Princesses have long captured the imagination of the public and shaped feminine ideals. A child of the 80s, I grew up with the first-wave of Disney princesses on VHS, Princess Diana all over the magazines in the supermarket checkout line, and aisles in Toys ‘R Us throbbing with pink packages containing an array of princess dolls, costumes, jewelry, and games. I read fairy tales and the message was, paradoxically, that female power lies in passivity and submission. While the portrayals of these women have evolved over the decades since my childhood, misogyny and unbalanced power dynamics continue to play a significant role in our culture’s attitudes toward women.
In her new novel, “The Force of Such Beauty,” Barbara Bourland delves into these issues through the story of Princess Caroline, a former Olympic runner who marries the prince of a small European kingdom and learns the hard way how quickly fairy tales can become horror stories. Confined to a castle, reduced to being merely a reproductive vessel, and stripped of all autonomy, Caro must decide whether to accept her situation or fight for her freedom. Bourland’s third book is engaging and powerful, telling an exciting and wrenching tale that is both timeless and of-the-moment.
I was able to get some background on this fabulous new novel from the author herself.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Caroline, the protagonist of “The Force of Such Beauty,” is an Olympic-level distance runner before she meets Finn. Why did you decide to make that Caroline’s talent? Did you do a lot of research about distance running? Are you a runner yourself?
Barbara Bourland: I am a runner and a notably terrible one—I have a hard time pacing, my gait sucks, I get overheated easily. Yet there’s so much that I love about this dumb, simple sport. The high is key—it is such a good high—as is the absolute joy of running in a race surrounded by all kinds of bodies. In general, you can have any kind of body to be a runner. Timed competition, however, rewards youth and cisgendered male bodies. To run in a timed race of any real distance is to guarantee that you will basically always watch the cismen outrun everyone else; you will always feel like other kinds of bodies are destined to come in second. I wanted that specific hierarchy, and this sort of theatrical pursuit of equality and fairness that competition engenders, to be part of Caroline’s sense of self. I wanted her to come from something that not only would leave an aching hole where her dopamine used to be, but for her preconceptions and biases to make her vulnerable to falling in love with an autocrat—for the fairytale pitch of “I’m going to take care of you, because I know best” to seem fatefully accurate.
Caroline wants to be free to move her body as she pleases, but once she forces it to perform qualitatively, to value it only for its speed, it breaks. When she gives it over to her husband in exchange for security, it is bound up—utterly limited—by his decisions. It is only once she decides to be separate from the rules governing her body that she finds any sense of freedom.
BFB: The fact that Caro is largely uneducated is a characteristic that seems to make her even more suited to the role of princess. Why was this an important feature of her character? Was this true of the real-life princesses you researched?
BB: Caroline’s lack of a formal education or professional training outside of her sport puts her in the position that many women are in all over the world: her next best option is to be a wife and mother, wholly dependent on a primary earner. Supporting ourselves without explicitly using our bodies as the medium of labor—either as objects of regard or as reproductive assets—unequivocally requires education, professional development, and control over our reproductive futures. It requires that we stop seeing ourselves, or our daughters, as vessels.
The real-life princesses who I researched were generally being trained for their role from birth in some way or another. Their defined economic reach was toward marriage, full stop, and as such, their educations reflected that role—play a little, draw a little, make good conversation, etc. Their graduation from that education into a “professional life” came at the time of their earliest years of fertility; Diana Spencer, for example, was educated at an actual finishing school in Switzerland, engaged at nineteen, and married at twenty.
BFB: Before Caro meets Finn, the prince, she has an accident that ends her running career and leads to surgeries that make her even more conventionally beautiful than she had been in the past. Her body also changes because of her new lifestyle, which has the sole purpose of getting Caroline to carry babies to term, and she trains for this eventuality with the same intensity she used to train for marathons. In both cases, her body holds tremendous power, but that power is tenuous and fleeting — and not fully her own. What is the book saying about power?
BB: Power comes from choice: the choice to act or not, to connect or disconnect, to accept or reject, to love or to leave. There is no real choice available for women within structures that are explicitly designed to oppress and exploit us as reproductive vessels; at “best” we can trade a life as the exploited for the life of one who exploits.
The princess story—the journey toward the castle that will keep you safe and a search for the prince whose commitment will validate you—is the grand, sparkling archetype of voluntary submission to power. It is not a story of empowerment or hope. It is, now and always, a story of self-oppression and self-delusion. My own goal in writing this book was to dig the princess story out of my bones and hold it up to the light where it shines like rotted meat instead of a diamond. To change how I see it, and hopefully how the reader sees it, as well, and to ideally accomplish that with empathy and care.
BFB: A major topic in the book concerns the subjugation of women’s bodies — something that is of particular relevance and concern today. Any thoughts/comments about the current (nightmarish) reality facing women in this country?
BB: Women have the full and absolute right to control our own bodies. We have the right to adorn them or not, to enhance them or not, to change them or not in the ways that please and complete us. We have the right to cut and color our hair, to trim our nails, to get top surgery or breast enlargements, to use tampons or free bleed through our shorts; to take hormones; to carry a fetus to term and have a baby if we so choose, and if not, to have an abortion at any time. We have these rights. Our bodies belong to us, and to no one else. Whether or not these rights are enshrined in law is the problem facing us at this moment, and as we have seen, laws can be changed. We must fight for legal protections for the rights we inherently possess; we must do so not only for ourselves but for the people of the future.
We have these rights. If we give them away, like Caroline chooses to in “The Force of Such Beauty,” we are destined to suffer the same consequences.
Thursday, September 8, 2022
Hidden Palace Reading Series
Wednesday, September 28, 2022
“The Force of Such Beauty”: Launch & GR Book Club
Greedy Reads Remington, 8pm
Friday, November 18, 2022
Rum & Redaction Reading Series
Old Line Spirits, 6:30pm