Romances didn’t appeal to me when I was in my teens. The dog-eared paperbacks that all my friends were reading seemed to insult my intelligence. Romance stories aimed at girls emphasized the importance of keeping one’s virginity until the wedding night, and surrendering to a suitor who could afford to support a family. I didn’t like the sermon, and I couldn’t believe in the happy ending.
I lost some of my scorn when I heard a contemporary romance writer explain her motivation at a writers’ conference. An African-American woman using the pen name “Anna Black” said that she needed the fantasy of a gentleman who really loves a lady and treats her well because she hadn’t seen such things in the real world. I thought that sounded reasonable.
I considered Jane Austen’s six novels, now approximately 200 years old. They are romances about heroines who speak their minds, despite needing access to a man’s wealth for survival. Many a female reader has found those books thrilling.
The erotic romances of our time have more explicit sex in them than the romances written in eras when “premarital sex” was considered a social problem, but they are primarily about relationships, in which the sex provides additional information. Most romances still have happy endings, but these can’t be too predictable. They are usually heterosexual, but the more enlightened romances show same-sex love as an option. If the hero is older and more powerful than the heroine, he can’t simply whisk her off her feet before she can show what she is capable of.
The most recent romance I’ve read is The English Professor by Rachel de Vine. It’s about a very old erotic fantasy, which is now largely forbidden in the real world.
Many a university student has had a crush on a charismatic professor, and professors often find their students tempting: so young, so full of energy, hope, and curiosity. Even if the attraction is mutual, however, university administrations usually have rules against such relationships while the course is ongoing. Students tend to be less mature than their teachers, who are their guardians in a sense. A student is likely to be distracted from schoolwork if the person who assigned the work is also a lover. In any case, the professor is unlikely to be completely objective in evaluating the assignments.
In this novel, Eleanor is a smart young woman, no longer a teenager, and her English professor, Dan Jamieson, is still in his thirties, single, and just beginning his academic career. She is fascinated by his “rich, chocolatey voice,” and his “come-to-bed” eyes. When she brings him a late assignment, she doesn’t expect him to show sexual interest in her, and he doesn’t plan to cross any professional boundaries. However, their shared interest in literature leads to regular meetings outside of class.
Dan, as he lets her call him, reveals that he is a novelist, and Eleanor tells him that she wants to become a writer. His mentoring moves into dangerous territory. Eleanor has been aroused by BDSM literature, beginning with The Story of O, and she admits this to Dan when he asks her about her responses to such books. He finds her irresistibly sensual. Step by step, he introduces her to activities she has only fantasized about before.
To be specific, this is a spanking novel, and the professor doesn’t even pretend to punish his student because she has been a “bad girl.” He spanks her because she wants it, and so does he.
The sex scenes are told in alternating sections: first Eleanor’s version, then Dan’s. The reader is led to understand how two decent-enough people could fall into a taboo relationship.
The secret trysts only remain secret for a short time, and then, predictably, the lovers are forced apart. Luckily for Dan, he is already a successful writer in a time when print publishing is a flourishing business, so his loss of an academic career does not plunge him into poverty.
Less than halfway into the novel, the romance seems to be over. Eleanor goes home to her lower-middle-class family in Yorkshire, knowing that she can’t tell anyone what Dan means to her. She has the intelligence to make her own way in the world, and she is determined to finish her university education, even though her favourite professor has gone forever.
In Eleanor’s case, becoming upwardly mobile probably involves getting rid of her Yorkshire accent, though as I read, I was secretly hoping she could hang onto some honest northern vowels and not try to sound like a member of the Royal Family.
Eleanor’s adventures in the overlapping fields of freelance writing, bookselling and book publishing are interesting in themselves. Her success would probably be unbelievable if set in our own time, but my guess is that most of the action is set in the 1980s. Much of this novel has the flavour of a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age novel) as Eleanor finds a job and a place to live in London. She develops new skills and meets new people, but never forgets the man who awakened her sexuality.
The reader is relieved when Eleanor crosses paths with Dan. Of course, the world of book-publishing isn’t large enough to keep two successful authors apart. Once again, however, there are complications, and both central characters must choose between their attraction to each other and their reluctance to hurt other people.
Two important secondary characters are a female literary agent in a long-term lesbian relationship, and a closeted gay man who marries a woman to avoid upsetting his wealthy, conservative family, even though this means that his long-suffering boyfriend is expected to be satisfied with secret trysts. There is a clear parallel between the shocking revelation scene in which the two men are “outed,” and the scene in the university when the same thing happened to Eleanor and Dan.
Both the central characters show that same-sex relationships don’t shock them at all, and they treat non-straight colleagues as their social equals.
A lot happens in this relatively short novel, and the plot never lags. The writing careers of Dan and Eleanor are wish-fulfillment for writers, and Eleanor is a kind of Cinderella who rises into a higher social class than the one in which she was raised. In that sense, she is a very traditional heroine.
The prolific author, who also writes under the name “Juliette Banks,” seems to write for a trans-Atlantic audience, and she includes a brief introduction for American/Canadian readers, explaining the British terms for some items which show up a lot in erotic romance, such as knickers/panties. I noticed, however, that the term “torch” (for “electric torch”) isn’t translated into “flashlight” for North American readers, and I couldn’t help imagining how some readers would visualize the scene in which Eleanor reads a racy BDSM novel under a bedsheet by the light of a torch. I just hope the context makes it clear why the fire department doesn’t have to be called—although sexy firemen might be a fun distraction.
I like local colour, and therefore I would rather see extensive footnotes in a novel than generic descriptions stripped of specific references to place and time, but I’m probably in a minority. This novel is a likeably updated, accessible version of a traditional plot. It has all the necessary features: sexual heat, secrecy, moral dilemmas, jealousy, and a well-earned happy ending.