Re-reading Charlotte Lamb's "Obsession" last night, I was struck yet again by the difference between the modern romance hero and the Lamb hero of the late seventies and early eighties.
"Obsession" was first published in 1980, one of the ten or so books written around that time which have passed into Mills & Boon history as Lamb classics.
- Lang Hyland was undeniably attractive; he was also, equally undeniably, a womaniser - three months was the average life of one of his ladies. As his secretary, Nicola was in the best position to know all about Lang and his ways - and his secretary was what she intended to remain; she had no intention whatsoever of being just another scalp on Lang's belt. -Yet a scalp on his belt is ultimately what Nicola does become. Though this being Mills & Boon, there's a price tag attached for our promiscuous hero - it's marriage or nothing with Nicola. For she is a 'good girl', unlike her married sister Caroline, whose adulterous dalliance with Lang earns her Nicola's fury, and - presumably - the reader's disgust. Nicola is so good, in fact, she has never allowed a man to have sex with her. And I use the verb 'allowed' deliberately. For Nicola's much-discussed virginity in this book is about control, not morality. It is not merely a chip to bargain with on the marriage mart, but a way of controlling the men in her life - and there are two other professional males vying for a potential place in her bed; she is no lonely virgin, desperate to be loved, unable to interest a man. Nicola's virginity is a calculated withholding of intimacy that allows her to remain superior to Lang and his promiscuous affairs.
Nicola, the secretary, the anchor of office life, is the moral core of "Obsession". We identify with her as the cool, unruffled receiver of Lang's reprehensible advances and congratulate her on the smooth running of the dangerous jungle atmosphere in which Lang moves and strikes like a tiger. The label 'tiger' is applied to him - and other men like him - at least three times in this book.
- Lang had the instincts of a jungle animal: keep free of cages and keep your claws sharp. He prowled around the firm like a sleek tiger, seeing and hearing everything, constantly alert. -He is a sexual predator and lord of the office. Yet Nicola is presented to us as the power behind the tiger. She runs the show from her desk, discreetly, her eyes lowered, 'smiling like a crocodile and using a voice like melted honey' as Lang observes at one point. 'At first I thought you were just a simple-minded bitch. Then I realised you did it deliberately. And very effective it is too. It's hard to go on shouting at someone who smiles back with sunny good temper and agrees with everything you say.'
Was it really OK for a Mills & Boon hero to call the heroine 'a simple-minded little bitch', even back then? Even familiar with Lamb's violent heroes, I felt a frisson of disquiet on re-reading those lines. A warning, perhaps, for Nicola to get out while she can. You tame these men into marrying you, but do they really change after they've tumbled into the trap? Do they not simply revert to type a few years after they've 'put a ring on it' and go back to dating other women - and perhaps slapping you around for good measure?
Later in the book, following an argument, Lang spanks Nicola before having sex with her for the first time. It's a full-on spanking: 'He wasn't just playing; he was slapping her hard, intending to hurt.' Seconds later, he's 'kissing her ruthlessly, his lips fierce and hot.'
What kind of impact did this apparent assault have on readers in 1980? Today, accustomed to the rigidly controlled, politically correct romance of Harlequin and its competitors, you almost need protective gloves to handle a book like "Obsession". Yet spanking and forced sex seems to have fitted more easily with romance in the early eighties, which was just beginning to test the limits of what was acceptable in this kind of series fiction. Some women may have been appalled, yes. (The ones who were not reading Jackie Collins that decade, for instance.) But some may have found it exciting to return to the pre-feminism model of Dominant Male, Submissive Female - as does Nicola.
- For a few seconds Nicola resisted him with every ounce of her strength,' the paragraph quoted above continues, 'then she gave up the useless contest and her arms curved about his bent head. -The word 'contest' seems an interesting choice of descriptor for a confrontation where a man spanks and then has fairly rapid sex - almost no foreplay - with a woman whom he knows to be a virgin. Once more Lamb presents us with 'The Sex War' where the woman appears to lose, but secretly wins (because she subdues the male and snares him into marriage). The 'bent head' of the hero above is an image of male submission - not dominance. Though Lang's lovemaking here is curiously one-sided for a Lamb hero. Most of them spend rather more time encouraging the woman to respond as a sexual creature; Lang is more brutal and driven, a highly self-interested hero for whom Nicola's capitulation is at least as exciting as her body.
By contrast with Nicola, Lang's 'other women' are presented - by Nicola, of course, who can be considered our narrator here - as stereotypical 'fluffy blondes' who 'totter in high heels' and who possess a 'vocabulary ... of around six words, all of them apparently indicating yes.' This is another politically incorrect aspect we seem to have lost in modern romance: the snarky heroine or 'bitch' who denigrates other women, particularly those who are less fastidious than her about having sex outside marriage, describing the hero's previous girlfriends as 'girls' with 'Identikit faces and bodies'.
Nicola, on the other hand, has a wide vocabulary and an independent mind. Does not sleeping with the hero give her this, perhaps? Is that the subtle inference behind Lamb's contrasting of these two female 'types', the promiscuous fluffies and the tough virgins? That you give it up at your peril? Lang is right to be suspicious of her crocodile smile, of course. For while smiling pleasantly at him, Nicola is thinking less than pleasant thoughts about her unreconstituted boss: 'You charming and delightful man, she thought. I just love working for you. I'd like to push you down the lift shaft.'
To consider "Obsession" as a romance is to do it little justice as a study of sexual tension in the office, and of sexual hang-ups in general. Both Nicola and Lang are obsessed with each other, of course. Lang is obsessed with going to bed with her without being forced into marriage first, and Nicola is obsessed with controlling men and her own sexual appetites.
Ultimately, the contest in "Obsession" is not between Nicola and Lang, but between Nicola and her (only gently hinted at) obsession with remaining a virgin until she is married. A contest she loses, of course, though with Lang's red-faced offer of marriage ringing in her ears soon afterwards as a salve to her pride. (Sex before marriage in a 1980 Mills & Boon novel? Holy crap!) Which is precisely how it should be in a short romance.