Gender, Sexuality and The Sheik

By Laura Vivanco on

A special issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies appeared earlier in the month, focused on E. M. Hull's The Sheik. In it Jessica Taylor explores

how we might read Diana with a trans lens, unpacking [...] her masculinity [...]. This lens leads me to compare The Sheik to another interwar British novel with a more famously masculine heroine—Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928)—which presents an explicitly queer protagonist (who might today identify as either a butch lesbian, a trans man, or a nonbinary person) who echoes many of Diana’s characteristics, but ends her novel very differently. [...] I want to allow a trans reading that [...] embraces Diana’s attachment to her boyhood, before the plot closes off that possibility.

In my essay for the same issue of JPRS I also contrasted The Sheik with another novel, in my case a well-received romance published in the same year, Berta Ruck's A Land-Girl's Love Story. Since that novel includes a cross-dressing hero (there is an extended sequence in which the utterly convincing nature of his performance is described) who believes that in many respects men should behave more like women, and a heroine who is repeatedly described as being boyish, it seems to me that what Hull closes off, Ruck deliberately leaves open. Taylor is

not suggesting here that Diana was written as a trans man, a non-binary person, or a butch woman (butch being a social category beyond simple masculinity). These are present-day categories which, while they describe a range of practices that were indeed in existence in early twentieth century Britain, were not in use in 1919.

Such categories are, of course, not explicitly present in Ruck's novel either, but it seems to me that Ruck's Elizabeth and Fielding certainly challenge gender binaries and even if that weren't the case, it would be difficult to categorise Elizabeth as uncomplicatedly heterosexual given that

"Heavens!" ejaculated Elizabeth, with [...] fervour and truth in her voice. "How I do loathe what they call 'a manly man'! All lumps and a bull's voice, and irregular features!"

"But," I suggested mildly, "you wouldn't want a man to look like the picture off a chocolate-box lid?"

"I should adore it," declared this exception in girls. "When I was a little girl, once, I was given a box of sweets with a picture on the lid called 'The Falconer.' He wore a golden-brown hunting-dress and he had a hawk on his shoulder, and golden hair and soft eyes, and, oh! such a pretty face! I thought at the time, 'If only I could ever see a young man looking like that Falconer!' And now I have. Colonel Fielding is exactly like that picture. Oh, Joan, I think he's the most beautiful thing I've seen." (194)

Joan, who prefers "manly good looks" (195) cannot find Colonel Fielding, who "could dress up and look exactly like a girl" (195) at all attractive, but "here was the boyish, resolute, no-nonsense-about-her Elizabeth glorying in the fact!" (195). Elizabeth and Fielding get their happy ending, just as Joan and her "manly" man do.


Ruck, Berta, 1919. A Land-Girl's Love Story. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. [Available online here.]

Taylor, Jessica, 2020. “Garçon Manqué: A Queer Rereading (of) The Sheik.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 9. [Available online here.]

Vivanco, Laura, 2020. “Let’s Not Get Carried Away by The Sheik. Journal of Popular Romance Studies 9. [Available online here.]

Some "lesser works" deemed not worth study

By Laura Vivanco on

I'm working through The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction and felt I had to comment on something in Pamela Regis's article on "The evolution of the American romance novel." She's so scathing about two novels, I feel they must be of interest to someone:

I found two little-known novels by none other than Charles Brockden Brown: Clara Howard and Jane Talbot (both 1801). Alerted by their titles - they sound like romance novels named after their heroines - I located copies. These novels were hidden in plain sight, in the fifth volume of the MLA-sanctioned collected works of one of the most studied American authors. They are both courtship tales, and like Richardson's [...] Pamela, they are both epistolary, i.e., told in letters. Brockden Brown, then, at least formally, was a Richardsonian. I found that both Clara Howard and Jane Talbot hinge, in part, on weak, coincidental plot devices: misplaced or forged letters. In addition, although the novels are named after their heroines, they focus on their heroes. Confronted by this sort of evidence, the literary historian must decide between including these novels in a history of the American romance novel or devoting time and effort to other, more worthy titles. Because analysis of these novels would displace in a developing history of the romance the time and effort that could be devoted to analysis of a novel that focuses on the heroine, one of the romance's important contributions to fiction, a novel that, moreover, is a stronger novel, I moved on. With tens of thousands of romance novels undiscovered, spending time on lesser works, however canonical their authors, perpetuates the idea that there are no other, worthier works to include. (59-60)

The irony, of course, is that by including this paragraph, I feel a contrary reader may well be intrigued and wonder if they are really so unworthy after all. In particular, a focus on the hero may actually be of interest to some scholars.


