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Archive for the ‘Romance Fiction’ Category

I stand by my comment in a recent post that most formulaic romance fiction deserves its bad name. Novels by writers like Nora Roberts might be a step up from Mills and Boon, but you’d only read them if there weren’t any other books at your holiday house and it was raining.

I do, however, want to make an honourable exception for the work of Georgette Heyer, (1902–1974), Queen of the Regency Romance. Her books remain an enjoyable, if undemanding, read.

While her stories follow the romance structure of boy meets girl, there are obstacles to their romance, which are then resolved, they cannot be called ‘formula’ writing in quite the same way as later romances because Heyer really created the formula. In nearly all her books, the hero and the heroine meet, but do not initially fall in love, for a variety of reasons such as other existing affections, disinclination to marry or even hostility between them. Circumstances throw them together, the obstacles are overcome, and a happy marriage results. If, as in The Convenient Marriage (1934), they are married early in the story, convenience gives way to true love. There is also often an element of mystery in the plot which helps to keep the pages turning.

Heyer was well aware of her debt to the great romance writers, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. The heroine in Regency Buck (1935), Judith Taverner, is actually reading Sense and Sensibility. (Furthermore, the role of Judith’s cousin in the story is remarkably similar to that of Anne Elliot’s cousin in Austen’s Persuasion.) But her greater debt is to Bronte, in particular her hero, Mr Rochester. ‘Charlotte knew, perhaps instinctively, how to create a hero who would appeal to women throughout the ages, and to her must all succeeding romantic novelists acknowledge their indebtedness’, she wrote. ‘For Mr Rochester was the first, and the Nonpareil, of his type. He is the rugged and dominant male, who can yet be handled by quite an ordinary female: as it might be, ‘oneself’.’

Most of Heyer’s heroes are like this, though there are a few meek ones who ‘find themselves’ during the story. They all tend to have excellent taste in clothes, but are not foolish dandies; they are strong and efficient, and have a good sense of humour. Heyer was aware she was creating stock characters. When faced with a plagiariser, she commented to her publisher ‘Fancy taking the Heyer Hero No.1 model, enigmatic, for your model and producing a lifeless puppet! Why, there isn’t a type that is Easier To Do’.

She consciously used other stock characters too – there is a set of heroines who are tall, have a great deal of character and dominate the plot, while another set are quiet girls bullied by their families. As she got older, some of her heroines got older too, and the young girls in these stories are rather silly. There is often a well meaning but foolish brother. However one of the strengths of her stories is that the villain is harder to recognise than in some genre fiction, with the hero sometimes looking for a while like he may have evil intent.

Heyer did a lot of research into the Regency period, largely into things like dress, food, transport, language and manners. She was proud of her ‘special knowledge’ of the period. One critic, she wrote angrily, ‘says my picture of Regency England is no more like the Real Thing than he is like Queen Anne. He best knows whether he is like Queen Anne, but what the hell does he know about the Regency?’ However the critic probably had a point. Heyer looks only at the lives of a tiny section of the community, and makes no reference at all to the poverty and misery of most of the population, or to the fear of revolution, and harsh repression of dissent by members of the tiny class she does write about. Jane Austen doesn’t mention such things either, but her books are much more rooted in everyday realities than are Heyer’s. Austen wrote about what was around her, while Heyer had to imagine the past – and it is a highly imaginary past that results.

Anyone who wrote stories of such freshness and vigour as Heyer presumably enjoyed writing them. However most of her recorded comments about her writing are self critical. She talked about writing a ‘Typical Heyer Romance for instant sale’ when she needed money to pay her tax bill. She described Sprigg Muslin (1956) as ‘another bleeding romance’. She wrote to her publisher concerning the publicity blurb for April Lady (1957) that ‘the way you’ve avoided the use of such works as corny and drivel is just too wonderful’. Of The Nonesuch (1961), ‘I think it stinks’. She admitted to ‘a certain gift for the farcical’, but no more. Yet readers today are more likely to get pleasure from what she did produce than they probably would have from the ‘Real Book’ she yearned to write.

