Romance novels are usually dismissed as the pulpy refuse of literature. When you think of the genre, you probably imagine the over-the-top covers with bare-chested men, the ahistorical “historical” settings and time periods, or the cringe-worthy euphemisms for genitalia. Most people who publicly mock romance novels have never actually read one, or at least not read more than the one they nicked from their grandmother’s guest room when bored as a teenager.
Even if you are a fan of romance novels, I doubt you think of it as a progressive literary space. Most romances, even the best written and most creative, follow a strict formula of headstrong woman meets unruly playboy, and amid much conflict and confusion, they tame each other and settle into heterosexual, monogamous happy ending usually involving a proposal.
Romance novels are also wonderfully dangerous books. The best take advantage of the trappings of the genre in order to explore progressive issues underneath all the lace and seduction. Every so often an author skillfully delivers a necessary message in the harmless-looking package of low culture.
Hidden within yet another silly cover in which a swole man cradles a woman in a drooping white gown, Maya Rodale’s What a Wallflower Wants is a masterpiece. Only paragraphs into its prologue, I grabbed a pen from my nightstand and began to frantically underline sentences and dialogue. Eighteen-year-old Prudence, a young woman just beginning her first season in London’s aristocracy, has just been violently raped by the older brother of one of her classmates during a ball. As was customary during the early 1800s—and is still too common today—she has been taught nothing about sexual pleasure, violence or consent. She is devastated and “ruined,” and she spends years evading the attention of men, terrified to be victimized again, battling PTSD alone.
I knew What a Wallflower Wants was a romance novel about a rape survivor when I ordered it, but I had low expectations when I picked it up. Too often the narrative of survivors in pop culture is depoliticized, blames victims and implies that they are lucky if they still manage a “happy” ending. But Rodale has written a thoughtful, well-researched and explicitly political book about how patriarchal societies fail women time and time again. “An unfortunate link between the Regency era and our present day is the prevalence of sexual violence and the stigma and suffering of its victims,” she writes in her author’s note. “Though What a Wallflower Wants is a historical novel, it was influenced by the tragic and heartbreaking stories of sexual assault that are in the news far too frequently these days.”
What a Wallflower Wants was published in 2014, several years before our current reckoning of sexual violence following the election of Donald Trump and the exposure of Harvey Weinstein. But this humble romance novel can teach us a lot about how to honor the experiences of survivors, stand up to perpetrators and acknowledge the flawed social norms that allow rape and harassment to thrive.
Not once does the narrative call into question Prudence’s choices or emotions. She struggles to understand whether or not she was responsible for the violence done to her, oscillating between anger, loss, shame and fear. While she at times blames herself, the novel never blames her for that which is absolutely not her fault. She shares the same reasons most survivors do not speak out about their assault: she fears retribution from her attacker, the entitled Lord Dudley, heir to the Marquis of Scarbrough, whom custom would have her marry if she came forward. Without her virginity (another concept the novel tears apart), she believes herself to be worthless and without prospects. She is convinced no one will understand her, and that her closest friends and family will judge her. And she believes she is alone.
Prudence is not the only main character. We also have John Castleton, whom she encounters on the road after a doomed engagement ends with her being thrown out of a carriage by her fiancé of convenience in an attempt to fend off a robber (most men in this book do not come off well, and Rodale portrays the broad spectrum across which men devalue and abuse women). John Castleton has secrets of his own, as—major spoiler alert—he’s actually a footman posing as a Viscount to make enough money to support his mother and sister. His lifetime as a servant means he’s witnessed how aristocratic men victimize female servants, including his sister. While John poses as a proper gentleman, he embodies a true, healthy masculinity rooted in respect for other people. He constantly reiterates that “a gentleman honors a lady’s wishes” and “he would sooner cut off his arm than hurt a woman.”
In What a Wallflower Wants, true manhood is restrained, respectful and supportive of women. No matter how much John desires Prudence, he does nothing without her explicit invitation. At the beginning of their friendship, he keeps his feelings to himself rather than make her uncomfortable. “Of course he wanted her. But he could tell she didn’t want him, and that was enough to keep his blood cool and flowing to his brain and not elsewhere.” Not only does he respect her disinterest; her disinterest in him is a deal-breaker. Where other romance novels depict men pursing women despite their protests, John quickly picks up on Prudence’s struggle with trauma and offers only support until she asks for more.
Even as Prudence softens and falls for John, he insists on following her lead. He works exceptionally hard to make her feel safe by his side. With his help, she processes and unburdens herself of her trauma, confiding in him her memories and fears. “Don’t be sorry,” he tells her after she has a panic attack following an intimate moment.
