March 01, 2023

Mr. B Speaks! (excerpt)


The category romance does not enjoy a revered history in intellectual circles. As with much of popular culture, the academic world seems embarrassed even by its own pleasures.

And yet from time immemorial, the value of the romance novel has been revealed through the affection and admiration of its readers. Published in 1740, Pamela by Samuel Richardson proved so popular that the author had to battle the equivalent of fan fiction in order to retain the rights to his own work.

Although Jane Austen retained greater control over the books that made her a household name (and subsequently created an entire Hollywood industry), Pride & Prejudice has been “owned,” used, interpreted, and absorbed by generations of readers, writers, and critics.

Despite the common but lazy dismissal of the genre as “derivative,” Pamela and Pride & Prejudice are distinct and unique works. Published decades apart, they reflect shifts in class dynamics, cultural attitudes, and the evolving styles of narrative fiction (still an experimental form when Richardson set pen to paper) between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

More concretely, the two romances utilize different approaches to their protagonists. Pamela concentrates on the hero and heroine’s mutual seduction: the literal seduction of Pamela; the mental seduction of Mr. B. Pride & Prejudice focuses on the hero and heroine’s discovery of each other within, despite, and through their shared social milieu.

Both novels center on the romantic relationship, asking ageless questions: What motivates attraction? Can social and familial differences be overcome? What personalities are most compatible? What makes a good marriage? What role does respect have in a relationship? Can hurts and offenses be understood and forgiven? Who is not an appropriate mate?

These questions lie at the heart of our everyday experiences, grand and mundane, communal and domestic. They signify individuality, female and male. The romance is the ultimate introspective literature, an exploration of human motives, doubts, needs, wants, and, always, choices.

Intellectually approved or not, any romance reader will tell you the truth: romances matter, because they plumb the most important questions that trouble the human heart.

Chapter 1: Day One

Committee for Literary Fairness v. Mr. B

Where’s Pamela?”

Mr. B scanned the oak-paneled courtroom, ignoring the other occupants as he searched for a slender young woman with fine, straight hair and a direct gaze. Mellow spring sunlight streamed through the high windows, brightening the varnished oak walls, floor, and tables. Despite the informal arrangement—two curved tables facing a slightly raised desk—Mr. B didn’t feel out of place, even though he was standing in a non-fictional courtroom three hundred years later than his own fictional time.

Except that he was here without his wife.

“Are they seizing Pamela from the novel as well?” he asked Mr. Shorter.

Mr. Shorter, his attorney, sat at the left-hand table. Mr. B had asked for Mr. Shorter, even though he was an attorney, not a barrister, and unaccustomed to arguing before judges. Mr. Shorter was the right choice, being absolutely loyal to Mr. B’s interests.

Mr. Shorter shrugged.

Mr. B also shrugged and slumped into the chair beside Mr. Shorter, shifting his lanky body into a comfortable position. He’d heard—all fictional characters had heard—about these hearings. Characters were yanked from their novels into real-world courthouses, where they were questioned regarding various literary crimes. Upon judgment, they were returned to their novels or banished to new ones: Mr. B wondered if Malory’s whiny Launcelot was shivering on Crusoe’s island; if Bunyan’s bad giants were being needled by the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels.

“I hope they’ve left Odysseus alone,” he muttered.

“What?” Mr. Shorter said.

Mr. B shook his head. He’d never imagined he would be snatched from his novel. He was a loving husband, reasonable father, responsible landowner, plausible diplomat, and a damned good money manager. He’d committed no crimes. Perhaps he was here as a character witness for Tom Jones.

Seated at the right-hand table, members from the Committee for Literary Fairness glowered at Mr. B and Mr. Shorter.

The Committee for Literary Fairness boasted of its worthy goals to cleanse literature of bad role models, social apathy, defective marriages, and wrongful deaths— to cleanse literature of all social injustice, in fact. Mr. Rochester, the bigamist, would be transported to Nero Wolfe’s world and jailed; Fanny from Mansfield Park would get a much-needed infusion of self-esteem in a Toni Morrison novel; Scrooge would give up his money-grubbing ways and take a trip in a Jack Kerouac travelogue.

Today, the CLF planned to save the heroine of Pamela from her chauvinistic and overbearing husband. The CLF legal team included a psychologist, a CLF director, and a college professor.

The psychologist, Jerome Hatch, said, “He looks like a banker!”

Mr. B, despite his unruly dark hair, could pass for an atypically mellow fund manager from the New York Stock Exchange.

“When did they extract him from the novel?” Mr. Hatch said.

“The fourth year of the marriage,” explained Dr. Naomi Matchel, the CLF director. “Pamela recently gave birth to their third child; the family was planning a trip abroad.”

“Three children in four years!” exclaimed the college professor, Gary Trame. “Couldn’t they have got to her sooner?”

“I’m afraid literature judges frown on that, Mr. Trame.”

“Call me Gary. All my students do.”

