"Meticulous and Inspiring"

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 15 October, 2012

Issue 3.1 of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies was published today and I was very pleased to see that it includes a review of For Love and Money. Maryan Wherry concludes:

Laura Vivanco’s analysis of the category romance is both meticulous and inspiring. And while Vivanco limits her examples and discussions to category romances by Harlequin Mills & Boon and the HQN imprint, her application of Frye’s mimetic modes begs for expansion to texts and authors across the genre. This piece of literary criticism should serve as a template for romance scholars to move from defending the genre to discussing its values and complexity as a literary art.

This is extremely gratifying; I'll sit and bask in the sunlight of that praise for a bit....

It would wrong of me, though, not to mention that the review does make a couple of criticisms:

If there is a weakness to this study, it is the author’s reliance on long block quotations, which can become distracting to the overall discussion and inhibit readability. The introduction, which flirts with a defensive tone, is also perhaps a bit disappointing, as it suggests that the field of romance criticism hasn’t progressed since Jensen’s study; certainly it stands at odds with the assertive, upbeat sense of the book as a whole.

I was working with primary texts which I can't expect my readers to know well (or, in most cases, at all) so perhaps that meant I was more inclined to use longer quotations, which provide a bit more context and also give readers more of a taste of the individual authors' "voices." As far as quotations from academic secondary texts are concerned, I was hoping that the book would appeal to interested general readers as well as to romance scholars, so again perhaps that meant I included slightly longer quotes than would have been necessary if I'd only been writing for a scholarly audience. Having said all that, though, it hadn't even occurred to me that any of my quotes were too long. I think that a "reliance on long block quotes" may form part of my usual writing style. I'll bear this criticism in mind for the future but I can't promise to change; I suspect that what seems "too long" to one reader may seem just right to another.

Regarding the progress of the field, as Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz write in their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction:

critical work on popular romance fiction - the books, the readers, and the romance publishing industry - has been going on for decades. A sociological study of reader preferences, comissioned by Mills & Boon, opened the field in 1969. [....] Given its distinctive status as the despised and rejected "other" of modern literary writing, it should come as no surprise that popular romance has been treated very differently, by scholars and critics, from other forms of genre fiction. Mystery and detective novels, science fiction, fantasy, horror: all found critics to praise them as vigorous upstarts, evolving (at least at their best) into literature worthy of the name. The foundational studies of popular romance fiction make no such claims. (2-3)

The pace of change in the field of popular romance studies has accelerated greatly in recent years, particularly since IASPR and JPRS came into existence. That's not something I emphasised in the introduction and, again, it was because I was trying to pitch the book at a variety of audiences.

I didn't want to harp on about the criticisms of Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances, but I did feel they needed to be addressed, not least because for all I know, some some potential readers may not get further than the subtitle of the book, The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance, before they burst out laughing at the very idea that there could be such a thing. I felt I needed to engage with those people and their preconceptions before launching straight into an "assertive, upbeat" analysis of the romances.

Maybe I was overcautious. I think, perhaps, it's again a matter of taste: I know in the past I had one essay which attempted to launch straight into new analysis of romances returned to me with the comment that I should include more references to older critics such as Radway and Modleski.


Selinger, Eric Murphy and Sarah S. G. Frantz. "Introduction: New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012. 1-19.


The photo of the deck chair was taken by Mark J P and was made available via Flickr under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence. The Three Bears were created by Arthur Rackham and are in the public domain. I found them at Wikimedia Commons.

Flying into History

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 10 October, 2012

Romances, particularly category romances, are often considered ephemeral works which are of little or no interest once they become dated. A recent article by Professor Tom Baum of the University of Strathclyde's Business School, however, suggests  that as they age they may actually increase in historical value.

In the abstract for "Working the Skies: Changing Representations of Gendered Work in the Airline Industry, 1930-2011," Baum argues that "The influence of the media, whether print, celluloid or contemporary electronic, on life and career choices, particularly from a gender perspective is well documented [...] and, therefore, gaining an understanding of their role in the representation of gendered work, both historically and in a modern context, is of considerable value." He elaborates in the essay itself:

As Miller and Hayward (2006) rightly point out, many occupations remain substantially gender-segregated, notwithstanding equality legislation that has been in place for over 30 years. Likewise, role allocation on the basis of ethnicity (Adler & Adler, 2004) is widely reported in the literature. Such role stereotyping is clearly the product of diverse social factors but consumer print representation cannot be understated as a significant factor which reflects and, perhaps, stimulates change with respect to role allocations in the workplace and wider society. In a general sense, work and work roles have featured in literature since classical times, representing prevalent practice and social norms of the era in question. (1187)

One of Baum's primary sources is Betty Beaty's Maiden Flight, first published by Mills & Boon in 1956 and later reprinted by Harlequin. Beaty had "Served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force" and "Worked as [an] airline hostess" (Grey 55) and

From her flying experience came such books as Maiden Flight and South to the Sun, which ingeniously combine the love interest with behind-the-scenes glimpses of life as an air-stewardess. [...] Beaty's close connection with flying - directly, and indirectly through her husband (who was one of the first post-war commercial transatlantic pilots) - led her to write five slightly tougher novels in the name of Karen Campbell. (Grey 56)

For obvious reasons, works of fiction do have to be treated with some caution by those engaged in historical research:

It is, of course, a matter of some contention as to the extent to which romantic, comic or other representation of a particular phenomenon is adopted as a general perception of reality within a particular or wider community and certainly within the authoritative body of writing about a subject. Morgan and Pritchard (1998, p. 5) argue that “image creators are themselves products of particular societies. The images and representations which they create thus not only construct, but also reinforce ideas, values and meaning systems”. (Baum 1187)

Baum complements his use of works of fiction with quotations drawn from autobiographical and academic texts, and he thus frames a quote from Beaty's Maiden Flight with statements by academics:

Ashcroft (2007, p. 9) refers to “the deliberate historical construction of airline pilots as elite, fatherly professionals” and the juxtaposition of the two roles is well illustrated in Beaty’s (1956, p. 46) novel

Most of the crew were staying at the St. George but the Captain waited in the car to be taken to La France, a larger and slightly more expensive hotel, which the Company felt assisted the maintenance of a captain’s dignity.

