May 25, 2013

My Guilty Collection

I have a secret.

Sabrina's hand tightened about her coffee cup, and she was pierced by the love and pain she could not express for her patient... so proud and obstinate, and caged within his yearning for the girl whom he knew to be so wrong for him.

OK, lots of secrets. Or no secrets. One or the other.

She saw the proud nostrils expand as he took a deep breath.

Anyway, one of my remaining secrets is my guilty addiction. Before I reveal this deep dark secret of mine, guys, you must promise first that you will not judge me. Like many addictions, mine developed during a dark period of my life. That dark period of everyone's life, when you worry all the time about how you look (and to be honest, you do look pretty gawky, particularly because you refuse to shave your legs just yet and insist on wearing knee-length shorts to school anyway, and think that the best hairstyle in the world is to braid your wet locks, then un-braid them the next morning so your hair is crunchy electric waves standing out from your face, and you just learned how to use Sculpie and you've sculpted dozens of pairs of dangly, awkward earrings that almost match the overly large T-shirts you wear in order to hide the fact that you are suddenly wearing training bras).

The dark Saint-Sarnes are cursed in our family. They never find lasting happiness. There was another who in the Great War was injured on the Flanders battlefield. He had married while on leave... when he returned home badly disfigured the girl ran screaming from his bedside.

I remember my adolescence mostly in books. I'd read new ones every once in a while but mostly I stuck with my favorite series. I'd cycle between Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, Lloyd Alexander, Robyn McKinley, Joan Aiken, L. Frank Baum, Cynthia Voigt, Judy Blume, and (yes I admit it) Ann M. Martin and Carolyn Keene. (andfrancinepascal. Full confessions here. k.)We read classics in English. And later, I learned to love Babara Kingsolver and Jane Austen and other authors with more redeeming value. But I'll admit it... I love myself a good thriller. A good, well-written serial mystery. Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels is my favorite. The adult version of fiction written for pure entertainment value, but still intelligently written.

His kiss had ripped open the heavens for her... his words plunged her into despair.

I'm not doing a very good job confessing. Sorry. The thing is, alongside more redeeming classics, and less redeeming but still not-badly-written commercial fiction, I have a hidden, competely unwholesome, glee-filled attraction to...

Hers was a face Renoir could have painted, but she didn't know. Dashing young doctors had found her plain and dedicated. Male patients had not found her the sort they could flirt with. Only children had ever loved her.

Harlequin Romances.

You're gasping in horror. I can hear it. Either that, or raising an eyebrow slightly and shaking your head. OK, you must understand. We're not talking about the Harlequins of today. Or even thirty years ago. The ones with all the sex and infidelity and ugh? No. I'm talking about these babies.

50's, 60's to mid-70's (and if you're really lucky, 30's and 40's) era Harlequins. With the red pages. No sex. Well, maybe a bit of necking.

'Nice girls always make it difficult for a man to be kind,' he growled. 'Being chaste they immediately assume they are being chased. Like Gaul they are divided into thorns and sweet meadows, and Lord help the man who blunders among the thorns.'

My introduction to these little gems occurred when my best friend Lavinia, who was also a book lover, went with me to a flea market. One of the items for sale was a large cardboard box filled with Dozens of harlequins. Dozens of books? For only a dollar? It was obvious this was the best deal on the planet. We bought them and came through the front door exclaiming over the excellent bargain we'd made. Lavinia's mother forced a smile, told us how "nice" it was, and then took her aside and talked to her about how they were dangerous books, not the best to read, and she had a choice but she really should just throw them in the trash. *My* mother looked at my half of the booty (unintentional pun, sorry) when I got home and laughed. "Those are really silly books," she said. "But you can read them if you want." she then proceeded to go through the box with me, skimmed the titles and publish dates, took out several that she deemed "innappropriate" and let me have at it.

'You're a darned little prude for a nurse!' with a touch of anger he pulled her against him and sank his fingers into her hair.

I loved them. Back then, it was about travel to far places and learning about romance and enjoying a brainless fairytale. And yes... on occasion there were romantic scenes that set my heart pounding a bit faster and my imagination going. What would it be like to be crushed up against a man's chest and kissed until your lips were bruised? My fourteen year old mind couldn't quite fathom it, but knew there was something exciting about it.

Tiny sparks of green fire gleamed in Nadi's eyes as she came to his side, followed by the laden tray.

As I grew up, these stories became more and more obviously fake, however. I will forever be grateful to my mother for her reaction when I came in the door that day. The laugh. The warning that they were "silly." In a way, that was the best insulation from unrealistic expectations in relationships that I could have received. Because as I grew older, and developed relationships, a few of them romantic, and as I really began to travel and form opinions and see what was real around me, I very clearly saw the silliness in these shallow, formulaic, stories, and the hilarity in these one-dimensional, improbable heroes and heroines.

When she walked into the room, she was like an oil painting in a room full of watercolors.

But I still read them, and I still love them. I could explain why, but oh, you won't understand. It's a combination of my weird sense of humor, a fascination with history and how people lived in the past, women's issues, feminism, human relationships and how people perceive them over time, the way Idealized Womanhood was perceived....

"You have ears like a hawk!" Exclaimed Mrs. Saint-Sarne.

And of course, there are the one liners. The ridiculous titles. The awkward, doe-eyed portraits often with strange and incongruent backgrounds. The improbable plots.
"I like games of chance, Sabrina, but I don't like the trick played on me, that I should get trapped like a silly pup in those absurdly large eyes of yours! I could break you on this rail... come on, say it! Say you love Black Douglas! Admit it to me and I'll let you go!"

Really, the only sort of understanding I could give you is a sampling. Which I have done. Old Harlequins have been a source of comedic entertainment and bonding for the female members of my family. We collect them. We pass them around. We gleefully read passages aloud to each other. We choke with laughter over titles and pictures when we open a stack of harlequins on Christmas morning.

The best one so far (a gift from me to my mother last christmas):

I challenge you to ever find something that awesome in your stocking.

(quotations taken mostly from Black Douglas by Violet Winspear, published 1971. A childhood favorite that the dogs eventually ate, but which I found, to my utter delight, in a local book thrift store, just recently. Sorry, I'm not lending out my copy. I know you're pretty disappointed.)


Annalisa said...

You're right, these are pretty entertaining. Now I'm wondering just what exactly "proud nostrils" look like.

Sarah Dunster said...

Maybe they hold a lot of proud nosehair.