Posts tagged with precursors of modern romance

I've been doing a tiny bit more background research into the history of the romance novel and ended up reading Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808). In it, one of the exemplary characters:

lamented that novels, with a very few admirable exceptions, had done infinite mischief, by so completely establishing the omnipotence of love, that the young reader was almost systematically taught an unresisting submission to a feeling, because the feeling was commonly represented as irresistible. (137)

It should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that, according to Jane Nardin, shortly thereafter, "By the time Austen’s novels were published, More had stopped reading fiction."

I don't know if she also gave up poetry, but another of the exemplary characters states that:

Love and poetry commonly influence the two sexes in a very disproportionate degree. With men, each of them is only one passion among many. Love has various and powerful competitors in hearts divided between ambition, business, and pleasure. Poetry is only one amusement in minds, distracted by a thousand tumultuous pursuits, whereas in girls of ardent tempers, whose feelings are not curbed by restraint, and regulated by religion, love is considered as the great business of their earthly existence. It is cherished, not as ‘the cordial drop,’ but as the whole contents of the cup; the remainder is considered only as froth or dregs. (341, emphasis added)

This passage amused me, because it made me think there might possibly be one issue on which More and her contemporary, Lord Byron, would have agreed. After all, in his Don Juan a female character writes that:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
  ’Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range
The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
  Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange       
Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
  And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
Men have all these resources, we but one,
To love again, and be again undone.

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More, Hannah. Coelebs in Search of a Wife. 1808. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859.

Nardin, Jane. "Jane Austen, Hannah More, and the Novel of Education." Persuasions 20 (1998): 15-20.

Hutchison and Hurst & Blackett Paperback RomancesHutchison and Hurst & Blackett Paperback Romances

Although Harlequin and Mills & Boon tend to be the names we think of in relation to short paperback romances, for a long time Mills & Boon specialised in hardbacks, for the library market. Competing with them, in the paperback format, were romances by other publishers:

a number of British firms were following the trail blazed by Allen Lane and Penguin Books in 1935. Pan, Corgi, Panther, Sphere, Cherry Tree, and Fontana paperback imprints, featuring romance, crime, and war stories, appeared after the war. [...] Mills & Boon did negotiate paperback editions of some novels before Harlequin's offer in 1957, but these were limited and infrequent. [...] Corgi Books picked up Mills & Boon's Doctor-Nurse titles for its 2s. 'Corgi Romance' series [...]. (McAleer 116)

It wasn't until 1964 that "Mills & Boon started printing paperback novels in Britain (as opposed to importing a limited number of novels printed in Canada)" (114).

Not mentioned by McAleer in the quotes above are Hurst & Blackett and Hutchison, but they too clearly had an interest in this market and, as is evident from the photo above, Hurst & Blackett were clearly labelling their category-length romances as "Romance". I recently bought the paperback romances in that photo from Ebay; they caught my attention because they were paperbacks published in the late 1940s or early 1950s. No publication dates are given in the copies I have, which are not first editions, but according to one library catalogue Sonia Deane's There is a Destiny dates from 1948 and Guy Trent's Strange Destiny from 1949.

I haven't seen much written about early romance paperbacks like these, which reminds me that although we do have some broad histories of popular romances, such as Rachel Anderson's The Purple Heart Throbs (1974) and more specialised histories such as those of Harlequin (e.g. Paul Grescoe's The Merchants of Venus (1996)), there are still a lot of gaps to be filled and, even today, some aspects of the history of the romance-reading community remain ephemeral (such as the digital discussion groups documented in this 2009 post by Jane of Dear Author).

In "Postbellum, Pre-Harlequin: American Romance Publishing in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century" Bill Gleason fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge of much earlier romance publishing and his findings challenge a number of preconceptions which exist about the history of romance fiction. These preconceptions exist, largely, because the history of this type of fiction is so incomplete and works which were hugely popular in the past have fallen into obscurity. Gleason

suggest[s] that many of the elements of American romance publishing we currently take for granted as late-twentieth century innovations, including multiple points of view, proliferating subgenres, and diverse publishing venues, were already distinctive features of the buzzing, blooming, romance market [of the late 19th century]. (57)

According to Gleason, by the 1880s and 1890s there were increasing numbers of "dime novel libraries that catered predominantly, and often specifically, to romance readers" (64) and

"From around the mid-1880s the dime novel libraries became not only more numerous but also more specialized, separating works out not only broadly by genre ... but also narrowly by sub-genre," notes media historian Graham Law. "'Clover', 'Heart', 'Primrose', 'Sweetheart', and 'Violet', were among the epithets used to denote romance libraries aimed at female readers." [...] The writer in whose work the specialized romance series [...] invested most heavily was [...] Charlotte M. Brame [...]. Like other English authors before the passage of the International Copyright Act of 1891, Brame, who wrote "somewhere in the region of 130 novels during her lifetime," had her work routinely pirated in the United States. (65)

Those sound rather like the titles of modern category romance "lines."

