I've been taking a break from social media and have taken up embroidery again. I found a Y online and then adapted it, so now it looks like a tree, with moss at the base of the trunk and small leaves on some small branches; there's a U which is based on a colour-blindness test, so it's made up of green and orange/red dots; the M with a roughly life-sized mouse nesting above it came from a kit and I just adapted it very slightly to make the mouse look a bit more like a harvest mouse. [If you want to see the stitches in more detail, the version here lets you click to enlarge.]
In more academic news, there's been typesetting of Faith, Love, Hope and Popular Romance Fiction going on, and the plan is to make it available in print and as an ebook.
This is really just a quick note, rather than a proper post, because I wanted to keep hold of the details of Zeahaa Rehman's recent article about historical romance. It's about the ways in which a particular version of history has been perpetuated, the consequences of that, and how it might change:
The version of Regency England that viewers are accustomed to, both onscreen and in books, is one that excludes BIPOC and queer characters. Piper Huguley, a Black English professor and author of both contemporary and historical romance that features Black characters, believes that the genre’s popularity and homogeneity come from an unhealthy relationship between publishers and readers. “If a publisher only prints out a certain kind of thing, then the readers are only going to want that,” she says.
This leads publishers to believe “that’s what readers want,” adds Cat Sebastian, a white bisexual author who writes queer historical romance. Publishers then acquire similar books—often not factoring in the success that many self-published authors are now finding with diverse historical romance.
Purveyors of the accuracy argument are [...] inconsistent in the kinds of imaginative leaps they’re willing to make. If it is unfaithful to have queer and racialized aristocrats, then it is equally false to see plentiful wealthy, titled young people with perfect teeth, no STIs, and a healthy relationship with alcohol—as well as heroines with shaved bodies; great hygiene (soap, after all, was expensive); no after-effects of cholera, typhoid, or scarlet fever; and a distaste for the corset (which, as many costume enthusiasts on YouTube will tell you, was not restrictive). Charles also points out that so-called historically accurate all-white, all-straight romances rarely mention significant events in their eras, like the assassination of British prime minister Spencer Perceval, in 1812, or the Peterloo Massacre, in 1819.
There's a lot more in the article, and I've just pulled out a few quotes. The examples given there, and the comments it includes from authors, provide an update to/complement earlier work on this topic, such as (again, I'm putting this in here mostly so I can find the details quickly next time), from two 2018 academic romance conferences, Jennifer Hallock on chronotopes and Elizabeth Kingston on white supremacy.
Rehman, Zeahaa, 2021. "Adding Colour to the Romance Genre." The Walrus. 29 April 2021.
In Brave New Causes: Women in British Postwar Fictions Deborah Philips and Ian Haywood discuss a
specific sub-genre within the field of romance fiction, which can be termed 'the country house romance'. In these novels written by and for women, it is the country house and the tradition it represents that is as much an object of desire for the heroine as the hero [...] the house [...] stands as an emblem of 'Englishness', of a British tradition that must be secured and maintained.
Such novels articulate an anxiety about the possibility of sustaining the traditions embodied in the country house, which was widely perceived to be threatened by the onslaughts of the war and of taxation, bureaucracy and death duties imposed by an unsympathetic postwar Labour government. (42)
They note that
the Gowers report, published in 1950, but commissioned in 1948, to investigate the fate of the British country house [...] recognized the notion of 'stewardship' of the national heritage by the upper classes and acknowledged, in language very close to that expressed by the heroes and heroines of romance fictions, that:
the owner of a great house who lives in it today and admits the public to see it has a burdensome, anxious and in some respects uncomfortable way of living, which few would choose except under the influence of a sense of duty.
This sense of the 'duty' of stewardship recurs in romance narratives centred around a 'great house'. The desire to keep the house in the family is expressed not as a wish to hold on to the privileges of inherited wealth, but more as a service to the nation, an obligation which only those born and raised to it can properly undertake. As one heroine remarks, ownership of the house is understood as an inherited and genetic obligation: 'House of the Pines was in our blood. It wasn't so much that it belonged to us. It was more that we belonged to it.' (43)
That's a quote from Jan Tempest's House of the Pines, published by Mills & Boon in 1946. I can't help but think, firstly, of the recent controversy about the National Trust, which preserves many such large houses, and its recent
report, which considered how the lucrative proceeds of Britain’s imperial past had helped build and furnish 93 trust properties, provoked furious headlines in the autumn, with some Tory MPs and media accusing the trust – one of the UK’s biggest charities – of perpetuating “Marxist” or “woke” views. (The Guardian, 11 March 2021)
Secondly, I wonder if any of the anxieties about Englishness and English heritage, which are expressed explicitly in these contemporary romances and linked to country houses, contributed to the depiction of the great house elsewhere in romance. In Georgette Heyer's The Quiet Gentleman (1951) the great house, Stanyon, is a significant factor in the attempted murder of its war-hero owner, Gervase. He, it should be noted, having secured his property, roundly dismisses left-wing ideas of the kind which Heyer may well have associated with "an unsympathetic postwar Labour government." Gervase, it should also be observed, is "uniformly courteous, good-natured, kind, forgiving, warm and humble but also dashing, intelligent, witty, humorously resistant to his family’s antipathy and a strikingly competent fencer [...]; he stands as a model of alternative masculinity and aristocracy" (Hirst 114-115). He is, it would seem, the kind of aristocrat who would be considered a worthy custodian of the nation's heritage and an embodiment of Englishness.