This clear distinction between the professional (and male) pilot and the rather more flighty (and female) attendant was no accident. Hopkins (1998) refers to deliberate steps taken by airlines to emphasise differential status within the airline workplace that included introducing a ship captain’s uniform and associated props, such as formal rank title and using loudspeakers for pilot–passenger communication by which means the pilot’s image was transformed into that of an elite officer. (1188)

One aspect of being a flight attendant which perhaps made the job seem particularly suitable for a romance heroine was that, as mentioned in the blurb of Beaty's South to the Sun, it was thought that "Of all the professions open to women, the one with the highest marriage rate is surely that of air stewardess." In the final chapter of Maiden Flight the heroine, air stewardess Pamela Hughes, accepts a proposal of marriage from Engineer Officer Roger Carson and

The [...] stereotypical and romantic desired outcome of a career in flight is very clearly represented when Beaty (1956, p. 191) concludes her story with  

And then, as he kissed her again, all the generally accepted theories of flight were for Pamela shattered and disproved. For here, after all her flights, as she was standing quite still on the ground, had come the wonder and excitement of taking off on a new adventure, the soaring beauty of moving over a high heaven, and the peace and security of a safe landing after a storm – all the pure joy of flight packed into the small circle of Roger Carson’s arms. 

This romantic ideal, that working for the airline was, in a sense, a staging post on the inevitable life-journey towards marital bliss and home-making, was an important USP (unique selling proposition) within the role that this form of novel was expected to play in attracting young women into the industry. (1188)



Cinderella, Goose-Girls and Rapunzel

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 3 October, 2012

GeeseI've been reading Anne Cranny-Francis's Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (1990). In it she defends genre fiction, whose

audience commonly attracts a negative reception from critics who, in accordance with the high/low culture division institutionalized by a now outmoded, but still powerful, modernist aesthetic, regard the mass audience of popular fiction as degraded consumers of formula art. This judgement contains an assumption that modernist writing (and possibly its realist predecessor) is non-formulaic, which is highly questionable. Genre fiction, it might be argue, foregrounds its conventions, rather than stitching them seamlessly into the fabric of the text and so its ideological framework may be, or may appear to be, self-evident; modernist and realist fiction, on the other hand, uses less mannered conventions and so achieves an apparent 'naturalization' which has the effect of obscuring its encoded ideological statements. Both genre fiction and its 'high brow' counterparts (realism, modernism, postmodernism) utilize a variety of textual conventions, some of which are more visible than others. (3)

Many of the conventions foregrounded by popular romance seem to be drawn from, or related to those to be found in, fairy tales, for although romances are not (with a few exceptions) actually fairy tales and "The vast majority of romance novels do not consciously invoke specific fairy tales [...] many still implicitly draw on the tradition, its conflicts and quests, and occasionally its motifs" (Lee 57).1

According to Cranny-Francis, "the fairy tale  as popularized by the translation of folk-tales collected by the brothers Grimm"  (104) is "encoded with dominant ideological discourses - such as patriarchal gender ideology" (104). For example,

In his study of folk and fairy-tales, Breaking the Magic Spell, Jack Zipes raises a series of questions about the Cinderella story which leave little doubt about its contemporary ideological function:

Though it is difficult to speculate how an individual child might react to Cinderella, certainly the adult reader and interpreter must ask the following questions: Why is the stepmother shown to be wicked and not the father? Why is Cinderella essentially passive? ... Why do girls have to quarrel over a man? How do children react to a Cinderella who is industrious, dutiful, virginal and passive? Are all men handsome? Is marriage the end goal of life? Is it important to marry rich men? This small list of questions suggests that the ideological and psychological pattern and message of Cinderella do nothing more than reinforce sexist values and a Puritan ethos that serves a society which fosters competition and achievement. (Zipes [...] 173 qtd. in Cranny-Francis 87)

Quite a lot of romances explicitly allude to Cinderella but often this is a shorthand "means of indicating that the novel includes a woman who is poor, perhaps working in a menial job, and who then meets a rich and handsome man" (Vivanco 91-92). Strictly speaking, though

Cinderella's status as a gentleman's daughter makes her more acceptable as a future king's consort. It also places her above the status of peasant. Cinderella is not usually a rags-to-riches tale, but a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale. (SurLaLune)

So when Cranny-Francis comes to discuss popular romance fiction, she turns to another fairy tale:

As Carolyn Steedman observed in Landscape for a Good Woman, one of the principal fairy-tales of our society is that 'goose-girls can marry kings'. [...] Inequality of class is as much a mechanism of the romance as the gender relationships and this may be both an essential feature of the romance and a key to its operation. The desire these texts encode is not sexual, but economic; the desire for solid middle- or upper-class status, for money and power. Since we live in a society in which men hold economic power and in which a woman's status is identified with that of her husband, then finding an appropriate husband is the problem. To make this search more palatable, less seemingly acquisitive, it is displaced into gender terms. The woman's search becomes a sexual and emotional one, a matter of fulfilling her natural, heterosexual needs for sexual and emotional fulfilment - and eventually for children. (186)

This view of romance is very similar to that of Jan Cohn who, a couple of years earlier than Cranny-Francis, observed that

