sell his political message.

The second speaker was Hannah Ellison whose paper, ‘Skins: A Very British Show That Isn’t British Anymore’ posited that the decline in viewing figures in the UK for the TV show Skins was due to efforts, in later series, for the show to be more international and appeal to non-UK audiences. Ellison contends that what made the show so successful in the first place was its ‘Britishness’, therefore when it lost this, the show lost much of what made it so popular.

Ellison argued that the series was ‘British’ because of the casting of British figures of comedy, such as Peter Capaldi and Harry Enfield as parents, allowing the legacy of their names to suggest a heritage in British entertainment. By the last two series, however, the parental generation was not really shown and this aspect was lost. Similarly, in the first few series of Skins the characters walked everywhere, as British teenagers tend to do. Yet, in the last two series, they drove and travelled more widely, demonstrating a freedom that seemed incongruous with the lifestyle of British teenagers.

Ellison concludes that Skins’ British realism had gone by the fifth and sixth seasons, as the more adult teens took on responsibilities beyond their years, representing a different kind of teenage-hood in the show’s attempts to appeal to a broader international audience.

The third paper, by Jo Turney, ‘Masturbating with Auntie: Sex, Lies, and the Fusion of Cultural Stereotypes in Dressing Zen’ discussed a little-known BBC detective show, Zen, set in Italy and featuring British actor Rufus Sewell as an Italian detective. Turney notes the show’s use of sepia, and images of Italy to create a certain mood and a sense of heat at odds with the terrible British winter of January 2011. Zen thus functions as a travel guide for an idealised, stereotypical Rome. Turney argues that the casting of a well-known British actor as the lead and an Italian woman as sidekick is down to the social stereotyping of Italy as sexy and its expectations of otherness and difference in British culture.

The final paper, by Nuria Sola and Dolors Massot analysed ‘Representations of the Latina body’ in social media (online magazines) aimed at Latino culture in the UK. These sites seem to smash stereotypes about Latina women, but the advertising on them perpetuates these stereotypes in the use of typically sexualised images of Latina dancers.

Following an extended lunch, the final panel I attended was TV and National Identity. Jamie Oliver is clearly more popular than I thought, as the first speaker, Antonella Palmieri was talking about ‘Romanticised landscapes of Italian-ness in Channel 4’s Jamie’s Great Escape’. Palmieri critiques the shows’ representation of a bucolic Italy, arguing that the series functions as a romanticised image of Italy, where supermarkets are invisible and the only people he meets are artisans. She concludes that this fantasy of romantic Italian-ness is a symbolic marker in Jamie’s campaigns about food.

Finn Pollard gave the next paper, on ‘The Persuaders! And the Anglo-American relationship in the early 1970s’. Offering a detailed history of the period, Pollard argued that The Persuaders! echoed the divergence in the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA, noting changes in the representation of Americans on TV over time. Pollard contends that The Persuaders! Is of a different order to other TV shows featuring Americans that have come before, and that the series can serve as a barometer for Anglo-American relations during a period of tumult.

The third and final speaker was Andrew Elliott whose paper was entitled ‘Space, Identity, and a Transnational Past: Rewriting European History in HBO’s Rome’. Elliott began by contrasting Rome with a scene from the film Gladiator, arguing that while the film showcases the ‘epicness’ of rewriting history, Rome doesn’t acknowledge this epicness, presenting history more as a series of accidental events. Elliott acknowledges that films about big historical moments of the past reveal more about the present, and points out that some rewritings use the past to anchor a national identity.

Considering Rome with this assertion in mind, Elliott reveals that the series, which was jointly funded by Britain, Italy and the USA, was not so well received in Italy, with resistance to ‘their’ history being appropriated by Anglo-Saxons. He suggests that the series acted as a ‘cultural seismograph’ about national feeling. Yet, Elliott concludes that Rome actually presents a pan-European, inclusive past, refusing to endorse a single country’s nationalism.

I really enjoyed this second day of papers and discussion although once again, there were papers I unfortunately could not see. Upon reflection, I feel that the conference missed an opportunity for a more general discussion on popular culture in Europe. Pamela Gibson-Church’s provocative question, posed at the start of the conference – ‘what is European popular culture?’ – seemed like the perfect topic for a keynote or roundtable discussion, but this opportunity was not taken. There was a closing plenary on Friday, which I did not attend, but the ‘keynote’ discussions I saw were clearly intended to advertise or organise, rather than develop any sustained, critical questions. I understand that not everyone thinks that conferences need keynotes to provide this kind of organised discussion, however I personally feel that the conference would have benefited from such a group discussion.

I would also have appreciated more information about the association itself. I am not, for example, sure whether EUPOP is an association for the study of any kind of popular romance by European scholars, or whether it is devoted to the study of popular romance as produced by or consumed in Europe. There was also no information about how to get involved in the association or any outline, or organisation of the scope or aims of the association. The participation of Intellect books and journals was made very clear, however, and we were encouraged throughout to approach the stand and discuss potential publication.

Overall, the conference was a brilliant opportunity to meet new scholars in fascinating fields related to my own and I look forward to becoming more involved in EUPOP and attending future conferences – I hear the next one’s in Finland!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reflections on the EUPOP Conference (Part 1)

This is the first of two posts on the EUPOP conference. In July, I attended the inaugural conference of the European Popular Culture Association (EUPOP) in London and had a brilliant time. I have attended the Popular Culture Association conference in the USA before, but because this conference was more intimate, I had the opportunity to see many panels on topics not related to romance. I tweeted during the conference, but this post is a longer reflection on some of the papers I saw. I was, unfortunately, only able to attend for the first two days, so missed some great-sounding panels, including one on class and popular culture and a fantastic-sounding panel on Monty Python. I am sure others will have attended these panels, though, and may have written about them online or in print.