Hirst's recent article discussing The Quiet Gentleman argues that this novel has Gothic elements and I can't help but wonder if the conditions which prompted the emerge of 'the country house romance' in the 1950s also contributed to the new wave of Gothic romance which emerged in the 1960s. Obviously those belong to a much longer tradition, but I wonder if the postwar context and the associations of large houses in that period also played a role. I've not read many of them, so I'm very much not an expert on them and, as Lori A. Paige mentions in this video about her book on the Gothic romances, there's not been a lot of research done on them, but Amanda Jones's recent article on Victoria Holt certainly suggests that her Kirkland Revels (1962) was influenced by some other debates at the time: "the contemporary scandal of consigning unmarried, pregnant, yet sane women to Victorian-built asylums, exploring these socio-political anxieties in the context of the Victorian Lunacy Acts, the 1957 Percy Report and the 1959 Mental Health Act." I don't think it's totally ridiculous to suggest that post-war anxieties about the nation's heritage in the form of its stately houses may also have contributed in some way to the development of the Gothic romance.
Butler, Patrick. "National Trust report on slavery links did not break charity law, regulator says." The Guardian. 11 March 2021.
Hirst, Holly. "Georgette Heyer and redefining the Gothic romance." Georgette Heyer, History, and Historical Fiction. Ed. Samantha J. Rayner and Kim Wilkins. London: UCL Press, 2021. 105-118.
Jones, Amanda. "Madness, Monks and Mutiny: Neo-Victorianism in the Work of Victoria Holt." Neo-Victorian Studies 12.1 (2019): 1-27.
Paige, Lori A. "Romancing the Gothic - 300 years of Gothic Romance with Lori A. Paige." Video on YouTube. Romancing the Gothic. 11 January 2021.
Philips, Deborah and Ian Haywood. Brave New Causes: Women in British Postwar Fictions. London: Leicester University Press, 1998.
Over on Twitter an account which regularly posts about Georgette Heyer noted the existence of a romance convention I haven't seen mentioned all that often:
"When shooting a hero in a novel, please always aim for the left shoulder, and do not allow the bullet to touch any vital spot therein."
— Georgette Heyer (@georgettedaily) April 11, 2021
It's a convention which is alluded to and critiqued in Eve Pendle's Falling For a Rake (2019) in which [SPOILER ALERT - so I'll put in a long break below]
the heroine recalls how she shot her fiancé when he wanted to break off their engagement:
"[...] I hit him exactly where I intended. In the upper arm, just a graze really. We walked back and he didn't seem too bad. A little faint. He embraced me before he rode home. [...] He wasn't supposed to die. I never thought he would."
"I didn't see him for days afterward. By then his arm was infected. Her voice wobbled. "I just wanted to teach him a lesson. To make him pay for what he did to me. I was so incensed, so hurt. And...[...] I was a selfish little girl. He was happy without me, and I wanted him to be miserable. [...] But the funny thing is, everyone thinks Lady Vidal is a heroine. Lady Dain is a heroine. Miss Jane Fitzsimmons is a heroine. Why?" Emily shook her head thoughtfully. "They punished a man who did them wrong, by shooting him. Their men recovered, realized the error of their ways, and joyfully married them. It never gets infected in novels."
She named women who had been scorned or threatened and had retaliated. It must have seemed quite reasonable to Emily at the time. "It's difficult to accept you might not be the hero of your story."
These are novels written long after the period in which this novel is set: they're deliberate anachronisms which prompt thought about current romance conventions.
Lady Vidal is the married name of the heroine of Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub (1932), Lady Dain is the married name of the heroine of Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels (1995). I'm not sure about Miss Jane Fitzimmons, but I think she might be the heroine of Once Upon a Scandal (2015) by Julie LeMense.
Pendle, Eve, 2019. Falling For a Rake. Selfpublished.