Regis, Pamela, 2021. "The evolution of the American romance novel." The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction. Ed. Hsu-Ming Teo, Eric Murphy Selinger and Jayashree Kamblé. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 51-71.

Romance vs. Black Consciousness

By Laura Vivanco on

I'm always interested to see discussions in romances about romance fiction and writing. Also of interest is how romance appears in works which are not romance. Here are recent examples I came across in Postcolonial Literatures in the Local Literary Marketplace: Located Reading by Jenni Ramone. Ramone discusses "Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play Fix-up (2004)":

Fix-up takes place inside a Black Consciousness book-shop which is under threat of closure because Brother Kiyi who runs the shop can no longer afford to pay his rent as a result of his working practices: he lends books which invariably come back in an unsellable condition, if at all, and buys books that he thinks are worthwhile, valuable, important—books that Black people should read—rather than the books that they choose to read (frequently, Black romance novels). The play remains ambivalent on the question of who is doing more for Black Consciousness: the sincere and highly principled Kiyi, or the apparently more forward-thinking militant and capitalist Kwesi, who wants to run a Black hair products business from the bookshop’s current location. Kiyi wonders about the difference between Black and white romance novels, asking “stories of Black love. I wonder how that differs from say stories of white love?.” Unable to find a clear enough distinction, he removes them from the shelf to make space for three sets of twelve volumes, described as accounts of the last remaining 2300 people to have been slaves, interviewed by social anthropologists in 1899 (10). Alice, a young mixed-race customer hungry for books that she is certain will help her to find herself, sees value in the Black romance novels that are, for Kiyi, symptomatic of a lack of consciousness. For Kiyi, Black romance novels are “nonsensical nonsense” that distract from the valuable reading and knowledge that his customers should be acquiring—Van Sertima’s Africa, Cradle of Civilisation!, Chancellor Williams’ Destruction of Black Civilisation, Peterson’s The Middle Passage, Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [...] books on the Dogons, the Ashantis, [...] the pyramids of Ancient Zimbabwe’ (38). The play contains references to, staged audio recordings from, and discussion of Black Consciousness books and historical figures (among others, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, Claude Mackay). This means that the play operates very much like the Black Consciousness bookshop: it educates through close reference to texts that fill gaps in knowledge about Black history and culture. Having become a regular visitor to Kiyi’s Black Consciousness book-shop, Alice discovers two things which derail her burgeoning sense of self, or consciousness: she finds proof that Kiyi is her biological father, and she discovers that he has written the interviews with former slaves himself, revising and displacing similar, genuine narratives in order to fill what he perceived to be a historical omission. (144-145)

Scorn for romance fiction is also evident in another text discussed:

In the 1981 film Burning an Illusion directed by Menelik Shabazz, the act of reading is a visual referent of Pat’s journey towards consciousness. After Pat’s partner Delroy is imprisoned for four years after intervening in an argument and injuring a policeman, her immediate response is to rip up the book she was reading while sat in bed as a signal that nothing can help her to understand her new situation. The book’s title is not visible on screen but it is recognisable as a slim Mills and Boon orange-topped romance paperback. Her romance reading is emblematic of her lack of consciousness up to this point, so the act of destroying the book is a recuperative act. (164)


the contrast between experience and reading is apparent again at the film’s close when Pat reorganises her books, keeping only those perceived to be important and throwing others into a waste incinerator (she throws away romance books, Barbara Cartland’s name visible on screen). (165)

Two more examples of the rejection of romance:

