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Scottish Independence Referendum: The Musical

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 25 August, 2014

Tonight sees the second debate between Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, and Alistair Darling, the head of the "Better Together" campaign. In the first debate

Alistair Darling pressed Alex Salmond repeatedly about which currency he would use if the rest of the UK refused to enter a currency union.

For his part, Alex Salmond urged Mr Darling to accept that Scotland could be a prosperous independent country. Again and again he asked him to say if he agreed. (BBC)

The fact is, though, that a Fiscal Commission outlined various currency options many months ago.  So if I were writing a musical about the referendum, I'd give myself a little bit of poetic license and adapt the folk song about a soldier who implies he'll consider marriage, if his demands are met, only to turn around at the end and say he's already got a wife:

"O Darling, Darling, will you not agree,
we'd be a "successful independent country"?"
"Oh, no, Salmond, I really can't agree,
For I have no currency clarity."

Then off Salmond went to his Fiscal Commission,
And brought back a report from the very, very best:
He brought back a report from the very, very best,
And the Darling took a look.

 

"O Darling, Darling, will you not agree,
we'd be a "successful independent country"?"
Ah, no! Salmond, I really can't agree,
For you have no currency Plan B."

Then back Salmond went to his Fiscal Commission,
And brought him Annex A of the many, many options:
He brought him Annex A of the many, many options,
And the Darling took a look.

 

"Now, Darling, Darling, will you not agree,
we'd be a "successful independent country"?"
"Ah, no! Salmond, I really can't agree,
For I've a Project Fear I can't disown!"

Yes, yes, yes!

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 6 August, 2014

So, having tried my hand at writing fiction about the Scottish referendum last week, I thought I'd move quickly on to graphic design.

I thought this would be ideal if there were a "Romance Readers for Yes" group

On second thoughts, if a Romance Readers for Yes group existed and we used this on our T-shirts, we'd probably get hassled by people wanting to know which currency we'd be accepting.

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Of course, I had to borrow all the elements because I'm not much good at drawing. And then I needed a bit of help with resizing and positioning the various elements, but at least I cropped them myself!

The woman came from the cover of a 1949 comic. The "Yes"es were provided by Yes Scotland.

Once Upon a Referendum

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 29 July, 2014

magical realism provides a perfect means for children to explore the world through their imaginations without losing a connection to what they recognize as the 'real world'. (Bowers 100)

YessieIt can be quite helpful for, and popular with, adults, too. So, with a bit of help from Diana Wynne Jones's The Dark Lord of Derkholm, let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, there was heather and tartan, plenty of ancient castles and a loch inhabited by a very strange monster. The inhabitants lived on a diet of oatcakes, shortbread and haggis and the water of life flowed plentifully. From below its seas could be extracted a substance which, although

it doesn't endure very long in the world it goes to [...] does marvels while it does last, of course. [...] they [...] use it to run all their machines, but they have to keep getting more" (438).

Despite it's usefulness, however, there were those who insisted it was not worth much: "It's just earth" (438). And all was not well in the land, for fear stalked the kingdom.

Admittedly those spreading the frightening rumours were not able to order that Edinburgh castle be transformed into a "Dark Lord's Citadel [...] with a labyrinthine interior lit by baleful fires" (Jones 47) but they could warn all the inhabitants that if they made the wrong choices, the “forces of darkness” would gather strength, with "cataclysmic" consequences (Scotsman). They couldn't insist that "one of your gods must manifest at least once to every party" (Jones 48) of tourists: instead they rustled up a wide range of celebrities (and some heads of state).

A rather motley band, including some griffin-like creatures who flew overhead, spreading their wings over Scotland, remained undaunted even when told that if they persisted they might be "fined [...] a sum not exceeding one hundred gold coins" (Jones 49) or, rather, £2.7 billion.

Did they all live happily ever after? I don't know. Maybe they'll ask

"[...] to be able to rule their own affairs. [...] We give the wizard Querida the task of making this world into its own place."

