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Judith McNaught's Whitney, My Love



[content warning: sexual assault, rape, physical violence between partners, coercive/abusive treatment of the heroine]


[A note: I read the revised 1999 version so I have relied on Charlotte Penn Clark’s blog post on the novel here for my understanding of the 1985 version: https://medium.com/@charlottepennclark/whitney-rewritten-spoilers-ahead-f59399fd1b49.]


When I was reading Whitney, My Love, I could see how this text has deeply shaped the historical romance genre. Clayton Westmoreland reminds me of so many alpha heroes that I have read: he is overbearing, brash, and yet completely besotted with his heroine, even as he misunderstands and misreads her time and again. Clayton has no control over his emotions and acts rather than thinks for 90% of the book. Whitney, too, feels like the archetype for a certain kind of Regency heroine. Scarlett Peckham terms her female main characters "alpha heroines" and that term comes to mind for Whitney too. Whitney is daring, stubborn, sparkling, bright, full of hunger. She has a lot of pride and despises the idea of being controlled or reined in by anyone. Whitney feels like the logical extension of Emma Woodhouse, if she were allowed to leave Highbury and gain access to a wide circle of high-society suitors. Whitney always knows what she wants (or, at least, believes that she does) and, when she thinks she wants something or someone, she goes for it. In many ways, Whitney, My Love is the story of two “alphas” falling in love and trying to work it out despite their identical strengths and weaknesses. Neither Whitney or Clayton have much respect for boundaries, especially when they stand in the way of them getting what they want, and both are prideful, distrusting, and prone to insensitivity.


I want to give a brief recap of the set-up of this novel so that what follows here makes sense. I usually dislike extensive plot recaps in reviews, but you need a little context for any of my discussion to make sense. This plot is A LOT and there is a lot of it.


The book opens with Whitney as a rebellious fourteen-year-old. She is in love with an older local squire, Paul, and stalks him in an attempt to get him to love her back. He flirts with her a little, but largely finds her off-putting. Fed up with Whitney and her embarrassing antics, her father sends her to Paris to live with her aunt and uncle. Of course, while there, she blossoms into a Parisian diamond of the first water and finds herself with many suitors. In Paris, Clayton first glimpses her, but she doesn’t really notice him. They speak briefly at a masquerade and she is intrigued by him, but then he speaks to her in an uncouth (read: sexual) manner and she is repulsed. Clayton, however, is besotted and he decides that he wants to marry her. Instead of proposing to her like a normal human, he goes to her father in England and asks him for permission to marry her—and offers to pay off his significant debt as part of the bargain. Whitney’s father then calls her back to England. Instead of revealing his identity and their engagement to Whitney, Clayton decides that he will pose as a country gentleman named Clayton Westland and try to win her over with his charms. Therefore, when they truly meet for the first time, the power dynamic between the two is insanely lopsided. Clayton has her entire fate in his hands and Whitney doesn't even know it. Furthermore, she still loves Paul and sets about trying to get him to fall in love with her from the second she arrives back in England. Of course, over the course of the novel, Whitney and Clayton end up falling in love and end up with an HEA, but only after overcoming an endless litany of emotional obstacles borne from this original set-up.


When Judith McNaught revisited Whitney, My Love in 1999, she changed two scenes that had received negative reactions from readers. In the first of these scenes, Clayton is enraged with Whitney because she has thrown a riding crop at a horse that he is riding—when she knows that the horse has a deathly fear of riding crops. The horse subsequently loses control and Clayton has to use his superior horseman skills to get him to calm down. In short, Whitney could have really hurt Clayton and the horse with her rash action. In retaliation, Clayton puts Whitney over his knee and spanks her with the riding crop—or, at least, he does in the 1985 version. In the 1999 revision, McNaught has Clayton stop at the last moment and he never actually hits her with the crop. I have never read the 1985 original, so I can’t speak to the scene as it once existed. I do have to say, though, that I didn’t find Clayton’s impulse to spank her with the crop as disturbing as how much Whitney just hates his general presence in this portion of the book. I have read books where the hero does similar things, but the heroine is into the dynamic—thinking here of Lisa Valdez’s Patience—and, even if the scene isn’t without its problematic elements, I can see why it is erotic for these two characters. Here, though, crop or no crop, Whitney’s level of hatred for Clayton is just…not sexy or romantic. It doesn't feel like I-hate-you-so-much-I-just-have-to-have-you, but like genuine hatred on her part. It is how Elizabeth feels for Darcy post-ballroom rejection x 10 PLUS this guy is trying to hit her with a riding crop. There is enemies-to-lovers and then there is whatever is happening during the first 50% of Whitney, My Love. Maybe there are those who would disagree, but, to me, enemies-to-lovers is when two characters dislike/hate each other because of what the other person has done/represents but nevertheless they feel a strong, undeniable physical attraction and emotional pull towards that person. Their hatred for the other main character is warring with an equally strong attraction. Whitney is sort of attracted to Clayton, but it is nowhere equal to her hatred. Behold this hatred, which regularly veers into murderous:


“Whitney thought she would splinter apart from the turbulence of her hatred and animosity.”