It is a commonplace of romance that the heroine will marry well, a given that the hero will be rich. The heroine's accomplishment, moreover, her success in marrying well, must seem almost an accident; it is never her purpose. The idea of a romance heroine setting out to marry successfully is doubly denied. She never seeks marriage in any form, and when she finds her hero, she is never drawn to him by the signs of his economic power [...] she is a negation of the purposeful, self-interested, mercenary woman. (127)

This isn't to say that there are absolutely no romance heroines who set out to marry a rich man, or that there are no romance heroes who are poorer than their heroines, but as Blythe Barnhill at AAR recently wrote, in romance

Wealthy Regency Dukes are a dime a dozen, and the Harlequin Presents line is based on wealthy, exotic magnate heroes. All of it got me thinking, is this what we want in a book? Is it our real fantasy? Is it not enough to be in love and comfortably middle class? Does our drop dead handsome, ripped hero also need to be able to whisk us off for a luxury cruise, buy us dresses from the best London modistes, or buy the company we work for if our boss is a sexist jerk? Obviously, it’s a popular fantasy, often with Cinderella roots. But is it too popular…or anti-feminist?

The relationship between fairytales and the depiction of disability in romance hasn't been commented on as often but Sandra Schwab has noted that

The ability to see clearly and the loss of sight play an important role in the historical romances The Bride and the Beast (2001) and Yours Until Dawn (2004) by the American author Teresa Medeiros. While Yours Until Dawn features a blind hero, large parts of The Bride and the Beast are set during the night, and the darkness makes the heroine unable to see the face of the male protagonist. In both books the physical inability to see clearly is not only connected to a lack of recognition, but is also indicative of a lack of psychological insight.

Given its title, I can't help but wonder if The Bride and the Beast draws on the tale of Beauty and the Beast.

At the recent 2012 conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, Ria Cheyne discussed romances depicting disability and remarked on the frequency with which disabilities are cured by love. I wonder if there's something here of Rapunzel:

The Prince was beside himself with grief, and in his despair he jumped right down from the tower, and, though he escaped with his life, the thorns among which he fell pierced his eyes out. Then he wandered, blind and miserable, through the wood, eating nothing but roots and berries, and weeping and lamenting the loss of his lovely bride. So he wandered about for some years, as wretched and unhappy as he could well be, and at last he came to the desert place where Rapunzel was living. Of a sudden he heard a voice which seemed strangely familiar to him. He walked eagerly in the direction of the sound, and when he was quite close, Rapunzel recognised him and fell on his neck and wept. But two of her tears touched his eyes, and in a moment they became quite clear again, and he saw as well as he had ever done. Then he led her to his kingdom, where they were received and welcomed with great joy, and they lived happily ever after. (SurLaLune)


Barnhill,Blythe. "Is This Our Collective Fantasy?" All About Romance. 24 Sept. 2012.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.

Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.

Lee, Linda J. “Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 22.1 (2008): 52–66.

SurLaLune. "Annotations for Cinderella."

SurLaLune. "The Annotated Rapunzel."

Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Tirril, Penrith: Humanities Ebooks, 2011.


1 I've explored the relationships between Harlequin Mills & Boon romances and fairytales in chapters 1 and 2 of For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance.

The image of the geese came from Wikimedia Commons and was created by LadyofHats, who dedicated it to the public domain.

Feminism and Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 25 September, 2012

ChickWriting about "chick flicks," Imelda Whelehan has commented that their

postfeminist discourse is characterised as deploying what might be regarded as broadly "feminist" sentiments in order to justify certain behaviours or choices, but these sentiments have become severed from their political or philosophical origins. Postfeminism in popular culture displays a certain schizophrenia in the way women are often portrayed as enormously successful at work and simultaneously hopelessly anxious about their intimate relationships, over which they often have little control or for which they seek continuous self-improvement. The world of work is generally portrayed as allowing female success, but there are glimpses of sexism which present enough problems that women have to solve for themselves or in consultation with their close girlfriends; beauty, fashion and adornment remain highly prized as part of the arsenal of the high-achieving woman, so that postfeminism equates with excessive consumption, while at the same time expressing sentiments of empowerment and female capability. The things that make women miserable are often covertly laid at the door of feminism and can be summarised thus: "feminism gave women social equality, choices and freedoms, but those choices have emotional costs which individual women are constantly trying to resolve and balance." It is feminism, then, that is positioned as creating the most significant challenges for postmodern women, even though all that feminism did was to foreground the reality that the traditional feminine sphere of the home remains painfully exclusive from the world of work and almost entirely the domain of women. (156)

Romances, by contrast, tend to focus on women's success in the field of "intimate relationships," though they may also show heroines achieving success at work. The differences don't end there, however: while I certainly don't think that all romances are feminist, there are many that are and I discuss some of them in "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances" which was published today in the Journal of Popular Culture.

I found that a "focus on female sexuality and a woman’s right to experience sexual gratification is something that the Modern romances share with Second Wave feminism" (1066). Since they also acknowledge that even highly gratifying sex cannot, on its own, provide a firm basis for a long-term "intimate relationship," these novels explore what more is required in order to achieve a successful marriage and, much as

Second Wave feminists “critiqued marriage as yet another form of sexual slavery” (hooks 78–79) [...] In Modern romances the damaging consequences of unequal marriages in which the woman is treated as a commodity, providing sexual and reproductive services in exchange for her upkeep, may be shown through the stories of secondary characters. (1069)

The stories of the protagonists themselves, in the feminist romances of both the Modern and Romance lines, seem to offer the reader an alternative model for relationships of the sort outlined by bell hooks:

When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgment, care, responsibility, commitment, and knowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love. (104)

According to Whelehan,

earlier, more positive accounts of the meanings of postfeminism have waned as more and more critics identify the seductions of the term as comforting us with the assurance that feminism‘s work is over. Postfeminism depends upon notions of feminism and feminist politics for its existence, but it often resorts to parody to diminish the historical importance of Second Wave feminism. (158)

However, although some of the feminist romances I looked at did reject some of the more radical aspects of second wave feminism, they did not do so in order to position feminism as the source of "the most significant challenges for postmodern women." Furthermore, although HM&B author Ally Blake has declared that some of them contain "post-feminist twentysomething heroines,"

in a personal communication she elaborated that she thinks of “feminists as the women who openly fought for women’s rights, and post-feminist [women] as those of us who believe in those rights and enjoy having them.” (Vivanco 1084-85)

What is clear is that this is not the postfemism present in the films described by Whelehan, in which "The constant return to the theme that full empowerment and heterosexual romance are incompatible has meant that under mature postfeminism men increasingly are being put under erasure" (169). On the contrary, in these romances empowerment (albeit not full empowerment, given that the protagonists still inhabit a world in which sexism has not been eradicated) and heterosexual romance are compatible.