"But," Querida whispered, "won't that take ages?" [...]

"At least another forty years [...] And, as the Oracles warned you, [...] it will not be easy. Slaves have to learn freedom [...]." (Jones 504)

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Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. 2004. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2005.

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Dark Lord of Derkholm. 1998. London: Harper Collins, 2013.

 

Yessie (a relative of Nessie) was created by Stewart Bremner and prints of the poster are available for purchase. The lion with wings is the logo of "Wings Over Scotland." I don't know who created the "Will it be easy? Nope. Worth it? Absolutely" poster.

Conventional Criticisms of the Happy Ending

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 July, 2014

Given how often criticisms of romance are interpreted as being, at their core, the result of the denigration of a genre associated with women, I was intrigued to discover that many of the negative responses to popular romance can also be found in the critical work on Hollywood movies. The common factor would seem to be happy endings, which are, apparently, commonly supposed by critics to be "a ubiquitous feature of Hollywood cinema" (MacDowell 1).

Here are some of the critiques made of Hollywood movies which sound rather familiar:

  • "Probably the second most common scholarly assumption about the ‘happy ending’ is that it is inherently ideologically conservative" (3).
  • Some critics have resorted to "Freudian psychoanalysis" (4) to understand their appeal.
  • "narrative ‘closure’ is in itself ideologically suspect – a view rehearsed many times in both literary and film scholarship since at least the 1960s" (4).
  • "the ‘happy ending’ is in some sense ‘unrealistic’" (15)

All these quotes are from the introduction to James MacDowell's Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema and I think I may have to get hold of the rest of his book because he aimed

to broaden our conception of what ‘happy endings’ clearly have the potential to do, and to explore some of the implications of that potential. While I do not in the least intend to imply that ‘happy endings’ never function in the ways they have so frequently been assumed to function, I am nevertheless keen to convince the reader that, at the very least, there is little in the convention that ensures they must always do so. Demonstrating this is the necessary first step towards a much-needed reconsideration of this most famous and maligned of conventions. (15)

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MacDowell, James. Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema: Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. [Introduction available in full here.]

Circle Time!

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 15 July, 2014

When I come across articles I can't read in full, I'm tempted to speculate. That's what happened when I came across Sara Petersson and Daniel Söderberg's study about shapes and different types of genre fiction. It's available in full online but unfortunately I don't understand Swedish. Tantalisingly, I was able to read the abstract:

This study aims to explore whether there are any connections between geometric shapes and popular literary genres and, if so, how they are justified. The geometric shapes included in the study are circle, square, rhombus and two types of triangles (one peaking upwards and one peaking downwards), while the included popular literary genres are romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and horror. [...] It emerged that not all genres had substantiated connections to a geometric shape, but that there were two distinct, positive results. One of them was the distinct connection between the circle and romance and the other one was an equally distinct connection between the two triangles and the genre science fiction. The connection between the circle and romance was justified with the circle’s perceived softness, positivity and warmth and its symbolic eternal value. The connection between the triangles and science fiction was explained with how the triangles were perceived as hard, cold and metallic together with the respondents’ cultural references to triangles in science fiction.

I immediately wondered whether the associations of these shapes had in fact been formed by publisher and other logos, or whether those logos (and book covers in general) had been shaped by the perceptions of these shapes outlined by Petersson and Söderberg.

Here are a few triangles in science fiction:

Ace BooksAce Books StarfleetStarfleet Tor BooksTor Books BaenBaen

Tor and Baen are combining circles and triangles, but I thought the triangles were more dominant visually (the Tor logo is dominated by the bulk of the triangle and in the Baen logo the circle's being pierced by the triangular spaceship).