“Gary. Even though we know what’s going to happen, they say we have to let the characters commit the wrongful acts before being judged.”

Dr. Matchel and Gary shook their heads at the absurdity of applying due process and the rule of law to situations best decided by professionally-trained literary analysts. Dr. Matchel said sententiously, “Oh, well, it’s the only system we have.”

Mr. Hatch said, “People need a venue to air their grievances.”

“Yes,” Dr. Matchel said and gave the psychologist a wry glance. “I’ve noticed how much you enjoy testifying, Mr. Hatch. You aren’t Dr. Phil, you know.”

Mr. Hatch shrank into his chair and peered at his notes.

“We live in a culture of mass-production; people have been brainwashed by big business,” Gary proclaimed.

“Absolutely,” Dr. Matchel agreed. “Literature has gotten so commercial. Pride & Prejudice hearings have to be held in the largest courtrooms.”

Both Gary and Dr. Matchel sniffed and glanced around the modest-sized courtroom. Only two people sat on the audience benches.

Gary jerked his head at them. “Isn’t this hearing closed?”

“They have press passes.”

The two audience members with press passes weren’t members of the press. They were an eighteenth-century aficionado and a representative from Readers for Authorial Intent. The aficionado, Leslie Quinn, was a writer of popular non-fiction (bestseller: What Frances Burney Wore and Daniel Defoe Traded). She had a doctorate in British literature but preferred writing to teaching. The RAI representative, Rupert Lonquist, was a volunteer at his local library.

Lonquist was surprised at being called in. “I always considered this novel rather innocuous,” he told Leslie Quinn.

The judicial committee had assigned Leslie Quinn and Lonquist to the hearing at the request of the presiding judge, the Honorable Judge Arthur Hardcastle. Judge Hardcastle usually handled twentieth-century murder mysteries; Agatha Christie was one of his favorites. However, the CLF had lately gotten obsessed with eighteenth and nineteenth-century characters and judges were being reassigned to hearings.

“Fine, fine,” Judge Hardcastle had said when asked. “But I want some non-academics there—you know, people who actually read.

He got them.

Judge Hardcastle arrived in the courtroom in a sweep of wrinkled robes, followed by his clerk. He motioned the clerk to a seat at the end of the right-hand table and sat at the raised desk that functioned as his bench.

He noticed the characters from Pamela had stood immediately as he entered, the others slowly following suit, and reminded himself not to form opinions too early.

“Let’s hear from the Petitioners,” he said when everyone had sat down.

Dr. Matchel did the honors: “Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth-century novel told in letters from the eponymous heroine’s point of view. She begins the story as a maid in the house of the Respondent. During the course of the story, he sexually harasses, kidnaps, and assaults her. He then forces her to marry him. Based on Mr. B’s actions both before and after the marriage, the CLF petitions to have Pamela settled permanently in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.”

At the Respondent’s table, Mr. B slowly unslouched.

The judge said, “Mr. Shorter?”

Mr. Shorter stood. An eighteenth-century attorney to an English gentleman, he mostly managed land deeds. But he was more than game to argue before the bar as a barrister. “The court should reject this petition. Mr. and Mrs. B have a comfortable, happy marriage.”

The judge said, “Is Mrs. B in the courtroom?”

“No,” said Dr. Matchel. “We received an Order for Protection on Pamela’s behalf from Judge Kline.”

Judge Hardcastle nodded absently, but Mr. B leaned forward, shoulders taut. His eyes darted from the judge to Dr. Matchel. He called out, “Protection from what?”

“As stated in our petition, Pamela needs protection from the emotional and physical damage caused by her relationship with Mr. B.”

“Damage?” Mr. B said. “My wife is not damaged. She’s happy. Satisfied. She just gave birth to our third child.”

Dr. Matchel didn’t respond. At the CLF table, Gary rolled his eyes and Mr. Hatch shook his head.

The judge leaned back in his leather chair and studied Mr. B. Literature hearings were generally informal for the very good reason that fictional characters—ranging from King Lear (accusations of parental abuse) to the Cheshire Cat (accusations of enigmatic obnoxiousness)—were generally unfamiliar with contemporary standards of jurisprudence.

The judge said, “Did you kidnap her?”

A faint flush crept across Mr. B’s cheekbones, but he looked more amused than embarrassed.

“My courtship of Pamela was rather—active. But I did not force her to marry me. She accepted my proposal.”

“After you brainwashed her,” cried Gary.

The judge leveled a scowl at the zealous college professor and other CLF members. Character defendants might not understand court etiquette, but the real people there certainly did.

“I think,” the judge said when the CLF team had sniffed itself into put-upon quiescence, “we had better start from the beginning. How did your courtship begin, Mr. B?”

Mr. B’s shoulders relaxed. He sat back, propping one foot against the table crossbar. “I would like to clarify: I may have tried to seduce Pamela, but I never lied to her. Never very much, anyway.”

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Mr. B Speaks! and A Man of Few Words can be read together in The Gentleman and the Rake.

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