precursors of modern romance

Cross-Class Comparisons: Romantic Movies and Romance Novels

By Laura Vivanco on

If you've ever wondered why so many romance heroines are (wrongly) identified as "gold-diggers," Stephen Sharot's "Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-Class Romance Films of the Great Depression" may provide the answer:

the sexually empowered woman who manipulates men, who came to be known from about 1915 as a “gold digger,” appears frequently in the films of the early 1930s. The adoption of the term “gold digger,” which had replaced “vamp” as the most prominent type of femme fatale, was part of a broader shift in popular conceptions of women who had moved away from their families and lived alone or with other women. As the term indicates, the motivation of the gold digger is material benefit, whereas the motives of the vamp are often elusive and impenetrable: the vamp may simply take pleasure from the entrapment and destruction of men. Another difference between the vamp and the gold digger is that whereas the class origins of the vamp are unknown, ambiguous, or irrelevant, those of the gold digger are almost always lower or working class. (92-93)

There seem to be a number of points of connection between the films studied by Sharot and many modern popular romances. For one thing, a very high proportion of the former end in the same manner as the latter: "the romances in most cross-class films are successful: sixty-five films (76 percent) of the 1929–39 sample and 98 films (83 percent) of the 1915–28 sample" (92). For another, they seem to be aimed at a similar demographic: "during the 1930s the studios assumed that their audience was a predominantly female one, and the female-centered cross-class romance was clearly oriented toward that audience" (91).

Both can claim Samuel Richardson's Pamela as an ancestor:

Cross-class romances in popular culture, most of which are between wealthy men and poor women, can be found in what are regarded as the first modern novels, which included what were to become the major female types from the lower class: the virtuous heroine (Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, 1740) and the amoral social climber (Moll Flanders, 1722; Shamela, 1741). Films with the theme of cross-class romance, most with virtuous heroines, have been made throughout almost the entire history of the cinema [...] but the number of such films in recent years cannot compare with the 1920s and 1930s, when, on average, at least one cross-class romance film would appear every month. From the beginnings of the feature film around 1915 until 1938, cross-class romance films were far more numerous than they would be thereafter. (89)

Furthermore, in his abstract Sharot writes that "Gender distinctions are reinforced by narratives in which the wealthy male is redeemed by the poor female so that he can perform the appropriate male gender roles. When the female is wealthy, the poor male insists on her economic dependence on him." This is a pattern which, I think, can also be found in romance novels. In more recent times there has perhaps been an even higher proportion of wealthy heroes paired with poor heroines but I have come across rich heroines in earlier decades who are paired up with either a poor hero who then becomes rich or one who insists on the heroine accepting a living standard in line with his finances. In these latter cases the hero is usually not actually poor, just not rich. Again, this is a nuance present in the films analysed by Sharot:

in a number of the cross-class romance films with rich females their relationship is not with working-class men but with middle-class men, often reporters, and in these, mainly screwball comedies, the romance is almost inevitably successful. Where the male is wealthy, the female is almost invariably from the working or lower class in occupation, such as maid, salesgirl, stenographer, or chorus girl. (92)

Substitute a secretary, housekeeper, cleaner or nanny for the "maid, salesgirl, stenographer, or chorus girl" and you could be describing a lot of modern popular romances.

Sharot's speculations about the responses of the audiences of these films may also be of interest to scholars of popular romance novels:

The common solution, in which the poor protagonist is rewarded for her or his disinterested love by a successful union with the wealthy protagonist, might be termed “escapist,” but it was probably recognized and accepted by many in the audience as conforming to the rules of what had become a familiar formula. However, this particular “escape” may have been especially pleasurable to particular audiences (urban, female, with aspirations to mobility) because it was grounded in a reality of class and gender inequality, which, given the limited opportunities for women in the labor market, made the social mobility of women dependent on marriage. [...] Audiences [...] were unlikely to feel dejected by a comparison with their own situation because they had learnt to experience the formula as an entertainment without continually comparing it with their own experience. (105)


Sharot, Stephen. "Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-Class Romance Films of the Great Depression." Journal of American Studies 47.1 (2013): 89-108.


