religion-faith

Tragedy, Literary Value, and Theology

In an important paper analysing the attitudes underlying critical contempt for popular romance fiction, Pamela Regis drew on the work of Laura Wilder, who stated that

“the critic exhibits an assumption of despair over the condition of society” (85). Moreover “the critic tends to value works that describe despair, alienation, seediness, anxiety, decay, declining values, and difficulty in living and loving in our society” (85)

I was therefore intrigued to read that

Many critics have argued that there cannot be a Christian tragedy. [...] George Orwell claimed [...] that 'It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God...'; for, he said, tragedy is incompatible with the kind of moral demand which feels cheated when virtue fails to triumph: 'A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.' (Sherry 88-89)

That sense of being "cheated" is one which romance readers express very loudly when they encounter a novel labelled a romance but which ends unhappily. And there is a moral demand inherent in this: as Jennifer Porter has observed, "ultimately the reason many of us read romance is because we have hope in the real world. We believe in the power of the HEA/FN".

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Porter, Jennifer. Tweet from 4 January 2019.

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).

Sherry, Patrick. Images of Redemption: Art, Literature and Salvation. London: T&T Clark, 2003.

laura Wednesday, 29 May, 2019

Pop Culture as Replacement for Religious Ritual?

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 7 January, 2019

In an article published in 1969 John Cawelti suggested that

In earlier more homogeneous cultures religious ritual performed the important function of articulating and reaffirming the primary cultural values. Today, with cultures composed of a multiplicity of differing religious groups, the synthesis of values and their reaffirmation has become an increasingly important function of the mass media and the popular arts. Thus, one important dimension of formula is social or cultural ritual. (388)

I'm not sure if this is true of all forms of popular culture but the idea that genre fiction could be synthesising certain religious values and beliefs chimes with what Jennifer Crusie has to say about the core narrative of romance and detective fiction:

the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there it’s a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human legal interaction: because the good guys risk and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.

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Cawelti, John G. “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature,” Journal of Popular Culture 3.3 (1969): 381-390.

Crusie, Jennifer. I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre,” originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. PAN March 2000.

Separate Church and State, not Families

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 7 August, 2018

Family separation has been, and remains, in the news. At one point

 

Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, invoked the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating mothers from their children.

She was speaking at Thursday’s White House briefing, in response to a question about comments made by the attorney general Jeff Sessions, where he cited a passage in the Bible to justify the policy.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” said Sessions. [...]

Sanders said: “I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing, [but] I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.” (The Guardian, 15 June 2018)

I don't think Mother Maybelle, a secondary character in Janice Sims's "A Love Supreme" (2005), would agree. Given the novella's publication date, she came into existence long before the arrival of the current US administration and cannot therefore be read as a commentary on it. All the same, Maybelle, who provided the funds to establish a 2000-strong church in Georgia, takes a strong stand in favour of keeping a family together, regardless of the legalities.

When Alex, the heroine of the novella, was fourteen, her father

 

died from cancer [...], and our Mom was killed by a drunk driver when I was seventeen. [...]
"What happened to you and your brother and sister after your mother was killed?" Jared asked. [...]
Alex's smile never wavered. "We perpetrated a fraud on the state of Georgia. [...] Since we were minors and had no relatives, the state had the right to put us in foster homes. I was in my senior year in high school. Sam was nine, and Vicky was twelve. After Mom's funeral, Sam, Vicky and I sat down and had a discussion. We knew the house was paid for. It seemed to us that if we could earn enough money to pay for food, electricity, and certain other incidentals, there should be no reason why we couldn't stay in the house." (27-28)

Mother Maybelle came snooping around to check on her and her siblings after their mother's death. Mother Maybelle had insisted on seeing the adult who was living with them. Alex had dragged her inside because she didn't want any of the neighbors to overhear what she had to say to her, then she'd confessed to what they'd been doing: hiding from Social Services, even when they should have been collecting their parents' Social Security payments.

After patiently listening to Alex's reasons for not getting in contact with the proper authorities, Mother Maybelle had surprised her by not turning them in. Instead, she'd insisted that they rely on her in case of emergencies, come to church every Sunday except in case of illness, and have Sunday dinner with her so she could see for herself, every week that they were fine. Even though she was a Christian woman, she'd helped them pull the wool over the government's eyes. "Sometimes," she said now, "a person has to listen to a higher power." Meaning God's rules were more important than man's. (60-61)

The novella was published in an volume titled Can I Get an Amen. In the current political context, it gets one from me.

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Sims, Janice. "A Love Supreme". Can I Get an Amen. Washington, DC: Arabesque, 2005. 1-108.