Verona, the protagonist of Joan Riley’s novel, Romance (1988), has an obsession with reading romance novels: “She would read until the heating came on and the room warmed up. She picked up the book that sleep had interrupted. She had been in the middle of the last chapter; she might as well finish it before getting ready for work” (27). For Verona, reading is pretence—fantasy and escapism, even denial, but the central motif of the text is the unsuitability of her reading matter. Instead of taking action or even telling her family when she loses her job, Verona goes to the library and avoids her situation by “getting comfortable in the cushioned Black chair” and arranging “her four romance novels in a neat pile” (40). Repeatedly, her friends and family call it “trash”, “white trash”, “rubbish”. Her family criticise Verona’s habit—“all you do is read them stupid books” (22) and analyse her motivations; her sister accuses her of pretending to be the white heroine in the novels: “That’s why you’re always reading these trashy books, isn’t it? So you can pretend. What’s the matter with you anyway? What’s wrong with a Black man?” (69). Verona only understands the real events in her life through cross-reference to the romance novels: “It was just like in Concertina Love, she recalled” (172), excusing misogyny in a white man because it replicated the misogyny in the books that gave her so much pleasure. Only the realisation of an unplanned pregnancy interrupts her reading: “She couldn’t even lose herself in romance any more, feeling too unwell and worried to concentrate” (200). The term “lose herself” seems particularly apt here. Ultimately, reading romance novels has a potentially destructive effect because losing herself in a book is, in fact, losing her self, her identity in racial, cultural, social terms: pretending to be “an innocent blonde-haired virgin” (74), reading is undertaken at the expense of attention to her brother, sister, father, her job, and ultimately her awareness of her identity. By the end of the novel, Verona begins to consider other reading material, having acknowledged that her reading choices are in conflict with the values of the people she respects, the people who run Black Consciousness meetings. She is given “a children’s book by a Black writer” (229) and this implies not only that she might restart her reading, but also that she might in the future share her reading with her unborn child, and that the child might have a more worthwhile experience of reading, signalled by Verona’s more positive ideas about the future at the novel’s close. What emerges from an analysis of these reading instances is a conflict between losing the self (in fiction—in white romance novels) and finding the self: locating the self, or locating consciousness is, in Romance, inseparable from reading texts that are acknowledged to be of merit in intellectual and activist terms. In Joan Riley’s The Unbelonging (1985), the pattern is similar in a narrative that follows a young woman’s aspirations to go to university and the conversations between Black women about what should and should not be read: Hyacinth becomes obsessed with Mills and Boon romance books she finds left behind in her lodgings, and initially rejects her friend Perlene’s suggestion that reading Walter Rodney’s book (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972) would make her better aware of the causes of racism. (166-167)


Ramone, Jenni, 2020. Postcolonial Literatures in the Local Literary Marketplace: Located Reading. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Faith, Love, Hope and Popular Romance Fiction

By Laura Vivanco on

I've not blogged recently because I was busy working on Faith, Love, Hope and Popular Romance Fiction . It's a book which, as is rather obvious from the title, is about faith, love, hope and popular romance fiction. Since we're in a pandemic, I felt particularly uncertain about what the future might hold and so I decided I'd just publish the book in whole myself, on this website. That may or may not have been a good idea, but my hope is that this way I can get feedback/constructive criticism from other romance readers, romance scholars, and also romance readers. I've had some of that already and updated the book as a result, but I hope there will be more.

Since it's all online, there probably isn't all that much point writing a synopsis here, but it does include:

* a new definition of romance which suggests that romances are a form of pastoral care

* detailed analysis of romances by Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Rose Lerner and Nora Roberts

* analysis of how "devils" and protagonists "in hell" are saved

* use of guides to romance writing and statements by readers and romance authors

Virgin Martyrs: Hagiography and the Popular Romance Compared

By Laura Vivanco on

It's not that unusual to see criticism of modern romance heroines for being martyrs (e.g. one reviewer mentions that a pet peeve is "martyr heroines to gambling/drunken fathers or brothers"), but Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's analysis of medieval hagiography (biographies of saints), which draws comparison with romance novels, is using the term literally, which I found interesting. Before I give some quotes from Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture, 1150-1300: Virginity and its Authorizations (2001), it's probably helpful to clarify that "The recorded life of a confessor saint is called by the Latin word uita ('life'), that of a martyr a passio ('passion', in the sense of suffering)" (Marsden 206).