“How she loathed and despised Clayton Westland!”


“The idea of doing him bodily harm filled Whitney with morbid delight. She would have thoroughly enjoyed running him through with a sword of blowing his head off with a gun or seeing him hanging from a tree.”


“Whitney greeted the news that Clayton was to dine with them the following evening with all the enthusiasm she would have felt for a public flogging.”


“If she’d had a knife at that moment, Whitney would have plunged it into his chest.”


Perhaps if these passages were paired with moments where she is salivating over his handsome face and smoking body, they would feel less representative of her true feelings. But they really aren’t counteracted with any convincing ameliorating element—sure, Clayton and Whitney have a few kisses that are passionate but she goes back almost immediately to wanting to stab him to death. And then pair this state of affairs with the fact that she is actively in love with another man…and it sure does feel a lot like Clayton is coercing Whitney into a relationship that, from her point of view, is 100% unwanted. Furthermore, McNaught makes clear that Whitney does not need any encouragement to express her desires: her aggressive pursuit of Paul makes clear that she doesn’t need much encouragement at all to go after who she wants. This trait makes her relationship with Clayton a bit bewildering. Why should we be rooting for a hero who wants to force the heroine into an unwanted relationship and tries to punish her resistance to him by hitting her with a riding crop? (Whitney throws the riding crop, after all, because he is forcing her to go riding with him). You could say that Whitney is similar to Clayton in that she tries to force Paul into a relationship with her...but, after her return to England, Paul is interested in her and consents to her attentions. Why is Whitney's irrational love for Paul wrong and Clayton's nonsensical love for her right? Why does Clayton know best? Herein lies the problem of Whitney, My Love.


While the riding crop scene is bewildering, it is nowhere near as disturbing as the second scene that McNaught changed in 1999. In this scene, after they have fallen in love and Whitney promises to marry Clayton of her own accord, Clayton rapes Whitney in anger—because he believes that she slept with other men before and during their engagement. McNaught revised this scene to give Whitney a moment where she seems to somewhat assent to the encounter—but I would be surprised if any contemporary reader who peruses this scene would call it anything but rape. It is an extremely painful scene, both for the characters and the reader. Clayton and Whitney are both emotionally devastated by this event and Whitney is definitely traumatized. I have read one or two other older romances in which the hero sexually assaults the heroine and, as I think many would agree, it just does not work for me. I can see the appeal of a forceful hero, even one who pushes the boundaries of consent and is controlling, possessive, etc., but straight-up sexual assault is a bridge too far for me. I know that these scenes used to be a lot more common in historical romance—and scenes that read coercive now certainly used to be de rigueur in the genre. It is just hard for me to believe that a romance can really come back from such a violation and, after this happened in Whitney, My Love, I knew it wouldn't be a favorite for me.


That said, if you open up GoodReads, you’ll find plenty of people who adore Whitney, My Love. And, even though I couldn’t get past the above elements enough to truly love it, I do understand the strengths of the book. I know some people find Whitney irritating, but, in my opinion, she is really the magnetic center of this book. I really appreciated how Whitney does what she wants when she wants, which is rare in Regency heroines, then and now. There is no noble self-sacrifice for Whitney!! While she sometimes makes foolish choices, she is also very charming—she has the air of an Austen character, in that she generally doesn’t question the constraints of her era but also feels entitled to express her individuality within this world. I would also say that Tessa Dare heroines and Eloisa James’s most recent heroine, Cleo, remind me of Whitney. I also can’t emphasize enough that this book is an epic. Clayton and Whitney don’t even have regular scenes on page together until 15% of the way through the book—for the first 50 pages, I thought that her friend Nicki was the hero. (And I have to say that I liked their dynamic!! I might have preferred that book but alas…). We get so much background and there are so many side characters. It says Westmoreland saga on the front of the book and that is an accurate description. Contemporary historical single titles feel spare by comparison.


That said, in certain ways, Whitney and Clayton do feel a good match; they both clearly need to be with someone as strong, impulsive, and lively as themselves and I did find the alpha-alpha pairing really interesting. It does feel, though, that McNaught sets Whitney up to be broken down by Clayton; she implies that Whitney needs to be softened from her original sparky self in order to find an HEA. It feels like the abuse and assault that Clayton subjects her to is supposed to achieve this goal and I just couldn’t get behind seeing that happen to Whitney. Both because I don’t think that behavior is ever acceptable in any relationship, even (for me at least) in the fantasy world of a romance novel, but because it felt sadistic to read the story of Whitney’s childhood and pre-Clayton life to then have him come in and treat her that way. Whitney craves self-determination and, while, at the end, she does choose Clayton of her own accord, I just wished she didn’t have to be abused and assaulted to come to the realization that she loves him.


That said, I found this book fascinating and I know I will be thinking about it for a long time.


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