The first day of the conference began with an introductory keynote from Pamela Gibson-Church, who magnificently organised much of the conference. She briefly posed the question: ‘what is European popular culture?’, a question which clearly frames the conference.

The keynote was followed by the first panels of the day, including one called Romancing Europe in which I gave my own paper. The panel featured four presenters, who each discussed various aspects of popular romance in Europe.I have previously blogged details of this panel here.

The panel kicked off with An Goris whose paper, entitled ‘From Local to Global: Reading Category Romance in Europe’, discussed the translation of romances, arguing that Harlequin’s cross-cultural appeal is based on its simultaneous use of both localising and globalising strategies to achieve success in the culturally, linguistically and nationally diversified European market.

An’s paper was the perfect frame for the second speaker, Artemis Lamprinou, whose paper ‘Breaking the Rules: Translating Emotions in European Popular Romance’ considered the representation of emotion in popular romances translated from English into Greek. Lamprinou offered a detailed discussion of the apparent disjunction in emotional intensity between romances in Greek and in English.

The third paper was my own, entitled ‘A Very English Place: The Intimate Relationship Between Britain and Arabia in the Contemporary Sheikh Romance’. Examining the setting, content and authorship of some twentieth and twenty-first century sheikh romances, I argued that far from being geographically indistinct, sheikh romances remain deeply rooted within British imperial interests.

The final paper was by Tom Ue, who made a late change and gave a very up-to-date paper on the film The Amazing Spiderman which was released this summer. Tom discussed non-linearity and the protagonists’ inability to articulate. This was the only romance-related panel at the conference (a big contrast to PCA in the USA) and was well attended, with an interesting discussion afterwards.

After a well-needed coffee break, I headed to a panel entitled Narrative, Nation, Screen and Costume. The first paper was by Pam Cook whose paper was entitled ‘An American in Paris: Sofia Coppola and the new auteur’. Cook discussed the film director Sofia Coppola as a ‘commodity auteur’, considering the role of her celebrity in her work, focusing on her complex relationship between her feminine image and feminism. Cook concluded that Coppola’s work is ‘commodity auterism’ which breaks down the opposition between commerce and art, opening a way to think about cinematic authorship as gendered response to specific industrial, cultural, economic practices and shifting the idea of autership away from a male heroic model (as represented by figures such as her father, Francis Ford Coppola).

The second paper, by Helen Warner, was entitled ‘Fashioning the Past: Gender, Desire and Costuming in UK “Quality” Drama and focused on costumes in Downton Abbey, tracing their historical accuracy, audience reception and analysing key scenes demonstrating the emphasis on the visual in the series. As perhaps the only British person who hasn’t seen Downton Abbey, this was an interesting paper, well illustrated with clips from the show.

The third and final paper was given by Claire Jenkins, entitled ‘Doctor Swoon: Masculinity and Sexuality in Doctor Who series’. Jenkins analysed the ‘new’ Doctor after the 2005 reboot of the TV show, contrasting his sexiness with the asexuality of previous incarnations of the Doctor. According to Jenkins, the new doctor is a damaged, scarred hero, an emotional new man whose masculinity is presented in crisis, in flux. His status as a war veteran parallels renewed anxieties about the War on Terror, yet he has also become a romantic hero at the same time as his masculinity has come into crisis. This incarnation of the Doctor was first exemplified by the leather jacket-wearing Eccleston, whose attire moved away from the traditional ‘British’ costume of older Doctors, towards a more modern, everyday look: Jenkins posits that Eccleston’s Doctor could be ‘one of us’. 

The newest Doctor, played by Matt Smith, is immediately constructed as a sex symbol, seen through the desire of Amy Pond, his companion. This reputation is enhanced by his tabloid reputation as a bachelor playboy, linking his real-life identity with the identity of the Doctor he portrays. Jenkins asserts that Smith’s Doctor’s quirky fashion sense points towards the  metrosexual male, yet is not emasculating. Smith’s heterosexuality is initially in flux, but the series is quick to point out his natural aptitude for normative masculine pursuits, such as football. 

The final panel I attended was Branding, Advertising and the Media which featured four diverse papers. The first was given by Katerina Marazi, who talked about ‘Branding the Batman Franchise’. Marazi discussed film as franchise brand, and considered the debate of adaptation vs. fidelity to the original. She concluded that Gotham, as a brand, represented a malleable reality, a mix of real and artificial in its construction in Nolan’s Batman films.

The second paper by Antoinette Larkin discussed ‘The Temptation Myth in Haagen Dazs Ice Cream Advertising Campaigns’. Larkin showed us some very sexy print adverts Haagen Dazs ran in the early 1990s which made use of the Eve temptation myth which, she argued, extends a negative image of woman as temptress. The third paper, by Martina Eberle, entitled ‘Creativisation: Look, Ritual, Stage’, talked about design value and the commercial value of creativity. Eberle gave the example of H&M joining forces with Marni as an example of the tangible fiscal value of design. The final paper traced the development of the ‘Czech Tabloid Press’, offering a comparison with the British tabloid press, and was given by Jana Dorèáková.

 My impressions of the first day of the conference were of the sheer range of topics currently being researched in Europe in the field of popular culture. I could not attend every panel, as sessions were running concurrently, but I would have also liked to have heard Claire Monk’s paper ‘Merchant Ivory’s Maurice and Contemporary Online Fandom’; Sarah Gilligan’s ‘”You can be who you want to be, even if it is only for one day’: Sherlock Holmes, cosplay, and gender performativity’; and Armelle Bin-Rolland’s paper ‘Self-adaptation from Bande Dessinée to the Screen: Bilal, Satrapi, and Sfar’.

An account of the second day of the conference will follow in Part 2.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Romance at EUPOP

'Love in the European Union' by Starscream from Wikimedia Commons
Next month, I will be participating in a panel at the Inaugural Conference of the European Popular Culture Association. I’m really excited to get involved with the Association and also to hear some of the papers in my panel and in others. If you’re in or around London between the 11th and 13th July why not come along and hear some papers for yourself? I will undoubtedly be tweeting some of the conference and will endeavour to publish a write-up here, so if you can’t make it and are interested hopefully my commentary will be of interest.