One may still critique romances for the support they offer to "compulsory coupledom" but, unlike Whelehan, who observes tiredly that

For many of us in the business of offering feminist critiques of popular culture in the twenty-first century, it can seem like we‘re simply tilting at windmills. This article touches on those sensations of boredom and ennui which trouble a feminist cultural critic attempting to make sense of the postfeminist distractions of popular culture. (159)

I feel encouraged by the feminist romances I've read: they demonstrate "that romance writers and readers are themselves struggling with gender definitions and sexual politics on their own terms" (Radway 18).


Blake, Ally. "The Changing Face of Romance."

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End, 2000.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Vivanco, Laura. "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances." Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060–1089.

Whelehan, Imelda. "Remaking Feminism: Or Why is Postfeminism so Boring?" Nordic Journal of English Studies 9.3 (2010): 155-172.


The image of the 3-week-old Polish Bantam chick was created by Charles M. Sauer, who made it available under a Creative Commons licence at Wikimedia Commons.


By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 20 September, 2012

Mary observes of Tim, “It was almost as if he lived within her mind as an entity quite distinct from his real being” (73). When Danny kisses Amanda, “It was as though a missing piece of the puzzle was put back in place. He was a part of her” (71). Jesse remarks of Althea, “Truly, it was like she was inside him” (149), while Daniel lauds Jenny, “She was more than beside him: She was in him, the best part of his heart” (41). Ian Mackenzie likewise “dissolves” into Beth (217); when they kiss, his inner monologue expresses the desire “to pull her inside him, or himself inside her. If he could be part of her, everything would be all right. He would be well” (214). (133)

According to Emily M. Baldys these quotes are instances of an

oddly consistent metaphoric trope in which able-bodied characters are represented as incorporating disabled characters, literally and metaphorically taking disabled characters inside themselves. I contend that the trope of romantic incorporation is motivated by the threatening potential of disabled sexuality and used [...] to enact the bodily containment of threat. (133)

I'm not so sure. As Baldys admits, in the third example "Morsi’s phrasing places the able-bodied character inside the disabled character instead of the other way around" (133). More significantly, the "trope of romantic incorporation" is one I've seen frequently in novels in which both characters are able-bodied. Here's an example from Carol Arens' Renegade Most Wanted (2012):

If it had been possible for a woman's soul to flow out of her body and into a man, that's the way it would happen. If not for the constraints of the flesh, she would be right there, inside Matt's heart. (317)

A very short while later the "romantic incorporation" is reversed and made literal as "He slipped inside her" (318) and

he rocked against her womb. A wave crashed inside her. It washed pleasure from the point of their joining to her clenching fingers, then tumbled to the tips of her toes.

Maybe flesh was no barrier to souls after all.

Hadn't her wedding vows declared that the two shall become one flesh? (318-19)

I think passages describing "romantic incorporation" can perhaps be explained by extrapolating a little from some of the ideas Baldys outlined earlier in her essay.

Compulsory heterosexuality—the ideology that positions heterosexuality as a default, biologically derived identity and enforces its normalcy through pervasive cultural mechanisms—has been a common idiom in queer and feminist studies since 1980, when Adrienne Rich published her influential essay coining the term. More recently, scholars writing within disability studies have proposed an analogous conception to Rich’s formative idea. “Compulsory able-bodiedness” is an ideology that positions able-bodiedness as the default position and bolsters itself through cultural forms that represent ability as original, authentic, and normal. This concept, as theorized by Alison Kafer and Robert McRuer, posits a complex interrelationship between heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. Kafer explains that heterosexuality is threatened by disability’s associations with deviance, while able-bodiedness is threatened by the relationship of queerness to illness and medicalization (81–82). Thus, the two ideologies are “entwined” (in McRuer’s terminology) and “imbricated” (in Kafer’s) such that each is contingent on the other: the default heterosexual subject is necessarily able-bodied, and the default able-bodied subject is necessarily heterosexual. (127)

The "trope of romantic incorporation" seems to suggest that there is a third ideology entwined with the other two. Catherine Roach has observed that

To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites.

Given that these narratives are "increasingly not exclusively [...] heterosexual," I think they cannot simply be described as a part of "compulsory heterosexuality." Rather, they perhaps indicate the existence of what one might term "compulsory coupledom" which often, but not always, complements "compulsory heterosexuality" and "compulsory able-bodiedness" and which should at times be analysed separately from them.

According to Bella M. DePaulo and Wendy L. Morris

A widespread form of bias has slipped under our cultural and academic radar. People who are single are targets of singlism: negative stereotypes and discrimination. Compared to married or coupled people, who are often described in very positive terms, singles are assumed to be immature, maladjusted, and self-centered. (251)

Given that romances always feature "individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work" who "are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love" (RWA), it would seem likely that romances could be seen as a "cultural mechanism" which helps to enforce "compulsory coupledom." Certainly Kyra Kramer and I observed a pattern in many romances in which becoming part of a couple completes/perfects the "Phallus" of the romance hero:

“Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.

