Thursday, May 9, 2013

Deconstructing my favourite sex scene


Regular readers of the blog will know that I like a good hot sex scene. I read Alisha Rai's Play With Me recently - very hot.  KA Mitchell's No Souvenirs and Regularly Scheduled Life (scroll down a little for a brief review), Heidi Cullinan's Special Delivery and Double Blind,  Cara McKenna's Willing Victim, most everything by Charlotte Stein - all feature very hot scenes which, for the most part, advance the story and reveal the characters (and not just because they're naked).  In fact, I wrote a post a while back saying that I don't like fade to black (except when I do) and why.  So you might be surprised then, to know that my favourite sex scene ever, is not at all sexy. Not the least bit hot.  But I love it. When I need a comfort read and I have a spare 20 minutes, I open the book up just before the scene starts and within seconds sighing in pleasure (er, not that kind of pleasure).   In fact, it has happened that those spare 20 minutes have turned into numerous complete re-reads, but I digress.


Sadly, it is out of print, but I hope it will be available digitally one day soon. I paid a hideous amount for it on eBay five or so years ago and have never regretted a single cent.

It is a book I don't think I can be entirely rational about.  It is my favourite Mary Balogh, a definite Desert Island Keeper and in my top 5 books of all time (don't ask me to name the other 4 - it's too hard).  I'm sure the book has flaws.  I don't care. I love it.  And, I'd like to share with you one of the (many) reasons why.



Here's the blurb (from Goodreads)  Life has taught Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, that a heart is a decided liability. Betrayed by his brother, rejected by his fiancée, Luke fled to Paris, where he became the most sought-after bachelor in fashionable society.

Ten years later, fate has brought him back home, to the rescue of the very people who had once shunned him. Luke is amused by the advice that a wife will make his takeover of both the title and the family estate smoother, but amusement turns to desire once he sets eyes upon Lady Anna Marlowe.

Unbeknownst to Luke, Anna is also no stranger to pain, but her suffering can't be so easily overcome, not when her tormentor stalks her to the very doors of Bowden Abbey. Luke and Anna, each made fragile by the past, must learn to trust both each other and their love if they are to have any chance for a future together.

A word about Luke Kendrick.  On the scale of Orlando Bloom to Jeffrey Dean Morgan in terms of build, Luke is Bloom. I tend toward the Morgan end of the scale in terms of attraction but Luke is nevertheless one of my favourite heroes ever. He is "not very tall" and of a slight but muscular build.  He's a fencer.  He's light on his feet. He dresses in the first stare of fashion - in fact, he creates the fashion. He loves rich brocades and is particularly careful of his coats and cravats.  He is fond of lace.  He wears red heels and makeup and powder and patch.  He carries a fan. He has long flowing dark hair which he refuses to cut, eschewing a wig for preference. He is one of the most masculine heroes I've come across. I adore him.

Introducing our heroine: Anna has been keeping a big secret for years.  She lives basically in terror of that secret being revealed.  She feels like she's on borrowed time.  When she meets Luke, she falls for him almost immediately.  And, she thinks, hopes, she can steal a little more time and be happy before it all falls apart, as she believes it must.  When he first sees her Luke sees someone who is almost frantically happy and he delights in her joie de vivre. Knowing what he has to face at home, he decides to court her, so that there will be some pleasure in his life to balance out the duty.  And for her part, she (thinks she) gets a little more time to be happy. Her life with Luke is so much happier  that in a very short time, she's quite desperate to keep it.


Anyway, on to the sex scene which is the purpose of the post.

A sex scene which isn't sexy or physically arousing.  I mean, I do find myself holding my breath and there's tension in my shoulders and jaw and a zing of excitement in my belly,  but, it's not a scene to make anyone horny.

Luke is the "heartless" one to which the title refers. He has made it clear to Anna that he will not love her and he is fairly emotionally detached. They are together for "duty and pleasure" (I think the ice around his heart is cracking a lot earlier than he does, but it is probably here that we first see the phenomenon).

In this particular scene (Chapter 17)  Luke comes to check on  (a pregnant) Anna - they are late for an engagement - his mother and sister-in-law are waiting impatiently downstairs and their host is expecting them for tea.  Anna is terrified.  She has been threatened - her past has come back to haunt her,  but feels she cannot talk to Luke about it, that he couldn't possibly believe her.    He sees her distress immediately but when she is not forthcoming they quarrel.  He is about to leave the room angry with her when she begs him to stay.   Clinging to him, she kisses him wildly and begs him to make love to her but he can tell she is not aroused.

Luke is a man to whom appearances are very important.  Social niceties and his well groomed person are points of pride with him. He dislikes overt emotions or any kind of "scene".  Yet, he undresses Anna, locks the door (knowing his mother, already angry, will be furious.  Knowing the people who are expecting him to tea will be disappointed and rightly so).

