Alright, so tonight’s post is about a short reflective trip down el’ memory lane. I need to remind myself about the capability of my mind – and so I am posting an old essay, written this time last year. Sometimes, you just need a more persuasive reason to eat carbs again other than ‘for the energy.’
Blind, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Portrayal of Love within The Madness of Sir Ian Mackenzie
Thomas Moore, fond friend of Lord Byron famously declared “it is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed.” The plot of Jennifer Ashley’s 2009 historical romance ‘The Madness of Sir Ian Mackenzie,’ the first of her Highland Pleasures series, reflects this. Ashley explores the boundaries between love, lust and madness. Through the relationship of the innocent Beth, and Lord Ian Mackenzie, a man shunned by society for his Aspergers Syndrome, love is portrayed as powerful enough to overcome social stigma and ignorance. Thus, the true madness resides in society and Ian’s father. A typical mass market romance, the plot surrounds the murder mystery of two prostitutes, of whom it is assumed Ian killed. His innocence however, is overshadowed by social ignorance until he meets Beth. Ashley creates deliberate escapism for her reader through the setting of Paris, Ian’s role as the Byronic Hero and heavily sexualised language. Through this analysis, I will demonstrate how 21st century romance has churned love into a deliberate selling point, and, like Moore’s notorious burning of Lord Byron’s famous letters, why a little madness can be vital for success.
Written in the 3rd person, the narrator focuses on the view points of both Ian and Beth throughout the novel. Therefore, the reader relates to Beth as she explores her identity, but also perceives Ian’s own confidence and feelings developing, thus supporting how ‘the (hero) of mass-produced Romance ends up awakening, and thereby regulating the heroine’s dormant sense of self.’ (Niquist, 160) Therefore, the 21st century reader can both relate to and idealise both characters. Portraying Ian’s perspective also increases reader empathy for his troubled mind, and allows us to see his sanity. Thus, we do not fear, but rather, pity him.
Ian operates within the novel as the ideal Byronic Hero; the male romantic hero first featured heavily in Gothic romances, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This term refers to a dark protagonist who is ‘larger than life,’ and ‘with the loss of his titanic passions, his pride, and his certainty of self-identity, he loses also his status as [a traditional] hero’ (Thorslev, 187) Firstly, Ian portrays the more attractive traits of the Byronic Hero, making him commercially appealing. He is tall, powerful and extremely wealthy. For example, ‘his body solid muscle’ (7) and ‘his eyes set Ian Mackenzie apart from every other person.’ ‘Solid muscle’ implies masculinity and stability; Ian is literally a pillar of support. Furthermore, ‘every other person’ shows his immediate uniqueness. His title also exempts him from the authoritative power of policeman Ian Fellows. However, whilst metaphorically ‘untouchable,’ Ian is mentally isolated.
Ian portrays the more pejorative traits of the Byronic Hero, creating the essential elements of mystery that establish his success as Beth’s lover. These are the more dramatic, ruthless qualities that act to dramatise the relationship and heighten the plot’s suspense, supporting how ‘the Byronic hero is often a figure of repulsion, as well as fascination.’ (Thorslev) Ian’s Aspergers Syndrome leaves him rejected from both society and his father since childhood, due to his unexplained ‘rages’ (293) and mental difficulties. Resultantly, although he feels sexual desire, he cannot express emotion; or even look Beth fully in the eye to establish the most basic of human contact. As a Byronic Hero, his ‘heightened abilities’ force Ian to be ‘abnormally sensitive, and extremely conscious of himself.’ (Thorslev, 187) The most powerful example of this is during their initial meeting, where Ian openly declares ‘I wouldn’t expect love from you. I can’t love you back.’ (21) After witnessing his mother’s murder and subsequently growing up in a mental asylum, we heavily empathise for the deeply troubled Ian, thus increasing his desirability. This weakness provides Beth with something her femininity can heal, idealising femininity’s power. Readers interpret Ian as vulnerable, despite his undeniable power, and with findings such as the RWA, stating 91% of American readers being female, readers can envisage their own femininity healing men such as Ian. This idealism is essential to the genre’s success, despite 21st century feminism and the discarding of Seperate Sphere ideology.
