Sex and the Believable HEA

By Laura Vivanco on

Susan Ostrov Weisser suggests that

the value we now put on sexual pleasure requires that we validate passion as the starter yeast for the long-term relationship, with the "meant to be" narrative guiding the tricky transition from mysterious passion to rational choice. If it doesn't go well ... you guessed it; it wasn't meant to be [....]. That is, "first comes the passion," then a more "mature" version of romance, which will develop out of the first stage, and which will be permanent if the object is the One. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship. Few of my students seem aware that historically this is a rather novel idea. [...] The initial stage is supposed to have features very much like passionate sexual desire: intense, spontaneous, inexplicable, beyond control. The "mature" second act is more akin to friendship, stressing liking, mutuality, compatibility, and loyalty. (8-9)

This may have become "the chief ideology of Anglo-American romance" (51) but

the nineteenth-century press shows deep conflict, apparently fascinating to the Victorian public, about the essential nature of love itself: Is it instinctual or voluntary? Is it under our control, or is it what one writer called a "master passion" that cannot be constrained by choice? [...] The most dominant anxiety in the nineteenth-century press is that love is a desire for gratification, a strong and universal instinct that overrides judgment - analogous to, if not rooted in, sexual desire and other egotistic longings. In this view romance is said to lead to no good except pleasure. (53-54)

In other words, there were concerns that an uncontrollable sexual passion was more likely to be a recipe for disaster than the "starter yeast" for a long and happy marriage.

That there are still differences of opinion about the relative importance of friendship, similar outlooks and beliefs versus that of passion, is evident in popular romance fiction. For instance, in a short story Joanne Rock wrote for the eHarlequin website, her heroine has just been dumped by her fiancé, Ben, who seemed a sensible, rational choice of partner, and promptly gets back together with Myles, a man with whom she had a one-night stand two years before:

He was pure fantasy. The kind of man that had no business in Kasey’s life since, even though she’d always been a bit of a romantic, she knew that lasting relationships should be based on more practical grounds like fundamental compatibility, common interests and values.

That’s what made her so successful as a casting director. She knew how to put believable characters together on–screen. She put together people like her and Ben — both successful, career–oriented people with common goals and dreams.

Her feet paused on the planks of the wooden boat dock, the soft swish of rhythmic waves and the swirl of Saturday morning marina activity fading into the background as she wondered how she and Ben could look so great on paper and still fail so miserably in real life. What if she’d been basing her relationships on all the wrong things? (9)

Just a couple of days, a few sex scenes and only a very limited amount of conversation later, Myles has gained the

knowledge they were meant to be together. [...] For him, nothing was more important than keeping Kasey in his life — now and always. (18)

My impression is that, over the years, popular romance has attempted to identify the necessary ingredients and the order in which they should be mixed, to create a believably happy ending for the protagonists. While one may be able to identify an overall trend in the baked items they produce, the flavourings, cooking times etc can vary considerably from one author to another:

beginning in the 1960s, when sexual attraction began to be depicted as the initial magnetism drawing the protagonists together, there are authors, such as Mary Burchell, who do not follow the trend. This is still the case, with some authors downplaying its importance, and concentrating on other aspects of love. Examples include Jane Donnelly, who sees love as the recognition of one's other half; Betty Neels, who emphasizes the growth of love over time and Leigh Michaels, who stresses the friendship aspect of love. (Dixon 172)

What I conclude from all this is, firstly, that whether a reader finds a romance's happy ending believable may depend on (a) the reader's beliefs about the most important ingredients in a long-term relationship and (b) the author's receipe for love. If one believes, for example, that passion is a pre-requisite for intimacy, and that the first will inevitably lead to the second if the passion is strong and special enough, then a series of sex scenes followed by a declaration of ever-lasting love will provide a convincing HEA. If, however, the reader believes that shared political, religious and moral beliefs are very important to a lasting relationship, or that a shared sense of humour is vital in a marriage, the same HEA is likely to leave the reader unconvinced.

Secondly, I wonder if changing beliefs about the importance of sex in creating and sustaining long-term romantic relationships might help explain the increase in explicit sexual content in the genre from the 1970s onwards. Some readers undoubtedly do read romance primarily for their erotic content, however this is not necessarily the sole or even the main reason for its inclusion: the increasing number of sex scenes can be understood as a consequence of the assumption that passion is the "starter yeast" for long-term relationships and the stronger the starter yeast, the stronger the relationship.


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

Ostrov Weisser, Susan. The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013.

Rock, Joanne. "Girl Gone Solo." eHarlequin, 2004.

Telling Stories About Ourselves

By Laura Vivanco on

Here's another statement about why it's important to study the stories we read:

One of the most significant developments in narrative studies has been the recognition that humans are “storied selves” (Eakin, 1999, p. 99) living in a “story-shaped world” (Sarbin, 1993, p. 63). In this view, we make meaning of our own lives and others' through narrative; we tell stories to make sense of experience and understand the world around us. We are, in the phrase coined by Fisher (1984), Homo narrans.

