precursors of modern romance

Unknown Unknowns (1): The Study of Popular Culture

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 4 December, 2012

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. (Secretary Rumsfeld, DoD News Briefing, 12 Feb. 12 2002)

NewsweekIn the context of the study of popular culture, "reports that say something hasn't happened [before] are always interesting to me." One relatively recent example, examined by Pam Rosenthal, is

Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story a few weeks ago, which purported to let us in on a couple of big brave surprising secrets.

  • That young successful working women might have erotic fantasy needs social equality can’t satisfy.
  • That feminists are “perplexed,” and “outraged” by this situation.
  • And that therefore feminism is some clueless, useless, irrelevant call back to some mythical “barricades.”

Pretty standard Roiphe, I discovered [...]: like a girl Columbus, her thing evidently is to “discover” something that’s been there all along, and then to congratulate herself for her boldness while conveniently forgetting that anybody – least of all any of those irrelevant feminists – had ever had similar (if not braver, more honest, challenging, nuanced, and radical) thoughts on the subject.

Pam was, obviously, unimpressed by Roiphe's report because what are apparently "unknown unknowns" for Roiphe are "known knowns" for Pam:

The story of how women got our own erotic reading still has yet to be told in its entirety. But if I were to try I’d begin by positing two distinct yet subtly related sources, both pretty contemporaneous. The advent of the bodice-rippers and of the sex-positive feminist discussion I cut my writing teeth on.

It was at this point that I questioned Pam's starting point. Why, I asked, not start further back still with, for example,

E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) which, according to Q D Leavis, was “to be seen in the hands of every typist”? Or Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907)? I haven’t actually read it, because it’s more romantic/erotic fiction rather than romance, but

With hindsight it can be argued that Three Weeks broke down a great deal of Edwardian sexual prejudice and hypocrisy: it can, however, also be seen as a wildly titillating fantasy and a foray into voyeurism. (Mary Cadogan, And Then Their Hearts Stood Still, page 75)

 And then, having hastily done a little bit more research, I added:

Sarah Wintle’s article on The Sheik, [...] puts it, as you say, “in the context of a period of sexual reform”:

To flaunt this book in the early 1920s, Alexander Walker suggests in his biography of Valentino, was to flaunt your emancipation and daring; to enjoy openly its primitive sexual fantasies was to show a truly modern insouciance in the face of the fashionably shocking vagaries and transgressive energies of human feeling celebrated in modernist and jazz-age primitivism. Such energies and drives had recently been highlighted by Freudian psychoanalysis and by the popularizing of the new science of sexology which had led to the publication, in the same year as The Sheik, of Marie Stopes’s manual, Married Love. In one way at least the book’s open treatment of female sexuality contributed to its popular version of modernity. (Wintle 294-95)

Could we go back further still? Jodi McAlister has recently drawn parallels between modern popular romance novels and the works of Delarivier Manley, Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn, which

got thrown in the immoral rather than the immortal basket [...] not because of some arbitrary distinction between the romance and the novel but because they were dangerous. Their literary form is the form Richardson was trying to remake in a moral form when he wrote Pamela. Social anxieties about what women read and what they took from it were rife [...]. Female fantasy, whether or sex or violence or revenge or passion, taking place as it did outside the controlled bounds of patriarchal society, was considered frightening and perilous.

To me the history of erotic fiction is still pretty much a "known unknown" or even an "unknown unknown" and, as a medievalist, it seems to me as though I've leaped from a period in which, "Contrary to the modern stereotype that views males as more susceptible to sexual desire than females, [...] women were often seen as much more lustful than men" (Decameron Web), to a period in which it's necessary to argue that women are at least as interested in sex as men are. Quite how that cultural shift took place is another "known unknown" to me because I haven't done much background reading on the history of sex and sexualities.

