The situations and life histories of romance protagonists can vary greatly. However, when one encounters repeated metaphorical allusions to theological concepts and entities such as hell, demons, and the devil, it is likely that the peril facing a protagonist is severe and they are in acute need of salvation. There are two classes of protagonist whose situations are often described using such theologically-inspired language. The first comprises protagonists who seem emotionally dead, or trapped in an emotional hell, through circumstances largely outwith their control. In Carola Dunn’s Miss Hartwell’s Dilemma (1988), for example, Lord Daniel Winterborne has “been through hell” (204) as a result of an unhappy relationship in his youth, by the end of which he was both betrayed and publicly deserted. The experience left him “melancholy” (141), “not a sociable man” (15) and for a time he was such a “hermit” (209) that he would not even see his family. Though the reference to hell is a figure of speech, it is perhaps given symbolic form in the novel by the “roofless dungeon” with “snow on the floor” (188) into which he is thrown by a vengeful relative of the woman whose betrayal originally caused his retreat into isolation. He is metaphorically “led [...] out of the darkness where I thought to lie entombed forever” (216) by the aptly named Miss Hartwell, his saviour and "the light of my life. That may sound trite but it is true” (216). Appropriately, Miss Hartwell is also instrumental in ensuring his release from the physical prison which is the equivalent of the psychological state that held him captive for years.
In contrast to this class of trapped and tormented protagonists there is another, comprised of those who might be said to rule in hell. Romance authors have often signalled that a protagonist is among these sinners in the most extreme need of salvation by giving them the “mythical resonance [...] of the devil himself” (Barlow and Krentz 17) and as Eric Murphy Selinger has observed, “you don’t have to look very hard to find popular romance heroes associated with the Devil” (2012, 40). Georgette Heyer, for instance gives the hero of These Old Shades (1926) the nickname “Satanas” (44), a variant of “Satan,” and has him proclaim that he will dress his pageboy in black so that “Innocence shall walk behind Evil” (22). Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, the eponymous hero of Lisa Kleypas’s Devil in Winter (2006) “looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise” (14), is “debauched, amoral, and perversely proud of it” (2), has a “long list of villainous acts” (1) to his name and “excelled at his chosen occupation—that of degenerate seducer” (2). Sir Alasdair MacLachlan, in Liz Carlyle’s One Little Sin (2005), is not dissimilar in appearance, for with “his golden good looks [...] MacLauchlan was the very devil—worse, a devil who looked like an angel” (65), he is an “arrogant devil” (153), and he and his friends are known “to take and use and exploit” (9). It would seem to be true of romance readers, therefore, as it has been said of heaven, that there is more joy “over one sinner that repenteth [...] than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
What these two classes of protagonists share is a lack of loving relationships. Although this focus on a lack of love might, in the context of a need for salvation, initially appear to be a departure from conventional Christian theology, in which the “state from which it is understood salvation is necessary” (Morris 37) is taken to refer to the saving of the soul from sin, sin itself can be considered “the negation of love” (Gutiérrez 176). Indeed, it has been concluded that
love is the supracultural essence of the Levitical law. Paul states this explicitly in Romans 13:8-10, “Whoever loves his fellow man has obeyed the Law. The commandments [...] are summed up in the one command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Whoever loves his neighbor will never do him wrong. To love, then, is to obey the whole law.” (Dye 29)
Liberation theologian Gonzalo Gutiérrez has stated that faith can be considered “a commitment to God and neighbor, a relationship with others” (6), “love is the nourishment and the fullness of faith” (7) and sin may be
regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men, the breach of friendship with God and with other men, and, therefore, an interior, personal fracture. [...] Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races, and social classes. Sin appears, therefore, as the fundamental alienation, the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation. (175)
Romance novels generally focus more on “interior, personal fracture” than on the broader consequences of “fundamental alienation” but, in popular romance as in Gutiérrez’s theology, it is failures with respect to love that shape the state from which popular romance deems salvation to be necessary. One of Jo Beverley’s military heroes, who has been dubbed “Lucky” due to his ability to survive while others around him died, considers himself “damned rather than lucky” (1995, 266) and asks his heroine
“[...] Can you not imagine what it feels like to lose friend after friend, colleague after colleague, until you don't dare make friends or care for colleagues again? Is that not to be damned?”
If it was, she shared that hell, for after one loss she had not allowed herself to love again. (267)
In the words of another romance heroine, who could perhaps be considered to be speaking here for romance writers, “being alone and unloved is the worst punishment any of us could ever dream of” (Handeland 146).