Romance fiction as we know it is a fairly recent invention. The term ‘romance’ originally referred to any kind of adventure story, but has now developed a more specialised meaning. In romance fiction, the main plot is about the relationship between the central male and female characters – how their romance begins, overcomes setbacks and finally succeeds. Romance fiction almost always has a happy ending.
Stories about lovers have been around as long as there have been stories. In the middle ages the idea of ‘courtly love’, that is, the expression of admiration for an unattainable beloved, was the staple of the earliest ballads. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the archetypal tragic love story, was an old story long before he used it. From the middle of the eighteenth century romantic novels, in the sense of adventure stories with a love interest, became increasingly fashionable. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded (1740-41) was one of the most popular; it tells the story of a young woman’s rise from being a servant to making a respectable marriage. Most were highly melodramatic. The novel ‘The Lost Heir’ that Georgette Heyer has her heroine write in Sylvester, about Count Ugolino’s shocking behaviour to his nephew, probably caught the tone of circulating library novels very accurately. And Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) also satirizes the sensational novels that were current at the time. These novels always involved a love story, but the main interest was in the highly coloured adventures of the hero and heroine, rather than in their relationship, in which undying devotion was taken for granted.
Jane Austen herself is one of the first writers to emphasise the development of the relationship between the hero and the heroine – and so one of the first writers of romance fiction. Love and marriage are central to all her novels. The stories revolve around the difficulties in recognising true love, and the ways in which the barriers to it are overcome. It is obvious to the reader of Pride and Prejudice (1813) from the first that Elizabeth and Darcy will end up together – but not to Elizabeth – and the joy of the story is in the twists and turns that bring them together by making them see each other differently. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), Elinor from the first has a preference for Edward, as he has for her; here it is a question of overcoming the obstacles in their path. And in Emma it is a matter of finding the right person to love. The fact that these relationships are written about with a cool and humorous detachment, and that social observation plays such an important part in the enjoyment of these stories does not alter the fact that they are essentially romances in the modern meaning of the term.
The major novels of the nineteenth century also usually had a love theme, but it was not their main interest. Dickens, for example, often writes about growing up, so that while Pip in Great Expectations loves – or thinks he loves – Estelle, the thrust of the story is about how he comes to terms with his ‘expectations’. Doomed love is a major feature of Hardy’s novels, but he is more interested in the interplay of fate and human weakness; his books could not be called love stories. The subtitle to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, ‘A Study of Provincial Life’, is a good indicator of what the book is about, and while Dorothea’s story involves great passions, it is essentially the life of the mind, and its collisions with social conventions, that are at the heart of this novel. Henry James, too, is concerned with the way background and experience dictate the fate of lovers in his stories.
The works of the Brontes are major exceptions to the social cast of most nineteenth century literature. All three Bronte sisters wrote love stories, where the interaction between hero and heroine is central to the story. Best known are Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In both, though in different ways, the passion between the central characters, while never explicitly described as sexual passion, is what drives the story. In Jane Eyre, Jane must overcome a variety of obstacles, and Rochester must be humbled before Jane can say ‘Reader, I married him’. The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is even more fraught with difficulty, and its resolution is only achieved in a new generation. These are the outstanding romance stories of the century.
For the first three quarters of the nineteenth century, most people did not read for pleasure. Middle and upper class women who had the leisure and the money to do so were the usual readers of novels, available through subscription libraries. Many, like those of Ouida (the pen name of English novelist Marie Louise de la Ramée) and Maire Corelli, a favourite of Queen Victoria, aimed at ‘moral improvement’, and would be little more than curiosities for modern readers. Mrs Henry Wood, best known for East Lynne (1861), a prolific writer of ‘sensational’ stories in something of the manner of the Brontes, wrote her first book to illustrate the evils of drinking.
In the last years of the nineteenth century and up to World War I, a new reading public emerged. Compulsory Education Acts in Britain and Australia created a more literate population, improvements in printing technology enabled the production of cheaper books and inexpensive commercial libraries made them available to many more people. Just as detective fiction became immensely popular in these years, so did the romance, though still often as much an adventure story as a pure love story.