The image came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. It is a title frame from the trailer for Gold Diggers of 1933.

Politics and Magazine Romance Stories

By Laura Vivanco on

In my last post I quoted Porter and Hall's statement that "Work is beginning to appear on the fiction in women's magazines and the sexual messages it conveyed" (267). They refer to "Part Three: Realistic Fantasies: The World of the Story Papers" of Billie Melman's Woman and the Popular Imagination, Joseph McAleer's Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain 1914-1950 and an article by Bridget Fowler. As the latter was the most readily accessible of the three, I promptly went and found myself a copy.

Fowler argues that "1930s popular stories can be seen [...] as legitimating the social order and thus indirectly providing social control" (95) though she cautions that the attitudes expressed in these stories may be only

partially shared by the readership. [...] It is very likely that the practical action of the readers emerges also from other cultural values - such as those of dissent and militancy - which are totally absent from the story universe, while the adherence to some story values may well be more at the level of the ideal or fantasy than concrete reality. (96)

One plot type she discusses which is, I think, rather less common nowadays, requires the

device [...] in which 'cryptoproletarian' characters are used. The heroine, in love with a doctor, may emerge ultimately to be not truly working-class but a foundling in some slum and brought up by working-class parents; a hero may be cut off by his father and family and forced to live a working-class mode of existence or an unexpected inheritance may alter the total dependence of the lower class heroine on the upper class hero. Thus, in social origin the hero and heroine may ultimately turn out to be alike although the bulk of the story has concerned the proving of their fitness to marry each other. It is tempting to align these stories with the earlier fairy story in which once the princess had brought herself to kiss the beast or marry the frog, he became a prince. The analogy makes the class insult even more apparent. (107)

The romances analysed by Kim Gallon were written at roughly the same time, and also appeared in magazines or newspapers but their context, and therefore their politics, are rather different. She recently posted at the Popular Romance Project about the romances to be found

in the pages of early 20th-century black magazines and newspapers. Mostly known for strident protests against racial discrimination, the black press in the 1920s and 1930s also published romance fiction, which offered African Americans an opportunity to escape into worlds filled with the heady ups and heartbreaking downs of romantic love. Scholars of the African American literary tradition and of popular romance have paid virtually no attention to romance found in the black press. On the romance side, the late 20th century has often been characterized as the starting point of black romance stories, with earlier short or serial stories, simply forgotten. [...]

Despite the seeming absence of political and racialized content in “The Dark Knight” and similar stories, black popular romance, as Conseula Francis has argued, is inherently political. Its existence automatically counters the insidious and negative stereotypes of criminality and hypersexuality historically ascribed to African Americans. In “The Dark Knight,” we see Rod and Lyla restrain themselves from engaging in a pre-marital sexual encounter, preserving, through their actions, the sanctity of marital sex and the domestic ideal. Just as significantly, “The Dark Knight” challenged the common idea that African Americans lacked the capacity for romantic love, a love that has been and continues to be integrally linked with a white, bourgeois value system.

William Gleason's article on story papers, published in 2011, does not explore the politics of their romance stories but he too suggests that romances published in magazines deserve further critical attention, not least because in his opinion

The mass marketing of modern romance fiction in North America began not with the emergence of Harlequin Books in the 1950s but during the dime novel and story paper boom of the 1860s and 1870s.


Fowler, Bridget. "'True to Me Always': An Analysis of Women's Magazine Fiction." British Journal of Sociology 30.1 (1979): 91-119.

Gallon, Kim. "Romance in Black Papers." The Popular Romance Project. 10 January 2013.

