My encounter with Judith McNaught’s polarizing classic Whitney, My Love began in a way quite familiar with many plucky Regency heroines: one of my blogger friends told me never to read it, as it was a terrible and scandalous book, which of course meant that I had to read it to see how wretched or misunderstood this novel really was.
What I ended up reading disgusted and horrified me—and I read the sanitized re-edition, in which the hero, Clayton Westmoreland, almost beats and almost rapes Whitney Stone, the heroine. Even though, in this re-edition, the hero stops himself at the last possible moment from completely brutalizing the heroine, the novel’s treatment of the themes of authority, control, gender, and rape culture still strike a powerful and disturbing chord.
The worst aspect of rape culture in Whitney, My Love, is the victim-blaming. Throughout the novel, Clayton frequently uses violence when dealing with Whitney, ranging from simply grabbing and restraining her, to uttering death threats and physically hurting her. The most painful thing about these scenes is the fact that after each one of these incidents, Whitney somehow takes all or most of the blame, usually thanks to her “temper” or her “rebelliousness.”
In one scene, Whitney insults Clayton by claiming her wanton reaction to his kisses was due to her thinking of Paul Sevarin, Clayton’s rival. Clayton responds by sexually assaulting and nearly strangling her. After this encounter, Whitney realizes that her thoughtless words had hurt his poor, raging manbaby feelings, and she immediately feels “an aching lump of poignant contrition.”
Whitney reacts similarly during the infamously heinous scene where Clayton, believing Whitney’s been sleeping around, drags Whitney to his estate, literally tears her clothes off and plans to rape her (although he stops himself in the nick of time). During this attack, Whitney realizes that, once again, his monstrous behaviour is somehow her fault and an appropriate reaction to her perceived slights.
During her attack, she thinks, “He loved her, and in return for his affection and generosity, she had caused this proud man to become an object of public ridicule. Love and possessiveness were driving him to do this terrible thing to her, she had driven him to it…”
In some ways, the Diet version of this novel is even worse, for the rape scene was rewritten to be consensual by having Whitney offer her virginity to Clayton to make up for her behaviour that “drove” him to kidnap, assault, and humiliate her in the first place. Her unpardonable crime was to embarrass him—and apparently the proper punishment for that is rape.
Whitney endures Clayton’s stalking her, restraining her, repeatedly sexually assaulting her, and finally (almost) raping her—and she forgives him forty pages later because her love for him is just too strong. Ultimately, this is filthiest worm at the centre of this rotten apple of a novel: the idea that Clayton’s possessive, violent, wrathful, misogynist, distrustful behaviour is just a sign of how powerful his love is, and his actions are simply misguided expressions of that romantic love—which is darkly funny to me, because Clayton’s more “passionate” expressions of love are now seen as textbook examples of abusive behaviour.
One could say that this was just a sign of the times in Ye Olde 1985. All I know about the ’80s is what I learned from Working Girl, but in between shoulder pads, the Pointer Sisters, and Harrison Ford before he turned into Grandpa I Just Want My Family Back, that film didn’t seem to have a lot of time to discuss the rape culture of the era.
What did romance readers want in 1985 that was so different from what romance readers want (and are willing to tolerate) today? What positive message did people take away from this novel? And what positive message do people take away from this novel now, since it’s still in print as a romance classic?
Moreover, can one really blame it on the time period? Laura Kinsale’s books started coming out at the same time, and her angsty ninjas, honour-bound knights, and half-deaf highwaymen all managed to be dark, deliciously romantic characters without raping their heroines. Or constantly suspecting them of sexual promiscuity. Or persistently mistreating them because of those unfounded suspicions. Frankly, while Clayton is the first McNaught hero to cross the rape line, there’s a strong misogynist undercurrent in many of McNaught’s books. Almost all of her heroes possess an ingrained distrust of women (particularly Nikki DuVille, Until You’s Stephen Westmoreland and Something Wonderful’s Jordan Townsende), that isn’t vanquished by the appearance of their heroines. No, their heroines are simply the pure, virginal exceptions to the rule that women are grasping, manipulative, ambitious, and inherently unfaithful.
To conclude, Whitney, My Love perpetuates the victim-blaming aspect of rape culture, it romanticises violence against women, and it distorts the ideals of masculinity and femininity. While it may be the first Judith McNaught novel to do this, it’s certainly not the last, so I don’t think that “it’s a product of its time” is necessarily true. However, reading back on it is a good way to examine how romances (particularly historicals) and their depictions of gender have evolved from this (admittedly low) point. Nowadays, strong heroes are the ones can take “no” for an answer, but will still keep on trying for a “yes.” And strong heroines are no longer matched with heroes who can “keep them in hand”—just heroes who can keep up.
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.