Pleasure and Frustration: One Feminist's Reading of Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign

Body: 

The books that interest me most are generally those that can accommodate more than one absolute cut-and-dried interpretation without distorting the narrative's basic "facts." Readings vary from reader to reader for a wide range of reasons, but I suspect that the widest discrepancies in reading depend on whether the text in question is read ironically or not, and that perhaps the trickiest aspect of this is that authors either do or do not intend their work ironically, giving one the impression that, where irony is concerned, there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to read that can be determined by what the author intended. Although I write fiction myself (and often find my work "misread"), I'm not so certain that I agree with the notion that the author of the text is the sole determining authority where irony is concerned. In the discussion that follows, I am going to assume that my ironic reading of A Civil Campaign is interesting whether or not Lois McMaster Bujold intended this book to be read in the way that I read it. My pleasure in this book is contingent on reading it ironically, admittedly because of my overwhelming wish to read it subversively, rather than as a reinforcement of the status quo; my frustration with this book arises from my lurking suspicion that not only is it possible that no one else in the world is likely to read this book as I do, but that my reading entails a massive amount of fudging self-deception. I will declare openly, at the outset, that whether my ironic reading is warranted is an open question, one I have not been able to answer to my own satisfaction.

1.
The story that A Civil Campaign tells can be summed up, very simply, as the comedic tale of Miles Vorkosigan's "campaign" to "capture" Ekaterin Vorsoisson's heart and hand in marriage, a tale which the novel's various subplots echo, support, and offset. What happens in the book is never ambiguous or in question; how one is to understand the formal play of genre conventions and narrative structures, however, is. Given the novel's so straightforward, romance-convention driven plot, it might seem fussy and neurotic to look for ambiguities and complications in the formal structures of the narrative. But Bujold herself very directly drops clues about how to read her A Civil Campaign, clues to which, as an experienced reader, I know that it will be in my best interests to attend. It is these clues that made me think, in the first place, that I should or could read this book as something other than a straightforward boy-meets, courts, and-marries-girl story.

Bujold drops her clues before we even start reading the text of the novel, with her title, subtitle, and dedication. The latter reads: "For Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy-- long may they rule." These words strike me more as a statement of homage than of formal dedication. I don't think anyone would argue that "Jane" doesn't refer to Jane Austen, "Charlotte" to Charlotte Bronte, and "Georgette" to Georgette Heyer, all of whom are dead and unknown to Bujold personally-- except as the authors of certain clearly beloved texts. I have understood "Dorothy" to refer to Dorothy Sayers, but another reader with whom I've discussed this book assumes that "Dorothy" refers to Dorothy Dunnett, whom I have not yet read (which suggests, of course, that my reading may be aberrant on yet another ground). My take is that Bujold intends these familiar names to draw our attention to the texts, characters, and conventions these authors gave life to in their novels.

The subtitle, Bujold's next most obvious clue, is "A Comedy of Biology and Manners"-- telling us that we are not to read this as we would read any other Miles Vorkosigan "adventure," but as something different-- perhaps even as different from all the other Miles books as Ethan of Athos is-- and also that we are to read it as being different, in its own way, from other "comedies of manners" because an extra noun, "Biology," shares the spotlight with "Manners." In other words, the subtitle outright promises us a hybrid.

Finally, the title, A Civil Campaign, gives us a bit of a pun (particularly for a book published by Baen, which is almost synonymous with "Military SF"), a bit of the flavor of Georgette Heyer, and a signal directing our attention to one of the novel's most important subtexts.

For me, as a reader, it's not irrelevant that it's been nearly thirty years since I've read a Georgette Heyer novel. (I date my last taste of Heyer prior to my reading Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch in the summer of 1971, which laying bare the sexual politics operating in Heyer's novels, irrevocably spoiled Heyer for me.) So when I talk about her conventions, I'm going on very old memory, memory that is for that reason likely to be faulty, and memory formed well before I began to concern myself with the structures of fiction. Austen I'm adequately up on, and to a lesser extent Bronte, but there is, to my perception, less Austen and Bronte in this novel than there is Heyer and Sayers. I don't know about Heyer's ideological orientation, but I know that both Sayers and Bronte were at least somewhat feminist. Austen is harder to pin down; it's been fairly well worked out that although she fell a good deal to the right of Mary Wollstonecraft (and Wollstonecraft's father, Godwin) along the political spectrum, she was influenced by some of Wollstonecraft's political writing (and Godwin's, as well), which may have helped her to craft her own, differently-oriented but certainly sharply political critique addressing what scholars refer to as the "regency problem." More importantly, Austen allowed her heroines to speak with a freedom (and allowed other women characters to so speak) that she never allowed to herself-- or to any other woman, however privileged, in her circle. Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse would have found themselves socially ostracized in Austen's real life; Fannie Price was certainly closer to the norm that Austen and her social circle lived by than any other Austen heroine. The fact that Austen allowed herself to fantasize in print a remarkable verbal freedom for women and took care that none of her heroines had brothers on the scene to force them into the routine, unthinking self-abnegation that Austen herself practiced (and expected other women to practice) encourages one to perceive at least a slight sympathy with feminist thinking.