Gleason, William. "Belles, Beaux, and Paratexts: American Story Papers and the Project of Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Porter, Roy & Lesley Hall. The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1650-1950. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Unknown Unknowns (1): The Study of Popular Culture

By Laura Vivanco on

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. (Secretary Rumsfeld, DoD News Briefing, 12 Feb. 12 2002)

NewsweekIn the context of the study of popular culture, "reports that say something hasn't happened [before] are always interesting to me." One relatively recent example, examined by Pam Rosenthal, is

Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story a few weeks ago, which purported to let us in on a couple of big brave surprising secrets.

  • That young successful working women might have erotic fantasy needs social equality can’t satisfy.
  • That feminists are “perplexed,” and “outraged” by this situation.
  • And that therefore feminism is some clueless, useless, irrelevant call back to some mythical “barricades.”

Pretty standard Roiphe, I discovered [...]: like a girl Columbus, her thing evidently is to “discover” something that’s been there all along, and then to congratulate herself for her boldness while conveniently forgetting that anybody – least of all any of those irrelevant feminists – had ever had similar (if not braver, more honest, challenging, nuanced, and radical) thoughts on the subject.

Pam was, obviously, unimpressed by Roiphe's report because what are apparently "unknown unknowns" for Roiphe are "known knowns" for Pam:

The story of how women got our own erotic reading still has yet to be told in its entirety. But if I were to try I’d begin by positing two distinct yet subtly related sources, both pretty contemporaneous. The advent of the bodice-rippers and of the sex-positive feminist discussion I cut my writing teeth on.

It was at this point that I questioned Pam's starting point. Why, I asked, not start further back still with, for example,

E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) which, according to Q D Leavis, was “to be seen in the hands of every typist”? Or Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907)? I haven’t actually read it, because it’s more romantic/erotic fiction rather than romance, but

With hindsight it can be argued that Three Weeks broke down a great deal of Edwardian sexual prejudice and hypocrisy: it can, however, also be seen as a wildly titillating fantasy and a foray into voyeurism. (Mary Cadogan, And Then Their Hearts Stood Still, page 75)

 And then, having hastily done a little bit more research, I added:

Sarah Wintle’s article on The Sheik, [...] puts it, as you say, “in the context of a period of sexual reform”:

To flaunt this book in the early 1920s, Alexander Walker suggests in his biography of Valentino, was to flaunt your emancipation and daring; to enjoy openly its primitive sexual fantasies was to show a truly modern insouciance in the face of the fashionably shocking vagaries and transgressive energies of human feeling celebrated in modernist and jazz-age primitivism. Such energies and drives had recently been highlighted by Freudian psychoanalysis and by the popularizing of the new science of sexology which had led to the publication, in the same year as The Sheik, of Marie Stopes’s manual, Married Love. In one way at least the book’s open treatment of female sexuality contributed to its popular version of modernity. (Wintle 294-95)

Could we go back further still? Jodi McAlister has recently drawn parallels between modern popular romance novels and the works of Delarivier Manley, Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn, which

got thrown in the immoral rather than the immortal basket [...] not because of some arbitrary distinction between the romance and the novel but because they were dangerous. Their literary form is the form Richardson was trying to remake in a moral form when he wrote Pamela. Social anxieties about what women read and what they took from it were rife [...]. Female fantasy, whether or sex or violence or revenge or passion, taking place as it did outside the controlled bounds of patriarchal society, was considered frightening and perilous.

To me the history of erotic fiction is still pretty much a "known unknown" or even an "unknown unknown" and, as a medievalist, it seems to me as though I've leaped from a period in which, "Contrary to the modern stereotype that views males as more susceptible to sexual desire than females, [...] women were often seen as much more lustful than men" (Decameron Web), to a period in which it's necessary to argue that women are at least as interested in sex as men are. Quite how that cultural shift took place is another "known unknown" to me because I haven't done much background reading on the history of sex and sexualities.

I can only conclude that any scholar of popular culture has to tread extremely carefully. We may have detailed maps of the "known knowns," but beyond them lie the "known unknowns," those areas of popular culture about which we know we know little. And then, beyond them, are the "unknown unknowns." Before we accept reports that "something hasn't happened" before, we might want to try to do more research, to verify whether one of those "unknown unknowns" is the knowledge that it has, in fact, happened before.

