Art Interview with Fine Artist Kris

Approaching artist Kris’ studio apartment from the street I had no idea the treat that was in store for me. The mundane exterior of her red-brick block along the apartment lined street of a not-so-trendy neck-of-the-woods in Sydney’s south, belied nothing of the wonder that greeted me when I walked through her threshold. I could have been Aladdin walking into the cave of treasures for the very first time. Painted images surrounded me, bombarding me with a haze of almost memories – Van Gogh, Klimt, Monet, De Kooning, Kokoschka, Margaret Preston, Matisse, and late Picasso… Creating in a broad spectrum of styles, Kris drew on a broader one of influences.

Forever Love, Mixed Media, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas, by Kris 60 x 75 cm; $1350AUD
Forever Love, Mixed Media, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas, by Kris 60 x 75 cm; $1350AUD contact me message on my facebook page or instagram or email – stella.samaras@gmail.com

Her artwork was displayed over all available walls – lounge room, dining, laundry, bedroom, hallway and bathroom. The private side of doors were painted as well as a strategically chosen kitchen cabinet – not to mention the works leaning up against the wall in her studio space.

A participant in several exhibitions, and artist groups over the years, she has taken on the Archibald prize with a portrait of Lady Florence Packer and enjoyed seeing her works in other galleries and exhibition spaces around Sydney as broad as Hazlehurst and the Addison Road Community complex.

Kris describes her works as both personal and decorative. Colour and passion project from each canvas, board, tile or paper she’s worked on. The world her figures inhabit are built with mixed media and experimental line work. They portray a world just beneath the reality of the physical plane in a style that moves between early to mid-twentieth century influences but carries its own unique voice.

Most of her works are figurative but all vary in their levels of abstraction. Many are portraits and life-paintings but she does still life, landscapes and more illustrative pieces. Where her approach is naturalistic the influence of the Impressionist is in her marks, and the Expressionist in her hues.

Surprise by Kris 60 x 75 cm acrylic on canvas with medium; $800 AUD
Surprise by Kris 60 x 75 cm acrylic on canvas with medium; $800 AUD, contact me (Stella) via message on my facebook page or instagram or email – stella.samaras@gmail.com

Kris can shake up her delivery with drama that is apparent as in the fish splashing out of the water – where the excitement of the viewer in catching that glimpse is conveyed by the explosive splash as much as the leap of the fish is. Or it can be obscured by the focus on a shimmering tree, leaving the intimacy of the lovers to meld into the landscape, leaving no doubt of the source of the euphoria the tree depicts.

By Kris
By Kris

No matter her style of delivery – abstract, semi-abstract, expressionist or realistic, her message is clear. She may use symbolic motifs but guides the viewer’s interpretation of her meaning. Of course, as with all abstract or semi-abstract works, there is so much there to wonder at that reception of her work remains very personal.

Has art always been a passion for you? When did you start painting?

I knew art was very important to me from a very young age. I remember pulling out the old encyclopaedia and trying to copy some of the Old Masters’ portraits. I loved gluing things on my art works, anything really, I would recycle on my art. Nothing much has changed these days.

How would you describe your work?

I would definitely say I’m a mixed media artist, my work varies in style, modern, semi abstract. I could paint abstract today, a contemporary piece tomorrow a realistic landscape or a modern sexy couple, it depends on my mood and what medium I want to work and mix with. Someone once described me as eclectic, I reckon that’s me.

I find beauty in anything and then I create.

Benedicta
Benedicta, by Kris, 27.3 x 23.3 inches, mixed media on paper, framed $1400 contact me (Stella) via message on my facebook page or instagram or email – stella.samaras@gmail.com

Detail of Benedicta, by Kris, 27.3 x 23.3 inches, mixed media on paper, framed $1400

Do you have a favourite style? When you approach a canvas what governs the style you choose to express yourself with? Can you say which artists or movements you particularly like who may have influenced your style? What do you like about them?

Well, I absolutely love Gustav Klimt. I love his intricate detail and the gold leaf he used has defiantly inspired me.

Modigliani: I love how he elongated his portraits and figures he took risks and confident. When I’m painting: life drawing with a model, I think, is where I’m most confident.

Chagall is another favourite – very dream like. I do bring some of my dreams on canvas. I’m inspired by many more but I have to say my art students inspire me and have been the greatest teachers :))

By Kris
By Kris

Do you have a favourite subject matter or theme you like to paint?

 I do tend to always go back and paint a lot of love and romance. I guess it’s what I miss and feel on a subconscious level, but also enjoy painting still life animals and landscapes.

You’ve been involved in several exhibitions around Sydney over the years. Do you see any changes in the art world – how work is exhibited and perceived?

I think now with COVID there is a transformation in art, online platforms are moving fast. I think this period will redesign the way the art world works.

I’ve been looking at the Black Lives Matter art movement, amazing art, very deep wounds are coming out of artists. People in general are digging deep. I remember once walking into an exhibition and it was by an artist from the lost generation. It was a powerful experience: I felt the weight and pain of this artist the minute I walked in.

Mixed media tiles: Forever Peace depicting a dove- acrylic on stone tile with wire $300 AUD; Olive Tree– acrylic on stone tile with Aluminum metal $300AUD ; Couple with wreaths My Love – SOLD

How much should art be swayed by the market or what galleries want?

There is a market for the very rich that’s for sure Sotheby’s marathon Virtual auction sold one of Francis Bacon triptychs $84. 5 million.

What do you think about art competitions? And open calls for submissions to planned exhibitions by galleries e.g., Hazelhurst?

Art competitions are a nice experience for artists, if that’s your thing but they aren’t for everybody. Let’s face it; have you seen the amount of artists out there!

Submissions can be tough and again it’s a personal preference – doesn’t mean the art will sell, but it can if you have a good art dealer.

