The Bujold Nexus

The Novel, Romance, and the Recent Works of Lois McMaster Bujold

Author's Note:

The following discussion was originally prompted by discussion on the Bujold Mailing List about the possible implications of cross-marketing Bujold's A Civil Campaign with the romance market; the effect of the proposed Baen cover for the book; and the nature of expectations being raised by the book and how they would be likely to be fulfilled.
The paper below contains spoilers for A Civil Campaign, but only towards the end.

What is a "romance"? And is A Civil Campaign a romance at all, or does it belong to a different tradition, one more along the lines of the novel of Jane Austen?

One definition -- the standard one in many circles -- won't do us much good here, i.e. "a story in prose or verse dealing with improbable or supernatural occurrences descended from the mediaeval prose or verse romance". This is the original meaning of the word, and it covers works like Amadis of Gaul as well as many of the verse Arthurian romances of the late Middle Ages. This is the tradition of which Don Quixote and The Knight of the Burning Pestle are satires.

Works with love and/or marriage as a central theme have been around for much longer. Everything descended from Menander's New Comedy uses this as a central plot device, as does just about all pastoral. It's on this dramatic tradition that Fielding (who was a dramatist before he was a novelist) draws in Tom Jones. If we're going to use romance as a virtual synonym for "New Comedy derived", we've probably emptied it of any useful meaning. Many mediaeval romances didn't focus on courtly love or love at all, for example.

The roots of the modern romance lie along with the novel in the late Eighteenth Century. The Gothic Romance (like Walpole's Castle of Otranto) was a "romance" because of its supernatural content rather than because of any hero/heroine relations. This is the terminological bridge whereby we get to the modern "romance novel": the "romances" of the early Nineteenth Century draw on some of the conventions of the Gothic Romance but frequently downplayed or eliminated the supernatural content.

The "new" thing about, say, Jane Eyre as contrasted to the novelistic tradition can be summed up by looking at where the author wants our sympathies to lie and the extent to which the author aims at engaging our critical faculties.

Fielding and Austen write as satirists and social critics. Their primary intent, at bottom, is moral: to instruct the reader in moral and ethical judgement. In Austen, this is pervasive: even her sentence structure is constantly making distinctions of this sort on a micro level; her plots are very much about making moral judgments between the false and the true, the virtuous and the vicious. Sometimes this is grossly obvious, as in Mansfield Park's theatricals and Fanny's role as correct but neglected critic, or in the discrimination between Darcy and Wickham; sometimes it's much more subtle. Many of her figures are "humorous" in Ben Jonson's sense, held up for ridicule or correction -- Marianne Dashwood, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennett, Sir Walter Elliott, even Mr. Bennett. Her central characters (even Emma, who needs, however, to have her judgment corrected by Mr. Knightley before she can fit in properly) are judged by the same standards, and pass or fail based on the sense and moral correctness of their choices. The narratorial voice sometimes parallels the character's point of view closely, and sometimes stands off far more critically, at a distance, judging everyone. The only viewpoint character who's "always right" is Fanny in Mansfield Park, and she's probably the most difficult to sympathize with. When the other viewpoint characters are wrong, the narratorial voice is always inviting the reader to judge them. In this sense, it is in the main line of classical literary theory: the purpose of works of art is to delight and instruct, be dulcis et utile.

Charlotte Bronte, by contrast, doesn't want us to judge her characters, and especially her central chracters. She wants us to buy into them regardless of their stupidities. "Reader, I married him" has to be one of the most un-sensible decisions in literature, given Rochester's character and past track record; and that's not even taking into account the nature of Jane Eyre's previous decisions. And I'm not even going to touch on the poor judgment and narrow-mindedness of the central character in Villette. We're invited to read the books for an emotional frisson of identification with the viewpoint character. (Heathcliff, in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, is a slightly different matter: we aren't invited to sympathize with him, but he's almost an elemental. It's easy to condemn Heathcliff on moral grounds, but the story isn't about that. Wuthering Heights, though, with its explicit supernatural content, is also somewhat more of a throwback to the Gothic thriller.)

That's my dividing line between romance and novel. The purpose of the novel is to encourage the critical faculties and the making of judgments; the purpose of the Harlequin romance and even the very much superior Regency romance in Georgette Heyer's hands is to give us several hours of emotional identification with a central character in a New Comedy descended context. Now, most of Heyer's heroes/heroines are intelligent and ethical enough to judge themselves fairly, even when they do something wrong; they're not silly enough to be Jane Eyres. (We'll strike "ethical" from the list when dealing with Avon, but if you identify with Avon I'll keep my back to the wall when I meet you.) Some of her heroes are Rochester-descended, although they have their social codes more firmly in place at bottom (see Venetia and Devil's Cub for examples). But the regency setting of Heyer's novels is an escape: Jane Austen was writing about the society of her day. And Heyer's heroes and heroines are more likely to feel the want of good ton rather than to be scourged for their wildness on ethical grounds.

By contrast, the central characters in, for example, Framley Parsonage or The Last Chronicle of Barset or The Prime Minister are always subject to moral judgment and succeed when they've been chastened by circumstance and have learned from it, and Trollope is using the novels as social criticism as well, more generally. That puts them in the novelistic rather than romance tradition.