I'm well aware that, however much I study popular romance, there will always be vast areas that remain "known unknowns" to me. I hope, therefore, that my next post, which looks at an article by Erin S. Young, will be taken not as the gloating of a smugly self-satisfied know-it-all, but as the conclusions of a romance scholar who is constantly being humbled by finding out just how much she still has to learn about popular culture.


  • Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present. London: Macmillan, 1994.
  • Wintle, Sarah. ‘The Sheik: What Can be Made of a Daydream’, Women: A Cultural Review 7.3 (1996): 291-302.

Greek Romances (Ancient Style)

By Laura Vivanco on

Daphnis and ChloeIn my last post I quoted from a romance set in Greece; this made me think I should mention that Greece is a place with an extremely long connection with romance thanks to the texts which Margaret Williamson terms "Greek romances": "The romances of which we have complete texts were all written by and for the Greek-speaking population of the eastern Roman Empire, in the first, second and third centuries AD" (25).

Elizabeth Archibald notes that

There is no discussion of romance as a genre by literary critics or rhetoricians in antiquity; indeed there is very little comment of any kind about romance in ancient writers, either approving or disapproving. Until recently there was very little comment on it by modern classical scholars either; the few surviving Greek and Latin texts included under the umbrella term "romance" were thought to be minor works, of limited literary interest to both ancient and modern readers. (10)

Given the romance's current status as a genre assumed to be written for women and also assumed to be of little or no literary merit, it's perhaps unsurprising to find that "Greek romances" of the ancient world have also been assumed to be fodder for women's voracious (reading) appetites:

By the second century, romances started to appear to feed the growing market for women's reading, and this kind of fiction may have been read by a range of women across the social classes. Novels like Achilles Tatius's Leucippe and Clitophon, Longus's Daphnis and Chloe, and Heliodorus's Aethiopica - fast-paced love stories full of twists and turns, shifting in tone from tragic to comic, optimistic to pessimistic, religious to gently erotic, and arousing a helter-skelter of emotions - may have appealed particularly to women. It is even possible that the readership of the novel in the ancient world consisted mostly of women. But some of the arguments offered to support this line seem to issue from prejudice and snobbery; novels that are considered unoriginal and crudely imitative of other writings, or highly sentimental, have been construed as appropriate only, or at least mainly, to a female readership. The implication is that any 'discerning' reader - that is, the male reader - would have been uninterested. More sophisticated claims for a female readership have been made, based on an analysis of the various representations of strong and sexually powerful women in these books, which, it has been argued, would have appealed to women readers' fantasies about female emotional and erotic omnipotence. (Jack 43)

Although "tantalizing fragments of what seem to be romances predate the five complete romances" (Archibald 10), the extant complete texts are:

  • Chariton's Chaireas and Callirhoe (synopsis here)
  • Xenophon of Ephesus's An Ephesian Tale [of Anthia and Habrocomes] (synopsis here and general assessment of the tale here)
  • Longus's Daphnis and Chloe (synopsis here, translation by Professor Wm. Blake Tyrrell here and translation by Rev. Rowland Smith here).
  • Achilles Tatius's Clitophon and Leucippe (synopsis here and a translated version by the Rev. Rowland Smith (published with Daphnis and Chloe and the Aethiopica) can be found here).
  • Heliodorus's An Ethiopian Romance or Aethiopica or Adventures of Theagenes and Chariclea (synopsis here and English translations here and here).

In these ancient romances:

1. "It is desire, not its realisation, which is the subject of the narrative, and this requires that the lovers be separated – whether by scruple, physical absence, or divine edict – throughout the story" (Williamson 29).

2. "love itself is more like rape than anything else – a violent event which assails them [the characters in these novels] from outside and utterly overpowers them" (Williamson 32).