Mixed Media on paper
Mixed Media on Paper

Do you have a favourite piece and why?

I don’t just have one favourite piece of work, there are many I’m attached to and I can’t part with. I see it as being loyal. 😉😄

Where can people see and buy your work?

I’m in the process of restructuring a new website. At the moment people find me on contact me via the craftytheatre facebook or instagram page or emailing stella.samaras@gmail.com or twitter O Ploutos Mou

Art Interview: Haus of Pour

With the Covid-19 lockdown in Australia looking like easing, I’ve started to think about all of those things that I took for granted just a few short months ago – like bear hugs and bars, theatre and church (religious undertakings both, for me), going to an art exhibition or a restaurant.

Haus of Pour at 1908
Haus of Pour at 1908, a stylish, welcoming space for a colourful exhibition

All these gaps coalesce in memory and transport me back to February 20, 2020, and an art exhibition in a converted church –  just across the road from the Arts Theatre –  which is now an iconic restaurant and bar in Cronulla – 1908 with fabulous hors d’oeuvres and just the right ambiance.

Interview with Haus of Pour’s Costa Karas

@HausofPour on Instagram

Haus of Pour’s Costa Karas standing in front of his Hermes, acrylic on canvas, 90cm diameter
Opening 20, Feb, 2020, by the bar at 1908

The buzzing opening, heralded in Haus of Pour, Costa Karas’ debut showing.

Haus of Pour produces contemporary art that is joyful and abstract, organic and whimsical, non-figurative yet evocative. Liquid Art, each piece is unique and personal. Look closely at one and you will see an aerial landscape of the beach, but the viewer next to you may see a magnification of the patterning on a semi-precious stone in the rough – think turquoise or granite.

Golden Reef, (2018) acrylic on canvas, 101 x 75 cm.

Each canvas employs a limited palette of contrasting colours that has a story to tell. The story is different for every viewer. One may evoke the lyrical play of Kandinsky, while others the statements of Pollack and yet others a coastal Australian feel Fred Williams would indulge. Mapplethorpe is recalled in the petal formation of a rose.

90 cm diameter, acrylic on canvas

Joyful, fluid, unpredictable, the limited palette makes them a home decorators dream – it’s the kind of art that you will want to see hanging on your living room walls.

Problem is, which one to choose.

Has art always been a passion for you?

Yes, art has always been a passion of mine. In the past, it had materialised in many other different ways and in various forms.

How would you describe your work?

Flow Art which is also known as Paint Pouring or Liquid art. It’s a form of abstract art that uses acrylic paints with a fluid consistency.

Can you say which artists or movements you particularly like who may have influenced your style? What do you like about them?

I admire all forms of art, but I’m personally drawn to the Modern art era from 1860’s to the 1970’s and especially the whole Pop Art movement. Artists that I admire are the likes of Dali, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro, Lichtenstein, and of course Andy Warhol. These artists were so forward thinking for their time that some of their art works are even beyond the present day -that excited me. In saying that, I have a huge admiration and love for street urban art as well. I find myself walking the streets of the Inner West regularly just to check out the latest pieces that have gone up. There are also a few Australian artists that I admire and whom do some very amazing art, artist such as Ben Frost, Anthony Lister and Nico (Nicoart) who is a friend, these guys have all inspired me in one way or another.

When did you start taking it more seriously?

I started to take it seriously about 3 years ago when some of my closest family and friends saw my art and really got it, and loved it – this made me understand that it was not just me who sees what I see in my own art.

You create by pouring, how much control do you have over your art?

Paint or a combination of paints are poured onto a canvas or art board. Then you manipulate the canvas by moving the canvas around until you get the design you want or when you are happy at what has materialised in front of you. So there is limited control in this art form which makes it all that more exciting.

I’ve seen the video of your work created on a turntable, do you use any conventional methods at all- Do you use brushes?

Although I don’t use a turntable (oops! – ed.), but this is something that I have contemplated. I mainly move the canvas around on angles to get the desired effect, sometimes I’m happy with the result and sometimes I just need to scrape the canvas and start again. I don’t use brushes at all – a paint spatula here and there but mostly it’s the paint, the canvas and me.

Blue Rose, acrylic on canvas, 60 cm diameter

You have posted video of the way you have created some of these wonderfully evocative pieces on Instagram, are you conscious of performing the art- would you consider your action of creating a performance?

Well videos are not my favourite thing to post on social media, but a lot of people have commented on how they get a great enjoyment and satisfaction in watching them. In saying that, I video all the pieces I made as this helps me fine tune my technique. But yes, I can see how it can be seen as a performance art as you watch something beautiful and magical develop in front of your eyes.

Your works are abstract – some look like aerial landscapes is there a definite direction to them? Has anyone ever had the audacity to ask you to turn them around?

Yes, my art is very abstract. I normally go in with a vision and most cases I get want I want but then sometimes I get more that what I expected – which is so wonderful. I always will see something in my art and that will determine the way I would like it to be hung. But the extraordinary thing about my artwork is when some people see something completely different and they may choose to hang it differently, and that it absolutely fine with me. A friend bought a piece of mine for her daughter’s birthday which looked like 2 flowers to me but to the 6-year-old: she saw 2 Unicorns – so art is subjective to even a 6 year old

Do you have a favourite piece and why?

My favourite piece to date is a piece I did for my partner. It’s a magical piece that it’s not only made with love but it captures the colours of the ocean and the beach on which he lives on. It’s a piece that is so mesmerising that you don’t get bored of looking because every time you look at it, you see something different.

Thank you, Costa.

You can view and purchase more of these gorgeous canvases @HausofPour on Instagram.

Twin Flames – Two Lovers, acrylic on canvas
On Sale – Price on Application

History, Biography, Hagiography and Fiction

Have you ever read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Come on now, this book is Modern literature, a prize winner – sure to be a classic and define historic literature for its age.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

I’ve tried.

