Faith in love, which is both good and durable, produces hope. Nora Roberts has stated that “Romance novels are books about hope, the hope that love will find a way, whatever the odds, whatever the obstacles. That core of hope is the foundation for a rich and exciting genre” (1996, 6). Hope is the popular romance novel’s “foundation” and, arguably, “the one word that defines the romance genre” (Charles 2018), because although the love expressed in the “central love story” (RWA 2020) is a requirement,
You get love in all kinds of books [...]. What romance novels specifically offer us is hope. Hope that two people can come together and be better happier humans as a result. Hope that marginalised or disregarded or unhappy people can find love and joy in a hard world; hope that however flawed you are, however scared, however much you feel like a piece of the jigsaw that doesn’t fit, there is a place and a person for whom you are just right; hope for the future. (Charles 2018)
Critics of the romance have cast scorn on its hopeful promises, much as Karl Marx notoriously deemed religion “the opium of the people” on the grounds that it promised only an “illusory happiness” (131). David Margolies, for example, has stated that, “As in Marx’s description of religion [...], the romance offers escape from an oppressive reality, or justifies it as a vale of tears that women pass through to salvation” (12). According to Janice Radway romance, like opium, offers a promise of escape and salvation which is only illusory since “despite the utopian force of the romance’s projection, that projection actually leaves unchallenged the very system of social relations whose faults and imperfections gave rise to the romance” (215). In other words, romance novels, as Marx said of religion, are "an expression of and a protest against real wretchedness" (131) which nonetheless, Teresa L. Ebert argues, “leave intact the objective social conditions in which she [the reader] lives. They do this by supplanting social justice and economic equality with love, intimacy, and caring” (10).
In On-Air Passion, a Harlequin romance published in 2018, Lindsay Evans engages with such assessments of romance fiction by creating a hero, Ahmed, who argues that the promises of romance hinder political change. Ahmed is a committed "activist" (57) who discusses political issues on his mid-morning radio talk-show, spends a significant portion of his leisure time "meeting with politicians and donating money" (57) and, as a recently-retired basketball star, has tried "to use his celebrity to draw attention to the things he cared about" (35), in particular "the kids in Georgia who’d lost their schools and been consistently denied equal educational opportunities" (35). He believes that love and romance are "delusions" (20) and "lies" (78) and therefore argues that political activism "is what’s important, not setting people up to have unrealistic expectations of each other" (37). Much like the critics of romance fiction, he suggests that belief in romance is incompatible with "paying attention to the reality of this world" (19).
If the hope offered by romance was “nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised” (Calvin qtd. in Moltmann 20), then one might indeed expect those who believe in love to sit patiently, waiting and hoping for the day on which their prince or princess will arrive. However, it is perhaps more accurate to consider the hope in romance novels to be an eschatological hope for the triumph of love (the “happy ending”) which, to borrow theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s words, “sets about criticizing and transforming the present because it is open towards the universal future” (335).
As we have seen, love's goodness is made evident partly through the transformations it effects and although, as Kate Cuthbert, managing editor of Escape Publishing, acknowledged in a keynote speech to the Romance Writers of Australia in 2018
At the beginning, hope in romance was tied to finding the right husband [...] it didn’t stop there. Romance hoped new hopes for women: personhood, careers, ambition, self-acceptance, self-love, sex, [...] lively and nourishing friendships, and passionate and enduring love affairs. But mostly romance hoped for women’s lives to be well-lived.
Along the way, romance also hoped [...] that men would be able to cry, dance, feel joy and unshakeable love, and express those things out loud. It hoped that everyone would be able to find a happy ever after with whomever they loved. Romance hoped a lot of hopes for many different people, but mostly it hoped for a world better than the one that currently exists.
Romance authors have long used their writing to raise awareness of a wide range of social and political issues. Barbara Cartland's "'welfare' or 'radical' Toryism [...] was the kind of Conservatism that is opposed to laisser-faire, places a high premium on justice and fair play" (Brunt 132), and led her to campaign
for improved conditions for nurses, midwives and the elderly and [...] winning government legislation for the provision of local council sites for gypsies. She opened the first such camp, Barbaraville, and ensured that Romany children were baptised and educated. (134)
Her "platform of views" also "constitutes a bedrock set of opinions which are then expressed and elaborated [...] in the fiction-writing which she insists must have some moral purpose beyond being 'merely fiction'" (133). One can find more examples among less high profile authors (see Vivanco 2011, 54-60) and in response to more recent events: the year 2020 saw romance activists hitting the headlines after Alyssa Cole, Courtney Milan, and Kit Rocha organised an online auction, which eventually raised almost half a million dollars (Romancing the Runoff 2020a), "to help dismantle the legacy of voter suppression in Georgia" (Romancing the Runoff 2020). Cole, Milan and Rocha argued that there was a close connection between their activism and the genre in which they write:
at their core, romance novels are about figuring out how to work through a dark moment to find that Happily Ever After. “We read these books about the world falling apart and people coming together to put it back together to get their happy ending,” [Bree] Bridges [half of the duo who write as "Kit Rocha"] explains. “It’s almost like a training.” (Herman)
The genre can therefore be considered to call for works as well as for faith, for a hope which is not passive but which engages with the world, not just a beloved, in order to achieve happiness.
