As I promised in Tuesday’s introductory post, this month’s Bookshelf contains five novels about young adult love that shaped my understanding of romantic possibilities as a teenager. I’m sharing them here in the order in which I encountered them.
[warning: basic plot points will be discussed herein, for those who care about spoilers.]
Magorian, Michelle. Not a Swan (1991). Author Michelle Magorian is perhaps best known for Goodnight, Mr. Tom, a story about a boy abused by his mother who finds safety and love as a wartime evacuee placed with a widowed curmudgeon in rural England. I discovered Magorian’s other work thanks to my childhood public library, and my far-and-away favorite was Not a Swan (also known by its English title A Little Love Song). Swan tells the story of Rose, a WWII evacuee on the cusp of adulthood who dreams of becoming an author, and the mysterious woman who once lived in the house Rose and her sisters are sent to for safety on the English coast.
The novel packs in out-of-wedlock sex, class tensions, the prejudice against — and even incarceration of — unwed mothers, pregnancy, and childbirth. It also tackles the issues of sexual coercion and sexual awakening: our heroine is first pressured into sex by a young man about to go off to war — and then later enthusiastically chooses to become sexually active with another young veteran who supports her literary aspirations and social rebellion.
I read this novel for the first time at age twelve, and was electrified by the (relatively) explicit sex scenes, and Rose’s struggle to determine what kind of sexual intimacy she wanted, on her own terms, regardless of social approbation. My own takeaway from this novel was that sexual experiences are deeply shaped by the quality of relationship in which they happen, and that positive, joyful sexual intimacy is best forged by people who recognize one anothers’ full humanity and independent aspirations.
Garden, Nancy. Annie on My Mind (1982). In the early 1990s, when I was entering teenagerdom, this was the only novel in my public library’s Young Adult section featuring a lesbian love story. To this day I’m grateful to the librarian who purchased the tattered paperback copy for their collection, because — while dated in many ways – Annie was an incredibly positive introduction to queer fiction. It was, famously, one of the first gay YA novels to feature a hopeful, romantic ending. Liza and Annie, the star-crossed lovers, meet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and develop a passionate friendship that deepens into a sexually-intimate romance when Liza agrees to house-sit for a beloved teacher. The teacher and her partner are themselves a (closeted) lesbian couple. When an anti-gay school administrator at Liza’s private school discovers the girls nearly in flagrante delicto at the teacher’s home (unbeknownst to the older lesbian couple, who are still away traveling) drama ensues.
While Liza and Annie face moral dilemmas around truth-telling and deception, their feelings for one another are never figured by the novel as perverse or wrong; instead, it is clearly the prejudice of others that precipitates the negative effects rippling outward from their involuntary uncloseting. Though the anti-gay prejudice depicted in Annie is, at times, easy to dismiss as outdated, the moral panic surrounding the girls’ relationship is still a live possibility for many queer teenagers (and adults!) today: teenage girls! sexual feelings! homosexuality! For that reason, Annie was a bittersweet read for me, serving as both a positive example of lesbian desire and a reminder of the discrimination that often constrains the lives of same-sex couples, even today.
Forester, E.M. A Room With a View (1908 ). I have often wondered if it was because of his life as a gay man — at a time when male homosexuality was still illegal in Britain — that E. M. Forester was able to write with such compassion and understanding about the circumscribed lives of women in middle- and upper-middle class Edwardian England. Room With a View is one of the earliest “adult” romance novels I read, and remains in my top ten of the genre. Hardly sexually explicit, it still insists on a vision of marriage which involves the whole of both people: emotionally, intellectually, and physically. One reason for Lucy’s ultimate rejection of Cecil, the suitor to whom she is initially engaged, is that he sees her as a work of art (an object) — not a living, breathing, human being (a subject). George, the young man Lucy ends up choosing, gives every indication of appreciating her as a subject, a person in her own right — alive to the world, ready to encounter it alongside him, rather than decorate a drawing room.
Particularly paired with Forester’s later work, A Passage to India, Room With a View has some very insightful things to say about both the possibilities of women’s agency, and the violence done to all concerned when women’s right to tell their own stories and make their own decisions are wrested from them by the machinery of Society.
Jordon, Sherryl. The Raging Quiet (1999). A quasi-historical fantasy novel set in Medieval Britain, The Raging Quiet revolves around questions of familial responsibility, marital fidelity, women’s self-determination, physical disability, and the potentially fatal cost of intolerance. Marnie is our headstrong heroine, coerced into marriage in order to save her family from eviction. Shortly after her marriage (and traumatic sexual initiation), her husband falls to his death and Marnie finds herself under a cloud of suspicion. Her friendship with the village “madman” does nothing to protect her reputation, and when that friendship deepens into love (and eventual sexual intimacy), Marnie finds herself on “trial” for witchcraft.
I particularly loved (and still love) the village priest who — rather than being cast as a judgmental, doctrine-bound villain — finds himself befriending both Marnie and Raven (the “madman”), and ultimately blessing their union. Like Not a Swan, The Raging Quiet explores the journey of a young woman through coerced sexual activity through to self-understanding and subjective, chosen desire.
Waters, Sarah. Tipping the Velvet (1998) & Fingersmith (2002). While technically, I believe I read Sarah Waters’ novels the year I turned twenty-two, I was only midway through my undergraduate career and still floundering around trying to understand my sexual desires and possible identities. Tipping and Fingersmith are Victorian-esque thrillers with lesbian love stories at their core. They’re melodrama at its best, full to the brim with intrigue, double-crossing, mystery, cross-dressing, kink, revolutionary politics, pornography, wrongful incarceration, last-minute reveals — I could go on.
Not necessarily my favorite lesbian romances today, I share Waters’ novels here because they were the first adult novels featuring same-sex romance that I dared to check out of the library and read — because they were mainstream enough that I didn’t feel that by reading them, I was declaring my own sexual identity one way or another. They were, paradoxically, safe novels to read. They helped me become aware of my own openness to same-sex desires by depicting explicit relational sex between women. Fiction often encourages us to expand the realm of possibility, and for queer folks it is particularly powerful to have same-sex desires centered and normalized within fiction, when for so many years we’ve been pushed to the periphery as the “gay best friend,” or pathologized as doomed lovers, forced to pay for our “sins.” Tipping the Velvet encouraged me to ask myself where my desires yearned — a question that, in all honesty, it took nearly a decade of self-examination for me to meaningfully answer.
All five of these novels offered me the chance to reflect on the relationship between love and romance, love and sex, friendship and sex, sexuality and society, gender and sexual experience. While all of them could be derided as adolescent “love songs,” simplistic and idealistic marriage plots, I nevertheless believe all these authors have important things to say about the interaction of self and society within sexually-intimate relationships.
As a teenager, I took away from all of these novels strong messages about the importance of paying attention to one’s internal moral compass, being attentive to one’s embodied desires, insisting on honesty and love over and above social custom — and even in the face of social persecution. I took away from these novels an openness to human sexual variety, and a belief in the right (and ability) of all people to form loving, consensual, and enthusiastically sexual relationships, and to stand by those relationships even when society said, “that’s wrong.”
I’d love to hear in comments if a) you’ve encountered any of these novels before, and if so what your experience with them was, and b) what novels helped shape your own youthful perceptions of sexually-intimate relationships.
How do you feel you were served by the depiction of romance, love and sexuality in the literature of your youth?