And what about romance? Well, Harlequin's logo features a rhombus so that doesn't fit either my theory or theirs but the covers of Harlequin Presents, which I think is their best-selling series, certainly do feature circles and, on occasion, they've taken the form of an engagement ring (which makes one association between circles and romance very clear):

Harlequin PresentsHarlequin Presents

 

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Petersson, Sara and Daniel Söderberg. En berättelse tar form - en studie i hur geometrisk form på bokomslag indikerar populärlitterär genre. Linköping University, 2014.

Harlequin Mills & Boon's First Black Romance?

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 28 June, 2014

The first category romance to feature Black protagonists appeared in

1980, [when] journalist Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pseudonym of Rosalind Welles, published Entwined Destinies. Believed to be the first-known romance featuring African-American characters written by an African-American author, Entwined Destinies was published under the Dell Candlelight imprint with editor Vivian Stephens. (Gwendolyn Osborne, qtd in Vivanco)

All the same, I was quite intrigued to learn of a category romance with Black protagonists published the following year. In romance author Anne Weale's review of Juliet Flesch's book about Australian romance novels Weale writes that

In Chapter One, the author refers to an anecdote told in The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon. The then head of copy-editing at Mills & Boon was surprised when the editorial director, Alan Boon, said a certain book was the first M & B to have a black hero and heroine. Because their skin colour was not mentioned, she had not realised they were black.

Juliet Flesch writes : 'Sadly, the title of the book is not cited and we do not know whether it was published. It is significant, however, that the racial aspect was evidently not seen by Alan Boon as a bar to publication'.

I can solve this small mystery. Taking its title Blue Days at Sea from Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, the book was first published in 1981. I remember because I wrote it. But the couple on the jacket were a cop-out, neither black nor white. A number of readers twigged that the hero and heroine were black and wrote to me about this innovation, none of them disapprovingly.

Here's the UK cover:

It may have been a "cop-out," but it was better than the cover Harlequin gave it:

Blue Days 2

It would be interesting to know if Harlequin realised that the hero and heroine were supposed to be Black. It certainly wasn't apparent from the text of the book itself because according to jay Dixon,

Pat Cowley, head of copyediting at Mills & Boon until the early 1980s [...] went back to the text for confirmation. She discovered that, although both protagonists came from Barbados, skin colour as such was never mentioned. (53)

Harlequin were certainly aware of the skin colour of the hero and heroine of Sandra Kitt's Adam and Eva, which they published in 1984. It was their first romance featuring Black protagonists and written by an African-American author:

Adam and Eva

[Kitt's first published romance, mentioned in this "Time Line of Milestones in African-American Romance" seems to have had White protagonists, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong about that.]

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Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL P, 1999.

Vivanco, Laura. "African-American Romances: A Short History." Teach Me Tonight. 1 Nov. 2006.

Weale, Anne. "Review: From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels by Juliet Flesch." Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network). October 2004.

Classics and Canons

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 20 June, 2014

On Tuesday Janet/Robin asked what makes certain books "classics" and alluded to the debate about a romance "canon." She concludes that

classic status is more an academic question than an emotional one. I like the idea of putting books in a certain order, identifying influences, looking at how the genre develops and evolves through certain books, and seeing a variety of tropes reinterpreted within different historical contexts, both inside and outside the books themselves.

It seems to me that when a lot of people think about when the modern romance genre began, they point to either Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower (1972) or E. M. Hull's The Sheik (1919). When The Sheik is mentioned, it seems to ride in glorious erotic splendour far from the novels of Georgette Heyer (whose first romance was published in 1921) and there is then something of a gap in the chronology of classic/canonical authorial firsts until 1954, which saw the publication of Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? Barbara Cartland, meanwhile, floats in a timeless pink cloud over the twentieth century but it's rare for any specific book of hers to be mentioned.

