7.2 Pastoral Care and Escapism

Given that romances are novels whose authors have assumed pastoral roles, offering hope to their readers through works which propagate faith in the goodness and durability of love, it is vital to make romance hospitable to a range of readers: to do otherwise implies both a lack of faith in the ability of love to bring benefits to all, and suggests that certain readers are undeserving of pastoral care. Moreover, in providing pastoral care, there are advantages to being able to call on both modes: depending on the nature of a particular reader or problem, one or the other may be better able to teach “us to know ourselves or our fellows better” (Lerner 2010, 72) or spark that sense, “while reading, that here was myself” (72).

The ways in which texts in the legalistic literary tradition do this may be more immediately obvious but, as Karen Sullivan has suggested with regards to Arthurian romances, of which the Morte is one, the ecstatic literary tradition too can be considered to

represent life “as it truly is,” not, perhaps, in its everyday reality, but in its exceptional aspect. If romance takes us away from our world through its fictions, it does so in order to bring us back to this world with an improved ability to recognize and appreciate its most intense and heightened moments. [...] Far from rejecting romance, we should embrace it for awakening us to that in life we would not have noticed were it not for its sake, and for confirming the reality of what we have perceived, however ephemeral it may have seemed. If “to romanticize” refers to the way in which we distort reality in order to make it resemble the conventions of romance, the term “to realicize” could be coined to refer to the way in which we also distort reality in order to make it adhere to the conventions of the realist novel. (24)

It is also the case that individual readers may interpret and experience the same text in a more, or less, realistic manner. Lerner, for example, has both observed that "it's not that uncommon to be very interested in reading and writing about sex despite not necessarily being all that interested in HAVING it," and suggested that when studying romance fiction it is "important to look at the function of sex in a romance as a metaphor or narrative element, as well as literally/realistically" (2020a). This latter argument, with particular reference to depictions of rape, has also been made by Angela R. Toscano:

Discussions of rape in popular romance have most often centered on how these scenes affect or reflect the lives of romance readers. Detractors of the genre have used its presence to support the notion that romance is a patriarchal and repressive literary form, while defenders have often pointed to the presence of the rape scene as a way for women to explore their sexuality. (2012)

Toscano herself, however, "advances an entirely different reading," namely "that the presence of rape functions as a parodic parallel to the violence of falling in love." This seems a distinctly ecstatic way of reading such scenes, but it is no less valid for that.

Perhaps ecstatic fictions, precisely because they are not realistic, are helpful when one does not “wish to be oneself. Sometimes it can be pleasant to imagine oneself as a dark hero tormented by his sinful past, or a noble knight capable of saving a fainting female with one blow of his lance” (Lerner 2010, 72). Properly interpreted, these escapist narratives can, as Sullivan suggests, awaken readers to new, exciting future stories for themselves. One can certainly see such possibilities in the broadside ballad (University of California) of “The Bristol Bridegroom” which Penny recites to Nev (Lerner 2010, 113–114). In it a merchant’s daughter runs off to sea in pursuit of her “true love” (114). When Penny was younger, she did think about emulating its protagonist literally: at school, Penny was “very unhappy. I thought about running off and volunteering for the navy all the time” (114). This would almost certainly have led to a less than ideal outcome for her; it is generally inadvisable to take texts in this tradition as perfect templates for behaviour in the real world. Nonetheless, at the time the text did perform an important function for Penny: she acknowledges that it gave narrative expression to a wish on the part of her younger self “to rebel against something she cannot change” (113). The ballad thus represented a longing for a world in which she could be guided by her feelings, gain “a man’s freedom” (113) of opportunity, and escape the confines of the future envisaged for her by legalistic norms. Moreover, when the adult Penny trusted her emotions and chose Nev over Edward, she acted in accordance with the message of the ballad. Had she not done so,

she would have gone on being drab, practical Penelope forever. And she would have thought that she was living her best, truest self. Never joking or crying or making love in the middle of the day. Speaking seriously on serious subjects. And the part of her that had [...] wanted to be a sailor [...] would have grown smaller and smaller until it faded away entirely.

Penelope found that she couldn’t quite bear the thought. She did not want to be ashamed of her feelings anymore. (222–23)

The unrealistic narrative gave form to Penny’s emotions and hopes. In the next chapter, I want to explore another novel which shows the value of another, much more famous, unrealistic story: the Cinderella narrative, which, “with its beautiful but undervalued woman and the instant recognition she garners from the prince, is of course the quintessential romantic story” (Weisser 1).