Several times. I love the way she writes. It’s gorgeous.

The opening scene of the novel is probably the most harrowingly engaging introductions to any novel I have ever read. In fact, I’ve read that opening several times. You see, I am intrigued by the subject matter, who wouldn’t be – Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s love-lust for her, Thomas Cromwell, the birth of the Church of England and Sir Thomas More. But I get lost in the woods trying to follow it. It’s the way she changes the point of view of the narrator without a qualifier – I am constantly asking, who am I following? It’s a puzzle that becomes so frustrating to the point that, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed the actual flow of words, I just can’t read backwards another time to find myself. I’ve taken comfort in the idea that it just wasn’t written for me. I tell myself it was written for English teachers and literati and mollify myself into thinking that perhaps I will manage it one day (therefore the number of times I’ve reread the opening).

So having persevered with the toing and froing I finally got to meet Sir Thomas More and he was horrible. This man, a saint of the Catholic Church, and he was diabolical. Is that right? Could the point of view of the author be colouring history? The English still have issues with Catholics I’m told. Would it be a different story if it were told by a devout Catholic?

Timothy Barnes’ Constantine:Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire

Another book comes to mind, Timothy Barnes’, Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire. This is a different book altogether. It’s a factual history, biography, defence of the scholarship that has gone before it and an argument against conflicting research. It’s not a fiction but a scholar’s account of his research and an attempt to redeem Constantine to some degree.

To rehabilitate Constantine’s memory is a task and a half. How do you whitewash a man who has compounded murders to gain control of an Empire that he was already a Caesar of; who killed his son to consolidate his hold on his Empire; murdered his wife and step-mother of the aforementioned son after blaming her for inciting his decision; and rewrote his own history and that of the Empire to serve his own needs?

Why should Constantine’s image be cleaned up? Apparently he repented of his sins and finally took Holy Communion on his deathbed. That’s what my Church has told me. He was sainted. He gave legitimacy to Christianity and institutionalised it within the Empire. In a big way he is responsible for its survival. Does it negate how he lived his life?

The greater the power and autonomy we have the greater the pitfalls – on a micro scale then, aren’t we all the same? And given the supreme power of the head of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known – wouldn’t we abuse it?

Timothy Barnes’ book offers a different story to the one of the icon of Constantine and his mother I grew up with. It offers a whole world of arguments for and against the devotion of Constantine to Christianity. When did he really convert? Was it at the battle of Milvian Bridge? Did he never convert but used Christianity as a political expediency?

St Constantine and Helen –

Does it even matter? Christianity has lost its sway over the West (and Christian East) that it once had. That Christians can question their religion and satirise it has a lot to do with its central doctrine of forgiveness combined with a history of freedoms gained with fire and angst. That someone can freely stand up and say they are agnostic or atheist owes to this tradition.

So who was the real Constantine? Who was the real Thomas More? They change with the voice of the narrator.

How is history told and who should be the narrator?

Now, a history text can be dry and tedious. I much prefer an account told in fiction – where motivations are fleshed out – where I can go on an emotional journey – where I can laugh, cry, hate and love within the safe confines of a book. But how true would the accounting be?

How coloured by the writer’s perspective?

It seems everything we write is coloured by perspective and bias whether it’s factual, overtly a hagiography, a biography, or clearly a historic fiction – something set in a clearly defined time period with the manipulation of fictional characters.

With romance on my mind I thought I’d take a crack at historical fiction. I have my sights on a few short stories with historical characters whose lives have gaps that I want to fill with motivations that make sense to me. I hope you enjoy them. They will be prefixed with WTFR (interpret as you will, or take my suggestion) – When the Facts are Stranger than Romance – of course, it’s fact according to my vision. I will link them back to this page once they are up. I hope you will enjoy…

1. WTFR – The Emperor and the Bride Show

2. WTFR – The General and the Showgirl

3. WTFR – The Courtship of Sir Thomas Phillipp’s Daughter

4. WTFR – The Empress and the Prison Rat

5. WTFR – The Earl and the Bed Trick

6. WTFR – Who the Governor left Behind

Top 9 Masked-Mistaken Identity Lovers

The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband by Julia Quinn, Roman Holiday, The Desert Song, BBC’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Some Like it Hot, Sommersby, Cyrano de Bergerac with Jose Ferrer, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ A Rose in Winter, Shakespeare in Love

What’s with masks and hidden identity? A false sense of confidence? A glamour? To be who we can be when no one knows our face? To force people to reckon with our deeds (or words) without the prejudice of sight? Without the limitations of pigeonholes?

I’ve always loved a masked man – Robin Hood, Zorro, The Lone Ranger, Superman – and even the idea of Ned Kelly holds romantic appeal. There’s something about an underestimated no-one-in-particular doing the extraordinary and continuing to do so under the ignorant noses of the judgmental.

The masked hero is even more enticing when amour is entangled in deceit. Here are my top 9 Masked- Mistaken Identity Lover stories from theatre, film and books.

Playbill for the 1908 tour of Australia and New Zealand of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel starring Julius Knight and Ola Humphrey

1.The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1903, 1905)

Beginning life as a play, this classic tale became the first story of a series of books, movies, BBC tv series and musical theatre adaptions, AND has been credited with kick-starting the whole masked crusader genre. Think Zorro,The Desert Song, Batman, Iron Man– even Daffy Duck did a send up of the Scarlet Pumpernickel.

The original story is the tale of Marguerite, a French revolutionary actress (c.1792) who marries an exceedingly tall and wealthy Englishman with lazy eyes and aristocratic pursuits. To his credit he is very witty, well connected and knows how to tie his own cravat. The marriage founders.

