Eternally In the Eye (or Heart) of the Beholder

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 12 September, 2012

Ponte Vecchio


Beauty, it has been said, is in the eye of the beholder. It's an assertion to which Lucy Gordon's The Italian's Christmas Miracle appears to give some support. Alysa, the heroine,

had never been pretty. Her face was attractive but, to her own critical eyes, her features were too strong for a woman.

'No feminine graces,' she'd often sighed. 'Too tall, too thin. No bosom to speak of.'

Her women friends were scandalised by this casual realism. 'What do you mean, too thin?' they chorused. 'You've got a figure most of us would die for. You could wear anything, just like a model.'

'That's what I said - too thin,' she'd responded, determinedly practical.

But then there was the hair - rich brown, with flashes of deep gold here and dark red there, growing abundantly, streaming over her shoulders and down to her waist, making her look like some mythical heroine. (8)

Perhaps romance, too, is in the eye of the beholder? Alysa finds

herself overlooking the River Arno. A multitude of lights was on, their reflection gleaming in the water, and in the distance she could see the Ponte Vecchio, the great, beautiful bridge for which Florence was famous. [...]

'It's the sort of place people mean when they say that Italy is a romantic country.' [...]

The ironic way she said 'romantic' made him look at her in appreciation.

'It can be romantic,' he said. 'It can also be prosaic, businesslike and full of the most depressing common-sense. Romance doesn't lie in the country or the setting, but in the moment your eyes meet, and you know you're living in a world where there's only the two of you and nothing else exists.' (48-49)

Alysa and her interlocutor have, however, lost trust in the reality of that "world," for Alysa has travelled to Italy

to mourn the man I loved, but who betrayed me, abandoned me and our unborn child, a child he never even knew about, then died with his lover. She had a husband and child, but she deserted them as he deserted me. (11)

Overlooking the Arno, her companion is Drago, the deserted husband, and during the course of the novel they learn the truth about the dead while attempting to shield others from the reality of the motivations of James and Carlotta, a pair of deceased lovers who justified their actions by insisting that "we had to be realistic" (40).

Drago and Alysa's experiences have taught them that romance is unreliable, and perhaps that romantic love renders one unable to see reality: 'We can be fighteningly blind when we don't realise that things have changed for ever [...] And perhaps we fight against that realisation, because we're fighting for our lives" (35). An  emotion-free reality, however, is not without its problems.

It was a technique she'd perfected months ago, based on computer systems.

It started with 'power up' when she got out of bed, then a quick run-through of necessary programs and she was ready to start the day. A liberal use of the 'delete' button helped to keep things straight in her head, and if something threatened her with unwanted emotion she hit the 'standby' button. As a last resort there was always total shut-down and reboot, but that meant walking away to be completely alone, which could be inconvenient. (16)

Her solution seems to have dehumanised her and Drago is of the opinion that it has merely substituted emotional pain for "another kind of hell" (41).

This being a romance, Drago and Alysa do, of course, fall in love again. Together, the novel suggests, they have found true love and Alysa tells Drago that "I believe that your love will be with me for all eternity" (185). Nonethless, the novel raises a disquieting question: if emotions (including romantic ones) are part of reality and what make us fully human but are also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder, or the heart of the lover, can there ever be security in love?

Perhaps only the dead can realistically be said to achieve it. Earlier in the novel, on the Ponte Vecchio, Alysa has seen that the railings around the statue of Benvenuto Cellini

were covered with padlocks. Hundreds of them.

'Lovers put them there,' the shop owner confided. 'It's an old tradition. They buy a padlock, lock it onto the railings and throw the key into the River Arno. That means that their love has locked them together for all time, even unto death.'

'How - how beautiful,' Alysa stammered. A terrible dread was rising in her. [...] 'Even unto death,' she murmured.

'That's the part that always affects them,' he said. 'They know they'll be together for eternity.'

There in her mind was the picture of James and Carlotta, [...] dead in the same moment. Together for eternity. (59-60)

As Lynne Pearce has observed in an article about romance and repetition:

The fact that there is no possibility of death-bound lovers repeating, and hence discrediting, their UR-passion explains why tragedy remains the most cast-iron means of supporting the view that love is exclusive, non-repeatable, and forever. The fact that so many tragic lovers actively seek death as a means of protecting their love from compromise underlines the principle that “true love” eschews repetition.

