7.1 Ecstasy and Asexuality

This ability to combine and reconcile the ecstatic and legalistic modes and literary traditions suggests a degree of flexibility in popular romance, which is also evident in the ways in which romance has expanded in recent decades to include a wider range of protagonists, beyond those who are young, cis, white, neurotypical, able-bodied and heterosexual. There is, however, still much progress to be made, including with respect to “compulsory sexuality,” the “pervasive cultural assumption—set into relief by the emergence of asexuality and popular responses to it—that everyone is defined by some kind of sexual attraction” (Emens 306). Rosiee Thor, an asexual and aromantic romance reader has stated that

I. Love. Romance. But romance doesn’t love me. [...] To be honest, romance novels are often extremely inhospitable to people like me. Romance as a genre is sometimes built on tropes or stereotypes that are actually part of a bigger cultural bias that contributes to the violence we experience in real life.

It therefore seems important to consider how popular romance might evolve so that more novels are hospitable to asexual and aromantic readers.

One obstacle to this process may be the long tradition which connects sex and ecstatic spiritual revelation: “sexual imagery [...] appears in the writings of the great mystics of all major religions” (Götz 7). Christian mystics, for example, have historically

found in sexuality a kind of metaphor of the soul's approach to and union with God. Instead of an asceticism of sheer renunciation that would ignore sexuality altogether, these mystics re-channeled their sexual passion into love of God and found in the secular expression of sexual love an allegorical paradigm of spiritual love. (Götz 15)

In the nineteenth century, sex was sometimes considered not just a metaphor for intense, ecstatic spiritual experiences but a means by which to achieve them: “By the late Victorian period, medical writers increasingly spoke of sexuality as an important means for enhancing the spiritual unity of husband and wife" (D’Emilio and Freedman 69) and,

especially within the middle class, sexual desires had become increasingly fused with a romantic quest for emotional intimacy and even spiritual union [...]—a “blending of hearts,” “holy kisses,” “spiritual joy,” when “souls entered Paradise” along “beautiful paths of happiness” to new “joys and blessings.” (84)

Working within this tradition, in many romances human, sexual, union is shown to permit an approach to the spiritual. It has been observed, for example, that “In [Barbara] Cartland’s novels, the revelation of a higher existence through love can, at times, be seen to model itself on the rhetoric used by female mystics, who describe God’s love penetrating the heart” (Rix), while in Alexandra Sellers’ Sheikh’s Betrayal (2009) the moment of orgasm is described as a moment in which

all need, all urgency, exploded in a blaze of honeyed light that swept out from the tiny space where souls and bodies met, to enrich all creation. And, bathed in its glow, blinded by its brightness, for that place cannot be seen by mortal eyes, for one moment of perfection they cried out their gratitude, and then, slowly, because they must, sank back together into the abode of separation. (129)

Even when there are no explicit spiritual or religious allusions associated with it, sex between protagonists tends to be depicted as an ecstatic event i.e. “very intense emotionally,” “highly stimulating,” and tending “to trigger a lasting sense of revelation, and to produce powerful bonds between small groups of ritual participants” (Whitehouse 294). Moreover, depictions of sex or sexual tension are often thought to be necessary to reproduce an ecstatic experience for readers: one guide to writing romance claims, for instance, that “Sexual tension—that push/pull of the physical “Should I or shouldn’t I?” question—is the driving force behind romance. It builds anticipation and both your characters and your readers experience it viscerally” (Kent 11, emphasis added).

Sexual attraction is often presented as an essential component of the ideal relationship. In In For a Penny it is clear that Penny abandons both legalistic ideals of marriage and her legalistic suitor because she finds Nev extremely sexually attractive: her decision to marry him is motivated by the way his smile makes her feel “hot, and strange inside” (Lerner 21) and the fact that when he kisses her she “ached in places it wasn’t ladylike to think about” (24). Her legalistic suitor Edward, by contrast, “had always been all that was respectful, never given her more than a chaste kiss on the brow or the cheek” (24). When Penny tries to imagine being married to Edward,

sharing a bed with him. It did not repulse her; it only left her feeling blank. Would she ever have realized that something vital was absent? Or would she have gone her whole life believing that anything more—flame, fire, passion—was a lie dreamt up by horrid novelists? (220)

Penny's musings on her own relationship do not necessarily mean that sexual attraction is being presented as “vital” for all, nor that relationships which lack this component are all being branded as lacking in “flame, fire, passion.” Indeed, Lerner is unlikely to have intended such a reading since she herself is "demisexual and spent many years in a queerplatonic relationship" (Lerner 2020). In any case it is certainly legitimate for authors to both write about ecstatic effects which are produced through sex or sexual tension, and to depict their characters’ appreciation of this aspect of their relationships. What I wish to highlight in this sub-section is simply that the frequency with which the ecstatic mode is linked to sex and sexual attraction may make it more difficult for some authors to imagine non-sexual experiences which would evoke ecstatic responses. Moreover, given the preponderance of the associations between sex and ecstatic passion, and the emphasis placed on the role of sex within fulfilling relationships, romance readers who place less or no importance on sex may feel that the genre, taken as a whole, does not value non-sexual relationships between people who are in a committed partnership with one another, and considers there to be something lacking in the lives of those whose sexual activity does not produce intense ecstatic experiences.