Fake it till you make it

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 8 April, 2018

This post, for once, isn't about a work of popular romance fiction. It's about a Mercedes Lackey short story, "Ghost in the Machine" (2010), which centres around a game called "Many Worlds Online, one of the most popular multiplayer online games on the planet" (264). This game, like

World of Warcraft [...] follows a model of role-playing games that are based on a fantasy world, complete with magical powers and created mythologies. As such it is a very good example of what Possamai calls "hyper-real religion." Participation in the game, then, allows gamers to choose to engage in ritual and mythology that is deliberately created. These creations may draw from pre-modern traditions, ancient mythologies, and bygone ritual practices. (Klassen 184)

In Lackey's story a new "Dark Valley" zone has recently gone live, containing "a Boss Monster that [...] was a fairly accurate interpretation of the Native American Wendigo" (267). Her worldbuilding takes as its starting-point the lived experience of  gamers while in the magical worlds they inhabit: "In an interview study of players of World of Warcraft, Stef Aupers discovered that the majority of players he talked with named themselves atheists and specifically rejected traditional religions" (Klassen 185) but

players admit that they often experience their magical self and its magical actions as real. While immersed in play they often 'forget' that World of Warcraft is in fact a computer game, mediated by technological hardware, software, keyboard and a screen. Typical are statements like: [...] "[e]specially when you are a wizard, someone who knows how to cast spells, you really feel you have power. Like Gandalf in the movie ... The evil ones are just scared. It has impact." [...] Experience is key; over and over again they conclude: "I experience it as real." (Aupers 240-41)

Lackey takes this experience of reality to a logical, if faith/magic-imbued conclusion, by supposing that such in-game belief might lead to the creation of "something in there that you never coded" (268) but which becomes real as a result of the players' belief. The game developers have, in other words,

basically built a mythago, because you adhered so faithfully to the Native American descriptions. [...]  a 'mythago' [...]'s a term invented by Robert Holdstock to describe idealized mythic images come to life. [...] The more realistic you make games, the more people believe in them as they play them. If any of your players have untapped magical ability, the more they believe, the more of that gets invested in the reality of the game. [...]"

"Belief can be very powerful," Taylor said [...]. "Powerful enough to create things in the real world. I'm not surprised it can create something in cyberspace." (296-97)

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Aupers, Stef. "'An Infinity of Experiences.' Hyper-Real Paganism and Real Enchantment in World of Warcraft." Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions. Ed. Adam Possamai. Leiden: Brill, 2012. 225-245.

Klassen, Chris. Religion and Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lackey, Mercedes. "Ghost in the Machine." Trio of Sorcery. New York: Tor, 2010. 259-351.

"Alternative Facts": Some Thoughts After Quaker Meeting

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 29 January, 2017

The Quaker Advices and Queries states that "Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth" because, as explained elsewhere,

An oath is like a formal version of a promise – in saying certain words, you guarantee that you are speaking the truth. Quakers claimed always to speak the truth, so they took issue with swearing oaths, seeing them as creating a double standard of truthfulness. If you need to swear an oath to guarantee you are telling the truth, then you can’t really feel that you must tell the truth the rest of the time.

I couldn't help but think of someone who recently swore an oath and who certainly would not be able to answer in the affirmative these questions, posed in the Advices and Queries:

Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? Do you maintain strict integrity in business transactions and in your dealings with individuals and organisations? Do you use money and information entrusted to you with discretion and responsibility?

Sadly that may mean that, for many of the rest of us, the next paragraph of the Advices and Queries will become increasingly pertinent:

If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it? Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions.

Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr)

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 7 January, 2017

 

I was sent a copy of Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr) around Christmas but I waited till after New Year to take a closer look at it. It's not about envying the Virgin Mary, although her presence does make itself felt particularly in the final chapter.

The editors suggest that "our ideas about virginity - the hymen in particular - and the phallus are 'cultural fantasies' that continue to inspire, provoke, and unsettle us" (2): the first and second essays in the volume show the continuities across the centuries of some of these "cultural fantasies". And yet:

As we began to discuss virginity, however, we realized that many of these common virginal narratives are not true. Virginity extends well beyond the girl who protects herself and her hymen until marriage. [...] Indeed, insistence on the hymen erases all kinds of bodies save the most normative, cisgendered body of the female. Therefore, it is imperative that we go beyond the hymen and think about virginity without it. Truth be told, boys are virgins, queers are virgins, some people reclaim their virginities, and others reject virginity from the get go. (4-5)

The editors have tried to ensure that the collection of essays in the volume have a wide range but "as editors regret that this collection does not contain much about lesbian or trans virginities - important areas of research that need to be attended to [...]. It is surprising that, though virginity studies is a field dominated by the idea that virginity is female, lesbian experiences of virginity are unaccounted for in the scholarship" (11). There is a discussion of Catalina de Erauso, though, in the last chapter.

I've copied out the abstracts of the two chapters on romance in this post so here I'll just highlight a few other quotes/elements which piqued my interest, mainly relating to depictions of race/ethnicity/geography and religion in texts/contexts related to popular romance fiction.

Chapter 1: "I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet": Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance [by Amy Burge, pages 17-44.]

Amy Burge's

focus throughout is on the [virginity] test as it applies to women, echoing the deeply gendered discourses that surround virginity testing: there are no virgin sheikhs. (18)

I'm kind of tempted to look for one now, just in case he exists out there somewhere. Almost certainly not published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, though, as I know Amy researched those very, very carefully.