She is approached by an old acquaintance to help capture the leader of a league of English spies who are smuggling condemned French aristocrats away from the guillotine. She’s placed in a quandary – she would dearly like to know the identity of the leader, the Scarlet Pimpernel, as his exploits have been romanticized by all of London – and she’s fallen in love with the man she doesn’t know. However, to help his enemies would compromise not only her fantasies but the scraps of a relationship she shares with her proud English husband, and her standing as a former revolutionary and a French actress in the English nobility. To induce her to comply she is told that her brother has been found guilty of working with the anonymous league and is condemned to die. If she were to help capture the leader, her brother’s safety may be assured.

When she realizes who the elusive pimpernel is she…

2.Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Set in 1640, Paris, the classic premise is that Cyrano is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Roxanna, whom he has grown up with. Despite his wit,intelligence and expert swordsmanship, this brave poet-chevalier hasn’t the courage to speak to her of his affection. What holds him back? His nose. Enter Christian, a handsome man of no wit. Cyrano in his overflowing desire to convey his love to Roxanna suggests Christian learn his lines of poetry and seduction to serenade her with and then conducts a letter exchange with her in the guise of Christian.

The original story was performed as a play in 1897 and still is. You might better know it from its various movie adaptions, including Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne or the way the concept of Cyrano has been used within other stories eg., the 2006 episode of Charmed where the beautiful Phoebe is courted by a Cupid.

3.Roman Holiday (1953)

Starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck this classic movie tells the tale of Princess Anne, a young royal whose life is dictated by protocol, tight schedules, diplomatic engagements and public duty. Towards the end of her diplomatic tour of Europe she runs away and spends the day with an American reporter in Rome.

They both assume different identities: she as a boarding school runaway, he as a manure salesman. She gains a day off, he has the chance of a lifetime story with $5000 and money enough to finally return home to the States.

He ropes in a photographer and together they see her enjoying the small liberties they have taken for granted – like strolling freely before tourist attractions, eating ice-cream and deciding how to wear her own hair. They also document her in compromising situations – causing traffic mayhem, getting arrested and donging a secret service man over the head with a guitar.

She also falls in love. At the end of the movie the reporter has a choice to make – take the money and write the article or honour their affection and stay silent. Their love can go nowhere due to her position, however will he respect her and allow them both to cherish the memory of it?

This classic movie has echoes in others like Chasing Liberty (2004).

4.Some Like it Hot (1959)

This hilarious classic set in 1929 prohibition America features the cross-dressing antics of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in their guises of Daphne and Josephine as they hide from the mob in an all girl band. Along the way they find love interests in Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe) and the billionaire, Osgood Fielding (Joe E. Brown).

Once voted the funniest American movie ever made, Tony Curtis effects two different personas outside of his character’s “true” self, Joe. He also sends up Cary Grant in his personification of the billionaire of Sugar Cane’s dreams.

Jack Lemmon’s Gerald in the guise of Daphne immerses himself in being a woman to the point where he sympathizes more with Sugar Cane than he does with his partner in crimes of the heart, Joe. In the way Daphne falls for Osgood and in the way Osgood doesn’t mind that Daphne is actually a man, this masked comedy has a message that has been played out with disguises since at least Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night – that love transcends sexual identity.

Echoes of this message told between changes of costume and sexes can be seen in treatments of Shakespeare’s classic in She’s the Man (2006) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).

5.Sommersby (1993)

Starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, Sommersby is the transposition of a true tale of 16th Century France into post Civil War America. This adaption is beautifully romantic with a message to tell.

Laurel was married to an abusive man and has a son by him. He goes off to war and is presumed dead when 6 years later a man claiming to be him – with his look but not his manner arrives on the family farm. In his absence Laurel has presumed her husband dead and has quietly pursued a relationship with a much kinder man, Orin.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

With the return of Jack Sommersby, Laurel has to break off her plans to marry Orin and rebuild her life with her husband. But is he her husband – in his manner, kindness, intimacy he is nothing as she remembers him. She never loved her husband but she is falling in love with this man who claims to be him and has a daughter with him.

In time Jack is accused of murder and deserting the army. He is brought to trial – to save his life he has to choose between admitting to being a dishonorable man who not only is guilty of identity theft but also common theft and desertion – which will reflect on Laurel for taking up with him and will question her right to own the farm.The man Laurel loves must now choose between his reputation on one hand and Laurel’s financial security and his life on the other.

The question the movie asks is, is it possible for a person to change? Can we become good because those around us believe we are good? A very moving story.

6. Shrek by William Steig (1990)

Beginning life as a picture book by William Steig, once it had been animated by Dreamworks in 2001 this story became 21st mythology.

It’s a coming of age story for Princess Fiona who learns to accept herself before she can accept true love. Shrek learns not to underestimate himself.

Absolutely wonderful message in a non-preachy fun story. Love it

Cover the Girl with the Make-Believe Husband by Julia Quinn

7.The Girl With The Make-Believe Husband (2017) by Julia Quinn

Miss Cecilia Harcourt likes writing letters. She’s witty, observant, warm and devoted. Edward Rokesby likes reading her letters – that are addressed mainly to her brother, Thomas. Thomas has become his closest friend and although they belong to different social classes, the American revolutionary war has made them thick as brothers.

When Cecilia learns that her brother is missing in action she buys passage to America to see if she can find him or determine what has happened. On arrival her inquiries as Miss Harcourt fall on deaf ears.When she hears by chance that Edward Rokesby has been brought to hospital unconscious, she takes herself there to see him.

She is denied access due to his being an officer and an earl’s son, so Cecilia fibs, telling them she’s his wife. She knows an awful lot about him as he has been sending her notes with her brother’s letters. She’s convincing and gains his bedside and the privilege of his name. Now her inquiries about her brother are taken more seriously. Then he wakes up… with memory loss and Cecilia decides to …

With echoes of While You Were Sleeping (1995) this masquerade deals with a different matter – class politics and prejudice. It’s a gorgeous love story with a HEA.

