While surfing the web, I came across this remark written by Cynthia, a reviewer at A Romance Review:
I imagine Jane Austen read her share of early novels such as Henry Fielding's THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING (one of the earliest works to be considered a novel published in 1749) or perhaps even hid a copy of John Cleland's MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN OF PLEASURE (aka FANNY HILL which was one of the most banned books in history) under her mattress. Not that she actually did or did she? Since she led a life of simplicity and under societal rules of conduct, near seclusion from the world of social interaction with men, where else was she going to learn about romance? Books, of course, as did nearly every young female in England, on the Continent and in the New World.
If she read them, I am sure that Ms. Austen found these novels written by men offensive and degrading for they depicted woman as either saints or sinners. The women with whom Fielding had Tom Jones cavort with in his novel were either prostitutes or women who cared nothing for their reputations or in a few cases, their marriages. As for poor Fanny Hill in Cleland's novel, we all know how she tried to be a good girl but once caught by the temptations of the flesh sank lower and lower in society until she had no reputation left to defend and just decided to go with and have fun. Scenes of brutal retribution dealt to less reputable women were common plot devices in early novels and so it was this kind of writing that men feared that if women read it they would be pulled into the same kind of degradation. So then, why did they write them in the first place? Simply put, it was okay for men to be entertained by the sordid side of life and to imagine their own fantasies when it came to their sex life but not okay for women.
Thankfully, Ms. Austen wasn't deterred and wrote her stories of what romance was like for women of her own class. Even with societal mores getting in the way at times, it was possible to meet someone, fall in love and survive even the worst attempts to keep them apart. So began the idea of a romance novel being about the relationship and romantic love between two people with a happily ever after ending. At least until women really began to use their imaginations ...
The Victorian era saw women begin to write in abundance. They formed book clubs and writing clubs much to their husbands' and fathers' chagrin. Along came the introduction of Gothic-themed romances featuring hauntings, murders and brooding Heathcliffe type heroes. The women in the stories remained virginal until their wedding nights, of course, even as the men took their leave to visit other women but in the end either love prevailed or they died from unrequited love. The point was that women writers were beginning to expand and grow in their craft and the women in society, even as staid a society as the Victorian era, were beginning to read and they read what they wished.
As the world emerged from the devastation of a Great Depression, two World Wars and the great loss of lives that accompanied them all, women began emerging from their homesteads to get educations, jobs and marriages where they hoped they would be respected for their thoughts and opinions. Well, that respect thing took a little longer and we're actually still working on it but the rest pulled women into society in a way that men had to accept or get out of their way. The ideal of WWII's Rosie the Riveter had shown women they didn't need a man to tag along behind anymore.