Here are the details of the romance panel:

Current Perspectives in European Popular Romance

Popular romance is one of the most popular fiction genres in Europe, and one of the most widespread. Harlequin/Mills & Boon, the world’s largest romance publisher, annually sells millions of popular romance novels all over Europe. In response to this, there has been an emergence of academic work on the popular romance in Europe, led by a conference in Brussels in 2010 and a conference to be held in York in September 2012. The popular romance area at the 2012 EUPOP conference will consist of a wide-ranging, transnational panel which together feature some of the foremost European scholars of the genre. Co-chaired by Amy Burge (Conference Chair, “The Pleasures of Romance”, York 2012) and An Goris (Managing Editor, Journal of Popular Romance Studies), this panel explores several topics that are currently of particular interest in the rapidly developing field of popular romance studies.

The panel brings together four papers which each explore a different aspect of romance in Europe. Two papers focus on various aspects of the cultural and linguistic translation of popular romances, dynamics that lie at the heart of the popular romance genre in the multilingual European context. The two further papers find romance in unexpected places and find the unexpected in romance. Via discussions of the relation between Britain and Arabia in British sheik romances and of the underexplored romance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, this panel probes the notion of subversion in the context of both the literary and the filmic romance genre. Together, these papers seek not only to link these current issues, but also to indicate the vibrancy of current romance scholarship in the field of European popular culture.

From Local to Global: Reading Category Romance in Europe
An Goris, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

The romance novel is one of the most popular genres in Europe, led by Harlequin/Mills & Boon, the genre’s most eminent publisher. This paper argues that Harlequin’s noteworthy cross-cultural appeal is based on its simultaneous use of both localizing and globalizing strategies to achieve success in the culturally, linguistically and nationally diversified European market. 

Breaking the Rules: Translating Emotions in European Popular Romance
Artemis Lamprinou, University of Surrey, United Kingdom.

Emotions form an indispensable part of popular romance narratives. In the context of the translated romance texts that are predominant on the European market, this paper argues that in translated romances it is not simply the author’s but also the translator’s responsibility to optimize the reader’s experience of the emotions in the text. This argument is developed on the basis of extensive case studies of Greek translated romances.

A Very English Place: The Intimate Relationship Between Britain and Arabia in the Contemporary Sheikh Romance
Amy Burge, University of York, UK.

The fantasy settings of contemporary sheikh romances seem to serve their function as ‘otherworlds’ in which the romantic relationship between western heroine and sheikh hero takes place. However, this paper, through an examination of the setting, content and authorship of twentieth and twenty-first century sheikh romances, contends that far from being geographically indistinct, sheikh romances remain deeply rooted within British imperial interests. 

Ethical Responses, the Film Motif, and Gender: Romance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds
Tom Ue, University College London, United Kingdom.

“Maybe they’ll make a film about your exploits,” Shosanna tells Fredrick in response to his story about killing many Russians. Fredrick replies: “Well, that’s just what Joseph Goebbels thought.  So he did and called it ‘Nation’s Pride.’” Using this conversation from the film Inglourious Basterds as a starting point, this paper traces some of Tarantino’s many nods to romances to show how he undermines and contests our understanding of the genre as a whole. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

‘made [into] a eunuch’: Masculinity in Medieval Romance

Earthenware tile, Northwestern Iran, 17th century
I have blogged previously about Floris and Blancheflur, a popular Middle English romance dating from the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which today survives in four manuscripts. The romance tells the story of Floris, the pagan son of the King of Spain, who travels to Babylon to rescue his beloved, Blancheflur, the Christian daughter of a slave woman, who has been sold to the Emir of Babylon and is being kept in his harem. I have already discussed the virginity testing in this romance, however, this post focuses on a different aspect of the romance: the unusual masculinity of the hero. 

Romance heroes are usually brave, handsome, and in search of adventure: not so different from the alpha male of today’s popular romances. Yet Floris, the hero of this romance, is not constructed in this way as a typical romance hero. He weeps, swoons, and spends all of his time with Blancheflur, with whom he shares a common name: ‘flower’. While weeping, swooning and being compared with a flower do not in themselves connote femininity, by consistently comparing the two, this romance suggests that Floris is feminine because he looks and acts like a woman: like Blancheflur. 

The lovers are almost physically identical: an innkeeper’s wife notes that Floris and Blancheflur are ‘alike in all aspects / Both in outward appearance and in sorrowful emotion’ (lines 419-420). Furthermore, in contrast to typical knightly conduct Floris does not fight. Yet, while Floris and Blancheflur might be ‘alike in all aspects’, at this stage their gender differentiation is still evident; the innkeeper’s wife recognises that ‘[Floris is] a man and [Blancheflur] is a woman’ (421). Floris might be effeminate, but he is still recognisably male at this point. It is not until later in the romance, in the Emir’s harem, that Floris becomes unidentifiable as a man:

The chamberlain has set out
Into [Blancheflur’s] bedroom he has come
And stands before her bed
And finds these two [Floris and Blancheflur], face to face,
Face to face, and mouth to mouth:
[…] Into the tower he climbs up
And told his lord all that he had seen.
The Emir commanded his sword to be brought
He wanted to know about this occurrence.
Forth he goes, with all his company,
He and his chamberlain,
Until they come to where those two lie
Yet did sleep still fasten their eyes.
The Emir ordered their bed clothes pulled down
A little below their chests
Then he saw, surely indeed
That one was a man, the other a woman (lines 984-995).

Here, the Emir does not know, until he pulls down the bed clothes, that Floris is a man. So at this point, Floris is performing femininity to such an extent that he is actually mistaken for a woman: neither the Emir nor the chamberlain can tell from Floris’ face that he is male.