8.The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)

This gothic tale has been retold many times on film and most poignantly in Andrew Loyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical (1986).Between the book, the movie adaptations and the muscial there are some variations but they are limited – what changes is the motivation of the Phantom.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

Christine Daae is an up and coming young opera singer. The Phantom is a composer (in versions after the initial novel) whose face has been disfigured (in one version) or is disfigured from a congenital birth defect, so that he wears a mask and lives in the sewers beneath the Paris Opera House. He is referred to as the Angel of Music by Christine who sees him as a supernatural figure helping to shape her voice into maturity.

In the stage musical he is obsessed with two things – his music and Christine. He courts her through music. By wearing a mask she is forced to see him beyond the visuals. Unfortunately, he has no qualms with committing murder and abduction to get what he wants.

It’s an interesting study in the allure of music, the glamour of performers and sexual/romantic desire.

And the music, it… shall possess you.

9. A Rose In Winter (1983) by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

This gothic tale is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast where the Beauty struggles to remain loyal and virtuous to her disfigured and morose husband while struggling with her desire for a willing, dashing, light-hearted suitor.

Lord Saxton buys the beautiful Erienne Fleming off the block in an antiquated English practice, saving her from the lascivious clutches of his rivals. The problem is that no one really knows who he is. Wasn’t he burnt alive in his mansion years ago? His face is covered by a mask and his body hidden in leather and cape. His voice rasps out through a hole in the mask he wears. He lives a reclusive life in his secluded mansion.

Erienne’s father made the decision to auction her off to pay off his gambling debts, including a sum owed to the visiting American trader, Christopher Seton. Seton is handsome, virile, arrogant and charming, when he chooses. He had offered to marry Erienne to save her from the block but she refused due to his attitude and her own sense of pride.

Now, although she has Lord Saxton’s warm regard, abiding patience and tenderness, she can’t lust for him even though she tries to will herself to. It’s not organic like it is with Seton. Regardless that Seton taunts her with her desire for him she can’t help wanting him.

The canny Seton has a plan – he will seduce her or failing that, send her running into her husband’s bed. Will she choose the scoundrel over the good man – will she give in to temptation or go honor-bound to her marital duty instead?

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. It’s not exhaustive as this trope has been around since antiquity – Zeus transformed into various creatures to effect his seductions, and of course there was mistaken identity in the plays of Plautus, Terence, Shakespeare, Moliere, and the stories of writers like Gogol, the Grimm Brothers (Cinderella, Briar Rose), Hans Christian Andersen (The Little Mermaid) and films like the Nutty Professor, Mrs Doubtfire, etc. Often needing to break through socially imposed strictures that no longer hold sway, these stories are set in the past or in fantasy worlds where, unlike today, the nom de guerre seems as easy to affect as the nom de plume.

Is Outlander the Greatest Romance Ever Written?

After I was told not to bother with Romance written these days, I was in a quandary. I had reread all of my favourites with their particular milieu and parameters of the genre c.70s, 80s, skimming the 90s, and discovered when I tried to reread those I didn’t love but only liked, that I had an aversion to them. I needed something new but didn’t want to be disappointed.

So I searched up the greatest love story ever written. Lists came up. They all differed, however a couple of stories kept reappearing: Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook (1996),and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (1990)how did I miss that one, way back in the day? Now, I had seen the movie adaptation of The Notebook and fell in love and shed tears and felt the world was a better place for having experienced this story. Having seen the movie and many other adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels I wasn’t swayed to read the book – there was more than enough magic onscreen.

So I picked up Outlander, and crossed my fingers that it would live up to the hype. It did.

I read the first novel in the series. Now apparently, like Whitney, My Love, there are two versions of this story floating around: Cross Stich, a slightly less raunchy version with a Claire a little more invested in her 20th Century husband for the British and Australian market and Outlander, the original for the American market. A smart call if what Australian book stores stock is anything to go by. The differences are discussed here.

I purchased my copy from an Australian online bookstore with the title Outlander so I’m not sure which version I have but whichever it is, I loved it.

The first Outlander novel- Cross Stitch – British version

I love history. I’m a big fan of historical novels that not only teach me something about the past but that involve me in the emotional landscape of the characters in a social milieu that is historically accurate – or as best as can be approximated with the knowledge that we have available today. I loved the books of John Jakes, Alison Weir and Sharon Penman.

The first novel in the series is really special in the way it defines 18th Century Scotland. From the moment Claire “lands” in the past, Diana Gabaldon defines the differences in eras – regardless that her journey occurred in the country. She quickly introduces the reader to the situation between the English and the Scottish as Claire experiences life in the Highlands first hand.

Claire is the author’s voice, the readers’ eyes, so as encounter after encounter takes place we are given a step by step guide to life in an 18th Century Highland castle. Almost fragmentary but not quite, we learn about the uses of a castle’s Great Hall, the running of the Kitchen, the Stables and the state of medicine at the time. As the story progresses we learn about the relationship of the Scottish lairds and their clansmen, the superstitions of the people and the consequences of witchcraft and life on a Scottish Manor.

But, in no way is this book just a documentary or docudrama. It’s a love story, with Romance genre tropes and adventure. There is enforced togetherness, the friends to lovers trope and the prolonged admittance of love – in romance genre the pro-longed f**k is not a trope, rather the prolonged, “I love you.”

 True to the time in romance publishing that it was written (1988-90), the acknowledgement and acceptance of love occasioned by life-threatening danger and enforced separation features. Unlike many historical romances written before it, the characters’ decisions are well motivated and easy to relate to. We go on a rollercoaster ride of adventure and personal issues/growth.

