An f/f/m romance from 1896?

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.

laura Friday, 31 January, 2020
Jonathan A. Allan's Men, Masculinities and Popular Romance

Cover of Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. It shows a shirtless man, staring at the viewer.As Jonathan Allan states, the motivation underlying this book is, "at bottom, a hope to push scholars of men and masculinities to consider the romance novel as a potential area of inquiry" (9). At under 150 pages, it is a relatively short introduction to the popular romance genre, aimed primarily at these scholars, and Allan repeatedly acknowledges its introductory/limited nature and expresses a wish that it will be seen as "a beginning to a much larger discussion" (90).

I've already posted a bit about Allan's comments in his introduction advocating viewing romance as pornography, so I'll just start with Chapter 1. Since I'm not a scholar of men and masculinities, I'm not in the target audience for the book, I'm a lot more likely to zoom in on things I find relevant to scholarship on popular romance novels.

Chapter 1, "Studying the Popular Romance Novel"

In terms of romance scholarship, Allan seems to be setting himself in opposition to Pamela Regis (albeit not the elements of her work which draw on Northrop Frye), and aligning himself with Janice Radway, Tania Modleski, Ann Barr Snitow (comparison to all three of whom he "might take [...] as a compliment" (18)), Jan Cohn, Jayashree Kamblé and Catherine Roach. Allan sets out "to think about method" (16) and begins by critiquing Pamela Regis's "What Do Critics Owe the Romance?" (2011). Allan's key critique is of Regis's critique of earlier scholars' citations (or lack of them) of primary sources. He admits that he is "perhaps sensitive to this argument because I have also been a recipient of this criticism" (18) (in a post by Jackie Horne). He then offers

some thoughts on how to study the popular romance novel. This chapter should not be read as definitive but rather as exploratory and as a critique of the now common critique that one has not read enough, not read widely enough, or, for instance, that one only studies 'contemporary' romances (as Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance does). Indeed, I am arguing against the idea that 'size matters,' wherein the critic wields the size of their corpus like a phallic object. (19)

Drawing on Northrop Frye, Allan argues that what is important is to focus on archetypes:

In Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, what connects one text to another is the part(s) of the text that are repeated, or what he calls 'archetypes.' [...] The scholar who pays attention to archetypes [...] focuses on the parts of the text that are repeated and repeating. This does not negate the new and innovative ways an archetype might be used, but it does insist upon the repetition of those archetypes, which are, then, essential to the genre. (21)

Allan acknowledges that other methods could be employed to study romance (he mentions Eric Selinger's close reading technique). He also recognises that there are limitations to his approach:

I am assuming that the hero's masculinity does something for readers. What that 'something' is, however, is the work of another project led by another scholar. I am making claims about the genre and about the novels that I study, not about the readers [...] Future work, however, should attend to the matter of readers and authors. (24)

Chapter 2 - Desiring Hegemonic Masculinity

In romance one can find "the very type of masculinity that theorists of masculinity have questioned, critiqued, and worked to reform over the past three decades - namely, hegemonic masculinity" (27). As such, the question "is the romance novel feminist or anti-feminist? [which] in many ways has motivated so much criticism of the popular romance novel [...] is a seductive question to ponder" even while Allan "resist[s] the simplicity of the binary form" (27). Instead, Allan asks "Why is traditional or stereotypical masculinity desirable in romance?" (28) and urges scholars of masculinity to look at romance because "Romance novels, it seems to me, offer an ideal place through which to think about 'hegemonic masculinity' and particularly the question of desire" (28). He also wonders if "scholars of men and masculinities have failed to study the popular romance [...] because it would require us to engage with feminine culture" (32) but also observes that

Popular romance novels embrace the very thing that critical scholars are trying to undo - namely, hegemonic masculinity. What might it mean for critical studies of men and masculinities that these texts, authored by women for women, so often conform to the definitions of masculinity that are so often critically analysed and critiqued by those in the field? As scholars of men and masculinity continually point out the failures of hegemonic and ideal masculinities, how do we then respond to their reification in these novels? These are all big questions, which Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance sets out to think about, and hopefully answer. (32)

My impression, having finished the book, is that Allan is very good at asking questions but I'm not at all sure he provides detailed answers to all the questions. He seems to be more likely to suggest possible avenues for future research which might confirm his theories/initial findings (e.g. in the final quote in this section, see below).

Allan adds that

I do think we need to recognise that inherent to any commitment to the kinds of masculinity we are seeing in the popular romance is also a kind of institutional homophobia that lurks in the background of the romance novel and is written on the hero's body. In many ways, I agree with [Jayashree] Kamblé's contention [in Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction] that 'during the most visible moments in the history of the gay rights movement [...] the romance strand alters its hero to evince features of the Heterosexual Alphaman'. [...] What I am arguing, thus, is that the romance novel contains an internalised homophobia - as a genre - in which the male body must be constructed by what it is not: feminine, queer, homosexual. (36)

He concludes that

Hegemonic and ideal forms of masculinity are nearly a rule in the popular romance novel of the eighties and early nineties. A larger study is required to make generalisations about the genre as a whole [...] I would caution that a larger study is required to sustain many of these suppositions (the male-male romance novel, for instance, may well become a site in which masculinity is explored in innovative and diverse ways). These masculinities are part of and contribute to heteropatriarchal capitalism. [...] To critique the romance novel for its commitment to hegemonic and ideal masculinity qua white, capitalist, bourgeois, heterosexual, and so on is not to reject the genre, but rather to ask new and important questions about its continuing success. [...] It is hoped that this study will encourage other scholars to develop an interest in popular romance novels and moreover that scholars of popular romance studies will begin to take into consideration the valuable lessons found throughout critical studies of men and masculinities. (39)

Chapter 3 - Reconsidering the Money Shot: Orgasm and Masculinity

Allan opens with a quote from a sex scene and then states that

The orgasm is essential to the popular romance novel, much in the same way that the money shot is seemingly essential to the pornographic text. [...] The money shot, like the orgasm in romance, has a long and storied history, and it has subsequently become a hotly debated aspect within the critical response to pornography. Surprisingly, romance scholars have not spilt nearly as much ink on the orgasm as porn scholars have on the money shot. As such, this chapter works to show how the orgasm is essential to romance and moreover that it functions like the money shot in pornography. (40)

I'm not sure why he's surprised. Explicit sex scenes only became common in romance in the later part of the twentieth century and romance novels existed long before then. Maybe it has to do with the fact that this book is focused on post-1970s romance, and there's reference to a similar time-period with respect to pornography: "For over forty years [...] the money shot has been essential to the structure and content of pornography, at least of the heterosexual mainstream varieties" (41). However, romances with no explicit sex scenes, or no sex scenes at all, continue to be published. As an Executive Editor at Harlequin wrote in July this year

Sex doesn’t matter. There, I said it.