The courtly and nuptial virgin is the heroine of ‘rumanz’ in both its major Anglo-Norman meanings: she is the predominant vernacular female saint and her passion is an extended and stylized display of romance constancy to the highest-ranking bridegroom of all. Her passio can be related both to chivalric courtly romance and to the romance modes of modern popular culture. (Wogan-Browne 96)

For information about the modern romance novel Wogan-Browne draws on "the classic analyses of Mills and Boon (Harlequin) romance by Janice Radway" (97). I feel compelled to point out that I have checked Radway and the books she analysed were not in fact Harlequin/Mills & Boons as Wogan-Browne states but mostly longer single-title romances. I've listed them at the end for anyone who's interested. It's perhaps worth noting that Radway's book was published in 1984 and so the novels she studied dated from between 1972-1981. This means that while the comparison between these books and the medieval passio is interesting, one should perhaps be careful before extrapolating to "the modern form of nuptial romance" (Wogan-Browne 96). Admittedly, it doesn't seem wrong, from the perspective of a medievalist, to consider both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries "modern" but scholars of the modern popular romance novel would generally argue that quite a lot has changed in romance writing since the 1970s and 1980s. For one thing, virgin heroines are a lot less common than they were. Anyway, according to Wogan-Browne

The principal difference between the passio and the modern form of nuptial romance (see Figure 3) lies in the distribution of the suitor role. In the modern romance the hero (‘sign of the patriarchy, enemy and lover’, as Jan Cohn calls the romance and novel hero) is a single figure, offering emotionally warm and emotionally cruel behaviour to the heroine in turn. (His cruelty is later ‘revealed’ as not really intended to damage her and as a sign of his vulnerability/love/need.) The medieval passio uses Christ and the pagan for these opposed aspects of the hero role. Christ sums up all aspects of the romance hero role in himself. [...] But although presented as a gentle spouse and supremely courtly lover, Christ can also resort to emotional blackmail and threats of violence at which a pagan might blush and which suggest an area of identity between the male rivals in the suitor role. Christ can boast bigger and longer-lived fires and more torturers in hell than any pagan empire can command, as well as a bigger, better, and higher-ranking court in heaven and an unchallengeable role as the most powerful and desirable bridegroom in the universe. (That Christ is also so often represented as a maternal healer and nourisher, comforting and feeding heroines in their dungeons, completes the romance parallel: modern romance heroes are also both superheterosexual heroes and, at the peripeteia of the narrative, the providers of maternal nurture and care.) (96-97)

Wogan-Browne's figure 3 is in two parts, with one taken from Radway's work (it appears in the 1991 edition on both pages 134 and 150, with a very slight variation between the two) and the other, parallel in structure, created by Wogan-Browne to describe the comparable situations in a medieval passio. For ease of comparison, I've copied out the 13 lines of what Radway (R) calls "the narrative logic of the romance" (150) and placed the equivalent line from Wogan-Browne's figure (98) alongside it, preceded by the initials WB.

