A Lady of the West: The Rules for Good Women
I humbly asked Morgan and Isabeau to help me understand why A Lady of the West by Linda Howard had a chokehold on my young romance-reading imagination, and they delivered. We discuss how this book has rules for good (white) women, and explores Manifest Destiny, settler colonialism, sexuality, violence, violent sexuality, and being a desirable (white) woman.
Button up your white high-necked blouse and gallop on a virile stallion into the wild west with Whoa!mance, in this crossover episode.
I humbly asked Morgan and Isabeau to help me understand why A Lady of the West by Linda Howard had a chokehold on my young romance-reading imagination, and they delivered. We discuss how this book has rules for good (white) women, and explores Manifest Destiny, settler colonialism, sexuality, violence, violent sexuality, and being a desirable (white) woman.
Button up your white high-necked blouse and gallop on a virile stallion into the wild west with Whoa!mance, in this crossover episode.
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Guests: Whoa!mance (Morgan and Isabeau)
Isabeau: I'm Isabeau.
Morgan: I'm Morgan.
Andrea Martucci: And I'm Andrea.
Isabeau: And today we have a Whoa!mance, Shelf Love collab. A podcast about romance novels.
Morgan: About white cotton high neck blouses.
Andrea Martucci: About white supremacy.
Isabeau: About land disputes.
Morgan: About how it snows in the high parts of the desert.
Andrea Martucci: About a place where the men are men and the women get beat.
Isabeau: About sisters.
Morgan: About mean horses.
Andrea Martucci: About people who are shrewd, but not intelligent.
Isabeau: About not believing your wife when she tells you stuff.
Morgan: About the Love's Baby Soft ad
Andrea Martucci: About losing your ball.
Isabeau: Most of all, it's about romance novels.
Isabeau: This week! This week, y'all.
We've got Andrea to talk on the podcast about A Lady of the West by Linda Howard.
Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. I first read this book as a A young teenager, tweenager, something around there. And over the years, especially when I was still, at home in high school, I read this book over and over and over again.
Maybe in particular, certain scenes.
And this book has loomed large in my mind over the years, and I think the entire time I've had a podcast about romance novels, I have wanted to get into this book to try to understand it. But it took four years to get to the point of feeling like I was ready to have this conversation. And also needed to find the right people to have this conversation with. And so I humbly come here today to ask the ladies of Whoa!Mance, Morgan and Isabeau, to help me understand why this book had such a chokehold on me.
I believe in you. If anyone can do it, you can.
Isabeau: Uh, I have a lot of questions, but first, I think for our listeners and really for ourselves, we should do a little scene setting of when this book came out because I think it's, nascent and subconscious culture war themes, are really important for potentially why it got its cleavers into you.
Morgan: The year was [00:03:00] 1990 and the winner for Album of the Year was Wind Beneath My Wings by Bette Midler.
Isabeau: Amazing. That's a good one.
Morgan: It was also the year that Milli Vanilli performed at the Grammys, and for those of you who don't know, Milli Vanilli was a powerhouse of two attractive young men who could dance their little asses off in bike shorts, but then it was discovered that they were lip syncing to two less commercially, attractive people? Caused quite a controversy. And then let's talk about the Academy Awards. Driving Miss Daisy. My Left Foot. Wow.
Batman, won for best production design. Shout out. Dead Poets Society , Born on the 4th of July.
Isabeau: Wow. That is a lot of clash. Sentiment was high in 1990.
Morgan: It really was. Akira Kurosawa won an honorary award. Akira Kurosawa being a very important Japanese film director who was mostly working in post war Tokyo in their kind of emulation of the studio system that sprung up.
So yeah, I think nostalgia was very high.
Andrea Martucci: also, I am just thinking of the fashions of the time. Wasn't this right in the midst of there was like a lot of prairie dresses still and a little bit of a Western American influence. Were people very into the myth of the West and the American frontier at the time?
Isabeau: I feel like that's a perennial one. So in 1992 or 93, maybe Morgan, you would know this, but Unforgiven was the big one with Clint Eastwood, so I also feel like the West percolates in our zeitgeist, like every five to seven years. .
Morgan: I think it's important to note that in 1990 we were about to enter a war in a desert.
Andrea Martucci: Oh.
Morgan: For oil .
Isabeau: We sure were.
Morgan: With the idea of spreading American ideals. So I think
Isabeau: democracy in particular.
Morgan: Yeah. under the guise of that, so I think, Manifest Destiny was certainly on everybody's mind in the early 90s, a little bit more politically presciently than maybe today.
Isabeau: All that is to say, it's I think you got this book as a young teen?
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. it was probably at that point, the late 90s, early 2000s.
Isabeau: Let's read the back of the book and see if that does anything for the prologue, because the prologue is fuckin wild.
Morgan: ANdrea, would you read the back of the book off of your beautiful first edition?
Andrea Martucci: I'd be happy to.
Morgan: Thank you.
Andrea Martucci: "In the savage New Mexico territory, love could redeem or destroy."
Andrea Martucci: "Victoria Waverly was a noble daughter of the war ruined South, sold in marriage to a ruthless Western rancher. Only [00:06:00] honor and pride could help her endure her painful role as wife in name alone. Yet honor could not quench Victoria's forbidden desire for the hired gunman, Jake Roper.
His narrow gaze was hard as ice. But the tender emotions he could not hide promised to unveil to Victoria the glorious mysteries of love. Jake cursed his burning need for the graceful lady, for he wanted nothing to stand in the way of his drive to reclaim his ranch, Serrat's Kingdom, the empire that was his legacy and obsession. But ancient wrongs and blazing passions would bind together the proud aristocratic beauty and the lean, powerful cowboy.
In a bloody Western land war, they would fight for Jake's rich birthright and seize at last the love that was their hope, their dream, their destiny."
Isabeau: Wow. A bloody land war.
Morgan: Ooh, seizing destiny.
Andrea Martucci: (pretends to cough) Manifest destiny!
Morgan: Yeah. It's really just all there, isn't it?
Andrea Martucci: Yep, really showing their work.