Love is presented as an automatic and irresistible reaction to beauty, which accounts for the way in which the faultless looks of hero and heroine strew the pages with conquests. The meeting of Habrocomes and Anthia is typical: Anthia ‘caught the beauty of Habrocomes, which flowed into her eyes’, and Habrocomes, who has declared himself immune to love, is at once ‘the god’s bound prisoner’. Achilles Tatius, who is particularly fond of physico-psychological digressions, devotes several to love, which is always an optical rather than a spiritual event:

The pleasure which comes from vision enters by the eyes and makes its home in the breast; bearing with it ever the image of the beloved, it impresses it upon the mirror of the soul and leaves there its image; the emanation given off by beauty travels by invisible rays to the lovesick heart and imprints upon it its form. (Williamson 31, quoting from Achilles Tatius, 263)

In this they followed Greek literary tradition, for as Helen Morales has observed,

Greek literature has always been ocularcentric. The Homeric epics provide abundant attestation to the power of vision. [...] When the Iliadic hero is repeatedly displayed as ‘a wonder to behold’, thauma idesthai, or when Priam calls Helen, that iconic beauty, to witness with him the great spectacle of war fought over her, ‘we the audience become’, as Segal says, ‘spectators of the power of vision itself’. Helen’s lust-lure dazzles throughout Greek literature. The sight of her transfixes and destroys. [...] This most displaced and displayed female, with her inescapable force-field of desirability, shines through in the portrayals of Leucippe and the heroines of the other Greek novels. (8-9)

4. "The lovers’ supreme virtue, their fidelity, has parallel consequences as regards the possibility of moral choice. Their unswerving loyalty to each other, proof against any torture, is devalued by the fact that it is arbitrary: the hero’s passion for the heroine is distinguished from that of (usually) innumerable other men only by its arbitrary legitimacy. Since this legitimacy is conferred by the author, albeit in the name of Eros, and not chosen by the protagonists, no real value can attach to it" (Williamson 30).

5. "obstacles of various kinds divide the protagonists, but eventually love triumphs: enemies are overcome, ordeals are endured, identities are established, and the young lovers settle down to happily married life (in the complete texts, at least)" (Archibald 10).

Modern popular romances differ from these ancient texts, of course, but it's interesting to see how much they have in common. Williamson's observation about the "arbitrary legitimacy" of a love which is "not chosen by the protagonists" could perhaps also be applied to some of the more recent texts which depict "fated mates" and although not all modern romances feature heroes and heroines with "faultless looks," there are certainly a great many which do.

I'll let Elizabeth Archibald have the last word:

Romance has often been sneered at as an unsophisticated genre. it used to be said rather dismissively that the Greek romances were intended for a female readership, but that is no longer the accepted view. It has been pointed out that the five complete romances show great interest in literature and rhetoric, with many philosophical and literary allusions, and sophisticated techniques such as ekphrasis (elaborate description of a work of art). When the romances were rediscovered in the Renaissance, they certainly found favor with sophisticated writers and readers [...]. Shakespeare assumed that some of his audience would recognize a reference to a moment of crisis for the heroine of the Ethiopica when he made Orsino contemplate killing his beloved Cesario/Viola: "Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, / Like to th'Egyptian thief at point of death, / Kill what I love?" (Twelfth Night, V.i.115-17). Racine loved the Ethiopica so much that after the sacristan at his Jansenist school had confiscated and burned two copies, he obtained a third and learned it off by heart before dutifully relinquishing it [...]. (16)



Archibald, Elizabeth. "Ancient Romance." A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. Ed. Corinne Saunders. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 10-25.

Jack, Belinda. The Woman Reader. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.

Morales, Helen. Vision and Narrative in Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. [Excerpt here.]

Williamson, Margaret. “The Greek Romance.” The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. 23-45.


The statue of Daphnis and Chloe was created by "Jean-Pierre Cortot (French, 1787–1843)" and was photographed by Jastrow, who made it available at Wikimedia Commons.