  1. R-The heroine's social identity is thrown into question. WB-The heroine is young, beautiful, rich and noble [i.e. nuptial], and brought up in a pagan household. Her social [pagan] identity is thrown into question by her own and the audience's knowledge of her true [Christian] identity.
  2. R-The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male. WB-When approached by an aristocratic [pagan] male suitor/tyrant, she refuses him (she has already accepted an aristocratic [Christian] male suitor/lord).
  3. R-The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine. WB-The pagan insists that he loves/honours/desires her and that she must give in to him.
  4. R-The heroine interprets the hero's behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her. WB-The heroine interprets his insistence as evidence of idolatrous [sexual] interest in her [as opposed to the Christian [romance] interest in her of her Christ bridegroom].
  5. R-The heroine responds to the hero's behavior with anger or coldness. WB-She responds with anger and coldness.
  6. R-The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine. WB-The [pagan] bridegroom-hero responds by punishing the heroine, often by having her stripped, whipped, and thrown into a dungeon in order to bring her to compliance.
  7. R-The hero and heroine are physically and/or emotionally separated. WB-The heroine and [pagan] bridegroom-hero are now physically separated.
  8. R-The hero treats the heroine tenderly. WB-The [Christ] bridegroom-hero gives the heroine care and nurture in the dungeon [angels or Christ himself appear to feed her/tend her wounds].
  9. R-The heroine responds warmly to the hero's act of tenderness. WB-The heroine responds warmly to the [Christ] bridegroom-hero.
  10. R-The heroine reinterprets the hero's ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt. WB-The heroine interprets the duality of the bridegroom [pagan/Christian; cruel/kind; idolatrously sexual/romantically desirous] as a function of the fallen world's sinfulness, for which the [Christ] bridegroom has previously suffered enormous hurt [on the cross].
  11. R-The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness. WB-The [Christ] bridegroom now openly invites the heroine into his heavenly bower, while the [pagan] bridegroom demonstrates his unwavering commitment to [lacerating, dismembering, and consuming] the heroine, and openly threatens her with beheading.
  12. R-The heroine responds sexually and emotionally to the hero. WB-The heroine says yes to the bower/beheading of the [Christ]/[pagan] bridegroom.
  13. R-The heroine's identity is restored. WB-The heroine's eternal identity is confirmed as she becomes what she was always going to be, a bride of Christ and a saint in heaven.


This comparison works because the novels Radway analysed were written in a period in which, as romance authors Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz wrote in 1992, the romance novel did tend to rely on "romance plot devices [...] rendered complex by their paradoxical nature: [...] heroes who also function as villains; victories that are acts of surrender; seductions in which one is both seducer and seduced; acts of vengeance that conflict with acts of love" (Barlow and Krentz 18). I'm not sure the comparison would work so well if applied to most twenty-first-century romances (or, indeed, to romances from previous decades which did not fit Radway's scheme).

I thought I'd better check which novels Radway consulted in order to compile her "narrative structure of the ideal romance" (Radway 134). The novels Radway selected were a very small group of novels which reflect the preferences of a small sub-set of romance readers.The novels are:

  • Woodiwiss, Kathleen: The Flame and the Flower (Avon 1972); Shanna (Avon 1977); The Wolf and the Dove (Avon 1974); Ashes in the Wind (Avon 1979)
  • De Blassis, Celeste: The Proud Breed (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan 1978)
  • McBain, Laurie: Moonstruck Madness (Avon 1977)
  • Marten, Jacqueline: Visions of the Damned (Playboy Paperbacks 1979)
  • Lindsey, Johanna: Fires of Winter (Avon 1980)
  • Dailey, Janet: Ride the Thunder (Pocket 1980); Nightway (Pocket 1980)
  • Peters, Elizabeth: Summer of the Dragon (Dodd, Mead & Company 1979)
  • Deveraux, Jude: The Black Lyon (Avon 1980)
  • Spencer, LaVyrle, The Fulfillment (Avon 1979)
  • Lee, Elsie: The Diplomatic Lover (Brandywyne Books 1971)
  • Ellis, Leigh: Green Lady (Avon 1981)
  • Kent, Katherine: Dreamtide (Gallen 1981)
  • Afton Bonds, Parris: Made for Each Other (Silhouette 1981)
  • Vreeland Carter, Noël: Miss Hungerford's Handsome Hero (Dell 1981)
  • Barr, Elisabeth: The Sea Treasure (Doubleday 1978)
  • Stevenson, Florence: Moonlight Variations (Jove 1981)


Barlow, Linda and Jayne Ann Krentz. "Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance". Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 15-29.

Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

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

Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn. Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture, 1150-1300: Virginity and its Authorizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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.

A New Approach to Studying Romance?