He takes off his heavy silk coat and steps out of his shoes but takes no further time to undress, never mind the wrinkles.  Luke senses what Anna needs - but not in the alpha "I know what you want baby, wink wink" kind of way. First, she has asked him, explicitly to make love to her.  He knows how to satisfy a woman and "after three months of almost daily intimacies" he well knows Anna's body and how to satisfy her.  He has begun to understand her on a deeper level too.   "In some strange way she was not aroused and did not want or need to be brought to climax.  She needed his body, his closeness.  His body instinctively recognised her need and set about satisfying it."  There is no foreplay.  He "puts himself in her" (how unsexy is that?) and stays there for as long as he can, giving her the comfort of his body.  After, he holds her close while she sleeps, watching over her and keeping her safe.

Later, when he and Anna are being castigated by his mother, he defends his decision to stay with his wife who had need of him (the set down he gives his mother is fabulous).

See? Not sexy at all.  But, when I have 20 minutes or so and want to read something which will make me giddy with squee, Chapter 17 of Heartless is where I go.  The scene marks a turning point in Luke and Anna's relationship.  (It's not all smooth sailing from there of course).  This is where Luke prioritises Anna over many things he holds dear.  It is where he chooses her above competing pressures.  It's the most satisfying sex scene I've ever read but it's not the least bit sexy.  The intimacy of the scene, the romance of it, in a strange way, the sacrifice of it, what it reveals about each character, makes it the most beautiful love scene for me. (and it perhaps goes some way to explaining why I adore Mary Balogh's books also).


Because Mary Balogh's words are more eloquent than I could ever be and because it's not easily available, here's (basically) the whole scene:

But it was unusual for Anna to be late.

There was no one in her dressing room, he saw in some surprise, and no one in her sitting room.  He tapped on the door of her bedchamber and opened it.  She was standing at the window looking out.  She was wearing a silk morning gown wrapped simply about her with a sash at the waist and now hoops.  Her hair had not been dressed but hung loose and unpowdered down her back.

"Anna?" He stepped inside the room and closed the door behind him.  "Have you forgotten that we are to take tea at the Wilkeses'?"

"No." Her voice was quiet and toneless.  She did not turn from the window.

He crossed the room toward her.

"Go without me," she said. "I want to be alone."

She sounded quite unlike Anna.  Her voice was lifeless.  Her shoulders were slumped.

"What is it?" he asked, frowning.

"Nothing," she said. "I just do not feel like going out."

"You are unwell?" he asked.  A glance down her body showed him she was not wearing stays. She was quite noticeably losing her slim figure.

"No," she said.

He continued to frown. "You are absenting yourself from tea for no apparent reason after we have accepted the invitation?" he said, "Is it not somewhat discourteous, madam? And discourteous, too, to leave my mother and my sister and yours downstairs without informing them that they need not wait for you?"

"Go away," she said.

His eyes glinted dangerously for a moment.  But he had heard about the various maladies that could accompany pregnancy, moodiness among them.  Anna had been so remarkably well that sometimes he forgot that her body and her mind were having to cope with unfamiliar changes and functions. He reined in his temper.

"Come and lie down," he said, setting his hands lightly on her shoulders. "You need rest, Anna.  I will send for your maid to bring you a hot drink.  I shall make your excuses known to Mrs. Wilkes.  Your condition is generally known, I believe."

She shrugged her shoulders, pulling free of his hold.  "Go away," she said again.  And then she was shrieking at him.  "Leave me alone.  Is this not my own room?  Is there no privacy to be had anywhere?"

He had never seen Anna in a temper.  He gazed at her in some amazement for a few moments, eyebrows raised.  And he had never tolerated temper tantrums in any woman.  A few of his women had tried and found themselves swiftly and firmly cast off.  He turned on his heel and stroke toward the door.

"Luke!"  Her voice stopped him as he was turning the handle.  It was no longer shrieking, but sounded almost panicked - and shaking.  He turned slowly and looked across the room at her, his own expression cold and haughty.  "Don't leave."  The words were whispered.  Her eyes were tightly closed.

He walked slowly back toward her and she opened her eyes and looked at him.  They were large with unhappiness.  There was something wrong, and it was not her health.

:What is it?" he asked. "Tell me what has happened, Anna."

She shook her head slowly and reached for him.  "Nothing," she said as he took her in his arms.  She shivered. "Nothing. 'Tis just that I am not feeling well.  I am tired and lacking in energy."

It was not that at all, hew knew, but clearly she was not going to tell him what it was.  "You must lie down, then, and rest," he said.  "I have to do.  The others are awaiting us downstairs and my mother is less than pleased by the delays.  Come, let me help you off with your gown."

