Gentlemen Prefer Marriage: Emmanuelle de Maupassant and the Bonds of Matrimony
By Alexa Day
The historical romance thrives on change. Evolution keeps it fresh as it provides all that candy historical fans love so much. The fabulous details, the excitement of past events, even those exotic speech patterns — it’s all wonderful. But if the historical romance weren’t making subtle changes to keep up with its readers, it might lose some of that popularity.
Consider the historical’s focus on marriage. Once upon a time, the historical hero was all about avoiding marriage. While he tried to keep his freedom, he found himself ensnared by the meek heroine, enchanted by the calculating miss, or surrendering to some constellation of circumstances leading him to the altar before he’s ready. Marriage ultimately suits him quite well, but the fun part is watching him learn that for himself.
Emmanuelle de Maupassant sets this convention on its ear in two of her stories, where the heroines spend most of the action taking a pass on marriage. Commitment doesn’t agree with them, and they’d do any modern lady proud with their insistence on independence.
I mentioned The Gentlemen’s Club before, a while back, when I was talking about what a woman-owned sex club ought to look like. The heroine, Maud, is in charge of her male clientele’s erotic experience. Her shows and tableaux are designed to arouse them and to free women to perform. They’re in control of the male gaze. Men look where Maud tells them to look. Remember that line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding? “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck,” the heroine’s mother explains, “and she can turn the head any way she wants.”
Maud is the neck. And she knows it.
After a night of erotic humiliation, Lord Macaulay can’t forget Maud, and he’s obsessed with the idea of possessing her. First, he’s determined to subject her to the same erotic treatment, but before long, he turns to a remedy that’s always available to her. He decides he wants to marry her.
Maud’s work comes with any number of people who are interested in keeping her to themselves, but she has no real reason to get married. Her entire life lies outside Victorian convention. She has nothing to gain from marriage and a great deal to lose. She’d have to pass on her abundance of sex partners, and she knows that sooner or later, she’d have to let go of her life’s work.
Marriage? No thanks.
Highland Pursuits, Emmanuelle’s newest release, moves forward in time to 1928. The heroine, Ophelia, has declined an advantage marriage proposal, and her mother sends her to Scotland as punishment.
I know. I mean, I’m not a parent. But seriously, how is that a punishment?
Once in Scotland, at her grandmother’s castle, Ophelia takes in the wisdom of her elders, who enjoyed a variety of suitors before settling down into marriage with equals. They were able to marry happily because life experience taught them about themselves. Before long, Ophelia gradually surrenders her innocence to several other guests at the family estate. It’s not the predictable fuck-fest; she finds frustration, heartbreak, and jealousy alongside pleasure and excitement. But ultimately, she arrives at a conclusion that would displease her mother a great deal.
“I’m trying on versions of myself, she concluded, to see how they fit. Aren’t I doing just as a planned, exploring what it means to be a woman, without becoming a dreary wife?”
She’s got a castle, the opportunity to meet all sorts of men, and a hot, bearded widower who lives on the estate. There’s no reason to marry. At least not soon.
In another twist, the men of both stories seem attached to the notion of marriage. Lord Macaulay initially wants to marry Maud so that he can have her to himself — it’s the way marriage has worked for men like him since time immemorial. But as he guides his niece through the courtship dance, he eventually discovers that the way to keep Maud is to allow her to remain free. When they do come together, he can only promise to provide her with the opportunity to be her truest self, and Maud can’t resist the chance to expand her already broad horizons through an alliance with her favorite suitor.
In Highland Pursuits, Hamish believes in marriage for love, especially since he’s done it once already. He’s slow to open his heart again, and he’s no stranger to heartbreak. But he’ll only enter a relationship with Ophelia if it’s based on affection. A one-time dalliance is one thing for Hamish, but he won’t consider a true coupling without love.
I tend to be a cynic during the season of matrimony. Maybe I’ve attended one too many failed bachelorette parties. But Emmanuelle’s work is a balm to the hard-hearted, a glimpse at what marriage might be — and at how splendid life might be without it.
Highland Pursuits is free right now! Head on over right now and start your vacation in the wilds of Scotland.
And follow Lady Smut.