Previous studies of this romance have tended to argue that Floris’ effeminate masculinity is an indication of his youth (for example, Gilbert's article). Indeed, all four versions of the Middle English romance consistently refer to both Floris and Blancheflur as children. However, I do not think that Floris’ youth explains why his gender should suddenly become unreadable in the Emir’s tower. 

I think that Floris’ lack of typical romance masculinity is here being affected by the eunuchs who guard the Emir’s harem. We are told: ‘[…] no servant may be therein / Who in his underwear bears the device / Neither by day nor by night / Unless he be made a eunuch’ (629-632). Floris is informed that if any man is caught attempting to enter the Emir’s tower unauthorised, that the gatekeeper ‘will both beat and castrate him’ (638). Evidently no man can enter the tower (except the Emir) with his genitals intact. 

While Floris’ presence in the harem might be enough to suggest an aligning with the eunuchs ‘therein’, there are further similarities between the masculinity performed by Floris and that of eunuchs. Eunuchs were widely considered to display a feminised masculinity in the Middle Ages. They were not considered to be women, but due to the removal of their primary male organs (testes) they gained female characteristics (McCracken, pp. 137-138). 

Those eunuchs castrated before puberty looked more like women as they had higher voices, hairless faces and bodies and larger breasts (Kuefler, p. 34). Eunuchs were perceived as ‘lacking courage and bravery, as being weak and feeble like women’: there was a theory that eunuchs were like women because they spent so much time with them (Tougher, p. 95). Finally, having a beard was one of the primary distinctions between men and women: Isidore of Seville, whose encyclopedia Etylomolgiae was popular throughout the Middle Ages, listed the soft face of a woman and a man’s beard among the anatomical features which function to distinguish between the sexes (Cadden, p. 182). As well as symbolising, as Cadden argues, ‘the completeness of the real man’, the beard was a key signifier for performative, sexual masculinity; indeed, Tougher notes that men wore fake beards in the Byzantine Empire to distinguish themselves from eunuchs (Tougher, p. 94).

Many of these identifiers of eunuchs map onto Floris. He too lacks courage and bravery, according to a typical modelling of romance hero behaviour. Floris’ parents are also concerned about the amount of time Floris and Blancheflur spend together, although the reason for this is based more upon disapproval of their relationship rather than fear of a feminine influence. Finally, when the Emir discovers Floris and Blancheflur in bed together, he does not know immediately that Floris is a man. This suggests, I think, that Floris, like the eunuchs which guard the harem, does not have any facial hair.  

This point is made clearer in the Old French romance Floire et Blancheflor, the immediate source for the Middle English Floris and whose composition has been dated to 1200-1225. In Floire, the description of the discovery of the lovers reads as follows:

Floire lay next to his girlfriend; there was no sign that he was a man, for on his face and chin there was neither beard nor moustache: apart from Blancheflor, no maiden in the whole tower was lovelier. The Emir did not realise the truth… To the chamberlain, he said, ‘Uncover the two girls’ chests for me. First we’ll see their breasts, and after we’ll wake them up’. The chamberlain uncovered them, and realised that one of the pair was a man (lines 2377-2392, my emphasis).
While in both versions of the romance it is the exposing of Floris/Floire and Blancheflur/Blancheflor’s chests which exposes their true gender identities, in the Old French romance, Floire’s lack of a beard is the main characteristic of his effeminate masculinity. It is no coincidence, I believe, that this is also the primary signifier of eunuch masculinity. In the extended analysis of this romance in my thesis I have considered what it might mean for masculinity in this romance if we consider Floris’ masculinity to be eunuch-like. However, I might have to leave that for another post…

The image is from Wikimedia Commons and shows an earthenware tile, painted on slip and under transparent glaze from northwestern Iran, and which dates from the 17th century. Currently held in the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre Museum. 
Quotations from Floris and Blancheflur are taken from Floris and Blancheflour, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, edited by Erik Kooper, originally published (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006) available online at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/ekfbfrm.htm. All modern English translations are my own. 

The quotation from Floire et Blancheflour is from Floire et Blancheflour, ed. Du Méril (1856) and the translation is from Jane Gilbert (see below).

Joan Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Jane Gilbert, ‘Boys Will Be…What? Gender, Sexuality, and Childhood in Floire et Blancheflor and Floris and Lyriope’, Exemplaria 9.1 (1997): pp. 39-61.
Matthew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Peggy McCracken, ‘Chaste Subjects: Gender, Heroism, and Desire in the Grail Quest’, in Queering the Middle Ages,   edited by Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 123-142.
Shaun Tougher, ‘Images of Effeminate Men: The Case of Byzantine Eunuchs’, Masculinity in Medieval Europe, edited by Dawn Hadley (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998) pp. 89–100.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

2012 IASPR Popular Romance Conference in York!

I have been pretty busy of late (what with finishing my thesis and all) but I am planning a new post about the effect of eunuchs on constructions of masculinity in medieval romance soon. In the meantime, if you're interested in popular romance (medieval or otherwise) the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) have just announced that their deadline for the 2012 conference in York, UK from 27th-29th September has been extended until the 30th May. Travel grants are also available for presenters. That gives you plenty of time to get your proposals in for what (I hope) will be a brilliant couple of days.

Here's the full CFP and details on where to send paper and panel proposals:

In novels, films, TV, fan fiction, pop music, and other media, romance has been both consumed and derided because of the pleasures it imparts. Even those who deride or debunk romance may find, in that refusal, a pleasure of social distinction. Open to talks on any topic related to romantic love in global popular media, now and in the past, this multi-disciplinary conference will also highlight the vexed issue of “pleasure” in popular romance texts, popular romance fandom, and popular romance studies.