Given the popularity of virgin heroines in romance fiction, it's really interesting to note that her

large-scale analysis of Mills & Boon Modern Romance [i.e. the line known as Harlequin Presents in the North American market] novels reveals that female virginity is particularly pronounced in romance novels with "foreign heroes": the ubiquitous Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Brazilians, Argentines, and, of course, sheikhs. Of the 931 Modern Romance novels published in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2009, 458 feature virgin heroines, and 281 of them (approximately 61 percent) have foreign heroes. This simultaneously reveals Western preoccupation with virginity and its situating of it "elsewhere." (21)

This does begin to make me wonder if, among English-speaking writers and readers, Greece, Italy and Spain are in some way not considered part of the "West," and in turn reminds me of Hsu-Ming Teo's essay about Rudolph Valentino playing the part of the "sheik." Teo mentions that

the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 [in the US] “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. [...] To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks."

Something of that hierarchy perhaps continues to haunt romance fiction; as a result of my own research on Greece in popular romance (forthcoming) I came across the suggestion that in England the Mediterrean has been particularly associated with passion since at least the early modern period.

It isn't entirely clear why cultures assumed to be more passionate should also be assumed to value virginity more highly but it is certainly stressed in romance novels set in the "romance East" that "female virginity is of great cultural importance. Sheikh romances repeatedly highlight the importance placed on virginity in Eastern culture [...]. Such a cultural valuing is connected to ideas of tradition often glossed as 'medieval.'" (Burge 23). As Burge concludes:

For contemporary popular romance fiction to construct the "romance East" as a space in which "medieval" virginity can be celebrated echoes the similar practice of situating practices or attitudes inappropriate today - such as sexual violence - in a distant space, such as the historical past or, indeed, the East. Relegating the valuing and testing of virginity to the East might be in line with current popular ideas about the East, but it also reveals some of the romance genre's motivations for situating this valuing in the fictional romance East. In other words, for the romance genre to celebrate the unequal traditions of heteronormativity, the virginity testing that upholds these traditions must be situated "elsewhere." As much as many Western readers [...] might condemn "foreign" cultures for continuing to conduct virginity tests, the gender hegemony that these tests uphold is clearly evident and even celebrated in our own romantic cultural imagination, as revealed in the pages of some of the most popular contemporary Western fiction. (34-35)

Chapter 2: Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen [by Jodi McAlister, pages 45-64.

Given the way in which the valuing of virginity is located "elsewhere" in the popular romances examined by Burge, it's intriguing that McAlister observes that

in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries [..] Some virgins were said to be affected by chlorosis or "green-sickness," for which marriage was recommended as the cure [...]. We can see this represented in [...] the 1682 ballad "A Remedy for the Green Sickness" [...] We can see represented here not only the cure for green-sickness but also the pathologization of maintained virginity that existed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hanne Blank notes that it is an interesting coincidence that green-sickness was so often diagnosed during the period in which Protestantism, with its emphasis on marriage as the ideal state, became popular in Europe. (47-48)

Is it also a coincidence that the countries/places onto which romance novels seem to project the idealisation of virginity are not Protestant? Possibly it is, but at the same time I can't help but remember that in the seventeenth century:

European writers associated Islam with, and criticized it for, excessive and depraved sexual practices. The sexual excesses of Muslims were believed to derive from their religion, which permitted polygamy. (Teo, Desert 40-41)

A couple of centuries later, Gothic fiction linked Catholicism and "depraved" sexuality. For example:

When in The Monk (1796), Matthew G. Lewis uses the details of conventual life to suggest lurid forms of sexual excess such as necromancy, incest, matricide, and same-sex love, he does not need to explain his choice of a Catholic setting, a Mediterranean country (Spain, not Italy in this case), or religious life itself. All these things, to the English imagination at least, make such easy, rational sense that Lewis could assume a general understanding of (and even assent to) his extravagant posturing. And while reviewers criticized Lewis’s excess, they never suggested that his portrayal of Catholic monastic life was inappropriate. If the novel can be considered sensational, that is not because anyone objected to the portrayal of the characters themselves: oversexed and violent Catholic priests, victimizing and vindictive nuns, devil worship and self-abuse. These and other lurid sexual possibilities were common popular perceptions of conventual life in Mediterranean countries. (Haggerty)

Is it yet another coincidence that all this sexual excess is taking place in settings which are supposed to be filled with virgins?

Chapter 3 - The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga [by Jonathan A. Allan and Cristina Santos, pages 67-96.

Edward, the virgin hero of the Twilight saga is "foreign" in a different way from Mediterranean romance heroes: he is a vampire. Again, there is a link to religion:

Silver argues that his values are "uncommon in popular, mainstream secular discourse about young adult sexuality today." [...] there is an entire industry dedicated to ensuring sexual purity, which though having a religious affiliation, is also very much a part of secular culture. (72)

The issue of virginity in US culture is also mentioned in the next chapter.

Chapter 4 - Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood [Janice Zehentbauer and Cristina Santos, pages 97-123.]

