I know this is not appropriate for Halloween, but the subject of romance has been occupying my thoughts this past week as I’ve been reading a fascinating critical study on the topic in order to review it for an academic journal. The book tracks the changing face of romance novels over the course of the twentieth century in response to significant changes in relations between the sexes, but it points out how romance has perennially been associated with women. It’s mostly women who write it, women who read it and, nowadays, women who publish it, when it’s a question of mass market commercial houses like Harlequin. Despite the huge changes brought about by the wave of feminism that altered irrevocably the organization of Western society in the 70s and 80s, and sought to emancipate women from a sense of self-worth based entirely upon their desirability, there remains a strong link between female reading pleasure and romance literature.

This critical study (Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France by Diana Holmes, for those who’d like to know) does a fantastic job of bringing social history and literary history together, pointing out that romance has always been an important literary genre for women because romance was always such an important factor in the material quality of their lives. It mattered far more to a woman whom she married, for the condition and the circumstances of her entire life subsequently would be determined by it. Furthermore, in the days before women were allowed to turn their creative egos outward onto the world, romance was their only culturally sanctioned adventure. It was the place where they were allowed, briefly, to star center stage. But culture moves on and romance remains eternal. For this reason, we might also look towards the more psychoanalytic interpretations of romance’s hypnotic hold. Heroines may well want to attach themselves to strong, burly heroes in order to gain access (vicariously or otherwise) to excitement and adventure in the wider world, but the best romantic heroes are those who display an underlying tenderness and stability, offering the heroine ‘the kind of nurturing warmth that adult women mostly find themselves dispensing rather than receiving.’ Romantic love reassembles the best bits of mothers and fathers that adults are required to leave behind in childhood and unites them in one loving individual, thus continuing the supply of the comfort and the energizing agency so vital to our well being in the world.

So the point of romance is to bring man and woman to the place where they might safely explore together the thrill and the danger of the world. But in getting there the romance also offers a space in which to explore anxieties and fears about the possibility of this actually happening and the price that might be exacted for it. Old style romance may well have been propaganda for patriarchy, a way of telling women that if they conformed to a certain idealized model of nurturing compliance, they would be rewarded with love and material security, but romance across the ages has also been a space in which our intransigent quirks and differences might find themselves validated by another. The human soul is 75 percent visible to its owner. That recalcitrant, leftover 25 percent is like the individual box room that contains all the stuff that’s ugly, unusable or simply out of place. Literature loves this box room: it either lets it run amok to give us tragedy, or it teaches us to laugh at it by producing comedy, or it shows us how someone else might come to love it for us in the genre of romance. But literature also contains scores of novels that explore the inherent danger of what looks like an ideal solution. To have a loving spectator in our lives who approves of us is one of the great valorizing events of existence, but if we dare to outsource our sense of self-worth to them then we create a monster, an ideal image we must live up to that binds us to a way of being and to winning the approval of one cherished other. In one of Balzac’s novels the heroine, Eugénie Grandet looks at herself in the mirror and sees not only her reflection but, over her shoulder, that of the man she loves and cries out ‘I am not good enough for him!’ Ah, we abdicate part of our narcissism when we love deeply, and our sense of self is invaded by another at great cost to our peace of mind.

Doesn’t make the lure of romance any less enticing, however, that it contains its own risks and traps. It can also provide a space for idealizations that are equally necessary to us. Most romance dramatises the conflict between the desires of the individual and the demands of society and manages to wring some kind of provisional, workable compromise out of the encounter. Romance is the genre in which our need to be both free and intimate can be negotiated, and where we can explore our fascination and fear of difference, where we can consider the pressing ethical question about how we use other people and what we can give to them. I really liked a bit at the end of the study when contemporary novels were up for discussion and one author (Camille Laurens for the French-inclined) defended the right of young girls to dream at the window ‘for to imagine the ideal lover is a creative act, a means of transcending through imagination the contradictions of the human condition.’ We need romantic ideals, even if the best we can do with shambolic reality is to recreate a semblance of them, even if our love affairs are always an ongoing and sometimes painful negotiation between the possible real and the impossible perfect.

Whilst I was reading this book I made a rather intriguing discovery: it just so happened that I realized I had been reading a series of literary romances, only they had been written by men. So I’m going to do a little series now entitled Men in Love, looking at grand passions from the male point of view. Men are no less interested in romance than women, I think, but their emphasis appears to be different. Well, I’ll have more to say on that score another time. Enjoy trick or treating tonight, blogging friends, and share the candy with those you love!

16 thoughts on “Romance

  1. Well, another brilliant post! This is a fascinating subject. It seems to me that this applies to romance literature across many cultures, not simply in France. By the way, do you know if there is an equivalent of the romance genre in cultures other than Western European? Interesting…

  2. Sad to say many liberals and feminists encourage girls not to sit at the window and day-dream about an ideal lover, but to go out and play with the boys at their traditionally boy games. Perhaps it goes toward explaining why women today have to go through so many men before they find the right one. Equality is great, but don’t we want there to be differences between women and men? Don’t the liberals and feminists see that once women do everything that men do, and once they have the same dreams and needs and passions as men, then it truly has become a man’s world.