I better clarify something before we move forward. Ok, ok, sex matters. But if you are thinking of writing for one of Harlequin’s series lines, sex shouldn’t be the first thing on your mind. (I assume some of you just stopped reading. Bye!) The first thing on your mind should be your story. What kind of a story is it? [...] We have a big range of hot to wholesome in our series and there is truly something for everybody, whether you like graphic sex or want to shut the door on sex, or whether you do not want to address a sexual relationship at all.

Allan is obviously aware of romances without explicit sex, since he continues by clarifying that "What is essential, at least within those novels that contain scenes of sexuality, is that the hero plays a central role in the orgasmic potential of the heroine" (43, emphasis added) because "women's orgasms are not autonomous to women in the sexual scene but rather are something for which men are responsible" (44). With regards to masculinity, "In the romance novel, sexual prowess and mastery depend upon being able to give a woman an orgasm" (44). As far as defining the romance genre goes, Allan states that

In many ways, then, the orgasm is as essential as the 'I love you' that closes the novel, and, perhaps, we might even argue that when the orgasm happens before the declaration of love, it is because of the orgasm that love can be achieved and declared. Each and every orgasm, then, in the popular romance novel is important as a structural and formal element of the novel because it speaks to the erotic and sexual success of the couple, in addition to their romantic success. (48)

Chapter 4 - Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Fiction

This chapter is based on "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels" and a forthcoming essay "'And He Absolutely Fascinated Me": Masculinity and Virginity in Sherilee Gray's Breaking Him'. Since they're both in/going to be in the open-access online Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I won't say much about this chapter. Here's a quote that's in both "Theorising" and this chapter and which might feed back in to what Allen speculating about earlier, in Chapter 2, re masculinities scholars' reluctance to analyse romance:

The  male  reader  may thus confront an analytical, even diagnostic representation of masculinity at its patriarchal worst, or he may encounter an idealised representation of some “alternative masculinity” at its post‐ or anti‐ or reformed patriarchal best—or even, most unsettling of all, he may face a male figure who somehow combines or moves between these extremes. (56)

Chapter 5 - Slashing and Queering Popular Romance Fiction

One of the most fascinating developments in the genre of popular romance is the rise of male/male romance novels, which tell the story of two men falling in love. These novels are written, like most romances, 'for women, by women'. (69)

My argument for the male/male romance novel [...] is that we find examples of hybrid masculinities which are nonetheless informed by hegemonic masculinities. We need to remember that hegemonic masculinities are always in flux and that these hybrid forms are, of course, in tune with and responding to the currently accepted definition of hegemonic masculinity. (73)

The chapter has sections on slash fiction and on a film, Y tu mamá también. Allan observes that

The popular romance novel between men extends and expands upon the limited nature of the bromance, which is a quasi-erotic but never quite enacted upon relationship. Unlike slash, wherein the fantasy is for seemingly straight men to become a romantic unit, and unlike the bromance, which cannot include sexuality, the popular romance introduces us to characters who are by and large gay and who are seeking the stability of a monogamous relationship. The popular romance novel, as a form, for the most part, will present a conservative vision of romance for these gay men. (83)

That's "conservative" because

what is central to romance are profoundly bourgeois values that speak to love, marriage, monogamy, and family. In what follows, I work to provide a close reading of Marie Sexton's Never a Hero, which is something of a controversial novel because it challenges the limits of the genre while also actively thinking about masculinity and sexuality. [...] In Never a Hero, the author openly and explicitly engages with the question and matter of HIV/AIDS, a topic which has remained taboo in many popular romance novels. [...] I argue here that what most upsets readers about Never a Hero is that it dared to engage with a question that few wanted to read about. (84)

One thing I found confusing is Allan's brief comment on Sunita's review of the novel (which can be found here). He writes that

In one review of the novel, the reviewer, Sunita, writes: 'Nick is HIV-positive and has been for five years. It's the result of a week-long encounter during a Cancun vacation where the condoms ran out and he and his partner barebacked (apparently Cancun had a condom shortage at that time)' (2013). [...] In this review, readers find an underlying HIV phobia. One imagines, of course, that this perspective is not unique to this review. The parenthetical remark that closes the sentence acts as a kind of 'victim-blaming,' I would argue, wherein a moral judgement is cast upon the characters. This judgement is a kind of 'I told you so' narrative, akin to 'she was asking for it' or 'she should have known better.' (84-85)

Since I recognised the name of the reviewer, I went off to look at the review. Here's the paragraph immediately after the one from which Allan quotes, and it quite explicitly condemns victim-blaming:

I found it somewhat problematic that Nick was so obsessed with his own guilt. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, but we all take risks that don’t pay off; it doesn’t mean we deserve it if something bad happens to us. Nick beating himself up for contracting HIV is like a woman who gets raped blaming herself for walking down the “wrong” street. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying all the consequences of those mistakes are deserved is blaming the victim and sends a terrible message, in my opinion.

Sunita isn't blaming Nick for contracting HIV: quite the opposite, in fact. However, she does go on to write that

Nick gives Owen a blow job before he tells him about his HIV status. This is absolutely a No Go. The fact that he knows his viral load is low and that the risk of transmission is low is beside the point. It’s Owen’s risk to assess, not Nick’s.

So maybe that explains why Allan writes that

the reviewers and commenters are taking on the diagnostic role of pathologising the barebacker while also policing his behaviour and indeed framing it in almost criminal terms because he failed to disclose the status. On the one hand, all of this is reasonable enough; after all, barebacking continues to be framed as a risky sexual practice. And it certainly may well be a risky sexual practice in terms of health, but so too are many things and yet we do not pathologise and condemn them in the same ways. After all, romance novels have celebrated the 'surprise pregnancy' narrative, which is also the result, often enough, of condomless sex. (85)

I'm still having a problem understanding Allan's critique though, because it wasn't Nick's barebacking in Cancun that was deemed a "No Go": it was his failure to "disclose the status" before having oral sex with Owen. So this seems to be more about (a lack of) informed consent than about specific sexual activities. Allan in fact goes on to say of the scene in which Nick reveals his HIV status that "The most common reading [...] of this scene is that Nick violated Owen's trust - which he did - by not disclosing his HIV status" (88).

