Up from under, or on Not Marrying the Racist Aussie Boss: Strategies for Reading Romantic Fiction

Article excerpt

Two expressions of female desire; yet a world of difference, of class not gender, lies between them. The issue is complicated further by Dolittle and her desires being constructed by two men, the songwriter Lerner and the composer Loewe, a construction which exists intertextually with the literary and dramatic tradition that includes George Bernard Shaw, the popular tradition of stage musicals and film adaptations, and the classical tradition of Greek mythology. Woolf's polemic seeks the conditions whereby a woman writer may devise a "perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use."(2) Dolittle's reacculturation to suit the standards set by upper class men involves her learning the language from which Woolf would depart. And unlike Woolf in her essay about the gendered politics of literature, Dolittle the working class woman does not, in the dominant discourse, speak for herself.

These two expressions offer, nevertheless, a comparative framework from which the class politics of gender and writing may be investigated. In this article I will discuss possible ways of reading women's romantic fiction, especially the sub-genre published by Mills and Boon, and will pay some attention to the implications of questions of nationality for romantic texts set in Australia and written by Australian authors. For this discussion, one important aspect of the comparison between Woolf and Dolittle is that what Woolf desired for all writing women was already hers and was, she argues, a basic condition for her extensive literary production. Dolittle's fantasy is less specific; a room "somewhere" in which she may lead a more comfortable (chocolate-filled) life. Woolf sees money as the prerequisite for writing but, for working class women, money solves the problem of staying alive. Further, the conditions in which working class women resent their lack of time to write (like the factory in which the writer-heroine Rosa in Oh Lucky Country labours, or in which some romantic fiction authors write for money, "in common living-family rooms, at the kitchen table"), are vastly different from those Woolf had in mind.(3)

Rooms and houses have been in women's writing evocative metaphors for women's oppression, with rooms often being analogous to the states of mind of women characters. From Bertha Rochester, (symbol of the repressed female unconscious and of female sexual power, in the attic in Jane Eyre and recast as racially specific in Wide Sargasso Sea), to the nameless heroine in The Yellow Wallpaper ripping off the wallpaper to free the woman she imagines trapped behind it, to Ruth in Dorothy Johnston's novel dreaming of several rooms off a hallway, each symbolising a "separate part of her life", the relationships of women to the physical structures in which they live have been used by women writers to stand in for women's relationships with political structures.(4)

In this framework, gaining rooms of their own, even in patriarchal and capitalist houses, suggests for women some measure of control. The spatial metaphor also has been adopted to discuss the situation of women writers, but still it should be remembered that, in some fiction, as in the real world, there is no viable place for women to live as more or less `free' individuals: Bertha Rochester dies, admittedly bringing the house down around her and injuring her husband-boss; Edna Pontellier walks out to sea from her husband's house.(5) More recently, writers like Doris Lessing and Barbara Brooks have used metaphors of women in their own rooms to comment ironically on the limited, contradictory gains involved in women's emancipation in the twentieth century.(6)

Rooms and houses are, thus, an established metaphor in `women's literature' or in what might be termed, for the purposes of this essay, women's middle class fiction. This is not necessarily the same as fiction by middle class women, which does not always aspire to high literary status. Yet what of those women who are unlikely to feature in, or write, women's middle class fiction, whose position in political structures will not be represented by a room or even, in many cases, a corner of it? …