All four of these writers created strong, smart, and desirable heroines who fall in love with strong, usually powerful and wealthy men and find themselves nudged into asserting themselves and struggling against both their social circumstances and the bad attitudes or past mistakes of the heroes. And in the work of all four writers, love triumphs. But beyond sharing this basic similarity in characters and plot arc, the novels of these writers are not so similar. Austen, for instance, as opposed to the other three, argued fiercely against "sensibility"; in particular, she allowed only men of sense to win the heroine, while punishing men of sensibility (and any sort of emotional display by the heroes, as well). The main tension in Austen's stories is produced by the hero's struggling to maintain social restraint while evidencing emotional expression-- an almost impossible challenge. (Needless to say, this anti-sensibility construction of masculinity would make poor box office in the 1990s, such that screen adaptations have had to reinvent Austen's heroes out of nearly whole cloth.) Bujold borrows from all four-- and thus creates another sort of hybrid (besides, that is, the Biology + Manners and the Miles + Manners hybrids). Creating a hybrid form is tricky business for any writer; doing so while paying homage to four very different writers with very different styles poses, perhaps, the ultimate challenge.

But there's yet another kind of hybrid to be found in this novel. To return to my allusion to Greer's critique of Heyer: while Bujold has shown a mildly feminist face in her previous Miles books, in A Civil Campaign her feminism is downright and unequivocal. I believe that Bujold is my age or (just) slightly older; it is highly likely that although she herself may not have read the Greer book, she has at least been indirectly affected by its influence. All through the 1970s feminists worried about the sexual politics of popular romances. (In fact, we worried about the sexual politics of all heterosexual relationships in fiction.) While most of the earlier critiques have been softened (or even reversed, by way of the stealth anti-feminist moves of many 1990s feminist academics), their effects have been felt-- resulting in the modulation of romance conventions to accommodate heroines pursuing careers, make a woman's "no" actually mean "no" (unlike with Heyer's heroines), and have the heroes truly respect the heroines (and not simply "adore" them). (I gather that current genre romances are more in the vein of Austen, Bronte, and Sayers than in the vein of Heyer: probably since these more "modern" attitudes-- excepting careers for women in Austen-- can all be found in these earlier books, in however attenuated a form.) As I see it, Bujold aims to combine a more forceful feminism with romance genre conventions in this book, with the result that her novel puts pressure on the very conventions she is borrowing and celebrating. It is this particular hybrid that I find most interesting in this book. It is what makes this novel, as I believe it is, acutely conscious of gender to an extent that was never true for Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, or even Dorothy.


2.
I find two different levels of gender consciousness in A Civil Campaign. On one level, I see the thematic problem that we might, taking Bujold's bold hint, trace back to Dorothy Sayers' depiction of Lord Peter's courtship of Harriet Vane (explored most extensively in Gaudy Night). For this book asks: can Ekaterin Vorsoisson develop as a "person" if she marries Lord Vorkosigan? Miles's task-- he thinks-- is to convince her that she can-- and still, at the same time, fill all the traditional role requirements of a powerful Vor lord's wife. His Betan mother is Bujold's Exhibit A-- though Miles apparently doesn't realize this himself, since he does his best to keep both of his parents from meeting Ekaterin until the very end of the book. And his Aunt Alys is Exhibit B. Exhibits A and B are neither perceived by Miles nor presented to Ekaterin as examples of how she can be all she can be as a person and be the ideal wife of an important Vor lord, too. Though Miles ignores Exhibits A and B, they are, however, examples presented to the book's readers-- perhaps even to its author, meant to reassure the feminists among us as to the potential for a woman taken in marriage by a Vor lord to be happy, fulfilled, and self-respecting.