As Isabella, Ian’s brother’s jilted wife warns, ‘loving a Mackenzie can tear you pieces.’ (90) Passion and obsession act as major themes to suggest love is strong enough to conquer social prejudice.The theme of powerful love is amplified at points to the extent of becoming obsessive. This portrays both the overwhelming strength of Ian’s love, but also expresses Ian’s autism. His love can be seen as overly-controlling when Ian’s anger is triggered. Within the novel, there is a fine line between madness and obsession. When Ian follows Beth all the way to France, he insists ‘he’d have her in his bed if he had to recruit Curry, Isabella, Mac and every other person in Paris to get her.’ (51) This stalker-like tendency is one that reoccurs frequently, as Ian is highly possessive of Beth. When he finds her alone with Fellows, a policeman turned love-rival, he immediately takes ‘Fellows by the throat and shoved him inside of the room.’ (123)
The line between protection and obsession is somewhat blurred. His uncontrollable anger is powerful and somewhat demonic, such as ‘Ian’s vision filmed red with fury.’ (74) Here, the abstract noun ‘fury’ implies a powerful rage beyond control. This aggression ironically strengthen the relationship, creating an element of excitement for the plot and heightening dramatic tension. He insists ‘we break everything we touch,’ (254) but Beth merely views this anger as ‘part of the very intriguing package.’ (318) This lack of fear portrays how female readers still idealise the alpha-male figure. It becomes a more successful love story as these powerful feelings only increase the passion between the pair. However, this negatively portrays 21st century’s view of love. It implies aggression is attractive, which can leave the reader feeling uncomfortable in light of domestic violence.
Beth’s journal extracts, written in the first person and containing her strongest sexual desires, reveal Beth’s sexual liberation and the rejection of 19th century social attitudes towards female sexuality. Ashley expresses contemporary views towards female empowerment. For example, Beth takes control of her own desires by journalling her encounters, thus expressing how ‘romance is one of the few places where is a woman is a subject in sex, rather than an object.’ (Grant, 132) She declares ‘I have become a truly wicked women,’ (119) therefore reveling in her sexuality. This appeals to a modern female reader, to whom casual sex is no longer a taboo. Despite it’s 19th century setting, the novel’s extreme sexual explicitness reveals these attitudes, as well as providing sexual fantasies for it’s readers to idealise. For example, ‘depraved thing that I am, I reached over and began to unfasten his trousers.’ (121) These erotic scenes provide escapism. Beth embodies her readership, the pre-modifier ‘depraved’ in itself suggests Ashley is affiliating with the sexual fantasies of modern women. This is essential to the ‘hydra-headed genre,’ (Eike, 27) who suggests erotica provides successful relaxation for women because they are not ‘not dictated by time of day or length of programme.’ (29) Technology cannot always suffice for modern readers; whilst fiction can be picked up whenever or wherever.
Despite Ian’s physical dominance as a character, it is Beth who ultimately controls the relationship through her femininity. For example: ‘He waited… for her to explain the mysteries of the world.’ (Ashley, 114) Beth becomes the teacher, despite her initial sexual apprehension. A typical feature of romance novels, Beth is ‘innocent’ of this ‘desire for power and impervious to its attractions.’ (Ellis, 749) She unwittingly controls Ian through her feminine charm. For example, ‘everything she wore shimmered and whispered in some way.’ (126) Like a ‘shimmering’ gem, Beth captivates male attention. The verb ‘whispering’ implies she is sending subliminal messages through her beauty. Historical romances such as this can show a return to pre-feminism ideals, that now in 21st century writing establish power. The enormous success of the genre represents its ‘empowering effect’ (Crusie) on readers. Femininity becomes a tool, rather than a burden.
The importance of setting also acts to seduce the reader through escapism. The novel is set in three main locations. Beginning with London, moving to Paris, shifting to the elegant but ‘enormous’ (188) Mackenzie family estate in Scotland and then returning to London for the climatic unveiling of the plot’s murderess and typical resolved ending. These are highly romantic settings, associated with lust and beauty. Paris and Scotland are the most interesting, as they represent the chronological shift from initial lust (the decadent Paris) to genuine love (the natural beauty of Scotland) within the couple’s relationship. However, as the Mackenzie estate in Scotland is associated with Ian’s cruel father, e.g. ‘windows glittered across the monstrosity,’ (182) it also represents the social barriers from Autism that the couple must overcome.
