Back in the spring of 2013, when I was still a starry-eyed graduate student who thought I’d be a superstar academic (ie, before I discovered that I loved school but didn’t love research), I presented a conference paper called “Impotent Ministers and Harem Girls: Reading Religion in Romance Novels.”
My original plan was to dust it off and throw it up on the blog, since we’re talking about Men of God this week, but, uh, there are a couple of bits in there that I find cringeworthy, now that I’m fully immersed in Romancelandia. Like, I was convinced that my very unscientific survey of traditionally published regency romances in the past five years was indicative of trends across the genre as a whole, which really points to how myopic I was about what the world of romance entailed. I also referenced Fabio. [cue the pitchforks]
I also decided that, for the purposes of the blogosphere, I’d stick with a narrow focus, and just talk about impotent ministers here. Maybe I’ll bring out the harem girls another time.
So here’s a marginally revised excerpt from that conference talk. Even with the caveat that my data is outdated and my sample unrepresentative, I still think there’s some interesting stuff going on with the way romance novels depict religion (religious people, actions, and spaces). Note that most of the characters I discuss are secondary characters; I’m, for the most part, not analyzing the heroes, but the characters around the margins.
By performing a close reading of several romance novels, I find that while religion is often relegated to the margins of a text, the deployment of religion in romance novels reinforces binary opposites (such as male/female or sensual/repressed), which are, in turn, crucial to the unfolding of the plot. Two religiously weighted symbolic figures, the impotent minister and the harem girl, stand in for normative and fringe religion, respectively. The interactions of these two symbolic figures and the ways in which their religious roles play out in romance novels reinforces the boundaries between normative and fringe religious practices; this subtle reinforcement of religious boundaries in turn reinforces normative notions about acceptable levels, modes, and realms of religious engagement.
Any one text within the genre may be seen as insignificant, but taken as a whole the genre works to reinforce normative notions about what it means to be properly religious in the western world today. In this, I am following Sean McCloud, who argued in Making the American Religious Fringe that popular texts (news magazines in his case) mimic white, middle-class, male, Christian perspectives of what religion should be; I expand his argument to assert that romance novels reinforce boundaries between acceptable and fringe religious practices by the ways in which religion is woven into the background of the text. The bottom line is that a good religion is one that does not impact your sex life.
The impotent minister symbolizes acceptable religion, which appears on the borders of texts; characters may attend church, but religion is not central to the plot or to the development of the relationships between characters. The ministers remain on the sidelines, there to offer solace or perform marriage ceremonies, but not to sermonize or argue that religion should play a more overt role in a character’s life.
The impotent minister frequently symbolically stands in for the role of the “church” in these novels. The impotence in this framework is not sexual, but rather about power in the world – the impotent church, which does not control the actions of its followers, is the good church. This version of the “impotent minister” trope manifests itself in a variety of ways.
Religion might appear as a space – generally a church. However, this goes beyond the use of the church as a location for religious ceremonies such as weddings. A character’s interaction with a church might be indicative of larger trends or a specific character trait. For example, in Julia Quinn’s How to Marry a Marquis, the heroine notes the impoverished state of her family by specifically remarking that this is especially notable on Sundays, when she brings her family to church in “outdated frocks and breeches that were perilously worn in at the knees.” A more powerful example of the use of a church specifically to demonstrate a person’s character is the opening scene in Julie Ann Long’s A Notorious Countess Confesses, in which the notorious countess, a former courtesan, sleeps through the sermon at her new local church. Her love interest ends up being the minister giving the sermon; the religious setting is not remarkable for the fact that it is religious, but rather as setting out the struggle that will ensue between the two characters.
Religious upbringing might also appear as a sidenote, demonstrative of a character trait, but generally a minor one. For example, in Lisa Kleypas’s Smooth Talking Stranger, the two main characters are given half a page to establish their religious backgrounds – one is a Baptist/Methodist and the other a self-described agnostic – and make jokes about them, safely relegating religion to the margins of their lives. In another book, The Brazen Bride by Stephanie Laurens, the hero reflects on his amnesia, and the problems it may cause with his budding romance: “He didn’t think he was married. He was starting to feel sure enough of his reactions to believe he couldn’t be; if he had been, his Calvinistic upbringing would have him writhing with guilt, regardless of whether he could remember or not.”