[...] For literary critics the centrality of narrative comes as no surprise, but work remains to be done theorizing the complex relationships between fictional stories, which are ubiquitous in human culture, and the myriad stories we tell about ourselves and our world. How do the form and content of fictional narratives shape the stories individuals perceive and construct about their own lives? How does the emplotment of events in the lives of fictional characters influence readers' understanding of the possible and permissible plotlines in their own lives? (Harrison 112)

Harrison adds that

Psychologist Jerome Bruner (2004) [...] acknowledged the powerful role of culture in shaping life stories, which “reflect the prevailing theories about ‘possible lives’ that are part of one's culture.” To “construct their own life narratives,” individuals within a culture can draw upon its “stock of canonical life narratives” (Bruner, 2004, p. 694) and combine and recombine elements of cultural narratives in order to construct their own. Thus, individuals do not merely become their own autobiographical stories; they become “variants of the culture's canonical forms” (Bruner, 2004, p. 694). Conversely, a culture can be understood through the array of life stories its members can tell. Together, contemporary and historical life stories and the cultural narratives that shape them help us understand a culture's values, possibilities, and preoccupations. (112-13)

Her article focuses on stories featuring "the marriage plot" so it's of particular interest to those of us who study, read and/or write popular romance fiction. It's also currently available in full for free.


Harrison, Mary Catherine. "Reading the Marriage Plot." Journal of Family Theory & Review 6.1 (2014): 112-131.

Dame Barbara

By Laura Vivanco on

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.


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).

Black Gay Romance

By Laura Vivanco on

In “What’s Love But a Second Hand Emotion?”: Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel," Marlon B. Ross states that

The black gay romance novel emerges in the mid-1980s both as a riffing response to the kind of pop heteronorm performed by mass mediated hip hop, as well as to the consolidated white gay rights agenda, the rising homonorm that aims to exclude black man-on-man desire while claiming that its own articulation of same-sexuality is categorical, universal, and biologically ordained. (676)

He focuses on Larry Duplechan's Eight Days a Week (1985), James Earl Hardy's B-Boy Blues (1994) and E. Lynn Harris's Invisible Life (1994).

Ross is critical of "hegemonic, homonormal modes of identification that fix gender-dissident desire in order to legitimate it on par with heterosexual love" (674) and while the novels he's chosen are definitely about romantic relationships, I'm not sure they're strictly speaking "romance novels" as defined by the Romance Writers of America, who stipulate that there should be:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Larry Duplechan's novel was

aimed at the new gay white culture forming in the ghettoes of the urban North. The story of an aspiring twenty-two-year-old black gay singer who falls in love with a blond bisexual ex-football player, Duplechan’s first novel, like his succeeding ones, might be called integrationist fantasies, like the post-Civil Rights narratives of good noble blacks, usually men, single-handedly integrating white institutions. (678)

There is apparently no happy ending for the central couple because, "despite their fierce attraction to each other, their relationship fails" (Nelson 633).

Hardy and Harris's books are both the first installment in series. I have the impression that Hardy's comes closest to the pattern expected of "romances" because

Hardy clings to one signal attribute of homonormative romance, the rule that true love can be manifested only in the heteronormalizing coupling convention, as Ann duCille labels this trend in African American women’s fiction. In addition to ruffneck Pooquie’s eventual self-acceptance as a man-loving man who can take it up the ass with the best of sissy-punks, many of Littlebit’s and Pooquie’s love trials revolve around sexual fidelity not only to each other but more crucially to the ideal of monandrous commitment. (Ross 680)

The relationship begun in B-Boy Blues evidently has its ups and downs since the sixth book, A House is not a Home (2005) begins "ten years since Mitchell and Raheim became lovers, and four since they broke up" (Kirkus). It would seem to conclude with a "happy for now": "They give their relationship a second chance, but not until the last few pages of the book. Whether it'll work or not, who knows" (Grey853).

I haven't been able to find out exactly what happens to the protagonist of Harris's Invisible Life but his relationships are turbulent and over the course of the series he shares the stage with other couples.

Regardless of whether or not one thinks of these three novels as "romance" or "romantic fiction" they're an important part of the history of black and gay romance novels.


Nelson, Emmanuel S. "Duplechan, Larry." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature: D-H. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005. 632-34.

Romance Writers of America. "About the Romance Genre."

Ross, Marlon B. " 'What’s Love But a Second Hand Emotion?': Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel." Callaloo 36.3 (2013): 669-687.

History and an Emotional Revolution

By Laura Vivanco on

The period covered by Claire Langhamer's new book, The English in Love: The Intimate Story of An Emotional Revolution is probably not quite "historical" by the standards of popular romance fiction since it looks at the years from "1920-1970" (4) but reading it made me consider beliefs about love in relation to both historical romances and the history of popular romance.

Langhamer argues that

there is something distinctive about the ways in which love, sex, and marriage were interwoven within mid-century England. This is not to suggest that love had no significance for ordinary people prior to the twentieth century or that there was somehow 'more' love in this period than ever before. [...] Romantic love is hardly a modern invention. (11)


While it would be inaccurate to suggest that pre-twentieth-century marriages were characterized by lovelessness, love was not always deemed sufficient reason to marry. [...] By the 1950s emotion alone was increasingly enough. (13)

Thinking about love as an emotion which "has a history. It has meant different things to different people at different moments and has served different purposes" (Langhamer 4) has obvious implications for historical romances.

Historical fiction, I suspect, always keeps one eye on the present even as it looks backwards in order to depict the past. Sometimes the eye looking back sees little more than picturesque clothes and quaint customs and the result is "wallpaper" historical fiction; at others a whole-hearted attempt is made to depict a time and place with its own mentalités (I put that in the plural because societies are not homogenous, and there are likely to be significant differences in the worldviews of people of different social classes etc).


