Shelf Love

069. Scarlett Peckham and the Problematic House Party

Short Description

Scarlett Peckham, professional writer of alpha heroines, joins me to discuss her problematic favorite trope: house parties! Forced Proximity! Lunch hampers! Bed hopping! Both everything and nothing is riding on who marries whom! And of course, capitalism, imperialism, and labor exploitation. Womp womp - don't worry, they kiss at the end.


problematic favorite trope, romance novel discussion, historical romance

Show Notes

Scarlett Peckham, professional writer of alpha heroines, joins me to discuss her problematic favorite trope: house parties! Forced Proximity! Lunch hampers! Bed hopping! Both everything and nothing is riding on who marries whom! And of course, capitalism, imperialism, and labor exploitation. Womp womp - don't worry, they kiss at the end.


Show Notes:

Shelf Love:

Guest: Scarlett Peckham

Website | Twitter | Instagram | The Rakess | The Lord I Left

Book Discussed:

What I Did for A Duke by Julie Ann Long

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069 Scarlett Peckham and the Problematic House Party

[00:00:00] Andrea Martucci: Hello, and welcome to episode 69 of Shelf Love, a podcast where we have thought provoking critical discussions about literature's most polarizing genre, romance novels. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci, and on this episode, we are diving into Scarlett Peckham's problematic. favorite trope. Thank you so much for being here with me today Scarlett, what should people know about you before we begin?

Scarlett Peckham: Hello, and thank you for having me, Andrea. I'm very excited to discuss problematic trope.  People may know me from my sexy outré historical romance ouevre. I write somewhat Gothic, somewhat BDSM-inspired romance novels about what I like to call alpha heroines

Andrea Martucci: Alpha heroines. Love it. I really like that colorful, evocative description of what you write. I think it's spot on.

Scarlett Peckham: Thanks, I'm a professional writer.

Andrea Martucci: A professional writer! Wow.

Scarlett Peckham: a professional writer wrote it.

Andrea Martucci: A professional writrix?

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah, yeah. A professional writrix, love it.

Andrea Martucci: So you no doubt heard this is episode 69. I hope you feel honored that -

Scarlett Peckham: Rowr...

Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. I also think this is going to be the Thanksgiving episode of Shelf Love. I think the connection is going to make itself obvious once you explain what your problematic favorite trope is. So what is your problematic favorite trope and how would you define it?

Scarlett Peckham: First, I will preface this by saying it is not a canonically problematic trope. It is not teacher, student, or stepbrother, anything as juicy as that. But my favorite problematic trope is the house party trope, which I define as a forced proximity trope in which our lovers find themselves trapped in the same house with a group of people and the house must be a stately home of some sort, ideally owned by a member of the aristocracy, and even better if one of them is the member of the aristocracy who owns the house. And typically there is intrigue, bed hopping, much sexual tension, often a love triangle.

And, we got to fetishize both the couple and their romantic hi-jinks, but also the loveliness of this incredible stately home. So I think this trope is both the fantasy of forced proximity, but it's also just the fantasy of the great house and all that it symbolizes in terms of our notions of success [00:02:30] and wealth and power. And, the history of that in the long arc of romantic literature.

Andrea Martucci: So here's where I'm going to tie the connection to Thanksgiving. So a lot of times in Thanksgiving, maybe not this year because we live in a hellscape, people have a bunch of other people over to their home. They have to do all this cleaning and cooking and all this domestic labor to prepare for this influx of guests.

And in romance novels with this trope that we're talking about, like this house party, we never have to see our protagonists do all of this labor because it's "magically" done by somebody else. So I can imagine if, you were somebody who was thinking about having to do all that domestic labor, that this might be such a delightful, delicious fantasy.

Scarlett Peckham: And That is part of why I increasingly am fascinated by the ways in which this trope are problematic. And I should say that this is probably my all time favorite trope, like long before I started writing romance novels. I gravitated to this trope, like I would go to the library and just scan the back flaps of romance novels and be like, Oh, like, can they leave it? No. Great.

But yeah, like the fantasy of being in this house, which is like full of liveried servants and beautiful meals. And the furnishings, the decor, you know, so much of the lavish life that's such a part of this trope and you often, I mean, there are exceptions, but we're not seeing any of the domestic labor that is allowing this seamless, gorgeous, luxurious existence to take place.

And more pointedly, we're not seeing the money that is fueling all of this invisible labor, and we're not seeing where it comes from. And when you think about these stately homes that we imagine, when we're reading these novels that date back to the stately home in Jane Austen, or in Mr. Rochester's house in Jane Eyre, like we're picturing like this British mansion on a huge piece of land. And like, those houses are indeed gorgeous. I am a member of the National Trust and I love to tour them and look at the insane furnishings that still exist. Then you think of who owned that house?