This post is not a demand that all historical romances be “historically accurate”: it’s what happens when an author claims to be constrained by history in ways which make me wonder if they were not, in fact, nearly so constrained as they seem to think. I felt I should start by clarifying that because, as Marlene L. Daut observes,
Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels are mostly populated with white people like the regency-era England where they take place. The London of Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton tv series for Netflix, in contrast, is a multicultural mecca, sprinkled with Black characters of various skin hues, as well as a smattering of east and south Asians walking around silently in the background. There is even a Black queen and a Black duke.
In the world of fiction—whether on the page, stage, or screen—such ahistoricity does not necessarily have to be an issue. We should not evaluate a work of art by how well it matches reality, or how faithful it is to history.
It does, however, seem entirely valid to evaluate claims of historical authenticity when these are deployed to justify particular inclusions and exclusions, as in the case of Julia Quinn’s “past dubious statements about race in the Regency period and romance” (Cuthbert).
The best documented of these can be found in a video dated 1 June 2017, of a panel event held by the Strand Book Store in New York. Before I turn to them, however, I’d like to note some earlier statements Quinn made in that video which give indications of her approach to history. With reference to the English Regency period Quinn stated:
That particular time period works very well for me but I think it’s also very popular because it is modern enough that people think in a similar way to the way we think now. If you go a lot further back, say to the medieval period, there's a sense of mysticism that pervades your life and the church - it's such a big part of your existence. And it's not to say that going to church and that sort of thing wasn't an important part of society in, you know, 1815 England, but it didn't pervade every sensibility that you have the way it did further back. So I can make my characters think in ways that will - modern readers can relate to. At the same time it's far enough removed that there's a fairytale quality to it and readers can, like, have a certain element of fantasy. (11 minutes onwards)
The “medieval period” covers many centuries, many locations, and medieval people were by no means homogenous. The “Toulouse Inquisition records of the 1270s,” for example, record
witnesses, many of them probably illiterate [who]: had shown disrespect for sacred things by dirty jokes, defilement of cemeteries, disparagement of the reputed holiness of saints and shrines, scepticism about the sign of the cross, quarrels with priests over burial practices, restlessness at sermons, and disparagement of current attitudes towards Jews and usury. It was surely encouraged by Cathars and Waldenses. It could also easily be generated by peasant scepticism and the frictions of village life. (Edwards 20)
Later ages’ assumptions about the European Middle Ages have sometimes been shaped by
A Protestant tradition [...] inclined to dismiss late medieval Catholicism in particular as 'magical' and 'superstitious' to explain why a Reformation was so badly needed by the sixteenth century. [...] It is no longer convincing to dismiss the medieval Church, in 'Protestant' terms, as a source or purveyor of 'magic', but hints that Catholicism, on the eve of the Reformation, was 'vulnerable' to a 'rationalistic critique' can still inform present debate. (Brown 2-3)
In addition to possible ideological biases which may have affected historians, it is also important, as Susan Reynolds states, to consider the biases of some of their primary sources:
The mentality of the sources and the degree to which it was shared by the whole of society also need more critical consideration in face of the mass of miracle stories which have for centuries been taken as evidence of medieval credulity. Most of the collections of miracle stories which were so notable a feature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were made by monks to promote particular shrines. Taking their word as evidence of general belief is like taking television commercials as evidence of the public's preferences among pet-foods. The miracle stories are full of scoffers. Like people in commercials who use the wrong soap-powder, they get their come-uppance, but they would not be in the stories if such people had not existed in real life and needed to be converted. (29)
Admittedly, the evidence adduced here may seem a little obscure and insufficient to challenge the respective characterisations of the two periods of history Quinn is discussing but it may challenge some assumptions about “social mentalities” (Reynolds) or “the totality of those implicit assumptions which are imposed on us by our environment and which rule our judgements” (Febvre, qtd. in Reynolds 21).
At 17.46 minutes Quinn makes a statement about the “social mentality” of the Regency period for which there are well-known counter-examples:
I wrote a novella recently where the heroine is very scientifically-minded. She’s really into astronomy and what I didn’t do was make her somebody who’s banging down the doors at Oxford and Cambridge demanding to be earning a degree because this just takes place too far in the past. It wouldn’t even occur to her that this is something that she can do. But what she can do is sort of fight against her constraints in smaller ways, ways that are more obvious: figure out how to study, how to learn, how to do her own investigations, how to finagle her way in to visiting, you know, this previously off-limits telescope. So I, I do feel like I have to work within the constructs of the, and the constraints of, the time period because a lot of the ways that we as modern women would think we can fight against, you know, the patriarchy or the rules or whatever, it just if, if you don't even realize what - how strict those rules are, and, and I honestly think a lot of women at that time had no idea, you can't really fight them in the same way.