In recent years historical research has taken an 'emotional turn', driven by an assertion that feeling is shaped by time and culture. 'Emotions themselves are extremely plastic,' observes the medievalist Barbara Rosenwein, 'it is very hard to maintain, except at an abstract level that emotions are everywhere the same. (Langhamer 7-8)

another of my suspicions is that it is still more difficult to create a work of historical fiction which is accurate in its depiction of a society's attitudes than one in which, for example, details of clothing have been meticulously researched, partly because because beliefs are much less tangible than old fabrics and less visible than fashion prints but also because the beliefs and attitudes of the author and intended readers may get in the way. I suspect, too, that this might be a bit more likely to true in historical romance than in other kinds of historical fiction because the heroes and heroines of romances are usually people the reader is meant to find admirable and/or "sympathetic" and that probably means they're expected to have attitudes similar to those of the reader. Furthermore, readers of romances usually want the novels to be romantic and they may well define that by their own standards rather than by those of the historical period in which the book is set.

Characters whose attitudes seem closer to those of a modern reader than to those of their own time are not necessarily anachronistic. After all, as mentioned, societies are not homogeneous and it's possible that romance authors are more likely to write about characters whose beliefs are somewhat unusual yet might still have been held by someone living in that period. There's a limit, though, to quite how far "before their time" someone can be and still seem authentic, and there are also implications for such an individual's status in their society.

One way round this might be for authors of historical fiction to concentrate on periods which are not so very far from our own, so that the gap between their attitudes towards love and ours seems easier to bridge. I wonder if that might be one factor underlying the popularity of Regency romances.


Attitudes towards love and marriage would appear to have changed quite rapidly however, even within the past century. One indication of this is provided by lonely hearts columns:

What the modern reader might see as endearingly modest romantic aspirations were not unusual amongst Post clients in the 1920s and 1930s. The successful execution of gendered roles was of apparently more importance than looks and the capacity for passion. A 5 foot 6 inch tall widower felt it important to include his skills as a motor car driver, pony and pig breeder, and experimental fruit grower before self-describing as 'kind and cheery ... and not too ugly'. A commitment to domesticity was paramount: both spinster and bachelor clients requested 'homely' individuals. Steadiness was a much sought-after attribute.

After the Second World War personality traits became more important within the pages of the Post. Women clients now looked for a sense of humour, loyalty and kindness whilst men requested affectionate and loving women. 'Normality' and 'ordinariness' was also much in demand. By 1955, the language of emotional intimacy had shifted. It was not unheard of for those who advertised to suggest that they were looking for a soulmate. We can begin to discern a more introspective model of romantic taste which placed emotional connection at its heart. Changed understandings of love - of its everyday status, meaning, and power - underpinned this model. Within this context, love had the capacity to transform the self. Indeed, a capacity for transcendence came to be a marker of emotional authenticity. (23-24)

I can't help but wonder how these changes affected popular romance fiction. Langhamer notes that

historian Judy Giles explains: 'in the 1920s and 1930s the acceptable response to the longing expressed in romantic fiction was to read these as "silly", "perverted", and "immature", marginal and potentially threatening to the "real" experiences of a woman's life which consisted of prudential marriage and the provision of a comfortable, hygienic home in which to sustain a male breadwinner and rear healthy children.' (54)

Of course romantic fiction isn't homogenous and there's always been a mixture of the really escapist and unrealistic (like E. M. Hull's The Sheik) and the more down-to-earth, which is perhaps more likely to emphasise shared backgrounds and outlooks.  I wonder if, in a way, the more escapist side of the genre came to seem more emotionally realistic as the century moved on and people adopted more idealistic views about transcendent love within marriage. As far as the present is concerned, Langhamer's suggestion that

At the beginning and at the end of the twentieth century sex and love constituted separate, though often interlocking, spheres. The mid-century achievement was to entwine them. (49)

makes me wonder whether romance fiction which equates passion with true love seems increasingly unrealistic in the context of 21st-century attitudes towards love, sex and marriage. Also, given that Langhamer's study is about the English in love, and the centre of romance publishing seems to have moved from London to North America, I wonder whether there are significantly different ideas about love in the US and UK.


Langhamer, Claire. The English in Love: The Intimate Story of An Emotional Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. [Excerpt here and reviews from Times Higher EducationThe Telegraph, The Economist and The Guardian.]

Love's Captive

By Laura Vivanco on

Over at Dear Author Janet has been discussing captivity narratives and she states that,

Whether it’s sexual captivity (the forced seduction/rape fantasy), physical captivity (hostage/prisoner/protection), legal captivity (marriage of convenience, especially against the heroine’s will), meta captivity (BDSM play), or some other variation, the process by which one protagonist is often perceived to be held in captivity until she becomes captivated enough to fall in love with the captor-protagonist has become shorthand for drastically intensifying the emotional and physical power imbalances between the romantic protagonists and playing them out in a way that illustrates the tension between captivity and captivation, and the way love theoretically transforms the nature of the relationship to one based on free choice and mutual happiness.

Rape or near-rape of heroines by heroes may be less common in romance than it once was, but "power imbalances between the romantic protagonists" are still extremely common and Robin Harders argues that, "Of all the motifs in genre romance, captivity is one of the most ubiquitous and diverse" (Harders 133).