Certainly, in the past two decades in America, evangelical church groups and the American government have united to encourage youth in general, and young women in particular, to choose abstinence [...]. Historian and independent scholar Hanne Blank points out that, "of all the developed world, the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." (97)

Zehentbauer and Santos suggest that

Twenty-first-century America's obsession with virginity also emerges in many artifacts of popular culture, especially those of the gothic or supernatural genres. In her influential Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach argues that vampires, in the Anglo-American cultural imaginary, embody and signify the sociopolitical concerns of the era that produces them. (98)

If the US policies around virginity have been at all divisive, and it would seem that they have, given that "repealing abstinence-only programs, much less authorizing the full scope of reproductive health care services, runs into deep moral divides" (Morone and Ehlke 318), and if Edward's values "are 'uncommon in [...] secular discourse," could it be that those values have to be translated into a "foreign" (in this case vampiric) context to make them palatable to a mass audience which is, nonetheless, still fascinated by virginity and what it represents?

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The other chapters in the volume are:

McGuiness, Kevin. "The Queer Saint: Male Virginity in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane." (127-143.)

Ncube, Gibson. "Troping Boyishness, Effeminacy, and Masculine Queer Virginity: Abdellah Taïa and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri." (145-169.)

Sayed, Asma. "Bollywood Virgins: Diachronic Flirtations with Indian Womanhood." (173-190.)

Crowe Morey, Tracy and Adriana Spahr. "The Policing of Viragos and other "Fuckable" Bodies: Virginity as Performance in Latin America." (191-231.)

That last chapter introduced me to Catalina de Erauso whose life

reads like a picaresque novel. Born, probably in 1592, to a noble Basque family in San Sebastián, Spain, she bolted from a convent before taking her vows, assumed masculine clothing, gave herself a new identity as "Francisco de Loyola," and, early in the seventeenth century , made her way to the New World, where she led the rough-and-ready life of a soldier in the Spanish colonies.

On the battlefield she was a formidable warrior; in her other exploits she gambled, engaged in dalliances with women, brawled, and faced death sentences for murder. Once her true sex was revealed, she became a celebrity in Spain. [...]

In her memoir Erauso stressed her chief virtues as a man--physical courage--and as a woman--virginity . While she did not stint at recounting transgressive acts of "manly" bravery such as fights resulting in murder, she was more oblique when referring to acts that were sexually transgressive.

At no point does Erauso speak of physical attraction to a man. She did, however, include several incidents that show her affection for women. (Rapp)

As the authors note, she fared much better than either Joan of Arc or more modern women whose soldiering/other forms of political engagement was responded to with state-sponsored violence that included rape and execution.

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Allan, Jonathan A. and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 67-96.
Burge, Amy, 2016. 
"‘I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet’: Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 17-44.
Haggerty, George. 2004-2005. 
"The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction." Romanticism on the Net 36-37.
McAlister, Jodi, 2016. 
"Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 45-64.
 
Morone, James A. and Daniel C. Ehlke, 2013. 
Health Politics and Policy. Fifth Edition. Cengage.
Rapp. Linda. 2003. 
"Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592- ca 1650)." glbtq Encyclopedia.
Teo, Hsu-Ming, 2010. 
'Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film', Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1.
Teo, Hsu-Ming. 2012. 
Desert passions: Orientalism and romance novels. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Zehentbauer, Janice and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 97-123.
 

Part III - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 12 June, 2016

Continued from Part I and Part II. In this post I've written up my notes and comments on the final papers:

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans

 

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Fiona's research focuses on:

the use of romance and the romance genre within contemporary women's literature, and the extent to which its creation of authentic relationships is a feminist endeavour. Combining Jean-Paul Sartre's interest in existential authenticity and his views on the need for authenticity within relationships I will be examining the work of Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Jeanette Winterson and considering the ways in which they have created representations of 'authentic love' within their literature through the re-writing of the romance genre.With Sartre’s theory, and belief that authenticity within a romantic relationship was possible, I will consider the extent to which contemporary women writers mirror this belief within their literature. I will aim to use this research to question borders between high and low culture through an exploration of the practice of romance writing by contemporary women writers and a consideration of whether the current boundaries are typical of, and help define,a contemporary female aesthetic which re-writes the romance.

 

In this paper Fiona outlined the relationships depicted in Zadie Smith's NW and Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries. Fiona contrasted the same-sex relationship between women with the heterosexual ones and also looked at the pressure on women within a heterosexual relationship to have children. Fiona suggested these novels question aspects of compulsory heterosexuality and therefore differ from/re-write the romance.

I haven't read either of these novels but I wonder if they're maybe closer to some genre romances than others. For example, in Karin Kallmaker's genre romance In Every Port, one of the heroines is involved in a heterosexual relationship when she first meets the other heroine and so there is some discussion/contrasting of lesbian and heterosexual relationships. I'm not sure whether Jane Rule would have classified her Desert of the Heart as a romance but it can certainly be considered one and in it:

Evelyn thought marriage was a way to make herself a real woman, but she was unable to have children and is not sure whether she ever really loved her husband. It is her connection with Ann, finally, that puts her in touch with her femininity and all that it encompasses: "She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lovely thing it was to be, a woman."(After Ellen)

Some romances nowadays depict polyamorous relationships between more than two people. So there may be elements of the two novels Fiona analysed which are, in fact, present in romance novels. Maybe romance has been re-writing itself?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Lucy is a "Writer, gripped by the legacy of the Apollo moon landings and currently at work on a fan fiction project". Her Rarefied (falling without landing) was written

in response to the documentary Apollo Wives, a series of interviews with the wives of the Apollo astronauts. They talked about the experience of being plunged into the media spotlight while their husbands were on the Apollo programme and how they formed strong bonds with each other while living in close proximity on a military housing base.
 
