I begin with faith because it is a much more obviously theological virtue than either love or hope, and thus indications of its presence both in texts and in the process of romance writing provide the clearest indication that a theological approach to romance criticism is justified and likely to prove fruitful. It is, of course, easy to find evidence of faith in romance novels which include explicitly religious content. An author of “inspirational” (Christian) romances, Ruth Scofield Schmidt, was once asked by
a beginning writer [...], "Do you have to believe all that stuff to sell it?"
"It sure helps," I told her. "If you don't believe in what you're writing, that will come through. Readers will know it."
And they will. (Vinyard 201)
In the case of an “inspirational” romance author such as Schmidt, “that stuff” presumably refers primarily to the Christian faith permeating her works. However, many romance authors and editors, writing about romance more broadly, have issued similar warnings about the need for authors to possess a personal faith in love. Claire Ritchie, for example, in Writing the Romantic Novel (1962), told aspiring authors that
You must yourself believe that good ultimately triumphs over evil, that happiness comes when we try to make others happy, and that Love, or ‘sweet charity’, as someone has described it, is the greatest power in the world—stronger than trouble, disaster, separation and death. (qtd. in Anderson 1974, 267)
Frances Whitehead, who began working at Mills & Boon in 1976, was the company’s Editorial Director in 1992 when she stated that romance authors need both “a talent for story-telling and, above all, sincerity. Phoniness is quickly spotted and condemned by readers” (64). This statement is less explicit than Richie's, but is nonetheless consistent with the claim that without faith (or, in less theological language, "belief" or "sincerity"), a romance author will not be successful, regardless of the quality of other aspects of their writing.
We can see similar statements throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As early as 1960 Anne Britton and Marion Collin stated in their guide to new writers of romantic fiction that
The love story [...] must be warm and sincere, for any story written with ‘tongue in cheek’ is doomed from the first paragraph. If the writer cannot convince himself he will certainly not convince his readers. (11)
A similar warning appears more than three decades later, in Donna Baker's guide to writing a romance novel: Sheila Walsh, a former chairman of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, is quoted as advising that "The first and most important ingredient of a good romantic novel must be sincerity" (34). If you do not believe in “enduring love,” Donna Baker herself tells aspiring romance authors,
if you [...] dismiss marriage or the committed relationship as something that has had its day, you will not be able to write a romance. You will not have the belief or the passion that will put this message across; instead there will be a distasteful cynicism that will leave an unpleasant flavour and create an uneasiness in the reader's mind. Even if you follow the 'formula', [...] you will still fail if you don't have that [...] deep belief and longing in your own heart. (37)
In Rebecca Vinyard's handbook for romance writers, published in 2004, Leslie Wainger, an Executive Senior Editor at Harlequin, notes that one of the “most common mistakes new authors make” is “Thinking her heart doesn't have to be in it. Trust me, the readers always know when an author's faking it” (266). Thus, one of the "Secrets of Successful Romance Writing" is that readers respond to the author’s “individual voice” which, according to author Emma Darcy, “comes from what you really feel, your deep-down attitudes and beliefs and feelings” (149).