At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). [...]

The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism [...]. Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.

Becoming part of a couple also completes/perfects the heroine's Prism.

There are, of course, romances which do not follow this pattern and in any case I would not wish to suggest that all romances imply that the unpartnered are incomplete: the protagonists of romance are sometimes depicted in contexts which include happily-single secondary characters. Nonetheless, the extent to which such contexts can mitigate the focus on the achievement of a romantic relationship is limited because, by definition, a romance has to prioritise the depiction of the central couple (or occasionally threesome or more).

Baldys states that the "demands of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness" are "intertwined" (127); it appears they may also be intertwined with compulsory coupledom:

never-married men do run the risk of being labelled 'queers', 'fairies' or 'queens'.

In an analysis of Australian attitudes, Penman and Stolk (1983) found that single women were described as unfulfilled, incomplete, unattractive, and less happy than married women" (Callan and Noller 97, emphasis added)

The idea that single people are "incomplete" evidently has a long history, for Plato's Symposium contains a tale in which it is explained that "the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love" and that it came about because

the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

These early humans attacked the gods and as a punishment Zeus declared that he would "cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers." According to this myth, all humans are incomplete, and when we fall in love it is because we seek to become whole once more. Obviously the story is not one which can be taken at all seriously but there is nonetheless a

tendency to refer to marriage as a union of two persons into oneness [which] often prompts married people to refer to their spouse as their "other half" or "better half". Unfortunately, it gives rise to the idea that an unmarried person must be fractured, being only half of a whole.

Therefore, the implication is that we must go about looking for another person to provide completion to our being. In other words, a person who is unmarried is incomplete as a person and has less than a full existence than a married person has. (Yeo 11-12)

In romance novels, the formation of a couple sometimes accompanies the curing of disabilities. Baldys notes that

One strain of ableist fantasy suggests that cognitive disability can be “overcome” in one way or another through the extraordinary power of heterosexual relationships. Simi Linton identifies such an “overcoming rhetoric” as one of the clichés that structure dominant meanings and response patterns assigned to disability. “The idea that someone can overcome a disability,” she writes, implies “personal triumph over a personal condition.” Linton argues that this idea is not a concept native to the disability community, but rather “a wish fulfillment generated from the outside” (165). This wish-fulfilling fantasy, in romance novels, finds expression in a process of narrative rehabilitation through which the effects of disability are represented as mitigated or overcome by the characters’ blossoming love. (Baldys 134)

Although I've not read the novel Baldys gives as an example of "the most extreme (and credulity-straining) measures to rehabilitate disability" (134), I've come across a number of romances in which blind protagonists regain their sight as well as novels in which previously infertile protagonists become pregnant or father children. Deborah Chappel has observed the transformations which occur in LaVyrle Spencer's novels and argues that

the changes in Spencer's protagonists (regularization of speech, dimming of freckles, development of healthy-looking bodies) are sometimes so pronounced that it seems inner, emotional reality has the power to improve the material world. Love, and the hope love engenders, operate as forces in the world. [...] Thus, in The Gamble Agatha's limp becomes less and less pronounced and she is able to achieve the three seemingly impossible wishes she expressed in the opening chapters: she can dance, swim, and ride a horse. (110)

Baldys believes that the depictions of disability in romances differ "from depictions in canonical literature, where disability has traditionally functioned as a 'cipher of metaphysical or divine significance' (Quayson 17)" (138) but I'm not so sure that this is the case. As Catherine Roach has observed, "The story of romance is the most powerful narrative in Western art and culture, sharing roots with Christianity and functioning as a mythic story about the meaning and purpose of life, particularly in regards to the HEA ending of redemption and wholeness."

Perhaps in romances the curing of protagonists' disabilities, which takes to a new and literal level the metaphorical use of words suggesting that love makes a person whole/completes them, serves as a kind of secular miracle bearing witness to the power of love (and compulsory coupledom, compulsory heterosexuality and compusory able-bodiedness)  by implying that when a man is united to his wife, not only are they "no more twain, but one flesh" (Matthew 19; 6) but that sometimes, in addition, "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk" (Matthew 11:5).


Arens, Carol. Renegade Most Wanted. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2012.

Baldys, Emily M. "Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6.2 (2012), 125–141.

Callan, Victor J. and Patricia Noller. Marriage and the Family. North Ryde, NSW: Methuen, 1987.

Chappel, Deborah K. "LaVyrle Spencer and the Anti-Essentialist Argument." Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997), 107-120.

DePaulo, Bella M. and Wendy L. Morris. "The Unrecognized Stereotyping and Discrimination against Singles." Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.5 (2006), 251-254.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive.

Roach, Catherine. "Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

RWA. "About the Romance Genre."

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).

Yeo, Anthony. Partners in Life: Your Guide to Lasting Marriage. Singapore: Armour, 1999.


The image of a dovetail joint comes via Flickr where it was made available under a Creative Commons licence by Jordanhill School D&T Dept.

Eternally In the Eye (or Heart) of the Beholder

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 12 September, 2012

Ponte Vecchio


Beauty, it has been said, is in the eye of the beholder. It's an assertion to which Lucy Gordon's The Italian's Christmas Miracle appears to give some support. Alysa, the heroine,

had never been pretty. Her face was attractive but, to her own critical eyes, her features were too strong for a woman.

'No feminine graces,' she'd often sighed. 'Too tall, too thin. No bosom to speak of.'

Her women friends were scandalised by this casual realism. 'What do you mean, too thin?' they chorused. 'You've got a figure most of us would die for. You could wear anything, just like a model.'

'That's what I said - too thin,' she'd responded, determinedly practical.

