Sometime in 1986 or 1987 I read The Rope Dancer by Roberta Gellis. I was sure when I read it that I was reading something new and unusual in Romance and was looking forward to seeing more books like this.
The Rope Dancer is set in Medieval England but is unusual in that the hero and heroine are not lords, knights, or landed gentry. Telor (hero) is a minstrel who travels from one castle to another with his dwarf sidekick, Deri. Carys (heroine) has grown up in a performing troupe; her specialty is rope-dancing, i.e., twirling and tumbling on a taught rope strung high above the crowd. Over time Carys' troupe has dissolved, and one night she must perform alone. The crowd is drunk, tries to attack her, and she manages to escape, bloodied and bruised. Telor and Deri come upon her in a ditch. They nurse her back to health and invite her to travel with them.
Somehow I had remembered most of this set-up, although I couldn't remember much else about the book. (I had forgotten about Deri too.) So I recently reread it, and was struck by how, to my mind, stereotypically 1980s this book was. Or stereotypically something.
One recurring bit that irritated me, and apparently warrants its own mini-rant is personal cleanliness:
When Telor and Carys first meet he is floored by her smell. He practically gags when he gets near her, and later on, to win his affection, Carys starts sniffing the pits of her shirts to ensure that her nasty odor doesn't return. The historical detail of rubbing down with straight wood ashes and the introduction of soap is educational, but to me it seemed as if Telor had an oddly modern phobia.
In the late 1980s I worked for a circus, hard physical work around horses, wood shavings, and dirt. From October to January I don't think I took more than one shower a week. (The shower room was in a semi-trailer fed by a garden hose. Cold, colder, coldest.) The circus moved to Florida from January through March where we illegally lived in a celery field. (The owners were big cat trainers--large round metal barns were set up in the field. They had invited us to be there, but it was illegal tenancy in the eyes of the local police force.) The water was irrigation-grade, non-potable, stunk of sulphur. I was talking this over with my husband last night, and he says that he doesn't remember showering at all during the time he was in Florida. I remember two showers.
Now, if you remember the showers from 13 years ago, it seems to me that they were fairly infrequent.
OK, so we had almost 100 people at the main lot, and perhaps 40-50 in Florida. I don't remember us stinking. We all stunk together, and no one much cares. In a less extreme example, I've been on camping trips for ten days or more where we didn't bathe. Returning to the hotel, it's quite a sight to watch dirt swirl down the drain, I admit. However, Telor's annoyance about body odor got me annoyed every time.
End of Rant. Sorry...
The major piece that I had forgotten about The Rope Dancer was how little time Telor and Carys actually spend with each other. Carys falls for Telor, and he is attracted to her, but doesn't want to impose. Carys and Deri spend time together and become friends.
When Telor comes back into the picture, he's jealous of Deri's camaraderie with Carys, which allows the author to hint that if you're jealous then you must be in love. When Telor moves to kiss Carys, she's undone by the idea that Telor is directing any attention to her, a lowly, scruffy little dancer. So Hero Worship + Jealousy = Love?
This emotion, their lifelong commitment to travel England together, doesn't seem grounded in anything. Carys is constantly offering sex to Telor as payment for rescuing her or for food. Telor denies that he wants payment and turns her away, but then starts getting attracted to her. How to have sex with a woman who has offered sex as payment without it being payment? I'm not sure, and ultimately it seems I'm not that interested in the answer.
For all that this is supposed to be a romance, it's not very romantic. Lovers don't talk to each other, although they talk to their friends. And there's the cliches of Medieval romances (let's see if I can get them all): big dinner in the main hall, gruff men-at-arms, escapes across castle grounds in the middle of the night, kidnapping, war, a harvest fair in the clear bright air where the heroine eats a meat pie and is bought a trinket, another rescue, and a bath in a bedroom.
I think when I first read The Rope Dancer I was intrigued by a romance about peasants and hadn't read enough romances yet to pick up on the cliches. Now that I've reread it, I'm still intrigued by a romance about peasants. Maybe everyone else cribbed Roberta's scenes and turned them into cliches, but when I read it now, it just feels tired.
Maybe that's the main problem with going back to an old friend. Sometimes they're not that interesting. Sometimes they're just old.