Today, if a romance novel features one woman and two men, it’s likely to be a ménage (short for ménage a trois) erotic romance. This is about the only way a woman gets to have two interesting men vying for her at one time in a contemporary romance. But it wasn’t always that way.
Way back in the middle of the 19th century, Georges Bizet composed a pleasantly melodic opera he called The Pearl Fishers, whose plot centered around two handsome men in Ceylon who desired the same woman—a virginal priestess whose current job description plainly stated “No men allowed.” Nadir and Zurga swore a friendship oath not to woo her, resulting in one of the most famous male duets in opera, “Au font du temple saint.” Here’s the duet, with all its modern homoerotic reinterpretations fairly plain to see:
This beautiful friendship gets broken up when Nadir endangers himself and his beloved by secretly visiting her when she’s supposed to be alone and praying for the safety of the fishing town. Predictably, they get caught, and they’re going to be executed, and then Zurga finally rises above his jealous anger and saves them. Yes, it’s that rare thing, an opera with a happy ending. Currently, it’s playing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 100 years. Why wait so long? Many theories have been advanced, and I’d like to add my own. When this hokey melodrama about a completely unlikely “Oriental” society was written, courtship was a rivalry between men for a virginal young woman, with marriage as the winning hand. Today, we don’t see that kind of rivalry in male-female relationships. We see serial intimate pairings. The heroines of the television shows Girls and the earlier Sex and the City are women looking for Mr. Right, and only finding Mr. Right Now—over and over again. Unless it’s a ménage romance, and there, the heroine actually has two men to choose from. And she chooses both. Enter Nadir and Zurga, whose relationship to each other is as intense as their hoped-for relationship with their priestess. Ah, so that’s why this story is back again.
What happened to make the classic “two men vying for one woman” plot old-fashioned? Society moved on. Up to the middle of the 20th century, American-written romances still espoused the conventional situation of a heroine wooed by not one but two attractive men. This reflected the social behavior of the time, of dating a variety of people without being intimate with any. The heroine of a mid-century American romance usually chose the hardworking middle-class boy next door instead of the attractive but suspiciously smooth millionaire, or the shady nightclub owner, or the unstable guy on a motorcycle. Then, the influence of romances written in the British Commonwealth upped the ante. There might be two men in the romance, but one of them was sure to be a bit effete compared to the very macho and extremely wealthy man who swept the heroine off her feet. American romances changed to reflect the idea that women’s first choice in a man might be unsatisfactory, and she had the right to change her mind. A lot of boring fiancés got dumped in romances in the late 20th century, in favor of much hotter and romantic heroes. But as society changed even more, the rejected first suitor seemed to vanish entirely from romance novels. He’s hardly an option in romances today. Instead, we have ménage. The idea of having a choice among men has returned, albeit in a new way. This might explain the popularity of this new subgenre, too. Choosing just one right person is difficult, but what if a woman doesn’t have to eliminate one man to choose the other? How cool is that?