Classics and Canons

By Laura Vivanco on

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Garvice

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

As for Berta Ruck,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Death is such a baffling kind of thing."

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


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

Bloomsbury. "Ruby M. Ayres."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Library of Wales. "Berta Ruck Archive."

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

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

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

Joanna Chambers (not verified)

Saturday, 21 June, 2014

I read a few Ethel M Dells when I was a teenager. Found a pile of them in a second hand book shop complete with sensational hard covers. At the time I was very into Heyer but these were much more breathless ans emotional - and racist, yes. I seem to remember one of the characters telling the other to 'play the white man' at one point...

I haven't come across any paper copies of Dell, though I do have one Farnol (without its dustjacket, sadly, and the cover is plain).

Re "whiteness" I was intrigued to learn that

Like any other word, "white" - in the modern, racial sense - was invented. And it is possible to pinpoint the first popular appearance of the idea that the English are "white people" in a piece of London street theatre, in 1613. (Young)

By the time Dell was writing, "whiteness" is very racialised and whiteness seems to have become a synonym for "virtue." Take these passages, for instance, from Charles Rex:

"You're English."

"Ah!" said Saltash, with a faintly wry expression. "Not necessarily white on that account, my friend, so don't run away with that idea, I beg! I'm quite capable of giving you a worse drubbing than the good Antonio, for instance."


"I know very well the sort of story that's going round, but if you're a white man you'll help me to give it the lie. I know I'm a blackguard, Jake,—never pretended to be anything else. But I hope I'm a gentleman as well—at least where women are concerned. That child is none the worse in mind or body for being thrown on my hands. You've got to believe that."

I'd never come across this usage before but something of it maybe lingers on in the phrase "whiter than white" which I was reminded of when I went to look in the online Oxford Dictionary site:

Morally beyond reproach: they expect standards of behaviour whiter than white

I wonder if the modern usage of the word "straight" is somewhat similar: we might say someone is a "straight-talking person" or "he gave it to me straight" and mean that they're an honest, trust-worthy person. But "straight" can also be used to mean "heterosexual" so....

The problem when this question of canon and classics arises is that readers from different countries have read different books.

In the US they always mention Woodiwiss but don't usually remember Georgette Heyer or Mary Stewart. In the UK you talk about different authors. And in Spain, Italy or Germany, perhaps the story would be told differently. Other books, other authors.

The question I ask myself is - Is there a common history for the romance novel genre as a whole? Including only books read all throughout the world? 

Or should it be written in chapters -one dedicated to each country or each language?

There's crossover between the UK and US but as you say, UK readers have tended to have access to different books. I'm not sure what effect ebooks are having, but they possibly blur national differences a bit further if they make more books available globally.

I think if someone was writing a global history of the romance novel there would need to be different chapters, or maybe even multiple volumes, because there have already been whole books written about romance/romantic fiction in individual countries. For the UK there's Rachel Anderson's The Purple Heart Throbs (1974) and Mary Cadogan's And Then Their Hearts Stood Still (1994). Australian romances got quite detailed coverage in Juliet Flesch's From Australia With Love (2004).

I'm don't know much about romance in Italy and Spain, though the chapter/volume on Spain would have to include Corin Tellado. The French situation would be different again (I don't know much about it either except what I've read in Diana Holmes's 2006 Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France: Love Stories). I know even less about Germany, but the excerpts I've read from Lynne Tatlock's German Writing, American Reading: Women and the Import of Fiction, 1866-1917 (2012) suggest that German romances were translated for the US market.

And there's romance/romantic fiction from non-European countries too, but again, my knowledge of them is extremely limited.

Your post was very thought-provoking. I kept on thinking about this thing for hours. And then, I realised that perhaps I was confusing two different things. 

I mean, one thing is telling the History of a genre, in which you have to include what was read in the past, even if it's now forgotten, and another thing is pointing to those books that keep on attracting people nowadays. Those would be the classics, for me, because they still 'say something' to contemporary readers.

I might be wrong because I'm not a literature scholar, but if you tell the History of -for instance- Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Literature, you will have to mention all those boring Saints' lives or Biblical paraphrases. But if you are a modern reader, who reads just for the fun of it, then you will enjoy Beowulf. Or, if you have a sensibility towards poetry, The Ruin or the Battle of Maldon. Those books still say something to us as humans beings, even when our lives are so different.

That's why I would recommend the 'Odyssey' to anybody but never Hesiod's 'Works and Days'.

Translated to our genre that could mean that, perhaps, Georgette Heyer is a classic, because she's still winning new readers among younger generations, while Barbara Cartland doesn't. Therefore, the former would be a classic, while the latter would just belong to the history of the genre.

one thing is telling the History of a genre, in which you have to include what was read in the past, even if it's now forgotten, and another thing is pointing to those books that keep on attracting people nowadays.

You're right: those are two different things. It's not at all clear, though, why/how some works "keep on attracting people." D. J. Taylor recently suggested that perhaps

the real desideratum, when it comes to reserving your place in the pantheon, is an influential sponsor to plead your case. Sometimes this can be an energetic literary pressure group – Anthony Powell's reputation is kept green by the Anthony Powell Society, which organises conferences and lobbies for reissues; more often, a small but committed band of enthusiasts, quite often admiring fellow writers, labours to keep the work in print.

It seems to me that books which "keep attracting people" might be doing so for different reasons. One reason is that they're continuously popular, i.e. their publisher keeps them in print and word-of-mouth ensures a constant stream of new readers. In romance, I think Georgette Heyer's currently managing this.

Another is that they're chosen for inclusion on a syllabus or library of classics (such as the Everyman Library, which began in 1906) and this ensures they're brought into/kept in the public eye. I suspect that when E. M. Hull's The Sheik got re-printed by Virago (as a Virago Modern Classic) that probably raised its profile considerably, though I don't think it's gained a mass of admiring fans.

Or it could be that a book is repopularised after a long break by someone turning it into a film or promoting it in some other way. For example,

It is beyond doubt that the BBC adaptations of Gaskell’s novels have been the driving force behind Gaskell’s still rising popularity among the general public, and consequently the attention given to Gaskell as well as Gaskell’s popularity within the academic field. (de Groot)


de Groot, Corien. Gaskell Now and Then: The Reception of Cranford and Wives and Daughters. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen 2009.

Taylor, D. J. "Literary Hero to Zero." The Guardian. 10 May 2014.