Quinn continues at 19.14
so even just getting women of the early 1800s to a point where they understand how many fewer choices they have, and how the fact that they have fewer choices affects them, is to me a very feminist moment in the book
However, as another panellist, Sarah MacLean, states around 22.29,
I think it is a difficult argument to make that - to say that women in history haven't always had power and seen the struggle that women in the world have to go through and I often, whenever I sort of really struggle with this I think about […] Wollstonecraft, right.
As a scientist, perhaps Quinn’s heroine might have known of Laura Bassi, who gained a doctorate from the University of Bologna in 1732 and was subsequently appointed to a professorship there. Certainly a woman who literally tried to bang “down the doors at Oxford and Cambridge” wouldn’t have got far but, in the 1790s, the French mathematician Marie-Sophie Germain, due to not being permitted to attend the “École central des travaux publics, later to become the École polytechnique” found an alternative method to access an education there. It was admittedly due to the fact that “one of the innovations in this new scheme of education was to make lecture notes available to all who asked, among them Germain. Another innovation was the practice of having students submit written observations.” Thanks to these innovations, Germain was able to send her observations to a member of the faculty, Lagrange,
using the name of a student acquaintance, M. LeBlanc. Germain's originality and insight moved Lagrange to want to meet ‘LeBlanc.’ His respect for her work was not diminished when he learned that the notebooks were produced by a woman, and Lagrange continued for many years to provide support and encouragement. (Grinstein and Campbell 48)
Even taking account of different circumstances in England, Quinn’s heroine would not have been entirely without access to institutional support as a woman scientist in the UK since “From its inception in 1799 the Ri [Royal Institution of Great Britain] welcomed women to lectures and also accepted women as members” (Scales). As for an awareness of the barriers that existed for women scientists, Mary Somerville, who visited the astronomers Caroline and William Herschel’s “telescopes at Slough in 1816 […] described herself as "intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low" (Holmes).
So yes, “most people in any society probably accept its prevailing beliefs, and most dissidents in a persecuting society will keep their heads down” (Reynolds 33) but again, no society is entirely homogenous. Here’s another historical example, recently published:
In a newly discovered passage from an 1810 diary, Yorkshire tenant farmer Matthew Tomlinson considers the notion that homosexual desire is a natural, divinely ordained human tendency, discernible from adolescence and undeserving of capital punishment. Although ultimately inconclusive, his reflections offer tantalizing evidence that historical attitudes towards same-sex love in early nineteenth-century British society could be more diverse and sympathetic than previously assumed. (O’Keeffe)
It was after Quinn had demonstrated a propensity to latch on to potentially incorrect “social mentalities” and to minimise the extent to which individuals can resist them, that she proceeded to make some “dubious statements about race in the Regency period”:
[at 45.29] Somebody asked me [...] recently, about introducing more diversity into my books and it's difficult because first, with the time period that I write in, I mean, some say "Oh well, it really was diverse". Like, well, not among the Dukes [...] It's tricky because you know you read these civil war romances and they’ve been kinda out of fashion for a while and you're like you know isn't it interesting that you know the heroine always seems to feel that her slave is really, truly her equal, and I'm thinking well, she wasn't raised that way. She'd have to be pretty remarkable to have figured this out on her own. So, she's going to feel that way, you need to explain to me how that came about, and a lot of times they didn't.
I doubt many white people in slave-owning families would have had to ‘figure this out’ entirely on their own given the prominence of debates about abolition but this example Quinn offers does perhaps suggest that the veil of “fantasy” which allows readers to suspend disbelief about certain elements of historical romance can fade. Perhaps plantation romances lost popularity because many readers could no longer find those settings “far enough removed that there's a fairytale quality to it and readers can, like, have a certain element of fantasy.” That said, in fact “an entire industry of Christian romance novel-writing has coalesced around these sites, offering readers plantation-centered narratives which are presented as wholesomely romantic - and, even more troublingly, factual” (Adair).
If readers who are troubled by plantations, but find England in the Regency a fairytale escape, started to think about the sources of many Regency protagonists’ wealth, they might stop finding this setting quite so escapist:
geographic distance made it possible for slavery to be largely airbrushed out of British history, following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. […] The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet. Today, across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter”. Thousands of biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else expunged such unpleasant details altogether. (Olusoga)
Getting back to Quinn’s comments about the setting in which she herself writes, at around 46.19 she says:
You know, I think, "Okay, I want to introduce diversity into my book, maybe put a Jewish character in there." There were Jews in England at the time, but you know what, a lot of people really didn't like them, and for me to explain why my characters, who I'd like to think are fundamentally good and kind and true, suddenly find these people to be perfectly fine and "Yeah, sure, Miriam, no problem, you know we don't care", I'd have to come up with a really good explanation of how that came about and that might have to be the story more than the actual love story so it's tricky to do.
