An f/f/m romance from 1896?

By Laura Vivanco on

This is a novel which I've only just discovered but which sounds like it should be better known to romance scholars:

Better known to history by her married name, Katharine Bruce Glasier, and remembered for her activism on behalf of the British labor movement rather than as a novelist or short story writer, Katharine St. John Conway published Aimée Furniss, Scholar in 1896.  Her eponymous heroine is a middle-class schoolteacher who awakens to the need for radical, class-based social change when she witnesses a drunken itinerant carpenter’s violence toward his pregnant wife on the street outside her rented rooms.  After a working-class girl in her own community is jilted by her gentleman lover, Aimée “marries” Annie Deardon in a sequence of scenes that invokes north-of-England regional folk traditions of courtship, high church marriage rituals, and a Biblical allusion to David’s love for King Saul.   Aimée then gives up her teaching post and moves to a working-class seaside community with this young girl, making her commitment to the welfare of Annie and her illegitimate child both a stepping stone toward and a condition of her heterosexual partnership with a socialist comrade, Edgar Howardson, at the novel’s conclusion. (Ardis para. 7)

One can definitely spot similarities between Aimée and Katharine herself: Edith Hall refers to Aimée as a "strongly  autobiographical heroine" and gives details of Glasier's relationship with Enid Stacy: "With Katharine, she [...] tried  to found  a  co-operative colony near  Kendal in the Lake District, where work and food would be equally shared amongst the previously unemployed and homeless. But the project was sabotaged by the local vicar, and so Enid devoted herself to campaigning for socialism and the rights of women." I'm not sure about the chronology, but Hall also mentions that

Katharine [...], in 1892 resigned her post at Redland High School, and moved out of her genteel lodgings into the extended household of Dan Irving. He was a political activist  who had lost one leg in a shunting accident while working on the railways in the Midlands. Leaving the safety of her genteel social  circle to embrace the life of an agitator for  the working class was a huge and risky step. There were also ambiguities surrounding her  relationship with Irving and his invalided wife.

Some facts which are not ambiguous are that Glasier was

born in 1867 [...] she came from a politically active and religious middle-class family. After reading classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, she secured a teaching position at the Redland School for Girls in Bristol [...]. As a popular speaker on the socialist circuit, she met Isabella Ford, and the two established a lifelong friendship. In 1893, the year she married John Bruce Glasier, she was elected to the National Administrative Council of the Independent Labour Party. Determined not to let her marriage interfere with her propaganda and literary work, she once wrote to her husband that their mutual efforts on behalf of the socialist cause must be seen "as the reason and justification of our marriage." [...] Glasier [...] wrote a number of romances for the popular weekly Family Herald. (Waters 32)

Here's a bit more about Katharine's lifelong friend, Isabella Ford:

Ford's insight into the threat that marriage posed to women's friendships (Ford herself never married) is eloquently conveyed [by a character in one of her novels] Lucretia, who notes, "Women's lives are so cut up when they marry" (Waters 35)

Also, Glasier and her work weren't just influenced by ideas about socialism:

Glasier had also come to appreciate the importance of Walt Whitman's vision of democratic comradeship through her friendship with Edward Carpenter, a socialist and pioneer of homosexual rights, and an emphasis on comradeship thus occupies a prominent place in her second novel [Aimée Furniss]. After embracing the cause of socialism, Aimée meets Annie Deardon, a shopgirl who has lost her job and for whom she develops an intense fondness. Together they move to a village in the South where they read Whitman, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Giuseppe Mazzine, and William Morris and work as intimate comrades to spread the socialist gospel: "Slowly a new hunger grew up with them and a new hope" (124) [...] their union cements the cross-class alliance that both Ford and Glasier called for, an alliance that, in Aimée Furniss, subverts the heterosexual imperative of much New Woman fiction and opens up a space for women to support each other's ambitions. (36)

I haven't read the book, but I'm definitely beginning to think that the phrase "a new hunger grew up with them" might not solely refer to socialism. Ann Ardis concludes that