Writers who became popular in the early years of the twentieth century included Florence Barclay, Ethel M Dell and Elinor Glyn. Florence Barclay saw writing very much as a moral activity. ‘My aim’, she wrote, ‘is: Never to write a line which could introduce the taint of sin, or the shadow of shame into any home’. Her best known book, about married bliss, was The Rosary (1909), described by The Times as ‘wholesome fiction’. However others were much more daring, and while sex is not explicitly mentioned, there is plenty of passion. In Ethel M. Dell’s The Way of an Eagle (1912), the heroine Muriel is finally reunited with the hero Nick: ‘The tumult of her emotions swelled to sudden uproar, thunderous, all-possessing, overwhelming, so that she gasped and gasped again for breath. And then all in a moment she knew the conflict was over. … She loosened her convulsive clasp upon his hand, turned it upwards, and stooping low, she pressed her lips closely, passionately, lingeringly upon his open palm’
Ethel M. Dell was shy and retiring in real life; not so Elinor Glyn. In her early years as a writer, she craved social as much as critical recognition. She began by writing society romances, where members of the upper classes could recognise each other in her characters. But in 1906, from her own experience of an (unconsummated) affair with a younger man, she wrote the highly controversial Three Weeks (1907). In it, an unnamed ‘Lady’ initiates and then ends a passionate three week affair with a younger man, in which she teaches him about love and life. The story is set in Switzerland, and the love scenes take place in an exotically decorated hotel room, complete with tiger skin. There are no actual descriptions of sex, but the book’s strong physicality was unusual at the time. ‘My darling one’ says the Lady at the crucial point of the relationship, ‘this is our soul’s wedding’. Glyn wrote of it that ‘It was the outpouring of my whole nature, romantic, proud and passionate but forever repressed in real life by the barriers of custom and tradition’. She gave it what she considered a moral ending – the Lady turns out to be the queen of some unnamed Balkan state, married to a brutal king who has her murdered, though not until after she has born the young man’s son, who will be king in his turn. The ending did not, however, save the book from a storm of outrage, and the following anonymous verse attached itself ever after to her:
Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger-skin?
Or would you prefer
On some other fur?
While the book shocked many, and a play based on it was banned, it was immensely popular, and by the 1930s, had sold around 5 million copies. Despite its now outdated high-flown romantic language, Three Weeks is a modern love story in that the female character is the active partner in the relationship, and not the passive heroine who merely falls into the hero’s arms. Elinor Glyn is also credited with a further innovation in the romantic genre. In Hollywood in the 1920s she played a major part in the creation of Clara Bow as the ‘It’ girl, ‘It’ being openly acknowledged as sex appeal. Glyn, red haired and green eyed, seems to have had plenty of ‘It’ herself.
Some of the above books have been reissued, and though unlikely to be easily found in most bookshops or libraries, they could be obtained second-hand, possibly through the internet, by anyone interested in early examples of romance fiction.
Some of the proponents of serious literature were horrified at the thought of clerks and shop girls reading not just this sort of novel, but any novel. ‘Universal education’ said Aldous Huxley, who was a member of the British intellectual elite ‘has created an immense class of what I may call the new stupid’. He and others like him were less worried by any moral danger the working classes might suffer from reading writers like Dell or Glyn, than by the fear that culture itself would be ruined by sharing it with the masses. They thought that writing that appealed to ordinary people would be inferior to that which appealed to them. Thus Dell’s work was denigrated as ‘the housemaid’s choice’, emphasising the class distinction between serious literature, and popular fiction. And about this time, either consciously or unconsciously, many writers of serious ‘modern’ literature were writing about subjects, and in forms and language that did not appeal to the ordinary reader. Thus it became accepted in literary circles that any writing that was popular couldn’t be any good.
The distinction between serious and popular literature was important for the romance novel. While serious literature continued to include love themes, these tended to be bitter, dark or hopeless, and the ‘happy ending’ love stories became the province of popular romance fiction.
While the ‘wholesome’ stories of writers like Florence Barclay were still popular in the 1920s, the freeing up of social conventions that followed the war allowed less moralistic stories and more frank acceptance of the realities of sex, though accurate description of it was still taboo. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), for example, which did include explicit sex, was banned as pornographic. Erotic romances, shading off into soft pornography, were published mainly in magazine form, some of it illegal.
In the post World War I period popular romance fiction developed into a number of ‘sub-genres’. These included romantic adventure and historical romance. The books of E.M. (Edith Maude) Hull are examples of the ‘romantic adventure’ genre, part of the ‘adventure’ being provided by the exotic setting. They also show how far ‘the taint of sin’ was becoming acceptable. In her first, and very popular book, The Sheik (1919), a spoilt young English girl wanders into the desert and is abducted by the local Arabs. Their leader, the Sheik, makes his intentions clear. ‘The flaming light of desire burning in his eyes turned her sick and faint. Her body throbbed with the consciousness of a knowledge that appalled her. She understood his purpose with a horror that made each separate nerve in her system shrink against the understanding that had come to her under the consuming fire of his ardent gaze’. (But it’s OK – the Sheik turns out to be the long-lost son of an English nobleman). The film version gave Rudolph Valentino his best known movie role. There was also a Son of the Sheik (1925).
Georgette Heyer was queen of the historical romance. Her first successful book, These Old Shades, was published in 1926. Its setting was in a sense no less exotic, being upper class life in eighteenth century England and France. Most of her books are set slightly later, in Regency London. While the background detail in her stories, for example about dress or food or manners, was accurate, these stories are not about the events of history or even the politics of the time. They are all – and she wrote over 40 of them – versions of the love story in which hero and heroine only gradually realise they are right for each other. The obstacles that keep them apart are matters of personal or parental preference rather than class; these are not ‘Cinderella’ – ‘poor girl makes good’ – stories. But because they are historical, they are not tied to the popular literary conventions of the 1920s and can still be enjoyed today.
Love interest came into most of the popular books of the 1920s and 1930s. Even some of the heroes from the other most popular genre of the time, detective fiction, fell in love – for example Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Other popular writers such as Raphael Sabatini (Scaramouche 1921), P.C. Wren (Beau Geste, 1924), Mary Webb (Precious Bane, 1924), and Daphne du Maurier (Jamaica Inn, 1936) combined adventure and romance, or family sagas and romance. Serious writers also wrote about love –for example DH Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) are about the relationship between men and women, but no one would have called them romances.
The reading of romances no doubt continued and perhaps even intensified during World War II, but not much romance, or anything else, was published because of war time restrictions. When peace came, adventure and war stories were popular, but the romance quickly re-emerged as the favourite light reading of women. Two different publishing phenomena both reflected and promoted this. One was the growth of the Mills and Boon publishing house, which specialised in simple, predictable love stories written to a formula by female writers who often had around twenty titles to their name. Mills & Boon, strengthened by the advent of the cheap paperback book and by an amalgamation with a very similar Canadian version, Harlequin Press, in 1972, marketed not so much the individual book, or even the individual author; in their hands, the romance book became a product, and Mills and Boon became a brand name. The second phenomenon was Barbara Cartland (1901-2000), who was almost an industry in herself. In a writing career stretching for over 60 years, Cartland turned out over 700 romances, very similar to the Mills and Boon ones, where everything comes right in the end for the deserving heroine. She sold over a billion copies and her books were translated into 36 languages.
It is perhaps not surprising that the success of unchallenging love stories among female readers gave the romance a bad name. ‘Everyone said Lara would make the perfect wife for Jerry. But she fell in love with his brother Matt, who didn’t want her!’ Or ‘Jaime’s grandfather, whom she had never seen, had sent for her. But if she went, she would be in Quinn Sterling’s power …’. Often with exotic settings – ‘A trip to Yucatan should have solved all Gabriella’s problems, but instead she encountered a new one, the disturbing Shaun Lennox ..’ – they nevertheless were about ordinary women that readers could identify with. It has also been claimed that they put the needs of women first, and that it was the male hero who had to change his ways before the relationship could flourish. But the writing was insipid, the characters were one-dimensional and the settings mere backdrops. Despite different emphasises by different writers in different periods, there was a dreadful sameness about them, and indeed, the same story of unassuming heroine finally recognised as suitable mate for masterful hero is found in them again and again. It was also part of their appeal that they were very short. There is nothing about them to challenge the reader.
But not all writing about romance in the immediate post-war years was bad. Nancy Mitford wrote amusingly about love in In Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), though these are stores about growing up as much as they are romances. Another writer who wrote fully fledged romances, but whose writing was subtle and humorous, was Barbara Pym. She has been compared with Jane Austen for her gentle humour directed at middle class English social life. Most of her books are about single women who would be happy to have a husband, and most have happy endings, but there any comparison with Cartland or Mills & Boon ends. Though never a best seller, her best known book, Excellent Women (1952) is still in print today.
Two other novels, both by men, stand out as versions of the romance story, though in quite different ways, and without normally being characterised as romances. The first is Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). The story is told from the point of view of Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer at a provincial English university. He meets the apparently unattainable Christine, their relationship has many obstacles to overcome, but in the end – any reader can guess what will happen. This is arguably a ‘campus’ novel, rather than a romance, with a lot of Amis’s attention focused on Jim’s very funny relationships with his colleagues, and on the mediocrity of provincial academic life. But the romance structure is clearly visible, for all Amis’s attempts to obscure it.