Morgan: This is one of those great, I would say, golden age of romance back of the books, where they really managed to capture the essence of the story, like the vibes driving it. Maybe not even the essence, just the like, driving energy behind it, and give you basically zero details.
Beyond like the who, what, where. Very good back of the book, I would say.
Isabeau: Excellent back of the book, frankly.
Morgan: Not inaccurate,
Andrea Martucci: So, Isabeau, you wanted to talk about the prologue.
Isabeau: So, I wasn't prepared for this prologue. I don't know what I was expecting with this Western. I don't read a ton of Westerns, and I didn't read a ton of Westerns in the first blush of my relationship with this genre. So at first I was like super into it, because one of the things that I love about romance is like, the weird history stuff that people get super into.
Like, "the land itself was extraordinarily beautiful, which is perhaps why the earliest humans to settle on the continent chose to live there 25, 000 years later." We're literally starting at the dawn of human civilization in the high desert of Sedona. I'm like, I don't hate any of this.
And then we go through very glancing, discussion of the indigenous and then New Mexico and the Spanish conquistadors. And then like, boy, howdy, it gets rougher and weirder. And like the white people shit gets way weirder.
Morgan: In the prologue, can you tell us like, where you feel like it gets weird?
" As a reward to the intrepid settlers, Spanish kings gave them land grants, pieces of paper that declared ownership of the wild land they attempted to tame.
Andrea Martucci: Just to be clear, that is paragraph two.
Isabeau: Yeah. "One of these early Spanish settlers was Francisco [00:09:00] Peralta, a tall, quiet man with fierce green eyes."
And then we get to Juan's son. And then Elena, and then the Americans show up from Texas,
Morgan: so yeah, now we're begatting our main character.
Isabeau: Right, the fact that we go through an entire dynasty but also like, Spanish conquering, the Americans showing up, very little now is said about the indigenous tribes of the region.
And then we get into, this guy, this typical American with his like, he can be the kind of king that Juan's daughter needs.
And then we find out this whole thing, where once the territory is declared for the states, that the land grants that the Spanish had given are no longer in use. And I was like, that's an interesting piece of history that I didn't know anything about.
Morgan: They are in use but you have to actually go to
Isabeau: and claim it in the bureaucratic office.
Morgan: You have to show them your papers and people didn't know that because they were so widely dispersed how would you. They didn't have Twitter. We didn't have bureaucracy.
Isabeau: Not like that, but like if you had your paper, you could go to the government office, but you had to know to do it. The Serrats didn't know to do it, which made them ripe pickings for the unscrupulous types. And then it was like, it was a fucking land grab,
Morgan: by their own people.
Isabeau: By their own people. And then the other thing about this prologue is that it's, so it starts 25, 000 years ago, ends in this bloody land grab that has not only a murder, but also a rape and another murder in the first 12 pages, like,
Morgan: And the castration.
Morgan: A 50 percent castration via child.
Isabeau: It at once felt so hyper violent and terrifying that I was like, Jesus fucking Christ, how'd this ever get published?
But it also sounds like the very opening in Romancing the Stone when Jesse is coming to rescue her and she's like, "the man who murdered my father, raped and murdered my sister, and stoled my Bible."
Morgan: This prologue I found to be crucial in understanding the perspective of the text itself and its author, and like author versus is main characters.
And I think it's really interesting that we start on this, I can clearly picture the mountaintops of New Mexico, birds chirping, people living peacefully, and then the Spanish arrive. This prologue clearly understands, that the problem isn't that the West is wild, or that's what it seems to be saying to me.
It's not that the West is wild, it's that these intrusive, brutish forces are impeding on what was otherwise a stable, lovely existence out of something like greed. And I think the book also really sets that, [00:12:00] when Serrat shows up from Texas, this white guy even though Spanish... Are white as well. He shows up, this American white guy and he's quite violent and quite brutish and it really sets the stage of Americanism isn't just about whiteness, it's about brutality, like a willingness towards violence.
And it seems like maybe the thesis that's going to carry through the rest of this book, and perhaps the rest of Western romances forever, is that the important thing is will, which is a super fascist view of the world, but brutality is justified because it's through a will to create one's own world, and that's somehow inherently okay.
I feel like the okayness is relayed by the fact that Serrat the elder is a violent man who is exactly what this woman who is in possession of all this land needs. She herself cannot create the world necessary. And then later on in the book we see that Serrat the Younger he needs grace and gentleness to balance out the existence in the American West.
But I thought this prologue did a great job of holding to account American expansion and saying like it's not nice
Isabeau: it's not nice yeah absolutely
Morgan: it's pretty mean and it begets meanness
Andrea Martucci: It's a harsh world to survive you have to become as harsh as the place
Morgan: yeah also by establishing the place isn't that harsh except for all of these colonizers
Andrea Martucci: oh yeah but they're willing to kill each other to have it
Morgan: yeah are taking this beautiful thing and bleeding all over it yeah
Andrea Martucci: The need to claim, to have sole ownership.
Morgan: Manifest destiny.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think the way I like meaningfully said that is because that is exactly Jake's - Jake, our, main male characters name. That is exactly how he feels about a Life partner.
That it's about owning, dominating, possessing completely, and erasing the memory of the one that came before.
It's about staking a claim on a piece of land. It's so interesting in this prologue, you go through A, not only 25, 000 years of history very quickly. But then also multiple generations where it starts out, a Spaniard his original. So it's already a colonizer.
But then they're like, no, this is our land. We deserve this. But then it's only a strong [00:15:00] American guy who's strong enough to keep and hold it. And then there's this pervasive theme through the story where Jake is it's our land. We deserve it. And it's like you and everyone in your ancestry just took it from somebody before you.
Why? Why are you specifically the one who deserves this and not the person who was quote unquote strong enough to take it from you?
Andrea Martucci: And the logic doesn't even follow until I think you get to the way the Major, who is the person who took it from his family, how relentlessly he is made animalistic and emasculated and therefore shown to not be deserving
Morgan: Okay, yes, because I think there's something important here in these early chapters about what the function of the ranch is.