So why is it that Miles does nothing to show Ekaterin how happy and fulfilled his mother and aunt are after decades of service as Vor wives and mothers? On considerable thought, my answer is that what remains unspoken-- perhaps even unspeakable-- among the book's characters proves essential for the comfort of those readers who are reading this book as a straight romance. See, I don't believe that the story could have been so comedically comfortable if Miles had considered the woman's side of the arrangement. The very way in which Miles repeatedly talks about his "campaign" to capture Ekaterin's hand in marriage objectifies, always, her value as a potential mate rather than considering what sort of value such a high-powered Vor marriage might hold for her. Early in the story, Miles' clone brother Lord Mark asks him if he is "choosing a wife or buying a horse" (97). Later, his father, Aral, after Miles and Aral have established Ekaterin's physical attractiveness, asks if she is "another passing fancy":

Or is she the one who will love my son forever and fiercely-- hold his household and estates with integrity-- stand beside him through danger, and dearth, and death-- and guide my grandchildren's hands when they light my funeral offering?" (297)

Curiously enough, this same masculinist point of view emerges when Ekaterin is questioning Simon Illyan about what kind of man Miles is. Such a conversation, one would presume, would be about Miles' fitness as a mate. But even then, just after Illyan has characterized Miles as a "great man," he describes Miles' "greatness" in such a way as to imply that it is really Ekaterin's fitness for marriage to this "great man" that is in question:

"I will say," Illyan went on, waving a thoughtful finger in the air, "he did always have the most remarkable knack for picking personnel. Either picking or making; I was never quite sure which. If he said someone was the person for the job, they proved to be so. One way or another. If he thinks you'd be a fine Lady Vorkosigan, he's undoubtedly right." (247)

By marrying her Miles Vorkosigan story to romance genre conventions, Bujold has overdetermined Miles' success in winning his bride, allowing the author to get away with weakness in this area of the story (a weakness that made the last fifty pages feel flat and predictable to me). She makes Miles squirm for having made a fool of himself, but he never really has to do anything to win Ekaterin. This treatment of the hero is reminiscent of Heyer's treatment of her heroes. More strikingly, Bujold has adapted both Cordelia (Miles' mother) and Lady Alys into true Heyer characters-- as she has done with Ivan, who is, of all of the usual Vor cast of characters, the most supremely suited for such an adaptation. Similarly, in a parallel plot, the narrative insists that Kareen can only become a full adult agent by pursuing her sexual relationship with Lord Mark. The basic problem in Kareen's case is her traditionalist father. In true Heyer fashion, Miles' mother takes care of him, too, and this gendered problem also simply vanishes like a puff of smoke-- without Kareen having to do anything further to achieve full adult agency. Like Miles' winning of Ekaterin, this is author-employed magic courtesy of genre convention.

While the narrative waves away these difficulties of gender, at the same time it shows us its main female character, Ekaterin, blaming herself for her own past oppression, presumably to persuade herself-- and us readers-- that married to a good man, and having "learned" from her past mistakes, sexual oppression can be no further concern. Early in the book, when Ekaterin is reflecting that the very thought of taking a new set of marital vows "made her want to run screaming," (60), she tells her aunt

The most horrible thought I have, looking back on it all, is that it wasn't all Tien's fault. I let him get worse and worse. If he'd chanced to marry a woman who would have stood up to him, who would have insisted...

"Your line of logic makes my head ache," her aunt observed mildly.

Ekaterin shrugged. "It's all moot now."

After a long moment of silence, the Professora asked curiously, "So what do you think of Miles?"

"He's all right. He doesn't make me cringe." (60)

The aunt's rejection of this logic is wonderfully soothing to a feminist sensibility-- on the first reading, at least. Though the Professora's not-so-subtle suggestion to the reader implies that Tien was simply a bad apple and therefore wholly and individually to blame for the misery he inflicted on Ekaterin, this passage holds out (to the reader) the promise that Ekaterin will eventually realize that she was sexually oppressed in submitting to the traditional Vor values her husband lived by and not simply a wimp submitting to a maladjusted semi-sadistic loser. This promise, however, is renounced only a few pages from the end of the book.