Though it certainly seems appropriate to employ a contemporary language of lesbianism to describe the emotional and physical intensity of Aimée’s relationship with Annie, calling Aimée Furniss a lesbian novel does not do justice either to the heterosexual marriage plot that frames St. John Conway’s text or to the mixed gender, cross-class collective assembled at its conclusion, which includes Aimée, Annie Deardon, Annie’s illegitimate child, Aimée’s socialist lover, the carpenter who beat his pregnant wife in the novel’s opening scene, and the working-class orphans that Aimée’s lover has taken into his care.  Likewise, calling this a New Woman novel does not quite do justice to Conway’s emphasis on her protagonist’s renunciation of middle-class individualism, or to the religious and ethical dimensions of the socialist collectivism this novel is trying to imagine.  Nor does it capture Conway’s sense of confidence in the inevitability of a revolution in class relations, or the rethinking of same-sex as well as hetero-sexual gender relations that she links inextricably to this kind of seismic shift in class relations. (paragraph 9)

Ardis mentions "challenges that Diana Maltz is facing currently in trying to get Katharine St. John Conway’s 1896 novel, Aimée Furniss, Scholar, back in print" (paragraph 6) and presumably the challenges were too great because, unfortunately, I can't see any trace of a recent edition.


Ardis, Ann, 2007. 'Landscape for a New Woman; or, Recovering Katharine St. John Conway, “Michael Field,” and “the author of Borgia”', Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 3.2.

Hall, Edith. 2015. 'Classically Educated Women in the Early Independent Labour Party', Greek and Roman Classics in the British Struggle for Social Reform, ed. Henry Stead and Edith Hall. London: Bloomsbury. 197-215. [See the pre-print version here]

Waters, Chris, 1993. 'New Women and Socialist-Feminist Fiction: The Novels of Isabella Ford and Katharine Bruce Glasier', Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women Writers 1889-1939. Ed. Angela Ingram and Daphne Patai. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 25-42.

Love in the Romance Genre: Friendship, Ethical Improvement and Conditionality

By Laura Vivanco on

Aristotle "makes friendship, rather than sexual relationships [...] the supreme form of love" (May 56) so initially one might assume that his view of love would be at odds with that of most romance novels. However, what he termed

philia is a form of devotion that is best translated as 'friendship love', but that flourishes not only between what we normally think of as friends, but also in all these other sorts of relationship [to spouses, siblings, children, parents, or sexual partners] at their best. And so sexual intimacy, for example, isn't in principle opposed to friendship-love. (56)

In this type of relationship, the friends identify with each other "as if they were 'a second self'" (56). As Guin K. Guin points out in "An Aristotelian Approach to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park", "If there is any relationship in which we are called on to love our “friend” as a second self, it is marriage. As marriage is also meant to be a permanent relationship, it requires the same stability arising from the virtue of both parties as does complete friendship" (Guin 12-13).

Jane Austen's heroines often express a need to respect and have similar views to their future partners, although admittedly some of her protagonists need to change before they can achieve an Aristotelian type of "complete friendship" in marriage. Here, Erin Stackle argues, Austen actually "supplements Aristotle" (202). He argued that philia "is, in its very essence, ethical. It is possible only between two individuals who are good - and indeed are good in similar ways. What Aristotle means by 'good' is much more than simply agreeing on rules like telling the truth, or not stealing, or keeping promises. He means that they share an entire conception of the best way to live life" (May 57). What we see in Pride and Prejudice is an illustration of

how falling in love can convert to virtuous friendships characters otherwise likely to remain blinded in vice.

In Austen's novel, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are the most virtuous characters presented. There remains, however, a serious disparity, not only between them and complete virtue, but also between the two of them. The scene in which Austen presents Darcy's proposal of marriage to Elizabeth clearly articulates how unlikely is a virtuous friendship between them, and starts the mutual character conversion that leads to their ultimate friendship. (202 Stackle)

I wouldn't say that every romance depicts such a conversion or even that an Aristotelian "virtuous friendship" is present in every romance HEA, but I do think it's present in many. In a way, philia is much more compatible with an obligatory HEA than is pure eros:

Erotic love, like ambition for power, can kill those who get in its way or refuse to submit. A certain possessive violence that cares nothing for morality, or at least for conventional mores, seems to belong to its nature, and, indeed, is often seen as proof of its authenticity and strength. We disapprove but aren't completely amazed when lovers stalk, or turn on, loved ones who fail to reciprocate.

