Doing justice to Desire

The other week I guest posted a Five Word Review on Charlotte Lamb’s Desire. The review reads “Drunk Fuck Pregnancy Equals Luurve”. I stand by this review. It relays the exact premise of the book. But what it doesn’t relay is the love I have for this book.

The heroine, Natasha, gets drunk after breaking up with her fiance. She goes out with friends and becomes uninhibited after drinking champagne and takes off with a hottie called Lee Farrell with whom she has a one-night stand. When she wakes up the next morning she is mortified and he drives her home upset that it was the alcohol and not her desire for him. She falls pregnant and doesn’t keep the baby secret. Inevitably they marry for convenience but are stand offish and suspect of each other until the grand grovel and love reveal at the end. It is a fab read that very much reflects the mores of the early eighties.

I have reread Desire at least once a year for the past 25 years and I still love it. Published in 1981, the year that Charles and Diana married (why is this relevant), the protaganists have a 16 year age gap (Charles and Diana had a 13 year gap so it is relevant to set it in context) which I find irksome when the heroine is 17 but seeing that 20 is my tipping point into acceptability these two characters are fine by my measure as she is 21 to his 37.

The standout for me is that Natasha has been brought up conservatively and to believe that love is soft and gentle. After breaking up with her fiance “Natasha had always played the submissive, female role…” it is through alcohol that she feel uninhibited. She feels desire and she matches Lee’s desire as an equal.

She had been conditioned to see herself in that yielding female role, to accept the qualities which society expected in a woman, to be soft and gentle and pliant, to submit and give what was demanded. She had not been taught to demand in her turn, to be strong and self-sufficient, to claim her right as a woman, to match the male on her own terms

It is paragraphs like these that I feel are lacking from many romances today. As a 12 year old the sex flew over my head. However the concept of not being subservient, not being shy and reticent, stating my terms and refusing to compromise those values is what stays with me. It is finding a partner who matches you, not a partner who subsumes you that clicked in my reading.

They start conditioning you when you [are] in your cradle

                                                                                        Natasha

My belief is that many romances (particularly from the 70s and 80s) may write what at face value is an unbalanced relationship but it is the reading between the lines that I am interested in. The relationship may fade but the knowledge that with this man, Lee Farrell, Natasha feels strong and self-sufficient yet with others she was submissive. Natasha recognises society’s expectations of her and chooses to not adhere to them but it takes courage to do so.

The book is pretty much angsty from beginning to end. Angsty in that good, melodramatic way with fainting, fisticuffs, jealous fits over beaux and belles, alphabrute chest beating and other ridiculous misunderstandings that drive the story.

You have some crazy notion that love and sex are separate issues

                                                                                                           Lee

This book is about sexual love. Not a love of companionship which no doubt will eventuate in years to come but a love of physical desires firing the soul and Charlotte Lamb’s aim is to allow Natasha to not feel shame and guilt for her sexuality. The book also gives a passing nod to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for that is really what drives their inability to communicate. Natasha is prejudiced against Lee believing in his public image rather than the man she was attracted to. Lee’s pride takes a battering every time Natasha claims she loved Mike, her ex-fiance, and she was ashamed of her actions with Lee and, as is expected in a Mills and Boon, these issues are resolved at the end of the book in their declaration of love for each other. But not before Lamb uses Natasha as a vehicle to remind the reader

Men have organised the world for their own convenience for years. They made the laws, moral and otherwise, and it was men who sold women the idea that sexual desire is okay for a man but shameful for a woman

I believe that Lamb uses romance to subliminally embed ideas of feminism in her reader’s mind (remember its 1981 publication date). But even more importantly, she uses Lee to remind the reader it is love in its many variations that drives us

Love is what we want it to be, what we need. It doesn’t have any rules. There’s no such thing as law or morals where love is concerned. It’s just a question of feeling, of real emotion, of caring for one person rather than another, of needing one person rather than another.

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6 thoughts on “Doing justice to Desire

  1. But was she subliminally embedding, or satisfying a desire for some kind of balance/equality that was already there? I don’t have the answer, am just wondering.

    I just read a book by Sarah Holland, Lamb’s daughter, which seemed very old-fashioned in that the hero is always forcing kisses on the heroine and calling her ugly names, but there was also an interesting element of him being the one to free her from the psychological constraints that her “nice” boyfriend had put on her. It was overdone and cheesy, but still there.

    • To be honest, I couldn’t decide between using “subliminally embed” or “weave”. It was midnight when I wrote it. I can’t remember why I chose to go with the former *sheepish grin*.

      Sarah Holland learnt from the best! I haven’t read any of her books. There are plenty of forced kisses in Desire and other WTF behaviours but, similar to what you said, the “nice” boyfriend keeps her psychologically constrained whereas the hero frees her from traditional roles (well kinda – she is knocked up).

  2. We have to make our way in the world as it is to get to the place in ourselves and to have our society be what we hope it can be. So this story and the writers seeming dualism make sense in that way to me. I think your point about Lamb’s consciousness compared with modern writers lack of the same is fascinating. Is it that we are convinced it (feminism, equal rights, etc.) is all done and so doesn’t need formal consideration and effort in our time? Also the reading between the lines thing is so Foucault and about resistance – that place the less powerful find to assert themselves.

    I am now the owner of 28 Charlotte Lamb M&B thanks to my local Op Shop. By contrast the same shop has given me 4 x Neels 3 x Winspear & 3 x Burchell. I wonder what Lamb was saying to the women in my suburb in the 1980s that the other writers were not?

    • I think that for a long time women rejected the “feminist” label as they felt that it was a battle that had been fought and was won and this is certainly reflected in romance writing during the 1990’s and 2000’s. It will be interesting to note whether there will be a shift towards feminist ideas creeping into novels in light of recent events with women’s reproductive rights being diminished in the US, our PM’s speech on misogynist behaviour from the opposition and various other events around the globe. I think authors like Victoria Dahl are already bringing new feminist thought into their novels.

      As for 28 Charlotte Lamb novels – I envy you! I only own 3. I do have 14 Anne McAllister novels. I think Winspear, Neels and Burchell were of a slightly older generation. Your local Op Shop probably had a heap of those 10 years ago.

  3. I miss those drunken shags of yesteryear. I also wonder if the dissatisfaction I now often feel for modern alpha heroes stems from the fact that modern heroines tend not to be submissive anymore. So the premise of the alpha being the vehicle for a heroine to see herself in a different light just doesn’t work as well. What usually results is more of a ‘Why doesn’t she kick him in the nuts?’ reaction from me.

    This post reminded me of the good Lucy Ellis book — the bits of the story I love seem to reflect what you’ve demonstrated Lamb has done inDesire. That sense of self-awareness and growing into your own as the basis for a loving relationship seems missing (or perhaps just badly demonstrated) in many romances.

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