So where is Bujold's work, especially Memory, Komarr, and A Civil Campaign? Some people do read the books along the "identify with the main character" lines, but Lois herself has said that taking the viewpoint characters at their word is dangerous and deceptive. We sympathize with Miles, but Memory certainly forces moral judgement of his actions into our faces, and his success in the novel is tied tightly to his moral growth in overcoming temptation.

The multiple viewpoint approach (as in Komarr and A Civil Campaign) is a mechanism which is well suited to encouraging the making of judgments by allowing the alternation of views to challenge the authoritative nature of each other. Note that Miles doesn't tend to import ethical standards into his explicit evaluations of situations except in certain very specific ways (e.g. oaths; truth-telling in Komarr after about chapter 7). Ekaterin, in Komarr, does; she certainly issues a couple of nice evaluations of Miles' actions during the course of the novel. Furthermore, the detective novel is classically structured around moral questions and the making of judgments, although it tends to displace the judgement-drawing process to the purely deductive rational process -- "murder is wrong" is usually about the extent of the ethical judgment necessary; Komarr picks up on those characteristics of the genre.

In A Civil Campaign, the (relatively) newly integrated Miles' viewpoint is one which invites us to sympathize, but not identify. Part of this effect is due to the fact that there aren't many barriers to it: he's not being confronted with difficult choices, and the ones he is confronted with he manages with (relative) sensitivity; his mistakes are subtle rather than obviously wrongheaded. He's trying to stand back and give her room, which is a herculean task when one is in love; he tries once, fails, and then succeeds by managing to learn from his failure. He does have a lot of learning to do -- and it's been coming for some time -- about his tendency to manipulate other people, and part of A Civil Campaign is that learning experience, primarily moral and social in nature. (The ultimate point of realization/confession being his "How can you stand me? I can't even stand me!")

The tendency to sympathize but to have that sympathy stop short of full identification is strengthened by the fact that the difficulties he runs into are clearly deserved in one sense but also seem to be a little out of proportion to the mistakes he makes. Although one can easily be critical of the initial approach he takes to courting Ekaterin, the sheer number and strength of blows descending on him in the dinner party is out of proportion to the crime; similarly, the trap he and Ekaterin are both almost caught in stemming from Miles' mistakes in Komarr is out of proportion to the mistakes. This disproportion evokes sympathy rather than judgement, even though the moral aspect of the novel takes a place in the foreground.

Ekaterin's viewpoint starts out almost notational in its brevity. And her perceptions are acute even at the outset -- particularly in the way in which she sees past Miles' shrugging off of Naismith: "His voice made light of this loss, but she'd seen the scars on his chest left by the needle-grenade. Her mind circled back to the seizure she'd witnessed ... The man had driven his body far past its limits, in the belief, apparently, that unsupported will could conquer anything. ... [Miles suggests giving his uniforms to Nikki to play with] ... Her breath drew in. I think that would be obscene. These relics had clearly been life and death to him. What possessed him, to make-believe they were no more than a child's playthings? ... He looked up, and twinkled at her. 'Needle grenades are a learning experience, that way.' This was his idea of a joke, apparently. She wasn't sure if she wanted to kiss him and make it well, or run away screaming." With about one-and-a-half weeks' interaction and full acquaintance (over a two-month period), she has a clearer insight into Miles than most of his intimates, with the possible exception of Cordelia and Aral (only possible: by the end of Memory it's very arguable that Cordelia Betanness and Miles' Barrayaranity and growing complexity are leading her astray. After all, she expected Miles to choose Naismith; I don't think she really grasps Miles ties of Vor duty. But Ekaterin is Vor). She (necessarily) goes through some significant transformations herself, so she's not able to play a simple role as normative observer. The nature of her transformations -- the reintegration into society and the movement from partial self-ignorance to full self-awareness -- are the classic matter of comedy proper, not just the subfield of "romantic comedy".

Ekaterin almost formulates the principle of reintegration explicitly when she contrasts Miles' friends and acquaintances with Tien's lack of friends, although her emphasis is as much on the quality of Miles' friends as on their existence at all. The movement to self-awareness and even more self-acceptance is accomplished in the attic scene as well; from the point of view of their interior journeys the entire rest of the book after that point is merely the provision of an outward and visible sign of and reward for their acceptance of theirselves and love of each other -- culminating in the climactic symbolic social integration of the imperial wedding.

Ekaterin's growth in self-awareness can also be traced in terms of her internal monologue. Her viewpoint starts out as reserved; by the end her awareness of herself as agent rather than patient comes through in the much greater degree of commentary she makes to herself.

In the first part of the the book, we tend to accept Miles' actions (with some trepidation) and be critical of Ekaterin's self-imposed blindness; in the second half of the book, we tend to accept Ekaterin's judgements and focus on Miles' ethical growth. In both cases, the resolution to this "romantic" plot comes with their common confession of their moral failings at an oath-breaking level.