Structurally I have been using fairly strict constraints to number of lines and number of beats in a line, but these are significantly longer than the palette I used to work with. I find that it has been very liberating to lengthen my lines and it has felt like reintroducing oxygen into the writing to a degree. The ability to let the writing breathe and allow a vestige of narrative provided an entry point into the work which however I felt I could still control. Some of my earlier work had got so sparse that it was almost visual. This shift meant the text became more expansive, capable of including narrative, memory and speech in quite a different way. (Peony Moon)

Lucy's approach to the texts discussed in her paper (Jane Eyre, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Fifty Shades of Grey) similarly mixed the visual and textual. In Jane Eyre fire represents passion out of control. In Brontë's own life, the passionate romances she'd read and enjoyed in the Ladies Journal were burned by her father because he disapproved of their content. In other circumstances he feared fire and therefore kept the parsonage interior rather austere so that it would be less of a fire risk. Nonetheless, her brother, Branwell, set his curtains on fire while drunk. These events may have affected Charlotte's depiction of the destruction of Thornfield Hall by Mr Rochester's wife, who has been hidden in the upper level of the house.

In Rebecca, it is again the influence of the displaced wife which causes the fire that destroys the hero's home and Lucy also noticed the way in which the narrator of Rebecca had earlier burned some text written by Rebecca.

Lucy was intrigued by the similarities between this burning, the burning of the Ladies Journal and contemporary burnings of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Burning of texts/books naturally led us to discuss censorship and I was reminded of Lady Chatterley's Lover,

one the most banned books in history. Infamous for its explicit descriptions of sex and other vulgarities, it was only published openly in the United Kingdom in 1960. The book focused on the illicit affair between an upper class woman and her lower class gamekeeper, and it was received with outrage and intrigue, resulting in numerous abridged versions being published throughout the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's. [...]

First printings were bound with brown boards with an insignia of a phoenix gracing its front cover. The phoenix has remained a potent symbol for the book, in large part because of the book's victory in the infamous British Obscenity Trial in 1960. (Biblio)

The phoenix, of course, rises from the ashes and it's been suggested that some of the fire in Jane Eyre could be read similarly as a similarly purifying/productive force:

The image of fire might symbolize signifying first sinfulness, then rebirth. Since the passionate love that Rochester and Jane first held was sinful, it was accompanied by images of fire and burning--possibly a portrait of Hell. After Jane leaves Thornfield, and her "burning" desires for Rochester are somewhat subdued, the next and final image of fire occurs. In the fire that destroyed Thornfield, Rochester proved his worthiness to Jane by attempting to save Bertha from the blaze. A feat that indicated that he had tempered his "burning" passions regarding Jane and Bertha and atoned for the wrongs that he had perpetrated on the women in his life. Shortly thereafter, Jane and Rochester reunited and each proved to be reborn. (Vaughon)

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Deborah's "doctoral research seeks to identify left-of-centre Spanish and Portuguese women writers from the early decades of the twentieth century whose works have been excluded from the literary canon. By focusing on novels by politically progressive women in early twentieth-century Iberia, the thesis aims to examine how a selection of female authors used literature as a means of political expression, while uncovering the shared experiences of Iberian women."

That context was dominated by military upheaval. In Spain a Republican government was overthrown after a Civil War which ended with the triumph of the fascists, under General Franco (in power from 1939-1975). Similarly in Portugal

the 28 May 1926 coup d'état, sometimes called 28 May Revolution or, during the period of the authoritarian Estado Novo (English: New State), the National Revolution (Portuguese: Revolução Nacional), was a military coup that put an end to the unstable Portuguese First Republic and initiated the Ditadura Nacional (National Dictatorship), later refashioned into the Estado Novo, an authoritarian dictatorship that would last until the Carnation Revolution in 1974. (Wikipedia)

Federica Montseny

was born in Madrid, Spain, on 12th February, 1905. Her parents were the co-editors of the anarchists journal, La Revista Blanca (1898-1905). In 1912 the family returned to Catalonia and farmed land just outside Barcelona. Later they established a company that specialized in publishing libertarian literature.

Montseny joined the anarchist labour union, National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). As well as working in the family publishing business she contributed articles to anarchist journals such as Solidaridad Obrera, Tierra y Libertad and Nueva Senda. In her writings Montseny called for women's emancipation in Spain. [...]