A short biography of Brame, along with a bibliography of her works, by Graham Law, Gregory Drozdz and Debby McNally can be found online. Gleason focuses on Wedded and Parted, which

tells the story of 18-year-old Lady Ianthe Carr, whose father, an English Earl, has gambled away their fortune speculating on a mine. To save the family from ruin, Ianthe's father implores her to marry the young man whose father now owns the title to their family estate. Although the young man, Herman Culross, is honest, hard-working and handsome [...] Ianthe treats Herman with contempt. [...] Only when he is gone does Ianthe recognise his true nobility. (66)

If you want to find out what happens next, the whole novel can be found online here. I haven't read it all, but it's category-length and ends with a grovel and an HEA.

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Gleason, William A. 'Postbellum, "Pre-Harlequin: American Romance Publishing in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century," Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom?'' Ed. William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2016), pp. 57-70.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

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Edited to add:

Over on Twitter, Elizabeth Lane's shared some covers of more early paperback romances. I wasn't able to find any mention of their authors in Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers (which doesn't have Guy Trent or Sonia Deane either).

Graduate Nurse by Ann RushGraduate Nurse by Ann Rush

Elizabeth notes that this edition was published in 1956 by Avon but there must have been an earlier edition as the cover mentions that it was originally titled Florida Nurse.

Tomorrow is Forever by Gwen BristowTomorrow is Forever by Gwen Bristow

Elizabeth says 'this one is Pocket from 1971, but it says "Thomas Y. Crowell edition published 1943".'

On 6 October. as part of a symposium at the University of Melbourne on "The State of Play: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century" Rjurik Davidson, who "writes imaginative fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, surrealism, magic realism and fantasy" apparently stated, I assume in the context of a discussion of detective fiction, that "To solve the crime is to reveal the world as it truly is, not as it appears".

This reminded me of a passage in C. S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress in which the pilgrim meets Sigismund Enlightenment (clearly an allusion to Sigismund Freud) who attempts to show him that all his beliefs are nothing more than fantasies, "the pretence [...] put up to conceal your own lusts from yourself" (59). Mr Enlightenment then leaves the pilgim imprisoned in a place where he can be seen by "the Spirt of the Age" (60), whose "eyes had this property, that whatever they looked on became transparent"(60) and so, with the giant staring at them, when the pilgrim looks at one of the other people imprisoned with him he sees

the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins; and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes. And when he averted his eyes from her they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man had a cancer. (60-61)

What he sees is, indeed, a revelation of things as they are, but it is hardly the only or best way of seeing human beings: we are more than a collection of cells arranged into flesh, blood and bones.

I'm not sure what crime fiction suggests is "the world as it truly is" but romance, which is often accused of being escapist and unrealistic, probably offers a somewhat different vision of how the world "truly is". In Patricia Briggs' Alpha and Omega fantasy series with romantic elements, one of the characters pulls out a romance. Admittedly it is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, rather than a modern romance, but Briggs' is writing in a modern context, knowing that her readers will also associate the word "romance" with the modern genre:

'Romantic claptrap,' said Bran [...]. 'As well as historically full of holes'.

'Is there something wrong with that?' asked Asil. 'Romance is good for the soul. Heroic deeds, sacrifice, and hope.' He paused. 'The need for two dissimilar people to become one. [...]' (Fair Game 21)

and on the final page of a later book in the series Charles concludes:

"Love [...] is always a risk, isn't it? I've always thought that there were no certainties in life, but I was wrong. Love is a certainty. And love always gives more than it takes." (Dead Heat 324).

Are Charles and Asil seeing the world as it truly is? I think so, but then, I'm a romance reader.

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Briggs, Patricia. Fair Game. London: Orbit, 2012.

Briggs, Patricia. Dead Heat. London: Orbit, 2015.

Lewis, C. S. The Pilgrim's Regress. 1933. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.

The three-person Team @MillsandBoon was joined by Team Romance Scholar to take part in a panel discussion about romance organised by the University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. The event was recorded and the plan seemed to be to put up a podcast of the discussion so if that happens I'll mention it on the blog. In the meantime, I'll just write up a few comments focussed on the academic side of the panel discussions. Here's how we were described on the Festival's website:

On Saturday 17 September from 1-2pm there will be a panel discussion (see below), followed by the lecture at 2pm.

About the panel discussion

Can anyone write a romantic novel? What are editors looking for in their next romance? How do the authors come up with their ideas? And is it all just escapism, or is there literary value to be found in these texts?

Our panel of experts will answer your burning questions about Mills & Boon romantic novels.

The panel:

  • Flo Nicoll, Senior Editor for Mills & Boon
  • Susan Stephens and Heidi Rice, popular authors for Mills & Boon
  • Dr Laura Vivanco, whose academic text For Love and Money, published in 2011, explored the literary art of Mills & Boon romantic novels
  • Dr Amy Burge, whose recent monograph Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) analysed race, religion, multiculturalism and gender in romance
  • Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University’s Vice-Chancellor Scholarship PhD candidate, whose own research explores the romance genre as a feminist endeavour.

Leading the discussion and then giving the lecture on Mills & Boon romance was Val Derbyshire (you can read about some of her M&B research here and here).

Team Romance Scholar fielded a number of questions.