But then there was the hair - rich brown, with flashes of deep gold here and dark red there, growing abundantly, streaming over her shoulders and down to her waist, making her look like some mythical heroine. (8)

Perhaps romance, too, is in the eye of the beholder? Alysa finds

herself overlooking the River Arno. A multitude of lights was on, their reflection gleaming in the water, and in the distance she could see the Ponte Vecchio, the great, beautiful bridge for which Florence was famous. [...]

'It's the sort of place people mean when they say that Italy is a romantic country.' [...]

The ironic way she said 'romantic' made him look at her in appreciation.

'It can be romantic,' he said. 'It can also be prosaic, businesslike and full of the most depressing common-sense. Romance doesn't lie in the country or the setting, but in the moment your eyes meet, and you know you're living in a world where there's only the two of you and nothing else exists.' (48-49)

Alysa and her interlocutor have, however, lost trust in the reality of that "world," for Alysa has travelled to Italy

to mourn the man I loved, but who betrayed me, abandoned me and our unborn child, a child he never even knew about, then died with his lover. She had a husband and child, but she deserted them as he deserted me. (11)

Overlooking the Arno, her companion is Drago, the deserted husband, and during the course of the novel they learn the truth about the dead while attempting to shield others from the reality of the motivations of James and Carlotta, a pair of deceased lovers who justified their actions by insisting that "we had to be realistic" (40).

Drago and Alysa's experiences have taught them that romance is unreliable, and perhaps that romantic love renders one unable to see reality: 'We can be fighteningly blind when we don't realise that things have changed for ever [...] And perhaps we fight against that realisation, because we're fighting for our lives" (35). An  emotion-free reality, however, is not without its problems.

It was a technique she'd perfected months ago, based on computer systems.

It started with 'power up' when she got out of bed, then a quick run-through of necessary programs and she was ready to start the day. A liberal use of the 'delete' button helped to keep things straight in her head, and if something threatened her with unwanted emotion she hit the 'standby' button. As a last resort there was always total shut-down and reboot, but that meant walking away to be completely alone, which could be inconvenient. (16)

Her solution seems to have dehumanised her and Drago is of the opinion that it has merely substituted emotional pain for "another kind of hell" (41).

This being a romance, Drago and Alysa do, of course, fall in love again. Together, the novel suggests, they have found true love and Alysa tells Drago that "I believe that your love will be with me for all eternity" (185). Nonethless, the novel raises a disquieting question: if emotions (including romantic ones) are part of reality and what make us fully human but are also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder, or the heart of the lover, can there ever be security in love?

Perhaps only the dead can realistically be said to achieve it. Earlier in the novel, on the Ponte Vecchio, Alysa has seen that the railings around the statue of Benvenuto Cellini

were covered with padlocks. Hundreds of them.

'Lovers put them there,' the shop owner confided. 'It's an old tradition. They buy a padlock, lock it onto the railings and throw the key into the River Arno. That means that their love has locked them together for all time, even unto death.'

'How - how beautiful,' Alysa stammered. A terrible dread was rising in her. [...] 'Even unto death,' she murmured.

'That's the part that always affects them,' he said. 'They know they'll be together for eternity.'

There in her mind was the picture of James and Carlotta, [...] dead in the same moment. Together for eternity. (59-60)

As Lynne Pearce has observed in an article about romance and repetition:

The fact that there is no possibility of death-bound lovers repeating, and hence discrediting, their UR-passion explains why tragedy remains the most cast-iron means of supporting the view that love is exclusive, non-repeatable, and forever. The fact that so many tragic lovers actively seek death as a means of protecting their love from compromise underlines the principle that “true love” eschews repetition.

I'll end on a prosaic (and realistic?) note about iron and binding: the padlocks on the Ponte Vecchio and elsewhere have generally been considered a nuisance by the authorities and months later, when Alysa returns to the bridge, she discovers that "The railings that had once been covered with love tokens were stark and bare" because "the council has ruled against them. If you get caught hanging a padlock there's a fine, and every now and then they clear them all away" (127). Outside the pages of the novel the campaign against the padlocks of eternal love contines: just this week it was reported that

Thousands of 'love padlocks' on a Roman bridge are being removed with bolt-cutters in order to protect the ancient structure. [...] The city council said rust from the locks, which hang off chains, is harming the fabric of the bridge. (BBC)


BBC. "Rome's Ponte Milvio bridge: 'Padlocks of love' removed." 10 September 2012.

Gordon, Lucy. The Italian's Christmas Miracle. 2008, Christmas Marriages & Miracles (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2011). 3-185.

Pearce, Lynne. "Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).


The image of the Ponte Vecchio is a cropped version of the panorma at Wikimedia Commons,where it was made available for use under a Creative Commons licence by its creator, Grenouille vert.


By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 9 September, 2012

In my last post I quoted Pamela Regis, who told the 2010 IASPR conference that "our discipline values complexity in its study texts." The following quote from an essay by Deborah Kaplan demonstrates this, and also illustrates the way in which the popular romance's assumed lack of complexity has tended to lower its value in the eyes of literary critics:

Jane Austen as one of the mothers of the Harlequin or Silhouette novel?  Such a genealogy makes many an Austen devotee smile.  We know Austen’s novels to be so much more complex and nuanced, so much more culturally and linguistically enriching than the mass-market romance.  And yet, recent popular representations reveal a distinct trend: the harlequinization of Jane Austen’s novels.  If Austen is one of the ancestors of the paperback romance, recent films of her work are now the heirs of this popular form.  The two most explicit descendants in this romance genealogy are the films of Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee, and Emma, adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

By harlequinization I mean that, like the mass-market romance, the focus is on a hero and heroine’s courtship at the expense of other characters and other experiences, which are sketchily represented.  As the tip sheet suggests, the hero and heroine’s plot should begin in the first chapter—no wasting time with matters as extraneous as the heroine’s life anytime before she first encounters the hero.  Harlequinization does not require a plot closely patterned on Pride and Prejudice’s.  But it does necessitate an unswerving attention to the hero’s and heroine’s desires for one another and a tendency to represent those desires in unsurprising, even clichéd ways.

