Friday, December 19, 2008

Repressed Sex is the Best Sex

Emily Bryan, here. Following up on Jenn's post yesterday about why we love historicals, I have a thought or two. While I'm recuperating from my surgery, I'm vegging out in front of the TV discovering the delights of "on demand" movies. Yesterday I watched The Piano with Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill.

It's set in the Victorian era with English/Scottish characters in New Zealand. Right away, I'm fascinated--a period piece with the added zest of an exotic setting. Imagine the type of personalities that would travel half-way around the world under wind power. Of course, the men would be alphas, probably on the wrong side of respectable in their homelands. But what of the women? In this story, Ada is a strong-minded young woman, who plays the piano like an angel and otherwise is mute. Her hearing is fine, but she has not spoken a word since she was six. Her soul flows out her fingers whenever she plays her piano.

When her husband-to-be leaves her piano on the beach rather than haul it up to his homestead, I knew this arranged marriage was doomed. However, the Scotsman in the next glen trades some of his land for the piano and makes a deal with Ada to earn her piano back, trading a key for each time she comes to play it for him. His naked longing for her is heartwrenching. There's a scene where he becomes fixated on a dime-sized hole in her stocking. When he lays down beneath the piano to touch the circle of milky skin displayed there, the moment is electric. It was one of the most erotic moments I've ever seen on the screen.

Part of why we find historicals so compelling is the repression of desire so common in the stories. For whatever reason, the lovers aren't able to hop immediately into the sack as they might in a contemporary. So a man's fascination with a woman's nape, a glancing touch on the arm, a smoldering look across a crowded room becomes so potently charged with sensual tension, we invest in the characters and hope for them. The sex act is more than an exchange of bodily fluids. It's a mingling of souls.

Something desired with total desperation hooks us while gratuitous sexuality becomes numbing. I'm sure there are some contemporaries that succeed in creating the same level of tension, but the repression of desire is more common in historicals and I believe it's one of the reasons for their continueing popularity. In my next release, Vexing the Viscount, I follow the romance between an ancient Roman thief and a Celtic slave girl. Here's a link to an excerpt of Caius spying on Deirdre.

What is the most compelling example of repressed desire you've read or seen in a movie lately?


Anonymous December 19, 2008 at 10:35 AM  

Wow! What a great promotion for the Piano. You certainly know how to put a
person into a scene. Now I'm going to have to rent that movie! Historicals
are my first adult love. Started in fantasy as a kid. But in the
twenty-first century, aren't historicals fantanies?


Cindy Holby December 19, 2008 at 12:42 PM  

I remember the scene in the Age Of Innocence. Daniel Day Lewis takes off Michelle Pieffers glove and kisses her wrist. What a scene. You don't have to see the act to see the sexiness.

I imagine we love historicals because we're able to romantisize the time. We don't have to deal with the dirt and the disease. We can skim over that and get to the hero with the sword or the bow or the colt 44 strapped to his hip.

EmilyBryan December 19, 2008 at 1:03 PM  

I haven't seen Age of Innocence. Sounds like my kind of flick.

When I give my Joy of Writing Sex workshops, I talk about sexual symbology and how desire can be sublimated into little powder kegs of socially acceptable touches. In a historical, the surface may seem serene, but the characters are raging beneath their civilized veneer. It's only a matter of time till the thin layer of societal "oughtness" cracks.

And oh, yes! How useful it is to be able to edit out cholera and lack of antibiotics and outdoor plumbing. But the focus in a historical isn't on the "how" of the character's every day life. It's always the "why." People have been coming into this world with the same wants and needs since Eden. We love historicals because they show us ourselves in a different light.

wordtryst December 19, 2008 at 4:07 PM  

Now I have to go out and get The Piano!

One movie scene that comes to mind is from Pavilion of Women with Willem Dafoe. She's Chinese, the unhappy wife of a rich man whom she has just convinced to take a concubine. He's a missionary priest in China who tutors her son. She encounters the missionary in the woods and they are walking together. She twists her ankle and he stoops, removes her shoe and begins to massage her foot. The massage turns into a helpless caress, and their eyes meet. There is that moment of intense awareness, but their situation is impossible. I found that scene incredibly erotic.