On the one hand, the popularity of this motif could be read as confirmation of the theory, outlined in Dee Graham's

1994 text Loving to Survive, [in which] Graham identifies Stockholm Syndrome as ‘a universal law of behaviour, which operates when a person existing under conditions of isolation and inescapable violence perceives some kindness on the part of the captor’ [...]. She proposes that at a societal level, women’s love for men emerges from women’s recognition of their subordinate position in patriarchal societies and thus as an effort to bond with the more powerful in society (men) as a means of surviving. [...] Through love, she explains, women not only seek to ‘recoup our losses’ by aligning with those more powerful in society, but ‘hope to persuade men to stop their violence against us’. (Quek 80)

On the other, Harders suggests that "the use of the captivity motif in concert with the happily ever after can provide a challenge to the domestication of love and desire" (146). According to Esther Perel, domestication tends to come into conflict with desire:

at the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship, I think is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. On the one hand, our need for security, for predictability, for safety, for dependability, for reliability, for permanence -- all these anchoring, grounding experiences of our lives that we call home. But we also have an equally strong need -- men and women -- for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected, surprise -- you get the gist -- for journey, for travel [...]. Now, in this paradox between love and desire, what seems to be so puzzling is that the very ingredients that nurture love -- mutuality, reciprocity, protection, worry, responsibility for the other -- are sometimes the very ingredients that stifle desire. Because desire comes with a host of feelings that are not always such favorites of love: jealousy, possessiveness, aggression, power, dominance, naughtiness, mischief. Basically most of us will get turned on at night by the very same things that we will demonstrate against during the day. You know, the erotic mind is not very politically correct.

A vicarious experience of risk and danger may be provided by romance novels. In Joan Wolf's Affair of the Heart, for example, the hero becomes intensely jealous and the heroine finds herself feeling

sheer, primitive terror. [...] The wildness of her resistance had released all of his civilized brakes, and rape was looking at her out of those midnight-dark eyes. [...] She stared up at him, and slow tears formed in her dilated eyes and began to slip silently down her cheeks. She was trembling violently.

Though the haze of anger and lust that possessed him, Jay saw the tears. His hand stilled on his belt buckle [...]. For a brief moment he struggled to hold on to his anger. He wanted to hurt her, to force her to submit to him, to thrust his strength and his maleness on her whether she desired it or not. But the tears were too strong. (171-72)

The heroine does forgive this near-rape and continues to love him. When asked to explain why, she responds: "I'm a masochist, I suppose" (178). She may not mean this literally, but she evidently believes that true love contains an element of risk and danger. She asks the rhetorical question:

What kind of loving was worth anything if it was willing to share? The possessive ones were the passionate ones, the ones who could give completely, utterly, one thousand percent. Perhaps they weren’t always polite, always civilized. But they made the world around them flame with an intensity of feeling and living. (146-47)

She may yearn for this "intensity of feeling" and Perel may believe that humans have a "fundamental need" for danger, but I would question whether all humans have this "need." And if we do, do we need to find it in romantic relationships? There are, after all, some readers who prefer reading about "beta" heroes who would never dream of abducting anyone. Do the romances which feature them propose a different model of romantic love from those which are based around the "power imbalances between the romantic protagonists"?


Harders, Robin. "Borderlands of Desire: Captivity, Romance, and the Revolutionary Power of Love." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012. 133-152.

Janet. "Gimme Shelter." Dear Author. 5 March 2013.

Perel, Esther. "The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship." TED. Feb. 2013.

Quek, Kaye. "Theorising Love in Forced/Arranged Marriages: A Case of Stockholm Syndrome." GEXcel Work in Progress Report Volume VIII: Proceedings from GEXcel Theme 10: Love in Our Time – A Question for Feminism Spring 2010. Ed. Sofia Strid and Anna G. Jónasdóttir. GEXcel, 2010. 75-84. [Whole issue available for download here.]

Wolf, Joan. Affair of the Heart. New York: Rapture Romance, 1984.


The photo, which I found at Flickr, was taken by Oliver Hammond (Olivander) and was made available for use under a Creative Commons license.

Observations on Fiction

By Laura Vivanco on

I thought I'd begin the year with a quote of relevance to any scholar of popular culture who wishes to explore the relationship between fictions and the societies in which they are produced and read:

The advantages of fictional materials in the study of social attitudes are twofold: because the novelist must create a world in which to set his characters and actions, the novel enables us to see how the writer places character types [...] in a context of social and philosophical belief. In addition, the novel is a work of fantasy and imagination as well as an imitation of reality; its patterns of action often reveal covert attitudes or judgments which significantly qualify the explicit positions taken by the writer. [...] Ambiguities of this sort are far less apparent in success manuals or political tracts where the element of imagination plays a minor role.

Novels, on the other hand, are problematic as a source of popular attitudes because there is no way of knowing just how representative they are [...].The writer is an individual. How can we infer with any certainty that his views reflect those of a larger social group?

Some students of popular attitudes have dealt with this problem by concentrating their attention on bestsellers. They assume that, because a book is widely read, it must reflect the accepted beliefs of its readers. This is probably a safer assumption in the case of non-fiction than fiction. Novels may be best-sellers because readers find the story or characters interesting irrespective of the attitudes expressed by the author. [...] While best-sellers presumably do not express attitudes completely abhorrent to the majority of their readers, it is not safe to conclude that a novel is popular because it accurately reflects the attitudes of its readers. (Cawelti viii-x)

That cautionary note's worth pondering, I think, given the flood of speculation there's been about the success of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Picking up on the point that "the novel is a work of fantasy and imagination," here's an argument against romance being singled out as the most unrealistic/fantasy-filled type of popular fiction:

  To desire is necessarily to exist in a state of fantasy: it is to entertain the possibility of obtaining something one does not have - power, love, adventure. Given that all desire is fantastical by its very nature, it might seem odd that some projections of desire are criticized because they seem inauthentic. Popular romance fiction, for instance, has long been derided as the worst kind of fantasy. There is the sense that publishers such as Silhouette, Harlequin and Mills & Boon provide emotional and erotic titillation for women who are too weak to achieve fulfilment in 'real life'. Only such fools, with no genuine hold on reality, could lend credence to the impossibly beautiful, monolithic, creatures to be found in these novels. There is the suggestion that these works are not so much fantasy as false consciousness. The passion is at once euphemized and overstated; this is pornography for those who cannot bear to own up to sexual appetite. Alternatively, such caricatures of desire may provide an excessive compensation in the sphere of the erotic for a variety of other wants: the imaginary lover can requite not merely sexual loneliness, but also a poorly paid job, or a general feeling of insignificance. DetectiveOf course such criticism could also be offered of the characters and scenarios of male-oriented popular fiction, who are usually every bit as predictable and fantastic: the spy who is equally adept at unlocking women's desires and unravelling the plans of evil empires; the silent, unbreakable Western hero; the detective who outwits and outpunches low-life villains. The hard-boiled quality of masculine fictions suggests a claiming of the real, even though we as real readers in the real world may detect the wishfulness of it all. (Stoneley 223)


Cawelti, John G. Apostles of the Self-Made Man. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1965.

Stoneley, Peter. “‘Never Love a Cowboy’: Romance Fiction and Fantasy Families. Writing and Fantasy. Ed. Ceri Sullivan and Barbara White. London: Longman, 1999. 223-235.


The image of "Hard-boiled detective Race Williams" came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

The Love Goddess

By Laura Vivanco on

The Love GoddessNorrey Ford's The Love Goddess (1976) is a novel about an academic. Admittedly, Professor Bart Ransom's research is rather more exciting than mine: he's working on an underwater archaeology site in the Aegean and requires absolute secrecy from his collaborators because the wreck promises to be so important it would attract the attention of "Pirates, hijackers! The word gold could bring them running from all quarters of the earth" (42). My research won't produce any gold or priceless ancient artefacts but there's something about Bart's explanation of how he feels about his work that did strike a chord with me:

“I’m thirty-one next birthday. I need a greally [sic] great exit line. I’m old for this kind of caper, if one does it professionally.”

“Young for everything else.”

“Unfortunately I don’t want anything else. If I make a real killing this time, I might be able to turn my direction without looking back over my shoulder to the sea. I don’t mean a cash reward, though I don’t despise money. I mean -”


“I’m as vain as the next man. But no, not entirely vanity. To add something, however small, to the sum of man’s knowledge of man. Think of it, Jacqui, the undersea world is the one great area of exploration left.” (53)

Since literary criticism is hardly as physically demanding as deep sea diving, I don't think I need to start worrying about getting too "old for this kind of caper" but, metaphorically, I feel that popular romance fiction is one of the great areas of exploration left. Yes, it has been studied for several decades, but there's still a huge amount of work to be done. Also, much as Bart fears for the safety of his find and knows that a "violent disturbance of the sea [...] could rob him of his dearest hope" (174), so Crystal Goldman recently warned that, "With no cohesive vision for which items to collect and little justification for fiscally supporting popular romance studies material, vital monographs, papers, and articles are not being preserved by libraries for future researchers’ use and may, indeed, be lost from record entirely." And yes, I do think the study of romance novels will "add something, however small, to the sum of man's [and woman's] knowledge of man [and woman]."

Eric Selinger's been planning a course whose official title is

"The Nature and Culture of Love," [...] My original plan for the course was to reframe my work on popular romance fiction as work about the "culture of love," so that I'd have leeway to bring in films or TV shows, advice books or pop songs, really the whole panoply of love-work out there, now and in the past.

Norrey Ford made her own small contribution to writing about "the nature and culture of love." Her heroine, Jacqui, wonders

What was love? How could she be so sure how she felt about Bart, when she couldn’t even define what love was? Or what hate was, for that matter? Maybe they were much the same, two sides of one complete whole. (170)

One thing Jacqui is sure of, though, is that,

Whatever the mind might say, the body had its own life urge, its own yearning.

Was this how Fenella had been trapped into an unsuitable marriage? A few years ago Hogan must have been a splendid animal, brown and supple. If Fenella had forgotten that marriage was a unity of mind and heart as well as body, nerve, muscle and pulse, that would explain her present unhappy situation. (100)

I wondered how representative these musings might be of the "culture of love" in the period in which Ford was writing, so I turned to Getting Married, a "Family Doctor publication published by the British Medical Association" in 1970. Here's part of what Dr Michael O'Donnell has to say about love:

love poses some pretty tough problems for doctors. Is it, for instance, an infectious disease? Or does it strike down isolated sufferers at random? Does it run a different course in male and female or in young and old? Let's cast a critical medical glance at the diagnosis, nature, and treatment of this strange affliction.

First diagnosis. Having grown up through the years when Hollywood films plumbed depths of banality never since equalled, I cruised into adolescence convinced that diagnosing love was no problem. I wasn't sure what it was but I was certain I'd recognise it when it hit me. When I met Miss Right and our gazes locked across a crowded room, schmaltzy music would swell unmistakably in the background. [...]

Later, when I became a doctor, I set about making a more scientific attack on the problem of diagnosing love. Surely, like any other medical entity, it must have recognisable symptoms and signs. Yet a desperate search through the vast library of words spun around the subject led me only to confusion.

Symptoms were alleged to vary from the traditional: Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you, to the trendy: You turned me on when we got into bed so why not tell me your name, darling. The reported signs were equally baffling: a raised temperature - Sighing like a furnace; mental confusion - Bewitched, bothered and bewildered; absent-mindedness - I left my heart in San Francisco; incipient deafness - There were bells all around and I never heard them ringing; and an oft-reported heightened sensitivity to the effects of the moon, the month of Joon and a sentimental "to on". How can you diagnose that lot?