All of this rather distracted me from Allan's suggestion that the scene in which Nick starts out by saying he's got AIDS and then corrects himself and says it's HIV could be read as

a 'teachable' moment within the novel, especially for a reader for whom HIV/AIDS may be something of an unknown? We have become less and less anxious about HIV with the rise of PrEP, for instance. What if Sexton was using the characters to educate her readers about HIV/AIDS? In this reading, then, the conflation of HIV with AIDS is necessary so as to explain that they are not the same. (88)

It's an interesting reading of the novel and, as Allan says, one "with a bit of generosity" (89); that last comment makes me wonder if Allan was more generous to the romance author than to the romance reviewer.

Chapter 6 - Towards an Anatomy of Male/Male Popular Romance Novel (sic)

In this chapter Allan focuses "on the anatomy of men's bodies in male/male popular romance novels. Simply put, there are more of them [than] in the average novel, so how does that affect and change the way bodies are described and imagined?" (91). He argues that

the performances may appear 'inclusive' or 'sensitive' but there is an underlying commitment to and belief in hegemonic masculinity that does not disappear once the clothing is removed. In these novels, the sex scenes become sites of hegemonic masculinity. When we look at the bodies in these novels, for instance, the hegemonic reveals itself quite clearly, for in the popular romance novel, readers rarely encounter a small penis. (93)

He gives as an example a quotation from Marie Sexton's Strawberries for Desert in which a thin hero is described, who is soft in places:

This scene provides much to think about with regards to the body. While the hero is generally attracted to 'more masculine men,' this body is 'absolutely perfect.' His body meets an ideal form, and yet there are allusions to seemingly feminine aspects of his body; for instance, the descriptions of both the thinness and the softness. All of this leads towards a conclusion within the paragraph that focuses attention on the penis, which 'was beautiful [and] hard.' [...] If the body could be 'more masculine,' the penis does the necessary work of reclaiming masculinity. (93)

However, "The male/male popular romance works to endow the anus with as much meaning as the phallus" (96) and "Rewriting anal sex as a proof of masculinity does important work with regards to femininity; that is, it works to undercut the possibility of femininity and in doing so perhaps becomes a latent misogyny" (97).

Allan ends with more questions:

What would the romance novel look like without 'spectacular masculinity'? It is almost impossible to conceive of the romance novel without spectacular masculinity. Presumably, we might find this in novels that do not include men, such as the lesbian romance novel, but I would suspect that gender still plays a role in those, too. Does the romance novel depend upon masculinity? These are, I admit, questions that remain unanswered. (98)

Chapter 7 - Vanilla Sex, or Reading Pornography Romantically

This chapter isn't about romance novels because "As I work towards a conclusion, I ask: Could pornography be read as a romance?" (99). Allan asks the question because he wishes "critical studies of men and masculinities [to] reconsider its engagement with pornography, which has to date largely been negative in nature" (99). He engages with a work of pornography which is set in a home, and in which an attractive couple have "vanilla" sex with each other in their bedroom, after flirting in the kitchen.

Epilogue: Are Billionaires Still Sexy?

Allan ponders the impact of Donald Trump becoming president of the US because "In many ways, Donald Trump, or 'The Donald,' is the archetypal hero of the popular romance novel, and one can think here, for instance, of the eroticisation of Trump during the eighties and nineties, and even into the new millennium" (117). [Typing that out made me feel a bit nauseous.] Allan turns to an article by evolutionary psychologists Cox and Fisher (it's available free online here): "In essence [...] Cox and Fisher are arguing that the [...] desire for the CEO is about accruing resources or finding a mate who has accrued enough resources to provide for a future" (118). [I feel I ought to point out here that evolutionary psychology is a lot more controversial than many other fields.] Allan notes that billionaires are a lot more wealthy than other types of wealthy hero so "These billionaires are excessive heroes" (118): "we find excesses of wealth, sex, and greed in the figure of the billionaire hero. He is often not necessarily a violent figure but initially a less than sympathetic figure, who, over the course of the novel, will be redeemed" (119).

Allan observes that

After the election of President Donald J. Trump, billionaire heroes did not and have not disappeared [...]. However, the election of President Trump did cause at least one romance novelist to pause and reflect not only on the wealth of their heroes but also their masculinities - recalling that often these go hand in hand. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Sarah MacLean explained that she rewrote an entire manuscript after the election of Donald Trump. The hero of her novel 'was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him' (2017).

Since billionaire heroes continue to be written, he speculates that they are

an attempt to make sense of the life of the billionaire and to imagine that behind the money is a caring and sympathetic man. [...] the novel works to humanise the extraordinarily wealthy heroes who populate the world of romance while also limiting the value of those billions over the course of the novel - as if the novel declares that love can and will conquer all. [...] the novel, as a form, also imagines that there is something redeemable in seemingly irredeemable characters [...]. Perhaps, then, this novelistic strategy has taken on new meaning in the age of the uber-wealthy, who are no longer found on tropical islands and boardrooms but also in the Oval Office. (123)


Since Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance is "asking that scholars of masculinity think seriously and critically about popular romance novels and especially the construction and representation of maleness, masculinity and male bodies within them" (10) it presumably focuses on aspects of romance which will be of particular interest to these scholars. This perhaps explains why Allan, who states that romance is "a genre largely written by women for women" (9), does not discuss lesbian romances. It would also seem to explain a focus on a particular kind of masculinity within the genre:

For Radway, and certainly other critics, masculinity is in many ways central to the romance novel, and its representation is, simply put, 'spectacular.' Even beyond his body, the hero is not, in the words of romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz, 'a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking, "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend,' because, as Krentz suggests, 'you don't get much of a challenge for [the heroine] from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel' (1992: p. 109). The hero is a representation of what Raewyn Connell has called hegemonic masculinity, the kind of masculinity that critical studies of men and masculinity have spent decades studying. Radway and Krentz are not alone. For Tania Modleski the hero is 'a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man' (2008: p. 28). What is certain, then, is that the hero of popular romance is, at bottom, a spectacular representation of masculinity. (9)