All theoretical and empirical approaches are welcome, from affect studies and cognitive science to literary history, middlebrow studies, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and sociology. Proposals may focus on single authors, texts, songs, films, TV series, and marketing campaigns, or on broader, more theoretical approaches, including discussions of pedagogy. We are eager to receive proposals on older forms of popular romance (classical, medieval, early modern, etc.) and on love in Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American popular culture.

Submit proposals for individual papers, full panels, roundtables, interviews, or innovative presentations to conferences@iaspr.org by May 30, 2012. All proposals will be peer reviewed.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Medieval Romance at the Popular Romance Project

A few months ago, I was invited to contribute to the Popular Romance Project, a multi-programme project about the history and development of popular romance fiction.

My post traced the roots of today's popular romance back to the medieval period, asking "[w]hat do the Middle Ages have to do with the twenty-first century?" and pointed out some similarities between today's novels and Middle English romance, one of the most popular secular genres in the later Middle Ages.

Other have also written some brilliant posts: Jonathan Allen has written on male virginity in romance, Jayashree Kamble discusses the use of the Hades and Persephone myth in Mills & Boon romance, and Sarah S. G. Frantz outlines the case for Jane Austen as romance novelist.

New posts are being added every week, and I fully recommend a visit to the site.

Monday, February 20, 2012

‘Weird and kinky and medieval’: Gender, Sexuality and the Idea of the ‘Medieval’ in Modern Popular Sheikh Romance

As I mentioned in a previous post, last week I gave a paper to the Centre for Modern Studies Postgraduate Forum at the University of York in a panel entitled 'Feminist Narratives'. Here is the paper in full.

On their wedding night, in the middle of the desert, Faye and Tariq have a heated conversation. Faye asks:

‘[…] Tell me, do you only sleep with virgins?’

‘What has got into you?’ Tariq demanded in a shaken undertone.

‘I’m coming to terms with being a concubine. Tell me, do I get sown into a sack and dropped into the Gulf when you get bored with me?’

‘A sack would be very useful right now. You want me to apologise, don’t you?’

‘Oh no, even you couldn’t apologise for the embarrassment of a complete stranger stating that I’m not a virgin in front of so many people. Allow me to tell you that I found that weird and kinky and medieval-‘(The Arabian Mistress, p. 90).

This passage is from a modern popular romance published in 2001, The Arabian Mistress by Lynne Graham. In recent years, many of the negative connotations of the medieval in contemporary culture have been connected, through an orientalist political rhetoric, to a ‘barbaric, backwards’ Middle East, defined by political dictatorship, terrorism and misogyny and located specifically in and around the Arabian Gulf. The labelling of old-fashioned and repressive values as medieval is not new, as Fred Robinson indicated back in 1984. However the construction of the East as ‘medieval’ has received renewed vigour in the past decade: for example in the ‘crusading’ speeches of George W. Bush, or the religious rhetoric of Tony Blair. Modern romance novels might not seem like the locus for these politicised ideas about the medieval, as they generally avoid politics, but we are increasingly seeing a preoccupation with the east as medieval, especially in the subgenre of sheikh romance although, as I will show, perhaps not in the same way as political rhetoric.

In this paper, I will outline three ways in which sheikh romance novels published in the UK over the last ten years engage with this ‘medieval’ rhetoric. To begin, I’ll offer a brief background of Mills & Boon and the subgenre of sheikh romances in the UK. Next, I will consider how the medieval is used in contemporary Mills & Boon sheikh romances to describe custom and architecture. I will examine three major ways in which sheikh romances nuance the existing discourse of the ‘medieval’ east: through geography, temporality and sexuality. I intend to show how sheikh romances construct the ‘medieval’ as something paradoxically appealing and abhorrent, and will consider how this construction of the medieval and of the east impacts upon issues of gender and sexuality.

Mills & Boon and the Sheikh Subgenre

Mills & Boon was founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon. Although they initially did not focus on romance novels, over the years the Mills & Boon imprint has become synonymous with romantic fiction: the Oxford English Dictionary defines Mills & Boon as a ‘trademark used to denote an idealized romantic situation of the kind associated with the fiction published by Mills & Boon Limited: the Mills and Boon tall, dark stranger’. After a merger with Harlequin in 1971, the company has enjoyed unbounded success: according to the company, a Mills and Boon book is sold in the UK every 3 seconds and it is estimated that romantic fiction accounts for 20 per cent of the fiction books retailed in the UK – that is one in every 5 fiction books sold. The company claims a huge global readership, selling 200 million books worldwide each year, distributing in 109 different countries. To put this in context, all seven of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter titles, including three companion books are estimated to have sold 450 million copies. If Mills & Boon continue to publish at the same rate (and evidence suggests that their sales remain buoyant even in a global recession) Mills & Boon could sell this many novels in just over two years.

Although not published by Mills & Boon, E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) has been widely accepted as the first formula ‘sheikh’ romance. I define sheikh romance as a love story set in the deserts of the Middle East or North Africa, with a sheikh or sultan hero and almost always a western (which is usually British, North American or Australian) heroine. A typical sheikh romance might begin with the forced marriage of hero and heroine following her abduction to his desert kingdom: an experience interspersed with midnight horse-riding in the desert, camping in a Bedouin tent, getting rescued from a sandstorm, bathing and being luxuriantly massaged in the sheikh’s jewelled palace, and enjoying a host of other Orientalised luxuries.

The success of Hull’s The Sheik spawned many more sheikh novels, including the first Mills & Boon sheikh romance, Louise Gerard’s A Sultan’s Slave (1921). Mills & Boon followed this up with Desert Quest by Elizabeth Milton in 1930, Maureen Heeley’s The Desert of Lies and Flame of the Desert in 1932 and 1934 respectively and Circles in the Sand (1935) by Majorie Moore. Sheikh romances seem to decline in popularity during the 1940s, at least in terms of Mills & Boon publication, but return in the 1950s and 1960s. At least three original sheikh titles were published by Mills & Boon in the fifties, six in the sixties, growing to 12 in the seventies, 17 in the eighties and 24 in the nineties. However in the 2000s the growth in popularity was exponential, with over 100 original titles published by Mills & Boon from 2000-2009. Even taking into account the increase in the number of novels published, this is a substantial increase, suggesting a significant contemporary market for these sheikh romances.

