Sunday, September 25, 2011
Perhaps for those interested in a racier brand of literature, historical novels have something to offer that contemporary novels do not. That something is stricter social mores. In Regency romances, part of the "thrill" of a sexual encounter comes from the knowledge that the heroine will actually become compromised--whereas a heroine "hooking up" in today's world would be as normal as working nine to five. In Medieval novels, part of the appeal of fornication and adultery is the condemnation it will receive from the narrow-minded and monolithic Church--whereas such deeds in a contemporary novel would only provoke jealous high school friends or unsympathetic parents.
One of the key components of the courtly love paradigm developed in the twelfth century (a paradigm, incidentally, that endorsed adulterous behavior) is that in a true love story there must be some obstacle separating the man and the woman. The greater the obstacle, the greater the desirability and the attraction. A love that was forbidden (by parents, by religious authorities, by social standing, etc.) was the most exhilarating kind of love. In many ways, this paradigm lives on today. And although obstacles between lovers can be found in a contemporary setting (e.g. He owns a big bookstore that wants to put her little bookstore out of business, a la You've Got Mail), these contemporary hurdles seem fairly easy to jump when compared to obstacles like "utter ruin and disgrace in the eyes of society," or "excommunication and certain damnation."
For fans of racy reading, the openness, ease, and acceptability of modern affairs cause modern novels to lose a little luster, but the strict moral code of past eras makes infractions of it that much more enticing. The barriers society and religion placed before immorality translate into exciting obstacles to be overcome. The secrecy needed to conduct such behavior titillates readers and adds intricacy to a plot. As one wise man put it, "Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant." In an era where "everything is ok," it seems that novelists must return to a bygone age in order to find rules to break.