And, of course, there is Jamie Fraser. A more compelling hero in romance would be hard to come by. He is straight forward, brave – physically and emotionally – ready to accept Claire’s truth when she tells him, ready to sacrifice his comfort and desires for a moral truth or to save pain inflicted on a woman (a couple of women at least), patient, intelligent, sexy and totally wrapped up in Claire.

He is also a man made in his time. In this book as in Whitney, My Love, the hero whips the heroine. No, it’s not a kinky sex thing. It’s 18th Century discipline. Shocking, perhaps, but part of the perils of living in the past. I’m so glad that after the rewrite happened that that scene was retained – it would disservice the world-building of the rest of the novel if it had been censored. No, I’m not a sadist. I enjoy coming out the other side of a horrid situation – especially if there has been character growth.

Greatest love story ever told? It’s the best historical romance I’ve read in my recent 25 year catch up with the genre.

Although, I do love Deborah Harness’ All Soul’s Trilogy. And of course there is The Notebook…and Sally Hepworth‘s The Things we Keep, along that line…

Nonplussed – A Romance Lexicon

Once you get to know a genre there are certain things that you come to expect from it. Predictable things. Things that keep cropping up regularly as clockwork. Now I know you can guess which specific genre I’m referring to – no prizes I’m afraid. These predictable things become a comforter when you need to know exactly what you’re being served with the assurance of a McDonald’s restaurant.

Some are the shape of things – like the HEA – happily ever after. Others are the modus operandi – the easily digestible tropes – you know – best friends to lovers, fake engagements, rags to riches, etc.

And then there’s the really little things that are there if you scratch the surface – particular points that are hidden in the bound sheaves like Easter eggs hidden in a garden of delight. No matter how obscure their meaning they crop up across the genre and have the staying power of moss over an implacable stone. Easily skimmed over they are synonymous with the genre and can form a romance lexicon of their own. Words and phrases like:

Nonplussed – look out for it – I suspect it’s in every romance novel since Woodiwiss’ Flame and the Flower. But what the…. does it actually mean?

The sure-fire way of knowing you’re reading Romance genre
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1933

Perplexed? Me too. So I’ve compiled a short romance lexicon

Frission – no, it has nothing to do with nuclear science – more like the rolling crises of feminine satisfaction.

Fisted – a physical motion defining masculinity (generally, not always) in the act of removing the clothes of one’s inamorata, or battling with bed sheets in an attempt to internalize the male crisis.

Boneless – no, not the chicken fillets – not even a state of masculine inarousal –is there such a word? No, the state of female satisfaction.

Corded – Wrong again – not the contrasting haberdasher’s trim lining the lapel of your grandma’s faux Chanel suit – the tense, muscular sculpting below the shoulders of an anticipating, buff male.

Core – Nothing to do with the trunk of your body or how many crunches it takes to shape it, rather the hidden, pithy, succulent chamber of delight that, unlike an apple’s, is best retained to be devoured. It’s what is referred to in the following phrase,

Fell apart – Not exactly shucking oysters but you get the idea – the pearl is edible.

Cock – noun – no, not a rooster – nor a part of that birdie’s daily salute to the rising sun – cock-a-doodle-do (on second thoughts, it could be). No – not found in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary of 1933.

Some choice meanings of ‘Cock’ approaching modern usage from the Shorter Oxford Dictionary,1933

Yes, of course it’s colloquial for the male reproductive appendage – but did you know it’s such a new word? I didn’t.

So ends my little romance lexicon. It amused me to write it – particularly in keeping a G-rating on my blog – and so I hope it’s received in good humour. If I haven’t incited a smile, that’s ok, I’ll understand you’re feeling nonplussed.

Romance, Rape and Controversy

*** Spoiler alertWhitney, My Love – ***

After a 25 year hiatus from the genre, I recently returned to reading romance. The hook to get me back was Judith McNaught. After rereading my favourites, I wondered whether she was still writing and searched for her online. How shocked was I to see that Whitney, My Love was considered controversial? Apparently there was a rape scene in it and a beating with a riding crop. What rape scene? I’d read the book back in the 80s and I couldn’t remember it being controversial. I remember thinking even back then that Whitney was annoying and that I really liked Clayton. Did he rape her? Wouldn’t I have remembered that? i never thought of it as your stock-standard bodice-ripper.

What shocked me to the core was that Judith Mc Naught was compelled to rewrite it after it had already presided over the best-selling lists. Maybe that’s why I didn’t remember the rape scene. Perhaps I hadn’t read it. I checked the date of publication of my copy – 1987 – 2 years after the initial publication. The rewrite? 14 years after its first release. I had read the original.

I went back and re-read it. It wasn’t my favourite JM novel. In fact, I much prefer her other Regencies – Almost Heaven and Something Wonderful. Rereading Whitney, I found it compelling – particularly after the controversial rape scene.

Why did she rewrite?

My favourite Regency romances by Judith McNaught

While I haven’t read the rewrite of 1999-2000, it’s been written about here and there and curiously enough some write-ups, for and against it, have been removed from the internet. Goodreads shows the honest response of many of its readers and they are polarized.

The rewrite included stronger hooks to the related novels, A Kingdom of Dreams and Until You. It also tried to lessen the impact of the rape scene and the beating. It failed to silence critics who thought it hadn’t addressed the underlying issues. Shockingly, Whitney immediately comforted Clayton when he realized too late that she was a virgin, and so could not have played him false – and by implication deserved what she got – and then she apologized to him!

The Problem of Character

Their actions taken away from the context of their characters and the historic era to which they belong (and also the socialization of its target market at the time of its first publication) are absolutely shocking. Placing them back within the confines of character development and the truth of their relationship they depict a valid psychological relationship.