So in the prologue, it's just a thing to possess. And there's not really any details around what that possession looks like. I'm even baffled I know they're ranchers. Are they ranching cattle? They're definitely breeding horses. But then once we actually get into the major and his possession, air quotes, of the ranch, his occupation, perhaps, no different from the Serrat occupation, really is that it's not about production. It's actually just about violence.
It says specifically, he didn't really care if you could bulldog cattle as long as you were a good shot. Yeah. And it's just about the constant violent preservation of this. And can you imagine that much land and you're just gonna hold it against occupants?
Andrea Martucci: Half a million acres.
Morgan: Yeah, half a million acres. And there's this idea that no one else is on it unless I let them be on it, right? It has to be crawling with other people at all times. But it's the idea of possession that seems to permeate and influence jake Roper slash Serrat just as much as it does the Major.
And you're right, like he is reenacting this will for control over his lover as well.
Andrea Martucci: Whose name I haven't even mentioned, it's Victoria. But anyway. It's Victoria.
Morgan: Yeah. Her historical context, yeah.
Andrea Martucci: We'll get there.
Isabeau: Oh, we'll get there. I think one of the things that this brings up for me is one of the differences between Jake and his quest for vengeance and like to reclaim his birthright and his legacy versus the Major's. It's like this book is interested in I think you're right to call it will.
I think this book would say that there's righteous enaction of violence, and then there's non righteous enaction of violence, and like materially there's fucking no difference, but the book has a hierarchy of violence, and the kind of violence that Jake is enacting and Ben, his younger brother, is like Good in these ways and they also have rules around their violence about who is and isn't targeted. And the Major's violence is [00:18:00] as Andrea just said more animalistic and bullish and untargeted and so therefore less moral even though All of the actions materially are the same, like the land remains stolen and occupied.
I think occupied is great because you're right, there isn't a ton of working ranch discussion here about its production. Um, Or even it's community building of the ranch. There's more of that when Jake and Ben take over, but like not a ton. And so I think it's interesting because it seems like the ethos of the book is like, violence is warranted.
What kind of violence matters? And I think that's a wild supposition that this book is making. But yeah, let's get into our female main characters.
Morgan: I think the book is ultimately this violence was pointless. And I think it comes to that conclusion when the adobe home burns down in the end, and they're left without shelter, and they have to start over.
And I think the book also shares that perspective. Via the prologue, when it like sets up this idea of Serrat's kingdom as like a pure construction of, the idea that this is Serrat's kingdom, and it shall be Serrat's kingdom again, and it's like, what was it, like 13 years?
Like be fucking for real, we started out with 25, 000 years of history. You are a speck, and your home will burn down in the end. You are insignificant here.
And like he also discovers his willful control of his wife and possession of her was also a meaningless project and like this willful attempt to control his homestead is also a meaningless, like it'll just burn down and he'll be better off for it because he needs to make his own way, which is inherently not what colonizers are doing even though that's constantly what they're saying they're doing.
Isabeau: I think the ranch burning down can also be read as, like, the pinnacle of violence. Like, that violence has its place and one of the things that it does is wipe the slate clean.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, as soon as you talked about the house burning down, I was just thinking about Jane Eyre.
Andrea Martucci: the starting over as it was necessary for the relationship, but I guess I don't see it as a like this was pointless. It's more like in order for this relationship and by extension this dynasty to continue on they have to move on from the violence of the past, which is very convenient, yeah, the land has changed hands somebody took it from somebody else, and and do do do do do, but like, I've got it now, and look, what are we supposed to do about everything that happened?
Nothing to do but move on and be happy, right? Which that feels like, forget all the violence of the past. Now we can be happy.
Isabeau: Yeah, let's enact new violence in the future.[00:21:00]
Morgan: Yeah, I think there is for sure something there of the let's forget the violence of the past and move on and like wiping the slate clean. Yeah, for sure.
I do think it's important that the house is burned down by its past.
Yeah, attempting to recreate the hostile takeover and not even the hostile takeover, like he just wants to rape a Loves Baby Soft ad, and he's willing to burn down a house for it.
Doesn't that seem flimsy? I feel like it's so flimsy as to be intentional. Look at how fragile all of this is. Is it really worth... All this bloodshed? Surely not,
Andrea Martucci: you mean the house itself?
Morgan: Yeah, the house itself. And the house is like a symbol of legacy, family, all that stuff.
Andrea Martucci: I guess what's interesting is that the way Serrat's Kingdom is discussed is it's very much about the land and possessing and occupying the land. The house specifically, I think for Jake, held memories of his family and the violence perpetrated against his family also the violence within his relationship with Victoria and all sorts of other things, whereas I feel like there is a separation in the text's perspective between the house and the land.
The land remains untainted. The house was tainted.
Morgan: But the house was so beloved by Victoria. And she always talks about how beautiful it is and how much better it is than her home back south and how much more beautiful it is than the kind of opulent places they visit in Santa Fe for its clean simplicity.
It's like this white adobe style home. If you were captured by the magic of the land of enchantment, you would certainly want to live in that kind of house in the mountains.
Isabeau: And I think that is true for Victoria, but to like Andrea's point there are multiple moments where both Ben and Jake enter the house and they like look down at one of the clay tiles and they're like that's where mom's brains were.
And then there's at one point after Jake hits Victoria where he's like in the room and he's that's where her head hit the shelf. The house is different for those characters. The house is different for all the characters.
I think there's a whole weird little scene between Ben and Emma in a hallway.
I think one of the things that's interesting to me about the way violence and will as enacted like the house has to burn down and there has to be a cleansing violence because the memories are too much for Jake and Ben to live with. But the land remains and they're all going to remain on the land and like the happily ever after feels like we're just going to rebuild differently like they're not leaving the acreage.
Other thing that's intense about Victoria and her sisters is that the house is both a scene of safety and feel better in it once the Major's gone. But when the Major's there, like the house is cloistering and terrifying and like [00:24:00] he can be around different corners and since they don't know the house that well at the beginning, the house is also like a site of danger for them.