Although sheikh titles appear in many different series, the majority of recently published sheikh titles in the UK have been part of Mills & Boon’s flagship ‘Modern Romance’ series which began in July 2000. From the beginning of the ‘Modern Romance’ series until December 2009, Mills & Boon published 57 original sheikh titles in the ‘Modern Romance’ series [1] and these are the texts I focus on in this paper.

Using the Medieval: Shaky Geography

In many of these sheikh romances, the romance nation is usually ‘medieval’ in its architecture, landscape and customs. There are medieval Citadels (The Sheikh’s Virgin Princess, p. 173), medieval towns (The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride, p. 46), a tent like a ‘medieval pavilion’ (Bedded by the Desert King, p. 16); and a palace which appears to be ‘a medieval jail’ (The Sheikh’s Love-Child, p. 20). Traditional activities involve ‘medieval accoutrements’ (The Sheikh’s Virgin Bride, pp. 151-2) and some countries are ruled by ‘medieval laws and customs’ (The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife, p. 131) which particularly emphasise gender injustice. One heroine is sold in marriage to the sheikh to secure mining rights, her father bartering “like some medieval tyrant” with the sheikh’s family (The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride, p. 170). Another states that ‘going back to [the sheikh’s country] was like a time-travel into the dark ages. It was still feudal even barbaric, in its customs, particularly with regards to women’ (The Sheikh’s Wife, p. 58). Women are judged as “they used to do in Medieval times” (The Sheikh’s Unwilling Wife, p. 75) and there is a ‘warped sense of medieval family honour” (Desert Prince, Defiant Virgin, p. 148).

Having been exposed to contemporary political rhetoric about the ‘medieval Middle East’, it is unsurprising that romance readers and authors connect this romance east, which is here explicitly medievalised – with the ‘medieval east’ they encounter in the news. Yet these novels deploy an interesting technique which blurs this connection – the nation may still be medieval, but it is not necessarily the same medieval as that of the Middle East in the news, because of the sheikh romance’s fictional geography.

Mills & Boon sheikh romances of the first half of the twentieth century were usually set in British colonies or ex-colonies in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (e.g. Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Aden). However since the 1980s, the nations of sheikh romances have been almost entirely fictionalised: created nations invented for the purposes of the novel. By removing their ‘medieval’ attitudes from the context of the contemporary Middle East and situating them in an indefinable, fictional space, I contend that these sheikh romances can effectively sidestep the negative political rhetoric associated with the ‘medieval east’: this is clearly still a ‘medieval’ attitude which is understood negatively, but it is not necessarily the same ‘medieval attitude’ assumed to inhere in the real-life Middle East.

Furthermore, whilst the nations themselves are fictional, all but three of the 57 sheikh romances published in the ‘Modern Romance’ series are very clearly geographically situated in the Middle East, almost exclusively in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf.

I have mapped these fictional locations as precisely as possible using geographical references from the novels, indicating how many of the nations are located as extended Emirates in a seemingly limitlessly expansive Arabian Peninsula (click the map for a closer look). The model used for Mills & Boon’s fictional east appears to be the hypermodern and western-friendly nations of the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, thus providing the requisite exoticism, with none of the restrictions frequently outlined in the contemporary media. Moreover, most Westerners cannot name all of the United Arab Emirates, indicating the ease with which even the real Middle East can become fictionalised. The geographical shift from old colonial obsessions to a new political geography centred around the United Arab Emirates indicates a particular shift in the political tensions of sheikh novels: a liberal ally in the Middle East, but with the medieval (represented in the media by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia) always pushing at the edges.

Self-Referencing Romances: Temporality

I will now move to consider how sheikh romances’ temporality works to alter the meaning of ‘medieval’. Mills & Boon is a highly self-referential publisher and authors in genre fiction often pay tribute to previous authors and their works. Furthermore the striking homogeneity of the created east in different sheikh novels suggests that authors are redeploying particular features (the desert, the harem, the luxurious palace) to create an east that is recognised and recognisable. More specifically, sheikh romances evoke the established desert imagery of romance novels and films from the 1920s and 1930s, especially The Sheik, which was made into a film starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921. In fact, the status of Hull’s novel within the desert genre substantiates its position as a point of reference for later novels.

The heroine of The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride harbours erotic fantasies that mirror the kidnap plot of Hull’s The Sheik; the heroine’s expectations of a sheikh who rides ‘the desert on a magnificent while stallion’, steals women and makes ‘wild love to them in [his] tent’ (p. 150) reveal the provenance of her expectations. Valentino is sometimes explicitly mentioned; the hero of The Sheikh’s Wife ‘seemed perfect’ ‘like Valentino from the old movies’ (p. 113) and the heroine of Sold to the Sheikh recounts the fantasy of ‘Rudolph Valentino, sweeping the fair lady off to his desert lair to have his wicked way with her’, noting ‘That scenario has turned countless Western women on no end over the years’ (p. 110). There is often a tension between rejection of this stereotype and desire for the fantasy it evokes. In Mistress of the Sheikh the sheikh hero had ‘talked to [the heroine] as if he really were the tottering ghost of old Rudy Valentino…straight out of an outdated Hollywood flick, complete with flaring nostrils, attitude, and macho enough to make a camel gag’ (p. 56). Here, the heritage of Rudolph Valentino is presented as undesirable and antiquated, yet later in the same novel the heroine has ‘a silly dream, something straight out of a silent movie’ (p. 100), during which her attraction to the sheikh and this fantasy is clear. In Surrender to the Sheikh the hero is even described as ‘a Lawrence-of-Arabia-type character’ (p. 55). Lawrence of Arabia, or T. E. Lawrence, was made famous in early 1920 through Lowell Thomas’ exhibition With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia and was an inspiration for Hull’s novel and many others.