Either the world was not so huge and frightening a place as she'd once been led to believe, or else... she was not so small and helpless as she'd once been encouraged to imagine herself. If power was an illusion, wasn't weakness necessarily one also? (401)

Ekaterin is shown thinking this, though a few sentences later she makes a "vengeful" comment about the man who had "very nearly succeeded in having Nikki taken from me." (402) If power and helplessness are "illusions," why is it that it was only help from a greater power (the Emperor) that prevented Ekaterin's loss of her son?

It is my sense that two things are going on with this suggestion that power and weakness are simply illusions. First, the story is a comedy; comedy is generally conservative, since it not only ends with the arrangement of marriage(s), but asserts the fitness of the prevailing political status quo. And second, the feminism characteristic of Bujold's series is something I would describe as an individualized, private-sphere feminism, such that it is "feminist" to regard women as in charge of and responsible for their own fate and structural inequalities of gender as of relatively negligible importance.

The gender problems that the narrative wishes away are of the individual sort-- and are designed to make the reader feel comfortable with the book's heroines' living happily ever after in a world where women lack any public voice or political agency. Though conditions have improved for women on Barrayar, it is the socially-embedded gender issues that Bujold introduces into the story that reveal the basic political impotence of women in Vor society. As a constant background to the various plots and subplots of the book, we learn that the relatively recent availability of reproductive technology on Barrayar has allowed sex selection by prospective parents, thereby creating a serious imbalance between the sexes, such that marriageable women have become scarce. Bujold makes it unequivocally clear that if a woman wants a public voice, she must acquire penis and testicles-- which she has a certain Lady Donna, who, having administered her brother's district until his death, wants to inherit the family's title and estates, actually do. Interestingly, so much tension is created over the struggle waged by Lady Donna/Lord Dono for the seat that the text celebrates a sense of almost feminist triumph at this individual's success in acquiring political agency (even though Lord Dono's success is largely an accident of politics rather than an endorsement of such a strategy). Many times in the book the people backing Donna/Dono make it plain that this is an exceptional case, that no one should worry that other women will go out and do the same-- and that thus it is safe to allow this one exception. We must be clear about the implications of this exception: it underscores the fact that women do not and will not exercise political agency in the Vor polis.

Cordelia's and Alys's behind-the-scenes machinations also serve to underscore that women can operate only with the permission of the males who are fronting them. If ever they were to cross the powerful men who permit them to act behind the scenes, they would be finished as political actors. It is similarly significant that when Ekaterin speaks in the public sphere, she speaks on personal, emotional, and private issues-- not to express a political opinion. (She in fact proposes marriage to Miles in a session in the Chamber of the Council of Counts. Marriage to a Lord being a political as well as a personal act, this is the very closest a Vor woman can come to making political speech.) Ekaterin's lack of adult credibility-- simply because she is a woman-- is made quite plain when only the Emperor's intervention can prevent her brother and brother-in-law from removing her son from her custody-- they preferring to believe anything a man would say-- even a man they know to be her rejected suitor-- over anything they know or think about her: a pretty devastating place for a woman to be in, since it means that if powerful men aren't pleased with you and continually taking your part, as a woman you're vulnerable to the silliest and vilest men, simply because they have a penis and testicles and you do not.

These particular men, of course, being traditional Vor, would never grant credibility to any woman under any circumstance; they consider women to be strictly private individuals (and as we all know, the word "idiot" derives from the Greek designation of private person). They dismiss Ekaterin's aunt, "the Professora," as "unworldly." (303) The latter's accomplishments as a formidable scholar and teacher do not suffice to break her out into public-sphere legitimacy. We readers all know that the Professora

was one of Barrayar's foremost experts on every gory detail of the political history of the Time of Isolation, spoke and read four languages flawlessly, could sift through documentation with an eye worthy of an ImpSec analyst-- a line of work several of her former graduate students were now in-- and had thirty years of experience dealing with young people and their self-inflicted troubles. (303)

Bujold tries to convince us that this male dismissal of the Professora is exactly the same as their dismissal of Ekaterin's uncle, who is an Imperial Auditor, as "unworldly." But since the position of Imperial Auditor is close to that of God in Vor society, the reader can only wonder why Bujold would put such words in the mouths of her characters. We are all used to women intellectuals being dismissed and trivialized; but would one dismiss in the same breath one of the most powerful men in one's society? It doesn't wash with this reader.