There is a parallel here with the predominance of the English Regency period and its aristocrats in historical romance. As Elizabeth Kingston has stated, “it is good and entirely fine to enjoy rich white people in ball gowns making googly eyes at each other” but over time the market dominance of these stories has made it “hard for non-white perspectives to even exist in the same space,” not least because although the vast majority of Regency-set romances are, as Jennifer Hallock has observed, “selective in their historical accuracy,” the version of history they depict has become normalised and their norms have at times been “used as a weapon to criticize, dismiss, belittle, and silence authors who dare to write anything different from what’s expected” (Kingston) even if it is, in fact, historically accurate. Romance has similarly developed certain norms regarding sexuality and these may impede the creation and acceptance of texts which present alternatives to them.

It may be easier to create such alternative texts in the legalistic mode since the legalistic mode is less closely associated with sexuality. The greater challenge is to identify and depict non-sexual experiences which are, nonetheless,

very intense emotionally; they may be rarely performed and highly stimulating (e.g., involving altered states of consciousness or terrible ordeals and tortures); they tend to trigger a lasting sense of revelation, and to produce powerful bonds between small groups of ritual participants. (Whitehouse 294)

Lerner’s novel, despite linking the ecstatic mode very strongly to sexuality, does provide some indications of ways in which this might be achieved. One non-sexualised experience in the novel which may have ecstatic potential, given Whitehouse’s reference to “terrible ordeals and tortures,” is intense physical danger. In In For a Penny the moment of danger is brief and its implications are not explored at length but it does appear to trigger at least one revelation: it makes absolutely clear to Penny that Nev is “perfect, perfect for her. How could she leave him? That had been death’s chief terror too: leaving Nev” (Lerner 302). Another non-sexual activity with strong ecstatic potential which appears in In for a Penny is the production and reception of music. Music has long been associated with ecstatic religious experiences: in “Sufism, samāʿ (‘listening,’ ‘hearing,’ ‘audition’) refers to the listening to music, singing, chanting and measured recitation designed to bring about religious emotion and ecstasy” (Gribetz 43) and the medieval theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali stated that Sufis attained a state of “ecstasy [...] through hearing music [...] due to the mystic relationship which God has ordained between the rhythm of music and the spirit of man” (qtd. in Gribetz 51).

Admittedly music is sexualised in In For a Penny since:                

When he brushed a thumb over her nipple, she tensed like a bowstring. [...] She kept her eyes closed, but her whole body was waiting—it was as if she were listening very carefully for the opening strains of an overture. (Lerner 97, emphasis added)

and, later,

A thought came to her—this is how a violin feels. She was filled with sound, resonating to Nev’s playing—trills and arpeggios, higher and higher, the tempo increasing until she vibrated under his hands—

 Suddenly the pleasure was so strong she could hardly bear it. “Oh!” she cried out—she would break—she would die—and then the whole world rang with a crescendo of bright, pure pleasure. (119)

However, there are other elements of the depiction of Nev and Penny’s relationship to music which reveal its non-sexual ecstatic potential. It is mentioned that Nev had felt a “yearning toward something undefined” sometimes “when he heard the opening chords of a favorite piece of music. He had read a poem, once, that almost described it: a shaping and a sense of things beyond us” (182). Music is thus acknowledged as having the ability to create an altered state of consciousness in a listener such as Nev which brings them close to knowledge of the spiritual mysteries “beyond us” and our everyday lives. In addition, music produces a “powerful bond” between Penny and Nev, with 'love at first sight' occurring when

A violin screeched painfully. Behind him, someone groaned. Nev turned. A slender, dark-haired young lady tricked out in orange silk was grimacing and whispering in an older lady’s ear.

He liked orange, he liked slender girls, and he liked people who disliked bad music. (2)

As Nev tells Penny much later: “I didn’t realize it at the time, but from the moment I saw you, you made me want to see you again” (216). Certainly Nev and Penny’s interest in one another has a strong sexual component, but their shared love of music is far from irrelevant. Indeed, on the occasion of their betrothal Nev suggests that their liking for “Arne’s arias” (24) will help them “rub along tolerably well together” (24). Penny’s mother, far from considering this an irrelevance, is moved to favour the match between Penny and Nev in part because Penny tells her that

“[...] he likes Arne.”

Mrs. Brown’s face softened—a little. “That composer you’re always on about? What a coincidence.” (31)

This last comment perhaps faintly recalls the conventions of “passion-love” which imply “forces outside human control, be it ‘destiny’ or even ‘nature’, which essentially connotes the primacy of external or unknown forces and a corresponding diminution of human responsibility and control over what takes place” (Paizis 109). Coincidence could be an unknown force at work, and so too might be the “insidious voice [...] inside” (Lerner 28) Penny which favours her union with Nev: it does whisper to her about their sexual compatibility (“he kisses well” (28)) but it begins by emphasising their musical compatibility (“He likes music” (28)). In addition, the first occasion on which Penny and Nev hear each other’s singing voices perhaps provides a musical parallel to the ecstatic passion-love experience so often evoked through depictions of sex: “their voices fit together somehow. They seemed instinctively to know when to rise and when to fall in harmony, when to soften and when to strengthen” (45). Through music there arises a deep, instinctive and irrational sense that they belong together.