I'll end on a prosaic (and realistic?) note about iron and binding: the padlocks on the Ponte Vecchio and elsewhere have generally been considered a nuisance by the authorities and months later, when Alysa returns to the bridge, she discovers that "The railings that had once been covered with love tokens were stark and bare" because "the council has ruled against them. If you get caught hanging a padlock there's a fine, and every now and then they clear them all away" (127). Outside the pages of the novel the campaign against the padlocks of eternal love contines: just this week it was reported that

Thousands of 'love padlocks' on a Roman bridge are being removed with bolt-cutters in order to protect the ancient structure. [...] The city council said rust from the locks, which hang off chains, is harming the fabric of the bridge. (BBC)


BBC. "Rome's Ponte Milvio bridge: 'Padlocks of love' removed." 10 September 2012.

Gordon, Lucy. The Italian's Christmas Miracle. 2008, Christmas Marriages & Miracles (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2011). 3-185.

Pearce, Lynne. "Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).


The image of the Ponte Vecchio is a cropped version of the panorma at Wikimedia Commons,where it was made available for use under a Creative Commons licence by its creator, Grenouille vert.


By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 9 September, 2012

In my last post I quoted Pamela Regis, who told the 2010 IASPR conference that "our discipline values complexity in its study texts." The following quote from an essay by Deborah Kaplan demonstrates this, and also illustrates the way in which the popular romance's assumed lack of complexity has tended to lower its value in the eyes of literary critics:

Jane Austen as one of the mothers of the Harlequin or Silhouette novel?  Such a genealogy makes many an Austen devotee smile.  We know Austen’s novels to be so much more complex and nuanced, so much more culturally and linguistically enriching than the mass-market romance.  And yet, recent popular representations reveal a distinct trend: the harlequinization of Jane Austen’s novels.  If Austen is one of the ancestors of the paperback romance, recent films of her work are now the heirs of this popular form.  The two most explicit descendants in this romance genealogy are the films of Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee, and Emma, adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

By harlequinization I mean that, like the mass-market romance, the focus is on a hero and heroine’s courtship at the expense of other characters and other experiences, which are sketchily represented.  As the tip sheet suggests, the hero and heroine’s plot should begin in the first chapter—no wasting time with matters as extraneous as the heroine’s life anytime before she first encounters the hero.  Harlequinization does not require a plot closely patterned on Pride and Prejudice’s.  But it does necessitate an unswerving attention to the hero’s and heroine’s desires for one another and a tendency to represent those desires in unsurprising, even clichéd ways.

I began to gear myself to write a long and detailed defence of popular romance novels (and in particular of Harlequin/Mills & Boon ones) but then it occurred to me that (a) I've already had one published and it was over 200 pages long and (b) often, simplicity is more my cup of tea anyway.


Cup of Tea


Kaplan, Deborah. "Mass Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women, and Courtship in Two of the Recent Films." Persuasions 18 (1996): 171-181.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Image of a cup of tea from the Open Clip Art Library.

Stealing Insights Into the Alpha

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 5 September, 2012

I was so taken with one of Liz McCausland's recent posts that I decided I'd copy and paste her conclusions into a post here so that I can find it again easily if I need it for future reference:

The possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero is [...] a literary “symptom” with multiple causes. There are a lot of ways to interpret, experience and think about this kind of hero. Some are positive, some negative. I don’t think any of these are right or wrong, provable or disprovable. The best, deepest understanding of the role of this hero in romance fiction will come when we hold them all open as possibilities in a discussion, even though they are in tension with each other, rather than letting any one reading dominate. Here are some of the things we could say about the stalker-alpha:

  • The hero’s possessive, jealous controlling nature is symbolic of his passion for the heroine; it shows how much he cares.
  • The fact that such a strong man surrenders to his love for her (particularly if he’s a misogynist who disdains other women) gives the heroine power over him.
  • The fact that a stalkery, controlling hero is ultimately tamed and domesticated by the heroine is a safe way of exploring and containing the threat real life men can pose for women.
  • The dominant, protective male is an archetype, and romance as a genre trades in archetypes.
  • The alpha (and the passive, submissive heroine he’s sometimes paired with) is a reflection of cultural views and ideals of masculinity, some of which can be sexist and/or harmful to both men and women.
  • The stalker-misogynist asshole who is tamed by love perpetuates the misguided view that the love of a good woman can “fix” a man, a view which leads to a lot of unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships.