Especially Victoria and to a lesser extent the younger sister Cecilia.
Morgan: I think this book, as in most romance novels, the house is like this huge meaning carrying sign throughout the book, right? We know so much about every character's relationship with the house. And we get so many detailed, different perspectives on how they feel about the house, that it feels like when it burns down at the end, while she's in labor with a new child this cleansing thing,
Andrea Martucci: (pretends to cough) Rebirth!
Morgan: Yeah, I think it's, Indicative of the fact that what they've done in the past is not functional, is not sustainable, will not work.
And I think you're right, Isabeau. I think it is like, and now we get to start over. All is forgiven because we've learned our lesson in the burning down of the house.
But I do feel like the text is saying, by choosing to burn down the house and not doing something like, seeing his little baby's feet taking its first steps across where his mother was murdered, reset everything.
Because there is a version of that story, and we've read it many times, right? This idea of I think is pretty radical of the legacy is insignificant the futurity and how you move forward is more important, and also a very culture wars perspective as well.
Andrea Martucci: And I want to talk about Victoria, but can't that just be an allegory for when your abusive husband says that he's all better now, and he's never gonna hurt you that you're supposed to just forgive him and forget all the harm he's caused because actually he's a completely different person now and everything's going to be different and better. That's sometimes how that, let's not atone for the past. Let's not acknowledge the past. Let's just forget it happened and move forth without repair.
What is the repair?
Morgan: Exactly. There's like this tacit acknowledgement that it's bad, like what created the house was bad, what happened in the house was bad, but you're right, there's no repair, there's merely burn it down, move on. And as much as I love that perspective, I think that might be why my husband personally attacks me by accusing me of being a libertarian.
And I need to think more about repair, and not just reset.
Andrea Martucci: Okay, so Victoria, I feel like Victoria. is Scarlett O'Hara.
Morgan: If Scarlett O'Hara didn't fuck.
Andrea Martucci: Yes, if Scarlett O'Hara didn't fuck and if she was like not actually willing to get her hands dirty on her land and keep things going.
But like basically it feels like fan fiction of Scarlett O'Hara.
Andrea Martucci: Where, like the [00:27:00] archetype of Victoria Creighton Waverly. Which she reminds us of constantly. So she also has a claim to aristocracy and breeding and lineage in the American South, descended from aristocrats in England.
So it's very much this I deserved it there. I deserve it here. I deserve to maintain my dignity even after the, quote unquote indignity of the Civil War. But she's portrayed by the text in a very like self sacrificing pure white woman who has no politics.
She is apolitical when it comes to the war or her family situation or whatever. She is just purely a victim. She's a very good woman who just wants to save her family and they went through some lean years after, enslaving people and benefiting from exploiting enslaved people's labor. Yeah,
Isabeau: I think it's interesting that you say Scarlett O'Hara because in my first blush with her, I'm like, it's the haughtiness and pride that feels like Scarlett, but it's her victimhood and her devotion to her cousin and her sister that I'm like, she's Melanie. Oh,
Andrea Martucci: yeah. Yeah yeah. Yeah.
Isabeau: Melanie. Soft feeling Melanie. Ever forgiving Melanie. Melanie who meets Scarlett in her red dress and puts her on her arm and takes her around the party, Melanie. Melanie will bear all things, Melanie.
Morgan: She is I also think Scarlett O'Hara. This hits something. Scarlett O'Hara, to me, is the, white women's Patrick Bateman. (all laugh)
Andrea Martucci: That's so good, yes. Say more.
Morgan: Read this book where she's like a bad person, and the book never thinks oh, isn't she actually a gem? No, the book thinks Melanie is a good person. Scarlett O'Hara is an asshole to everyone, and the book makes her eat crow over and over again. And we're still like, I'm like Scarlet O'Hara, I don't like eating turnips either, and I won't settle, I'm just a beautiful flibberty gibbet who's making do with this horrible under Lake Capital, right?
no you're missing the whole point, which is Scarlet is this encapsulation of the arrogance and unsustainable nature of the antebellum American South. And I think a lot of early romance identified incorrectly with Scarlett O'Hara.
Andrea Martucci: Is this like how some people think Lolita is like a sexy book?
Is it like that?
Morgan: Yeah exactly.
Andrea Martucci: People just misunderstand the point of the book?
Morgan: There are people who have only watched American Psycho the movie and they're like, Yeah, just like me. I'm just like a crazy dude. It's very bad. And it's not at all flattering. I think yeah, I think a lot of people in the 70s. were publishing books that were absolutely Scarlett O'Hara misreading looking directly at [00:30:00] Kathleen Woodiwiss, who would go out of her way to drag a heroine out of England and directly into a plantation to talk about it, and I think there's some truth to this book is an inheritor of that, right?
Being published in the 90s, like, how can we continue to talk about those heroines today? This book, Lady of the West, has this insane line where the Major is mean to one of the servants, and she, Victoria, reprimands him and it says, "I was told to never be cruel to servants when I was growing up in the South."
And it's servants? Servants?
Andrea Martucci: Servants? And to never hit them within my view, but when they're in the fields
Morgan: there's absolutely no way that was ever true.
Isabeau: And also, no one ever said that to you, Victoria, you fucking liar.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Morgan: Yeah! Yeah. Oh my gosh. And it's just that cognitive dissonance, I think, is one of those tells that the politics of this book, in spite of the prologue, it makes me gag, but then I'm like but the book is trying to show us what Victoria's perspective on herself is.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah,
Morgan: and this is where I get tripped up in a lot of romance, where I'm like the perspective of the female main character isn't necessarily the perspective of the book, is it?
Andrea Martucci: Okay, look, as somebody, just to be clear, who has read almost everything Linda Howard has written I think that it's fair to say that there is a pervasive theme of defining what good womanhood is and it is white womanhood.
Isabeau: Shall we also refer to the text in this one? Because there's like literally someone says the difference between a good woman and a bad woman.
Andrea Martucci: Yep.
Isabeau: "There were only two kinds of women, good women and bad ones. A good woman let no man, except her husband, enjoy her favors, but all it took was one slip to turn her into a loose woman.