Whereas if a friend started behaving to us like this, consumed with jealousy of our other friends, determined to possess us, and furious if we failed sufficiently to requite his affections, we would be impressed not by the power of his friendly feelings but by their poverty.

This isn't because friendship is an anaemic bond compared to erotic or romantic love. It is a very different sort of love. It is, in its essence, a two-way relationship. [...] Though in perfect philia one experiences one's friend as one's 'other self', and to that extent as continuous or even identical with oneself, one does so in a way that explicitly respects his integrity and agency and distinct life, and is dedicated to finding, nurturing and enjoying the good in him. (May 57-58)

An attraction with a strong ethical component, between people who "share an entire conception of the best way to live life", is also necessary if, as Pamela Regis has argued, one of the essential components of romance is a "society [which] is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt" (31) and which the protagonists "must confront in their attempt to court and marry and which, by their union, they symbolically remake" (31).

On the other hand, the RWA's definition of the HEA states that "the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love" and Simon May argues that philia is incompatible with unconditional love:

Aristotle's insistence that philia depends on - even essentially is - an ethical relation means that he is dead set against [...] two myths about ideal love [...]: that it is unconditional (it loves the other regardless of her qualities or of changes in her qualities); and that it totally affirms the beloved, her 'bad' as well as her 'good'. [...] But if love is so conditional, then - contrary to another myth about ideal love - it isn't necessarily constant, let alone eternal. [...] It isn't just that philia cannot be expected to be constant if the other person becomes irreversibly bad. Aristotle seems to go further: one should drop a friend under these circumstances. (58-59)

With regard to the protagonists' future, I think that, as Stackle observed in Austen, the emphasis is on depicting love improving protagonists and creating a bond which supports the continuation of that virtue into the HEA. This minimises the possibility that either will become "irreversibly bad". As for unconditionality, my suspicion is that when the RWA decided to use the term "unconditional" they did not mean it in the sense that the love between the protagonists is entirely unrelated to their qualities. I think they meant that the love would develop into the kind which, once fully established, does not continually set new conditions for it to continue. This sort of unconditionality, as well as constancy, can be considered almost certain given that

Normally, of course, we would expect philia to survive because it is based on something as robust as the friends' excellences of character ('their friendship lasts as long as they are good - and excellence is an enduring thing'). These qualities are so fundamental to who someone is that to love him in this way is to love him 'for his sake'. It is to love him for the person he is, and not merely because he is useful or pleasurable to us. (May 59)

These are issues I'm going to be thinking through a bit further in my current project. I'd be interested in others' thoughts!


Guin, Katherine A. "An Aristotelian Approach to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park". Ph.D thesis, Florida State University, 2015.

May, Simon. Love: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Stackle, Erin. "Jane Austen's Aristotelian Proposal: Sometimes Falling in Love Is Better Than a Beating." Philosophy and Literature 41.1 (2017): 195-212.

Romance and "Zombie Coupledom"

By Laura Vivanco on

This morning I came across an article by Sarah Brouillette about romance. It's mainly about the economics of romance reading/publishing, as you can see from the abstract:

This article studies the relative success of the mass-market romance industry. It argues that, in conditions of general economic downturn, supports for the cultivation of literary reading have declined, while inducements to romance reading have strengthened. It considers the centrality of self-publishing to romance reading, and the styles of work available to romance writers, most of whom are women and are usually poorly remunerated. It considers, finally, the contemporary romance heroine, treating her as a figure of fantastical symbolic reconciliation: between a liberal ideal of independent empowerment and the reality of persistent compulsion toward coupledom and subservience.