But she grabbed for him when he would have let her go. "Don't leave me." She pressed herself against him.  "Don't leave me. Don't leave me."  She whispered it over and over again as her arms came tightly about his neck and her eyes closed and she sought for his mouth with her own.

He gave it to her and tightened his arms about her again.  There was a familiarity.  She had been like this before.  It did not take him long to remember.  She had been like this in the carriage on the way home from Ranelagh Gardens, intensely, almost wildly amorous, throwing herself at him, so that he had been persuaded to the almost incredible indiscretion of coupling with her inside an unlocked carriage on the public streets of London.  And she had been as wild and as clinging after they had got home.  It was the night she had told him she was with child, the night she had begged him to bring her home to Bowden.

He kissed her opened mouth deeply, opening his own, thrusting his tongue inside, leaving it there while she sucked inward on it and while her hands tore at the ribbon holding back his hair and closing the silk bag that held the length of it at the back.  He felt his hair spilling over his shoulders and about her face.  He thought about his mother waiting downstairs even as he felt himself harden into arousal.  "Make love to me." Her lips were rosy and swollen, her eyes heavy with desire. "Make love to me, Luke. Please. Please make love to me."  Her body was taut with desire, taut with desperation.  

"Come."  He led her to the bed, untied the sash of her gown, and slipped it from her shoulders.  She was wearing only her shift beneath.  She lifted her arms as he removed it, and reached for him as he drew back the bedcovers and lowered her to the mattress.  But he did not joiner her there immediately.  He crossed the room to lock both the door into the corridor and that into the dressing room.  He shrugged out of his heavy silk coat and stepped out of his buckled shoes but did not stop to remove the rest of his clothes.  He unbuttoned his breeches and went down into her reaching arms.

He could read well the needs of her body.  He had carefully taught himself the skill many years before. And he was familiar with Anna's body after more than three months of almost daily intimacies.  He knew that foreplay was not what she needed now.  She needed to have him inside her.  He freed himself from the fabric of his breeches and put himself there, firm and deep.  She sighed and almost immediately relaxed beneath his weight and his penetration.

She needed him in her for as long as he could keep himself there.  He could sense that need.  In some strange way she was not aroused and did not want or need to be brought to climax.  She needed his body, his closeness.  His body instinctively recognised her need and set about satisfying it.  He stroked into her slowly, reaching deeply and carefully inside her - he had been loving her with shallower strokes lately, conscious of her pregnancy.  But he knew that she needed depth today.  She moaned with every inward thrust.

She seemed quite oblivious to the fact that someone came into her dressing room and knocked quietly, first on her sitting room door and then on the bedchamber door.  She did not even seem to hear when Henrietta called her name softly and then tried the handle rather hesitantly. He set his mouth wide over hers to absorb the sound of her moans until he heard the outer door of the dressing room close again.

He gave himself to her for as long as he was able before his control went an he spilled into her with a sigh.  But he kept his arms firmly about her after he had turned her onto her side against him and lifted the bedclothes so that they almost covered her head.  She pressed her face into the silk of his waistcoat at his shoulder and wrapped her arm about his waist.  He smoothed one hand lightly over her hair and felt her slipping slowly and deeply into sleep.

He stared over the top of her head at the window.

...

Luke drew her naked body even more snugly against him and she sighed against his shoulder.  He must find out what it was that had so much power over her emotions. So much negative power He didn't like it when the sunshine went out of her. Some light died in him, too, when she was unhappy.

The thought, consciously worded in his mind, brought a frown to his face. No, that was not true. It could not possibly be true that his mood was affected by that of his wife. That would mean that she had some power over him, some control over him.  That in some what he was dependent on her.

Never! no, absolutely never in this life again.  What he liked best about Anna was the comfort of the fact that she made not demands on his emotions. So different from Henrietta.

Anna stirred in his arms, whimpered, clung closer, and relaxed into sleep again. He cradled her close.

Heartless by Mary Balogh, copyright 1995
Used with the kind permission of Mary Balogh

19 comments:

Dabney Grinnan said...

Sex scenes, like sex itself, is idiomatically appealing. One of the reasons I love the romance genre is that there really is something for everyone.

For me, this scene is strong primarily because of the writing. For example, where Balogh adds "firm and deep" makes that sentence erotically descriptive.

Your column makes me want to read the book! Thanks.

Kaetrin said...

@Dabney - I hope you are able to get hold of a copy without too much difficulty.

I'm sure my reading of it is influenced by the fact that I read the previous parts of the book (and now, that I have read the book many times). It is such a turning point in the story in terms of the emotional intimacy of the couple and the writing is just beautiful IMO.

SonomaLass said...

Another early Balogh that I haven't read. But now I want to!

This kind of sex scene, so clearly set in and necessary to the story, is wonderful. I worry that I'm missing scenes like this in a lot of today's historical romances, because I tend to skim the (frequent, obligatory) sex scenes.