I can only conclude that any scholar of popular culture has to tread extremely carefully. We may have detailed maps of the "known knowns," but beyond them lie the "known unknowns," those areas of popular culture about which we know we know little. And then, beyond them, are the "unknown unknowns." Before we accept reports that "something hasn't happened" before, we might want to try to do more research, to verify whether one of those "unknown unknowns" is the knowledge that it has, in fact, happened before.

I'm well aware that, however much I study popular romance, there will always be vast areas that remain "known unknowns" to me. I hope, therefore, that my next post, which looks at an article by Erin S. Young, will be taken not as the gloating of a smugly self-satisfied know-it-all, but as the conclusions of a romance scholar who is constantly being humbled by finding out just how much she still has to learn about popular culture.


  • Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present. London: Macmillan, 1994.
  • Wintle, Sarah. ‘The Sheik: What Can be Made of a Daydream’, Women: A Cultural Review 7.3 (1996): 291-302.

Greek Romances (Ancient Style)

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 20 November, 2012

Daphnis and ChloeIn my last post I quoted from a romance set in Greece; this made me think I should mention that Greece is a place with an extremely long connection with romance thanks to the texts which Margaret Williamson terms "Greek romances": "The romances of which we have complete texts were all written by and for the Greek-speaking population of the eastern Roman Empire, in the first, second and third centuries AD" (25).

Elizabeth Archibald notes that

There is no discussion of romance as a genre by literary critics or rhetoricians in antiquity; indeed there is very little comment of any kind about romance in ancient writers, either approving or disapproving. Until recently there was very little comment on it by modern classical scholars either; the few surviving Greek and Latin texts included under the umbrella term "romance" were thought to be minor works, of limited literary interest to both ancient and modern readers. (10)

Given the romance's current status as a genre assumed to be written for women and also assumed to be of little or no literary merit, it's perhaps unsurprising to find that "Greek romances" of the ancient world have also been assumed to be fodder for women's voracious (reading) appetites:

By the second century, romances started to appear to feed the growing market for women's reading, and this kind of fiction may have been read by a range of women across the social classes. Novels like Achilles Tatius's Leucippe and Clitophon, Longus's Daphnis and Chloe, and Heliodorus's Aethiopica - fast-paced love stories full of twists and turns, shifting in tone from tragic to comic, optimistic to pessimistic, religious to gently erotic, and arousing a helter-skelter of emotions - may have appealed particularly to women. It is even possible that the readership of the novel in the ancient world consisted mostly of women. But some of the arguments offered to support this line seem to issue from prejudice and snobbery; novels that are considered unoriginal and crudely imitative of other writings, or highly sentimental, have been construed as appropriate only, or at least mainly, to a female readership. The implication is that any 'discerning' reader - that is, the male reader - would have been uninterested. More sophisticated claims for a female readership have been made, based on an analysis of the various representations of strong and sexually powerful women in these books, which, it has been argued, would have appealed to women readers' fantasies about female emotional and erotic omnipotence. (Jack 43)

Although "tantalizing fragments of what seem to be romances predate the five complete romances" (Archibald 10), the extant complete texts are:

  • Chariton's Chaireas and Callirhoe (synopsis here)
  • Xenophon of Ephesus's An Ephesian Tale [of Anthia and Habrocomes] (synopsis here and general assessment of the tale here)
  • Longus's Daphnis and Chloe (synopsis here, translation by Professor Wm. Blake Tyrrell here and translation by Rev. Rowland Smith here).
  • Achilles Tatius's Clitophon and Leucippe (synopsis here and a translated version by the Rev. Rowland Smith (published with Daphnis and Chloe and the Aethiopica) can be found here).
  • Heliodorus's An Ethiopian Romance or Aethiopica or Adventures of Theagenes and Chariclea (synopsis here and English translations here and here).

In these ancient romances:

1. "It is desire, not its realisation, which is the subject of the narrative, and this requires that the lovers be separated – whether by scruple, physical absence, or divine edict – throughout the story" (Williamson 29).

2. "love itself is more like rape than anything else – a violent event which assails them [the characters in these novels] from outside and utterly overpowers them" (Williamson 32).