Lindsay Evans’s heroine, Elle, provides a fictional example of how activism can be supported by “the celebration of love” which is associated with "hope" (20). She finds in it “an escape" (20), not from reality, since love itself "is as real as life gets" (19), but from the hopelessness which might arise from focussing on "the ugliness the world keeps throwing at us" (20). Having “freely embraced her own pessimism” (144) in the political sphere, Elle believes events "like the Rosewood massacre or the 1921 Tulsa race riot could easily happen again" (86). Politically, her pessimism is such that while she admires her best friend and business partner Shaye’s “strength to constantly push back against a system fighting to keep people uneducated and unaware” (141), she fears that “the world was destined to break Shaye’s heart” (144). Elle does, nonetheless, make a contribution by opening “her checkbook” (141). She thus proves Ahmed and the critics of romance wrong: she is very much aware of the need for political change and it is precisely because this awareness is so strong that she needs the hope provided by her belief in love. As theologian A. Elaine Brown Crawford argues, hope can be defined as
the theological construct that moves […believers] beyond endurance to survival and, ultimately, toward the transformation of oppressive circumstances. Hope is the bridge from oppression to liberation that facilitates full humanity and fosters an undaunted passion for life. (xii)
Thus, even when romances deal solely with "love, intimacy, and caring" and eschew a broader engagement with "social justice and economic equality," their role in providing hope to individuals may indirectly benefit society.
This role creates a parallel between the work of romance authors and that of pastors: "the offer of hope is central to what pastors do. Oftentimes, it is all that they can offer. To be a pastor is to be a provider or agent of hope" (Capps 1). Moreover, Howard Stone and Andrew Lester emphasise the importance of stories to pastoral care:
Since hope is future-oriented, caring for persons who feel hopeless means helping them to imagine. Those who lack the capacity to fantasize, to imagine, to picture in their mind's eye events that have yet to occur, cannot hope. Despairing people tend to envision a pessimistic outcome. They communicate it with phrases such as: "That's impossible." "That will never work." "I can't do that." "I don't know where to go from here." [...] Alternative, hopeful future stories allow space for creation's inherent potential to develop. They free persons to explore options, to experience new things, to imagine change, to expect surprises, and to anticipate growth. (262)
The “future stories” Stone and Lester were referring to are the kinds of narratives people create about their own lives and include “The visions, vocations, and commitments that give our lives meaning and fill us with hope" (260). Nonetheless, romance novels can be considered a related type of “hopeful future stories” because they allow readers to “experience new things, to imagine change, to expect surprises, and to anticipate growth.” As author Paula Detmer Riggs has stated:
If the people in my fictive world can face their own mistakes, learn to forgive themselves, and rise above the harm they’ve caused themselves and others, so can each and every one of us.
Our mistakes are most likely far more benign, and yet, perhaps, just as painful to admit. [...] It’s often easier to accept our failings when we compare them to the far more serious failings of fictional folks. Living through their pain, seeing them make restitution and thus find redemption and happiness is often enough to encourage us to do the same. (188)
Romance can thus be considered a form of pastoral caregiving, particularly when it is received by “troubled people” (Stone and Lester 259) such as the reader who, in the years after she was “diagnosed with clinical depression,” found that romances offered
more than simple enjoyment – they gave me faith that I could carry on and, if not completely beat my depression, sneaky chronic bastard that it is, I could at least learn to live with it. Build a satisfying life, maybe even find my own happily ever after. (Ciucci)
or the reader-turned-author who testified that she
started reading Harlequin romances at the time of my parents' divorce, when I was about eleven. [...] The irony that I turned to romance at a time of family breakdown is not lost on me. [...] They gave me hope. They gave me a belief in love that lasted, in happy endings. They promised that relationships could work out, that all was not lost. It was a message I desperately needed to hear. (Reid Boyd 267)
Like a talking therapy, romances “allow space for [...] inherent potential to develop” (Stone and Lester 262): they give readers a safe space in which to
figure out how to get to the happy place. And sometimes the path isn’t always clean and it’s not always easy and even at the end sometimes the questions aren’t all answered and everything’s not tied up in a bow and that’s okay too because that’s life. (Rai qtd. in Faircloth 2017)
The chapter which follows explores in more detail a variety of ways in which romance provides pastoral care.