Within romance fiction the fundamental difference between the ecstatic and legalistic modes is not that one transports the reader and the other does not, but in the relative emphasis they place on rules (legal, social, moral) and the emotions generated by love. Two contrasting statements from characters in Hannah More's Coelebs in search of a wife (1808) encapsulate the difference, with the first speaker espousing an ecstatic approach, and the second a legalistic one:
"All the exhortations to duties,” returned Mr. Tyrrel, “with which so many sermons abound, are only an infringement on the liberty of a Christian. A true believer knows of no duty but faith, no rule but love."
"Love is indeed,” said Mr. Stanley, “the fountain and principle of all practical virtue. But love itself requires some regulations to direct its exertion; some law to guide its motions; some rule to prevent its aberrations; some guard to hinder that which is vigorous from becoming eccentric. [...]” (332)
Of ecstatic romances it may be said, as Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) does with respect to the romances of her time, that if a reader approached them “supposing Romances were real Pictures of Life,” over time they will be “taught to believe, that Love was the ruling Principle of the World; that every other Passion was subordinate to this; and that it caused all the Happiness and Miseries of Life” (7). In them, love is the sole or primary guide to the protagonists’ actions and a clergyman in Lennox’s novel therefore condemns them on the grounds that “The immediate Tendency of these Books [...] is to give new Fire to the Passions of Revenge and Love; two Passions which [...] it is one of the severest Labours of Reason and Piety to suppress” (380).
In legalistic romances the impulses arising from romantic passion are likely to be curbed (by “Reason,” “Piety” or some other principle) if they come into conflict with, for example, family obligations, duty to country, or the law. This may, however, lay them open to the types of critique Charlotte Brontë, creator of the brooding Mr Rochester and sister to the creator of the tormented Heathcliff, made with regards to Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) in 1850:
She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well [...]: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition [...] but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death—this Miss Austen ignores. (383)
The charge levelled at those of the legalistic tendency is that by guarding against the leadings of emotion, and instead favouring the demands of propriety and conventional virtues, a barrier is placed in the way of discovering fundamental truths.
Brontë portrays the legalistic mode as somewhat bland and superficial emotionally but in certain circumstances the legalistic mode invokes not simply beliefs, but alternative loves, albeit ones which may not cause “fast and full” throbbing in quite the same way as ecstatic romantic love. The so-called “inspirational” evangelical Christian romance, for instance, takes
the dyad of the hero/heroine relationship and makes it a triad. In this triad, God resides at the top while the hero and heroine each occupy a bottom corner [...]. In this way, the novels make one's relationship with God preeminent, and this spiritual foundation becomes the basis for a successful romantic relationship. (Neal 2013, 4)
Other alternative loves are those felt towards family, friends, country, or a generalised feeling of love and responsibility towards other members of humanity. In Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command (2007), for example, the heroine leaves the hero because “she couldn’t risk [...] the lives of every empath and telepath in the Alliance, just because her heart was breaking” (509): her compassion for others and the imperative to save their lives overrides her desire to remain with her beloved.
Some moral dilemmas may bring romantic love into conflict with a character’s love for themselves (inasmuch as the dilemma pertains to their self-esteem). Romance author Jo Beverley has argued that
moral dilemmas [...] spring from the deepest beliefs of the characters, from their cherished sense of self. Moreover, they can only become the basis of a story if the character has the courage to at least try to uphold his or her beliefs. (33)
The heroine of Amanda Quick’s Rendezvous (1991) is not put to the test but she nonetheless makes clear some of the values which contribute to her “cherished sense of self.” Since the protagonists’ marriage is not initially “a love match” the heroine informs the hero that he “may, nevertheless, depend upon me to fulfill my responsibilities as your wife. My sense of honor and duty is as strong as your own and I would have you know that you can rely on it” (173). Given that this is a romance, the pair fall in love with each other and her honour is never tested but the hero does believe that even had she found someone else “to whom she could truly give her heart” she “would honor her wedding vows, come what may. She was a woman of honor” (266). Quick returns to the issue of honour overriding romantic love in a later novel, Mistress (1994). Here the heroine insists that, had she married a "good [...] kind man" of her acquaintance, she “would have been true to him” even if, after the ceremony, she had met the hero, who inspires true passion in her. This, she states, is due to the fact that she has “a sense of honor” (242).