In November 1936 Francisco Largo Caballero appointed Montseny as Minister of Health. In doing so, she became the first woman in Spanish history to be a cabinet minister. Over the next few months Montseny accomplished a series of reforms that included the introduction of sex education, family planning and the legalization of abortion. (Spartacus)

Heroínas, the novel by Montseny which Deborah discussed, was published around 1936, is set during a revolution and involves a heroine who has two suitors. The first is a socialist who proposes to marriage to the heroine in the event that they win the revolution because he believes she would be an asset to him in his political career. She turns him down and is rather more attracted to an anarchist who seems to embody the romantic ideal but is, however, already involved with another woman and is therefore also deemed unsuitable. Both men are executed but the heroine survives and continues the fight. [Quite a lot of pages of the novel have been put online here by Margaret Killjoy who found it at International Institute of Social History, which "is the world’s largest repository of anarchist history. Of particular note to me, it houses almost-complete collections of La Novela Ideal and La Novela Libre". Unfortunately Margaret "can’t really read enough Spanish to understand these things. So please, anyone with interest in this stuff, let me know. If the stories are good, I’d be happy to make them available in zine format. And if anyone is feeling really inspired, I’d be happy to print English translations as well." (details here)]

Maria Lamas's novel Para Além do Amor (1935) features a heroine who is unhappily trapped in a loveless marriage to a rich industrialist. She takes a lover who encourages her to work to improve the lives of the workers by setting up medical facilities for them etc. He has the opportunity to move abroad and wants them to go together but she rejects him, saying that she stays in Portugal not out of fear, or even from love for her children, but because she must continue her work.

These aren't the happy endings one would expect in a romance novel. I wondered if they could, perhaps, be thought of as romances in which the ideal partner is not another human being but a cause. Perhaps that's a bit of a stretch.

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans

Martina's paper and current research was prompted by an article which stated that Afrikaans women's romantic fiction features active female sexual characters. While Martina thinks this is true of some women's writing in Afrikaans (for example an autobiographical account by a sex worker), she does not believe it is true of the works of a highly acclaimed author (and academic) whose novels sounded to me like "inspirational" (Christian) romance albeit with mild depictions of sexual activity. These Afrikaans heroines do have pre-marital sex and have even had previous sexual partners before they meet their heroes. However, the sexual passages in the novels are not very explicit, give the heroines rather passive roles in love-making and suggest that true sexual fullfilment can only be found with the right partner (i.e. the man the heroine will marry).

Perhaps these novels are aimed at a different audience from the readers of the far more explicit Afrikaans women's fiction?

It was noted that the "elephant in the room" in these novels is the whiteness of almost all the characters (and certainly all the protagonists). Despite this, these novels are apparently read in townships and that's also despite the existence of English-language romance novels about Black protagonists. I took a look at the covers of the novels written by the members of the Romance Writers Association of South Africa and they mostly seemed to feature White protagonists too, unlike the romances published by Nollybooks and Kwela Press (which are discussed in this article by the BBC and also this academic one).

Who's Being Empowered Here?

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 12 September, 2015

For the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies Stacy E. Holden's interviewed authors and editors of romance novels featuring sheikh heroes, including Lynn Raye Harris, who,

much like the ten other authors and three editors interviewed for this article—denies an explicit intent to address politics in her romance novels, but both the text of her novels and the transcripts of her interviews belie this unassuming assertion. Indeed, the author reveals a belief that her novels may well contribute to a better American understanding of the Arab world. Analyzing the sheikh, a composite Arab hero that essentializes the region’s political and cultural complexities, she notes that “I think it’s important for romance reader to think of him as a man, to know that he is sexy and desirable as a man from their own culture could be. Maybe that’s naive of me, but I choose to believe having sheikhs populate romance novels makes readers think of them as people, not terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists who hate America” (Harris, email, Follow Up, 11 February 2013).

However, it would seem that part of what these authors do in order to make "readers think of them as people, not terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists", is remove a great deal of the sheikh's non-Western culture, replacing it with "a fantasy that eschews discussion of any factual differences between the US and specific countries of the Middle East and North Africa, instead celebrating an exoticized fantasy about a glamorous Arab culture", and most of his religious beliefs:

authors express the desire to break free from the negative stereotypes of Arabs put forth in other media via the vehicle of romance, a worthy intention indeed. In order to accomplish this goal, however, authors sometimes suppress certain aspects of Arab culture and contribute inadvertently to Orientalist discourse. Islam, for example, is the principal religion of the Middle East and North Africa, and highly misunderstood by many Americans. This religion is not necessarily off limits in romance novels, though the treatment of it by authors exists on a spectrum, one that ranges from complete omission of it to oblique or (occasionally) direct interaction with it.

One of Sandra Marton's sheikhs, for instance, is

ethnically Arab, and yet he is culturally quite Western in his orientation. He is an alumnus of Yale University, and his American mother resides in California. The cover of the book deliberately eschews visual mention of Arab culture, since it features a naked man and woman in bed together. Noting that Arab clothing can be “off-putting,” Marton and her editor “had long ago agreed that my sheikh books would never feature covers in which my character was dressed in Arab garb.” Marton also insists that her stories “deliberately avoided religious discussion or religious rules.” Towards this last, her stories actually upturn the principles of the Islamic majority in the Arab world. She notes that she allows her sheikhs to drink wine, prohibited by Islam, “because I give them a backstory that involves being educated in the West” (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2-13). Her readers responded to this formula.