A number of readers who I know love this book read straight point to Ekaterin's heroism as proof that she does have public sphere credibility. But it is exactly the way Ekaterin's heroism is treated-- and Miles' having very privately given her a pretty pendant on a necklace in lieu of an official medal honoring her service to the Emperor-- that convinces me that "feminism," in Bujold's world, must always be restricted to the inside of a woman's head and occasional private exchanges of support between women.

"The public gratitude of the Empire is what she should have earned," said Miles, in reminded aggravation. "Instead, it's all been buried deep-deep under ImpSec security cap. No one will ever know. All her courage, all her cool and clever moves, all her bloody heroism, dammit, was just... made to disappear. It's not fair." (199)

The narrative assigns the blame for this lack of recognition to security strictures. The reader, however, does well to remember that this is Bujold's choice: to allow a woman to exercise heroism, yes, but in such a way as to keep it private. Since Miles vociferously protests the "disappearance" of Ekaterin's heroism, we can feel that he really appreciates her for who she is. But in fact what actually happens is that Miles gets to enjoy the kind of woman she really is as though behind a veil of discretion. To the world, Ekaterin will be, simply, a high lord's wife. Only her husband and closest relatives will know that she is much, much more than that. (Which can be called, for Miles, having one's cake and eating it, too.)

I can't help but wonder, not entirely flippantly: is the moral of this story that women had better have transsexual surgery if they want to exercise agency in the public sphere?

So far, I've been simply working out a few of the implications of the deeply embedded gender constructions of Vor society as the book presents them. More interesting, however, is Bujold's (in my reading deliberate) deployment of irony showing how unaware Miles and other men are of just how oppressed women are in their world. Miles, I hear Bujold saying over and over and over, is clueless. He doesn't get it. Such repetition implicitly calls into question the happily-ever-after romance genre ending. Consider the dialogue between Miles and another Vor lord, which comes at the conclusion of their speculative discussion about what Lady Donna might be doing to hold a male-only seat. [They imagine, incorrectly, that she is cloning her brother, with the hope of being declared the child's guardian.]

"Your Betan blood is showing, Miles."

"No, only my Betan upbringing."

"Biology isn't destiny?"

"Not anymore it's not."

The light music of women's voices echoed up the curving staircase into the sitting room. A low alto burble Miles thought he recognized was answered by a silvery peal of laughter. (113)

I take this bit of dialogue as deeply ironic, since Lady Donna has not chosen to acquire power through a (male) child [the only way Miles and his peers can conceive of a woman exercising power she cannot legally hold], but to become Lord Dono instead. We are treated to some wonderful paragraphs indicating that biology is in fact still destiny in the Vor world about forty pages later, when the Emperor asks Lord Dono "what is it like?":

Dono's white grin flashed in his beard. "From the inside? My energy's up. My libido's up. I would say it makes me feel ten yeas younger, except I didn't feel like this when I was thirty, either. My temper's shorter. Otherwise, only the world has changed."

"Ah?"

"On Beta Colony, I scarcely noticed a thing. By the time I got to Komarr, well, the personal space people gave me had approximately doubled, and their response time to me had been cut in half. By the time I hit the Vorbarr Sultana Shuttleport, the change was phenomenal. Somehow, I don't think I got all that result just from my exercise program."

"Huh. So... if your motion of impediment fails, will you change back?"

"Not any time soon. I must say, the view from the top of the food chain promises to be downright panoramic. I propose to have my blood and money's worth of it."

Another silence fell. Ivan wasn't sure if everyone was digesting this declaration, or if their minds had all simply shorted out. (156)

Needless to say, Bujold plays a good bit with the physical, psychological, and social psychological effects of this sex change to highly entertaining effect. But what I find most interesting about this subplot is the irony it forces on the reader. The Vor world is only slightly more oppressive for women than the 1990s US is; certainly current US society is more similar to Barrayar than it is to Beta Colony. It would utterly wreck the romance plot if Bujold belabored this point beyond the way in which she has ironized it. But what the presence of Lady Donna/Lord Dono in this story does, effectively, is insist that all the desirable egalitarianism sporadically enjoyed by the heroines is conditional and arbitrary, a status that could be taken from them at any time. Only Lord Dono, by giving up her female organs and acquiring a cock and balls is able-- as a he (who nevertheless retains a certain social solidarity with and fascination for women in the book)-- to achieve full personal autonomy, political agency, and unquestioned integrity. Ekaterin's integrity and personal credibility, by contrast, will on the contrary always depend on the men around her guaranteeing it, no matter how upstanding, decent, and even heroic a life she leads.