You can find out more about Heyer here. or the fan site here.

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In my page about the history of romance fiction, with its formula of  ‘boy meets girl, their relationship encounters problems but everything ends up happily’, I noted that after a period where it rightly had a bad name, romance fiction now seemed capable of new development. That might have been a bit optimistic, since one of my examples of regeneration was A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a romance, published as long ago as 1990, and the other was Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, published in 1996. This latter was in any case hardly ‘new’, as it is modelled on that great romance, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Certainly plenty of romances have been written recently, but few that I know of have revitalised the genre.

One that perhaps does so is Prodigal Summer (2000). There are three different, but linked stories in the novel, only one of which could be said to fit the romance formula. But the underlying theme is the drive of all creatures and plants to find a mate or in some way to contribute to reproducing their species. Prodigal summer is ‘the season of extravagant procreation. It could wear out everything in its path with passionate excesses, but nothing alive with wings or a heart or a seed curled into itself in the ground could resist welcoming it back when it came’. Romance is an expression of the human subset of this drive.

The first of the stories, told in the chapters entitled Predators, concerns Deanne Wolfe, an ecologist in her forties who has chosen to live a solitary existence in a mountainous national park in West Virginia where she observes nature and acts as a park ranger. Her dream is that she will be able to authenticate her sighting of a coyote family she thinks may have moved back into the region from which coyotes were exterminated by hunters. Then she meets Eddie Bondo, a hunter by profession. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to their relationship, which are (sort of) overcome, for a (sort of) happy ending.

The second of the stories, told in the chapters entitled Moth Love, concerns Lusa, an entomologist newly married to Cole, a farmer in the valley at the foot of the mountains. Her story is not a romance; it deals with death, the other part of the ecological cycle, though there is also regeneration in it.

The third of the stories, told in the chapters entitled Old Chestnuts, concerns two bickering elderly neighbours, Nannie Rawley, who farms an organic orchard, and Garnett Walker, a devotee of chemical sprays. While they don’t find romance, it isn’t really giving anything away to say that they finally find friendship.

One of the pleasures of the book is the ways in which these stories are linked, just as ecosystems, and small farming communities, are linked. Each story contains echoes of the others, and all contain echoes of the wider ecological statement that Kingsolver is making. What happens when a predator is removed from the landscape? What happens when a loved person is removed? What happens when someone or something from outside is introduced into to an organic system? Are the changes always good or always bad? When are old ways better than new ways? None of these links or echoes or the questions they raise are forced; they arise simply as part of the story.

Like the prodigal summer itself, Kingsolver’s language is often lush, particularly in the Predator chapters, and I sometimes found them a bit heavy going. But it was worth persisting. Lusa’s story is told with a lighter touch, and Nannie’s and Garnett’s interactions are at times positively funny.

Kingsolver rightly prides herself on ‘trying something completely new with each book’, so don’t look to her for another romance. She probably didn’t mean this novel to be one. But if you view humans as part of an ecological system, the attraction between men and women – romance – is something you can’t avoid.

You can find more about Barbara Kingsolver here.  Click here to read about another of Kingsolver’s books which is completely different.

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Possession is the story of two romances, a twentieth century one, and a nineteenth century one. It is one of my favourite books.

Ronald is a young research associate working on the life and writing of a nineteenth century poet, Randolph Ash. He finds a fragment of a letter from Ash which suggests the beginnings of a previously unknown relationship between him and a female poet, who Ronald soon discovers to be Cristobel La Motte. He meets Maud Bailey, a feminist academic who is working on La Motte, and together they discover letters between the two, revealing their growing passion. Interspersed with the modern account of discovery, we are treated to some of what actually happened between Ash and La Motte. There are of course complications in both romances. Roland already has a girlfriend, Val, and Maud is avoiding relationships with men after an unhappy experience with one of Roland’s colleagues. Ash is married, and La Motte lives with a woman companion, and it has been assumed till now that she was a lesbian. And there is Cropper, the American collector of Ash memorabilia, who gets wind of the existence of the letters, Leonora, the feminist academic, and a whole cast of supporting characters. Together, they make an intricate and satisfying story.