First of all, the situation was more nuanced than Quinn’s comments might suggest. Of course there was prejudice, but, to give one example,
Horatio Walpole, 4th earl of Orford (better known as Horace Walpole, writer, historian, Whig Member of Parliament and prolific correspondent), was on friendly terms […] with Jewish neighbours at Strawberry Hill, his striking neo-Gothic country house in Twickenham, south-west of London. “My next assembly will be entertaining,” he wrote to his friend George Montagu on October 3, 1763; “there will be five countesses, two bishops, fourteen Jews, five papists, a doctor of physic, and an actress; not to mention Scotch, Irish, East and West Indians” (Letters 5:376).
Prominent Jews did similar entertaining. Thus Joseph Salvador, a wealthy Sephardi merchant (1716-86) and financial adviser to the Duke of Newcastle and his government around 1757, “gave a grand entertainment at his seat at Tooting in Surrey to a great number of noblemen and gentlemen, members of both houses of parliament” — so reported the London Evening Post of 10 July 1753. (Gossman)
I found it difficult to unpack and understand the assumptions behind Quinn’s statements however, particularly after discussions online which brought to light interpretations I had not considered. Here are some possibilities. If Quinn (incorrectly) believes that she could not have her aristocratic protagonists interacting with Jewish characters, does this mean
a) that she believes her characters would have anti-Semitic views and are therefore not entirely “good and kind and true” but has also decided that she does not wish her readers to think about this?
b) that her characters should be considered “fundamentally good and kind and true” despite their anti-Semitism?
c) that they are “fundamentally good and kind and true” and therefore not anti-Semitic, but readers are just supposed to take that on trust, without any explanation?
d) readers are left “with the mistaken impression” that Jewish characters “weren’t in England at that time having well rounded experiences and JQ manages to uphold the same anti-Semitic histrom ideals pioneered by Georgette Heyer”? (Blakeman)
In a recent interview Quinn stated that
"I'm Jewish and when I would read a book and one of the characters would be Jewish, I'd be like, 'Oh, that's me.' And it was very powerful," she explains. "And so now I feel like I'm able to start to extrapolate that and be like, 'You know what, everybody needs that.'" (Gillette)
However, Quinn apparently did not consider the possibility of addressing this need by centring non-aristocratic characters (and neither did the screen adaptation, even though it did change the race of some of them). It has been reported that “Her resistance to writing diversely because she doesn't think HEAs are believable in that era is well-documented and persistent.” (Lerner):
Let's not forget the panel where she said - apparently in reply to a question - that OF COURSE she doesn't write diverse characters into her novels because she doesn't write about suffering. Said with a smile while sitting next to a black romance author of historical romances. […] There was also a FB post where she basically said the same thing - how difficult and tricky it would be to write diverse characters into hist rom because it would need to be historically accurate. (Schwab)
It seems an indication of the extent of Quinn’s commitment to her views of the “social mentalities” of the past that such comments could have been made while she was sitting alongside an author of African-American historical romances whose very body of work (full of HEAs) provided counter-evidence which should have made Quinn pause. It may also be an indication that, as Felicia Grossman observed,
there is a lot of resistance to the idea that histrom can center established communities that aren't aristocracy, or at least comparable to aristocracy. Or the idea that people were happy inside those communities.
It’s instructive, I think, to see when historical verisimilitude is, or isn’t invoked, and what must be overlooked or temporarily put to one side in order to enjoy tales of “fundamentally good” aristocrats, dressed in beautiful, expensive clothes and living in luxury.
Adair, Joshua G. “ ‘A Battlefield All Their Own’: Selling Women’s Fictions as Fact at Plantation Museums.” Museums, Sexuality, and Gender Activism. Ed. Joshua G. Adair and Amy K. Levin. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2020. 239-251.
Brown, Andrew. Church and Society in England, 1000-1500. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Cuthbert, Kate. “‘Bridgerton’ Finally Harnesses The Power Of The Romance Book Community.” Junkee. 19 January 2021. https://junkee.com/bridgerton-romance-books/285428
Daut, Marlene L. “Why Did Bridgerton Erase Haiti?” LA Review of Books. 19 January 2021. https://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2021/01/19/why-did-bridgerton-erase-haiti/
Edwards, John. “Religious Faith and Doubt in Late Medieval Spain: Soria circa 1450-1500.” Past and Present 120 (1988): 3-25.