Let's try a dogmatic statement and declare that love, like Gaul, can be divided into three parts. Part One, of whose existence there can be little doubt, is pure sexual attraction. Most healthy males, if locked in a room with a celebrated public sex-symbol, could soon convince themselves that they had fallen in some sort of love with her - if only to justify to themselves the hectic physical activity in which they would be likely to engage. Similarly, the adolescent girl who years for nothing more than to be crushed in the arms of the latest hairy pop singer to twang his guitar in her direction, has caught a nasty infection of Part One.

Dignifying sexual attraction with the title "love" tends to raise the hackles of certain earnest ladies and gents. But I suspect much of their disapproval arises from envy. Most of them have reached an age when opportunities for even vicarious excitement grows depressingly limited [...].

Part One, after all, is the segment of love that makes the world go round or, at least keeps it populated while it's spinning. It is also an important ingredient of that complicated mix that sustains one of the great mysteries of existence - how two people can live together for a lifetime without actually murdering one another.

Love's second component, Part Two, tends to take over where Part One leaves off. It's got something to do with companionship, a sharing of interest, sympathy, and respect. [...] Its gradual and sustaining development explains the success of many marriages "arranged" for purely social, financial, or religious reasons. Part One alone tends to lead to brief spectacular firework displays. When combined with Part Two it can lead to what marriage guidance counsellors like to call "a happy long term relationship".

Part Three is a more ephemeral entity - a magic distillation of anguish and ecstasy, of great misery and even greater happiness, that not only turns timid creatures into brave adventuring heroes, but often reduces the most competent and confident of citizens to anxious dithering worriers. It is the rocket fuel of poets, painters and musicians and has, in its time, driven men to murder, madness, and the slaying of dragons. Part Three, in short, is the cause of all the incomputable symptoms: the head-in-the-clouds effect, the living-in-a-little-word-of-our-own phenomenon, the dramatic shedding of all sense of responsibility, and the sudden impromptu indulgence in deliciously crazy behaviour. [...]

The danger of Part Three is that its pursuit can become an end in itself. Love makes actors of us all and, for many of us, acting has an irresistible allure. Beguiled by the theatrical possibilities, we deceive ourselves that we have fallen in love with somebody when we're really just smitten with the idea of being in love. (17-20)

Norrey Ford's Jacqui is obviously aware of Part 1, and over the course of the novel she and Bart demonstrate that they do have the "companionship, a sharing of interest, sympathy, and respect" necessary for Part 2. I didn't spot many signs of Part 3, though. I wonder if (perhaps if one were feeling particularly charitable) in some other romances one could blame some of the "Too-Stupid-To-Live" behaviour engaged in by the protagonists on that, rather than on poor characterisation?

Have you come across any romances which you think are particularly insightful with regards to the "nature" and/or "culture" of love? Or are you a love goddess, with some insights of your own to offer?


Ford, Norrey. The Love Goddess. Toronto: Harlequin, 1976.

Goldman, Crystal. “Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012).

O'Donnell, Michael. "Is it really love?" Getting Married. London: Family Doctors Publications, 1970. 17-20.

Feminism and Romance

By Laura Vivanco on

ChickWriting about "chick flicks," Imelda Whelehan has commented that their

postfeminist discourse is characterised as deploying what might be regarded as broadly "feminist" sentiments in order to justify certain behaviours or choices, but these sentiments have become severed from their political or philosophical origins. Postfeminism in popular culture displays a certain schizophrenia in the way women are often portrayed as enormously successful at work and simultaneously hopelessly anxious about their intimate relationships, over which they often have little control or for which they seek continuous self-improvement. The world of work is generally portrayed as allowing female success, but there are glimpses of sexism which present enough problems that women have to solve for themselves or in consultation with their close girlfriends; beauty, fashion and adornment remain highly prized as part of the arsenal of the high-achieving woman, so that postfeminism equates with excessive consumption, while at the same time expressing sentiments of empowerment and female capability. The things that make women miserable are often covertly laid at the door of feminism and can be summarised thus: "feminism gave women social equality, choices and freedoms, but those choices have emotional costs which individual women are constantly trying to resolve and balance." It is feminism, then, that is positioned as creating the most significant challenges for postmodern women, even though all that feminism did was to foreground the reality that the traditional feminine sphere of the home remains painfully exclusive from the world of work and almost entirely the domain of women. (156)

Romances, by contrast, tend to focus on women's success in the field of "intimate relationships," though they may also show heroines achieving success at work. The differences don't end there, however: while I certainly don't think that all romances are feminist, there are many that are and I discuss some of them in "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances" which was published today in the Journal of Popular Culture.