  3. LK – And a very happy Halloween to you too! Thank you for your lovely remarks. It’s very interesting to note that as you move away from America, the UK and the rest of Europe, so the fascination with the romance genre wanes. It’s a real privilege of the civilized world to write narratives that have as their fundamental source of conflict and interest the way two people feel about one another. That IS interesting! Quillhill – what an extremely intriguing comment. Makes me think of when I was teaching feminism to the students, and the definition of it I favoured was ‘equality between the genders in their relation to power’. If old style patriarchy insisted that women had to be kind and selfless helpmates to be ‘feminine’ then it was no good feminism trying to tie women up in a different straitjacket of identity by insisting they had to be dynamic and active and angry or whatever. The structure of society should provide equal opportunities, but there’s no need for any prescriptive identities to be batted about. I think that’s a long winded way of agreeing with you!

  4. You get a lovely Baby Ruth for this very interesting post. No, make that a nice bar of dark chocolate.

    And for your response upthread about equality between the genders, you get a big cheer. Feminism does us no favors when it insists that what we need is to become alike. A feminist myself, I’ve never thought that’s the desired outcome. Equality of choices seems to hit it on the head. And I do so love your image of those “intransigent quirks and differences” lolling around in the box room waiting for someone to take them out for a good airing.

  5. I enjoy your long wind, Litlove. Perhaps I am lumping together all feminists as militant feminists? Or perhaps what do I know? And you may have given me a title to a new book: The Box Room.

  6. Perhaps the Romance genre fades with distance from European influence because it is descended from the effects of the “Courtly Love” of the Middle Ages. Although there may be Muslim influences it appears to be a mainly European phenomenon although it was only named during the 19th century by Gaston Paris.

    Barbara Tuchman wrote in her 1978 publication “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century” that the stages of Courtly Love were;

    * Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
    * Worship of the lady from afar
    * Declaration of passionate devotion
    * Virtuous rejection by the lady
    * Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
    * Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of lovesickness)
    * Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady’s heart
    * Consummation of the secret love
    * Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection

    Not a bad summary of the Mills and Boon plots. 🙂

    Sorry for the return of my own long-windedness.

  7. Dear Bloglily – how you spoil me! You are a romantic icon in my household, I can promise you! I see we are entirely of one mind on the feminist movement, which surprises me not at all. Shameless – fantastic; do you think you can see your way to authoring one? Or maybe setting it to words and music? Quillhill – no, there is a strand within feminism that would seek homogeneity rather than equality (and outside it too in the corporate world, notably) and you’re quite right to argue against such a thing. I’d be honoured if I had given you a book title! Archie – I loved your comment – take all the time and space you need. I just adore that list and am just now looking out of the window in my ivory tower to see if any prince is chancing by to perform a heroic deed of valour. Unfortunately I’ve only had the man come to read the electricity meter so far today.

  8. Such an interesting post and so many interesting comments! I am intrigued that romance appears to be a mostly western phenomenon. I wonder why if western romance came from the courtly love tradition, I wonder how it is that nothing similar arose in eastern traditions? Can’t wait for your men in love posts!

  9. Very interesting! I’ve been reading Dale Spender on this, who says that plenty of men write romance plots, but their novels aren’t called romances, while women’s novels are labeled romances and therefore looked down upon. And a whole range of women’s novels with lots of diversity get collapsed into the category of romance and their diversity denied. I like the complexity with which you describe what romances do — they obviously do important psychological and cultural work and deserve a lot of respect!

  10. Pingback: Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup

  11. Stefanie – it is intriguing, isn’t it? I think that the way religion has changed in the East and West has an influence as well. The decline of religion in the West has meant that residual spirituality has been diverted into interpersonal relationships. Well, it’s a thought. I must say I’m having a lot of fun reading about men and romance! Dorothy – I very much enjoyed your post on the Spender – our reading is certainly running along parallel paths at the moment! And I like the way you put that: yes, romance does a lot of work in our culture on the quiet!

  12. Your one sentence about the danger of outsourcing our self-worth to the loved one saved me having to read the genre! Thank you, Litlove. I’m certain that’s the best of what romances have to offer, distilled into two dozen words and will never trouble myself again that I’ve missed out on a branch of literature.

    If you could do the same for gothic horror tales, I’d be grateful.

  13. Thank you, David! Delighted to have saved you some time. If I get sent a review copy of any critical analysis of gothic horror tales I’ll be certain to provide you a condensed version. In advance I’d say there are many ways to experience one’s mortal vulnerability and gothic tales may be one of the safer of them. There, best I can do in the moment.

  14. It’s been so interesting reading both your posts as well as Dorothy’s on this subject. I am glad to see their is some critical work on it, and to see it is a worthy topic. I am looking forward to reading more of your Men in Love posts, too!

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