This omits from the record a number of extremely successful romance authors writing at the turn of the 20th century: Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell, Jeffery Farnol, Charles Garvice and Berta Ruck. Ayres's

first novel Richard Chatterton V.C. was published in 1916, after which she produced almost 150 titles. Although Ayres was known primarily for her romantic novels, she also wrote serials for the Daily Chronicle and Daily Mirror, as well as motion pictures in the United States and England. Her play Silver Wedding, was produced in 1932.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography called Ruby M. Ayres ""one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century"". (Bloomsbury)

Charles Garvice

was one of the most popular authors of his era—that era being roughly 1900-1920, when he was the Dan Brown of his day, producing novels of no great literary value that went down a storm with the reading public. Most of them were romances, Garvice churning out dozens upon dozens of books, which had sold some six million copies worldwide by 1911. (Holland)

As for Berta Ruck,

From 1905 she began to contribute short stories and serials to magazines such as Home Chat. One such serial was published as a full-length novel, His Official Fiancée (London, 1914), and its success marked the beginning of Ruck's career as a popular romantic novelist. She produced up to three books annually, as well as short stories and articles; her last novel, Shopping for a Husband (London, 1967), appeared when she was nearly ninety. (National)

All three were, clearly, very successful and prolific romance authors. I'd like to focus, however, on Dell and Farnol because Janet mentioned "influences" as an important aspect of being a classic, and Dell and Farnol certainly influenced other, now better-known, romance authors.

Farnol, whose first novel was published in 1907, is neither completely forgotten nor unloved by contemporary readers since there is a Jeffery Farnol Appreciation Society. He has been described in Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers as

a link between the major writers of the 19th-century and the popular romances of the present. While no one could call him a serious writer like Scott or Dickens, one can easily note traces of both these writers in his works. (261)

He's an author who was well aware of the conventions of the genre(s) in which he was writing:

The Broad Highway (1910) begins with a prologue in which the author, tramping English lanes, meets a tinker with decided views on what should go into a romance. The ingredients he mentions - 'dooks or earls, or barro-nites', 'a little blood', and 'some love' are important features of the genre and are incorporated into the story. (Hughes 84)

He, like Ruck, did some interesting things with gender roles on occasion: his "women are slow only to realize that they are falling in love; other than that, they are independent, intelligent, and only too likely to try to take control from the heroes when those gentlemen are moving too slowly" (Romance 261). He was also an author read by Georgette Heyer in her youth (Kloester 15) and in her "The Black Moth [...] the characters and plot owe more to Baroness Orczy and Jeffery Farnol than to Jane Austen" (Kloester 61).

However, when Heyer revisited some of the characters from The Black Moth and reworked them in These Old Shades (1926), the major influence was Ethel M. Dell's Charles Rex

which Georgette had originally read in serial form in The Red Magazine in 1922. Like thousands of other young women she was a fan of Dell's hugely popular angst-ridden novels wih their breathless heroines and cruel heroes. In Charles Rex the heroine spends the first part of the book masquerading as a boy, in which disguise she is rescued by the hero [...]. She becomes his servant [...]. There are at least half-a-dozen points of close similarity between Dell's book and Georgette's before the plots diverge. (Kloester 83)

Heyer has maintained her popularity rather better than Dell, and I can't help wondering if this is partly because Dell's contemporary settings make the racism and class prejudice of her books rather more apparent than they are in Heyer's historical romances (though, as I've noted elsewhere, "Heyer’s personal views certainly affected her depiction of class and racial differences.")

Another possible reason for Dell's lack of appeal to current readers is that she takes a very spiritual view of love. This was, however, an aspect of her writing which had a great impact on Barbara Cartland, who insisted that she owed a debt to Dell and had learned from her that 'human passions are transformed by love into the spiritual and become part of the divine' (Cloud qtd in Vivanco, "Dame Barbara").

Spiritual the love may be, but that's precisely why she sometimes contrasted it with the violence of lust and as a result I can also see a couple of similarities between Dell's The Bars of Iron (1916) and Hull's The Sheik: both feature a hero who is not wholly British and his violence is ascribed, at least in part, to his foreign blood. A recent reader of The Bars of Iron was suprised to find it "so violent! And this violence is so relentlessly sexualised!" (Brown) and there's also a scene in which the violence is actually sexual: the hero, while married to the heroine, rapes her.