In the context of Allan's aim of encouraging scholars of masculinity to examine romance, a focus on the "kind of masculinity that critical studies of men and masculinity have spent decades studying" makes sense. However, Allan's methodology does appear to invite confirmation bias since

In my textual analyses of popular romance novels, I am not making arguments about complete novels but rather about scenes in these novels. In each of the scenes, we find a description of the male body that conforms to the idealistic treatment of maleness and masculinity that Radway and others have noted in their studies of popular romance. Admittedly, this methodology [...] is open to critique from a variety of perspectives, many of which I might agree with. (15)

I would have appreciated discussion of the "beta" hero because Krentz's statement is quite clearly a response to him. The so-called "beta" hero continued to exist despite her complaints about the lack of challenge he provided, and the recent creation of the label of "cinnamon roll" for heroes who are "supportive, kind & oh-so-sweet" (Olivia Dade) is evidence that "alpha" masculinity is not the sole type of masculinity in romance. Since they're not mentioned in the book, I don't know if Allan would consider these, too, to be archetypes, or just variations on the archetype he's describing. After all, "beta" heroes' personalities may differ from those of "alphas" but to what extent do their bodies differ?

Allan quotes Erving Goffman:

Goffman's American male is 'young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports' [...]. This definition would need to be modified slightly to fit the requirements of the romance novel; for example, the hero of romance is not generally married (though he may be a widower); however, the bulk of this definition is illustrative of the archetypal romance hero. (12)

There is only passing reference made here to race, ethnicity and nationality, and this is also the case when Allan quotes Judith Lorber's summation of "hegemonic masculinity as being about 'men who are economically successful, racially superior, and visibly heterosexual'" (28) and mentions "intersectional identities, critical race theory" (72). The book contains no discussion of masculinity in, for example, African-American romance novels, the implications of the popularity of sheikh romances and Mediterranean/Latin heroes, or potential national differences (e.g. as discussed with reference to Australia by Juliet Flesch). One omission which is deliberate and explained by Allan is a choice to

limit my analysis to romance novels that are 'contemporary' in nature - which means they are largely written about and take place in the present [...] and secondly, those that have been published since the rise of the 'blockbuster' romance, which begins in the early 1970s. While much can be said about a variety of subgenres, ranging from the historical through to the paranormal, there are, of course, limits to analysis and this is where I am choosing to draw a line in the sand. I am not excluding these novels from analysis because they are 'bad' or 'unworthy' of analysis but because I wish to focus on novels that are explicitly engaging in reflecting and thinking through the present. (14)

Another omission which is mentioned is that of "trans* romances for the simple reason that I do not know enough about these texts" (23) and in the conclusion he writes that "I did not [...] take an approach that drew upon or borrowed from critical disability studies [...] The field of popular romance studies, as it grows, will want to account for how disability functions and is represented in the genre, and how masculinity affects and informs such representations of disability" (114). How, too "might scholars think about age and aging in the popular romance novel?" (115)

Allan says that "A larger study is required to make generalisations about the genre as a whole" (39) and I hope I'm not taking that statement too far out of context when I agree that I'd like to see more studies of romance which explore different types of masculinity in (a wider variety of subgenres of) romance, as well as nuances in the presentation of it, which Allan has not had the space to consider. Allan's relatively short book will, I hope, encourage more scholars to study popular romance novels in all their variety.


Allan, Jonathan A. Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

laura Thursday, 28 November, 2019

Censorship of Popular Romance in Nigeria

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 4 December, 2018

Emmanuel Ifeduba's "Book Censorship in Nigeria: A study of Origin, Methods and Motivations, 1805-2018" (Library Philosophy and Practice, 2018) lists the:

Kano Book Burning (2007): In May 2007, A Daidaita Sahu, the Kano State agency for the reorientation, organized a book and film burning at a local girl’s school as a prelude to a proposed anti-publication law against over 300 young writers whose incursion into romance and western-style literature, known as Littattafan soyayya, threatened the conservative male-chauvinistic system operating in the state. Ibrahim Shekarau, Governor of Kano State at the time, publicly burned thousands of copies of Hausa romance novels describing them as pornographic and immoral to the customs and traditions of Northern Nigeria. Consequently, writers in the state sued him and he was forced to settle out of court and to slow down on his censorship. In February, 2016, government officials stopped a popular radio narrator of the novels, Isa Ahmed Koko, from visiting Kano to meet his fans.

Strangers and Strategies: Conceptualising the Writing of Sex Scenes

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 10 October, 2018

Sociologists Jennifer Lois and Joanna Gregson found, over the course of their research, that "Outsiders often made comments to [romance] writers that suggested they viewed them as oversexed women who documented their personal sexual experiences and fantasies in their books" (466). Romance writers responded to "outsiders leering at their willingness to write about sex [...] in two ways: granting the request by personalizing their sexuality or denying it by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books" (471).

Writers who adopted the first type of response were

advertising themselves as sexual beings. Though this strategy was not universally accepted, we saw many examples, such as dressing as dominatrices at book signings; singing sexually suggestive karaoke with romance novel cover models at a readers convention; and hosting “post the sexiest shirtless Navy SEAL” contests on Facebook fan pages, often with the explicit goal of growing readership. (475)

Other authors, however, chose to

resist. They mainly did so by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books and framing it instead as integral to the craft of storytelling. If writers could emphasize that the story sex was not about them, they could decline the invitation to display their sexuality, negate the assumption that they were documenting their own sex lives, and gain control over the leering interactions. (476)

Lois and Gregson found that "Embracing either a personalizing or depersonalizing strategy did not create a fixed division among writers, but some writers had strong opinions about how useful and appropriate each strategy was" (476).

It might not be an entirely "fixed division" but I was surprised when I encountered a vintage guide to writing romance that seemed to to employ both strategies near-simultaneously.