Love is presented as an automatic and irresistible reaction to beauty, which accounts for the way in which the faultless looks of hero and heroine strew the pages with conquests. The meeting of Habrocomes and Anthia is typical: Anthia ‘caught the beauty of Habrocomes, which flowed into her eyes’, and Habrocomes, who has declared himself immune to love, is at once ‘the god’s bound prisoner’. Achilles Tatius, who is particularly fond of physico-psychological digressions, devotes several to love, which is always an optical rather than a spiritual event:

The pleasure which comes from vision enters by the eyes and makes its home in the breast; bearing with it ever the image of the beloved, it impresses it upon the mirror of the soul and leaves there its image; the emanation given off by beauty travels by invisible rays to the lovesick heart and imprints upon it its form. (Williamson 31, quoting from Achilles Tatius, 263)

In this they followed Greek literary tradition, for as Helen Morales has observed,

Greek literature has always been ocularcentric. The Homeric epics provide abundant attestation to the power of vision. [...] When the Iliadic hero is repeatedly displayed as ‘a wonder to behold’, thauma idesthai, or when Priam calls Helen, that iconic beauty, to witness with him the great spectacle of war fought over her, ‘we the audience become’, as Segal says, ‘spectators of the power of vision itself’. Helen’s lust-lure dazzles throughout Greek literature. The sight of her transfixes and destroys. [...] This most displaced and displayed female, with her inescapable force-field of desirability, shines through in the portrayals of Leucippe and the heroines of the other Greek novels. (8-9)

4. "The lovers’ supreme virtue, their fidelity, has parallel consequences as regards the possibility of moral choice. Their unswerving loyalty to each other, proof against any torture, is devalued by the fact that it is arbitrary: the hero’s passion for the heroine is distinguished from that of (usually) innumerable other men only by its arbitrary legitimacy. Since this legitimacy is conferred by the author, albeit in the name of Eros, and not chosen by the protagonists, no real value can attach to it" (Williamson 30).

5. "obstacles of various kinds divide the protagonists, but eventually love triumphs: enemies are overcome, ordeals are endured, identities are established, and the young lovers settle down to happily married life (in the complete texts, at least)" (Archibald 10).

Modern popular romances differ from these ancient texts, of course, but it's interesting to see how much they have in common. Williamson's observation about the "arbitrary legitimacy" of a love which is "not chosen by the protagonists" could perhaps also be applied to some of the more recent texts which depict "fated mates" and although not all modern romances feature heroes and heroines with "faultless looks," there are certainly a great many which do.

I'll let Elizabeth Archibald have the last word:

Romance has often been sneered at as an unsophisticated genre. it used to be said rather dismissively that the Greek romances were intended for a female readership, but that is no longer the accepted view. It has been pointed out that the five complete romances show great interest in literature and rhetoric, with many philosophical and literary allusions, and sophisticated techniques such as ekphrasis (elaborate description of a work of art). When the romances were rediscovered in the Renaissance, they certainly found favor with sophisticated writers and readers [...]. Shakespeare assumed that some of his audience would recognize a reference to a moment of crisis for the heroine of the Ethiopica when he made Orsino contemplate killing his beloved Cesario/Viola: "Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, / Like to th'Egyptian thief at point of death, / Kill what I love?" (Twelfth Night, V.i.115-17). Racine loved the Ethiopica so much that after the sacristan at his Jansenist school had confiscated and burned two copies, he obtained a third and learned it off by heart before dutifully relinquishing it [...]. (16)



Archibald, Elizabeth. "Ancient Romance." A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. Ed. Corinne Saunders. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 10-25.

Jack, Belinda. The Woman Reader. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.

Morales, Helen. Vision and Narrative in Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. [Excerpt here.]

Williamson, Margaret. “The Greek Romance.” The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. 23-45.


The statue of Daphnis and Chloe was created by "Jean-Pierre Cortot (French, 1787–1843)" and was photographed by Jastrow, who made it available at Wikimedia Commons.