Paris is described with far more decadent language, expressing the lust within their initial sexual ‘liaison(s).’ (81) At this point, they are merely lovers. Paris is full of hedonistic gambling, art and decadent balls. As a city, Paris oozes sex appeal. Rich colours are constantly present within the text to symbolise passion. For example, the alliteration of ‘ rich red carpet.’ (126) Parisian decadence, such as ‘the staircase spilled them into a glittering palace’ (127) acts to seduce the reader. The luxuriousness of ‘glittering palace’ shows Beth’s rising social status, however, ‘spilling,’ as an active verb, interestingly suggests clumsiness, as if this is a world Beth has merely stumbled upon and does not quite belong to. This is further emphasised by her comparison to her past of London’s ‘grime filled streets and thin children.’ (97) This juxtaposition of setting embodies escapism for both Beth and reader. Within Paris, there is no work or daily stress for Beth, despite the lurking murder conspiracy in London. As Isabella, Beth’s friend insists, she is now ‘a lady of leisure.’ (114) She doesn’t even get out of bed before 1pm. For modern women in the 21st century (working, stressing, and coping with daily demands) Paris idealises a life where the only problems surround a near- perfect man. Thus, this increases the story’s appeal as it relates to its audience and suggests they too can be swept into the most glamorous of lifestyles. The first sex scenes also take place in Paris, alluding to Paris’s notorious history of flings. Beth herself notes ‘he kissed her like a lover, as if she was his courtesan.’ To describe herself like a prostitute, like the previous ‘spilling’ shows the reckless nature of their relationship and Beth’s rejection of society’s pejorative attitudes towards female sexuality. However, with the location shift to Kilmorgan, Scotland, after the couple’s spontaneous marriage, the relationship is seen to strengthen and embody more than mere lust.
Scotland undeniably strengthens the relationship as themes of passion move to trust and honesty. Ian’s traumatic childhood is explained, his family are fully introduced and this leads Beth to view Kilmorgan as a ‘safe harbour,’ (186) showing how the Mackenzies stand for the perfect surrogate family. The Mackenzie estate further emphasises Beth’s upward social mobility, suggesting male heroes ‘must be rich in order to offer heroines the fantasy gratification of acquired power. (Ellis, 749) The increased grandeur, protection and social status that marriage provides suggests social attitudes that ‘marital commitment’ is still ‘women’s…greatest desire.’ (Modelski, 47) Beth has acquired power by ‘being powerless’ (Ellis, 748) and this common martial theme might imply female ideologies such as the ‘Angel in the House’ concept are not behind us, despite equality achieved by the Sexual Discrimination Act of 1975, the Female Suffragette Movement and the Sexual Revolution of the 1970’s. Rather, Ashley’s language implies modern females still uphold value, even if subconsciously, for feminine qualities such as innocence, beauty and kindness. The passive use of sentence structure further supports this. Within the syntax, Beth often is the passive subject (besides her journal entries.) For example, ‘Ian kept Beth’s hand in his.’ (Ashley, 129) This suggests androcentric attitudes lurk within the narrative, implying readers ‘feel more secure than threatened under the conditions of patriarchy.’ (Cohn, 67) However, Beth is not fully typical of romance heroines. From the beginning she is sexually experienced and wealthy in her own right, justifying how ‘what is privileged at all costs is love.’ (Crusie) Beth, therefore, is a modern woman immersed in 19th century culture, driven by love.
Ashley portrays the typical Historical Romance plot, but inverts the traditional characteristics of the innocent female protagonist to portray modern female sexuality and a Byronic Hero tarnished from social ignorance that only femininity can heal, thus empowering her readers. Beth symbolises contemporary woman struggling between the barriers of feminism and femininity, whilst Ian provides escapism for female readers to envisage within their daily lives with . Thus, Ashley expresses how love can not only provide security and happiness, but also cure our minds of social ‘madness,’ or in other words, the insanity of ignorance. Thus, ultimately, love is blind, bad, and, like Lord Byron himself, ‘dangerous to know.’
Ashley, Jennifer. The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. New York: Berkley, 2009. Print.
Crusie, Jennifer. “Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” Web log
post. Jenny Crusie. N.p., 2003. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
Crusie, Jennifer. What the Lady Wants. Toronto: Harlequin, 1995.
Eike, Anne M. “AN INVESTIGATION OF THE MARKET FOR PAPERBACK ROMANCE NOVELS.” Journal of Cultural Economics 10.1 (1986): 25-37. JSTOR. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
Ellis, Kate. “Romance and the Erotics of Property: Market Fiction for Women (Review).” Modern Fiction Studies 34.4 (1988): 749-50. Project MUSE. Web. 12 Nov. 2013
Flood, Alison. “Mills & Boon Blamed for Sexual Health Problems.” The Guardian. N.p., 7 July 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Luther, Jessica. “Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism.” The Atlantic. N.p., 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
Modleski, Tania. Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. NY: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Thorslev, Peter L. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. New York: University of Minnesota, 1962. Print.