I found that a "focus on female sexuality and a woman’s right to experience sexual gratification is something that the Modern romances share with Second Wave feminism" (1066). Since they also acknowledge that even highly gratifying sex cannot, on its own, provide a firm basis for a long-term "intimate relationship," these novels explore what more is required in order to achieve a successful marriage and, much as

Second Wave feminists “critiqued marriage as yet another form of sexual slavery” (hooks 78–79) [...] In Modern romances the damaging consequences of unequal marriages in which the woman is treated as a commodity, providing sexual and reproductive services in exchange for her upkeep, may be shown through the stories of secondary characters. (1069)

The stories of the protagonists themselves, in the feminist romances of both the Modern and Romance lines, seem to offer the reader an alternative model for relationships of the sort outlined by bell hooks:

When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgment, care, responsibility, commitment, and knowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love. (104)

According to Whelehan,

earlier, more positive accounts of the meanings of postfeminism have waned as more and more critics identify the seductions of the term as comforting us with the assurance that feminism‘s work is over. Postfeminism depends upon notions of feminism and feminist politics for its existence, but it often resorts to parody to diminish the historical importance of Second Wave feminism. (158)

However, although some of the feminist romances I looked at did reject some of the more radical aspects of second wave feminism, they did not do so in order to position feminism as the source of "the most significant challenges for postmodern women." Furthermore, although HM&B author Ally Blake has declared that some of them contain "post-feminist twentysomething heroines,"

in a personal communication she elaborated that she thinks of “feminists as the women who openly fought for women’s rights, and post-feminist [women] as those of us who believe in those rights and enjoy having them.” (Vivanco 1084-85)

What is clear is that this is not the postfemism present in the films described by Whelehan, in which "The constant return to the theme that full empowerment and heterosexual romance are incompatible has meant that under mature postfeminism men increasingly are being put under erasure" (169). On the contrary, in these romances empowerment (albeit not full empowerment, given that the protagonists still inhabit a world in which sexism has not been eradicated) and heterosexual romance are compatible.

One may still critique romances for the support they offer to "compulsory coupledom" but, unlike Whelehan, who observes tiredly that

For many of us in the business of offering feminist critiques of popular culture in the twenty-first century, it can seem like we‘re simply tilting at windmills. This article touches on those sensations of boredom and ennui which trouble a feminist cultural critic attempting to make sense of the postfeminist distractions of popular culture. (159)

I feel encouraged by the feminist romances I've read: they demonstrate "that romance writers and readers are themselves struggling with gender definitions and sexual politics on their own terms" (Radway 18).


Blake, Ally. "The Changing Face of Romance."

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End, 2000.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Vivanco, Laura. "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances." Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060–1089.

Whelehan, Imelda. "Remaking Feminism: Or Why is Postfeminism so Boring?" Nordic Journal of English Studies 9.3 (2010): 155-172.


The image of the 3-week-old Polish Bantam chick was created by Charles M. Sauer, who made it available under a Creative Commons licence at Wikimedia Commons.


By Laura Vivanco on

Mary observes of Tim, “It was almost as if he lived within her mind as an entity quite distinct from his real being” (73). When Danny kisses Amanda, “It was as though a missing piece of the puzzle was put back in place. He was a part of her” (71). Jesse remarks of Althea, “Truly, it was like she was inside him” (149), while Daniel lauds Jenny, “She was more than beside him: She was in him, the best part of his heart” (41). Ian Mackenzie likewise “dissolves” into Beth (217); when they kiss, his inner monologue expresses the desire “to pull her inside him, or himself inside her. If he could be part of her, everything would be all right. He would be well” (214). (133)

According to Emily M. Baldys these quotes are instances of an

oddly consistent metaphoric trope in which able-bodied characters are represented as incorporating disabled characters, literally and metaphorically taking disabled characters inside themselves. I contend that the trope of romantic incorporation is motivated by the threatening potential of disabled sexuality and used [...] to enact the bodily containment of threat. (133)

I'm not so sure. As Baldys admits, in the third example "Morsi’s phrasing places the able-bodied character inside the disabled character instead of the other way around" (133). More significantly, the "trope of romantic incorporation" is one I've seen frequently in novels in which both characters are able-bodied. Here's an example from Carol Arens' Renegade Most Wanted (2012):

If it had been possible for a woman's soul to flow out of her body and into a man, that's the way it would happen. If not for the constraints of the flesh, she would be right there, inside Matt's heart. (317)

A very short while later the "romantic incorporation" is reversed and made literal as "He slipped inside her" (318) and

he rocked against her womb. A wave crashed inside her. It washed pleasure from the point of their joining to her clenching fingers, then tumbled to the tips of her toes.

Maybe flesh was no barrier to souls after all.

Hadn't her wedding vows declared that the two shall become one flesh? (318-19)

I think passages describing "romantic incorporation" can perhaps be explained by extrapolating a little from some of the ideas Baldys outlined earlier in her essay.

Compulsory heterosexuality—the ideology that positions heterosexuality as a default, biologically derived identity and enforces its normalcy through pervasive cultural mechanisms—has been a common idiom in queer and feminist studies since 1980, when Adrienne Rich published her influential essay coining the term. More recently, scholars writing within disability studies have proposed an analogous conception to Rich’s formative idea. “Compulsory able-bodiedness” is an ideology that positions able-bodiedness as the default position and bolsters itself through cultural forms that represent ability as original, authentic, and normal. This concept, as theorized by Alison Kafer and Robert McRuer, posits a complex interrelationship between heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. Kafer explains that heterosexuality is threatened by disability’s associations with deviance, while able-bodiedness is threatened by the relationship of queerness to illness and medicalization (81–82). Thus, the two ideologies are “entwined” (in McRuer’s terminology) and “imbricated” (in Kafer’s) such that each is contingent on the other: the default heterosexual subject is necessarily able-bodied, and the default able-bodied subject is necessarily heterosexual. (127)

The "trope of romantic incorporation" seems to suggest that there is a third ideology entwined with the other two. Catherine Roach has observed that

To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites.

Given that these narratives are "increasingly not exclusively [...] heterosexual," I think they cannot simply be described as a part of "compulsory heterosexuality." Rather, they perhaps indicate the existence of what one might term "compulsory coupledom" which often, but not always, complements "compulsory heterosexuality" and "compulsory able-bodiedness" and which should at times be analysed separately from them.