3.
This is a novel, Bujold tells us, of "biology and manners." Yes. Miles pretends it's all in the manners, but in fact, biology, we see, virtually determines what those manners will be, since "manners" are, always, and ever will play out as a thoroughly gendered set of negotiations.

But "biology" also refers to the comic (not comedic) subplot of the "butter"-producing bugs. Lord Mark, Miles' (clone) brother, wishes to market the nutritious regurgitations of these bugs to the Vor population. Miles is disgusted by them and their product and wishes them at least hidden from view if not eradicated. Ekaterin's involvement in their design and exploitation, however, frustrates this wish; and his standing in Ekaterin's eyes as a decent man is (momentarily) put into question by the violence of his reaction. For the reader, what soon becomes obvious about these bugs is their symbolic weight. They signify, in a sort of synecdoche, the biology in the title (and thus also the biology Miles claims is no longer "destiny"), and they are both troublesome and productive little creatures that several of the characters must learn to manipulate correctly in order to please the patriarchs (the Vor lords in general, and Miles in particular). And of course Miles must learn to accept them in their cosmeticized form, too-- or risk losing his bride altogether.

Significantly, it is an ethnically declasse scientist, Enrique Borgos, and a number of determined women who make the bugs acceptable and learn to make their product appealing. (Is one to conclude that only women know how to wield cosmetic power effectively?) Ekaterin designs a new appearance for the bugs (this, after the scientist who has engineered them commits the solecism of putting the Vorkosigan colors on the bugs' carapaces); Ma Kosti, the brilliant (female) cook, whips up wonderful bug-butter recipes that seduce the palates of the Vor lords; and Cordelia, Miles' Betan mother, finds agricultural uses to which to put the bugs. The women make the bugs a success by dressing them correctly, by making them cute and harmless looking, and by incorporating them into the planet's organic system as well as into the galactic economy.

In short, not only do the bugs stand for biology in general, but for "woman" in particular. ("Woman" usually does stand for "body," as in, for instance, the secondary term of mind/body dualism.) Enrique, the scientist who engineered the bugs, refers to them affectionately and familiarly as "the girls." And this same Escobaran scientist is, in the story's narrative logic, feminized by his ethnic difference and his legal, political, and financial vulnerability and dependence. In the book's climax, he requires defense from arrest and extradition; after Lord Mark (who, though male, has not quite achieved the status of junior patriarch) and Enrique's female coworkers ineffectively fight the representatives of the law come to arrest and deport him, he is rescued by Miles' assertion of his power as Count. The scientist is highly useful to Lord Mark and others-- and Miles wants to keep his cook, who might very well leave his employ if he fails to protect the bug enterprise. It therefore serves the patriarch's purposes to protect the scientist, and so he does. (In like wise the Emperor, Gregor, protects Ekaterin.) I find the timing of the bugs' running amok through Lord Vorkosigan's house (something that is highly distressing to that Lord) significant, too, since this happens exactly when Miles finds himself with least control over Ekaterin. And though-- or perhaps precisely because this is a romantic love story, there's no question, ever, that what Miles wants most is control over Ekaterin: as his mother, Cordelia, drily and gently makes plain. While Miles has no need to "tame" Ekaterin, his acceptance of the bugs is closely contingent on their handlers' successfully masking and controlling all that Miles finds disgusting and disorderly about them.

Of Jane, Charlotte, Dorothy, and Georgette, certainly it is Georgette (Heyer) who is most associated with the "novel of manners." The Heyer style works well both with the bug subplot and with Ivan's dealings with Lord Dono and By. ("By"-- ouch-- is another typical Heyer character, the "town clown" in Bujold, "a ramshackle rattle" in Heyer, superseded, near the end, with a bit of the Baroness Orczy, when we discover By to be a tool of ImpSec, the Vor intelligence establishment; the difference from Heyer is that in this case we can fairly confidently conclude he's gay, something Heyer would never have allowed.) The Heyer style, in my judgment, works best in particular vignettes that seem lifted straight from her books (though since it's been 30-35 years since I've read these books, I may not be remembering correctly). Some of Cordelia's scenes, in particular, and Ekaterin's flight from Miles' dinner party, which sends her crashing into Miles father, unexpectedly arrived home from his post as viceroy offplanet, are especially reminiscent of scenes in Heyer's novels.

