The plot of a romance novel is guaranteed to end happily and according to Dr Jodi McAlister,
in times like this, when everything is really uncertain and we're not quite sure what's going to happen, we love that sense of closure.
"We like knowing that the arc of the universe will bend towards emotional justice, where two people who love each other will end up together." (Nobel and Johnson)
In the past in times of crisis, some people certainly have turned to romance. The romance publisher Mills & Boon, for example,
Like most publishers [...] thrived during the [Second World] war, as restrictions on many leisure activities promoted reading, even though paper rationing confined new editions to 4,000 copies and reprints were impossible. 'Undoubtedly the war encouraged readership,' Boon said. 'If we had had paper we would have sold probably ten times as many.' (McAleer “Scenes” 268)
However, as a pessimist, my immediate response was not the same as Jodi McAlister’s: the fear of losing loved ones highlighted for me the emotional risks inherent in loving and made me question the pleasure, in such a context, of reading about “the development of a relationship (a central love story)” (Wherry 53). Yet, on reflection, I remembered that questions of risk and the possibility of loss are addressed in some romance novels: romance’s response, it seems to me, is that love gives meaning to life, that the experience of love improves us, and that in some way love itself is eternal and can never be lost.
The romance novel’s roots extend down into myth and fairytale but its more recent ancestors can be found in the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Robert M. Polhemus argues that in the nineteenth century novels became
the ways, means, and sites for the propagation of faith. Nineteenth-century novelists assumed pastoral roles and took them seriously. Think of some of the main purposes and functions of religion: to honor creation and the mystery of being; to make people feel the worth of their own souls; to reconcile them to their lives and offer an alternative to the pain of daily existence; to justify, rationalize, or sublimate power relations; to exalt by holding out the promise of salvation; to lift people out of themselves, free the spirit, and move them to ecstasy; to transmute and control aggression and violent drives; to sublimate sexuality and idealize gender identity. (Polhemus 4-5)
Some of these purposes and functions are, of course, controversial: historically, faith has had a range of positive and negative impacts. While my opening chapters are descriptive, I do not forget that romances are open to critique, and I hope to address some of these in later chapters. Moreover, when studying romances, it is vital to bear in mind their variety. Religions are not monolithic, and neither is popular romance fiction. However, while recognising that there are both many different types of romance and “many kinds of reader, using romance fiction in different ways, in various contexts, and with specific purposes” (Taylor 73), I would like to suggest that romance novels have held firm to the tradition outlined by Polhemus: romance authors have assumed pastoral roles, offering hope to their readers through novels which propagate faith in the goodness and durability of love.
Faith, love and hope have long been referred to as the theological virtues, and I will be drawing extensively on theology. This is not because I wish to suggest that all romance readers believe either that Love is godlike or that there is a God who is love, though many readers do indeed believe in a loving God and others express the view that love is a powerful force for good in the world. Rather, as a scholar shaped by the study of the Middle Ages, I perhaps turn to theology in much the same way that early romance critics’ such as Janice Radway and Tania Modleski had recourse to psychology. However, in addition to having an almost instinctive impulse to turn to theology, I do believe that it is a valuable resource in the context of a form of literature with romance's history and nature.
Helen Taylor has suggested that “romance can speak as perhaps nothing else does to our desire, fantasies and longings for a better world and for states of individual and collective transcendence” (Taylor 63). The word “transcendence” perhaps suggests a connection with a religious or spiritual experience. That is certainly a key aspect of romance reading for the evangelical Christian readers of evangelical romance novels studied by Lynn S. Neal (2006). However, since Neal’s research focused on a very specific group of US readers and texts, its findings could not be considered more widely applicable. In 2010, however, Catherine M. Roach began publishing work which touched on the theological concepts underpinning romance fiction as a whole, drawing on
Robert Polhemus’s powerful study of nineteenth-century British novels of love and romance, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (1990). In his analysis of these novels that stand as high literary precursors to twentieth-century popular romance fiction, his key concept of “erotic faith” provides a reading of the emotional dynamic that the romance narrative then turns into story. Erotic faith, he writes, is “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love”
Polhemus and Roach are not the only critics to have observed the close connections between religion and romantic fiction. Bridget Fowler, for instance, was critical of both religion and romance when she commented that, “Like religion, the romance distorts the structures of social reality [...], the romance is also the ‘heart of a heartless world’, comforting in its familiar reassurance” (175). As Eric Murphy Selinger and I wrote in a forthcoming chapter on “Romance and/as Religion,”
religion, especially Christianity, can be read as a romance; [...] Christianity and other religions have shaped the history of, and been represented in, the romance genre; and [...] the vision of love promulgated by the romance genre, even in ostensibly secular texts, can often be read as a religious or divine phenomenon: something unconditional, omnipotent, and eternal.
The romance in its current modern, popular, English-language form, emerged out of the broader category of “romantic fiction” but once individual authors (such as Berta Ruck, who in 1933 declared herself to be "a Happy-Ender"), publishers (such as Mills & Boon) and finally entire segments of the popular fiction market (as is the case for “romance” publishing in the USA), came to guarantee that their love stories would always have “a positive resolution (happy ending)” (Wherry 53), by definition the works encouraged their readers to have faith that love would bring happiness to the protagonists. Admittedly readers and authors of secular romances may use the word "faith" relatively rarely, but I have observed that “love” and “hope” are words which recur when they explain why they choose romance. For example, on just one day in 2017, in a small section of Twitter, I saw Sally Kilpatrick stating that “a good romance reminds me that I believe in love, good triumphing over evil & HOPE” while romance author Ann Aguirre’s request for people to tweet about “why you love the genre” led to responses which repeatedly included the words love and hope.
Drawing on theology, in this book I want to suggest a new definition of the romance novel to complement other definitions which focus on structural elements: modern popular 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.
At the beginning of 2020 I had been working on this book for some time. I put it online now, in incomplete form, because perhaps something in it will be of use to others now, and there are no guarantees about the future. The initial four chapters, which form its core, are complete, though I welcome the thoughts and opinions of others because this book is an attempt to understand more not just about romance novels, but also about their readers and authors. I hope to continue the process of writing and editing it online and, if I complete it, make it freely available in a variety of formats.