It's in the discussion of this last point that I detect an assumption with which I cannot agree. According to Sarah Brouillette, the romance "industry is propping up both zombie coupledom and empowerment discourse. It offers stories that reconcile the ideal of women’s “ownership” of their sexuality with the compulsion—material and social—to enter into coupledom" (462). As such,

the romance genre is a cultural niche that supports the zombie persistence of the couple form. Melinda Cooper has argued that part of why coupledom persists is simply as a bulwark against economic instability and harried life. It remains a powerful form of risk management—what Mark McGurl calls, in his own work on romance, the “little welfare state.” McGurl points out that coupledom is also supposed to offer passionate erotic satisfaction to self-possessed individuals. This is a hard row to hoe, however, given how harried and beleaguered people are. (461)

Call me brainless if you like, but I'm going to carry on thinking there's something more (like love and emotional support and connection) underpinning good romantic relationships.


Brouillette, Sarah, 2019. "Romance Work." Theory & Event 22.2, pp. 451-464.

Speaking with Authority on Love: Romance Authors

By Laura Vivanco on

hooks-all-about-loveA snippet from bell hooks' All About Love: New Visions (2000):

My work as a cultural critic offered me a constant opportunity to pay close attention to everything the mass media, particularly movies and magazines, tell us about love. Mostly they tell us that everyone wants love but that we remain totally confused about the practice of love in everyday life. In popular culture love is always the stuff of fantasy. Maybe this is why men have done most of the theorizing about love. Fantasy has primarily been their domain, both in the sphere of cultural production and in everyday life. Male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape. Hence, the romance novel remains the only domain in which women speak of love with any degree of authority. However, when men appropriate the romance genre their work is far more rewarded than is the writing of women. A book like The Bridges of Madison County is the supreme example. Had a woman penned this sentimental, shallow story of love (which did, though, have its moments) it is unlikely it would ever have become such a major mainstream success, crossing all boundaries of genre. (xxiii, emphasis added)

The 2001 Harper Perennial edition of hooks' book has "National Bestseller" on the title, so perhaps hooks has herself become a woman speaking of love with a degree of authority? I'm not sure exactly what she means by "male fantasy" here, or how it "is seen as something that can create reality" but I thought I'd share her thoughts about romance novels.

More on the Dangers of Novels

By Laura Vivanco on

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,

’Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range

The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;

  Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange

Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,

  And few there are whom these cannot estrange;

Men have all these resources, we but one,

To love again, and be again undone.


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

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

Seeing Things as They Truly Are

By Laura Vivanco on

"To solve the crime is to reveal the world as it truly is, not as it appears" - @RjurikDavidson #popfic16

— PopFic Doctors (@PopFicDoctors) 6 October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Love: A Risk Assessment

By Laura Vivanco on

I've been reading Catherine Roach's Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture, in which she proposes that one of "essential elements of the romantic love story" (21) is that

Romance involves risk. Love doesn't always work out. In fact, it may fail spectacularly. The story of romance novels, which are technically romantic comedies in that they end happily, can all too easily turn into the failure of love in romantic tragedies such as the iconic Romeo and Juliet. This knowledge haunts romance stories as a shadow text, often present within the story as the path avoided: The book opens with a bad boyfriend whom the reader knows is on his way out. A previous generation's failed romance is redeemed through the current characters. [...] Readers feel this risk in the main story itself, which in "real life" would be unlikely to work out but which within the fantasy space of the romance always, miraculously, does: The heroine sleeps with the hero while he's still the emotionally closed-off cowboy or the philandering rake, but instead of the obvious scenario wherein he leaves her heartbroken, her act of giving herself to him opens his heart. (24)

I can't argue with the assertion that "Love doesn't always work out". Whether that makes love feel like a big "risk", though, is another matter. I can think of plenty of things I, personally, would think of as being a lot riskier. In romance, however, quite a lot of characters are happy to do things which I'd categorise as higher risk but are nontheless wary of falling in love: presumably they assess love as something which is much more likely to cause them pain.

Roach suggests that love is risky because it

is never a simple joy or pleasure, if for no other reason than the sure and stern knowledge of the beloved's eventual death. In every moment of love is this proleptic experience of loss, making all deeply felt love poignant and tragic. Such is one cost of love. (128)

The alternative, though, is presumably either to only love things which can't die (i.e. durable material objects) or not to love at all (which has its own costs). Presumably the extent of the risk of loving mortal beings varies according to how much one dwells on the "sure and stern knowledge" and how deeply (and perhaps to some extent how exclusively) one loves.