As part of a discussion about heroes, Amy was able to give extremely detailed feedback on the numbers of sheikh heroes in Mills & Boon novels. Anyone wanting more information about that can read Amy's book on Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. There have also been a lot of Mediterranean heroes (Greek, Italian and Spanish mainly) and Flo Nichols suggested that although in recent years authors had been drawn to experiment with Russian heroes (presumably because of Russian oligarchs buying up UK football clubs etc) they've not been as popular as hoped with readers.

In response to a question about diversity, Amy suggested that although the Cinderella archetype may mean there are a fair number of heroines of working-class origin, there is less balance with regards to ethnicity/race. Flo argued that the company's output is diverse but also suggested that readers' responses have a big impact on Harlequin Mills & Boon's attempts at ethnic/racial diversification beyond sheikhs etc because they pay a lot of attention to sales figures when deciding what works and what doesn't. That said, Flo also felt that the submissions they receive have not varied very much, perhaps because aspiring authors write what they think HM&B want (based on what has already been published). She seemed interested in receiving submissions with heroes and heroines from a wider range of ethnicities/races.

I responded to a question about changes in the novels over time but I'm not the best at remembering dates so I'm afraid I might have been out by a decade or so when making some of my comments. Anyone wanting to know more about the history of Mills & Boon should read jay Dixon and Joseph McAleer's books on the topic but I'll quote a little bit of what they have to say here.

Mills & Boon began as a general publisher but from the 1930s "until the mid-1950s, general books were dropped and the firm concentrated on romance fiction" (Dixon 17):

The 1930s witnessed a major shift in the firm's direction which reflected changes in the marketplace. As library sales increased between the wars, fiction displaced the educational and general lists. At the same time, Mills and Boon specialized in its most successful type of novel, the romance. (McAleer "Scenes" 267)

However, McAleer also observes that:

it is difficult to speak of a specific Mills & Boon editorial policy before the Second World War. The reason is obvious: Charles Boon [...] was still a general publisher at heart. The 1930s was still a time of experimentation, and novels were novels in their own right. Boon did not impose many restrictions on his authors. (Passion's Fortune 145)

Nonetheless, it was "During this decade [that] the characteristics of the archetypal Mills & Boon heroine and hero began to fall into place" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 150).

In the 1940s Mills & Boon "added a strong dose of patriotism and social commentary. John Boon believed that Mills & Boon has not been given sufficient credit for maintaining morale with its novels during the war" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 171-72). I've quoted some of McAleer's thoughts on Mills & Boon and the NHS here and he also mentioned that:

when [Joyce] Dingwell's The Girl From Snowy River (1959) was published, a tale of an English woman emigrating to Australia, Boon sent a copy to the Hon. A. R. Downer, MP (then Australian Minister of Immigration), at Australia House, with the message, 'We feel it is good propaganda for immigration.' (Passion's Fortune 103).

Given that the panel was in Sheffield, it might be worth mentioning here that I contributed a few early Mills & Boon novels to Sheffield Hallam University's Readerships and literary cultures collection (1900-1950),  "a collection of books which reflects the wide range of literary tastes during the period 1900-1950". I think the M&Bs are only a very small proportion of the collection, which "consists of over 1200 novels, most in early editions, by 240 different authors" (Middlebrow Network) and I'm not sure how representative their Mills & Boons holdings are. Certainly, the ones I sent them were acquired on the non-academic criterion of whether they could be acquired cheaply on Ebay. As Amy has discovered, though, even the libraries which might be expected to hold a complete list of all the Mills & Boons ever published (such as the British Library and the National Library of Scotland) have lacunae.

When asked whether the status of romance is likely to improve, Flo suggested that (a) it ought to if people paid attention to the sales figures and (b) that the situation is somewhat better in the US. I suggested that perhaps the emergence of the field of popular romance studies would also help improve the genre's reputation. In the study of popular culture more generally, academics working on crime/detective fiction and science fiction have been able to ameliorate the status of those genres so I'm hopeful that academic study of popular romance will be able to demonstrate that romance novels reward analysis in a variety of ways and do deserve to be treated with respect.

As Fiona pointed out, the lack of respect for romance has seeped into the study of authors in other genres too, making assessement of their oeuvres less than complete. She's studying a range of prize-winning authors including Jeanette Winterson and has found that the romantic elements of their novels have been neglected by literary critics. She, however, is focussing on those elements and her work will therefore demonstrate that romance and its conventions can be found well beyond the covers of novels marketed as "romance". This may, perhaps, help reduce the stigma attached to works which are marketed that way.

Fiona has now written a post of her own about the event.

I'm hoping the booklet which gives a full outline of Val's talk might also be put online but perhaps it won't due to copyright restrictions because it includes a lot of images of Mills & Boon covers. As I said, though, the Festival organisers did promise they'd be making some material available online so when they do, I'll post about it. Here's a glimpse of one page via a tweet from Amy:

 

 

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Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

McAleer, Joseph. “Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908-1950.” Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264-288.