Gillette, Sam. “Author Julia Quinn on the Netflix Adaptation of Her Bridgerton Series: It's a 'Fairytale'.” People. 25 December 2020. https://people.com/tv/author-julia-quinn-on-the-netflix-adaptation-of-the-bridgerton-series-its-a-fairytale/
Gossman, Lionel. “From Expulsion to Emancipation: Jews in England 1290-1858.” Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/judaism/gossman3.html
Grinstein, Louise S. and Paul J. Campbell. Eds. Women of Mathematics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Holmes, Richard. “The Royal Society's lost women scientists.” The Observer. 21 November 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/nov/21/royal-society-lost-women-scientists
O’Keeffe, Eamonn. “‘A natural passion?’ The 1810 reflections of a Yorkshire farmer on homosexuality.” Historical Research, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1093/hisres/htaa037 That’s not open access but you can find more details about this here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51385884
Olusoga, David. “The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed.” The Observer. 12 July 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/12/british-history-slavery-buried-scale-revealed
Reynolds, Susan. “Social Mentalities and the Cases of Medieval Scepticism.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1 (1991): 21–41.
Scales, Laurence. “Ladies with attitude.” The blog of the Royal Institution. 2 July 2014. https://www.rigb.org/blog/2014/july/ladies-with-attitude
The Strand. “Feminists Take on the Romance Genre.” 1 June 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bX8XSkdbkI&feature=share
I've been busy adding more entries to the Romance Scholarship Database and came across an essay by Jean Radford from 1992, expanded from the introduction to a volume she edited in 1986, which asks some questions about the connections between modern and medieval romance that I think have yet to be answered:
to see modern romances as genealogical upstarts or the bastardized offspring of originally noble forebears is to reproduce a fantasy of the decline-and-fall type; it does not help to explain the evolution of cultural forms in relation to social and cultural developments. Instead, one can ask why the romance has moved from being about a male subject to being about a female one, or in what way the tests and trials faced by the hero of medieval romance differ from the obstacles and trials that the heroine of contemporary romance must typically overcome to achieve her objective; or how it is that the 'magic' that in earlier romances rescues the hero from false Grails becomes in Jane Eyre a supernatural voice that unites her with her 'true' destiny, and why magic/supernatural/Providential force is in today's romance represented as coming from within - as the magic and omnipotent power of sexual desire. A structural and semantic reading of these changing codes necessarily engages with questions of gender, ideology, and change. (5)
Radford, Jean, 1992. "A Certain Latitude: Romance as Genre." Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative. Ed. Glenwood Irons. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 3-19.
how we might read Diana with a trans lens, unpacking [...] her masculinity [...]. This lens leads me to compare The Sheik to another interwar British novel with a more famously masculine heroine—Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928)—which presents an explicitly queer protagonist (who might today identify as either a butch lesbian, a trans man, or a nonbinary person) who echoes many of Diana’s characteristics, but ends her novel very differently. [...] I want to allow a trans reading that [...] embraces Diana’s attachment to her boyhood, before the plot closes off that possibility.
In my essay for the same issue of JPRS I also contrasted The Sheik with another novel, in my case a well-received romance published in the same year, Berta Ruck's A Land-Girl's Love Story. Since that novel includes a cross-dressing hero (there is an extended sequence in which the utterly convincing nature of his performance is described) who believes that in many respects men should behave more like women, and a heroine who is repeatedly described as being boyish, it seems to me that what Hull closes off, Ruck deliberately leaves open. Taylor is
not suggesting here that Diana was written as a trans man, a non-binary person, or a butch woman (butch being a social category beyond simple masculinity). These are present-day categories which, while they describe a range of practices that were indeed in existence in early twentieth century Britain, were not in use in 1919.
Such categories are, of course, not explicitly present in Ruck's novel either, but it seems to me that Ruck's Elizabeth and Fielding certainly challenge gender binaries and even if that weren't the case, it would be difficult to categorise Elizabeth as uncomplicatedly heterosexual given that
"Heavens!" ejaculated Elizabeth, with [...] fervour and truth in her voice. "How I do loathe what they call 'a manly man'! All lumps and a bull's voice, and irregular features!"
"But," I suggested mildly, "you wouldn't want a man to look like the picture off a chocolate-box lid?"
"I should adore it," declared this exception in girls. "When I was a little girl, once, I was given a box of sweets with a picture on the lid called 'The Falconer.' He wore a golden-brown hunting-dress and he had a hawk on his shoulder, and golden hair and soft eyes, and, oh! such a pretty face! I thought at the time, 'If only I could ever see a young man looking like that Falconer!' And now I have. Colonel Fielding is exactly like that picture. Oh, Joan, I think he's the most beautiful thing I've seen." (194)
Joan, who prefers "manly good looks" (195) cannot find Colonel Fielding, who "could dress up and look exactly like a girl" (195) at all attractive, but "here was the boyish, resolute, no-nonsense-about-her Elizabeth glorying in the fact!" (195). Elizabeth and Fielding get their happy ending, just as Joan and her "manly" man do.