A good woman was both respected and protected. If a man ever forced himself on a good woman, he could expect himself to be hanged as soon as he was caught. That was the way it was, and Ben would have gladly helped hang the bastard who forced any woman, good or bad." Which makes him a good man, because he'll protect even bad women, "but other folks didn't see it like that. And if Emma went to bed with him, she would automatically be stepping over the line that divided respectable women from the unrespectable ones."
Andrea Martucci: Yep.
Morgan: That there is like problematizing that perspective though, because we as readers at this point in the book, we know that Emma is a good woman, and we also know that she does end up having premarital sex with Ben, hell yeah, and she remains a good woman in the book, so I feel [00:33:00] like that line is setting us up to be like, But us modern gals don't think that way.
Andrea Martucci: Here's what I think this book's perspective is, and Linda Howard's perspective is. Society says good women only have sex with their husbands. Linda Howard says good women only have sex with men they love.
Yeah. And that makes sexual desire okay.
Emma, when she had a fiancé, admits to being sexually excited by some of the things that they did because she loved him, and he was her fiancé, and that was okay. When she does eventually have sex with Ben, it's because she loves him, and that makes it okay.
And Victoria is disgusted by her husband. And don't want to have sex with him, that's okay because she doesn't love him, even though he is her husband, right?
So I think the book thinks that it's being like, it's tearing apart that cultural construct, but it still creates that stark binary contrast between respectable women, primarily white women who are quote unquote civilized, but then also granting a little bit of that to the brown Mexican women in the book who are good domestic servants.
They're granted a little bit of oh yeah, no, don't rape them either. That's bad. But then and it's a hundred percent in this book, brown Mexican women, and I'm sorry I'm phrasing it like that because Mexicans can be caucasian but in this book they are almost exclusively racialized as like brown people.
Andrea Martucci: that there's all these lushly sexual brown women who are desperate to have Sex with everyone, like they're hypersexualized.
There's a sex worker.
Morgan: There's one Angelina.
Andrea Martucci: Angelina lives on the ranch and basically, they're like, she's a whore, but apparently she is a sex worker because she desperately wants sex, not just to survive and make money. And everybody talks shit about her and she's like literally the most disgusting reviled character in this book.
She's literally rubbing her breasts up against Jake. Like it's just
but but she's a bad woman.
Isabeau: And she dies in childbirth for her sins.
Andrea Martucci: Yep.
Isabeau: And her baby also dies.
Andrea Martucci: Oh, I forgot about that.
Isabeau: Yeah, her little girl baby also dies. And we know that Victoria is such a good woman because she's pregnant and sits with her through this incredibly hard labor in her like domicile, which is like this gross little hut.
Yeah, that's where she's forced to both work and live. Yeah, like Angelina is 100 percent punished for her sexuality. And I would argue and I think like the distinction that you're making about it's okay to have sex and desired sex inside the confines of a loving monogamous relationship, which is why we know that Emma's a good woman and Ben's a good man.
But I would also say part of how we know that is Emma fights her desire for a really long time, because the other woman who's punished in this book for having premarital sex and [00:36:00] dies is the little sister who's described as...
Morgan: And has sex with a racialized Mexican.
Isabeau: Has sex with a racialized Mexican, who I think cares for her, but there's no idea that there's anything here but exploration, not love.
Morgan: But then they do fall in love.
Isabeau: A little bit.
Morgan: It's that she loves her at her deathbed.
Isabeau: But she's dead.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Yeah, and it's more of a she was a sweet girl. She didn't deserve that.
Isabeau: "Celia was by nature a complete sensualist, and she had taken to lovemaking with a guilt free enthusiasm."
Andrea Martucci: Because the way Celia is portrayed in the book is I can't quite put my finger on in the modern age, how we would describe what's going on. Is she neurodivergent? Victoria says at some point "she can read and write just as well as anybody, she's not simple minded," but there is this childlike naivete about her, and I think that is tied to this like simple non-civilized sexuality, like the sensuality, every man is drawn to her and wants to rape her, right?
And then she does have this fairly like healthy-ish sexual relationship with It's Luis, right? . Know what sticks out for me is that she wants to explore his body, like she like reaches out for his erection. She's like, Oh, what's this? It's she's curious. And that curiosity I think is punished because she's just this child wandering into the room of sexuality, and she's not entering into it with the rules of what good white women are supposed to do.
Morgan: She's trampled by a hyper virile stallion. Which is very on the nose, that she's been obsessed by. And she does know the rules there. They've told her don't go into the fence, don't cross that literal fence into the stallion's paddock, right? And she does anyways because she wants to hand him an apple.
She wants to show him kindness, and she's punished. (Andrea: she wants to stroke him) She wants to stroke him. It's so on the nose, right? And Luis when we're in his perspective. When she starts giving him a handjob, he is very even in that moment it's not really a moment of surrender he is very contained, and trying his best to not let himself go, and I think that's important.
Isabeau: I think Luis is really sweet in so many ways the euphemistic phrase that would have been used in other romance novels is that she was the child of the forest, or one of god's children and that sort of bless her little heart way where it's like
Morgan: beautiful little child
Isabeau: exactly there's something that isn't connecting and it's In part because she doesn't have the fear, right?
This prologue starts with a rape, nothing about sexuality until we encounter Victoria's desire for Jake is coded as anything but violent and terrible. And very serious [00:39:00] business. Children shouldn't be doing it because A, you can get pregnant and die. B, you can get raped and die. C, it's this is serious.
And Celia doesn't have the seriousness and whether or not she has the capacity or not seems like the text decides that she doesn't. And I think that's interesting.
Andrea Martucci: It's so interesting you said everything up until when Victoria and Jake are like connecting sexually is violent and bad. I would say it remains violent.
It's no longer violent and bad, but now it's just violent and good. Just like it's a general observation on this book It's like first of all, it is it feels like it's saying there's a very fine line between passion and pain. And I'm like, is this a dark romance?