Regardless of whether readers can indeed detect an author's belief from their "individual voice," many authors have made their "deep-down attitudes and beliefs and feelings" about love quite explicit. Mary Balogh, who writes novels which are not marketed as Christian or “inspirational,” though she is “involved in her local Catholic Church as an organist and cantor” (Mussell and Tuñón 19), makes
great claims for love. Occasionally, a reader will accuse me of putting too much faith in its power. I believe one cannot put too much faith in the power of love. The belief that love in all its manifestations (and I speak of love, not of lust or obsession) is the single strongest force on this earth is central to my very being. The universe, life, eternity would have no meaning to me if anyone could prove that something else—evil, for example—was more powerful. [...] And romantic love between a man and a woman (or between two people of the same gender) can be the most intense, the most passionate, the most powerful form of love given to humankind. (Balogh 27)
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, though “not conventionally religious now,” similarly believes “that love is the most powerful force” (Selinger 2015). Jennifer Crusie's faith, despite having been sorely tested, also remained strong:
even though I have seen the relationships of famous people crash and burn, even though I have seen the relationships of my friends crash and burn, even though I have seen my own relationships crash and burn (oh, Lord, let me count the ways), I truly do still believe in the existence of unconditional love, I still believe that it's what holds humanity together, and I absolutely believe it's the best of all possible things to write about. (Crusie Smith 1999a, 226)
Love is central to all romance plots and thus they affirm, as stated explicitly in Mary Kirk's novella "Legend" (1998), that “love is the most important thing of all. Even if everything else we have is lost, as long as we are able to love, we can survive. [...] ‘tis not greed nor revenge, not anger nor fear, that should guide us, but love. For only when we are guided by love do we find true happiness and peace” (223). Or, as Jeanne Tiedge, then Executive Editor of Popular Library/Warner Books, once claimed, “the most important quality of romance novels [and one which] will always remain constant” is “the belief and expression of love’s ability to conquer all” (Pianka 11).
Many romance authors link their faith in love to their own lived experience. Virginia Kantra, for example, states on her website biography page that she is “Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of three (mostly adult) children [...]. She is a firm believer in the strength of family, the importance of storytelling, and the power of love.” The juxtaposition of the details of her own 'happy ending' and the affirmation of her faith in love is perhaps not accidental. In an interview Ivy Preston (who wrote for Robert Hale from the 1960s to 1990s) similarly moved from recounting the story of her courtship and marriage to declaring that: “I think the reason I write romances is I believe in love: you’ve got to be sincere” (McAlpine 143). Further juxtapositions of a personal story and a declaration of faith can be found in Fall in Love Like a Romance Writer (Grey 2010), a book containing “true love stories by 67 authors." In it Robin Lee Hatcher, an author of Christian romance novels, exclaims “Ah, love. Writers of romance believe in it with all their hearts” (232); her affirmation of faith in love is accompanied by a quotation from 1 Corinthians 13 about the nature of love. Hatcher’s explicitly Christian understanding of love, placed as it is in the context of a series of authors relating their personal love stories, raises the possibility that seemingly secular accounts of authors’ lives may resemble religious testimonies.
A testimony, in religious terms, can be defined as an account of "what God has done for you"; "The concept of 'testifying' is closely aligned with the notion of 'witnessing.' Through 'witnessing,' members encourage outsiders to come to church or seek the Holy Ghost by telling them stories about their own conversion and the miraculous things God has done for them since" (Lawless 441). Believers who are staff members in "faith-based social service agencies" (Unruh 318), for example, might share stories drawn from their "personal experience, often highlighting the role [...] faith has played in helping with needs similar to those of beneficiaries" (324). Such testimonies "speak of faith in the subjective, stopping short of directing to listeners what they should believe, though that message may be implied" (325).
There may be similar implications in the testimonies given by romance authors. Certainly Nattie Golubov has argued that romance authors
carefully navigate and reveal aspects of their own lives [...]: the distinction between their private and public selves is itself deliberately blurred since their private lives (as mothers, daughters, friends, spouses, carers, pet lovers, grandmothers, gardeners) are performed in ways that authenticate their knowledge of the issues they write about because experience translates into authority. (132)
Accounts of personal experiences of love are important, therefore, because they demonstrate that an author is sincere and truly believes in the love and happy endings they depict in their novels. As Susan Napier explains:
My parents are still married after 45 years, Tony and I have been married for 20 years, and both my brothers and most of our friends are in marriages and have raised children. That naturally influences the type of story that I can write with sincerity. That happily-ever-after ending is not pie in the sky for me. Most of the romance writers I know are in the same position. So they genuinely believe that’s an achievable state, to be happy in marriage. (McAlpine 131)