Heartthrobs by Carol Dyhouse

Reviewed by Harriet

Subtitled ‘A History of Women and Desire’, this book explores the fields of literature, film and popular romance. Ranging from the early nineteenth century to the present day, the book sets out to show how, as women’s position in society changed, so did their idealisation of men.

What did women want? asked Sigmund Freud, founding father of psychoanalysis and excavator of the human mind. Despite some thirty years probing the dark mysteries of the feminine soul, he confessed himself stumped for an answer. The question still intrigues: are women’s desires completely different from men’s? How far have their needs and wants been shaped or blocked by history?

These are the questions Carol Dyhouse sets out to answer in this fascinating and highly readable book. The journey takes us from Byron through Rudolf Valentino, Elvis Presley, and David Cassidy to the twenty-first century boy bands, from Jane Austen and the Brontes through women’s magazines, Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon.

The story begins with a survey of writing by and for women at the turn of the twentieth century. In a period in which the ‘woman question’ had become primary, young women were keenly aware that they must somehow fulfil their conflicting desires for independence and for a happy and satisfying relationship. Novelists and story-writers of the era were able to be much more open than ever before about the realities of female desire, something which was highly disturbing to Edwardian patriarchs. If this were not enough, Marie Stopes’ Married Love (1918), ‘crashed like a juggernaut into the walls of English reticence’, stressing the need for women to have orgasms and blaming their failure to do so on the incompetence of men. Horrified men cried out against such ideas, saying that Stopes wanted to make women no better than prostitutes, and from this was born the concept of the ‘vampire woman’: ‘You have made my home a hell’, one man wrote to Stopes, ‘I cannot meet the demands of my wife now that she knows’.

Vampire women seem to have been almost entirely a terrifying male fantasy, however. What women secretly wanted, if the popularity of Ethel M. Hull’s 1919 novel The Sheik and the subsequent film with Rudolf Valentino is anything to go by, was a strong masterful man to sweep them off their feet. Possibly, though, this fantasy may have had something to do with the fact that women had always been expected to appear gentle, pure and passive: to be overwhelmed by a man such as the Sheik (or indeed many of the other masterful heroes who have continued to appear in popular series like those of Mills and Boon) allows them to be absolved of responsibility in a sexual relationship. As the century progressed, though, writers became bolder in depicting women with ‘unbridled passions’. Famously this is exemplified in two mid-century novels, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) and Katherine Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944) and the subsequent two successful films. Both depicted fast women ‘of appetite and resourcefulness’, but Amber in particular caused a huge scandal, being banned in fourteen US states and condemned by the Catholic Church. Films, too, such as the popular The Wicked Lady (1944) showed strong, demanding, passionate women who set out to fulfil their desires.

But what kind of man do women really want?  Dyhouse runs through the gamut in the central chapters of the book. So we have ‘Prince Charming, Cavaliers, Regency Beaux’ (looks, class, valour plus of course blood and noble birth – Darcy, of course, but living heroes were, and are, frequently idealised in this category – Nelson and Wellington, for example, were extremely popular); ‘Dark Princes, Foreign Powers’ (think Byronic heroes, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ as one of his lovers described him, or Georgette Heyer’s irresistible rakes); ‘Soulmates’ (soulfulness, eternal love, intimacy – doctors popular here, or  priests even if, or especially if, celibate) and finally ‘Power’ (‘masterful’ men capable of overpowering women).  

This chapter raises some interesting questions about women’s need, or desire, to be dominated by powerful, sometimes sadistic, men, as for example in the Shades of Grey series. This is a sign perhaps that despite the proliferation of strong female heroines in recent decades, many women still enjoy fantasies of subservience to powerful men. Dyhouse argues, however, that today’s heroines, whether in print or on the screen, tend to be independent both economically and emotionally, and capable of choice to ‘make mistakes, break relationships, and to start afresh’.

The final chapter, ‘Sighing for the Moon’, debates the pros and cons of dreaming of an ideal lover. If in the past these dreams centred on the heroes of novels, young women in recent decades have focused on celebrities (David Cassidy, One Direction). But the continued popularity of romance novels such as those of Mills and Boon suggests that there are still many women for whom the dominant male continues to hold a powerful charge. In the end, Dyhouse can only speculate about a future in which

men and women see each other less as gendered objects onto which they project their own desires and longings, and instead, strive to relate to each other respectfully as individuals and as human beings.

I found this book tremendously interesting and useful. Dyhouse combines impressive learning and research with a highly approachable style and a nice command of witty one-liners. There are excellent endnotes and a very full bibliography, and illustrations too. Very highly recommended.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Carol Dyhouse, Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire (Oxford University Press, 2017). 978-0198765837, 288pp., hardback.

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One Comment

  1. Having also read another review by Hayley, the fact you both loved this book makes it a definite for my wishlist.

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