In 1992 Frances Whitehead, at the time the Editorial Director at Mills & Boon, had an article published about popular romance, in which she traced its history back to "the Greek novels of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD" (62). She goes on to mention Richardson and Austen, then observes that

Throughout the 19th century, romance continued to appear in all guises and those at the top of the literary tree influenced the writers below them. [...] This curious situation, with romance simultaneously occupying the high and the low ground - the literary and the lowbrow - has continued in the present century. (Some romantic passages from D H Lawrence could be said to qualify for inclusion in both categories.) But whereas romantic love is an acceptable theme for a "literary" author, it is often a source of ridicule in more popular, down-market fiction. (63)

This sounded to me like a defence of popular romance novels, so I read on eagerly, and was pleased to see Whitehead comment that "writing romance isn't like painting by numbers" (64). It began to seem as though the main distinction, in her mind, between "literary" and "genre" fiction, was that, in "genre" fiction, the reader can expect the plot to develop in particular ways, according to which genre is involved:

Having followed the fortunes of hero and heroine throughout the book, the reader demands that they are united for all time. To have them decide that they don't want to spend their lives together would be comparable to James Bond admitting defeat or Christie's Hercule Poirot failing to solve a case. Predictability, the cardinal sin in the "literary" novel, is a necessary and reassuring factor for the reader of genre fiction. (64)

I was, therefore, rather dismayed to see the following statement in the closing paragraphs of the article:

Romantic novels are entertainment, not literature, and do not need to apologize for what they are. They serve their purpose and in the process keep countless women amused and happy, off the valium and out of doctors' surgeries. This in itself is justification. (68)

Sometimes, it seems the defenders of romance are indistinguishable from its detractors.

Edited to add: a response on Twitter reminded me of something I'd read before, which makes me think that Whitehead was probably echoing her boss.

Joseph McAleer, in his Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, states that:

The Mills & Boon imprint, like any successful commodity in a mass market, stands for a quality product, a kind of guarantee of an easy, thrilling, and satisfying read with an obligatory happy ending. This flavourful confection, wrapped in a brightly coloured paperback cover with a dreamy scene, is to many addictive in its escapist nature. Alan Boon, the acknowledged genius behind the stylized Mills & Boon romance, admitted the restorative quality of the novels which he edited for some forty years: 'It has been said that our books could take the place of valium, so that women who take these drugs would get an equal effect from reading our novels.' (2)

It's possible that Boon was just quoting something others had said, but with which he disagreed. However, the context in which it's reported, and Whitehead's reference to valium, make me fairly sure he shared her views and, probably, shaped them.

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Whitehead, Frances. "Love Makes the World Go Round (?): The Romantic Novel as a Publishing Phenomenon." Logos 3.2 (1992): 62-68. [The article has recently been reprinted elsewhere, and you can read the whole of it here.]

On Tuesday Janet/Robin asked what makes certain books "classics" and alluded to the debate about a romance "canon." She concludes that

classic status is more an academic question than an emotional one. I like the idea of putting books in a certain order, identifying influences, looking at how the genre develops and evolves through certain books, and seeing a variety of tropes reinterpreted within different historical contexts, both inside and outside the books themselves.

It seems to me that when a lot of people think about when the modern romance genre began, they point to either Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower (1972) or E. M. Hull's The Sheik (1919). When The Sheik is mentioned, it seems to ride in glorious erotic splendour far from the novels of Georgette Heyer (whose first romance was published in 1921) and there is then something of a gap in the chronology of classic/canonical authorial firsts until 1954, which saw the publication of Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? Barbara Cartland, meanwhile, floats in a timeless pink cloud over the twentieth century but it's rare for any specific book of hers to be mentioned.

This omits from the record a number of extremely successful romance authors writing at the turn of the 20th century: Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell, Jeffery Farnol, Charles Garvice and Berta Ruck. Ayres's

first novel Richard Chatterton V.C. was published in 1916, after which she produced almost 150 titles. Although Ayres was known primarily for her romantic novels, she also wrote serials for the Daily Chronicle and Daily Mirror, as well as motion pictures in the United States and England. Her play Silver Wedding, was produced in 1932.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography called Ruby M. Ayres ""one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century"". (Bloomsbury)

Charles Garvice

was one of the most popular authors of his era—that era being roughly 1900-1920, when he was the Dan Brown of his day, producing novels of no great literary value that went down a storm with the reading public. Most of them were romances, Garvice churning out dozens upon dozens of books, which had sold some six million copies worldwide by 1911. (Holland)

As for Berta Ruck,

From 1905 she began to contribute short stories and serials to magazines such as Home Chat. One such serial was published as a full-length novel, His Official Fiancée (London, 1914), and its success marked the beginning of Ruck's career as a popular romantic novelist. She produced up to three books annually, as well as short stories and articles; her last novel, Shopping for a Husband (London, 1967), appeared when she was nearly ninety. (National)

All three were, clearly, very successful and prolific romance authors. I'd like to focus, however, on Dell and Farnol because Janet mentioned "influences" as an important aspect of being a classic, and Dell and Farnol certainly influenced other, now better-known, romance authors.