Ultimately I find that it's a problem that the Heyer form so predominates in this novel, where the mix-ups and plot arcs all work out for easy, comedic happiness, such that the romance conventions alone seem to assure that all the males favored by the author will achieve their heart's desire. It feels to me as though Bujold begins the main courtship plot (i.e., the Miles-Ekaterin romance) under the influence of Dorothy Sayers until the moment that Miles decides he's not interested in making the effort of playing Lord Peter Wimsey to Ekaterin's Harriet Vane and will settle on being the easy-achiever hero of a Heyer novel. That moment comes when Miles is stung to learn that Enrique, the feminized foreign scientist, has put the first part of his biochemistry dissertation into the sonnet form to make it more interesting to Ekaterin. Miles' first reaction is that the letter of "apology" he is trying to write to Ekaterin should also be written in verse. But when he discovers how difficult writing poetry is, he says to hell with it-- and even notes that if he did manage to write a good poem to Ekaterin, she would likely expect him to write more poetry in the future-- and of course of all things he knows that once he's won his "civil campaign," he won't want to be bothered with having to continue to put effort into merely pleasing Ekaterin. I take this for a direct allusion to Sayers' Gaudy Night, in which Peter writes Harriet a sonnet, an effortful labor that has everything to do with his struggle to work things out with Harriet.

So Miles refuses to write verse to Ekaterin. (Heyer heroes never do, after all.) And it doesn't matter in the least, since of course Ekaterin is in love with Miles-- she simply didn't know it! All her fears about being confined in marriage evaporate without any change in Miles or in the conditions determining Vor marriage that served her so harshly in her previous marriage. Miles, after all, is the hero: and so there is no way he could ever do anything to harm-- much less constrict-- the heroine. The reader knows he can be trusted not to abuse his superior power. (Charlotte and Dorothy are definitely absent here.)

Lord Mark and Kareen's parallel romance plot, on the other hand, centers on the cliche that even the most devastated man can be saved by the love of a good woman, and on the belief that forming a sexual relationship with a man is the primary step a woman must take to achieve adult independence from her parents' authority (or, in a word, to attain autonomy). Again, genre convention, as I see it, is the culprit here. It would be just too damned complicated for Kareen to have found both her parents' prohibitions and Mark's totally consuming demands forces she would have to deal with, rather than making her position a non-negotiable one of choosing one or the other to oppose.


4.
In the process of discussing the reading I want to promote, I have almost argued myself out of it. And yet, if I let the last word go to Bujold's title, perhaps I can salvage my reading after all. "A Civil Campaign," as I've already mentioned, can be taken as a title that fits a genre romance into Miles' military sf series. It's also reminiscent of Georgette Heyer's title A Civil Contract. But I would like to believe that Bujold's primary use for this title is to focus attention on the (apparently) inescapable problem-- for feminists-- of the sexual politics of romance conventions. In an early conversation with Lord Mark, Miles admits that the metaphor of the military campaign-- a civil campaign-- to capture Ekaterin (for his wife)-- has unfortunate resonances.

"The important thing is for me to make friends with her, get close to her, without setting off her alarms, without offending her. Then, when the time is right-- well, then."

"And, ah, when are you planning to spring this stunning surprise on her?" Mark asked, fascinated.

Miles stared at his boots. "I don't know. I'll recognize the tactical moment when I see it, I suppose. If my sense of timing hasn't totally deserted me. Penetrate the perimeter, set the trip lines, plant the suggestion-- strike. Total victory! Maybe." He counter-rotated his feet the other way.

"You have your campaign all plotted out, I see," said Mark neutrally, rising. Enrique would be glad to hear the good news about the free bug fodder. And Kareen would be here for work soon-- her organizational skills had already had notable effect on the zone of chaos surrounding the Escobaran.

"Yes, exactly. So take care not to foul it up by tipping my hand, if you please. Just play along."

"Mm, I wouldn't dream of interfering." Mark made for the door. "Though I'm not at all sure I'd choose to structure my most intimate relationship as a war. Is she the enemy, then?"

