Saturday, June 14, 2014

How to Tame a Willful Wife

I've read some amazing books this year - All the Birds, Singing, Americanah, Be Safe, I Love You, The Tenth of December, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves... sometimes when I read something incredible, I need to cleanse my palate with a little sorbet.  The sweet interlude was a romance novel called How To Tame a Willful Wife by Christy English.  I am not above reading a bodice ripper, we even read one for book club and had one of our most stimulating conversations.  This one was based, as you might guess, on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.  I was interested to see how English did or did not subvert the message of The Taming of the Shrew, which has some very unpopular and old-fashioned gender roles.  Some say a good performance will include a wink by the actors that Katherine is complicit in her "re-education" which makes the story more acceptable to a contemporary audience, so I was anticipating that this book would have a wink too.

Caroline Montague is married to Anthony Carrington against her will.  Her habits of wearing pants and fighting with a sword aren't allowed by Anthony, who buys her beautiful clothes and sets some ground rules.  They're both insanely attracted to each other and have some crazy, consensual, and frequent sex. I thought for sure there was going to be classic romance-novel sex that started out as rape but somewhere in the middle the woman is overcome by desire or whatever but that surprisingly never happened.  There is plenty of "throbbing member", you may be pleased to hear.  What could be more of a turn-off than the phrase "throbbing member" I ask you, and yet romance novels are riddled with the term.  Anthony's always telling her she can't play with swords and stuff but she really wants to because she's good at it and she wants to be able to protect herself.  Eventually Anthony does something really nice for her family in a Mr-Darcy-kind-of-way and she somehow convinces him that she can and should protect herself and then they have a bunch more sex. 

As romance novels go, it was pretty good.  There's the usual nonsense re: fathers and husbands policing women's virginity/"purity" - I wish I could just attribute that to the time period but of course many women's sexuality is governed by men today. 

As Shakespeare's Katharina points out, however, this is due to her circumstances of passing from one protector (her father) to another (her husband) and finding that keeping peace is a small price to pay in exchange, quite literally, for safety:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.

The redeeming factor of Taming of the Shrew and How to Tame a Willful Wife is that the couple is at least perceived to have arrived at a place of mutual respect and equality in the marriage.  In any event, it's a fun exercise to read romance novels critically and this is a good book to try it with.

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