So even though the eastern landscape and architecture of these romances is described as medieval, it is also linked to 1920s and 30s cinema: the heroine of Duty, Desire and the Desert King perceives the palace as ‘something from Arabian Nights, or a Hollywood film set’ (p. 54) and ‘the fire blazing high into the sky in front of the ocean, and the musicians beating their Arabian drums and strumming even more exotic instruments, […] was like the setting for a film (p. 51)’ in Desert King, Pregnant Mistress.

So what is the significance of this blending of temporalities and cultural markers from the early twentieth century and the ‘medieval’? Moreover, when sheikh romances use the word ‘medieval’, what do they actually mean? I suggest that when Mills & Boon sheikh novels refer to a historical, mythical east, represented by the ‘medieval’, their heritage in previous sheikh romances mean that they are, to a certain extent, referring to and reusing the tropes of past sheikh romances. Furthermore the ‘medieval’ is associated in ‘Modern Romance’ sheikh novels with abduction, virginity, the desert nation and the forcefulness of heroes which are all significant tropes of early sheikh novels (although Hull does not use the word ‘medieval’ in The Sheik). In fact, these tropes are so integral to the genre that it is conceivable that just as these elements define the genre, so too the ‘medieval’ has started to become an obligatory reference in sheikh romance. Thus, is it possible that ‘medieval’ here is associated not with the ‘medieval’ of contemporary political discourse, but with a different medieval, linked in its association with the cultural tropes of sheikh romance in the 1920s and 1930s, and not directly through modern political rhetoric? This also indicates that representing the east as medieval in sheikh romance is not a kneejerk reaction to recent events, but has a longer history from within the genre.

Romance Resolution: Desiring the Medieval

Finally, I will indicate how sheikh romances negotiate their medieval connotations by finding an eroticism in the ‘medieval’. Many accusations of being medieval are directed at the sheikh himself; One heroine rails “you described me as your woman as though I was a possession! It’s medieval!” (The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife, p. 107) and the heroine of The Sheikh’s Wife considers ‘what kind of man handcuffs a woman? A medieval man’ (p. 96). And yet despite his medieval attitude, heroines still desire the hero. In The Sheikh’s Wife the heroine knew that ‘he could seduce her at the drop of [a] hat’ and ‘she responded to him’ as ‘something inside her stirred, hunger, awareness’(p. 26). So in desiring the ‘medieval’ hero, does this perhaps suggest that heroines similarly desire his medieval attitude? Or is this another example of the tension between desire for and rejection of a fantasy?

Returning to the passage I cited at the beginning of this paper, there is one area in which desire for a medieval attitude is fore grounded: virginity. 31 of the 57 sheikh romances I examined feature virgin heroines (54%) and almost every non-virgin heroine is inexperienced and innocent of sexual pleasure. The heroine of The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride recognises the importance of virginity to the hero and his family as ‘had she not been a virgin, she had the awful feeling even a pity date would not have occurred. It was medieval (p. 94). In Possessed by the Sheikh, explaining why he wants to marry her, the hero tells the heroine Katrina ‘It is my duty to do as my brother commands me and, besides, since I took your virginity…’, upon which ‘Katrina protested in a distraught whisper’: ‘You’re marrying me because of that! But that… that’s archaic… medieval…’ (p. 153).

There are even references to a trope often used in medieval historical romance – that of proving virginity through bloody sheets: the hero of The Arabian Mistress believing the heroine not to be a virgin, states ‘I will cut myself and smear blood on the sheet’ (p. 93) in order to ‘prove’ her virginity.

Yet although heroines label this obsession with virginity as ‘medieval’ in a clearly negative way, there is a concurrent desire for this particular ‘medieval’ trope. The heroine for whom the hero is willing to cut himself considers ‘it was finally dawning on her that virginity appeared to be a major issue on all fronts as far as he was concerned. It was medieval but there was something terribly, strangely, crazily sweet about his equally barbaric solution to this lack he believed she had’ (The Arabian Mistress, p. 93). Here, the heroine is welcoming the hero’s ‘medieval’ attitude while simultaneously rejecting its barbarism: ‘medieval’ virginity is constructed as both ‘weird’ and ‘kinky’ as the quotation from my title suggests. Furthermore, as I noted earlier, many of the heroines are virgins, so even though they might verbally resist this medieval rhetoric, which insists they must be virginal, they simultaneously endorse it precisely by being virgins. A similar desire for a ‘medieval’ attitude can be seen in The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride as the heroine finds the sheikh’s assumption of ‘a medieval view of a woman’s role?’ appealing ‘to some tiny, primitive part of her subconscious’ (p. 128). Thus this medieval discourse, as it defines attitudes towards virginity, is figured as something which can be simultaneously rejected and desired.

The Medieval and the Idea of Progress

Yet even as they nuance and shift it, sheikh romances do, to a certain extent, reproduce a discourse similar to that in the contemporary media by positioning the western heroine as the harbinger of progress to the desert nation. In The Desert King’s Bejewelled Bride the heroine accuses the hero of being ‘a relic from the Dark Ages’ (p. 142) when he announces that he expects her to give up her modelling career after their marriage. Yet at the end of the novel the hero admits ‘I was wrong to make the assumptions and the demands that I did’ (p. 183), thereby relinquishing his medieval ideals. Yet the heroine replies ‘I don’t want to carry on modelling. But I do want to work, yes. Let me help with the new school […], build others just the same’ (p. 183). So even though she rejected the sheikh’s expectation that she would give up her career as ‘from the Dark Ages’, the heroine does in fact give up her job, replacing it with a scheme of modernisation and development, thus resolving the sheikh’s ‘medieval’ demands, as well as beginning, through development, to modernise the nation.