According to Bella M. DePaulo and Wendy L. Morris

A widespread form of bias has slipped under our cultural and academic radar. People who are single are targets of singlism: negative stereotypes and discrimination. Compared to married or coupled people, who are often described in very positive terms, singles are assumed to be immature, maladjusted, and self-centered. (251)

Given that romances always feature "individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work" who "are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love" (RWA), it would seem likely that romances could be seen as a "cultural mechanism" which helps to enforce "compulsory coupledom." Certainly Kyra Kramer and I observed a pattern in many romances in which becoming part of a couple completes/perfects the "Phallus" of the romance hero:

“Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.

At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). [...]

The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism [...]. Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.

Becoming part of a couple also completes/perfects the heroine's Prism.

There are, of course, romances which do not follow this pattern and in any case I would not wish to suggest that all romances imply that the unpartnered are incomplete: the protagonists of romance are sometimes depicted in contexts which include happily-single secondary characters. Nonetheless, the extent to which such contexts can mitigate the focus on the achievement of a romantic relationship is limited because, by definition, a romance has to prioritise the depiction of the central couple (or occasionally threesome or more).

Baldys states that the "demands of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness" are "intertwined" (127); it appears they may also be intertwined with compulsory coupledom:

never-married men do run the risk of being labelled 'queers', 'fairies' or 'queens'.

In an analysis of Australian attitudes, Penman and Stolk (1983) found that single women were described as unfulfilled, incomplete, unattractive, and less happy than married women" (Callan and Noller 97, emphasis added)

The idea that single people are "incomplete" evidently has a long history, for Plato's Symposium contains a tale in which it is explained that "the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love" and that it came about because

the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

These early humans attacked the gods and as a punishment Zeus declared that he would "cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers." According to this myth, all humans are incomplete, and when we fall in love it is because we seek to become whole once more. Obviously the story is not one which can be taken at all seriously but there is nonetheless a

tendency to refer to marriage as a union of two persons into oneness [which] often prompts married people to refer to their spouse as their "other half" or "better half". Unfortunately, it gives rise to the idea that an unmarried person must be fractured, being only half of a whole.

Therefore, the implication is that we must go about looking for another person to provide completion to our being. In other words, a person who is unmarried is incomplete as a person and has less than a full existence than a married person has. (Yeo 11-12)

In romance novels, the formation of a couple sometimes accompanies the curing of disabilities. Baldys notes that

One strain of ableist fantasy suggests that cognitive disability can be “overcome” in one way or another through the extraordinary power of heterosexual relationships. Simi Linton identifies such an “overcoming rhetoric” as one of the clichés that structure dominant meanings and response patterns assigned to disability. “The idea that someone can overcome a disability,” she writes, implies “personal triumph over a personal condition.” Linton argues that this idea is not a concept native to the disability community, but rather “a wish fulfillment generated from the outside” (165). This wish-fulfilling fantasy, in romance novels, finds expression in a process of narrative rehabilitation through which the effects of disability are represented as mitigated or overcome by the characters’ blossoming love. (Baldys 134)

Although I've not read the novel Baldys gives as an example of "the most extreme (and credulity-straining) measures to rehabilitate disability" (134), I've come across a number of romances in which blind protagonists regain their sight as well as novels in which previously infertile protagonists become pregnant or father children. Deborah Chappel has observed the transformations which occur in LaVyrle Spencer's novels and argues that

the changes in Spencer's protagonists (regularization of speech, dimming of freckles, development of healthy-looking bodies) are sometimes so pronounced that it seems inner, emotional reality has the power to improve the material world. Love, and the hope love engenders, operate as forces in the world. [...] Thus, in The Gamble Agatha's limp becomes less and less pronounced and she is able to achieve the three seemingly impossible wishes she expressed in the opening chapters: she can dance, swim, and ride a horse. (110)

Baldys believes that the depictions of disability in romances differ "from depictions in canonical literature, where disability has traditionally functioned as a 'cipher of metaphysical or divine significance' (Quayson 17)" (138) but I'm not so sure that this is the case. As Catherine Roach has observed, "The story of romance is the most powerful narrative in Western art and culture, sharing roots with Christianity and functioning as a mythic story about the meaning and purpose of life, particularly in regards to the HEA ending of redemption and wholeness."

Perhaps in romances the curing of protagonists' disabilities, which takes to a new and literal level the metaphorical use of words suggesting that love makes a person whole/completes them, serves as a kind of secular miracle bearing witness to the power of love (and compulsory coupledom, compulsory heterosexuality and compusory able-bodiedness)  by implying that when a man is united to his wife, not only are they "no more twain, but one flesh" (Matthew 19; 6) but that sometimes, in addition, "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk" (Matthew 11:5).


Arens, Carol. Renegade Most Wanted. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2012.

Baldys, Emily M. "Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6.2 (2012), 125–141.

Callan, Victor J. and Patricia Noller. Marriage and the Family. North Ryde, NSW: Methuen, 1987.

Chappel, Deborah K. "LaVyrle Spencer and the Anti-Essentialist Argument." Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997), 107-120.

DePaulo, Bella M. and Wendy L. Morris. "The Unrecognized Stereotyping and Discrimination against Singles." Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.5 (2006), 251-254.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive.

Roach, Catherine. "Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

RWA. "About the Romance Genre."

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).

Yeo, Anthony. Partners in Life: Your Guide to Lasting Marriage. Singapore: Armour, 1999.


The image of a dovetail joint comes via Flickr where it was made available under a Creative Commons licence by Jordanhill School D&T Dept.