By Laura Vivanco on

In "The Use of Free Indirect Discourse in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series," Evie Kendal writes that

The purpose of this article is to examine J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance series purely from a narratological perspective, exploring how Ward’s narrative technique serves to satisfy the conventions of the romance formula while also yielding an original and engaging story. The primary area of interest in this article is Ward’s use of narrative voice, particularly her extensive use of free indirect discourse [which is later referred to as FID], and the impact this has on the formula romance plot. (20)

According to narratologist Michael Toolan, FID (also known as narrated monologue) denotes the point where “the narration is no longer detached and external: it adopts the character’s viewpoint.” (22)


Julie Choi describes FID as “the effect created by the translation of what ‘sounds’ like first-person or direct discourse, in the present of ‘speech’ or ‘thought’, into the third-person past of the narrative.” Unlike external narration, such as “The man waited at the bus stop,” in which the perspective provided comes from outside, FID is described by Schuelke as a “slipping” into the character’s own words, for the purpose of providing an insight into that character’s personal perspective or consciousness. However, while FID may present the illusion of direct communication between the character and the reader, the narrator is still mediating the exchange. (25)


According to Robert Miles, characters “constructed” through FID possess the illusion of being independent agents—an illusion Ward actively promotes for the Brothers through her website and online message-boards. (32)


also has the additional benefit in romance literature of allowing the reader to experience the misunderstandings between the love interests as they occur. FID allows the reader to occupy a privileged space in which they know more than the characters, especially when the characters’ misapprehensions colour their perception of narrated events. (32)

At other times, however,

FID can shift between providing dramatic irony in a romance, and actually involving the reader in the misunderstandings of the plot through unreliable narration. (33)


the level of characterisation achieved through the use of FID removes any potential ambiguity, lending authority to the genuineness of the transformations of her major love interests. The reader can therefore successfully interpret the signs of change in each character, based on a thorough knowledge of that character’s inner thoughts and feelings, in addition to making intuitive leaps based on accumulated knowledge of the romance form and the rules that govern the fictional world in which it is created. (36)

What I find problematic about this essay is not the main argument but the way it's framed. Kendal argues that "romance criticism need not be limited, as it has been in the past, to gender and reception studies, but can also engage with the narrative techniques involved in the production of the romance novel as text" (39). The problem with this is that romance criticism has not been "limited to gender and reception studies." Kendal seems to believe she is doing "pioneering work" (40) by pointing romance scholarship in an entirely new direction:

there is a definite gap in the scholarship concerning the precise nature of romance novels as text. Radway herself accounts for this gap by claiming there is a “common assumption that because romances are formulaic and therefore essentially identical, analysis of a randomly chosen sample will reveal the meaning unfailingly communicated by every example of the genre.” (21)

Admittedly Kendal's work is new: I'm pretty sure no-one's looked at FID in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series before. But quite a lot of work has been done since Janice Radway wrote the article quoted here (it's from 1983). Given that Kendal quotes from New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays (2012), I'm not sure why she couldn't have quoted from its introduction, which gives a more recent overview of the field and of different types of approaches to it. It's also noticeable that Kendal does not cite Pamela Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2007) despite giving a list of elements common to all romances. And, given that Kendal wishes to "demonstrate [...] that formulaic literature can generate narrative complexity, and that romance novels do warrant literary analysis as individual texts" (21), it seems a pity that she did not refer to the 2011 article in which Regis states that "We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly."

Since Kendal ends with some suggestions for further research, I'll offer one too, jumping off from Kendal's statement that

Ward’s series [...] has the potential to expand current knowledge of the nature of formulaic literature, and the nuanced narrative techniques that can be involved in creating a work of popular romance. (39)

This made my mind turn to guides to writing romance. I know Dirk de Geest and An Goris did some work on them, and it might be interesting to find out whether such guides make similar points to Kendal's about FID; I'm pretty sure they have quite a bit to say about characterization and writing dialogues, monologues and narration.


Kendal, Evie. "The Use of Free Indirect Discourse in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood Series." Colloquy: Text, Theory, Critique 38 (2019): 20–43.

Jonathan A. Allan's Men, Masculinities and Popular Romance

By Laura Vivanco on

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.

Omissions in the Field?

By Laura Vivanco on

I've only just started reading Jonathan Allan's new book, Men, Masculinity and Popular Romance so what follows isn't a discussion of his book. I'm really just using something raised in its first few pages as a starting point for thinking about how we can/should think about omissions. Allan writes that "What this book seeks to consider is whether or not pornography might be a good model through which to theorise and critique representations of gender and sexuality in the popular romance novel" (4) and observes that

Pornography has become a negative rhetorical device that has inhibited - or at least complicated - the study of popular romance and its connections to pornography.