His timing was perfect; Miles feet had come down and he was still sputtering just as Mark passed the door. Mark stuck his head back through the frame to add, "I hope her aim is as good as Countess Vormuir's." (97-98)

Since Bujold constructs the text in such a way that Miles' attention is fairly early drawn to the infelicity of this metaphor, we might say that she gives him ample opportunity for thinking about it and tackling his easy, unselfconscious use of it. Nevertheless, the metaphor prevails throughout the novel. This central romance plot is all tied up once Miles sends his letter to Ekaterin openly declaring his suit and apologizing for his campaign. He loves her, she loves him; the romance plot is over in the middle of the book rather than at the end, and the remainder of the narrative is driven not by the courtship plot, but by the two of them narrowly surviving assorted diabolical plots and machinations standing between them and marriage. It is here that I find myself wondering whether Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter is a good bit more evolved than Miles. (I see the Heyer influence overpowering the Sayers influence here-- and will repeat: I think the title quite clearly indicates that this is so.) What strikes me, given what I've read of the rest of the Miles Vorkosigan series (though I admit I haven't read everything in it), is that Bujold almost always forces Miles to confront some problem in himself and deal with it. In this book, she lets him get away with not confronting, not dealing with the problem emblematized by the title. She simply hands him Ekaterin without forcing him to confront his own gender privilege (or even economic privilege) and the ease with which he uses an extended grotesque military metaphor to characterize his (pur)suit.

What about Ekaterin's take on this military metaphor? Here Ekaterin describes Miles' underhanded attempts to manipulate her to her son:

"Would you like it, if somebody promised to help you become a jump pilot, and you worked your heart out studying, and then it turned out they were tricking you into doing something else?"

"Oh." The light glimmered, dimly.

"I was angry because he'd tried to manipulate me, and my situation, in a way I found invasive and offensive." After a short, reflective pause, she added helplessly, "It seems to be his style." Was it a style she could learn to live with? Or was it a style he could bloody well learn not to try on her? Live, or learn? Can we have some of both? (262)

Love, of course, conquers-- not all, but the woman in this situation. Love makes her forgive and forget "being tricked," being manipulated in a way she found "invasive and offensive." All that Miles learns is to be more covert in the way he campaigns-- precisely because Ekaterin agrees to consign the position Miles considers to be bait (landscape designer) to second place to the position Miles considers to be premier (wife of Lord Vorkosigan).

Why doesn't Ekaterin make Miles confront his use of the military metaphor? What kind of book might have resulted if she had, and how would the character himself necessarily have been altered-- in this as well as in future books-- if she had?

In the end, Bujold seems to be saying, the conventions of genre romance not only do not require men to take responsibility for the sexism that privileges them, but encourages every character-- male and female-- to overlook gender privilege and the inevitable oppression that results from it. To have a happy ending, everyone has to ignore sexual politics and the fact of gender privilege and the author must offer only a light ironic subtext if she wants to keep the reader from ignoring it, too. This is a damned equivocal conclusion to be found in a book that is both feminist and romance-convention driven. Should we expect only equivocal conclusions to be found in such hybrids? I must, seriously, wonder.

In my reading, I am left, finally, to conclude that Bujold is trying, with this book, to have her cake and eat it too in precisely the way feminists often do these days. She wants to enjoy "Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy"-- and even says "long may they rule." But. Acutely conscious of how gender works not only in her world of the Vor and in the story she's telling, but in the romance conventions themselves Bujold lays on the irony-- with a light hand, granted, so as not to deflate her story's effervescence-- but in a way that suggests that gender privilege is not going to go away any time soon as long as gender conventions determine our manners and mores. As long as women are willing to not belabor the implications of the military metaphor applied to seduction, as long as men don't think seriously about whether it is possible to relate to the person they want to "capture" as a full human being (and don't think seriously about how, in a system of wildly skewed gender privilege, marriage consolidates that privilege and reproduces it), gender privilege-- like Jane, Charlotte, Dorothy and Georgette-- will rule.

It is my sense that this book explores the gendered implications of romance conventions and their relation to both women's and men's material lives. Certainly, reading it has expanded my understanding of the gendered implications of romance genre conventions (which permeate every aspect of our culture and are thus of major importance). But precisely because of the difficulty of combining a feminist ethos with romance conventions that depend so heavily upon gender privilege, I find the experience a peculiar mixture of pleasure and frustration.

Seattle
April, 2000
©2000 L.Timmel Duchamp
Publication Date: 
2000