Holden concludes that

With its explicit images and arousing fantasies in which Arabs and Americans ultimately live together in peace, the sheikh romance novel can be read as a form of socio-political erotica. [...] Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in light of their authors’ intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one which exchanges Huntington’s vision of a Clash of Civilizations for a world in which the clash between individuals from two worlds, now at odds, is ultimately an erotic clash: one which leads them to fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together.

Megan Crane's response to Holden, also published in this issue of JPRS, is that

one could as easily substitute “Scottish highlander” or “Greek tycoon” for “sheikh” and make many of these same arguments

Up to a point, I'd agree, but I don't think it in any way undermines Holden's argument.

As someone who was born and lives in Scotland, I've found the US romance novels set in Scotland unsettling. Admittedly I haven't read many of them, but that's because the ones I did read felt as though they were set in a parallel universe. I knew I wasn't the intended reader and I wondered why this version of Scotland appealed to US readers. What is clear to me, though, is that while "Highlander" romances may resemble "sheikh" romances in some respects, I think they do some different political work in others. For example, they presumably have particular appeal to US citizens who have Scottish ancestors.

As someone who's half Spanish, romances with Spanish heroes, written by non-Spanish authors, generally also make me feel as though they're depicting a parallel version of the place inhabited by most of my family. Again, I haven't read many because I find the experience of reading them very strange. However, I've read enough to think romances with Greek, Spanish and Italian heroes play into stereotypes about "hot-blooded", macho Latin lovers. As far as I can tell, they also tend to imply that mediterranean cultures are less advanced than northern European ones in terms of their attitudes towards gender. And I notice that there aren't equal numbers of Greek, Spanish and Italian heroines, which makes this feel like these books' "implied reader" is not a Greek, Spanish or Italian woman.

Crane, however, would

argue that any fantasies in these stories have more to do with the modern woman’s belief in the power of femininity to solve problems and change lives for the better than in any kind of cultural or historical revision. For example, the popularity of this or that band of warriors (see: the alpha heroes of Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, Julie Garwood’s beloved Highlanders, Kristen Ashley’s almost-outlaw biker gang) who are forever altered once the members begin to fall in love.

I think that's part of it (although since a belief in "the power of femininity" can be deeply sexist, as in the nineteenth-century "cult of domesticity", I'm extremely wary of the idea that any particular gender identity imparts special powers). At least when this belief is played out using paranormal creatures the lines between reality and fantasy are pretty clear and if they're less so when idealised US cowboys or bikers are involved, they're probably offset by news reports etc which inform readers of the realities involved in these lifestyles. Even if they aren't, idealisation of cowboys and bikers isn't likely to cause cowboys or bikers much, if any, harm.

The situation seems to me to be significantly different when romances draw on, and thereby reinforce, racial/ethnic/cultural stereotypes which are accepted by many as being, at least partially, based in reality. Nouha al-Hegelan, for example, has stated that,

As a result of Western misinformation and lack of awareness, Arab women are unfortunately, victims of the stereotyping process. There is little understanding of either our status as women or the total context of our lives.

It is problematic when, in order to bolster "modern women's belief in the power of femininity to solve problems and change lives for the better" entire nationalities/cultures are identified as barbarian/medieval/backward so that they pose more of a challenge to, and make all the sweeter the victory of, the White Anglo woman.

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al-Hegelan, Nouha. "Women in the Arab World." First published in Arab Perspectives 1.7 (October 1980). Republished online by Cornell University. [I quoted her in an earlier post I wrote, at Teach Me Tonight, about sheikh romances.]

Crane, Megan. "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': An Author's Response". Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015).

Holden, Stacy E. "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels". Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015).

Dame Barbara

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 27 October, 2013

When the Romantic Novelists' Association was inaugurated in January 1960, Barbara Cartland was one of two Vice Presidents and she

was the biggest personality ever in the Romantic Novelists' Association, even though she was only a member for six years. She was undoubtedly a major force in getting it off the ground and recruiting founder members. But over the years she has also presented a problem, with which the Association still grapples today: that carefully crafted image of hers has been accepted universally as the archetypal romantic novelist. (Haddon & Pearson 22)

Rosalind Brunt, for example, while acknowledging that Cartland "cannot be understood in terms of a norm or an average [...] would suggest that Cartland is 'typical' in the sense of embodying certain features that are 'characteristic' of romance" (127). Cartland's novels certainly provide some very clear examples of what Kyra Kramer and I have termed

the “alchemical” model of romantic relationships, [in which] the heroine’s socio-sexual body (her Glittery HooHa) attracts, and ensures the monogamy of, the hero’s socio-sexual body (his Mighty Wang), allowing the heroine’s socio-political body (her Prism) to focus, and benefit from, the attributes of the hero’s socio-political body (his Phallus).

This is a model she would have encountered in her own reading of romantic fiction when still a schoolgirl because she

read voraciously - dozens and dozens of light romantic novels: Elinor Glyn, E. M. Hull, whose book The Sheik had set Edwardian womanhood aquiver with dreams of an illicit passion for a desert lover, and the Queen of all romantic lady novelists, Ethel M. Dell. [...] she is insistent on the debt she owes to Ethel M. Dell, a prolific and almost totally forgotten author.