The power of literature is that the hero can be and mean all these things at the same time. But that’s also the danger of it, and why, in my view, we should ask questions about our reading.

It seems to me that a lot of discussions of popular romance end with generalisations being made about both the novels and their readers. While I can understand the appeal of making generalisations such as "romance is empowering" or "it is misogynistic hate speech," the characters and plots in all romances are not identical; the novels that stick in my mind generally do so because their characters, and the way those characters interact, feel unique. That being so, the context in which one hero's jealous, controlling, stalkerish behaviour occurs may be so different from that in another novel that the two heroes can't be interpreted in exactly the same way. Furthermore, readers are not homogenous; something which feels empowering to one reader may indeed feel like "hate speech" to another.

Liz's list of possible interpretations of the " possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero" demonstrates the need to tread carefully when analysing romances, and to accept the possibility of multiple, complex readings and understandings of popular romance fiction (and its readers). It's  the type of analysis of which we need to see more. As Pamela Regis stated in her address to the 2010 IASPR conference:

our discipline values complexity in its study texts.  [...]

We owe it to the romance novel to make overt and to defend our conclusion that the romance is simple, if this is, in fact, our assessment. Surely, we owe the romance at least an acknowledgment that many readers, writers, and, yes, even some critics do find the romance novel complex, and we further owe it to the genre to make overt the value judgment that is a part of this topos—that simplicity is a “much-maligned state.” [...] I also contend that a critic confronted with a text that she considers simple should be careful of the conclusions that she draws in working on that text. I would argue that in assuming that the texts are simple, we flirt with what to me always seems like a dangerous idea—that it is not just the texts that are simple, but that the readers of the texts must, by extension, be simple, as well, or else why would they read these texts? [...]

A corollary: We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly.


McCausland, Liz. “The Overdetermined Hero.” Something More. 3 September 2012.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Shulamith Firestone and the Glittery HooHa

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 1 September, 2012

Shulamith Firestone,

a widely quoted feminist writer who published her arresting first book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” at 25, only to withdraw from public life soon afterward, was found dead on Tuesday [...] [28 August 2012]. She was 67. [...] Subtitled “The Case for Feminist Revolution,” “The Dialectic of Sex” was published by William Morrow & Company in 1970. [...] The book, which was translated into several languages, hurtled Ms. Firestone into the front ranks of second-wave feminists, alongside women like Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer. It remains widely taught in college women’s-studies courses. (Fox)

I can't remember when I first came across The Dialectic of Sex but it proved useful to me when I began to think about the Glittery HooHa, which I learned of thanks to a post by Jennifer Crusie in which she quoted Lani Diane Rich's explanation of how the term "Glittery HooHa" came into being, and what it means:

Once upon a time, in a land called Television Without Pity, the peasants gathered to discuss a particular type of character on soap operas. She was always blond, always beautiful, and always good-natured and kind, and always stupid beyond the telling of it. Did someone get approached by a masked man wearing dark gloves who needed help getting a puppy out of a wolf trap, only to happily agree to assist and disappear? It was her. Did someone get drunk on her honeymoon, pass out in a strange bed, and wake up only to assume on very little evidence that she’d slept with another man? Then lie about it? Then get caught lying? Then find out it was all a set-up by her evil twin, who had always been evil and had, in fact, done this before? It was her. Did someone get trapped in their own microwave oven?

Guess who?

And yet… there is a man. We’ll call him… Hero. Hero is handsome, he is strong, and… well, yes, okay, he’s kinda dumb, too, but still he manages to rescue her every single time she’s in trouble… which is approximately twice a show. He stays by her side and loves her through thick and thin. He disentangles her hair from the curling iron. He drops his Very Important Job to rush off and rescue her from the cardboard box on the pier where the Villain left her, warning her NOT TO SAY A WORD lest he do BAD BAD THINGS to her favorite hamster, so she kept quiet, even though the Villain was long gone, and many a passerby had passed her by. The Hero is loyal and loving and doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she is so FREAKIN’ stupid. How can this be??

