Take a walk with me to my DMs.
Me to one of my besties: Omggggggggggg
You’ll never guess.
Bestie: [With great equanimity considering I had not given her any valid clues, as people who open chats with things like ‘you’ll never guess’ are wont to do] What?
Me: I’m going to write another Frolic piece! It’s about how swooning is a thing of the past.
Bestie: [typing bubble]
Then it went away.
Then it came back.
And went away again.
This pattern, as you know, is 2020 thumbscrew torture.
Eventually, Bestie sent her reply. I was expecting something Tolkein length after all the fanfare, and I was marinating in anxiety sweat, but what she said was:
How are you going to explain what swooning is?
I blustered about this for a long time. How was I going to explain swooning!? How could she ask such a thing! Everyone knows what a swoon is! It’s obvious, it’s a —
It’s a —
Well, it’s when —
It’s obvious what a swoon IS, but Bestie was right, it’s hard to explain. I’d never found myself in the position of explaining a swoon before, and I was a bit stumped. I floundered uselessly in our chat, typing things like, ‘…. I’ll say it’s kind of a faint, but also it’s a “maidenly” thing when you get caught unawares by a flash of nip nip or ankle or something? But also it’s when you lose your shit because something is sexy…?’
Clearly, this wasn’t going to work.
I don’t want to be that writer who quotes the dictionary at you, but I had to go and look this up.
Enter Oxford Dictionaries Online:
- [intransitive] swoon (over somebody) to feel very excited, emotional, etc. about somebody that you think is sexually attractive
- [intransitive] swoon (old-fashioned) to become unconscious
(There’s something incredibly funny to me about this second one being written in the passive. It makes it sound less like a physiological reaction or condition, and more like a wizard did it).
So swooning either means fainting or sploshing your undergarments with enthusiasm. Seems there’s quite a chasm between those two things.
For me, the two usages of swoon are very clearly delineated by time and by feminism.
I can imagine one swooning at the way Richard Madden says “ma’am” in Bodyguard; or the way Dolores thunders across the field on horseback in Season 2 of Westworld; or how Chris Pine (the one true Chris, come at me) splashes around that waterfall in Into the Woods. Or how Glenn Close says “puppies!?” in 101 Dalmations, although that one might be a bit niche. Anyway, in all these instances, I would understand ‘swoon’ to mean that spike of attraction edging towards that good ol’ toe curling, spine clenching, ‘good times’ feeling.
That kind of swooning I am down with.
But swoon as in faint in reaction to something unpleasant or daunting? I wouldn’t. If I saw something unpleasant, okay maybe, but I’m definitely more of a spewer a fainter. That’s gross, but it’s the truth.
Yet whenever I read Old-School historical romance (which I don’t often, I’ll admit. Old-School is not to my personal taste, although I have the utmost respect for its role in genre history — this is something I talked about with Isabeau & Morgan from Whoa!mance a few months ago). In older romance, it was much more common for women to swoon-faint, especially women who weren’t central characters who could be used to establish how different and not-like-other-girls the female protagonist was.
If old-fashioned historical romance was to be believed, real ladies swooned a lot in the olden days. Some near constantly. Picture hordes of women rocking around Hyde Park dropping like fainting goats whenever someone let slip a ‘bother’ or ‘damnation’. Or god forbid, slipped a stray ankle.
Perhaps this was because ladies spewing everywhere wasn’t a great visual to write? Fainting is much less chunky.
Perhaps it was because as a readership, we weren’t as cognisant of how markers of hysteria (like “swooning”/fainting “shrieking” or “sobbing”) were weaponized to control and gaslight women, in particular Women of Color; and keep them from deserved positions of authority or equal pay.
Or perhaps it was just that in the Victorian, Edwardian or Regency eras, women really were doing the fainting goat thing a lot. Maybe because their stays/gowns were too tight, or because they didn’t want to go to their Aunt’s for dinner, or because society valued delicacy in women above all else and you were up shit creek if you couldn’t land a half-decent lad, so you had to play the game and drop a faint every now and then.
What I do know is that the changes we can track in romance and in real life aren’t really to do with individual women becoming stronger. It’s about the collective.
Because we talk now.
And we have romance novels to back us up.
