Tuesday May 25, 2021

While Joanna Lowell’s The Duke Undone works wonderfully on its own terms as an historical romance, it can also be read and enjoyed as a kind of postmodernist metafiction. In her role as artist, the book’s protagonist serves as an allegorical double or doppelgänger of sorts both for the author herself, and for all who take pleasure in the reading and writing of romance novels. For the ungenerous interpretation of the book’s protagonist is that her attempt to profit from her sexuality — by which I mean that which happens to her in response to the sight of the nude duke in the book’s opening pages — makes her a “pornographer.” The character stumbles upon the duke: quite literally steps upon him. “A kind of god,” she thinks, “passed out nude in an alleyway.” The divine enters our lives here, as Philip K. Dick said, “at the level of the trash stratum.” This flash of the spirit in the form of the male nude is then a thing the character paints, and the painting is then a thing that she sells. Hence the “pornography” complaint — a trumped-up charge that, to those who read romance novels, can only seem hypocritical and absurd, baldly demonstrating the Victorian era’s patriarchal double-standard. Pulpit-riders and other anti-sex moralists have been wielding such rhetoric to police women’s agency since day one. The charge itself is thus an easy one to dismiss, as the novel itself makes clear. In no way, it insists, should Eros be cause for shame. The sale of nude art matters in the novel — draws it up short for a time, places its characters in a bind — only in the sense that, given an unjust climate, such exchange places both the protagonist and the duke in danger. If word of the protagonist’s painting were to reach her superiors, for instance, she could be expelled from the Royal Academy. Much the same is true for the duke. If word of his scandalous behavior were made public, it would interfere with the terms of his inheritance. Both characters, in other words, stand for a time on the brink of ruin. Yet as stars in a romance, both are in luck. For romance interrupts realism’s tragic bent, its anti-utopian fixation on comeuppance, allowing love to enter life as a kind of grace.

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