And inevitably it's someone who, either made a lot of money from like colonial investments or from the slave trade, or just the long sort of feudal history of the division of wealth in British [00:05:00] society. So there's this ecosystem of dispossessed people and their labor kind of trickling upwards to this literal mansion on a hilltop in which all of the wealth and all of the power is accrued by one single guy who just inherited this house and all of this land and all of this power.

And then the next male person in his line is going to get the house. And there's often no interrogation of that when we think of the house party trope, which is why I think indulging full-scale in the house party fantasy, without thinking a little bit critically about what's beneath it, like literally and figuratively, upstairs and  downstairs. Yeah, it just strikes me as being increasingly problematic in my own framing of it.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Around the time when I recorded an episode about Rose Lerner's romance that is between two servants, between a butler and a maid, in not a fine house, like a sort of, like a vicar or something like that. It was his house. So it's like a rather small home compared to these stately mansions. And that book gets into all of the labor and how they literally are sleeping in the Butler's pantry. And they like roll their bed away during the day because that's literally their workplace. And around that time, I was watching some of these BBC-type documentaries that you can find on YouTube where they're talking about what life was really like for the people serving in these huge homes.

And, I feel like sometimes romance novels try to make the case that it was, yeah, sure. Like they work hard, but everything is provided for, and they also get to live in this place and they still have fun and yada, yada, but you know what I heard in these documentaries is, literally they made like no money. They worked like 18 hour days. They're literally sleeping in the fireplace, in the kitchen, like on the, whatchamacallit  just outside the fireplace to stay warm, because like none of the rooms are heated,

Scarlett Peckham: Oh like on the hearth,

Andrea Martucci: The hearth. Yes. Yeah. And actually the book we're going to talk about, there is a scene where, our heroine is looking for somebody and she goes down to the kitchen and the kitchen boy is like asleep on the hearth. And like you think about these are literal children.

And so again, you think about  how much labor and how much human capital is being expended, how much human energy just to be the machinery of this grand house so that these people can divert themselves by like taking long walks and making people [00:07:30] scramble to put together a hamper lest they feel a moment of hunger on their diverting, entertaining activities. Yeah, it, that seems - it's troubling. It's troubling.

Scarlett Peckham: I think there was a statistic I read once and I'm probably getting it wrong, but the gist is true, which is that I think a person could afford four human servants for the same price that he could keep and maintain one horse.

Like literally you could have a maid, a cook, um, like, uh, it's called a bag man (laughs) , I don't know, a foot servant and the guy who brings in the coal and like all of that for what you would pay to keep your horse in a stable. Like human labor was just so devalued. So yeah. When you think about how people were living and in what conditions, and then what their labor was producing, like this vast luxury it's unfathomable.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And it's one of these like confusing things, because of course who wouldn't want to put themselves in the shoes of the person enjoying the life of leisure, where their greatest concern is like, Oh no, will I marry a Duke or will I marry an Earl? You know, I mean, yeah, I think given that a lot of readers might be living a life that in some ways maybe resembles pretty closely, in some ways the life of a servant in one of these homes where you feel like, you're clocking in, and you're living to work almost. It is a nice fantasy to kind of then be on the receiving end of all of that.

Scarlett Peckham: Absolutely. I, in no way mean to insult the fantasy. Like I love the fantasy. It's a fantasy because it's so luxurious and it seems so relaxing and so oppositional to the way that we, most of us actually live. Yeah. I can not say enough about how great that fantasy is. That's why I love reading it.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. What is a romance novel that you love that has this trope?

Scarlett Peckham: So when I found out we were going to do this podcast on this topic, I was trying to go through my Kindle and like figure out all right, what is my absolute favorite house party book. And the one that I settled on is What I Did for the Duke, which is by Julie Ann Long. And it's  part of her Pennyroyal Green series, which I personally love. And I think I've read this book like three or four times, like I find it so delightful. I don't know, the romance is great. The writing is great. The setup with the sort of dueling families in the background throughout the [00:10:00] series is great. It's fantastic. And the house party set up is so good.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. And so you said that you were going to talk about this book and I had the opportunity to read it and Oh my God, it was exactly what I needed when I read it too, because I had been reading maybe like some more serious, academic type stuff and I needed just to escape that. And, first of all, this book is super funny.

Scarlett Peckham: So funny.

Andrea Martucci: It's so funny. And it basically has a, I know, that the trope is called May/December, but I feel like that implies that he's near death. I would call it maybe like a February/May romance.