In Chapter 10, titled "Will They or Won't They? Writing Sensual Sex Scenes", of Helene Schellenberg Barnhart's Writing Romance Fiction: For Love and Money (1983), a series of short quotes from editors and established authors break up the text. These quotes are set apart from Barnhart's own words by being placed in what amount to boxes, and the text is both in bold and italicised:

“[...] Although naturally the sensual scenes, like the rest of the book, are basically works of imagination, probably I draw on my personal experiences and preferences more for such scenes than for any other part of the stories.” Lynda Ward, romance author (146)

“All you need to be able to write a good love scene is to enjoy making love yourself. Any good romance writer is a romantic and knows that’s one of the best things in life. It should come pretty automatically.” Joyce Thies, one half of Janet Joyce, romance author (148)

“I look for quality writing – immediacy, intensity, sincerity, good dialogue and action, and a rapid plot development that keeps me turning the pages. Where sex is concerned, emotion and sensuality are important, not clinical detail. Whatever turns the writer on will come off the page.” Jacqui Bianchi, romance editor (149)

Ward and Thies are employing strategy one and Bianchi is encouraging a reading of romance novels that links sex scenes with their authors' sexuality.

As the author of the guide, Barnhart does add a little about how her own experiences affect her writing, in a section concerning symbolism:

I'm particularly drawn to the ocean, since I spent my childhood and adolescent years in a house built on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In a sex scene, I might use the ocean symbolically [...] Nature can furnish you with an inexhaustible supply of symbols to use in creating sensual sex scenes [...]. I have found, though, that for a symbol to work, you must be emotionally moved by that symbol. It must have a personal meaning to you. (147-48)

Saying that oceans are significant to you because you lived near one in your childhood is not really an example of strategy one, even if you do suggest that there is little "more sensual than the wind sighing through the pines, or the murmur of the waves as they break upon the beach below the bedroom window" (158). The inset comment which follows this extremely minor revelation, moreover, underscores Barnhart's reticence and modesty because it is the most blatant example yet of strategy one:

I’m always in the mood to write sensual love scenes, undoubtedly influenced by my office being in one corner of a very sexy (to me) bedroom. If this isn’t enough, I need only walk down the stairs and seek my husband. After thirty-three years of marriage, his love is still inspiration enough to have fueled several novels.” Alice Morgan, author of contemporary romances (159)

Rather strikingly, the paragraph preceding this quote is addressed to would-be authors who "feel inhibited or embarrassed at the thought of writing sex scenes for your romance novel, or worried over what your family and friends might think" (159). One might, given the number of inset quotations employing or supporting strategy one, think that Barnhart would proceed to advocate this approach. Instead, the reason Barnhart insists the newbie must "purge" themselves "of this feeling if you have decided to write this type of book" is that "you are not describing your own romance, your own erotic thoughts, or your own sexual experience" (159).

Moreover, the inset statements from Ward, Thies, Bianchi and Morgan seem entirely incompatible with what Barnhart has to say next about what will happen:

If you [...] attend a professional writers' conference. Listen to the pros. You'll soon discover that as they talk about their stories, it is not of themselves they speak. They talk about their heroines and heroes as if they were separate, living people. You'll have to remind yourself that the subjects of the conversation are fictional. Professional writers have no difficulty in putting themselves aside, and you won't either, with a little practice. (160)

This, it seems to me, implies that all authors employ strategy two. I can't help but wonder what effect these mixed messages had on aspiring authors in the early 1980s. Personally, I feel a bit gaslit.


Lois, Jennifer and Joanna Gregson. “Sneers and Leers: Romance Writers and Gendered Sexual Stigma.” Gender & Society 29.4 (2015): 459-483.

Schellenberg Barnhart, Helene. Writing Romance Fiction for Love and Money. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1983.


Fantasies of Dangerous Masculinity

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 24 September, 2017

In Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women a number of romance authors attempted to explain the appeal of the popular romance novel. One of them, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, wrote that she "loved" the "historical romances [...] sometimes labeled 'bodice rippers,' not without a certain justification since many of them contained narrow-eyed heroes who [...] committed some rather violent sex acts on the heroines" (53) and, she added,

I can only shake my head in bewilderment when I hear the romance novel criticized for depicting women as being submissive to domineering men. Are the critics reading the same books I am? What is the ultimate fate of the most arrogant, domineering, ruthless macho hero any romance writer can create? He is tamed.

By the end of the book, the heroine has brought him under her control in a way women can seldom control men in the real world. [...] He is the mightiest of the mighty, the strongest of the strong. But, because he has been tamed by our heroine, because she exerts such a powerful emotional stranglehold over him, his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command. (57-58)

Phillips is quite explicit here in acknowledging that these relationships should not be models for relating to men "in the real world": "This fictional 'tough guy' hero is the sort of man I would never permit in my real life" (56). He is, then, a fantasy, and as Ashwin, the eponymous hero of Kit Rocha's Ashwin observes, "a fantasy was different than a plan. A fantasy meant disregarding inconvenient realities and embracing improbabilities."

AshwinAshwin himself is an updated, twenty-first-century version of the heroes who so thrilled Susan Elizabeth Phillips. He is a super-soldier, supposedly genetically engineered to be emotionless, but since popular romance has moved on from the days of the bodice-ripper he does not behave sexually like the heroes of those novels. However, he recalls that in a previous relationship the woman had wanted him to cater

to her fantasies. Sinking his hands into her hair to play the conquering beast had been a simple enough role, even for him. But he’d always puzzled over the apparent contradiction—why a woman with so little power would dream of having him take away even those scraps.

Now he understood. [...]  The fantasy was about this overwhelming madness inside him. About being desired by the monster so completely that you owned him. So he’d fight for you, kill for you. Protect you.

The novel, Ashwin, is also a fantasy, of a similar type: Ashwin's obsession with the heroine, Kora, does not lead him to abuse her sexually, but nonetheless, by the end of the novel, as in the explicitly sexual fantasy he described earlier, though this time only wrapped in one layer of fantasy (that of the novel) rather than being a (sexual) fantasy within a (novelistic) fantasy, "Ashwin would always be a bit of a monster. But he was her monster, utterly loyal, completely devoted."


Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. "The Romance and the Empowerment of Women." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 53-59.

Rocha, Kit. Ashwin. Self-published. 2017.

Aliens: Not Just Showing Earth Girls a Good Time

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 12 September, 2017

Someone mentioned an alien romance on Twitter, and I was curious. The title included a pun, the review mentioned a beta hero, and so I decided that this sounded like a fun book to try. Several hours later, having read both The E.T. Guy and its sequel, The New Guy, it was obvious that they're not just about how clueless scaly guys from outer space, with alien mating practices and sexual organs, adapt to human culture while working in IT and the Enquiries department of a branch of government.  As is so often the case with popular culture, the escapism is inextricably linked to the political, and the author, V.C. Lancaster, has written a post which saved me the trouble of speculating about whether or not this was intentional:

The E.T. Guy was semi-politically motivated given the situation in Syria when I wrote it. Since then, Trump has been elected, and he actually did try to effectively close America’s borders, and the situation in Syria and around the world has not particularly gotten better. In Syria, it’s hard to quantify ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, so I won’t say it’s got worse. I can’t pretend that I am anything but pro-immigration, nor do I want to, but I hope that I would write these books anyway because I like the story.