Both these novels are historical romances, set in a period and location in which divorce was possible but rare. However, moral codes vary from place to place and also change over time and this will inevitably affect the constraints which the legalistic mode will attempt to place on romantic love. Such a period of change is depicted in A. J. Demas’s Something Human (set in an alternative version of ancient Greece), in which Rus, a Luth priest, and Adares, the leader of the Phemian city of Tios, fall in love despite being on opposing sides in a war and from very different cultures. Rus “compromised himself [...], knowingly being [...] with the leader of the Phemians and making no effort to take him prisoner, as honour and loyalty to his own people demanded.” This might appear to be a moment of triumph for the ecstatic mode were it not for the fact that Rus's religious leader had "already spoken against the [military] campaign, called it needless" and, as Rus says to Adares, if he helps to end the war this will "spare the lives of some of my people as well as many of yours." Similarly, Rus’s same-sex love for Adares would be deemed "unnatural" by the "Karhan tribes," to one of which Rus belongs, because "every tribe [...] hated it about equally," and the novel's happy ending in which Rus abandons his tribe might thus appear to be a clear rejection of the legalistic mode. However, sex with a man is not explicitly forbidden to Rus by his priestly status: this only sets him "apart from [...] marriage and getting children." Therefore while, as Rus states, "For me to do what is forbidden to us would be to make myself a lie" he does not, according to his own moral judgments, make himself “a lie.” His actions would seem to expand the boundaries of, rather than break entirely with, the laws governing conduct in his society. Remaining true to himself ensures that he fulfills his role in “the Great Pattern of the world, Heva, which is so large that we can't see all of it”:
To be happy is to fulfil your place in the Great Pattern. It didn't mean that you kept the world moving properly just by doing whatever gave you the greatest pleasure. It meant that you should do what was right, that happiness lay in being just and in knowing yourself.
There is thus a fundamental difference in how the ecstatic and legalistic modes evaluate emotions. Mr. Tyrrel and Mr. Stanley might agree with the statement made by an angel in another romance: “Love is divine, and it's the pattern in which we're supposed to live our lives” (Spangler 152). The divergence between them arises from the fact that humans tend to have difficulty in discerning the Great Pattern. Those who favour the ecstatic mode will, like Mr. Tyrrel, argue that it is best to be led by the impulses and emotions arising from love, since it is divine (or quasi-divine), and they therefore trust that these will be the truest guide to correct behaviour. For example, in Jennifer Ashley’s paranormal romance Wild Things (2016), the first physical joining of the protagonists is described from the point of view of Mason, a shape-shifter, who experiences an
astonishing joy that flooded him erasing everything he’d previously understood and filling him with new knowledge.
Then he was just Mason, kissing and laughing with the beautiful Jasmine, touching her in the moonlight, the Goddess silently blessing them.
The moment of ecstatic union with the beloved, by virtue of its connection with the divine, permits Mason temporary access to a deeper spiritual knowledge.
Followers of the legalistic mode, however, will urge caution; human beings are not paranormal creatures such as Mason. For them, powerful emotions can be misleading: what gives “the greatest pleasure” to a lover may not ultimately make them happy. Tried and tested rules therefore exist as a necessary safeguard. Even in Ashley’s series, the ecstatic love bestowed by the Goddess is not an unalloyed blessing to all: it creates an almost tangible “mate bond” which can “form from nothing, [...] sink its claws in and not let go. At that point a Shifter had to follow the mate bond, no matter who he had to hurt to do it.” The legalistic mode warns that ecstatic experiences can hurt not just those who surround the lovers, but the lovers themselves, particularly in a context in which there is no certainty that an ecstatic experience is in truth sanctioned by the divine and a conduit to it.