Whitney, rewritten (spoilers ahead!)

original cover, 1985

In 1985 Judith McNaught published her now-iconic Regency romance Whitney, My Love. In 1999 she published a revised edition that modified two scenes that readers in the interim had balked at. Her arrogant, overbearing alpha hero had gone too far even in a genre full of lords and masters (romances of the 1980s were called “bodice-rippers” for a reason). McNaught is well known for the intense emotional relationships between her characters, who often play out eroticized power struggles. She specializes in alpha heroes humbled by unlikely heroines, but did this hero grovel enough to earn this heroine’s forgiveness? And are some offenses inexcusable? Thirty years and multiple editions later, Whitney, My Love still raises these questions.

1985: The Problem

When I first read Whitney, My Love as a teenager, I thought the soap-operatic saga of an overbearing aristocrat falling for an unconventional beauty of lower class was the most romantic story I’d ever read. McNaught took this classic Pride and Prejudice plot and upped the ante: more wealth, more sex, more melodrama, more pages. Clayton Westmoreland, Duke of Claymore, is struck by the lovely, irrepressible Miss Whitney Stone at a masquerade ball in Paris and (because he can do whatever he wishes) decides to make her his wife. Unbeknownst to her, he pays off her father’s debts to arrange a betrothal. Then he proceeds to hide his identity and steal her away from the gentleman she’s been in love with for as long as she can remember.

This set up leads to inevitable, and lengthy, misunderstandings between the couple as McNaught manuevers them toward their happily ever after. Whitney, whose spirit Clayton admires and indulges most of the time, objects to being controlled by him and acts out in childish and irrational ways. Clayton wants Whitney to choose him of her own free will without actually giving her much freedom — or giving up his rights as duke and master. They are both cruel to each other repeatedly but Clayton always has the upper hand, which is shown literally in two brutal scenes.[spoiler alert] First, Clayton punishes her for striking his horse by using her riding crop against her, then later he assumes she is no longer a virgin, kidnaps her from a party, and rapes her before their wedding night. In both cases his anger is intended to teach her a lesson and assert his control over her body. It’s a cliché for the alpha hero to be brought to his knees by the heroine, but I didn’t question that Clayton’s happy ending did not require the same physical pain, humiliation, and debasement as Whitney’s. For over 700 pages of high drama teenage-me was captivated. With its vivid descriptions of Regency balls and estates and gowns, its endless reversals and misunderstandings between hero and heroine, and its racy sex scenes, it was new and fresh and compelling.

Or at least the writing was. Although romance as a genre can sometimes subvert existing social dynamics, Clayton and Whitney’s love story preserved traditional power relations. McNaught’s intentions were to change the form not the gender politics: as she later wrote in her preface to a new edition, instead of the “short and sweet” Regency serials of the time she wanted

“characters who possessed the emotion, sensuality, humor, and sophistication of real human beings, and I wanted a complex plot filled with unexpected twists and unpredictable outcomes.”

She’s not acknowledging Georgette Heyer’s influence here, but she did succeed in these literary goals. Whitney and Clayton joke and spar, flirt and tease in scene after scene of excruciatingly drawn-out tension (Valerie Bowman, a highly accomplished Regency romance novelist herself, analyzes one such scene here). Even readers who object to the offensive scenes, often excuse them because the book as a whole works for them.

revised cover, November 2016 edition

1999: The Answer

Many years and blockbuster sales later, McNaught reissued the book, adding a new preface and modifying those controversial scenes. It was an unusual step and not completely explained in the text itself. Moreover, the revisions change Clayton’s actions without questioning their assumptions. For example, now Clayton takes Whitney over his knee and raises the crop only to drop it

“at the last possible moment, but not before her body tensed for the blow and a strangled cry wrenched from her throat. Disgusted with himself and with her, he grasped her roughly by the shoulders and turned her in his arms to sit across his lap.”

Even revised, the scene is still disconcerting. Clayton doesn’t question his right to strike her (which was legal, if not gentlemanly, at the time) and he proceeds to demand an apology from her.

Whitney is forever apologizing for something. When Clayton strips his fiancée naked and accuses her (wrongly) of giving her virginity to another man, she responds to his hurt feelings:

“her fear gave way to a deep shattering remorse…. ‘I — I’m sorry,’ she whispered chokily. ‘I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me just once more…?’”

What exactly is she apologizing? His misjudgment? His actions? In the revised version he was about to rape her when, again at the last moment, she “nodded imperceptibly” to give him permission to go ahead with his deflowering. Imperceptibly? Could any word convey more ambiguity about consent? In fact, it seems almost to be directed at the reader more than at the hero — for we perceive it though he may not.

But, as other readers have pointed out, what was always most disturbing about the book was not only Clayton’s behavior (which is comparable to other “alpha” romance heroes — especially in the 1980s) but Whitney’s response. Whenever he hurts her, physically or emotionally, she assumes the blame, believing that she somehow provoked him. This response, strangely, McNaught never touched in her update. Even in the new and updated version, he agrees that his actions are her fault:

He had squandered a fortune in money and invested a wealth of naïve dreams in a scheming, shallow little slut — and now, he had almost let her drive him to commit rape.

This is classic blame-the-victim misogyny more than classic romance. Later, when he is supposed to have learned not to misjudge her, when they are supposed to be happily married, he again accuses her of infidelity and treats her abominably. She not only forgives him, but blames herself again. Who has actually learned from his or her mistakes? In the revised edition, it’s not clear that either Clayton, Whitney, or McNaught have. At the end Whitney makes him promise to talk to her before rushing into assumptions, but she sounds more like a mother scolding a child than a newly assertive adult. Although the actions were updated to meet new standards of acceptable behavior (for the the 21st century, not the Regency period it was set in), the attitudes remained the same: the story still assumes that it is okay for Clayton to treat Whitney like his sexual possession and for Whitney (and readers) to interpret that as a sign of his devotion.

So now what?

It’s been almost twenty years since the rewrite and the book still raises hackles with readers (try skimming its reviews on Goodreads). Certainly McNaught missed a potential opportunity to rethink — or even clearly defend — the underlying assumptions of her story. And perhaps that’s fine. As other readers have noted, the book is set in 1816, not 1985 or 1999 or 2017. Its values should reflect its time, which were undoubtedly more patriarchal. But romances also depict readers’ deepest fantasies (and no, not all women have rape fantasies! does that still need repeating?) and we can’t read it the same way we used to.

On the surface Whitney, My Love is the story of a young woman maturing into her sexual desires and its success may reflect readers’ experiences as teenagers trying to figure out their own. But it’s also the story of dramatic changes in romance publishing, as the boundaries of women’s erotica have expanded. The book was a part of the shift from closed doors, coded language, and euphemisms to today’s BDSM plots and dirty talk. Whitney’s fitful, uneven, and even painful sexual awakening was symbolic of a revolution in more ways than one. It’s usually credited with ushering in the longer Regency series but what still feels most surprising is its candid eroticism.

Ultimately, I don’t think the novel (or even those scenes) should not have been written or should not be read. Even re-reading the revised version I was still gripped by the story of these two strong-willed characters struggling to learn from their mistakes. If the mistakes they make are sometimes horrifying and they don’t really learn from them, then maybe that’s more like real life than romance. I do think, though, that altering the offensive scenes was a mistake: a new introduction could have explicitly confronted the shifting cultural standards around consent, the changing landscape of romance publishing, and the controversial response to the book. Changing the text misrepresents both the original Regency time period and its 1980s publication; re-reading it now is a reminder of how far we’ve come.

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