One final point about Dell is that she's also an important figure in the history of criticism of the popular romance. Rebecca West wrote of Charles Rex that "in every line that is written about him one hears the thudding, thundering hooves of a certain steed at full gallop; of the true Tosh-horse" (qtd in Beauman 174) and

Complaining about the lazily eulogistic reviewer who corruptly praises everything he reads, George Orwell described him

sinking his standards to a depth at which, say, Ethel M. Dell's Way of an Eagle is a fairly good book. (Beauman 178)

Q. D. Leavis, though, acknowledged that there was more to "the great names of popular fiction" (amongst which she included Dell) than "sympathetic characters, a stirring tale, and absence of the disquieting" (I'm inclined to quibble with that list since there are plenty of elements in Dell's work which I'm sure she intended to be "disquieting"):

Even the most critical reader who brings only an ironical appreciation to their work cannot avoid noticing a certain power, the secret of their success with the majority. Bad writing, false sentiment, sheer silliness, and a preposterous narrative are all carried along by the magnificent vitality of the author, as they are in Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë, one cannot help but feel after comparing her early work with modern bestsellers, was only unlike them in being fortunate in her circumstances, which gave her a cultured background, and in the age in which she lived, which did not get between her and her sponteneities. (62-63)

It was certainly a power I felt when I read Dell and, regardless of whether Leavis thought Dell's view of love was "false sentiment, sheer silliness," I admit to being moved by passages such as this:

"Death is such a baffling kind of thing."

"Yes, I know. You can't grasp it or fathom it. You can only project your love into it and be quite sure that it finds a hold on the other side. Why, my dear girl, that's what love is for. It's the connecting link that God Himself is bound to recognize because it is of His own forging. Don't you see--don't you know it is Divine? That is why our love can hold so strongly--even through Death. Just because it is part of His plan--a link in the everlasting Chain that draws the whole world up to Paradise at last. (The Keeper)

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Beauman, Nicola. A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-39. 1983. London: Virago, 1989.

Bloomsbury. "Ruby M. Ayres."

Brown, Erica. "Violent sex and sexualised violence in ‘The Bars of Iron’ by Ethel M. Dell (1916)." Reading 1900-1950. 25 March 2013.

Dell, Ethel M. The Keeper of the Door. Project Gutenberg.

Holland, Steve. "Charles Garvice." Bear Alley. 20 Feb. 2010.

Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. London: Routledge, 1993.

Janet. "What Makes a Romance Novel Endure?" Dear Author. 17 June 2014.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. London: William Heinemann, 2011.

Leavis, Q. D. Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.

National Library of Wales. "Berta Ruck Archive."

Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers. Ed. James Vinson. Detroit: Gale, 1982.

Vivanco, Laura. "Dame Barbara." Laura's Blog. 27 October 2013.

Vivanco, Laura. "Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2014).

Nell Gwyn: History Shaped by Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 10 June, 2014

Perfect Royal Mistress The King's Favorite

Julia Novak's "Nell Gwyn in Contemporary Romance Novels: Biography and the Dictates of 'Genre Literature'"

examines the generic properties of Diane Haeger’s The Perfect Royal Mistress (2007), Susan Holloway Scott’s The King’s Favorite (2008), and Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet (2011).

In view of the remarkable rise of fictionalized biography in the past two decades, it comes as no surprise that several novelists have found Gwyn’s life an attractive subject and thus reaffirmed her status as a cultural icon. The fictionalized biography as such is a fascinating hybrid genre, incorporating biographical fact but presenting it in a fictional mode. The novels under consideration are all the more interesting for their participation in a specific segment of contemporary “women’s fiction”: the historical romance novel. While the facts of Gwyn’s life complicate the novels’ generic plotlines as romance narratives, the romantic elements in turn put pressure on the representation of the biographee’s life, which must make concessions to the demands of the genre. (1)

Novak finds that the novels' affiliation with romance is "signaled by the three book covers, showing images of attractive young women in lavish period dress" and by having "the novels’ titles rendered in ornamental gold lettering" (2). I don't really know enough about covers to be able to assess this assertion, but they don't exactly scream "romance" to me. I tend to expect two people on the cover of a romance, or one person in a state of partial undress.