Farnol, whose first novel was published in 1907, is neither completely forgotten nor unloved by contemporary readers since there is a Jeffery Farnol Appreciation Society. He has been described in Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers as

a link between the major writers of the 19th-century and the popular romances of the present. While no one could call him a serious writer like Scott or Dickens, one can easily note traces of both these writers in his works. (261)

He's an author who was well aware of the conventions of the genre(s) in which he was writing:

The Broad Highway (1910) begins with a prologue in which the author, tramping English lanes, meets a tinker with decided views on what should go into a romance. The ingredients he mentions - 'dooks or earls, or barro-nites', 'a little blood', and 'some love' are important features of the genre and are incorporated into the story. (Hughes 84)

He, like Ruck, did some interesting things with gender roles on occasion: his "women are slow only to realize that they are falling in love; other than that, they are independent, intelligent, and only too likely to try to take control from the heroes when those gentlemen are moving too slowly" (Romance 261). He was also an author read by Georgette Heyer in her youth (Kloester 15) and in her "The Black Moth [...] the characters and plot owe more to Baroness Orczy and Jeffery Farnol than to Jane Austen" (Kloester 61).

However, when Heyer revisited some of the characters from The Black Moth and reworked them in These Old Shades (1926), the major influence was Ethel M. Dell's Charles Rex

which Georgette had originally read in serial form in The Red Magazine in 1922. Like thousands of other young women she was a fan of Dell's hugely popular angst-ridden novels wih their breathless heroines and cruel heroes. In Charles Rex the heroine spends the first part of the book masquerading as a boy, in which disguise she is rescued by the hero [...]. She becomes his servant [...]. There are at least half-a-dozen points of close similarity between Dell's book and Georgette's before the plots diverge. (Kloester 83)

Heyer has maintained her popularity rather better than Dell, and I can't help wondering if this is partly because Dell's contemporary settings make the racism and class prejudice of her books rather more apparent than they are in Heyer's historical romances (though, as I've noted elsewhere, "Heyer’s personal views certainly affected her depiction of class and racial differences.")

Another possible reason for Dell's lack of appeal to current readers is that she takes a very spiritual view of love. This was, however, an aspect of her writing which had a great impact on Barbara Cartland, who insisted that she owed a debt to Dell and had learned from her that 'human passions are transformed by love into the spiritual and become part of the divine' (Cloud qtd in Vivanco, "Dame Barbara").

Spiritual the love may be, but that's precisely why she sometimes contrasted it with the violence of lust and as a result I can also see a couple of similarities between Dell's The Bars of Iron (1916) and Hull's The Sheik: both feature a hero who is not wholly British and his violence is ascribed, at least in part, to his foreign blood. A recent reader of The Bars of Iron was suprised to find it "so violent! And this violence is so relentlessly sexualised!" (Brown) and there's also a scene in which the violence is actually sexual: the hero, while married to the heroine, rapes her.

One final point about Dell is that she's also an important figure in the history of criticism of the popular romance. Rebecca West wrote of Charles Rex that "in every line that is written about him one hears the thudding, thundering hooves of a certain steed at full gallop; of the true Tosh-horse" (qtd in Beauman 174) and

Complaining about the lazily eulogistic reviewer who corruptly praises everything he reads, George Orwell described him

sinking his standards to a depth at which, say, Ethel M. Dell's Way of an Eagle is a fairly good book. (Beauman 178)

Q. D. Leavis, though, acknowledged that there was more to "the great names of popular fiction" (amongst which she included Dell) than "sympathetic characters, a stirring tale, and absence of the disquieting" (I'm inclined to quibble with that list since there are plenty of elements in Dell's work which I'm sure she intended to be "disquieting"):

Even the most critical reader who brings only an ironical appreciation to their work cannot avoid noticing a certain power, the secret of their success with the majority. Bad writing, false sentiment, sheer silliness, and a preposterous narrative are all carried along by the magnificent vitality of the author, as they are in Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë, one cannot help but feel after comparing her early work with modern bestsellers, was only unlike them in being fortunate in her circumstances, which gave her a cultured background, and in the age in which she lived, which did not get between her and her sponteneities. (62-63)

It was certainly a power I felt when I read Dell and, regardless of whether Leavis thought Dell's view of love was "false sentiment, sheer silliness," I admit to being moved by passages such as this:

"Death is such a baffling kind of thing."

"Yes, I know. You can't grasp it or fathom it. You can only project your love into it and be quite sure that it finds a hold on the other side. Why, my dear girl, that's what love is for. It's the connecting link that God Himself is bound to recognize because it is of His own forging. Don't you see--don't you know it is Divine? That is why our love can hold so strongly--even through Death. Just because it is part of His plan--a link in the everlasting Chain that draws the whole world up to Paradise at last. (The Keeper)

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Beauman, Nicola. A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-39. 1983. London: Virago, 1989.

Bloomsbury. "Ruby M. Ayres."

Brown, Erica. "Violent sex and sexualised violence in ‘The Bars of Iron’ by Ethel M. Dell (1916)." Reading 1900-1950. 25 March 2013.

Dell, Ethel M. The Keeper of the Door. Project Gutenberg.

Holland, Steve. "Charles Garvice." Bear Alley. 20 Feb. 2010.

Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. London: Routledge, 1993.

Janet. "What Makes a Romance Novel Endure?" Dear Author. 17 June 2014.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. London: William Heinemann, 2011.

Leavis, Q. D. Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.

National Library of Wales. "Berta Ruck Archive."

Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers. Ed. James Vinson. Detroit: Gale, 1982.

Vivanco, Laura. "Dame Barbara." Laura's Blog. 27 October 2013.

Vivanco, Laura. "Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2014).