Like what is this? And then there's so much gender essentialism I'm like, I think Linda Howard hates men. And then I'm like, I think Linda Howard hates women. And literally everything in this book is brutal.
Morgan: I think it's important, there is, in fact, tender, thoughtful sex.
It's between Luis and Celia, and Luis is a racialized brown person. The white men are constantly crushing and dominating and overpowering. But even in the sexual sense the one man who is, I would say, in In a adoring, want to please you for the sake of pleasing you, a service oriented sexual role is the brown guy.
I wanna talk about Juana, who is one of the women who works in the house and she is raped by the Major. During the coup, when Ben and Jake come to take back their ranch, they very much want to kill the Major, but it's Juana who does it.
She shoots the Major. She thus gets revenge on behalf of Victoria, on behalf of Ben and Jake's dead mother, and on behalf of herself, she's the one who is in service to that idea as well.
And it just is... So consistent as to be unavoidable.
And I think the sexuality between Celia and Luis is one of the biggest markers of this book's perspective on whiteness and its blind spots, right? Because it can say, oh there's 25, 000 years of history here and The Spanish just showed up, but then in its actual execution of the story, and not through any character's perspective, just by the actions presented, the racialized Mexicans are always in service of the white folks, and they are always deferring, whereas the white men are always conquering, crushing, invading, and invading. Penetrating, that sort of thing. Pounding. Pounding, yeah.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Isabeau: I think that's a really good [00:42:00] observation.
Yeah, because especially Victoria and Jake's relationship never stops being violent. I would say Ben and Emma's is in like a different category because so much of theirs is like a push pull where he's you can come into my bed anytime you want, like that's up to you. And she's what else is there?
Morgan: I guess just dry humping every once in a while
Isabeau: yeah, or this weird kiss in the fields. One of the things that I think... really sells this book. And one of the things that I think books of this era are really good at is there's a whole cast of characters. And Jake and Victoria can be pretty fucking maudlin.
And their stuff gets really weird and intense. But as soon as they're a little too much for me, the book will jump to the burgeoning romance between Emma and Ben, or this very strange and sweet sexual exploration, long afternoon scenes with Celia and Luis. And then then there's this scene of Garnet, who we haven't even talked about, who's the inheritor of the Major's bad plans, and all he wants to do is just rape Celia and take the land again.
So the book always gives you a break from the thing that you're doing and I think the fact that Victoria is not alone is also one of the parts of this book that I find really valuable.
So she gets pregnant right away with Jake's baby and she tells him. And then he cold clocks her because he's don't try to pass off the Major's baby as mine.
That's terrible. We'll send him away. You can stay and whatever. And she's I know it's yours. And then we have this whole drama about whose baby is even though we all know it's Jake's. And it's Emma and the other women in the house who are like, Jake's a fucking idiot and begin to like, sow the seeds of doubt both in Jake and Ben.
And I thought that's really important that Victoria is not alone here. And both. The way that the house is functioning, but also as like a civilizing force on the West itself. But also just as a movement for the text. It was nice to have other people.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, their relationship is relentlessly bleak.
And what I was thinking this time around reading it was it just seemed so clear to me that Jake in particular is just like a violent narcissist who considers everything that happens to be an injury against himself.
So when Victoria tells him that she's pregnant first of all, he has some misconceptions.
He's like glad that she didn't find any pleasure having sex with the Major. But he also is festering with a rage that like, how could the Major resist her? So of course they did have sex, right? And he quote unquote knows she's not a virgin because she didn't have a hymen, which obviously you can feel and whatever.
Morgan: Yeah, he also says he's relieved so that he could feel entitled to have sex with her. Like he's glad she's not a virgin. And indeed, Ben has the same perspective where he's oh nuts, she's a virgin. Now this is a big deal.
Andrea Martucci: And virginity is unclaimed land that one [00:45:00] can conquer and possess ownership of as a result of coming first and claiming it as yours.
And that is what fucking gets Jake, where he cannot stand the thought that this woman who has become his possession, because it's, again, it's all about him, it's all about his needs, she has become his possession, and he can't get over the fact that at one point she was quote unquote owned by McLain, and that she has been tainted by the fact that McLain quote unquote occupied her, and the idea that then she is carrying within her the child of the man who raped and murdered his mother and killed his father.
That is a betrayal against Jake.
Because that is a violence to Jake himself, which is why he feels so justified in lashing out against Victoria and for a long time after that being completely unable to understand how him hitting her and hurting her and not trusting her has any impact on her because it's all about his injury and the betrayal to him that her dead husband, who she hated, who violently sexually assaulted her and other people, that she dared to have been impregnated - it's like such a mindfuck to think about the somersaults going on in his mind, where he feels like the victim in this situation.
Morgan: Yeah. talking more about Victoria and Jake, I found this passage, and I think it's very telling, that it comes shortly after Celia and Luis's first sexual encounter in the wilderness, by the way. Not in the house. We cut to, immediately, en flagrante, Victoria and Jake, and she's upset because she thinks she loves him more than he loves her.
Andrea Martucci: She loves him and he doesn't love her, period.
Morgan: And he feels like she's keeping some kind of secret from him, which is, we know that she is, and the secret is that she loves him.
Okay, I'm just gonna read it.
"He had been gauging her response to him, deliberately taking her higher and higher while feeling none of the giddiness himself. It had been like a dash of cold water, and she had turned her face away from him. She hadn't expected him to react with such violence, but he had jerked her head back around to face him. His eyes had been green with rage, his neck corded, but his rage had broken his control and he began driving into her, hammering his body into hers. Afterward, he had gripped her chin and said in a cold, hard voice, 'don't you ever turn away from me like that again.' He forced her to lie close to him all night. What was it he wanted of her? Why had he been watching her like that? Her lips trembled before she could control them. He already had the ranch. As her husband, he legally owned everything that had once been hers. [00:48:00] He had already deeded half of the land to Ben. She didn't resent him for that.
The land was really theirs after all. But what else did she have that he wanted?"
Andrea Martucci: Okay, so that is one of the scenes. That I re read over and over again. Tell me why.
Morgan: What is your birth order?