Good to see you're well on the road to recovery, Emily. Enjoy those movies!

Liane Spicer

Barb H December 20, 2008 at 5:19 AM  

Loved The Piano. Who ever would have thought of Harvey Keitel (sp) as a romantic 'hero'? But he sure fit the bill.

I can't think of another movie that embodies that repression.

I agree, though, that one of the reasons I love historicals is the adventure, the raw masculinity of the men (well the heros, at least;0), and the absolute absence of the reality of dirt, odors, and hard, hard work. And pain. No Advil for cramps. Hummmm.

We get to be all the privileged ladies who have those adventures and fall in love with the swashbuckling hunks.

In historicals, life is filled with conflict and meaness, but our resolution is always positive. And lasting happiness with the man of our dreams is guaranteed.

What's not to love??

EmilyBryan December 20, 2008 at 5:54 AM  

I'll put Pavilion of Women on my list, Liane. I think you hit a couple of hotspots-- "helpless caress". There is a sense that the characters have fought against the attraction, but cannot deny it a moment longer. And "intense awareness"--it is the subtext of longing that makes an ordinary touch unbearably erotic.

Yes, Barb, I too was surprised that Harvey made such a convincing romantic lead, but he did. A guy doesn't have to be classically handsome to be appealing. He just has to walk the hero's path.

Ashlyn Chase December 20, 2008 at 7:48 AM  

HI Emily,

You know I love, love, love your books, but one of the things that "vexes" me most in any romance is when the tortured lovers never consummate. When I invest that much in the longing and interplay of the characters, there had better be a pay off!

So, be warned...don't tease me and never give up the goods or the book WILL hit the wall in my house. LOL

Ash *spoled by erotic romance

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner December 20, 2008 at 7:58 AM  

I haven't seen the Piano, but it sounds intriguing. I read the book Age of Innocence, but didn't see the movie--although I've seen the scene Cindy describes. Both scenes sound delicious and exactly what I like.

Hmm, next month I have a contemporary/paranormal erotic romance coming out (Mortal Temptations, by Allyson James), and there is a *lot* of un-repressed sex in it! LOL

The trick in erotic romance is to keep the reader smoldering even if the book is extremely sexual--and it can be done. I think in Mortal Temptations they're not consummating fully until mid-book; but what they do to get there was some of the most erotic stuff I've ever written. Writing overt erotic romance is a big challenge, but oh my is it ever fun!

In my upcoming historical, however (Madness of Lord Ian), in my h/h's first encounter, he deliberately drinks out of a glass she's just set down, making sure he puts his lips in the exact place she put hers.

My toes curl whenever I read that scene. :-)

Linda Banche December 20, 2008 at 9:00 AM  

I prefer sexual tension to sex. After the H/H have sex, there's nowhere else to go. But escalating sexual tension can keep you going straight to "The End".

As for historicals, I read them because real life is not romantic, no matter how much you dress it up with paranormal and fantasy. The past is always part fantasy because we are not there, but it is fantasy tempered by a previous era's reality. Straight fantasy contains today's reality, and I don't want to read anything about today.

EmilyBryan December 20, 2008 at 11:33 AM  

Thanks, Ash and don't worry. I'd never leave my readers without a payoff. That would be cruel. I just want to make sure the sex means something to my characters by the time they get down to it. And the bigger the build up, the bigger the pay off should be.

Drinking from the same place on the cup. That's sweet, Jenn. It shows a hero's hunger for any type of connection with the heroine. It's that kind of longing and overt sensuality I'm talking about.

Linda, if there's no place to go after the relationship has been consummated then the author has missed something. Every scene, including love scenes, should advance the story, deepen character, create new questions and conflicts. If you can substitute the scene with the words "Then they had sex." with no change in the outcome of the story, then the author has missed a golden opportunity and the readers have been cheated.

Cindy Holby

Gerri Russell

Joy Nash

Bonnie Vanak

Emily Bryan

C.L. Wilson

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