I have copied her formula all my life. What she said was a revelation - that men were strong, silent, passionate heroes. And really my whole life has been geared to that. She believed, and I believed, that a woman, in order to be a good woman, was pure and innocent, and that God always answered her prayers, sooner or later.

There was a further lesson Barbara learned from Miss Dell [...]. It was [...] the belief, as she has put it, that 'human passions are transformed by love into the spiritual and become part of the divine'. (Cloud 31-32)

Consequently, Cartland's own works of fiction

speak with mystical and transcendental accents of romance as a means to spiritual enlightenment. [...] In her many novels, Cartland promoted what she referred to as a “religion of love,” a concept she explained as a theo-philosophical concept in her many non-fictional books. The myth that Cartland cultivated in her novels was that we are saved from our material-physical prison by love. (Rix)

While Dell influenced the content of Cartland's novels, their style would appear to owe much to Lord Beaverbrook, the proprietor of the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, who took her as a protégée:

'Max taught me to write,' she says. 'I believe it is entirely due to him that I have been so successful with my books and the thousands of articles I have done over the years.' [...] she would take her Express and Standard paragraphs to the Hyde Park Hotel where Beaverbrook maintained a phone-filled office. There he would make a great performance of cross-questioning her about what she had written, then pulling her article into little pieces and crossing out the superfluities until finally he applied the proprietorial initials of approval and the authorised version went off to the paper for automatic inclusion.

The trouble, of course, was that Beaverbrook's idea of how to write was highly individual. He liked opinions expressed with certainty in short paragraphs, short sentences and short words. This was a fine formula for popular newspapers but not, alas, for great literature. The Beaver's influence is easily detected in Barbara Cartland's romantic fiction and I am not at all convinced that the influence is wholly benign. (Heald 45-46)

She herself, though, does not seem to have aspired to writing "great literature." When Tim Heald began the process of writing about her, he told Cartland he'd

better get down to some hard reading. She agreed that I must look at her four autobiographies but when I touched on the estimated 575 novels she said, quite rattily, 'Oh, you don't want to read them - they're all the same.' I said nothing to this, but thought, privately, that this was the sort of judgement made by her enemies. It was not what she herself was supposed to say. (14-15)

When asked by another biographer, Henry Cloud, about her heroines, she responded "Oh, she is always me, and always virginal of course. She's something of a Cinderella" (14). Her son, Ian McCorquodale, who became responsible for marketing the novels,concurred with her about this: he "maintains that all his mother's novels are variations on the Cinderella theme" (Heald 47). Heald's

impression is that while she would defend her work on grounds of style, accuracy of research and detail, and general all-round professionalism she acknowledges, within her own circle, that they are merely artefacts designed to give wholesome, harmless pleasure to what in a former age would have been servants and shop girls. (193-94)

Heald doesn't wholly disagree with Cartland's assessment of her work but he notes that she didn't write "her first historical romance [...] Hazard of Hearts" (129)

until 1948 [...]. She was a mature woman of forty-seven who had been writing novels for a quarter of a century before she suddenly hit on the formula which was to make her world famous. (130)

and it was, furthermore, only in the 1970s that

she really slipped into gear and started to churn them out at the prodigious rate she has maintained into her nineties [...] The popular conception is that all her books are historical romances yet this is far from the truth. Earlier novels were different. Jigsaw, the very first, was set in Mayfair, the world she knew best. [...] Later novels also took place in contemporary settings and some took themselves surprisingly seriously. None did so more than Sleeping Swords published in 1942 under her married name. The Daily Telegraph described it as 'long, serious' and 'well done'; the Manchester Guardian opined that she had adopted a 'Wells formula' and given us a 'socio-political novel, this time concerned with the last four decades of English history'.

I don't think that anyone, then or now, would claim that Sleeping Swords was a great novel but it had aspirations to genuine seriousness. (Heald 201-03)

Cloud, though, thought Cartland was also serious about her later novels:

She believes implicitly in what she writes, and this is the key to their success, the vital quality she shares with every really big, mass-selling author of popular fiction - sincerity. It is impossible to conterfeit and pointless to deride. Edgar Wallace had it, so did Ian Fleming, so does Barbara - the ability to turn their private dreams into the sort of myth that has a universal appeal. (16)

Not quite universal, I think, but certainly one that found a worldwide market.

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Brunt, Rosalind. "A Career in Love: The Romantic World of Barbara Cartland." Popular Fiction and Social Change. Ed. Christopher Pawling. London: Macmillan, 1984. 127-156.

Cloud, Henry. Barbara Cartland: Crusader in Pink. 1979. London: Pan, 1981.

Haddon, Jenny & Diane Pearson. Fabulous at Fifty: Recollections of the Romantic Novelists' Association 1960-2010. RNA, 2010.

Heald, Tim. A Life of Love: Barbara Cartland. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.

Rix, Robert W. '“Love in the Clouds”: Barbara Cartland's Religious Romances." The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 21.2 (2009).

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).