Scarlett Peckham: That seems accurate. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And, he basically is this  devilish character and she's this very misunderstood, still waters run deep type character. And it went from me just being like, along for this romp. And then it got like really sexy and I literally stayed up late to read it and I very much value my sleep.

So that is just, (Scarlett laughs) yeah. So the house party, how long is it even, two weeks long?

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah, it's goes on indefinitely. We don't actually know how long it is, which I don't know that might actually. I wish I knew, is it all happening in four days or 10? Because it would amp up the tension if I knew that they all had to leave in five days, but it's neither here nor there, they are in this house and no one is leaving. That was the point.

Andrea Martucci: If you think about how different your life would be, if like vacation time wasn't finite, you know, like, (Scarlett says, "Yes!") like, like I always think about, from Downton Abbey, (Andrea does a super fantastic British accent) "and what is a weekend?" You know?

Scarlett Peckham: I love that quote. Yes, exactly

Andrea Martucci: Right. When you don't have to work and yet you have everything, the concept of a vacation is meaningless or a weekend is meaningless because that's your life.

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah. It's also interesting to me because in house party books, a lot of the tension is usually around who's going to marry whom and therefore who has the economic resources to make a home with someone else. And so we're all very concerned about like economy and money, (pause) but no one works. (laughs) It's just kind of like this strange, stressful situation that is completely divorced from the actual means of accruing or producing capital. It's so interesting.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. So yeah, let's talk about [00:12:30] capital for a second.

Scarlett Peckham: Oh, my favorite topic.

Andrea Martucci: Yes, and so many romance novels are obsessed with it. You think about Pride and Prejudice is, singularly and notably obsessed with this idea of really understanding everybody's income down to the pound and calculating your future based on, I mean, really like optimizing who you could catch.

And, you noted earlier that the aristocracy, the people we're talking about, they're basically like feudal Lords where they inherit this land and then they make an income from this land and some of them manage it better than others and/or they have people who manage it better than others, but, It's incredibly exploitative. Like even before you start getting into, profiting from slave trade or colonialism, even just within we're talking about England, Or, I dunno what the UK more generally, I don't know. I don't know details about these things. Everything I know about England I've learned from romance novels.

Scarlett Peckham: Uh, Oh. (laughs)

Andrea Martucci: Uh Oh

Yeah. That's trouble. But yeah, even leaving aside the complications of getting outside of England, they're like taking resources from the people who are doing all the work on this land that they have been gifted basically.

Yeah. Those are the problematic elements of this. And I alluded in the email that I sent you, that I've been really wrestling with allowing myself to enjoy things like this, and am I a baddie for, enjoying going along for the ride on these things that kind of intellectually I know are troubling?

And I think the whole purpose of this series, like the problematic favorite tropes, is kind of interrogating that, do we love it because it's problematic or in spite of, and I'm curious what your thoughts are on this trope in particular, because you also at the top mentioned this isn't student teacher, this isn't, I guess Stepdad or something like that.

I think those are taboos, whereas these are like intellectually troubling tropes.

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah. I personally think there's absolutely no problem whatsoever to enjoying a trope that might be intellectually problematic on a very surface level way, and just letting it wash over you and saying like, all right, I'm going to go on vacation into this book. And it doesn't delve into the, economic details that underlie this fantasy, which would, increasingly make it crumble.

You [00:15:00] don't look at people who are wealthy, who are like the captains of industry and society and immediately think of the workers in China who are like underage whose fingers are being destroyed - like we think of Steve Jobs as a hero, but then we also think of Apple as being villainous in many ways, but we love our iPhone. Do you know, like all of romance novels are no different. The fantasies they are selling are no different. It's hard to find something in society that isn't inherently rotten if you interrogate it (laughs) deep down, like we live in capitalism, we live in patriarchy. This is just the situation.

So I don't think we need to feel guilty about enjoying a trope that perhaps has a problematic nature when interrogated, but I do think it's very interesting to be mindful of these tropes and to think about what attracts us to them, because I think romance novels in particular are working on, almost like a symbolic level at times.

We have these fantasies that are so repeated. They're literally tropes. And anytime you have something that's that universal, it speaks to something greater that's happening in the culture. And so I think when we dive into what makes these fantasies appealing and maybe what problems they're poking at, however, be it intentionally or inadvertently, it tells us something about ourselves.

So the house party trope -if it's literally the fantasy, it's the clearest symbol of patriarchy you could probably imagine. It's literally this great house owned by one man who has all of the power and who is supposed to look after all of the people who live on the property, through the concept of paternalism.  We all accept his power because he's supposed to take care of us and we can fetishize his power and it's not threatening because it's good-willed right.