I began to gear myself to write a long and detailed defence of popular romance novels (and in particular of Harlequin/Mills & Boon ones) but then it occurred to me that (a) I've already had one published and it was over 200 pages long and (b) often, simplicity is more my cup of tea anyway.


Cup of Tea


Kaplan, Deborah. "Mass Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women, and Courtship in Two of the Recent Films." Persuasions 18 (1996): 171-181.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Image of a cup of tea from the Open Clip Art Library.

Stealing Insights Into the Alpha

I was so taken with one of Liz McCausland's recent posts that I decided I'd copy and paste her conclusions into a post here so that I can find it again easily if I need it for future reference:

The possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero is [...] a literary “symptom” with multiple causes. There are a lot of ways to interpret, experience and think about this kind of hero. Some are positive, some negative. I don’t think any of these are right or wrong, provable or disprovable. The best, deepest understanding of the role of this hero in romance fiction will come when we hold them all open as possibilities in a discussion, even though they are in tension with each other, rather than letting any one reading dominate. Here are some of the things we could say about the stalker-alpha:

  • The hero’s possessive, jealous controlling nature is symbolic of his passion for the heroine; it shows how much he cares.
  • The fact that such a strong man surrenders to his love for her (particularly if he’s a misogynist who disdains other women) gives the heroine power over him.
  • The fact that a stalkery, controlling hero is ultimately tamed and domesticated by the heroine is a safe way of exploring and containing the threat real life men can pose for women.
  • The dominant, protective male is an archetype, and romance as a genre trades in archetypes.
  • The alpha (and the passive, submissive heroine he’s sometimes paired with) is a reflection of cultural views and ideals of masculinity, some of which can be sexist and/or harmful to both men and women.
  • The stalker-misogynist asshole who is tamed by love perpetuates the misguided view that the love of a good woman can “fix” a man, a view which leads to a lot of unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships.

The power of literature is that the hero can be and mean all these things at the same time. But that’s also the danger of it, and why, in my view, we should ask questions about our reading.

It seems to me that a lot of discussions of popular romance end with generalisations being made about both the novels and their readers. While I can understand the appeal of making generalisations such as "romance is empowering" or "it is misogynistic hate speech," the characters and plots in all romances are not identical; the novels that stick in my mind generally do so because their characters, and the way those characters interact, feel unique. That being so, the context in which one hero's jealous, controlling, stalkerish behaviour occurs may be so different from that in another novel that the two heroes can't be interpreted in exactly the same way. Furthermore, readers are not homogenous; something which feels empowering to one reader may indeed feel like "hate speech" to another.

Liz's list of possible interpretations of the " possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero" demonstrates the need to tread carefully when analysing romances, and to accept the possibility of multiple, complex readings and understandings of popular romance fiction (and its readers). It's  the type of analysis of which we need to see more. As Pamela Regis stated in her address to the 2010 IASPR conference:

our discipline values complexity in its study texts.  [...]

We owe it to the romance novel to make overt and to defend our conclusion that the romance is simple, if this is, in fact, our assessment. Surely, we owe the romance at least an acknowledgment that many readers, writers, and, yes, even some critics do find the romance novel complex, and we further owe it to the genre to make overt the value judgment that is a part of this topos—that simplicity is a “much-maligned state.” [...] I also contend that a critic confronted with a text that she considers simple should be careful of the conclusions that she draws in working on that text. I would argue that in assuming that the texts are simple, we flirt with what to me always seems like a dangerous idea—that it is not just the texts that are simple, but that the readers of the texts must, by extension, be simple, as well, or else why would they read these texts? [...]

A corollary: We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly.


McCausland, Liz. “The Overdetermined Hero.” Something More. 3 September 2012.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

laura Wednesday, 5 September, 2012
Shulamith Firestone and the Glittery HooHa

Shulamith Firestone,

a widely quoted feminist writer who published her arresting first book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” at 25, only to withdraw from public life soon afterward, was found dead on Tuesday [...] [28 August 2012]. She was 67. [...] Subtitled “The Case for Feminist Revolution,” “The Dialectic of Sex” was published by William Morrow & Company in 1970. [...] The book, which was translated into several languages, hurtled Ms. Firestone into the front ranks of second-wave feminists, alongside women like Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer. It remains widely taught in college women’s-studies courses. (Fox)

I can't remember when I first came across The Dialectic of Sex but it proved useful to me when I began to think about the Glittery HooHa, which I learned of thanks to a post by Jennifer Crusie in which she quoted Lani Diane Rich's explanation of how the term "Glittery HooHa" came into being, and what it means:

Once upon a time, in a land called Television Without Pity, the peasants gathered to discuss a particular type of character on soap operas. She was always blond, always beautiful, and always good-natured and kind, and always stupid beyond the telling of it. Did someone get approached by a masked man wearing dark gloves who needed help getting a puppy out of a wolf trap, only to happily agree to assist and disappear? It was her. Did someone get drunk on her honeymoon, pass out in a strange bed, and wake up only to assume on very little evidence that she’d slept with another man? Then lie about it? Then get caught lying? Then find out it was all a set-up by her evil twin, who had always been evil and had, in fact, done this before? It was her. Did someone get trapped in their own microwave oven?

Guess who?

And yet… there is a man. We’ll call him… Hero. Hero is handsome, he is strong, and… well, yes, okay, he’s kinda dumb, too, but still he manages to rescue her every single time she’s in trouble… which is approximately twice a show. He stays by her side and loves her through thick and thin. He disentangles her hair from the curling iron. He drops his Very Important Job to rush off and rescue her from the cardboard box on the pier where the Villain left her, warning her NOT TO SAY A WORD lest he do BAD BAD THINGS to her favorite hamster, so she kept quiet, even though the Villain was long gone, and many a passerby had passed her by. The Hero is loyal and loving and doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she is so FREAKIN’ stupid. How can this be??