Whitney was an impetuous, headstrong, self-centred, gutsy and immature heroine. She was stubborn and loyal and a dreamer. Her dream was to marry her true love, Paul, even if she had to endure an enforced separation, his indifference and concoct schemes to separate him from the girl he wanted. She is incredibly passionate and won’t be constrained by society’s dictates, her father’s rule or the bombastic way Clayton has made himself her intended husband – unbeknownst to her, her father betrothed her to him.

As she was growing up, she often acted up in the heat of her emotions and left reason behind only to regret her actions afterwards. She is used to feeling remorse – justified or not. Her father sent her to Paris with her Uncle and Aunt because of her outlandish behaviour.

Was a rewrite really warranted?

Clayton, Duke of Westmoreland, is a prisoner of his time, wealth and social class. He falls for the beautiful young Whitney at a masquerade ball in Paris. She’s a breath of fresh air – honest, direct and daring. Easily a target for money hungry, title-hungry husband hunters, he prefers all of her spirit, independence, wit and ingenuity. But he can’t force her to love him – although he tries. He sees what she cannot: that they are well matched – he doesn’t expect her to change and indulges her sense of rebellion against society’s strictures by pandering to her – offering her brandy (a gentleman’s drink) and cigars, playing chess with her and racing his horse against her. As a male and an aristocrat of inordinate wealth, he expects to be respected and obeyed. The opposite is something he could never imagine.

 “Whitney’s smile was full of confident amusement. ‘I told you, I will never call any man my lord. When I marry, I shall be a good and dutiful wife- but a full partner, not an obedient servant.’ In the doorway of the salon he glanced down at her with an odd combination of humorous skepticism and absolute certainty. ‘A good and dutiful wife? No, little one, I’m afraid not.” – Chap 13 *

While Whitney flirts and schemes to capture Paul’s heart he doesn’t interfere but presses his own suit with her. He takes greater liberties with her, kissing her privately while courting her incognito as Mr Westland. JM takes us on quite a ride until Whitney finally sees Paul for who he is rather than the knight-in-shining-armour her girlhood dreams have made him out to be. By the time she accepts that Clayton is the man for her, Clayton has gone through more than he expected to and more than he can deal with. He doesn’t know if he can trust her. It’s clear that he loves her. At the idea that she may be playing him false with Paul he loses reason and wants to punish her.

It’s got to be said that a big part of JM’s novels and romance genre in general is reconciliation after a grand act of forgiveness. The greater the sin, the greater the pathos, the more moving the Happily Ever After.

After the rape, Clayton’s remorse and self-loathing are meant to redeem him. Whitney knows that in her relationship with him she has pushed all his buttons. She is not apologizing for being his victim. She’s apologizing that her behaviour has brought their relationship to this point. When she realizes that he didn’t act out of jealousy but anger, to hurt her, she does a turn around and becomes very angry herself.

Not that jealousy should justify rape. In terms of the relationship, the forgiveness that followed the rape was necessary for the turnaround – that he had been so cruel to her broke him. It’s catharsis on a grand scale. Had JM ended the novel where they reconciled it would have been a more satisfying read. Instead, she shows a Whitney who has come of age and a Clayton who has regressed in that he still can’t trust her and we suffer another reversal in their relationship.

Whitney, My Love, is a product of the time in which it was written. It’s a classic in that it kick-started a whole sub-genre – long form erotic Regency romance. How big is this sub-genre? There is an entire podcast dedicated to it.**

1987 industry responses back cover, Corgi edition

Readers’ responses to Whitney tell another story. The rewrite is 20 years old. Was it necessary? What is obvious is that romance readers have changed. What they want from the genre and why they read it has changed.

Whitney, My Love is a plot driven melodrama with plenty of reversals and game-play with high emotional stakes. Judith Mc Naught’s novels made us laugh, cry, aroused us, angered us and cleansed us. They were cathartic. The characters were flawed: they sinned and forgave and grew. Everything you needed to know or feel was in the text. You didn’t have to analyse the plot, just read along and you’d be treated to a rollercoaster ride that purged the heebie-jeebies left over from your real life.

Readers since then mightn’t appreciate it, at best, or find Whitney repugnant because they see in Romance a safe escape. The huge emotional downs have been removed from a lot of historical romances and they are now more often a feel good romp through an imagined historic landscape that has been whitewashed of the nasty bits. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what Whitney is about.

Before you read Whitney, My Love or judge it, may I suggest you read Hardy’s 1891, Tess of D’Ubervilles first? Yes, one is pulp fiction and the other literature, but I’m sure you get my point.

*******************************************************************************

*Chapter 13 is a charming one of courtship that’s just gorgeous.

**If you like Romance you don’t need to be a Regency fan to like the Tea’n’Strumpets podcast. The girls’ joy in the genre and what they do is infectious. They give you the plot of the featured novel and then analyse it. Their opinions and concerns have given my eyeballs occasion to roll back in their sockets,however, I look forward to listening to their show every Friday. They are lots of fun AND safe. I can’t imagine them ever reviewing a novel like Whitney.

2. Who Reads Romance?

After a break of 25 years or more from Romance, the genre had changed. Not surprising if you consider what, or rather who, I had missed. Names including the most obvious:
Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, Lisa Kleypas, Julia London, Julia Quinn, Susan Mallery, Diana Gabaldon, Lynn Kurland, E.L. James, Stephenie Meyer, Jill Shalvis, JoJo Moyes, Paullina Simons, Sophie Kinsella, Sophie Jordan… and many more I’m still yet to discover.

I went from Kathleen E. Woodiwiss to Sarah MacLean overnight. Culture shock!

Some of what I was missed

The romances of my adolescence were historical epics defined by physical perils and misunderstandings and teenage heroines surely more stupid than I was – indignant, I would never have made the decisions those 17 year old heroines made when I was reading about them at age 14 – and randy males unable to curtail the lust stoked in their loins by those ravish-worthy ingénues.