Well, my friends, it comes down to the power of the Glittery HooHa, or the GHH for short. A woman with an HH as G as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the GHH to snare him forever, for yea, no matter how many HooHas he might see, never will there be one as Glittery as hers…

Of course, Shulamith Firestone wasn't a poster at Television Without Pity, but you could say that she'd already described the GHH long before, in The Dialectic of Sex:

because the distinguishing characteristic of women's exploitation as a class is sexual, a special means must be found to make them unaware that they are considered all alike sexually ("cunts"). Perhaps when a man marries he chooses from this undistinguishable lot with care, for as we have seen, he holds a special high place in his mental reserve for "The One," by virtue of her close association with himself; but in general he can't tell the difference between chicks (Blondes, Brunettes, Redheads). [...] When a man believes all women are alike, but wants to keep women from guessing, what does he do? He keeps his beliefs to himself, and pretends, to allay her suspicions, that what she has in common with other women is precisely what makes her different. Thus her sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality. [...]The process is so effective that most women have come to believe seriously that the world needs their particular sexual contributions to go on. ("She thinks her pussy is made of gold."). (148-50)

Firestone's articulation of the ideas underpinning the concept of the GHH is extremely harsh in its condemnation of both men and women and I don't think I'm deluding myself when I say that she certainly does not describe how the men in my life feel about women. When it comes to romance fiction and its depiction of heterosexual relationships, though, I have to admit that there are a fair number of misogynistic, promiscuous heroes who do seem to think that all women are untrustworthy and only good for one thing - until a surpassingly sexually attractive heroine appears to demonstrate that there is at least one exception (which perhaps proves the rule). It should be noted however that, contrary to Firestone's claim that a woman's "sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality," the success of such heroines is also dependent on their possession of a Prism (see Vivanco and Kramer).

In romance novels, as in real life, one can find plenty of women with complex personalities and unique relationships which are not based solely on sexual attraction and sexual pleasure. In romances the multi-faceted nature of these relationships is sometimes symbolised by rings given to the heroines of romances by their heroes: although these rings often indicate "that the hero and heroine have found their 'One' and may also symbolize the sexual attraction between them" (Vivanco 105), they also often "recall a moment of particular importance to their relationship, or reflect aspects of the personality [...] of the heroine, the hero, or both" (105).

That said, is it that case that, in some romances, there is such an overwhelming emphasis on sex, and the heroine's sexual allure, that it seems "her sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality"? Shulamith Firestone may be dead, but her work lives on and still raises thought-provoking questions.


Crusie, Jennifer. "Modern Literary Terms: The Glittery HooHa." 9 April 2007.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. 1970. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Fox, Margalit. "Shulamith Firestone, Feminist Writer, Dies at 67." The New York Times. 30 August 2012.

Vivanco, Laura, and Kyra Kramer. "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

Vivanco, Laura. "One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in Popular Romance Fiction." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012. 99-107.

A Long-term Relationship: Art and Romantic Fiction

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 31 August, 2012

From 2005 to 2009 Mills & Boon published a series of "Regency Lords and Ladies 2-in-1 reprints" which featured cover art supplied by Sotheby's Picture Library. Here are volumes 9 and 10:













The cover on the left shows A Favour by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922) and the one on the right features part of A Romantic Interlude by Frederic Soulacroix (1825-1879).

When I first saw the covers I didn't stop to wonder what the original inspiration for the paintings might have been; I just assumed that they were being given an entirely new purpose. I still don't know any details about these particular paintings but it really should have occurred to me that the relationship between art and romantic fiction is a long one. I was reminded of this recently when I came across something else provided by Sotheby's. In the catalogue notes for Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's An Eloquent Silence, which formed part of a sale of 19th-century European art, held in New York on the 4th of May 2012, one can find the following:

In 1890, the year An Eloquent Silence was painted, Alma-Tadema and his family were staying at Georg Ebers' summer home at Tutzing in Bavaria [...]. The idyllic scene of a white marble balcony under cyan skies and over the deep blue Mediterranean sea presented here could not have been more different than the reality of Kaiser Wilhelm's Europe, but the writing of George Ebers provided ample inspiration for the artist. Ebers was an Egyptologist who is perhaps most famous for discovering and translating the ancient medical document now known as the Ebers Papyrus, but he also sought to popularize ancient lore through historical romance novels, creating the now popular genre and titles such as An Egyptian Princess, Bride of the Nile, Cleopatra and, of particular note, A Question.