Kaetrin said...

@SonomaLass Oh yay! I shall single-handedly comment a campaign for a re-print!! LOL

I haven't read a lot of historical romance in the past year or so (although I did re-read this one, maybe even twice...). My sense is that this type of scene isn't that common. I'd love to be wrong.

That said, I recall the sex in Cecilia Grant's A Lady Awakened was well done - some of it was terribly awkward and some of it very sensual and it served to chart the MC's relationship very clearly.

Vi Dao said...

I'm re-reading it now. I did flip to Chapter 17 first to read Luke's response to his mom.

Kaetrin said...

@Vi haha! My other favourite scene is after the baby is born - another great set down for mother. And the bells! *happy sigh*

Vi Dao said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vi Dao said...

I love the name they picked for the baby.

Kaetrin said...

@Vi - yes. :)

I think he fell in love with Anna before then, though, no matter what Luke says!

AJH said...

Mmmm, this is super interesting. Obviously I haven't read the book (because I haven't read anything *sigh) but I really enjoyed your analysis.

I haven't entirely worked out how to parse sex scenes in my own reading - truthfully I don't think I'm wired the right way for them to be, err, interesting in the most straight-forward way (although I don't know if that's nature, or nurture, honestly) and I've read a couple of books now where I've sort of skimmed through them.

Again, I'm still working out my thoughts so sorry if this all pointless babble, but I think it might be about context? Some of the time it seems like sex occurs as a culmination of the journey, rather than part of the journey - but the most effective (i.e. interesting for me) scenes seem to have been the ones that communicated something more than "we fancy each other and want to bang."

I mean THATH was devastating and I wasn't a bit fan of lily-based orgasm chasing BUT it was about *them* and part of this intense and kind of terrible emotional journey.

What I find really striking about the scene you've quoted and deconstructed is that it's the first time I've seen (and this is probably just because I haven't read enough yet) a written sex-scene that engages with the idea of sex-as-communication. Because I kind of think that out there in the real world, when the initial OMG YOUR HOTNESS flame has de-intensified, sex becomes about other things (I mean, as well, as love and passion) like relaxation and comfort and closeness. And it was really lovely to see that depicted - and I loved the way that they both clearly have other things they want to say to each other but physically is - for the moment - the best way they can both express it.

PS - I'm really glad you gave it some context, otherwise I'd have been thinking, well, this guy seems a bit of a dick...

Okay, I'm shutting up now :)

azteclady said...

It is a great book and that's such an important scene in terms of how their relationship changes.

Regarding Lucas, I am always amazed at myself that I remember him as so intensely virile and masculine, that when he shows up in other books, his description makes me stop and think a bit.

Anonymous said...

I actually have a shorthand phrase for slow and missionary position -- Mary Balogh sex. ;-) ("Lisa Kleypas" means on the chair. Alas, I can only dream of Judith Ivory stair sex or Laura Kinsale wall sex.)

Kaetrin said...

@AJH I understand what you mean about not reading m/f sex scenes the same way perhaps I would! LOL I don't have that problem with m/m but perhaps I would with f/f? Don't know, haven't tried any f/f yet (it's on the list).

I'm pretty happy to enjoy a hot sex scene but I do like when there is communication of more than lust and where the physical intimacy is reflective of another kind of intimacy.

What has always struck me about this scene is that, for me, it was all about the emotion and romance but not at all sexy. But it is the one I go back to again and again. I have tried here to explain why - partly because I was curious myself! :)

You might like Cecilia Grant's A Lady Awakened for another take on sex.

And Luke is AWESOME. You would love him. He is a swordsman!! (and he carries a fan - sometimes and Anna LOVES it when he does). I hope you will read it one day and I hope you love it.

Kaetrin said...

@Aztec Lady. I know exactly what you mean! And Luke is so masculine - in a strange way the heels and makeup and fan only serve to highlight just how masculine he is.

One of the things which made Anna feel so safe with Luke is that he didn't tower over her as the villain had done but the other reason she felt safe is that Luke was so very capable. He was in no way a wimp or a wuss.

Kaetrin said...

@Anonymous - Mary Balogh is the queen of writing unsexy sex I think! :)

Victoria Janssen said...

Yes - it's a great scene because of context and its place in the plot - that makes it meaningful. I don't know if you saw this when it went up, but I did a post on the sex in Balogh's TANGLED a while back: http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2011/04/mary-baloghs-tangled-an-erotic-romance

Kaetrin said...

@Victoria - oh, I hadn't seen that. thank you for the link. I read this book ages ago - perhaps it's time for a re-read? :)

Marg said...

This is one of the early Mary Balogh books I haven't read, but I am feeling the need to track it down now!

Kaetrin said...

@Marg - it is unashamedly my favourite Balogh. I am blind to it's flaws!