When it comes to Ivan, the canons of ethical judgment begin to come very much into the foreground. At the outset, I want to swat Ivan upside the head with a plank. He's thirty and needs to grow up. That's the reaction I got from seeing inside his head for the first time. I certainly don't feel inclined to identify with Ivan. And my principal reasons for drawing back involve critical judgments which the author's presentation has encouraged me to make. He's not someone with whom we tend to identify -- he's too obviously self-limited -- but he does provide insights which rub some of the lustre which might otherwise attach to Miles off.

Ivan's viewpoint becomes less irritating as the book goes on, but of the major characters he is probably the one who undergoes the least growth. (He undergoes some, but it's not complete -- symbolically, he is the one left with no partner at the end of the novel.)

Kareen and Mark are probably the characters who are presented as most limited in their general scope: Mark is really quite poor at reading Miles or paying attention to issues outside those which touch him immediately (e.g. his ironic misreading of Miles' "negative energy" on the day before the vote in the Council where he's associated it with the two not being on speaking terms when he's known that Ekaterin came to the house a number of days before -- after Vormoncreif's intrusion -- and where the negative energy in fact comes from Miles and Ekaterin now being on very good speaking terms but being unable to exercise that relationship), and Kareen has a tendency to reduce complex issues into much simpler, and hence dangerously inaccurate, ones (consider her formulation of the Miles-Ekaterin problems as "getting the little git laid"). As such, they're laid open far more thoroughly to reader distancing and criticism.

It feels natural to make this sort of analysis of A Civil Campaign where (for example) I would consider the approach ludicrous in Echoes of Honor or To Say Nothing of the Dog, or even Brust's Dragon. There's no depth in the first one (and moral judgments are telegraphed flatly and unsubtly as a background to action), the second doesn't call ethics in much at all, and the third has ethical underpinnings, but to read the novel without some considerable strain you have to sympathize with Vlad and Morrolan more than judge them, since their strictly ethical stature isn't all that high.

All this suggests a fairly significant "novel" quality to Bujold's more recent works: we're being invited to assess, judge, and distance ourselves from simple identification. You can read the novels with a simple "identify and don't ask embarassing questions" approach, but you'd miss whole dimensions of the books.

In addition, the problems being presented as the books move forward become increasingly complex. In Memory, the ethical issues could be summed up in the choice of Lord Vorkosigan or Admiral Naismith, and there isn't much doubt about the correct choice to take, although there's some doubt about the choice that Miles will take. In Komarr, there is a whole set of little decisions involving the use of power which Miles has to go through; when he makes a mistake, he gets stung. The plot is topped off with a classic tug-of-war of loyalties which has no easy or "correct" answer, and which (this being a comedy) the novel doesn't push to the final extreme. But the keystone of the novel is in the second-last chapter -- Ekaterin's validation of Miles' choice of public good over private loyalty in negotiating with the Komarrans; the last chapter, however funny, is structurally extra.

In A Civil Campaign, all the learning and choices have a full social structure surrounding them to make the reverberations of choices more wide-reaching, and we keep being reminded by the approach of Gregor and Laisa's marriage that at Miles' level there are no fully private choices. The key point of moral choice in the book (again, in the attic scene) is that refusal of Ekaterin to compromise on the public issue of the Vorrutyer countship which Miles has raised privately as an option because of its private impact on them both.

Miles is too close to the throne for him to have a fully private life, and it's the reminders of that -- such as Miles going armed without second thought, the security screening which comes to cover Nikki and Ekaterin as well as Miles, or his off-handed ease with the Imperial Residence -- which pose some of the most subtle barriers with which Ekaterin has to deal. This theme is almost understated, because it is so tied up with her awareness of her own scope that it's hard to disentagle, although it keeps popping up unexpectedly, for example in dealing with security levels. It's only when Ekaterin is talking with Hugo and Vassily the first time that she realizes that she's already crossed the line into the "public" High Vor sphere; and the "domestic" conflict over Nikki's custody rises out of political agendas and is resolved by a road leading directly through the centre of the Imperium itself, with Gregor and then in the face of the entire Council of Counts.

It is the importance of the public/private polarity which makes the ethical issues most prominent mode of presentation that of the contrast between honour and reputation; it is at this point that ethical debate and public-private dilemmas are fused. The other guise of the ethical aspect is that raised by Dono almost offhandedly: the role of the rule of law in Barrayaran government.

All of the major characters face some sort of point where moral choice is the key factor in their ability to move forward: Ekaterin and Miles face it in the attic scene. Ivan confronts the issue after the assault on Dono. Even Kareen and Mark -- whose moral stature is not as high (Mark shrugs off the possibility that Miles might have murdered Tien; Kareen is willing to just drop her family on account of the conflict over Mark, and it's only Cordelia's active intervention which allows for the resolution of the Koudelka-Vorkosigan split) have to deal with issues of integrity with regard to each other.

Similarly, the reader is called upon to judge all of the characters. In the end, the presentation of the conflicts in A Civil Campaign makes it a firm member of the "novel" rather than the "romance" camp.

© 1999 by James Burbidge
Added to The Bujold Nexus: October 7th 1999

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