Well, my friends, it comes down to the power of the Glittery HooHa, or the GHH for short. A woman with an HH as G as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the GHH to snare him forever, for yea, no matter how many HooHas he might see, never will there be one as Glittery as hers…

Of course, Shulamith Firestone wasn't a poster at Television Without Pity, but you could say that she'd already described the GHH long before, in The Dialectic of Sex:

because the distinguishing characteristic of women's exploitation as a class is sexual, a special means must be found to make them unaware that they are considered all alike sexually ("cunts"). Perhaps when a man marries he chooses from this undistinguishable lot with care, for as we have seen, he holds a special high place in his mental reserve for "The One," by virtue of her close association with himself; but in general he can't tell the difference between chicks (Blondes, Brunettes, Redheads). [...] When a man believes all women are alike, but wants to keep women from guessing, what does he do? He keeps his beliefs to himself, and pretends, to allay her suspicions, that what she has in common with other women is precisely what makes her different. Thus her sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality. [...]The process is so effective that most women have come to believe seriously that the world needs their particular sexual contributions to go on. ("She thinks her pussy is made of gold."). (148-50)

Firestone's articulation of the ideas underpinning the concept of the GHH is extremely harsh in its condemnation of both men and women and I don't think I'm deluding myself when I say that she certainly does not describe how the men in my life feel about women. When it comes to romance fiction and its depiction of heterosexual relationships, though, I have to admit that there are a fair number of misogynistic, promiscuous heroes who do seem to think that all women are untrustworthy and only good for one thing - until a surpassingly sexually attractive heroine appears to demonstrate that there is at least one exception (which perhaps proves the rule). It should be noted however that, contrary to Firestone's claim that a woman's "sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality," the success of such heroines is also dependent on their possession of a Prism (see Vivanco and Kramer).

In romance novels, as in real life, one can find plenty of women with complex personalities and unique relationships which are not based solely on sexual attraction and sexual pleasure. In romances the multi-faceted nature of these relationships is sometimes symbolised by rings given to the heroines of romances by their heroes: although these rings often indicate "that the hero and heroine have found their 'One' and may also symbolize the sexual attraction between them" (Vivanco 105), they also often "recall a moment of particular importance to their relationship, or reflect aspects of the personality [...] of the heroine, the hero, or both" (105).

That said, is it that case that, in some romances, there is such an overwhelming emphasis on sex, and the heroine's sexual allure, that it seems "her sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality"? Shulamith Firestone may be dead, but her work lives on and still raises thought-provoking questions.


Crusie, Jennifer. "Modern Literary Terms: The Glittery HooHa." 9 April 2007.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. 1970. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Fox, Margalit. "Shulamith Firestone, Feminist Writer, Dies at 67." The New York Times. 30 August 2012.

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).

Vivanco, Laura. "One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in Popular Romance Fiction." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012. 99-107.

laura Saturday, 1 September, 2012

A Long-term Relationship: Art and Romantic Fiction

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 31 August, 2012

From 2005 to 2009 Mills & Boon published a series of "Regency Lords and Ladies 2-in-1 reprints" which featured cover art supplied by Sotheby's Picture Library. Here are volumes 9 and 10:













The cover on the left shows A Favour by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922) and the one on the right features part of A Romantic Interlude by Frederic Soulacroix (1825-1879).

When I first saw the covers I didn't stop to wonder what the original inspiration for the paintings might have been; I just assumed that they were being given an entirely new purpose. I still don't know any details about these particular paintings but it really should have occurred to me that the relationship between art and romantic fiction is a long one. I was reminded of this recently when I came across something else provided by Sotheby's. In the catalogue notes for Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's An Eloquent Silence, which formed part of a sale of 19th-century European art, held in New York on the 4th of May 2012, one can find the following:

In 1890, the year An Eloquent Silence was painted, Alma-Tadema and his family were staying at Georg Ebers' summer home at Tutzing in Bavaria [...]. The idyllic scene of a white marble balcony under cyan skies and over the deep blue Mediterranean sea presented here could not have been more different than the reality of Kaiser Wilhelm's Europe, but the writing of George Ebers provided ample inspiration for the artist. Ebers was an Egyptologist who is perhaps most famous for discovering and translating the ancient medical document now known as the Ebers Papyrus, but he also sought to popularize ancient lore through historical romance novels, creating the now popular genre and titles such as An Egyptian Princess, Bride of the Nile, Cleopatra and, of particular note, A Question.

Published in 1882, A Question (Eine Frage) was intended to be a literary illustration of the idyllic ancient world created by Alma-Tadema and based on the relationship of the figures in his 1876 canvas, Pleading [...]. In fact, the book features an etching of the painting as its frontispiece. In 1883, one year following A Question's publication and a testament to the collaborative spirit between artist and author, Alma-Tadema painted a variation on the composition and titled it Xanthe and Phaon, named after the two lovelorn protagonists of Ebers' novel. The theme of courtship continues throughout Alma-Tadema's oeuvre, but An Eloquent Silence is a perfect depiction of Ebers' scene of two lovers described as sitting on a marble bench, surrounded by brightly colored flowers overlooking the sea. In chapter VI, it reads: "Then she again gazed into the distance. Phaon shook his head, and both remained silent for several minutes. At last he raised himself higher, turned his full face toward the young girl, gazed at her as tenderly and earnestly as if he wished to stamp her image upon his soul for life."

Alma-Tadema's patrons may not have been familiar with the romantic writing of George Ebers, but they appreciated the technical mastery and attention to detail that he brought to all of his works.