I had a moment a few months ago when I thought “How can I continue? How can I write about refugees when the real world is like this?” and my answer was, go bigger. Say it. Say what you see. Make it political. Try to do good. Try to change minds, convince hearts. I know it’s just a mid-range Kindle romance about aliens, selling for a few quid, but if I can make just a couple of people more compassionate, then it’s worth it. And will I mind if Trump’s army boycott the book? Not really. I’ll miss the money, but I’m not going to collaborate with them. Good riddance.

But at its heart, [the second book, The New Guy] it’s still the same story I thought of last year, before any of this happened. It’s still going to be about Ro and Maggie. This book is going to be full of stuff I would consider a hard sell for a Kindle romance about aliens anyway. The only thing I don’t mind revealing now is that I want to give Ro hot pink highlights on his scales and eyes. He’s not going to be much of a rough-tough alpha, though he is going to have his moments. This book is going to touch on issues of masculinity as well as politics. Maybe I’m overreaching, but it’s my book and I’m going to write it the way I want, so there.

I don't usually mind including spoilers in my posts, since I write analysis rather than reviews, but in this case, since the book was published so recently, I don't want to say anything about how the second book "touch[es] on issues of masculinity." Also, this is an ongoing series, so I'm not sure how the issues around immigration will play out. One anti-immigrant-alien politician has already made an appearance.

I don't think elaan, a commenter at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, is alone in "wondering how recent politics wld/if show up in subsequent romance novels": if you're interested in how contemporary politics are influencing the romances authors create, this series joins the Rogue Desire anthology in answering that question. Anyone come across any other romances which are clearly exploring the issues raised by contemporary politics?

The Rules of Sex (as explained to a mermaid)

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 27 August, 2017


Romance novels don't all agree on the rules, and the rules change over time.

Often, the rules in any particular novel are left implicit in the text and can be deduced from the characters' comments and actions.

Occasionally, however, the rules are discussed openly, as in Nora Roberts' Bay of Sighs (2016), and such scenes draw attention to the fact that the rules (like all the other aspects of romance which can be classified as political, or as "social issues") are present in romances all the time.

In Roberts' novel the rules have to be discussed explicitly because one of the characters, Annika, is a mermaid, and therefore comes from a very different culture. She needs to have human social behaviour explained to her because she is in love with Sawyer, a human, and wants to have a romantic relationship with him. She knows the rules which bind mermaids:

"[...] I'm not permitted to kiss a land person the first time. He must want me, show me. He must choose."

"Why is that?"

"Our females have the power to lure men - humans. To seduce so the choice isn't a choice for them. Long ago, and not so long ago, some of my kind lured men, sailors and explorers."


"Yes. The song of the siren is beautiful and powerful, but it can be dangerous to the human she calls." (93)

However, she doesn't know all the rules governing human behaviour. After Sawyer has kissed her she wants to know why he doesn't

"[...] ask for sex. I don't know if I'm allowed to ask for sex. I don't know the rules of this."

[...] He jumped on that concept. "There are rules. Lots of complicated rules." (146)

Annika's other companions then attempt to explain the rules to her, and some of them have more complicated versions than others:

"Complicated." Riley snorted. "I say simple. My top three? Both parties willing, available, and clean." [...]

"Riley." Sasha rolled her eyes. "Different rules for different people. Or not rules so much as ... sensibillities, and it's not always easy to explain."

Riley ticked off on her fingers. "Willing, available, clean."

"An important foundation," Sasha agreed. (147)

Riley then asks a bit more about the rules for merpeople:

"Are there gay merpeople?" [...] Can you mate with someone of the same sex?"

"Of course - differently because of the body, and there will be no young created, but you want who you want, yes? Love who you love?

"Cheers to that." [...]

"Is one of your rules you cannot?"

"We're eliminating that rule. Slower in some places, but we're working on it."

Annika huffed out a breath, frowned at her drink. "Are all the rules stupid?"

"Maybe some are, and the rules depend." (154)

Since there can be serious consequences for those who break the rules, and since some rules can be deeply harmful to certain individuals, it's important to make sure that the rules are not "stupid." However, those imbedded within a particular set of rules can't always see which of them are "stupid" and which aren't. Romance novels can raise questions about the rules, and the communities of romance readers are a place where discussions about the rules can and do take place.


Roberts, Nora. Bay of Sighs. London: Piatkus, 2016.


The image is of John Reinhard Weguelin's Mermaid (1906). It's in the public domain and I found it at Wikimedia Commons.

Taking romancelandia debates to the Canary Islands

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 17 June, 2017

This Wednesday (21 June) I'll be giving a video presentation to a conference in the Canary Islands. My paper takes Meljean Brook's Riveted as a starting point for taking a look at changing attitudes towards "otherness" in popular romance fiction. I've written a little bit about the novel elsewhere on this blog but here's an abstract of what I'll be saying on Wednesday:

Changing Attitudes to Others: Meljean Brook’s Riveted (2012) and its Context

Meljean Brook's Riveted (2012) is dedicated to Monica Jackson, a romance author who drew attention to the marginalisation of African American romance authors and their novels; her successors in this task include K. M. Jackson and Rebekah Weatherspoon. Riveted can be read both as evidence of changing attitudes towards "others" in the early twenty-first-century romance reading and writing community, and as an attempt to encourage readers to think more deeply and sympathetically about those who are marginalised and othered in a variety of ways, including on the basis of their sexuality, disability and ethnicity. Riveted also seems to challenge the gender-based othering which is extremely common in the genre.

Keywords: circunstancia, disability, gender, José Ortega y Gasset, K. M. Jackson, LGBTQ, Meljean Brook, Monica Jackson, othering, race, Rebekah Weatherspoon, romance, Stella Young

While I do discuss some of the ways in which Brook challenges common forms of "othering" which persist in the genre, I've tried to use her book as a springboard to bring together the voices of some of those who've been discussing various forms of "othering" and exclusion. My hope is that my paper will help preserve a flavour of those discussions and help other academics find them if they hadn't been members of the community at the time the discussions took place.