Back in the day, those who opposed votes for women used to isolate bothersome suffrage figures from their fellow campaigners because it was easier to keep a person under your boot in isolation than it was when they were bolstered by the power of a collective; able to talk and share and galvanise. (Sidebar: did you know New Zealand was the first country in the world where women got the vote? In 1893, after multiple campaigns led by Kate Sheppard). Another key tactic was to ‘poison the well’ and see if you could get women to turn on each other — it’s like how some dark corners of the Internet try to separate women based on who was Assigned Female At Birth and who wasn’t; which is some very dangerous nonsense because trans women are women. End of.
Nowadays, we’re able to say things to our friends like, ‘don’t you think it’s BS that Cheryl thinks I should flub a loose pickle jar so that my partner can open it and claim some fake “man points”?’ Or ‘how come if someone talks about female orgasms as a need-to-have not just a nice-to-have, Twitter dudes looooose their minds, and yet in cis hetero sexual interactions it’s not considered intercourse unless he comes?’
Romance is this same thing, but on a bigger scale. It’s mass communication of shared experiences.
Seeing hundreds of strong female protagonists line the pages of our favourite romance novels reminds us that we’re not alone. And there’s no longer a need for women to feign delicacy as a survival tactic. I love that today’s romance, heroines are more inclined to swashbuckle than swoon, and the proof is in the pudding with the historicals I’ve been reading recently:
Duke of Pleasure by Elizabeth Hoyt
Like most of Romancelandia, I’ve been dipping back into a lot of old faves for comfort recently. This is my fave Maiden Lane book because Alf is a badass who swings and swoops all over this novel.
Alf’s swashbuckle level: 10
Heiress for Hire by Madeline Hunter
Not all badassery needs to be overt in order for me to consider it swashbuckling. This book bounced onto my TBR because of this article, but I was staring down the grim face of one of those weekends with too many tasks, not enough time, so I got this on Audible so I could multitask. (Baby’s first audiobook!)
I‘m enjoying listening!
Minerva had me in her corner from the moment she was going to brain a would-be assailant with a poker. I’m a very peaceful person, honestly, but I was really hoping she was going to do it. That guy sucked.
(PS: in listening to this, I just learned that ‘valet’ was pronounced so you could actually hear the ‘t’, so I’ve been saying it wrong all these years. Luckily for me, it’s not a word that pops up a lot in conversation).
Minerva’s swashbuckle level: 5
Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean
This is another comfort re-read. I think this is honestly one of the best historical openings ever: Hattie finds a KO’d Whit in a carriage he should not be in, and literally hiffs him out en route. Cracker.
Hattie is more about brains than brawn (in fact, that’s the key trope), but this is still some great swashbuckling, IMO.
Hattie’s swashbuckle level: 4
Once Dishonored by Mary Jo Putney
Technically I haven’t been reading this, I remembered how swashbuckling some of the covers of recent Mary Jo Putney books have been, so I was going through her back catalogue to jog my memory about which ones I’d read when I found this, and all my other plans went out the window.
I think we can all agree this looks like it’s going to be the ultimate in Swash>Swoon stories.
This book isn’t out until September 29, but you can bet the second it is, I’ll be all over it. The cover makes me want to fist pump. LOOK AT HER CHILLING WITH THAT SWORD IN A CASUAL BUT COCKSURE STANCE!!! I think I’m in love.
Obviously a good cover does not a good book guarantee, but I like to believe that with a cover this good, there’s no way the book won’t be. Hot damn.
Kendra’s swashbuckle level: TBC but I’ve got a good feeling.
Of the two types of swoon: 1) camp-panty-melt; or 2) club-fainting-goat; I’m glad that romance is ALL IN on the first kind of definition, and is leaving the second on the shelf now. It’s not because fainty-swoons are bad per se, it’s just that I think it’s far more exciting for women to be able to unleash the strength they’ve always held but have contextually been impeded from owning. That’s what I want to read.
The way I see it, women have always been hardy, and women have always been horny.
It’s nice not to have to pretend anymore.
Bestie: I like that hardy/horny line. That’s good, use that in your article. And maybe don’t talk about fainting goats
… No one tell her.
This article is made possible by the good people at Kensington (I bet they didn’t expect so much fainting goat chat).