However, Novak also argues that the texts themselves shape history to fit (at least some of) the expectations of romance:

All three novels capitalize on the features of Gwyn’s life that translate easily into a romance narrative, and they all foreshadow the central love plot early on. In Diane Haeger’s Perfect Royal Mistress (2007), which opens with sixteen-year-old Nell selling oranges in front of the Theatre Royal, the heroine first encounters the king as early as on page 4, noticing that “her knees were suddenly weak” in his presence (Haeger 7). The beginning of Susan Holloway Scott’s The King’s Favorite (2008) features an eleven-year-old Nell with a strong sense of self, who spies the king for the first time on page 6, immediately making him the center of her plans for the future. (4)

In their portayals of Nell herself

Haeger, Holloway Scott, and Bagwell have harnessed Gwyn’s relative popularity for their respective Cinderella stories and shaped their novels’ character constellations accordingly: a likeable heroine with whom readers will easily be able to identify, flanked by two disagreeable aristocratic women. Haeger’s Nell is perhaps the most extreme of the three Nells, willingly taking on responsibility for her drunkard mother and sickly sister, and adopting a black slave girl on top (charitable, caring, and not racist!). These efforts to turn Gwyn into a romantic heroine that readers can “cheer for” may well be the reason for the conspicuous absence from all three novels of the more problematic facts about the historical Nell Gwyn. As with the other two mistresses, her subsistence, and indeed, luxury, was founded on the king’s generosity, and thus, on public money. (6)

Novak also highlights several episodes which have been omitted from all of these novels which might have cast Nell in a much less sympathetic light, including her giving a laxative to a rival and the slitting of Sir John Coventry's nose.

As far as Nell's sexual history is concerned, although "the novels are true to Gwyn’s biography in keeping (most of) her relationships in the story," Novak feels they make "concessions to the romance genre by depicting Nell’s emotional development as directed toward her one true love" (9), Charles II. He, however, is not really romance-hero material: he is a married man and Nell is only one among many sexual partners. All the same,

Haeger’s novel ends on the words: “She may not have been the queen, nor even his only mistress – far from that – but she knew with every fiber of her being, and so did their son, that she had been his only love.” (13)

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Novak, Julia. "Nell Gwyn in Contemporary Romance Novels: Biography and the Dictates of 'Genre Literature'." Contemporary Women's Writing.

Covering the Modern Popular Romance's Ancestors

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 8 June, 2014

Sunita made me aware of a 1978 article by John G Cawelti, author of Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (1976). In it, Cawelti states that "the romance tradition originated in the 18th century with writers like Samuel Richardson" (104) and thus

Contemporary portrayers of the tender passions can trace their craft back in an unbroken line to at least the middle of the 18th century. By contrast, the Western did not begin until James Fenimore Cooper's first "Leatherstocking" novel in 1823, while there was nothing that could really be called a detective story until Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin tales of the 1840s. Science-fiction enthusiasts claim an ancestry going back to ancient times, but the earliest fantasy with most of the characteristics of modern SF was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of 1818. The spy thriller is of even more recent origin, emerging around World War I. (103)

He adds that "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice [...] (1813) is one of the archetypal models for romance fiction" (106) and to illustrate his point (literally) there's this:

Even in the original the pictures are fairly small and not very clear but they do enable a reader to see how, in the 1970s, the cover art for at least one edition of Pride and Prejudice could, as Cawelti says, be taken as an indication that it and the Harlequin romance "spring from a common romance tradition."