And just the trope itself, when you begin to say, what if he's not a good man? Or what if he doesn't deserve this power? Or what if it would be better if all the people had a little bit of it, and instead of one guy living in the beautiful house and us sleeping with our pigs, like what if he had a slightly less ground house? And we like also got to have beds? You know? (laughs)

Andrea Martucci: What if?

Scarlett Peckham: What if? Yeah. So that's a really long-winded way of getting at it, but I just think that these fantasies and their problematic nature are both useful [00:17:30] to us. And so you don't need to feel guilty about being attracted to something, the fact that you are. And I think this goes to almost any problematic trope.

Like even if it is like teacher, student or step-brothers or whatever, there's a reason why you like that thing. There's a reason why people continuously write about it. And there are probably aspects of it that are like really sexy because they are taboo. And that's fine, but I think it's really intellectually fascinating to figure out, like, why is it taboo and why do we like it anyway?

Like what is going on there? Um, yeah. Problematic tropes, good stuff.

Andrea Martucci: I literally sought out a psychoanalyst to answer some of these questions coming up.

Scarlett Peckham: You mentioned that! Yes.

Andrea Martucci: So I'm speaking with her in two days, so I just sent her my questions and yes, the book that of hers that I read, talks a lot about, basically perversion. Like we like things because they are perversions of - and I mean that in a sort of empowering way, not a derogatory way - like perversions of what we sort of know to be acceptable socially or politically or whatever. Like it's fun and interesting literally because we know it's wrong.

Scarlett Peckham: yeah.

Andrea Martucci: So anyways, so I have questions to ask her too about helping unpack that and understand it. And so you are somebody who is writing romances. So you are adding to this conversation, quite literally by providing texts that then, us readers can start asking these questions about. And obviously we've covered The Rakess on this very podcast.

And, so without me putting words in your mouth, I feel like I know how you feel about this stuff, but I'm curious if you could explain your philosophy, it has evolved at all, or if you came in with a particular philosophy that has held strong, on how you choose to portray things - and you're actually writing in the late 17 hundreds?

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Which is a little bit earlier than Regency, right? That's pre Regency.

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah. Like 30 to 80 years. I write in 1750 in 1790. Regency has I think, yeah 1815 or

Andrea Martucci: something like that. It's firmly in the 18s.

Scarlett Peckham: Like four specific years.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. so I'm wondering if you could explain a bit about your philosophy for how you talk about wealth, power, patriarchy, et cetera in your work.

Scarlett Peckham: I think I try to do it both on the page and in a sort of more subtextual or thematic way. [00:20:00]

I tackle it in different ways in different series. In my Charlotte Street Series, which is, about BDSM or practitioners of it, in a certain like swirl of intersecting people, the way that they're interacting with wealth and power, is very on the surface.

Like you know, what everyone's angle is in terms of where they stand in society and what kind of power they have and what kind of power they want. And that plays into how they act, in terms of the plot, in terms of their sexuality, in terms of the people they fall in love with and how. You know it's just all, it's all very straightforward in terms of how much it's about power dynamics interpersonally.

But beneath that, there is also, like this desire for justice that I think comes out in more subtle ways. The characters are constantly aware of fairness, what is fair and what is not fair. And they are often trying to work around the system in order to gain power that they don't have because of the way that society is set up.

So Poppy in the first book is a gardener who desperately wants economic power. And when it becomes clear that she isn't going to be able to get it through her own means, she decided very, very deliberately that she will marry into it, just to gain this one thing that she wants. And in my second book, the heroine Constance wants to change the way that someone's reputation is held in society. And so she uses her own power, which is the power of effecting gossip, and basically using public relations to get what she wants. There are these ways that they are very conscious of not having the power to do something and then using their power to make change, which, that's what we're all basically doing, right?

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, right.

Scarlett Peckham: And then in my other series, The Society of Sirens, the first book just came out earlier this year, The Rakess, like that is 100% just a social justice-aimed book. Nothing about that is subtle. Literally like, it's about a group of women fighting for women's rights, who are just screaming as loud as they can about the injustices of society and not just women's rights, but the way that those injustices intersect with lots of other injustices. So some of my books, it's more subtle. Some of it's like ragingly on the surface, but I think it's all related to this same [00:22:30] philosophy, which is that I want to write about these tropes and these fantasies, but I also want to do it in a way that sort of pokes at them a little, because I just think that it makes for a more interesting text in a way when we're, both doing the fantasy, but also probing. I describe it as like romance levels are half fantasy, half nightmare, depending on which way you look at them. Some of these tropes are just so awful if they happen to you, like finding yourself in a marriage of convenience, could be a terrible situation in real life. Oh, I just have to marry this person that I've never met before. And it's not because of a religious tradition or a visa issue.