Sunita made me aware of a 1978 article by John G Cawelti, author of Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (1976). In it, Cawelti states that "the romance tradition originated in the 18th century with writers like Samuel Richardson" (104) and thus

Contemporary portrayers of the tender passions can trace their craft back in an unbroken line to at least the middle of the 18th century. By contrast, the Western did not begin until James Fenimore Cooper's first "Leatherstocking" novel in 1823, while there was nothing that could really be called a detective story until Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin tales of the 1840s. Science-fiction enthusiasts claim an ancestry going back to ancient times, but the earliest fantasy with most of the characteristics of modern SF was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of 1818. The spy thriller is of even more recent origin, emerging around World War I. (103)

He adds that "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice [...] (1813) is one of the archetypal models for romance fiction" (106) and to illustrate his point (literally) there's this:

Even in the original the pictures are fairly small and not very clear but they do enable a reader to see how, in the 1970s, the cover art for at least one edition of Pride and Prejudice could, as Cawelti says, be taken as an indication that it and the Harlequin romance "spring from a common romance tradition."

[Edited to add: I haven't been able to work out when that edition of Pride and Prejudice was published. Has anyone seen it before? ]

[Edited to add some more: Since Cartland's been mentioned in the comments, here's the cover chosen for her "Library of Love" reprint (I think from 1977) of E. M. Hull's The Sheik (originally published in 1919).

 

 

 

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Cawelti, John. "Romance: The Once and Future Queen." The Wilson Quarterly 2.3 (1978): 102-109.

When the Romantic Novelists' Association was inaugurated in January 1960, Barbara Cartland was one of two Vice Presidents and she

was the biggest personality ever in the Romantic Novelists' Association, even though she was only a member for six years. She was undoubtedly a major force in getting it off the ground and recruiting founder members. But over the years she has also presented a problem, with which the Association still grapples today: that carefully crafted image of hers has been accepted universally as the archetypal romantic novelist. (Haddon & Pearson 22)

Rosalind Brunt, for example, while acknowledging that Cartland "cannot be understood in terms of a norm or an average [...] would suggest that Cartland is 'typical' in the sense of embodying certain features that are 'characteristic' of romance" (127). Cartland's novels certainly provide some very clear examples of what Kyra Kramer and I have termed

the “alchemical” model of romantic relationships, [in which] the heroine’s socio-sexual body (her Glittery HooHa) attracts, and ensures the monogamy of, the hero’s socio-sexual body (his Mighty Wang), allowing the heroine’s socio-political body (her Prism) to focus, and benefit from, the attributes of the hero’s socio-political body (his Phallus).

This is a model she would have encountered in her own reading of romantic fiction when still a schoolgirl because she

read voraciously - dozens and dozens of light romantic novels: Elinor Glyn, E. M. Hull, whose book The Sheik had set Edwardian womanhood aquiver with dreams of an illicit passion for a desert lover, and the Queen of all romantic lady novelists, Ethel M. Dell. [...] she is insistent on the debt she owes to Ethel M. Dell, a prolific and almost totally forgotten author.

I have copied her formula all my life. What she said was a revelation - that men were strong, silent, passionate heroes. And really my whole life has been geared to that. She believed, and I believed, that a woman, in order to be a good woman, was pure and innocent, and that God always answered her prayers, sooner or later.

There was a further lesson Barbara learned from Miss Dell [...]. It was [...] the belief, as she has put it, that 'human passions are transformed by love into the spiritual and become part of the divine'. (Cloud 31-32)

Consequently, Cartland's own works of fiction

speak with mystical and transcendental accents of romance as a means to spiritual enlightenment. [...] In her many novels, Cartland promoted what she referred to as a “religion of love,” a concept she explained as a theo-philosophical concept in her many non-fictional books. The myth that Cartland cultivated in her novels was that we are saved from our material-physical prison by love. (Rix)

While Dell influenced the content of Cartland's novels, their style would appear to owe much to Lord Beaverbrook, the proprietor of the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, who took her as a protégée:

'Max taught me to write,' she says. 'I believe it is entirely due to him that I have been so successful with my books and the thousands of articles I have done over the years.' [...] she would take her Express and Standard paragraphs to the Hyde Park Hotel where Beaverbrook maintained a phone-filled office. There he would make a great performance of cross-questioning her about what she had written, then pulling her article into little pieces and crossing out the superfluities until finally he applied the proprietorial initials of approval and the authorised version went off to the paper for automatic inclusion.

The trouble, of course, was that Beaverbrook's idea of how to write was highly individual. He liked opinions expressed with certainty in short paragraphs, short sentences and short words. This was a fine formula for popular newspapers but not, alas, for great literature. The Beaver's influence is easily detected in Barbara Cartland's romantic fiction and I am not at all convinced that the influence is wholly benign. (Heald 45-46)

She herself, though, does not seem to have aspired to writing "great literature." When Tim Heald began the process of writing about her, he told Cartland he'd

better get down to some hard reading. She agreed that I must look at her four autobiographies but when I touched on the estimated 575 novels she said, quite rattily, 'Oh, you don't want to read them - they're all the same.' I said nothing to this, but thought, privately, that this was the sort of judgement made by her enemies. It was not what she herself was supposed to say. (14-15)

