The Dashwood Rule

If you are a person who reads about media on the Internet, you’re probably familiar with the Bechdel Test. Taking its name from Alison Bechdel a Gilmore Girls actress (ETA: or not. Yeah, I’m an idiot. It’s actually named after MacArthur Genius Grant winner Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel Fun Home is way super awesome. I’m going to leave this error here so we can all laugh at my silliness, which is legend), the Bechdel Test grades books/movies/TV shows/etc. on the basis of whether they include two or more named female characters talking about something besides men. It is astonishing how much media, and specifically media targeted at women, fails to meet this standard. Even within genre romance, in which female friendships are frequently represented, not every book passes the Bechdel Test.

Over the weekend, I read Erin Satie’s excellent historical romance The Secret Heart. One of the things I liked about the book was not just that it passed the Bechdel Test–the heroine, Caro, and her close friend, Daphne, discuss art and paint–but that the hero and heroine have conversations about things other than each other and their relationship.

For example, early in the book Caro and Adam talk about their respective (and suspect) passions, ballet and boxing. Caro explains,

“Dancing makes me feel powerful. In control. Like— I don’t know— a watchmaker— and my body is the watch— and some people say God is like a watchmaker—”

“So dancing makes you feel like God?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know, maybe a little.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts and hunched her shoulders, tipping her chin into her chest. “I don’t mean it like that.”

“Like what?” Adam snorted. “Blasphemy?”

“It’s just. So, God the watchmaker.” She raised her arms and let her hands illustrate her words as she spoke, enthusiastic despite herself. “He builds the whole universe”— she mimed a child stacking blocks—“ and he winds it up”— the fingers of one hand twisted while the other held her imaginary watch steady—“ and lets it go, and then…” She flicked her fingers wide, miming a starburst. “Everything works!”

She glanced in his direction, something sad and solemn in her expression. “Except that the universe is nothing like a watch. It can’t be. It’s full of living things.”

(Kindle Locations 446-453)

As good passages tend to be, it’s wonderful on several levels, but for the moment, I want to focus on how the conversation reveals the characters’ philosophies about the world. Caro and Adam pursue their arts for disparate reasons, seeing the relationship between their bodies and their human-ness differently, which is part of how we know even before they do that they will understand each other better than anyone else in their world and would thus be good together. These ideas come out of their backstory, but I don’t think Satie could have substituted any other conversation here that would have as concisely or effectively shown us who the characters are, why they are different, and why they are similar. Sure they’re talking about deism in a way that reveals their education, the early Victorian world in which they live, etc., but this is all about character development. And it’s a way of doing that development that doesn’t feature in every romance.

I proposed on Twitter yesterday that we need a new test to capture this quality, namely a way to celebrate when the hero and heroine (or hero/hero, heroine/heroine, etc.) have a conversation about something other than their respective personal histories or romantic relationships.

I suggested calling this the Dashwood Rule. I was thinking about a scene in a Sense and Sensibility adaptation in which Margaret Dashwood defends her mother’s cousin and his mother-in-law, saying, “I like them. They talk about things. We never talk about things.” But Miranda Neville pointed out that the “things” Margaret likes are the characters talking about people, love, scandal, gossip, and so on, which is sort of the opposite of what I mean. So perhaps it needs a different name.

But regardless I think we should recognize and celebrate romance in which characters talk, really talk, about art, music, philosophy, history, sports, beliefs, and ideas of all kinds–in which, in other words, all the things that we love about our partners in real life get represented on the page.

So the Dashwood Rule*: live it, learn it, love it.

* Or whatever we decide to call it.

7 thoughts on “The Dashwood Rule

  1. I like the Dashwood rule. & talking about ‘things’, even if they’re superficial, can still allow the hero and heroine to reveal who they are, what they care about. Maybe ‘things’ suits a domestic drama best, because Austen seems to think (I haven’t read Austen in so long so maybe I’m pulling this out of nowhere) that happiness is made from quotidian events, routines, the little choices and decisions that order our days & ultimately determine what sort of person we’ll be in a crisis.

    I think gossip is a pretty healthy behavior, really. It’s a basic component of any community. People who look out for one another & care for one another (and occasionally censure and stifle one another).

    Another option might be the Eleanor rule–from Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” I know the first time I read that quote it hit me like a slap in the face.

    All right–I think I may have committed the unpardonable offense of commenting where my own book is being discussed. If I’ve stepped in where I’m unwelcome–apologies! But I really like this Dashwood rule idea & wanted to chime in.

    1. You are very welcome here! This isn’t really a review (though again, I did very much like the book), more a discussion of a quality The Secret Heart possesses that’s more rare than I would like for it to be.

      I like the idea of an Austen-related name for the rule because she did the discussion of “things” so well, whether it’s Elizabeth and Darcy debating the qualities of an educated woman, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney discussing popular literature, and so on, her characters talk about so much more than each other. (Tho they do that too and I wouldn’t to give the impression that I’m against that. To the contrary, I like the tension between how characters describe themselves versus how they act.)

      I also don’t want to make it sound like I think romance today is frivolous (many genre romances meet the Dashwood Rule) or that every romance should include treatises on philosophy. But I do think talk of “things” can be an effective component of characterization, voice, and author brand.

  2. Discussions like the ones you mention typically take place in quiet moments between couples–and I love those quiet moments in romance, when you get a glimpse of what their future lives will be like, once the sturm-und-drang of the early relationship phase starts to fade.

    Those quiet moments are often simply pure character sketches–they don’t necessarily advance the plot, which might be why we don’t see them often–they’re hard to do well and are easy to chop if you want to cut word count. (Or if someone thinks you’ve put too much science talk into your romance. ;) )

    The discussion of setting up the dairy in A Lady Awakened might be my favorite of these kinds of scenes–it’s so wonderfully prosaic, the conversation itself, but what’s happening beneath that conversation, for both Martha and Theo, is so wonderfully profound.

    1. This is a wonderful point.

      I saw someone paraphrasing a NaNo motivational speech on Twitter the other day. The person paraphrased something like, “No one likes to read a first date conversation.” If you mean a bunch of plot dump or biographical details, then no. But if you mean these sometimes awkward, always revealing discussions about who we are and what we want intercut with the acknowledgment of desire and the fear about revealing our neediness (that isn’t quite the right word), then yes please.

  3. You could call it the Gilmore Rule. I think one of things I loved about that show was the fact that yes, they talk about boys all the time, but they also talk about books and music and Lorelei’s business aspirations.

    I love this idea, by the way. I think it’s one of the reasons I tend not to find category satisfying any more (though there are certainly exceptions). There’s simply not enough space to talk about anything else!

    1. This is definitely why the Bechdel Test and Gilmore Girls are linked in my head: because the show did it so well. And the result was that the characters felt real, like flawed but likable, interesting, three-dimensional people, who yes talked about boys but other stuff too.

      Again, the romances I like do this–so it’s not absent. But it is rarer than I would like.

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