Consider, for example, two recent anthologies on popular romance that barely mention pornography. In New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (2012), the word 'porn' appears twice and only in a footnote that references Ann Douglas's 'Soft Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman' (1980). Likewise, in Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? (2016), the word porn does appear [...]. In both volumes, 'pornography' does appear with more frequency; a total of eight times in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (nearly all of which are references) and fourteen times in Romance Fiction and American Culture (half of which are references). Thus, porn/pornography is largely ignored or left untouched in these volumes; it is moved to the notes or treated as the antithesis to popular romance novels. While this can hardly be read as an unquestioned truth about popular romance studies, it does speak to a general anxiety surrounding pornography and suggests that the term is certainly not 'neutral'. There are, of course, numerous other examples that could be called upon; for example, Pamela Regis' agenda-setting A Natural History of the Romance Novel only mentions pornography in passing with reference to Germaine Greer and Ann Barr Snitow. (5)

Later, he states that

what is troubling about [...] romance scholars' attempts to distance themselves from pornography, is that it does nothing to undo the pathologisation of viewers of pornography, who are almost always framed as men (as if women do not also consume porn). If romance scholars want to argue that romance novels are not pornography, then they must do the necessary work of engaging with the pathologising impulses of those who critique pornography. That is, the argument as a whole must be dismantled. (7)

What troubles me here is that an absence of discussion seems to be equated with "attempts to distance themselves from" a topic. Could it not be that there are many different approaches to take to romance, as well as many different areas on which scholars might wish to focus, and that this might well explain the absence? After all, how many romance scholars have discussed romance in the context of crime fiction? Of speculative fiction? Of sports? For that matter, given that romance novels have been compared to valium in terms of their effect on readers' mental health, how many scholars have written about this, and engaged with "the pathologising impulses of those who critique" treatments for mental health? Probably not all that many, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there's "a general anxiety" about these topics and that scholars are trying to distance themselves from them.

I can see how lack of discussion of pornography could be disappointing to someone who wants to see more people in the field engaging with this topic, but I don't see it as one which needs to be central to all romance scholarship. Does it even need to be central to all romance scholarship dealing with gender and sexuality? I don't think so, because other people may be asking different questions. For example, Amy Burge's Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (2016) doesn't discuss pornography, but it does discuss ideas about masculinity by comparing modern and medieval romance texts and there's a strong focus on race/ethnicity as part of that.

On the other hand, there may be good reason for concern if a field omits discussion of certain important topics altogether. That's particularly true if it's a well-established field, because then the omissions may implicitly discourage future scholars from addressing the topic and can distort perceptions of the subject-matter. For example,

medieval studies as a field is slowly, haltingly, organizing itself against oppressive ideologies. New collectives of scholars have organized into communities working to transform and destabilize our notion of the Middle Ages and to whom they belong. In recent years, that movement has been led by the group Medievalists of Color, a community of deeply engaged scholars from diverse backgrounds working at all levels of the academy [...]. The scholars in this group challenge the periodization and geographical separateness of a "medieval past" with an urgency fueled by discrimination both inside and outside the academy in an era of rising white supremacy. (Perry)

Romance scholarship, though, is relatively new and there aren't very many people working in the field so omissions may well be due largely to a lack of scholars. Also, I'm not convinced that "one of the longest debates in popular romance studies: Are popular romance novels porn for women?" (Allan 4) is in fact a debate from which romance scholarship as a whole is distancing itself: Jonathan's book is itself proof of that, as is Jodi McAlister's "Breaking the Hard Limits: Romance, Pornography, and the Question of Genre in the Fifty Shades Trilogy" (2015) and Catherine M. Roach's discussion of "romance as porn" in her Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (2016), in which she argues that "Romance fiction is pornography" (84), and Jonathan says he mostly agrees with her approach (7).

Do you think this is a debate from which romance scholars are attempting to distance themselves? Which areas (if any) do you think are currently being omitted from romance scholarship?


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

Perry, David. "Introduction." Whose Middle Ages: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

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.