And of course, there are the ministers themselves, who perform weddings or otherwise act as props to set the scene. Sometimes they take on the role of advisor; the heroine of The Brazen Bride gets advice from a young minister about the amnesiac she has taken in. In Skye O’Malley, both Skye’s uncle, a priest, and her sister, a nun, appear repeatedly throughout the text to serve in advisory capacities – in addition to performing necessary tasks, such as delivering children, baptizing babies, or brokering marriage contracts.
This brings me to my second point: what about the actual ministers in these texts? It is not just the normal and fringe religions, but the role religions should have in one’s sex life that is being policed. Another way of looking at these tropes is to argue that, in the world of these novels, too much religion in a person’s life messes with the sexual order of things, and creates under-sexed men and over-sexed women.
Let me return to some of my earlier examples of the ministers who appear in these texts. The minister who offers advice in The Brazen Bride is the “only eligible male around” – he is young, moderately handsome, and lives in the same small community as the heroine – but she loves him only like a brother. He is clearly marked as an unsuitable romantic hero, incapable of winning the love of the heroine, or even being seen as a potential sexual partner. The meditating (read: overly religious) duke from When the Duke Returns is a virgin, an anomaly in a genre predicated on the storyline of the sexually gifted man initiating a woman to sexual pleasure.
The minister who makes a brief appearance in Candace Camp’s A Gentleman Always Remembers has a different kind of impotence. The heroine’s father is a vicar, one with a vague distraction that follows him everywhere; “a kind and loving man, he was rarely completely with anyone, even his family.” While he is clearly not sexually incapable—he has fathered two children—he is incapable of truly engaging with the world.
These impotent ministers hearken back to characters from Jane Austen’s works. In both Emma and Pride and Prejudice, ministers unsuccessfully woo her heroines, are rebuffed as completely unsuitable, and serve as comedy; this is particularly the case with Mr. Collins, whose prepackaged compliments fail to win Elizabeth Bennett, even though he tries to give them as unstudied an air as possible when delivering them.
The exception that proves the rule is the minister from A Notorious Countess Confesses, who is the only romantic hero vicar I have ever come across; in the parlance of the genre, he is the epitome of the beta male, and succumbs to love because he meets a former courtesan who can properly introduce him to sexuality. Going back to Jane Austin, Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility would also fit this mold – he gets the girl in the end, but only because of circumstances, not because he actually does anything to stand up to his horrible family.
These men can be seen as under-sexed because they fail to take any kind of sexual initiative, or if they do so, as in the case of Mr. Collins, they take the wrong kind of initiative. While religion is not explicitly noted as the cause of their impotence in the text, the fact that the character of the unsuitable mate is so often a minister is notable, and underscores the idea that too much engagement in religion will negatively impact a person’s sex life.
A few closing thoughts. Almost ten years later, I’ve now read more than one clerical hero. But as I was reading through this, so much of this argument about the intertwined-ness of religion in sex as they appear in romance applies to Hot Under His Collar. Patrick’s religion is too much, in that it controls his sex life*—all that guilt and shame he feels links much more to his sex life than to his increasing dissociation from Church ritual, or from God, for that matter. He uses his religious role to advise people, or to help kids succeed in school. Within the text, he doesn’t use his position to bring people closer to the Church or to God; in fact, one of the only religious conversations he has with Sasha is about their common *lack* of faith.
Do I think religious engagement will negatively impact your sex life? Well. It probably depends a lot on the person and the religion. But by subtly repeating this theme in the way ministers are (frequently) portrayed, it reinforces a certain “common sense” understanding of religion, wherein religious devotion leads to bad sex.
*Note: This does NOT apply to Søren from Tiffany Reisz’s Original Sinners books, nor does it apply to Father Bell in Priest. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule.