Thursday, October 6, 2011

Unwrapping: THE ROMANCE NOVEL - A LITTLE AT A TIME

     While surfing the web, I came across this remark written by Cynthia, a reviewer at A Romance Review:

     "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? REALLY?!

     It's difficult for me, as a woman raised in the age feminism and so-called equality to reconcile the thoughts of men (and women) before the sexual revolution.  I realize that this is the way it was once upon time and not so far back that some of us have mothers and grandmothers who remember pushing hard against the restrictions placed on them by a predominately male society but really now - it might induce sexually unruly behavior in women?! I thought that was what men wanted from their wives and mistresses - or was it just their mistresses?

     The curious thing about early romance writings, and yes, there were many,  was that they were written primarily by men. Shakespeare's plays were flowery and romantic whether comedy or tragedy but the women in them, if they did not meet a tragic end, usually at one point or another had their reputations questioned by the society that surrounded them. Take MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, a comedy filled with jokes, jesters, courtship, romance and love yet the menace-filled Prince John, in order to cause discourse, attempted to destroy the virginal Hero's reputation by accusing her of adultery on the eve of her wedding to Leonato.  This was a common theme among the writings of the men penning the romances which is probably a good reason that women began to take pen in hand.



      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. 


   


    Remember poor Fanny Hill!
    Hmmmph!


   



    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.





     Romance novels still remained an escapism for women, even educated women despite some academic critics saying that romance novels were marketed toward audiences of limited educational backgrounds and bored housewives. Although, I fear there are still some today in the 21st Century who believe the same thing and continue to debate the merits of romance novels.

     However, if those critics would actually pick up a romance novel and read it cover to cover, they would find that the modern romance novel is no longer driven completely from the woman's point of view while focusing on the aspects of life that the authors thought women found important. It's not just about the courtship but about the normal progression of any relationship between people with differences. The authors of modern romance novels find the emotions and feelings of the hero as important as those of the heroine. They touch on the hero's insecurities about being rejected if he admits his feelings too soon and sometimes waits until he runs the risk of losing his heroine altogether before he does. What man (or woman) hasn't felt that same way? 

     The progression of the romance novel has been slow through the centuries but fortunately for us, it jumped by leaps and bounds in the latter half of the 20th Century to become the varied, intelligent story- telling medium that it is today. If those who still doubt the merits of the romance novel would just peruse the shelves and read a few pages here and there, they would probably be enticed to read the whole book. There's something for everyone in the romance world - historical and regency romances, paranormal romances (or Urban Fantasy, if you prefer), contemporary and suspense romances, science fiction and fantasy romances, inspirational and Christian romances and multi-cultural romances. 

     In my last posting, Wacky Wednesday, I posted an excerpt from Lynsay Sands' HUNGRY FOR YOU. I actually got my husband to read it and he was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps one of these days I'll actually get him to read one or at least the first 10 chapters of my current work in progress that he has sitting on the floor of his car. I'm reminded of the little boy, Mikey, from the LIFE cereal commercials ...  "hey critics, try it - you might like it!"

Happy Reading everyone!
                                                        

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