Andrea Martucci: I'm a youngest child. I'm the youngest of two children.
Morgan: Interesting. I feel like there's so much birth order stuff going on in this book, like Jake and Victoria are clearly the responsible woe begone eldest. Celia and Luis are clearly the nature child babies. Emma and Ben are the,
Andrea Martucci: Forgotten middle child.
Morgan: Yeah, the forgotten middle children. Everything's a fucking problem. Between Ben and Emma, and so I wonder if it's something about being, I don't know, right? Here it is the darkest part is, to be possessed and to be controlled is almost its own kind of freedom, in that you don't have to take responsibility for the feelings you have, because they are secondary to the feelings of this guiding force in your life. You also don't have to make all these gosh darn choices, right? It's the monologue from Fleabag. The confession. I want someone to tell me what to do.
Isabeau: I think especially thinking about my own romance journey and like obviously projecting myself onto you, Andrea, but I think like these scenes of Where violence and sex and desire and like, where all of it gets real muddy in a scene together makes a lot of sense for why you would reread it, right? Because it's a tangle. And if we all like, think back to that feeling in our own teen years where it's like, it is a fucking muddy, man.
I was attracted to people I hated. Everything always felt confusing and I think one of the great things about a scene like this is that we already have so so much of Jake's perspective, and we already have so much of Victoria's perspective, so that we know the thing that he wants from her, this secret, to possess it, the last part of her that he wants to own entirely, is that she loves him, and he can't figure it out, and because he can't figure it out, he's threatened by it, and because he's threatened by it, he's like violent about it, and she doesn't want to give it to him, A, because she's like this prideful heiress, former from the fucking Antebellum South, but also because she feels herself threatened because she understands herself is both more physically vulnerable, materially more vulnerable, but also more emotionally vulnerable.
Because if she loves him and he doesn't love her in return, then there's nothing guarding her. She's entirely exposed. And that's what he wants, he wants the open vista of her. And without that in return, she doesn't feel safe to give it to him.
And so there's so much [00:51:00] in this right where it's like the possession of just her chin and also anytime that there's like face touching in general is like a part of a book that I constantly reread but the fact that the sex is then coupled with the rage and then is coupled with her confusion, which feels fucking real, right?
Like that scene where he holds her close and she's what the fuck is this? I'm like, oh man, I feel like that's a moment where the text is ushering a reader through a complex feeling where it's like sometimes this stuff is hard to understand let's head hop between our two main characters, and that feels like a moment both of excusing Jake's violence, where it's sometimes the men we love do things that make us sad, but also a moment of being like,
Andrea Martucci: But they really love us and they want to hold us close.
Isabeau: And one of the stories that you could tell yourself about the violence you maybe are forced to endure is that he does love you more than anything else, and he just doesn't have the words for it.
Morgan: He's just teasing you because he has a crush on you.
Morgan: It's that reassuring narrative that men's cruelty comes from something subtly empowering like their sexual desire for us, which is somehow going to put us in control.
Andrea Martucci: Yes and that's the only thing she has control over is being able to withhold her love and affection from him because she has control over literally nothing else.
Andrea Martucci: As you guys were talking through like your takes on this me personally, I don't think the submissive angle of giving up control, feeling free, I don't think that necessarily resonates with me.
But I think it's the being desired. If I think back, the roil of emotions I had, particularly as a teenager, it was the fantasy of being like the sole focus. It doesn't have to logically make sense and I think Linda Howard always channels this through sexual desire, but it's like I must have her, she's going to be mine and is my single-minded focus to not only possess her, but to fuck her for hours a night until she comes.
Because that's, how I make her mine and I think it's like that, that being the center of this guy's universe. Yeah. And he can't explain his feelings. He is not at all in touch. And she has to teach him, she has to civilize him, right?
Yep. . But, and yes so he's channeling that desire through violence and in confusing ways. Which Morgan, definitely getting back at like when men are mean to us, it's just because, they like us and which then excuses the violence, right?
Morgan: Makes it livable.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, exactly.
It's just so weird though, because the way it's expressed in the book, she is the sole focus. He is obsessed with her. He very clearly is heavily in lust with her. And like whatever love means to him, he's in love with her. But the way it's expressed is so relentlessly violent and unkind.
And I'm like, why did that not turn me off?
Morgan: There's You know, the descriptions of men in this book that I can recall [00:54:00] really function to either tell us an eye color, which is green, in Jake's case, he's got a beautiful body, whatever that means to you.
Isabeau: He's tall.
Morgan: Yeah, whatever that means to you. But Victoria is... is highly embodied, right? We know not only what she literally looks like she's got that kind of sandy blonde hair. She's got skin so pale as to be almost translucent, Jake lusts after the blue veins on her breasts, which this would have done a lot for me as a young person in my self esteem.
But he like lusts after those things and we also know like the essence of her. Like she's willowy and graceful. We know that like her legs are long and thin. Because romance writers are people who live in the world, and because romance readers are people who live in the world, we're constantly conditioned as female embodied people to negotiate desire through our own desirability.
How much we want to fuck is based on how fuckable we feel we are.
And so desire is always going to be triangulated through our own self perception. And that's why I think romance novels in general have that thing you're talking about, Andrea, where it's I like it because it's about being desired and not necessarily having desire.
Andrea Martucci: Or feeling good.
Andrea Martucci: It's like we're told it feels good. Like, whenever I think about the sexual descriptions in this book, I'm like, oh god, that sounds terrible.
Morgan: it feels good. Jake, we think Jake is beautiful because we're told he's beautiful, and that's it. Good enough for me. I accept it. But Victoria has to be particularly rendered so that we can understand that her particular rendering is desirable, and thereby, our blue veiny breasts are desirable, even though I wonder if that's, I'm sure it is a search category on Pornhub. I don't know why I even asked, but.