When asked by another biographer, Henry Cloud, about her heroines, she responded "Oh, she is always me, and always virginal of course. She's something of a Cinderella" (14). Her son, Ian McCorquodale, who became responsible for marketing the novels,concurred with her about this: he "maintains that all his mother's novels are variations on the Cinderella theme" (Heald 47). Heald's

impression is that while she would defend her work on grounds of style, accuracy of research and detail, and general all-round professionalism she acknowledges, within her own circle, that they are merely artefacts designed to give wholesome, harmless pleasure to what in a former age would have been servants and shop girls. (193-94)

Heald doesn't wholly disagree with Cartland's assessment of her work but he notes that she didn't write "her first historical romance [...] Hazard of Hearts" (129)

until 1948 [...]. She was a mature woman of forty-seven who had been writing novels for a quarter of a century before she suddenly hit on the formula which was to make her world famous. (130)

and it was, furthermore, only in the 1970s that

she really slipped into gear and started to churn them out at the prodigious rate she has maintained into her nineties [...] The popular conception is that all her books are historical romances yet this is far from the truth. Earlier novels were different. Jigsaw, the very first, was set in Mayfair, the world she knew best. [...] Later novels also took place in contemporary settings and some took themselves surprisingly seriously. None did so more than Sleeping Swords published in 1942 under her married name. The Daily Telegraph described it as 'long, serious' and 'well done'; the Manchester Guardian opined that she had adopted a 'Wells formula' and given us a 'socio-political novel, this time concerned with the last four decades of English history'.

I don't think that anyone, then or now, would claim that Sleeping Swords was a great novel but it had aspirations to genuine seriousness. (Heald 201-03)

Cloud, though, thought Cartland was also serious about her later novels:

She believes implicitly in what she writes, and this is the key to their success, the vital quality she shares with every really big, mass-selling author of popular fiction - sincerity. It is impossible to conterfeit and pointless to deride. Edgar Wallace had it, so did Ian Fleming, so does Barbara - the ability to turn their private dreams into the sort of myth that has a universal appeal. (16)

Not quite universal, I think, but certainly one that found a worldwide market.

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Brunt, Rosalind. "A Career in Love: The Romantic World of Barbara Cartland." Popular Fiction and Social Change. Ed. Christopher Pawling. London: Macmillan, 1984. 127-156.

Cloud, Henry. Barbara Cartland: Crusader in Pink. 1979. London: Pan, 1981.

Haddon, Jenny & Diane Pearson. Fabulous at Fifty: Recollections of the Romantic Novelists' Association 1960-2010. RNA, 2010.

Heald, Tim. A Life of Love: Barbara Cartland. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.

Rix, Robert W. '“Love in the Clouds”: Barbara Cartland's Religious Romances." The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 21.2 (2009).

Vivanco, Laura and Kyra Kramer. "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

If you've ever wondered why so many romance heroines are (wrongly) identified as "gold-diggers," Stephen Sharot's "Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-Class Romance Films of the Great Depression" may provide the answer:

the sexually empowered woman who manipulates men, who came to be known from about 1915 as a “gold digger,” appears frequently in the films of the early 1930s. The adoption of the term “gold digger,” which had replaced “vamp” as the most prominent type of femme fatale, was part of a broader shift in popular conceptions of women who had moved away from their families and lived alone or with other women. As the term indicates, the motivation of the gold digger is material benefit, whereas the motives of the vamp are often elusive and impenetrable: the vamp may simply take pleasure from the entrapment and destruction of men. Another difference between the vamp and the gold digger is that whereas the class origins of the vamp are unknown, ambiguous, or irrelevant, those of the gold digger are almost always lower or working class. (92-93)

There seem to be a number of points of connection between the films studied by Sharot and many modern popular romances. For one thing, a very high proportion of the former end in the same manner as the latter: "the romances in most cross-class films are successful: sixty-five films (76 percent) of the 1929–39 sample and 98 films (83 percent) of the 1915–28 sample" (92). For another, they seem to be aimed at a similar demographic: "during the 1930s the studios assumed that their audience was a predominantly female one, and the female-centered cross-class romance was clearly oriented toward that audience" (91).

Both can claim Samuel Richardson's Pamela as an ancestor:

Cross-class romances in popular culture, most of which are between wealthy men and poor women, can be found in what are regarded as the first modern novels, which included what were to become the major female types from the lower class: the virtuous heroine (Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, 1740) and the amoral social climber (Moll Flanders, 1722; Shamela, 1741). Films with the theme of cross-class romance, most with virtuous heroines, have been made throughout almost the entire history of the cinema [...] but the number of such films in recent years cannot compare with the 1920s and 1930s, when, on average, at least one cross-class romance film would appear every month. From the beginnings of the feature film around 1915 until 1938, cross-class romance films were far more numerous than they would be thereafter. (89)

Furthermore, in his abstract Sharot writes that "Gender distinctions are reinforced by narratives in which the wealthy male is redeemed by the poor female so that he can perform the appropriate male gender roles. When the female is wealthy, the poor male insists on her economic dependence on him." This is a pattern which, I think, can also be found in romance novels. In more recent times there has perhaps been an even higher proportion of wealthy heroes paired with poor heroines but I have come across rich heroines in earlier decades who are paired up with either a poor hero who then becomes rich or one who insists on the heroine accepting a living standard in line with his finances. In these latter cases the hero is usually not actually poor, just not rich. Again, this is a nuance present in the films analysed by Sharot:

in a number of the cross-class romance films with rich females their relationship is not with working-class men but with middle-class men, often reporters, and in these, mainly screwball comedies, the romance is almost inevitably successful. Where the male is wealthy, the female is almost invariably from the working or lower class in occupation, such as maid, salesgirl, stenographer, or chorus girl. (92)

Substitute a secretary, housekeeper, cleaner or nanny for the "maid, salesgirl, stenographer, or chorus girl" and you could be describing a lot of modern popular romances.