Similarly in The Sultan’s Bought Bride the heroine protests against the ‘disgustingly barbaric arranged marriage thing’, and argues passionately in favour of ‘the women living in [the sheikh’s country] who might be in desperate need of a helping hand’ (p. 76). She later sets out her plans to encourage girls to stay in education and have a choice to marry or not. Development is defined according to the interests of the western heroine and, consequently, western reader, hence the focus on women’s rights. Moreover, what is labelled as medieval in these romances, and therefore able to be modernised, is invariably gender issues affecting women. So in the romantic resolution of the story, some of the medieval attitudes can apparently be resolved through the heroine’s scheme of modernisation.

Yet this resolution is not without its tensions: here heroines are figured as vehicles of the western world. By advocating education and women’s rights, heroines simultaneously bring about modernity, whilst paradoxically reinforcing the ‘medievalness’ of the desert nation – the fact that it needed modernising in the first place. So whilst the sheikh’s ‘medieval’ ideas about the heroine’s career may have been resolved, by placing plans for modernisation in the future, these romances underscore the medieval present of the east.


So to conclude, I will summarise the ways in which these sheikh romances use the medieval. First, there has been a shift in romance relations with the Middle East in recent times, notably in its movement to a fictional Middle Eastern geography dominated by tourist-friendly locations modelled on places like Dubai. This allows novels to focus on the tourism aspects of the Middle East, like camel rides, and to locate ‘medieval’ attitudes elsewhere. Second, by outlining the continuing use of tropes from earlier sheikh romance and their relation to the medieval, I have indicated that the association of the East with the medieval in sheikh Mills & Boon is not new, but may be a continuation and evolution of a pre-existing rhetoric from earlier sheikh novels and films. Thus, the events of 9/11, so cited as the catalyst for today’s view of the Middle East as medieval, do not perhaps loom as large in romance relations with the east.

Finally, the centrality of an erotic desire surrounding the east and the medieval indicates the tensions that drive these romances and are, I would argue, a large part of their appeal. It may be that eroticising the east is a way of exploring the complexity of the erotic tensions at the centre of these romances, and how this conflict echoes our own conflicted relationship with the east. By sidestepping the geographical locus of the medieval Middle East, reworking the meaning of medieval away from contemporary political rhetoric and erotically engaging with the medieval as sexual fantasy, I argue that these romances can offer a way to tame and deal with a scary political situation, giving women an opportunity to negotiate a war they are not a part of.

These romances also reveal how deeply rooted ideas about the medieval are in issues relating to gender and sexuality. While you might not necessarily want to call Mills & Boon romances feminist narratives, although some have argued for the feminist credentials of romance novels, the vast majority of Mills & Boon readers and authors are women and romance novels frequently deal with issues commonly affecting women which are often excluded from public discourse, for example, marriage, relationships, children. Furthermore, these are precisely the aspects of sheikh romances which are described as medieval –female sexuality and the treatment of women. But, then, how ‘feminist’ is it to construct ‘medieval’ sexuality as desirable?

Furthermore, as you may have detected, these are extraordinarily Orientalist texts. Although 3 of the 57 ‘Modern Romance’ sheikh novels have half-eastern heroines, the vast majority centre on entirely western heroines, in line with the tradition established by Hull and her predecessors of a white western heroine and an Arabian sheikh. I contend that the western heroine can locate an enjoyment within medieval sexuality because of her feelings for the sheikh hero: a relationship to which the western heroine enjoys exclusive access. Although the position of sheikha would usually be occupied by an eastern woman, in Mills & Boon sheikh romances, it is the western heroine who assumes this role. Furthermore, the ability of the western heroine to imagine ways in which the medieval east can be modernised is uniquely located in her western identity: by labelling the eastern nation as medieval (and by extension declaring all of its inhabitants bar herself to be medieval subjects) the western heroine relegates her eastern counterpart to a medieval woman’s role – precisely the aspect of the medieval that she so vociferously rejects throughout the romance. As a result, it could be argued that sheikh romances perpetuate a ‘female Orientalism’, whereby the white, western woman speaks for and over the eastern woman, denying her her own voice and agency. This use of the medieval, then, might be the most disturbing of all.

[1] I have not counted two ‘Modern Romance Extra’ titles, one title from the mini-series The Royal House of Niroli, as well as three titles from the mini-series The Royal House of Karedes which also carry the ‘Modern Romance’ branding, but are usually catalogued separately from the ‘Modern Romance’ series.


Lynne Graham, The Arabian Mistress (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001)

Lynne Graham, The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)

Kate Hewitt, The Sheikh’s Love-Child (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009)

Penny Jordan, The Sheikh’s Virgin Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2003)

Penny Jordan, Possessed by the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2005)

Sharon Kendrick, Surrender to the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001)

Sharon Kendrick, The Sheikh’s Unwilling Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)

Kim Lawrence, Desert Prince, Defiant Virgin (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008)

Miranda Lee, Sold to the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2004)

Sandra Marton, Mistress of the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2000)

Lucy Monroe, The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2004)

Sarah Morgan, The Sheikh’s Virgin Princess (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008)

Sabrina Philips, The Desert King’s Bejewelled Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009)

Jane Porter, The Sheikh’s Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001)

Jane Porter, The Sultan’s Bought Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2004)

Jane Porter, Duty, Desire and the Desert King (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009)

Fred C. Robinson, “Medieval, The Middle Ages”, Speculum 59.4 (1984): 745-756.

Susan Stephens, Bedded by the Desert King (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006)

Susan Stephens, Desert King, Pregnant Mistress (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008)

Annie West, The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)


The first image is the cover of E. M. Hull, The Sheik (New York: Dell, 1947, originally published 1919), accessed at Wikimedia Commons. The second image is a map showing the locations of sheikh romance nations, created by A Burge, not to be reproduced without permission. The third image is an advertising poster for the film The Sheik (1921) accessed at Wikimedia Commons.