The plan is for the conference proceedings to be published at some point.

Other papers at the conference include:

María del Mar Pérez Gil (ULPGC): “‘Every inch a Spaniard’: Images of Spain in popular romance novels”

Inmaculada Pérez-Casal (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela): “Lisa Kleypas and the ‘outcast’ hero: A diachronic study”

María Jesús Vera Cazorla (ULPGC): “‘And they drive on the wrong side of the road’. An analysis of the Anglo-centric vision of the Canary Islands in three romance novels”

Aline Bazenga (Universidade da Madeira): “Language awareness in four popular romances set in Madeira Island”

María Isabel González Cruz (ULPGC): “English/Spanish codeswitching and borrowing in a sample of romances set in the Canaries”

María del Pilar González de la Rosa (ULPGC): “‘In a flash of perverse temper’: Acknowledging gender and the representation of women in a sample of romance novels set in the Canaries”

Johanna Hoorenman (Utrecht University): “Private treaties: Historical and contemporary Lakota Sioux romances by Kathleen Eagle”

María Henríquez Betancor (ULPGC): “Imagery of lovers in book covers: A gender approach to romantic novels”

Jayashree Kamble (LaGuardia Community College CUNY): “From Xinjiang to the British Isles: Examining escapism and the ‘othering’ of romance heroines in Sherry Thomas’s My Beautiful Enemy

María Ramos-García (South Dakota State University): “Representations of the Other in paranormal romance and urban fantasy”

Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr)

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 7 January, 2017


I was sent a copy of Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr) around Christmas but I waited till after New Year to take a closer look at it. It's not about envying the Virgin Mary, although her presence does make itself felt particularly in the final chapter.

The editors suggest that "our ideas about virginity - the hymen in particular - and the phallus are 'cultural fantasies' that continue to inspire, provoke, and unsettle us" (2): the first and second essays in the volume show the continuities across the centuries of some of these "cultural fantasies". And yet:

As we began to discuss virginity, however, we realized that many of these common virginal narratives are not true. Virginity extends well beyond the girl who protects herself and her hymen until marriage. [...] Indeed, insistence on the hymen erases all kinds of bodies save the most normative, cisgendered body of the female. Therefore, it is imperative that we go beyond the hymen and think about virginity without it. Truth be told, boys are virgins, queers are virgins, some people reclaim their virginities, and others reject virginity from the get go. (4-5)

The editors have tried to ensure that the collection of essays in the volume have a wide range but "as editors regret that this collection does not contain much about lesbian or trans virginities - important areas of research that need to be attended to [...]. It is surprising that, though virginity studies is a field dominated by the idea that virginity is female, lesbian experiences of virginity are unaccounted for in the scholarship" (11). There is a discussion of Catalina de Erauso, though, in the last chapter.

I've copied out the abstracts of the two chapters on romance in this post so here I'll just highlight a few other quotes/elements which piqued my interest, mainly relating to depictions of race/ethnicity/geography and religion in texts/contexts related to popular romance fiction.

Chapter 1: "I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet": Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance [by Amy Burge, pages 17-44.]

Amy Burge's

focus throughout is on the [virginity] test as it applies to women, echoing the deeply gendered discourses that surround virginity testing: there are no virgin sheikhs. (18)

I'm kind of tempted to look for one now, just in case he exists out there somewhere. Almost certainly not published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, though, as I know Amy researched those very, very carefully.

Given the popularity of virgin heroines in romance fiction, it's really interesting to note that her

large-scale analysis of Mills & Boon Modern Romance [i.e. the line known as Harlequin Presents in the North American market] novels reveals that female virginity is particularly pronounced in romance novels with "foreign heroes": the ubiquitous Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Brazilians, Argentines, and, of course, sheikhs. Of the 931 Modern Romance novels published in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2009, 458 feature virgin heroines, and 281 of them (approximately 61 percent) have foreign heroes. This simultaneously reveals Western preoccupation with virginity and its situating of it "elsewhere." (21)

This does begin to make me wonder if, among English-speaking writers and readers, Greece, Italy and Spain are in some way not considered part of the "West," and in turn reminds me of Hsu-Ming Teo's essay about Rudolph Valentino playing the part of the "sheik." Teo mentions that

the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 [in the US] “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. [...] To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks."

Something of that hierarchy perhaps continues to haunt romance fiction; as a result of my own research on Greece in popular romance (forthcoming) I came across the suggestion that in England the Mediterrean has been particularly associated with passion since at least the early modern period.

It isn't entirely clear why cultures assumed to be more passionate should also be assumed to value virginity more highly but it is certainly stressed in romance novels set in the "romance East" that "female virginity is of great cultural importance. Sheikh romances repeatedly highlight the importance placed on virginity in Eastern culture [...]. Such a cultural valuing is connected to ideas of tradition often glossed as 'medieval.'" (Burge 23). As Burge concludes:

For contemporary popular romance fiction to construct the "romance East" as a space in which "medieval" virginity can be celebrated echoes the similar practice of situating practices or attitudes inappropriate today - such as sexual violence - in a distant space, such as the historical past or, indeed, the East. Relegating the valuing and testing of virginity to the East might be in line with current popular ideas about the East, but it also reveals some of the romance genre's motivations for situating this valuing in the fictional romance East. In other words, for the romance genre to celebrate the unequal traditions of heteronormativity, the virginity testing that upholds these traditions must be situated "elsewhere." As much as many Western readers [...] might condemn "foreign" cultures for continuing to conduct virginity tests, the gender hegemony that these tests uphold is clearly evident and even celebrated in our own romantic cultural imagination, as revealed in the pages of some of the most popular contemporary Western fiction. (34-35)

Chapter 2: Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen [by Jodi McAlister, pages 45-64.

