A History Of The Romance Novel
With Valentine's Day right around the corner, I thought I would give you some much needed reading on the joys and struggles of the romance novel. Enjoy!
We all recognize it: a rugged man with a ripped white shirt and bulging muscles, with his arms embracing a woman the size of his pinky finger. She features a tight dress and long, sweeping hair with her eyes turned toward his glistening face. What does this sound like?
You guessed it, this describes the book covers of many contemporary romance novels.
We have become conditioned to this image and understand immediately the type of book we are about to encounter. But is there more to these books than their superficial and superimposed romantic covers?
It may surprise you (like it did me), but, the history of the romance novel is rather robust. As a genre, romance is one of the most popular but the least respected literary genres.
With such a long and complicated history, romance novels have influenced society in many ways. The genre evokes and questions many psychological, emotional, and physical feats and failures throughout human history. The intricacy of the love story really uncovers the essence of humanity, so why has it been dismissed by many literary and historical scholars over the years?
Commercialization and distillation are a couple of the main reasons, but that can’t quite capture the entire picture. Let’s take a look at how romance novels came to be and how they are written now in order to add layers to a genre that has inspired readers and writers for hundreds of years.
When the flower blooms
The first romance novel published is attributed to Pamela written by Samuel Richardson in 1740. Often lauded as the founder of the novel, Richardson played a crucial role in the development of the novel as we know it today. Even though he is most known for his masterful work, Clarissa, Pamela is the novel that critics of the romance novel consider the beginning of the genre.
In this epistolary book, we follow young 15-year-old Pamela. Her letters depict a life of servitude— long days, unsanitary work conditions, and often maltreatment from her superiors. Our main antagonist is Mr. B, a nobleman who imprisoned and tortured Pamela. With his constant presence, Pamela eventually grows to care for her captor and the two marry. This marriage elevates Pamela’s status from a maidservant to a respectable 18th-century lady.
Through my research I discovered that some scholars find a comparison between Richardson's Pamela and Charlotte Bronte’s famous work Jane Eyre. Since this is one of my favorite books, I thought I would do a little more digging. I found that Charlotte's protagonist reads Pamela at the beginning of the novel, drawing an immediate comparison for contemporary readers. These two characters, while sharing some similar experiences, are anything but the same. Pamela passively accepts the events that unfold in her life while Jane actively questions and challenges to make the life she wants.
It is interesting, then, that Charlotte intentionally references Richardson's work; perhaps it was to expose the flaw in his version of the marriage plot and offer readers a different kind of heroine. Whatever the reason, this reference points to a continued dialogue about how romance can and should function in literature.
While Richardson's romance featured in Pamela may not be our ideal happy ending, the captor turned lover or Stockholm syndrome, is a trope that has been used in novels, soap operas, and telenovelas for many years. Even Disney is not immune to using Stockholm syndrome to soften the audience’s hearts in Beauty and The Beast.
Stockholm syndrome is described as the process of emotional attachment formed on the part of a hostage for their captor as a result of survival, stress, and/or dependence.
Audience's fascination and repulsion for this type of love story is surprisingly quite high. On Goodreads alone under the category “Popular Stockholm Syndrome Books,” there are over 1,500 results.
But this trope is merely a fraction of the total number of romance books published and read each year.
Miss Austen’s rose
It is hard to talk about the romance novel without talking about Jane Austen (cue Mr. Darcy's entrance). Jane Austen is another 18th century author credited with the mastery of the romance novel. She famously writes about the marriage plot in new and unconventional ways for the time, highlighting social irony and satire through her signature style—free indirect discourse.
Interestingly enough for Austen, her romance novels are among the few to be considered literary. Austen’s scholarly relevancy has inspired many to write about her life and find new ways she contributed to the literary community.
Miss Austen, however, is not immune to the commercialization of her work. Pride and Prejudice has seen many remakes, spin-offs, and retellings. From "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", to "Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe", modern society is fascinated by the characters Austen created.
A garden forms
The Romance Writers of America estimates that the romance novel encompasses 35% of the U.S fiction market which surpasses many famous genres like science fiction and fantasy. Goodreads has over 2 million books that fall into the romance subcategory of fiction! There is clearly a huge demand for these types of books.
But what makes a romance book, romance? Let’s check in with the Romance Writers of America and find out.
According to the Romance Writers of America, the romance novel must adhere to two main elements:
1. A central love story
2. An emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending
These novels aim at capturing love in all of its forms, not just in the traditional boy meets girl type of way. Romance has many subgenres that help readers identify with love in its many manifestations.
Religious or spiritual romance
Young adult romance
Romance remains one of the fastest growing markets in fiction. People are fascinated by the love story, and contemporary romance writers are looking for ways to broaden that love story beyond the constraining heterosexual binary.
By exploring sexual agency, romance writers are doing work to showcase love in all its forms—something that many people in modern society are afraid to do. When looking at the genre in this way, we can see the things that romance writers are doing that add value to the literary corpus.
I had preconceived notions about the romance novel before embarking on this journey, but after digging into its history and understanding its development, I can appreciate the critical acumen it has built and deserved.
I never thought I liked romance. But I cry during Jane Eyre, my favorite Broadway show is The Phantom of the Opera, I re-read Jane Austen as often as I can...maybe I really like romance after all.