The second is John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). The story, set early in the second half of the nineteenth century, looks at first sight like a conventional nineteenth century romance. It is told mostly from the point of view of Charles Smithson, who is about to make a very correct marriage. He meets the strange, outcast Sarah Woodruff, and is faced with a dilemma – conventional comfort, or freedom and passion outside of accepted social boundaries. But Fowles removes the story from the ordinary narrative form. He quite self consciously comments as the author on the action, suggesting first a conventional ending only three quarters of the way through, and then giving two endings, leaving the choice to the reader. Fowles had no thought of writing a romance, seeing the novel as a vehicle for his preoccupations with freedom, biological determinism, evolution and history. But the book is a wonderful comment on the whole idea of the romance.
The tendency to sneer at all romances and their readers was heightened from the late 1960s when feminist writers began to challenge the expectation that women’s role in life should be limited to that of wife and mother – the normal outcome of many (though not all) popular romances. They were more interested in women doing without men than marrying them. One of the most savage of the anti marriage books was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977), in which the heroine ‘finds herself’, after recovering from divorce. It shows romance as not just an illusion, but as an instrument of oppression.
On the other hand, the greater sexual permissiveness that came with feminism did influence the popular romance novel. Many of the Mills and Boon type stories in 1970s and 1980s portrayed a battle of the sexes where the arrogant and even sexually violent hero has to be tamed by the heroine. Writers, particularly for the Mills and Boon look-alikes, Avon and Troubadour, (some of whom turned out to be men writing under female names) took this into actual violence against women, usually in historical settings, producing the so-called ‘bodice rippers’.
A rather more conventional form of romance story that appeared around this time was the mystery romance. These had the basic romance structure: hero and heroine meet, face obstacles to their love, and finally overcome them. But overcoming the obstacles included working out a mystery which often seemed to cast suspicion on the loved one – dispelled of course in the interests of a happy ending. Most are better written than Mills and Boon stories, and have more substantial plots; they are a pleasant read, rather than a challenging one. Writers of mystery romances include Mary Stewart, Anthea Fraser, Susan Howatch and Victoria Holt.
By the 1980s, there were many fine writers, often women, who reflected on women’s experience, but this was largely in relation to their families and their lives after marriage. ‘Relationship’ writers include Margaret Atwood, Caroline Shields, Anita Brookner, Doris Lessing, Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope. There is often romance in their books, but it is not the focus or the basis of the story’s structure.
The romance remained out of fashion among serious writers until the publication of A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a Romance (1990). But even this is not a conventional romance. Like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Byatt plays with the conventions of the romance. There are two romances in the story. One is a modern day love story, with obstacles to overcome. The second is a nineteenth century love story which is gradually uncovered by the researches of the modern lovers, but there is the suggestion that the full story of this romance can never be known. The heroines of both love stories are feminists in their different ways, but each responds to love when they find it – though with different outcomes. Byatt is a brilliant writer, and won the Booker prize for Possession.
There have been two further development of the romance in the 1990s. One is emergence of former Mills and Boon, or similar ‘short contemporary’ writers into full length romance writers. Typical of these is Nora Roberts, who now has a number of full length romances to her name. These follow the standard pattern of young woman meets young man, they are attracted, but have to overcome obstacles to their relationship. This usually involves the Alpha male having to change so that he can accept the feminine values of the young woman. The women in the stories are usually professional and independent, and their values prevail, so to that extent these stories acknowledge that feminism has changed the role perceptions of women. The stories often have elements of family history in them, which further removes them from the standard Mills and Boon. But readers will have to decide for themselves if they are actually any better written than the original Mills and Boon versions.
The other development has been labelled ‘chick lit’. The prototype of this was Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996). Bridget is a thirty-something year old in search of love and commitment. She’s overweight by super model standards, smokes and drinks too much and spends a lot of time complaining about life to her friends. Fielding consciously echoes Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with a hero named Darcy and an unsuitable ‘other man’ who is an obstacle to her union with him. Many people find Bridget Jones very funny, and certainly Fielding’s writing catches the modern idiom with a certain irony. Chick lit is supposed to appeal to the generation that has it all, and is still not satisfied. Some of the other chick lit romances have shopping crazy heroines, like the ‘Shopaholic’ series by Sophie Kinsella.
So the romance form continues to find new expression. In terms of sales, it is still dominated by the ‘short contemporaries’, which continue to sell in their millions. But after a long period in the formula-driven doldrums, it shows some signs of re-emerging as a more generally interesting form of literary expression.