Ruck, Berta, 1919. A Land-Girl's Love Story. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. [Available online here.]
Taylor, Jessica, 2020. “Garçon Manqué: A Queer Rereading (of) The Sheik.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 9. [Available online here.]
Vivanco, Laura, 2020. “Let’s Not Get Carried Away by The Sheik.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 9. [Available online here.]
I'm working through The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction and felt I had to comment on something in Pamela Regis's article on "The evolution of the American romance novel." She's so scathing about two novels, I feel they must be of interest to someone:
I found two little-known novels by none other than Charles Brockden Brown: Clara Howard and Jane Talbot (both 1801). Alerted by their titles - they sound like romance novels named after their heroines - I located copies. These novels were hidden in plain sight, in the fifth volume of the MLA-sanctioned collected works of one of the most studied American authors. They are both courtship tales, and like Richardson's [...] Pamela, they are both epistolary, i.e., told in letters. Brockden Brown, then, at least formally, was a Richardsonian. I found that both Clara Howard and Jane Talbot hinge, in part, on weak, coincidental plot devices: misplaced or forged letters. In addition, although the novels are named after their heroines, they focus on their heroes. Confronted by this sort of evidence, the literary historian must decide between including these novels in a history of the American romance novel or devoting time and effort to other, more worthy titles. Because analysis of these novels would displace in a developing history of the romance the time and effort that could be devoted to analysis of a novel that focuses on the heroine, one of the romance's important contributions to fiction, a novel that, moreover, is a stronger novel, I moved on. With tens of thousands of romance novels undiscovered, spending time on lesser works, however canonical their authors, perpetuates the idea that there are no other, worthier works to include. (59-60)
The irony, of course, is that by including this paragraph, I feel a contrary reader may well be intrigued and wonder if they are really so unworthy after all. In particular, a focus on the hero may actually be of interest to some scholars.
Regis, Pamela, 2021. "The evolution of the American romance novel." The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction. Ed. Hsu-Ming Teo, Eric Murphy Selinger and Jayashree Kamblé. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 51-71.
I'm always interested to see discussions in romances about romance fiction and writing. Also of interest is how romance appears in works which are not romance. Here are recent examples I came across in Postcolonial Literatures in the Local Literary Marketplace: Located Reading by Jenni Ramone. Ramone discusses "Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play Fix-up (2004)":
Fix-up takes place inside a Black Consciousness book-shop which is under threat of closure because Brother Kiyi who runs the shop can no longer afford to pay his rent as a result of his working practices: he lends books which invariably come back in an unsellable condition, if at all, and buys books that he thinks are worthwhile, valuable, important—books that Black people should read—rather than the books that they choose to read (frequently, Black romance novels). The play remains ambivalent on the question of who is doing more for Black Consciousness: the sincere and highly principled Kiyi, or the apparently more forward-thinking militant and capitalist Kwesi, who wants to run a Black hair products business from the bookshop’s current location. Kiyi wonders about the difference between Black and white romance novels, asking “stories of Black love. I wonder how that differs from say stories of white love?.” Unable to find a clear enough distinction, he removes them from the shelf to make space for three sets of twelve volumes, described as accounts of the last remaining 2300 people to have been slaves, interviewed by social anthropologists in 1899 (10). Alice, a young mixed-race customer hungry for books that she is certain will help her to find herself, sees value in the Black romance novels that are, for Kiyi, symptomatic of a lack of consciousness. For Kiyi, Black romance novels are “nonsensical nonsense” that distract from the valuable reading and knowledge that his customers should be acquiring—Van Sertima’s Africa, Cradle of Civilisation!, Chancellor Williams’ Destruction of Black Civilisation, Peterson’s The Middle Passage, Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [...] books on the Dogons, the Ashantis, [...] the pyramids of Ancient Zimbabwe’ (38). The play contains references to, staged audio recordings from, and discussion of Black Consciousness books and historical figures (among others, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, Claude Mackay). This means that the play operates very much like the Black Consciousness bookshop: it educates through close reference to texts that fill gaps in knowledge about Black history and culture. Having become a regular visitor to Kiyi’s Black Consciousness book-shop, Alice discovers two things which derail her burgeoning sense of self, or consciousness: she finds proof that Kiyi is her biological father, and she discovers that he has written the interviews with former slaves himself, revising and displacing similar, genuine narratives in order to fill what he perceived to be a historical omission. (144-145)
Scorn for romance fiction is also evident in another text discussed:
In the 1981 film Burning an Illusion directed by Menelik Shabazz, the act of reading is a visual referent of Pat’s journey towards consciousness. After Pat’s partner Delroy is imprisoned for four years after intervening in an argument and injuring a policeman, her immediate response is to rip up the book she was reading while sat in bed as a signal that nothing can help her to understand her new situation. The book’s title is not visible on screen but it is recognisable as a slim Mills and Boon orange-topped romance paperback. Her romance reading is emblematic of her lack of consciousness up to this point, so the act of destroying the book is a recuperative act. (164)
the contrast between experience and reading is apparent again at the film’s close when Pat reorganises her books, keeping only those perceived to be important and throwing others into a waste incinerator (she throws away romance books, Barbara Cartland’s name visible on screen). (165)
Two more examples of the rejection of romance:
Verona, the protagonist of Joan Riley’s novel, Romance (1988), has an obsession with reading romance novels: “She would read until the heating came on and the room warmed up. She picked up the book that sleep had interrupted. She had been in the middle of the last chapter; she might as well finish it before getting ready for work” (27). For Verona, reading is pretence—fantasy and escapism, even denial, but the central motif of the text is the unsuitability of her reading matter. Instead of taking action or even telling her family when she loses her job, Verona goes to the library and avoids her situation by “getting comfortable in the cushioned Black chair” and arranging “her four romance novels in a neat pile” (40). Repeatedly, her friends and family call it “trash”, “white trash”, “rubbish”. Her family criticise Verona’s habit—“all you do is read them stupid books” (22) and analyse her motivations; her sister accuses her of pretending to be the white heroine in the novels: “That’s why you’re always reading these trashy books, isn’t it? So you can pretend. What’s the matter with you anyway? What’s wrong with a Black man?” (69). Verona only understands the real events in her life through cross-reference to the romance novels: “It was just like in Concertina Love, she recalled” (172), excusing misogyny in a white man because it replicated the misogyny in the books that gave her so much pleasure. Only the realisation of an unplanned pregnancy interrupts her reading: “She couldn’t even lose herself in romance any more, feeling too unwell and worried to concentrate” (200). The term “lose herself” seems particularly apt here. Ultimately, reading romance novels has a potentially destructive effect because losing herself in a book is, in fact, losing her self, her identity in racial, cultural, social terms: pretending to be “an innocent blonde-haired virgin” (74), reading is undertaken at the expense of attention to her brother, sister, father, her job, and ultimately her awareness of her identity. By the end of the novel, Verona begins to consider other reading material, having acknowledged that her reading choices are in conflict with the values of the people she respects, the people who run Black Consciousness meetings. She is given “a children’s book by a Black writer” (229) and this implies not only that she might restart her reading, but also that she might in the future share her reading with her unborn child, and that the child might have a more worthwhile experience of reading, signalled by Verona’s more positive ideas about the future at the novel’s close. What emerges from an analysis of these reading instances is a conflict between losing the self (in fiction—in white romance novels) and finding the self: locating the self, or locating consciousness is, in Romance, inseparable from reading texts that are acknowledged to be of merit in intellectual and activist terms. In Joan Riley’s The Unbelonging (1985), the pattern is similar in a narrative that follows a young woman’s aspirations to go to university and the conversations between Black women about what should and should not be read: Hyacinth becomes obsessed with Mills and Boon romance books she finds left behind in her lodgings, and initially rejects her friend Perlene’s suggestion that reading Walter Rodney’s book (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972) would make her better aware of the causes of racism. (166-167)
Ramone, Jenni, 2020. Postcolonial Literatures in the Local Literary Marketplace: Located Reading. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
I've not blogged recently because I was busy working on Faith, Love, Hope and Popular Romance Fiction . It's a book which, as is rather obvious from the title, is about faith, love, hope and popular romance fiction. Since we're in a pandemic, I felt particularly uncertain about what the future might hold and so I decided I'd just publish the book in whole myself, on this website. That may or may not have been a good idea, but my hope is that this way I can get feedback/constructive criticism from other romance readers, romance scholars, and also romance readers. I've had some of that already and updated the book as a result, but I hope there will be more.
Since it's all online, there probably isn't all that much point writing a synopsis here, but it does include:
* a new definition of romance which suggests that romances are a form of pastoral care
* detailed analysis of romances by Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Rose Lerner and Nora Roberts
* analysis of how "devils" and protagonists "in hell" are saved
* use of guides to romance writing and statements by readers and romance authors