These stories were plot driven historical melodramas where emotional loss and suffering was occasioned by physical separation – abduction, transportation, imprisonment or parental/guardian interference. Misunderstandings, prejudice, pig-headedness and a failure to stop and think actions through led the heroine into a den of thieves, a hold of pirates, enslavement by Vikings etc., until the hero, against his better judgement but guided by the allure of his lissome lover saved her from the lascivious clutches of alpha men that she detested only to succumb to his own alpha-bump and grind seduction.

Adventure and sexual awakening were key. The world building of the novels provided a structure with restraints its readership could relate to despite the 200 year or more displacement. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s when these stories were written, women didn’t feel as free to engage with their own sexuality as the readers of novels today. Scenes enacted in the bedroom, while conveying meaning, still held something back.

The restraints of the historical time period were written into encounters. Women were set upon by lustful heroes and were often seduced or cajoled, coerced or forced before succumbing to their own desires. This would lead to the awakening. Women didn’t go looking for the initial encounter. Considering the importance of reputation, they made sense from a historical point of view. Repetitive? Yep. Did it seem to perpetuate a “when-no-means-yes” mentality? To an outsider, possibly. Did the reader engage in the romance? Book sales tell the story – in the millions.

Flash forward to 2019. The women are older (than 17), smarter, independent, assertive and unabashedly curious and perhaps even demanding. The stories are shorter. The cohesiveness and truth of a character’s actions are important to the plot. Banter has taken the place of physical adventure. The concerns over reputation are given a nod but written around so the heroine can be found in a compromising situation or even demand to be “ruined” in a brothel and get away with it. And the sex scenes are often more explicitly drawn. Did I mention the language?

What I missed out on and how I felt catching up.

Historic Romances today are charming for different reasons than those early novels. The language and constraints of society in the sense in which Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontes and Tolstoy wrote about are missing. If you want to read a Regency romance that rings true to the world depicted in the 19th Century classics, better go back and read a classic. These stories are uplifting and entertaining but despite the accuracy in historical detail the world they depict is more 21st Century than 19th.

My fellow 1970s-80s romance bookworms can’t get into today’s historic romances. Today’s stories don’t pack the same punch, they bemoan. The emotional rollercoaster is missing. Why? Shorter length? The emotional stakes are lessened when the sins committed aren’t as vile? There is less to forgive and absolve by the end? While the sex scenes can be more daring the relationships are safer? The heroines are strong to begin with and so seem not to risk their emotional security as much?

On the other hand, I’ve been listening to various podcasts and reading about the genre and trying to understand what the… ahem… new… ahem, ahem… readers of romance enjoy. It seems they can’t enjoy the old stuff. Didn’t the men fall out of the trees in those old stories? And the women? Where is the entrepreneur? The secret author? The gainfully occupied aristocratic lady? And not a bluestocking among them! Why? What kind of feminist recap can you make out of those old heroines? Where’s the banter? The laughs? The mature-minded heroine?

It left me wondering who romance novels are targeted towards today. Is it possible for romance to have true historic integrity and satisfy the needs of all generations of readers? And what about contemporary romance?

Who Reads Romance?

  1. Who Reads Romance?

I love to think that I’m an indiscriminate reader: I’ll read anything that crosses my sight, particularly if it’s soft bound. Give me history, religion, biography, science, mystery, and fiction in all of its genres. My tastes have moved, either as I have exhausted a genre of its tropes – at one stage I could predict an Agatha Christie ending – or got hooked on something else.

As a teenager I could toss-up between mystery and romance for being my favourite, but romance would always edge out Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I was such an avid romance reader that as I read Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Du Maurier, Twain, Ruth M. Arthur, Ruth Park, L.M. Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, S.E. Hinton, I also snuck away to read Kathleen Woodiwiss, Johanna Lindsay and Judith McNaught.

Reading Historical Romance was a guilty pleasure that I savoured. I loved the flouncy dresses; the adventure – those early historical romances were plot driven and improbable like an Errol Flynn movie. I gushed with the adulation of the heroic male protagonist. I could well relate to the framework of a less permissive society than the broader community I grew up in the margins of. And, of course there was the sex.

Sometime in my early 20s I stopped reading romance. Did I have to go to university to suddenly come to the realisation that the ending was always predictable? No, I read them because they were safe and titillating at once. Why stop? I think life got too busy and once I had a car I had a lot less time to read. When I did read for pleasure it was in a variety of genres.

About a year and a half ago I was in a place where I needed respite from the cares plaguing my head. I found myself standing before a long forgotten collection of Judith McNaught novels. It had been twenty-five years since I read the genre. Would I enjoy it again? She was my favourite author. I started with Paradise, a contemporary, then Perfect, another contemporary, then Kingdom of Dreams – the absolute favourite historical romance of my adolescence. I was hooked. I picked up her classic Regencies, Something Wonderful and Almost Heaven and they were. I laughed, I cried (in Kingdom Of Dreams) and I fell in love like a teenager again.

Returning the books (not Kingdom of Dreams) I revisited the collection and gambled on Kathleen Woodiwiss. Even as a teenager I didn’t have a lot of luck rereading her books – it was hit and miss. Unable to resist a story of mistaken identity and masked men, I had to read A Rose in Winter. Still magic. I tried a few other authors. Johanna Lindsay was hit and miss, while Shirlee Busbee was a definite, no.

It was time to read something new, but where to start?

“Don’t bother. Kathleen Woodiwiss, Janelle Taylor – they knew how to write.”

“They don’t write them like they used to.”

“Weak, very weak.”

“Too short. The great passion isn’t there. Have you re-read the Wolf and The Dove. No comparison.”

 Was the advice I was given by the readers of that classic collection. Tentatively I went online to see what was out there, what I’d missed, whether Judith McNaught was still writing and if not, if I could find another author I enjoyed as much…