One of the most important tasks of romance scholarship is to interrogate the genre’s norms. Clearly, this is a task which needs to be performed carefully and respectfully, acknowledging the genre’s strengths and the ways in which it benefits readers, while avoiding both unquestioning loyalty and defensiveness. It is perhaps easier now to achieve such a balance given that the field has developed since the 1970s. The initial wave of research into the romance was, admittedly, often highly critical and the second “wave of American scholarship on the popular romance novel” (Selinger and Gleason 13), which appeared in the 1990s, therefore often consisted of “novelists ‘writing back’” (13) to defend romance against the critiques of academics such as Janice Radway and Tania Modleski. Prominent among the works produced by this second wave is the essay collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (1992), whose introduction states that “When it comes to romance novels, society has always felt free to sit in judgment not only on the literature but on the reader herself” (Krentz 1): the responses in the book lay stress on “female empowerment” and “the inherently subversive nature of the romance novel” (5).
However understandable this attitude, it has to be acknowledged that romance novels express a variety of hopes and widely differing ideas about who is deserving of love. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), for example, Falangist authors used romance novels to demonstrate how women could support the fascist struggle for victory (González-Allende). Their political hopes and their views of who should receive a happy ending are widely divergent from those to be found in many texts published in the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016:
Len Barot, president of LGBTQ publisher Bold Strokes Books, said unit romance sales have increased by over 25 percent. “We've also seen an increase in published titles featuring transgender characters as well as other subject matter dealing with issues ‘under fire’ in the current political climate: immigration, domestic terrorism, hate groups and climate change within the context of romance novels.” (Bussel)
What this demonstrates is that the core of the romance genre, its focus on love and hope, can be interpreted very differently by different authors and some of those interpretations encourage the intended readers to oppress or exclude other potential readers.
It may be painful for some authors and readers of romance to come to terms with the fact that their genre, despite preaching messages of love and hope, has included many texts which have implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, excluded and denigrated some potential and actual readers. However, as Huguley’s novel demonstrates, even the most lofty of ideals, and the most sacred of texts can, whether inadvertently or deliberately, be turned to oppressive purposes. The Reverend Charles Dodge, for example, attempts to use “Proverbs, 31” (Huguley 165) as an indirect attack on Ruby, whose name is an assertion that she is
“[...] a virtuous prize.”
“You know your Bible. [...] It’s where we got her name. ‘Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” (59)
The Bible verses which Dodge quotes in full are:
Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he will have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. (166)
He then argues that, by contrast, when a woman is lacking in virtue, she is the one who will benefit from a husband. It is, however, notable that he defines the virtuous woman as one who “does not get herself into trouble” (166). Given that Ruby has got “herself into trouble” because she does as ordered by the preceding verse, “Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9), one may have serious cause to doubt Dodge’s reading of the text. Moreover, earlier in the novel it was revealed that he became pastor of First Water Christian Church under false pretenses (110). He is thus a demonstration that not all those who claim the status of a person who can “de jure or de facto, bring to bear upon human troubles the resources, the wisdom, and the authority of [...] faith and life” (Clebsch and Jaekle 4) deserve to be granted it. Moreover he is, in a sense, using his warped understanding of his faith’s teaching to write an oppressive romance plot, in which he features as the husband who will provide Ruby with a happy ending by curing her of her outspoken nature.
Many in the romance reading and writing community like to think of the true faith articulated by romance as "revolutionary [...] in its celebration of love triumphing over the artificial divisions that keep us apart" (Herendeen 418). However, conventions which limit the types of “artificial divisions” contested by the genre may blunt its revolutionary potential, much like the conventions surrounding the reading of the Declaration of Independence each year in Winslow to mark the Fourth of July, “our beloved country’s [...] birthday” (Huguley 136). Ruby loves
the soaring poetry of the Declaration, but Paul Winslow asked Dr. Archibald Melvin, minister of the First Presbyterian church, to read it [...] and the way he read the words made Ruby want to fall asleep. (93)
Ruby’s response is a physical, literal one but it is symbolic of the intended effect of the reading: Paul Winslow organises it, and the accompanying festivities, “so little people like [Ruby’s young sister] Delie would believe everything was just grand. And would want to work for him in the next few years” (93). It is, then, intended to cement the status quo. Ruby, however, decides to speak the words of
the Declaration of Independence right along with the Reverend, word for word [...]. She believed, wholeheartedly, in what she said and she recited it to all with everything in her. [...] At the part of reciting the list of grievances against the king, Ruby would say the “He,” with special emphasis. It came across, to Adam at least, as a heartfelt condemnation of Paul Winslow and his rule in the small town. (136-137)
Her reading challenges the crowd to listen more closely and to recognise the possible implications of the Declaration for the present. I have followed Ruby’s lead in the titling of the subheadings in this chapter, applying them to the context of popular romance fiction.
Ruby’s reading is a challenge not because she changes the words of the text but because her identities are such that she would not normally be expected to minister to others in this way. Similarly, common plots and themes in the popular romance genre may read very differently when the identities of the protagonists or their authors are different from those which have hitherto been the norm.
Romance scholarship can only be enriched and enabled to give a better account of the genre if the scholars within the field, and the readers they engage with, come from the widest possible range of backgrounds. Different areas of discomfort and hurt, or of enjoyment and solace, may point to aspects of the romance which require further examination. Romance scholarship must also continually interrogate which primary texts it has chosen to focus on. Identifying understudied areas of the genre is important, not least because it will enable scholars to present a richer, more nuanced picture of the romance’s complexity and diversity and better understand the work it performs for readers. Rita B. Dandridge, for example, as an academic who was a “collector of African American women’s novels” (2004, vii) found that the “enthusiasm” generated in her by Anita Richmond Bukley’s African American historical romance Black Gold and similar romances “published in the 1990s was soon challenged when I attempted to locate critical commentaries about them.” To fill this gap in the scholarship she wrote Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances (2004) which, in 2020, remained “one of the only full length books on popular romance fiction by black writers” (Moody-Freeman 2021, 233).