PART I - OVERVIEW AND HISTORY
One of the most popular forms of women’s literature today is the romance novel. More often than not, they are written with female sensibilities in mind mainly from the point of view of women. The romance novel industry is a largely female-driven medium, significant for its focus on the aspects of life that women consider important. Our responses to social conventions in a fundamentally patriarchal society can be heard in our writing.
Academicians have argued that the novels themselves are marketed towards audiences consisting of bored “housewives” and others with “limited” educational backgrounds. There are those in the academic community who still debate the merits of romance novels. It would be impossible for me to list all of the various sneers and slurs levelled at romance novels because they are too numerous. I have included a few of the more commonly-held reasons given by critics. What I do know is that in the past female writers have had to fight or flee when it came to pursuing writing as a profession.
But what if the critics are wrong and romance novels are a new incarnation of a medium embarked upon during the English Renaissance? If art is conceivably an amalgamation of the artist’s point of view, feelings and his world-view, why can’t romance novels be considered from the same perspective? They offer a great deal of social significance because of their unique insight into the ideals of women - perhaps even more so because they are presented in their own words. For as a long as women have been writing for a living there has been a romantic element in fiction. This has brought derogatory comment and accusation concerning the profundity of this type of fiction from male critics and colleagues.
A Brief History of the Romance Novel
Renaissance Romance and Female Readership
Beginning in the English Renaissance, women’s fiction was composed by a masculine pen and guided by masculine notions of relevant feminine subject matter. In effect, patriarchal ideals were reinforced through literature, even promoted in areas considered the female sphere at a time when female literacy was on the rise. But the appearance of Margaret Tyler’s translation of the Spanish novel The Mirror of Knighthood (1578) and Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621) are notable exceptions to the theory.
The popularity of the Renaissance romance is attributed to this new wider audience, which included literate women of the middle class. As Helen Hackett explains in her introduction, this theory was accompanied by the idea that love, courtship and other elements of the private realm of relationships were distinctly ’feminine’ and therefore women had a special affinity with escapist fiction and their various literary tropes. The commercial success of Renaissance romances was attributed to the emergence of more female readers. Many Elizabethan and Jacobean romance authors credited their popularity to “gentlewomen” readers - women of middle rank in society - for their commercial success and made a point of addressing their dedications to them.
By the early seventeenth century, romance novels and writers had become the favorite subject of satirists and moralists. Female readers were often called foolish for reading romances instead of more worthy texts. It has been suggested that women chose romances in spite of the condemnation they faced. An obvious preference for the romance novel was displayed even though other reading material was available to them...such as herbals, texts on household management or devotional texts. All of these would have been a great deal easier for women to obtain and would not have caused as much consternation amongst critics.
The idea of romance as a feminine genre is mainly a construct originating from concerns about the dangers these novels might pose to impressionable minds of literate middle class women. Heinrich Bullinger expressed his disapproval of romances in his book titled The Christian State of Matrimony translated by Miles Coverdale in 1541. His anxieties were based on humanist educational programs emphasizing that the gift of literacy, given by God to humans, should be used to read “godly” works. The fact that His gift was being used to read the less-than-holy works written by those of an opposing moral character was unacceptable. Premises based on the belief that women are easily influenced and romances promote less restrictive modes of behaviour and may induce sexually unruly behaviour in women.
What if the popularity of romance with female readers was not as widespread as the writers claimed? Hackett believes that the popularity of Renaissance romance novels with female readership is suspect when you take into consideration the overall antifeminist plots and images. Scenes of brutal retribution dealt to "unruly" women were common plot devices. The narrator’s condemnation and summary punishment for their behaviour in the texts was also familiar to audiences. If we are to believe that these romances were popular with female audiences then we must also believe women chose to ignore the consequences for unruly behavior portrayed by the characters and enjoyed the novels for their entertainment value.
Hackett goes on to comment on the fact that we often find a repressive influence on female actions and, furthermore, the infliction of torment upon female victims within the novels. What possible pleasure can be gleaned for readers from these stories? Caroline Lucas argues that although they offer women a variety of “inconsistent, self-contradictory and self-destructive roles” they can refuse to adopt them.
“By recognizing the more oppressive designs these texts have on us, and by disengaging from them, women can instead revalue the romances as important domains of women’s independence and power.”
Even Mary Wroth incorporated these elements in her novels - possibly as a sop to patriarchal conventions employed by her colleagues and accepted by the general reading public which was primarily male.
The Victorian Woman Reader
The Victorian romance is often characterized by its gothic themes of paranormal manifestations, brooding Heathcliffe-esque heroes and longsuffering heroines of virtuous mien. In the last few pages of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, she criticizes sentimental fiction for encouraging ‘a romantic twist of the mind’, a false view of human nature, and for teaching women to articulate ‘the language of passion in affected tones’. She blames novels for turning women’s attention from more literary texts intended to enhance their intellects.
The attempts of Wollstonecraft and others to convince the public of the importance that must be placed on the effect romance novels may have on female readers were couched in political rhetoric. Renaissance attitudes concerning the ill-effects novels could have on female readers continued to color the opinions of Victorian critics.
Advice manuals, devotional texts and household management guides were still widely acceptable reading for women. More sensational reading materials were ridiculed as mentally stultifying and blunting the otherwise good judgement of female readers. A woman’s preoccupation with reading suggested a vulnerability to textual influence ‘deaf and blind to all the stimuli in her immediate environment’. It also hints at the potential autonomy of her mind as evinced by her ’self-sufficient posture’ when engaged in reading a novel.
The focus shifted during the 1830s and 1840s from a woman’s social behaviour and her reading habits to the relationship between a woman’s reading and the biological characteristics that make her different from a man. This focus naturally spawned a new artistic voice for the romance novel. The 'sensation' novel and ‘new woman’ fiction of the late nineteenth century were another incarnation of the romance novel. They were often filled with what was considered lurid details concerning the amorous adulterous encounters of the female characters. The same unruly behaviour that had Renaissance critics foaming at the mouth in outrage, that flowed from the fertile imaginations to the pen of male writers.
Sensation novels caused great concern amongst society and literary critics alike, because of their scenes of adventurous behaviour - adultery and bigamy amongst other sensational elements. Critical attention was focused on these novels in the 1860s due to assumptions made about the susceptibility of the female reader. The presence of sexual elements in the novels was critics’ main focus. Anxiety greeted the works of Mary Braddon, Rhoda Broughton and Mrs. Henry Wood when they incorporated these elements into their own novels. Braddon and others suggested through their writing that desires need not be confined to hearth and home, they challenged patriarchal ideas of passive, innocent pure-minded middleclass femininity. It didn’t help matters when novelists exhibited ‘unladylike’ familiarity with some of the subjects about which they wrote.
New woman fiction of the 1890s was characterized by the inclusion of the idea of biological sexuality, the differences between the sexes and the social construction of sexual relations. They emphasized double standards of the period in relation to sexual behaviour purity but focused readers’ attention on self-awareness and social analysis.
These ideas helped fuel the fight of suffragettes, rallying other women to the cause with rational arguments grounded in social analysis. In the process, romance novels fell short of their ideals for women’s fiction, given its past denigration by critics. At this time, to claim romance novels as their voice would hurt the cause, simply because of the insipid characters portrayed in some novels and the general public’s opinion of them.
Next month, Cynthia concludes this fascinating article by looking at contemporary readers, publishers and the all-important "bottom line" - the economics of romance novels. Won't you join us?
Submitted by Cynthia, May 2004
A Romance Review
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