Andrea Martucci: And it's so proportional, right? We're told that she is half his size, and she's so small and dainty compared to him. It's the contrast, I think, in particular, that is reinforced for us as being important to desirability,
Isabeau: A couple of their sex scenes so there's the one with the chin grabbing, there's their first one, but there's also one where he's he's going to get her by giving her this amazing sexual experience. So he just kisses her up and down front wise, flips her over, and then kisses her up and down back wise, and then flips her over again, and I was like, Jesus we're Pages into this and I'm like, I'm so titillated.
I don't even need anything else to happen.
Morgan: There's no oral sex in this book, is there?
Andrea Martucci: no, the only time I think there's oral sex,
Isabeau: it's alluded [00:57:00] to.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, after he finally realizes he was in the wrong.
And i think what symbolically that is telling us that the point at which he basically is acknowledging to himself that he loves her is the point at which it becomes less phallocentric
Morgan: Yeah, there's so much self conscious symbolism in this book.
Like the line, "the land was really theirs after all," after she's like, why is he still pursuing me so relentlessly, it's because it's ungraspable. It's a constant struggle. Anyways, I think there's so much self conscious symbolism. And I know me as a teenager. It would have made me feel very smart and good to pick up on those things.
And this particular sex scene is full of those. And so maybe that's part of why you re read it so often. Because that's definitely what would have brought me back.
Andrea Martucci: There's this book that she wrote that I believe was originally released as a category called Duncan's Bride and another one I reread.
There's a chapter that starts " it was the end of April." Now that is about the season, but it's also about the male main character's ex wife, whose name is April, who later in this chapter dies.
Isabeau: She dies.
Morgan: It's a keystone for this author then.
Isabeau: Oh man, Linda Howard.
Andrea Martucci: I did feel very smart as a teenager. I was like oh, that's a double entendre.
Morgan: I picked that up. I understand that. Me and Linda.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, but now I'm embarrassed by it. I'm just like, what is wrong with you?
Morgan: There are just like lines in this book that feel so glancing over the shoulder, like little like sneaky wink,
Isabeau: but also like in defensive of teenage Andrea Morgan, your whole thing about the fact that Celia is killed by the extremely virile horse that she's been warned against multiple times was like punishment for her,
Morgan: that's a perfect example.
Isabeau: but I didn't put that together until you said it out loud, because I was swept up in the story.
I was like she has to be punished. So she'll just be killed by this horse. Cool, cool horse death. And then you're like the virile stallion that we've talked about sexually and that we're really upset about multiple times
and I'm like, god fucking damn it. You got me again, romance. I was just so swept up. Totally missed the symbol of the virile stallion.
Andrea Martucci: Okay, so I have to know, like, Did you guys enjoy this book? Tell me about your experience.
Andrea Martucci: Did Morgan and Isabeau think A Lady of the West was a Whoa!mance? Or a "no-mance"?
Well, I guess you're going to have to tune in for part two out next week. You'll also want to tune in to hear our conversation where we ask is shame productive.
Hey, thanks for spending time with me today. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate or review on your favorite podcast app or tell a friend. Check out [01:00:00] Shelflovepodcast.com for transcripts and other resources. If you want regular written updates from Shelf Love, you can increasingly find me over at Substack.
Read occasional updates and short essays about romance at shelflovepodcast.Substack.com. Thank you to Shelf Love's $20 a month Patreon supporters: Gail, Copper Dog Books, and Frederick Smith. I have a great day. Bye!
Alyssa Cole, Amanda Allen, Amanda Cinelli, Amanda Diehl, Andrea Martucci, Andrew Piper, Angela Toscano, Arielle Zibrak, Ash Dylan, Becky, Bree Hill, Candice Ransom, Carter Sherman, Charish Reid, Christina Fattore, Copper Dog Books, Dani Lacey, Danielle Knafo, Denise Williams, Diana Filar, Dr. Margo Hendricks, EE Ottoman, Emma Barry, Eric Selinger, Erin Leafe, Esme Brett, Fangirl Jeanne, Felicia Grossman, Funmi B., Hannah Hearts Romance, Helena Greer, Hsu Ming Teo, Huike Wen, Jack Harbon, Jayashree Kamble, Jennifer Crusie, Jess, Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, Jhen, Jodi McAlister, Jodie Slaughter, Joe Martucci, John Jacobson, Julie Moody-Freeman, Karelia Stetz-Waters, Kate Clayborn, Katee Robert, Katrina Jackson, Kelly Reynolds, Kennedy Ryan, Kianna Alexander, Kini Allen, Kit Rocha, Leigh Kramer, Lucy Hargrave, Lucy Score, Lynell, Margarita Guillory, Margo Hendricks, Maria DeBlassie, Megan Erickson, Mia Sosa, Nicola Welsh Burke, Nicole Falls, Norma Perez-Hernandez, Penny Reid, Philippa Borland, Rebecca Romney, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Reformed Rakes, Renee Dahlia, Rosie Danan, Ruby Lang, Sandra Kitt, Scarlett Peckham, Sionna Fox, Sri Savita, Steve Ammidown, Suzanne Jefferies, Talia Hibbert, Tamara Lush, Tasha L. Harrison, The Swoonies, Tif Marcelo, Tina Benigno, Whoa!mance, Whoamance, antagonist april, audience reception, book discussion, book recommendations, business of books, category romance, contemporary romance, crossover podcast, fairy tales, fanfiction, fangirl jeanne, film discussion, genre discussions, historical romance, joyful hag book club, joyful problematization, joyful problematizing, original scholarship, paranormal romance, pop culture in the classroom, problematic favorite trope, quarantine romance book club, queer romance, romance in pop culture, romance myths, romance novel discussion, romance novelist representations, romance scholarship, scholarly, scifi and fantasy romance, tell me about, tv show discussion, video available, young adult
antagonist april, audience reception, book discussion, book recommendations, business of books, category romance, contemporary romance, crossover podcast, fanfiction, film discussion, genre discussions, historical romance, joyful hag book club, joyful problematizing, original scholarship, pop culture in the classroom, problematic favorite trope, quarantine romance book club, queer romance, romance in pop culture, romance myths, romance novel discussion, romance novelist representations, romance scholarship, scholarly, scifi and fantasy romance, tell me about, tv show discussion, video available, young adult