This was a book, Byatt says, that had been germinating in her mind for years. ‘When I first recognise a thought as the germ of a novel or story, I form a shape, or file, in a corner of my mind, to which I add things that seem to belong to it, quotations, observations’. She had a rich background from which to accumulate such ‘things’. An acknowledged expert on the works of Iris Murdoch, she had also read and written widely on the thought and literature of the nineteenth century. She was intimately familiar with the work of Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot. She had also written about more popular romances, such as those of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Pym.

Over a number of years, Byatt added new ideas about ‘possession’ that her novel should contain. There would be ‘relations between living and dead minds’; did the scholar ‘possess’ knowledge of the writer, or did the writer ‘possess’ the scholar’s imagination? This question determined that the story would take place in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Then she had the idea that the word ‘possession’ involved both ‘the daemonic and the economic’, so the book could include Victorian ideas about spiritualism, but also twentieth century realities about physical ownership of literary artefacts. ‘Possession’ has a sexual meaning suggesting male dominance; feminism of course had to play a part. Then there was the fascinating fact that the love letters of George Eliot had been buried with her, and there were now proposals to dig them up; something based on this would add a Gothic touch. And there were the letters between the poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning; much of the nineteenth century story would be told through such letters, and also poems. She wanted there to be a ‘detective’ element, so the twentieth century characters would be trying to find out about the nineteenth century ones. Byatt believes that ‘the pleasure of fiction is narrative discovery’, so the book must tell a compelling story. And ‘It should learn from my childhood obsession, Georgette Heyer, to be a Romance’. 

The book is sometimes called a ‘pastiche’; it contains a mixture of ordinary modern narrative, mostly from Roland’s point of view, nineteenth century style narrative, letters, journal entries, a fairy story, poetry and chunks of feminist literary criticism and theory. The story provokes questions such as when is a writer copying, when is it legitimate for an author to step outside the story, and even what is the nature of fiction? Ash’s poetry is an interesting example of the role of the writer. The poetry is a copy of the style of Robert Browning.  Byatt initially agonised over her ability to copy effectively. When she began writing it, she says ‘I found I was possessed – it was actually quite frightening – the nineteenth-century poems that were not nineteenth-century poems wrote themselves, hardly blotted, fitting into the metaphorical structure of my novel, but not mine, as my prose is mine’. La Motte’s poetry is modelled on that of Christina Rossetti – though more ‘fierce’ than her’s. Some people don’t read the poems, and the story can be followed without them. Byatt’s American publisher initially suggested that they be abridged for the American edition, but they weren’t, and American readers don’t seem to have minded.  Most readers feel the poems, and all the other different forms and the questions they raise, add to the pleasure of the book.  

One of the times when the author intrudes into the story is in a Postscript. This tells the reader something about the nineteenth century lovers’ situation that the researchers never found out, and makes for a happier ending to their story – at least from Ash’s perspective. Some commentators don’t like this; they say it is unrealistic, possibly even meant to be a fantasy of Ash’s in his last illness. Others say it is a forced ‘happy’ ending, just because romances have to have happy endings. But Byatt makes it clear that she intended to let the reader into a secret at the end; ‘There is a nice irony about this’ she says; ‘- the writer and reader share what the critics and scholars cannot discover’. 

Sometimes Byatt’s fascination with ideas can be a bit overpowering, but I don’t think this is the case here. Possession is a deeply satisfying story, and a most worthy winner of the Booker Prize for 1990.

A film has been made of the book, in which, unaccountably, Roland has been made an American researcher. Despite its good cast, (Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle), the film disappointed. But see it anyway.

 Here are AS Byatt’s own comments on Possession:

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