[Edited to add: I haven't been able to work out when that edition of Pride and Prejudice was published. Has anyone seen it before? ]

[Edited to add some more: Since Cartland's been mentioned in the comments, here's the cover chosen for her "Library of Love" reprint (I think from 1977) of E. M. Hull's The Sheik (originally published in 1919).

 

 

 

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Cawelti, John. "Romance: The Once and Future Queen." The Wilson Quarterly 2.3 (1978): 102-109.

Does Popular Romance and its Community of Readers Reflect US Values?

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 20 May, 2014

The online romance-reading community is global, of course, but the vast majority of authors and readers online seem to be Americans. For me, as a non-American, this has at times resulted in a somewhat muted case of culture shock. I didn't watch many Disney movies as a child, so I was very surprised to learn that my parents should have taught me "Thumper's law":

The character Thumper first appears in the film Bambi, watching as Bambi is first presented as the young prince to the creatures of the forest. He remarks that Bambi is "kinda wobbly" but is reproved by his mother who makes him repeat what his father had impressed upon him that morning, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This moral is now known by such names as the "Thumperian principle", "Thumper's rule" or "Thumper's law". (Wikipedia)

What my mother taught me was that if you're asked for an opinion, try to make it at least two out of the following three: true, kind, necessary. Kindness is important, but it doesn't override truth and necessity. Having joined the romance community, though, I've often seen Thumper's law invoked; John A Hall and Charles Lindholm's Is America Breaking Apart? is making me wonder if it's a manifestation of

The characteristic American smiley-faced "niceness," so often commented on with various degrees of amusement or condescension by foreign visitors [...]. Of course, it is no secret that generalized niceness can mask real differences of opinion and interest. But such masking is recognized to be a necessary precaution in a universe of independent and often rivalrous coequals. As the mayor of an American town observed:

We are a deeply fragmented community. We're nice to each other so much of the time we get the idea that's all there is. But since the problems and misunderstandings remain pretty consistent year after year, I have to assume we don't actually like each other as much as we claim to. Maybe nice is what you have to be or you'd be swinging at each other all the time. (98-99)

I wonder to what extent that might be true of the online romance community.

Obviously, there are American romance readers and authors who disagree with the idea that one should always aim to "be nice." Olivia Waite, for example, recently stated that she doesn't

believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I’d like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don’t talk about what books let us down, we’re going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.

I think Waite's an American but, according to Hall and Lindholm, her approach may not be all that popular in the US where

Practical hands-on "common-sense," it is believed, is capable of overcoming almost any obstacle, while "thinking too much" leads to nothing but confusion. It is no surprise that the predominant American philosophy is pragmatism, which decisively eschews theory under the assumption that coherent and consistent premises do not really matter much for achieving serviceable results. (85)

The concept of "thinking too much" is another one I suspect I've encountered more since joining the romance community, though I do remember my mother warning me against "worrying too much" and there's the comment in Julius Caesar about men

that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

And then there's the broad consensus among romance writers that "Romance and women’s fiction generally is all about the character arc. The reader is looking for emotional growth in the heroine from the first page to the last" (Cohen). Again, this can't be a uniquely American preference since characters do change in lots of non-American novels. However,  Hall and Lindholm find it

striking that for Americans even the self is considered to be a kind of modular entity, capable of being reconfigured to fit into preferred life styles. [...] American faith in the power of individuals to change themselves is quite understandable as a product of the immigrant experience in combination with the Protestant ethos. Protestant sects believe that individuals can be spiritually transformed through disciplined, virtuous action in this world. (86-88)

I'm working on a book about US romances and the extent to which they reflect American beliefs, but I'm not planning to look at whether the novels demonstrate a faith in the individual's ability to change, or advocate being nice and not thinking too much. All the same, I can't help wondering if these are features of the genre and its community which reflect American values.

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Cohen, Julie. "Character Arc 1: What is it?" 17 Jan. 2010.

Hall, John A. and Charles Lindholm. Is America Breaking Apart? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Waite, Olivia. "If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Come Sit By Me." 8 Nov. 2013.