Another factor in the risk assessment is the nature of the lover. As Roach has suggested, romance as a genre is full of examples of people who are a bad risk and if "what love is really about [is...] accepting people for what they are, and forgiving even the worst in them" (Arbor 191) then it's bound to be riskier if the person one's accepting and forgiving is prone to doing hurtful things.

Roach distinguishes between what happens in healthy relationships and what happens when

Love can and does go dreadfully wrong. Dates turn into rape. Domestic partner abuse batters and kills people [...]. The romance novel rake, in reality, rarely reforms [...]. The cruel truth is, love can break your heart; shred your self-esteem; ruin your finances; leave you with unwanted pregnancy, disease, and social shame; get you killed by a stalker who won't let go. [...] These [...] tragic stories of love [...] are [...] love as the practice of bondage, or, more precisely, what I propose to call love as bad bondage. Such love can entail bondage to an unworthy partner, bondage within cycles of abuse, and bondage to low self-esteem such that one feels undeserving of anything better in one's love life. (127)

In contrast, Roach suggests,

As a true love, I must be willing to act, in an extension of self, in ways that are caring, affectionate, and respectful, in order to nurture my beloved's growth. Such true love also implies that, as I nurture my beloved's growth, I nurture my own as well. We cannot, do not, love another truly if we abandon the duty to love ourselves and to act in our own best interests. True love, in other words, does not make one into a martyr or a doormat. [...] And yet it's not so simple, because true love, or good love, entails its own type of bondage as well.  [...] This bondage or binding involves a restriction of freedom that is key to popular culture's vision of romantic love. To love is to forsake all others, to cleave to a one and only, to tie the knot. (127-28)

Or as one romance hero puts it:

'Love is when you can't live without someone - when everything seems dull and empty because they're not there - when you think of them the moment you wake and they're there in your thoughts as you fall asleep - they fill your dreams [...] But true love is more than that [...]. True love isn't selfish or possessive - it values the other person's feelings more than your own. When you told me about Simon I was furious, I hated the way he had behaved - the selfish, obsessive sort of love that had trapped you - blackmailed you emotionally when you couldn't love him back. If you really love someone you want what's best for them - even if that means letting them go, leaving them free to be with someone else. (Walker 275-76)

That's very noble, but it does sound potentially rather painful if the love is one-sided yet still binding.

So can a risk assessment help us avoid love altogether, or might it only assist us in directing our feelings towards a less-risky love-object? Love itself may be inescapable, if the extremely rational hero of Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds is correct in thinking that love, although

it comes attended by various physical reactions which manifest as emotions, [...] is one of the drives.'

'Oh,' I said. 'Like hunger, or wanting to procreate, or the desire to protect one's offspring.'

'Yes. I have identified you as the most appropriate mate, probably through an unconscious assessment of pheromones, mental capacity and, of course, social compatibility.'

'So you're saying you like how I smell, you like how I think and you like to hang out with me?' I was amused, but genuinely warmed at such a unique declaration of love. [...]

He drew me into his arms and into his mind. He saw how I valued his selflessness and trusted his integrity, even when he exasperated me by being inflexible. I showed him my admiration for his physical strength, intelligence and psionic abilities, and the gentleness that complemented all those qualities. I even allowed him to see that I had found him physically attractive from the moment we first met.

'So,' he said lightly, and I knew he was teasing me because he was somewhat shaken. 'You believe that I possess certain characteristics which you would like to be passed on, via genetic transfer and mentoring, to your children.'

I began to laugh. (Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds, 311-312)


Arbor, Jane. 1970. The Feathered Shaft in The Second Anthology of 3 Harlequin Romances by Jane Arbor. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1977. 6-203.

Lord, Karen. The Best of All Possible Worlds. London: Jo Fletcher, 2013.

Roach, Catherine M. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Walker, Kate. Calypso's Enchantment. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1994.