Given the way in which the valuing of virginity is located "elsewhere" in the popular romances examined by Burge, it's intriguing that McAlister observes that

in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries [..] Some virgins were said to be affected by chlorosis or "green-sickness," for which marriage was recommended as the cure [...]. We can see this represented in [...] the 1682 ballad "A Remedy for the Green Sickness" [...] We can see represented here not only the cure for green-sickness but also the pathologization of maintained virginity that existed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hanne Blank notes that it is an interesting coincidence that green-sickness was so often diagnosed during the period in which Protestantism, with its emphasis on marriage as the ideal state, became popular in Europe. (47-48)

Is it also a coincidence that the countries/places onto which romance novels seem to project the idealisation of virginity are not Protestant? Possibly it is, but at the same time I can't help but remember that in the seventeenth century:

European writers associated Islam with, and criticized it for, excessive and depraved sexual practices. The sexual excesses of Muslims were believed to derive from their religion, which permitted polygamy. (Teo, Desert 40-41)

A couple of centuries later, Gothic fiction linked Catholicism and "depraved" sexuality. For example:

When in The Monk (1796), Matthew G. Lewis uses the details of conventual life to suggest lurid forms of sexual excess such as necromancy, incest, matricide, and same-sex love, he does not need to explain his choice of a Catholic setting, a Mediterranean country (Spain, not Italy in this case), or religious life itself. All these things, to the English imagination at least, make such easy, rational sense that Lewis could assume a general understanding of (and even assent to) his extravagant posturing. And while reviewers criticized Lewis’s excess, they never suggested that his portrayal of Catholic monastic life was inappropriate. If the novel can be considered sensational, that is not because anyone objected to the portrayal of the characters themselves: oversexed and violent Catholic priests, victimizing and vindictive nuns, devil worship and self-abuse. These and other lurid sexual possibilities were common popular perceptions of conventual life in Mediterranean countries. (Haggerty)

Is it yet another coincidence that all this sexual excess is taking place in settings which are supposed to be filled with virgins?

Chapter 3 - The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga [by Jonathan A. Allan and Cristina Santos, pages 67-96.

Edward, the virgin hero of the Twilight saga is "foreign" in a different way from Mediterranean romance heroes: he is a vampire. Again, there is a link to religion:

Silver argues that his values are "uncommon in popular, mainstream secular discourse about young adult sexuality today." [...] there is an entire industry dedicated to ensuring sexual purity, which though having a religious affiliation, is also very much a part of secular culture. (72)

The issue of virginity in US culture is also mentioned in the next chapter.

Chapter 4 - Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood [Janice Zehentbauer and Cristina Santos, pages 97-123.]

Certainly, in the past two decades in America, evangelical church groups and the American government have united to encourage youth in general, and young women in particular, to choose abstinence [...]. Historian and independent scholar Hanne Blank points out that, "of all the developed world, the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." (97)

Zehentbauer and Santos suggest that

Twenty-first-century America's obsession with virginity also emerges in many artifacts of popular culture, especially those of the gothic or supernatural genres. In her influential Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach argues that vampires, in the Anglo-American cultural imaginary, embody and signify the sociopolitical concerns of the era that produces them. (98)

If the US policies around virginity have been at all divisive, and it would seem that they have, given that "repealing abstinence-only programs, much less authorizing the full scope of reproductive health care services, runs into deep moral divides" (Morone and Ehlke 318), and if Edward's values "are 'uncommon in [...] secular discourse," could it be that those values have to be translated into a "foreign" (in this case vampiric) context to make them palatable to a mass audience which is, nonetheless, still fascinated by virginity and what it represents?


The other chapters in the volume are:

McGuiness, Kevin. "The Queer Saint: Male Virginity in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane." (127-143.)

Ncube, Gibson. "Troping Boyishness, Effeminacy, and Masculine Queer Virginity: Abdellah Taïa and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri." (145-169.)

Sayed, Asma. "Bollywood Virgins: Diachronic Flirtations with Indian Womanhood." (173-190.)

Crowe Morey, Tracy and Adriana Spahr. "The Policing of Viragos and other "Fuckable" Bodies: Virginity as Performance in Latin America." (191-231.)

That last chapter introduced me to Catalina de Erauso whose life

reads like a picaresque novel. Born, probably in 1592, to a noble Basque family in San Sebastián, Spain, she bolted from a convent before taking her vows, assumed masculine clothing, gave herself a new identity as "Francisco de Loyola," and, early in the seventeenth century , made her way to the New World, where she led the rough-and-ready life of a soldier in the Spanish colonies.

On the battlefield she was a formidable warrior; in her other exploits she gambled, engaged in dalliances with women, brawled, and faced death sentences for murder. Once her true sex was revealed, she became a celebrity in Spain. [...]

In her memoir Erauso stressed her chief virtues as a man--physical courage--and as a woman--virginity . While she did not stint at recounting transgressive acts of "manly" bravery such as fights resulting in murder, she was more oblique when referring to acts that were sexually transgressive.

At no point does Erauso speak of physical attraction to a man. She did, however, include several incidents that show her affection for women. (Rapp)

As the authors note, she fared much better than either Joan of Arc or more modern women whose soldiering/other forms of political engagement was responded to with state-sponsored violence that included rape and execution.


Allan, Jonathan A. and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 67-96.
Burge, Amy, 2016. 
"‘I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet’: Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 17-44.
Haggerty, George. 2004-2005. 
"The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction." Romanticism on the Net 36-37.
McAlister, Jodi, 2016. 
"Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 45-64.
Morone, James A. and Daniel C. Ehlke, 2013. 
Health Politics and Policy. Fifth Edition. Cengage.
Rapp. Linda. 2003. 
"Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592- ca 1650)." glbtq Encyclopedia.
Teo, Hsu-Ming, 2010. 
'Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film', Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1.
Teo, Hsu-Ming. 2012. 
Desert passions: Orientalism and romance novels. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Zehentbauer, Janice and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 97-123.

Frye on the Symbolism of the Virgin Heroine

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 1 July, 2016

In The Secular Scripture Northrop Frye takes a look at romance in its broadest definition and observes that there is a lot of emphasis on the heroines' virginity.

One can, of course, understand an emphasis on virgniity in romance on social grounds. In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave. Behind all the "fate worse than death" situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virgniity, by any means except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position. But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance. (73)

Deep within the stock convention of virgin-baiting is a vision of human integrity imprisoned in a world it is in but not of, often forced by weakness into all kinds of ruses and stratagems, yet always managing to avoid the one fate which really is worse than death, the annihilation of one's identity. [...] If we want an image [...] for this kind of integrity, there is an exquisite one in Sidney's Arcadia, where the heroine wears a diamond set in a black horn, with the motto attached "yet still myself." (86)


Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard UP, 1976.