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.
Historical romance means the book should be sexy, and it is. Sex is built toward, alluded to. Sex is a potential (however much it may seem “fated,” so to speak, by genre). It’s the desire the protagonists sense in each other’s presence, a longed-for intimacy made possible slowly through a series of encounters wherein first are established after negotiation, following correction of initial misunderstandings, the revelation of each character’s love for the other. Characters reveal themselves through charming gaffes and faux-pas. And what fun characters they are! Each has been wrong, and each has been wronged; each learns through experiment to forgive the other. So goes the first 150 pages. Sex is savored and prolonged through its postponement. The encounter with the other brings with it pain and hurt, but also a reawakening of the senses, allowing each to “think, see, feel, new things” (The Duke Undone, p. 159).
While in no way meant as a comment upon yesterday’s chapbooks, which were indeed a pleasure to read, horror nevertheless continues to trouble me, remaining for the most part a genre I hold in low regard. Horror disappoints — depresses and deflates the spirit, if such a thing can be said, i.e., assuming we have a theory of spirit. The conventionality of its unhappy endings reads like a failure of nerve. If one is to allow magic back into the cosmos, let it be a positive magic like the magic of love. So I think as I trade yesterday’s diet for today’s: Joanna Lowell’s The Duke Undone.
We rearrange ourselves beside a canal among people with good stories. A seal docked beside me with a smiley face sticker atop its face prompts me to imagine the addition of hieroglyphs to the text message emoji/emoticon lexicon. Mermaids hover to my left, and to my right a friend’s new romance novel: Joanna Lowell’s The Duke Undone. A trip down memory lane. “Down By the Bay” theme song performed on ukulele. I eye the book’s prologue and note its relationship to another of the friend’s novels. Female protagonist. Third-person subjective narration. Yet there the similarities end. Or so I imagine.