Sharot's speculations about the responses of the audiences of these films may also be of interest to scholars of popular romance novels:

The common solution, in which the poor protagonist is rewarded for her or his disinterested love by a successful union with the wealthy protagonist, might be termed “escapist,” but it was probably recognized and accepted by many in the audience as conforming to the rules of what had become a familiar formula. However, this particular “escape” may have been especially pleasurable to particular audiences (urban, female, with aspirations to mobility) because it was grounded in a reality of class and gender inequality, which, given the limited opportunities for women in the labor market, made the social mobility of women dependent on marriage. [...] Audiences [...] were unlikely to feel dejected by a comparison with their own situation because they had learnt to experience the formula as an entertainment without continually comparing it with their own experience. (105)

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Sharot, Stephen. "Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-Class Romance Films of the Great Depression." Journal of American Studies 47.1 (2013): 89-108.

 

The image came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. It is a title frame from the trailer for Gold Diggers of 1933.

In my last post I quoted Porter and Hall's statement that "Work is beginning to appear on the fiction in women's magazines and the sexual messages it conveyed" (267). They refer to "Part Three: Realistic Fantasies: The World of the Story Papers" of Billie Melman's Woman and the Popular Imagination, Joseph McAleer's Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain 1914-1950 and an article by Bridget Fowler. As the latter was the most readily accessible of the three, I promptly went and found myself a copy.

Fowler argues that "1930s popular stories can be seen [...] as legitimating the social order and thus indirectly providing social control" (95) though she cautions that the attitudes expressed in these stories may be only

partially shared by the readership. [...] It is very likely that the practical action of the readers emerges also from other cultural values - such as those of dissent and militancy - which are totally absent from the story universe, while the adherence to some story values may well be more at the level of the ideal or fantasy than concrete reality. (96)

One plot type she discusses which is, I think, rather less common nowadays, requires the

device [...] in which 'cryptoproletarian' characters are used. The heroine, in love with a doctor, may emerge ultimately to be not truly working-class but a foundling in some slum and brought up by working-class parents; a hero may be cut off by his father and family and forced to live a working-class mode of existence or an unexpected inheritance may alter the total dependence of the lower class heroine on the upper class hero. Thus, in social origin the hero and heroine may ultimately turn out to be alike although the bulk of the story has concerned the proving of their fitness to marry each other. It is tempting to align these stories with the earlier fairy story in which once the princess had brought herself to kiss the beast or marry the frog, he became a prince. The analogy makes the class insult even more apparent. (107)

The romances analysed by Kim Gallon were written at roughly the same time, and also appeared in magazines or newspapers but their context, and therefore their politics, are rather different. She recently posted at the Popular Romance Project about the romances to be found

in the pages of early 20th-century black magazines and newspapers. Mostly known for strident protests against racial discrimination, the black press in the 1920s and 1930s also published romance fiction, which offered African Americans an opportunity to escape into worlds filled with the heady ups and heartbreaking downs of romantic love. Scholars of the African American literary tradition and of popular romance have paid virtually no attention to romance found in the black press. On the romance side, the late 20th century has often been characterized as the starting point of black romance stories, with earlier short or serial stories, simply forgotten. [...]

Despite the seeming absence of political and racialized content in “The Dark Knight” and similar stories, black popular romance, as Conseula Francis has argued, is inherently political. Its existence automatically counters the insidious and negative stereotypes of criminality and hypersexuality historically ascribed to African Americans. In “The Dark Knight,” we see Rod and Lyla restrain themselves from engaging in a pre-marital sexual encounter, preserving, through their actions, the sanctity of marital sex and the domestic ideal. Just as significantly, “The Dark Knight” challenged the common idea that African Americans lacked the capacity for romantic love, a love that has been and continues to be integrally linked with a white, bourgeois value system.

William Gleason's article on story papers, published in 2011, does not explore the politics of their romance stories but he too suggests that romances published in magazines deserve further critical attention, not least because in his opinion

The mass marketing of modern romance fiction in North America began not with the emergence of Harlequin Books in the 1950s but during the dime novel and story paper boom of the 1860s and 1870s.

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Fowler, Bridget. "'True to Me Always': An Analysis of Women's Magazine Fiction." British Journal of Sociology 30.1 (1979): 91-119.

Gallon, Kim. "Romance in Black Papers." The Popular Romance Project. 10 January 2013.

Gleason, William. "Belles, Beaux, and Paratexts: American Story Papers and the Project of Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Porter, Roy & Lesley Hall. The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1650-1950. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

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