Published in 1882, A Question (Eine Frage) was intended to be a literary illustration of the idyllic ancient world created by Alma-Tadema and based on the relationship of the figures in his 1876 canvas, Pleading [...]. In fact, the book features an etching of the painting as its frontispiece. In 1883, one year following A Question's publication and a testament to the collaborative spirit between artist and author, Alma-Tadema painted a variation on the composition and titled it Xanthe and Phaon, named after the two lovelorn protagonists of Ebers' novel. The theme of courtship continues throughout Alma-Tadema's oeuvre, but An Eloquent Silence is a perfect depiction of Ebers' scene of two lovers described as sitting on a marble bench, surrounded by brightly colored flowers overlooking the sea. In chapter VI, it reads: "Then she again gazed into the distance. Phaon shook his head, and both remained silent for several minutes. At last he raised himself higher, turned his full face toward the young girl, gazed at her as tenderly and earnestly as if he wished to stamp her image upon his soul for life."

Alma-Tadema's patrons may not have been familiar with the romantic writing of George Ebers, but they appreciated the technical mastery and attention to detail that he brought to all of his works.


Working at Marriage

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 28 August, 2012

At one stage in Rose Lerner's In for a Penny (2010) the recently-married hero exclaims that

Living with someone, being married to her – that’s work [...]. It’s trying to be what she needs even if it doesn’t come naturally, and struggling to understand her, and working together to make a life! It’s accepting that sometimes things aren’t perfect. (236)

The recognition that long-term relationships require work is, according to Sarah Wendell, "the number one lesson [to be learned] from romance novels" (181) because in her opinion:

courtship, the process of charming someone and demonstrating in word, thought, and action how much you care about them, does not end with the declaration of love or the commitment between you.

Courtship becomes part of relationship maintenance, but "maintenance" itself is a horribly unsexy word.  [...] "Routine care and maintenance" are among the most unsexy and uninspiring words. Oil changes, annual physicals, and food and water do not always inspire passion or the remote possibility of poetry. [...] It's better to think of the care and feeding of your relationships as "courtship" only without the pesky insecurity of not knowing if the person feels the same way about you. (181-82)

According to Kristin Celello, viewing marriage as a relationship which requires work is actually a fairly recent development in the institution's history:

The pairing of "marriage" and "work" is so pervasive and reflexive that it is difficult to imagine a time in which this was not a guiding maxim of American unions. Before the twentieth century, however, Americans did not work on their marital relationships. Rather, the "marriage as work" formula became popular in response to specific changes in marriage patterns, most notably the growing incidence of divorce in the white middle class. Furthermore, what it meant to work at your marriage, as well as the question of who performed this work, was by no means static, and, indeed, frequently contested.  (1-2)

Christine B. Whelan has summarised part of Celello's argument like this:

As 19th century ideas of marriage as duty faded, friendship, romance and personal fulfillment became more salient features of a successful 20th-century relationship. At the same time, divorce rates rose to 6.6 per 1000 women in the early 1920s. Celello argues that it is necessary to understand the 20th-century cultural panic over divorce to properly understand the new willingness to consume marital advice. To educate couples on the modern, companionate marriage—and quell the rising tide of divorce—a diverse group of experts began writing for popular press outlets offering advice for how to improve marriages and create lasting relationships.

From the beginning, whether from university professors or magazine columnists, marital advice was primarily geared toward women. Experts assumed that women had a greater vested interest in marriage, both emotionally and financially, and held them accountable for the success or failure of the relationship. Colleges and universities held marriage preparation courses throughout the 1920s and 1930s which stressed the scientific complexities of the role of "wife" in an attempt to appeal to the modern young women who, some feared, might eschew marriage and childrearing responsibilities for a career. The idea was to convince young women that marital work was a necessary and noble goal – and that working on marriage would yield benefits not attainable through divorce. (937)


Celello, Kristin. Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009.

Lerner, Rose. In for a Penny. New York: Dorchester, 2010.

Wendell, Sarah. Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2011.

Whelan, Christine B. "Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (review)." Journal of Social History 44.3 (2011): 937-39.