The heart with the handcuffs came from Flickr and was created by Jason Clapp. It was made "available for download under a Creative Commons license."

A scholarly romance/academic article

By Laura Vivanco on

I came across this quote in an article and I thought I'd share it:

Cultural critiques of romantic narratives in popular culture are anything but romantic, explaining the consumption of romantic popular culture as “heteronormative, relationship-seeking identity” established in a “capitalist structure” that “continues to limit the possibilities feminism affords” women (Stern 430). I would like to see scholars embrace the romance – the love and desire with which we live our lives, extending that same love and desire to our dearest held popular narratives. Despite their common limitations as heteronormative, gendered, raced and classed, these narratives influence and shape the way romance appears in our lives – from our expectations of the romance, to its articulation, and in some cases, its dissolution. (Meyer 261-62)

The article from which it's taken blends romantic autobiography with analysis. I'll let you read it yourself to find out how the author's own story develops. It's available free online here.


Meyer, Michaela D. E., 2015. "Living the Romance through Castle: Exploring Autoethnography, Popular Culture and Romantic Television Narratives". The Popular Culture Studies Journal 3.1&2: 245-269.

Keeping an Eye on Love

By Laura Vivanco on

At the 2015 International Conference on Enabling Access for Persons with Visual Impairment (ICEAPVI) Shi Qiu, Jun Hu and Matthias Rauterberg observed that "Human communication contains both verbal and nonverbal information, which interplay in our daily lives. Nearly 65% of all human interpersonal communication happen through nonverbal cues" (157) and therefore

Nonverbal communication plays an important role in social interactions. However, most nonverbal communication relies on visual signals such as eye contact, head nods, facial expressions and body gestures. Visual nonverbal signals are inaccessible for the blind and hardly accessible for low vision individuals. (157)

These researchers "interviewed 20 blind and low vision participants over [the] Internet" (157); "Ten were from Yang Zhou Special Education School in Chinese mainland and the other ten were from Hong Kong Blind Union" (158). When asked a question about whether "Eyes were important or not in the communication” (161)

one participant said she understood the importance of eye contacts from romance novels, which highlighted the description of the eye contacts between lovers. (161)

It's true that lovers are known for staring into each others' eyes. For example, in 1970 Zick Rubin

predicted that college dating couples who loved each other a great deal (as categorized by their love-scale scores) would spend more time gazing into one another's eyes than would couples who loved each other to a lesser degree. The prediction was confirmed. (265)

The information about lovers' communication via their eyes which can be gleaned from romance novels may, however, be somewhat misleading to blind and partially-sighted readers:

Most participants in the interview gained the understanding of the eyes based on three primary different resources: 1) sighted people tell them (parents, teachers or other people); 2) read novels and other literary works, especially some romance novels described the eye contacts between lovers in details; 3) understand from their own life experiences, which were mostly based on the problems they met due to a lack of visual nonverbal signals. Partially because of using some metaphor and analogy to describe eye gazes or eye contacts in novels and other literary works, participants tend to exaggerate the function of the eyes. For example, one participant stated looking at a person could clearly know he was kind-hearted or not. In fact, it is rather difficult to determine a person’s inner character at the first sight even for the sighted people. (Shi Qiu and Rauterberg 162, emphasis added)


Rubin, Zick. "Measurement of Romantic Love." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 16.2 (1970): 265-273.

Shi Qiu, Jun Hu and Matthias Rauterberg. "Nonverbal Signals for Face-to-Face Communication between the Blind and the Sighted." Enabling Access for Persons with Visual Impairment: Proceedings of the International Conference ICEAPVI-2015, February 12-14, 2015. Ed. Georgios Kouroupetroglou. Athens, Greece: ICEAPVIA, 2015. 157-165.

[Both the articles cited and the whole conference proceedings are available online, in full, for free, via the links provided.]

Classics and Canons

By Laura Vivanco on

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Garvice

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

As for Berta Ruck,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Death is such a baffling kind of thing."

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


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

Bloomsbury. "Ruby M. Ayres."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Library of Wales. "Berta Ruck Archive."

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

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

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