“Something horrible happened to you, Prudence. You didn’t deserve it and you don’t deserve the repercussions, and you shouldn’t be sorry because of them. It’s not your fault. None of it. It’s fine if you’re afraid of me. You should be—not because I’m going to hurt you but because of what you have experienced. But I’m just going to do everything I can to ease your fears and earn your trust.”
John is the rare romance novel hero who is not just dreamy but deeply empathetic, verbal and apparently well versed in trauma recovery.
He can also teach us a great deal about what being a gentleman means in 2017. In a climate where op-ed pages are in hysterics about how hard sexual harassment allegations will make it for men to flirt, John makes explicit consent sexy as all hell. Despite being a woke romance novel about rape culture, What a Wallflower Wants boasts several truly hot sex scenes. John’s plea of “Tell me to stop” and Prudence’s reclaiming of the word “yes” make the erotic deeply cathartic and even instructive. This is a novel that is aware of its educational value as an erotic text. Rodale writes in her author’s note:
“Romance novels are an escape, a fantasy, a pleasure. But these novels are also inspiring and empowering, and they have the potential to change hearts and minds with portrayals of two individuals finding healing and happiness in love. I wrote this story to perhaps provide hope. And as with every romance novel I have written, I write the change I want to see: relationships based on mutual trust, respect, and love.”
Mission accomplished, Ms. Rodale.
Rounding out the cast of main characters is Dudley himself, a rapist so smarmy and believable I felt as if I’d met him in line at a frat house keg. The book offers many glimpses at Dudley’s interior and what motivates his violence against women, but it is not sympathetic or equivocating. Dudley believes the world belongs to him as a wealthy, rich man with a title. He does not fear the consequences of his actions simply because he has never faced any. His father does not respect him, and he feels powerless much of the time despite having all the power in the world. In order to reclaim his lost power and masculinity, he rapes women who cannot fight him off and who cannot come forward about his behavior because society values him more. Dudley is every over-paid Hollywood executive who preys upon young actresses, every insecure comedian who humiliates women to feel more important. The abuse of women by cruel, selfish men is timeless.
I expected Dudley’s comeuppance to be a strong beating at John’s hand, and yes, Dudley does get the shit kicked out of him by Prudence’s lover. At one point Prudence herself kicks Dudley in the balls in the middle of another ball. But where What a Wallflower Wants bucks romance novel tradition is in its unwavering and remarkable pursuit of justice. It is not enough for Dudley to feel pain: something must be done about the sexist culture that allowed him free reign.
It is Prudence, with the help of her two female friends, who gives Dudley what he deserves. After confiding her assault in Olivia and Emma, she realizes there could be more women raped by Dudley and other men in fine society. She goes to the most popular newspaper in London and submits her account of what Dudley did, naming him and his crimes the way so many women have named their attackers in the last few weeks. “What if they say that boys will be boys, reformed rakes make the best husbands, and then you see him around at all the parties?” the publisher asks Prudence, genuinely concerned for her well-being if her story were read. She responds, “That is a risk I shall have to take… I thought you would understand a woman’s voice needing to be heard.”
While there are some who read the article and cast aspersions on Prudence’s character, most stand in support of this young woman’s bravery. In a moving moment, the reader gets to witness other women, other survivors, reading Prudence’s account and realize they are not alone. Hostesses remove Dudley from invite lists to upcoming balls, having always suspected he was a bit off. Building on the novel’s focus on class, we see footmen barring his entry from houses, understanding “that if Dudley had done such an unspeakable crime to one of his own class, then he very likely took advantage of lower-class girls too.” Dudley’s own father, one of the most powerful men in society, calls him a disgrace and sends him off to likely die in the West Indies on commission.
The most striking scene in the book comes just before Dudley’s exit. He goes to his men’s club, expecting to find his Regency-era bros ready to take his side and defend his behavior as a man’s God-given right to dominate. Instead, men rise one by one to block the door. Their reason? “This is a club for gentlemen.” A true gentlemen does not harass, abuse or rape women. Period.
What a Wallflower Wants is a fantasy of romance, justice and rising feminist consciousness. It is fiction, and its relentless dismantling of how gender and class norms hurt victims while protecting perpetrators is satisfying and utopian. But this book is worth reading for its rare depiction of a rape survivor falling in love and rediscovering sexual pleasure, and for its absolute refusal to let Prudence’s rapist off the hook. Maya Rodale has written a glowing example of the power of romance novels to fight rape culture while entertaining and understanding their readers.
Prudence declares “Me too” in a public newspaper with the support of the kind, sexy man she loves. Rodale writes of a world not unlike our own, grappling with the how’s and why’s of assault. It isn’t quite escapism. It leaves you more aware of the environment in which we live, but with a bit of hope and faith in the allies, lovers and journalists determined to fight for a better world for women and survivors.
Pick up a copy today. What a Wallflower Wants is now $5.39 on Amazon.