Gothic Spring, my novel, looks at the stranglehold Victorian values had on women. Nonetheless, my characters enjoy a little hanky-panky before the fall, unlike the outcomes in what is known in the commercial trade as “bonnet books.” Bonnet books, as writer Ann Neumann describes them, follow plot conventions similar to Victorian novels, except the setting is the Amish countryside. In bonnet books, the virgin-heroine is torn between her passion for a would-be lover and her passion for God — a steamy struggle with nary a kiss between the sexes and where God always wins. (“More Titillated Than Thou,” by Ann Neumann, The Baffler, #28, pgs. 148-153.)
Neumann describes these novels as “a critical wasteland – flat writing, over-the-top drama, a studied lack of awareness of the wider world… false and idealized.” (Ibid pg. 150.) Given the popularity of a blockbuster like Fifty Shades of Grey, one wonders, “Who buys these chaste novels?” Well, the Amish, for one, and Evangelical women for another. With the Amish, Evangelical women share a thirst for guiltless romance. Others who read them may be looking for respite from the orgy of the mass market, preferring to have a little something left for the imagination.
Oddly enough, the heroines of these stories aren’t wan shut-ins. They show an independent spirit and are curious about the world. (Ibid pg. 152). Their search always ends, however, with their decision to bend to the yoke of a patriarchal society. There, they live without personal rights, except to have as many babies as they can and to love God.
In today’s world, it’s difficult to believe these books would have much commercial appeal outside the 300,000 Amish in the United States. (Ibid pg. 150) But there are 90 million Evangelicals (Ibid pg. 152) and enough of the curious to put bonnet books, largely read by women, on the best seller lists. “More than 80 will be published in 2015, up from twelve titles in 2012.” (Ibid pg. 150.) Thirty-nine writers dominate the field, the most popular being Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall and Wanda Brunstetter . The output of these thirty-nine authors means a bonnet book is published every four days. (Ibid pg. 150).
Let there be no doubt that all these Amish and Evangelicals are having sex like the rest of us. But in the case of bonnet books, the lust and the challenge sex poses is a bump in the road toward salvation.