Like I just suddenly, and he's also really mean and horrifyingly scary, like cool that in real life would not sound terribly romantic. So yeah, I don't know. I like to just look at both the parts of those fantasies that are like delightful and then the parts of them that are terrifying and potentially problematic and then go back and forth between the light and the dark of that.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think, what you were speaking to at the end is - I swear, I'm just going to say this constantly, apparently, Robert Stoller who was a psychologist, I think, said "we take what we fear and turn it into desire,"

Scarlett Peckham: Oh, yes!

Andrea Martucci: And right. I mean that, I feel like that just speaks to so much of what is going on in romance novels.

Scarlett Peckham: absolutely.

Andrea Martucci: Let's take this thing that in real life, we don't have control over and put it into this fictional world where we have control over the outcome of this and we can make sure that this situation turns out all right. And in fact wonderful for our characters.

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah.

Scarlett Peckham: Fantasy of control. Very powerful.

Andrea Martucci: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean look, it's half a week before the presidential election. I'm like, I can't control anything, but I can control putting this puzzle together.

Scarlett Peckham: . (laughs) I know. Oh God, I can't stop like cleaning my house. Like anything to just avoid reality right now is what I need.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And what you spoke to at the top also about, there's a reason these tropes recur, there's this common experience or way of dealing with experience that humans have.

And when we lack control, it's like, what can I control? I can control how clean my house is. I can control if this puzzle gets made. Let me bring this down [00:25:00] to the size of something that is within my power, or let me play out this power dynamic in the form of something I can control because I can't control that power dynamic in a larger sense.

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: So enjoy what you can enjoy right now.

Scarlett Peckham: Oh my gosh. Read your problematic tropes. It's fine.

Andrea Martucci: It's fine. I was just in DMs with somebody talking about how I have to turn down my sort of critical thinking. Look, romance, novels have a ton of things you can think really deeply about, but I have to turn down that part of me that wants to analyze and pick apart and really pull out the problematic bits, because it's interfering with my enjoyment, honestly.

Scarlett Peckham: Yeah. I don't know the feeling.  It's hard for me sometimes to read them, not from like author viewpoint, but more just from, that pure, like I'm going to take a bath and read a romance novel. And sometimes that's really what I want (laughs) just shut down your brain. Don't worry about what's happening on the character level.

It's just watch them -

Andrea Martucci: Kiss! Kiss! (both laugh)

You know, I think we cracked this nut wide open. There's nothing else to talk about with this. Where can people find you online and connect with you and what have you published recently and what is coming next?

Scarlett Peckham: My two most recent books are The Rakess, which is the one that has all of our flagrant political beliefs tearing across the surface.

And then my other book that came out this year is called The Lord I Left, which is the third in my Charlotte Street series, which is about, a sex worker and a Virgin minister who go on a road trip together in a snow storm. It's a lot.

Andrea Martucci: Is there only one bed?

Scarlett Peckham: There's only one bed multiple times. (Andrea groans in delight.) It is like, the "only one bed" ur fantasy that I have wanted since I was a child.

Andrea Martucci: Delicious! (creepily) See, that's another one that, if there was only one bed with somebody, you really don't want to be sharing that bed with.

Scarlett Peckham: I think about going on business trips with like my creepy boss and there only being one bed and my skin is crawling just thinking about it, but in a romance novel, I'm like, hey......

Andrea Martucci: hey, how you doing? Oh, no, only one bed...?

Scarlett Peckham: One bed?

You can find me at or on Twitter or Instagram @ScarlettPeckham,

Andrea Martucci: Easy peasy. Thank you so much for being here and, everybody go read Scarlett Peckham's books. That's it.

Marker [00:27:24]

Thanks for listening to episode 69, the Thanksgiving episode, [00:27:30] and thanks to professional writer, Scarlett Peckham for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on

Next episode, Jhen from Monogamish pod joins me to discuss consensual non-monogamy in romance novels, and we talk about harbor by Rebecca Weatherspoon and Neighborly by Katrina Jackson. It's basically polyamory, but, uh, you probably don't know as much about polyamory as you think. We recorded this episode twice. So, you know, it's going to be good.

And if you're listening to this in November 2020, make sure that you support Romancing the Runoff, which is an effort to support the Georgia Senate Runoffs created by Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole, and Bree and Donna from Kit Rocha.

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