As theologian Werner G. Jeanrond has observed, “all experiences of and reflections on love are embedded in a particular space, time and language” (9). Lynne Pearce, for instance, has
proposed that one of the ways we might figure the changing nature of love across the centuries is via the notion of the different “supplementary” values attached to it in the different eras be this the “gift of a name” (for the wife) in the seventeenth century to the “gift of self-actualisation” in the late twentieth century. (2019, 37)
Similarly, Talia Schaffer has observed of marriage in the legalistic mode, which she terms "familiar marriage," and describes as offering "trustworthy companionship and practical benefits" (42), that its:
benefits [...] got articulated only when familiar marriage faced some kind of competing model. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the three main rivals were mercenary marriage, marriage based solely on filial obedience, or marriage to a rake. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, however, it was the rake that emerged as the main threat, the one that drove writers to develop an alternative. (42)
Romance novels and their precursors have therefore changed over time: in addition to variations produced by the extent to which they adhere to either the legalistic or ecstatic traditions and to authors' personal beliefs, they reflect, and reflect on, changes in social attitudes and conditions.
Piper Huguley's A Virtuous Ruby calls for careful interpretation and interrogation of both texts and the uses to which they are put: some are inherently intensely problematic but even texts which are predominantly liberatory in nature may receive interpretations which exclude, erase, and oppress. All romances are, in a sense, exegesis of the genre's central belief in love's goodness and durability. Simon May has stated (albeit with regret), that as a society
we are [...] deeply committed to the view, Greek in origin, that genuine love is evoked only by the good, that it pursues only the good, and that it fosters only the good. And that its attainment is marked by harmony and stability and understanding. On this view, if we love evil-doers it is for the specks of good that we see in them. Or, if we fall in love with destructive people, this is not genuine love. (34)
May's observation raises questions about the extent to which romance acknowledges both the destructive potential of love and the extent to which it considers true love able to foster "the good" even in "evil-doers."
Many romances use metaphors of damnation and devilishness to indicate the presence of either "evil-doers" or those who have been deeply harmed by love or its lack. Narratives which focus on the salvation of devilish and damned protagonists can be read as hopeful expressions of faith in love's goodness. Nora Roberts, in her Three Sisters trilogy, by contrast, explores ways in which love can be perverted. Roberts' texts thus acknowledge that although love is immensely powerful, its intensity, if warped, has the potential to be extremely destructive. The legalistic mode advocates for a cautious approach to love, in which it is assessed against, and bounded by, moral and social conventions. Rose Lerner's In for a Penny, however, serves as a reminder that the opportunity to gain spiritual insights may be lost if a purely legalistic approach to love is adopted. Lerner's novel draws on precursors of the modern popular romance and thus suggests that romances, in their current form, combine elements from both legalistic and ecstatic literary traditions about love, in order to access the benefits of both while minimising the risks inherent in each. One question which arises from the linkage between sexuality and the ecstatic mode, however, is whether it compels the romance novel, as a form, to denigrate or erase asexual forms of intense love.
While it may be, therefore, that the romance genre needs to develop new, emotionally intense, ecstatic rituals which are not based on sexual activity or the building and release of sexual tension, the ecstatic mode has traditionally been characterised by its imaginative approach. As such, it has been able to generate a range of characters and plots which, unrealistic though they are (or, perhaps, precisely because they are unrealistic) can give shape to, or symbolise, hopeful future stories. Alyssa Cole's A Princess in Theory and its paratext directly address the hopes given form in narratives about individuals who are of low social status but become a princess. Moreover, with an epidemiologist as a protagonist and its demonstration of the complexity of the supposedly "low-skilled" tasks performed by those in poorly paid jobs, it seems an apt novel to examine during a pandemic which caused the UK government to publish
a list of “key workers”: those deemed “critical to the Covid-19 response” in a bid to ensure that the country continues to function during the pandemic.
The list [...] includes “those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery, as well as those essential to the provision of other key goods,” like food and medicine. [...] It turns out then, that the government does value the work of shop workers and delivery drivers, even if they will rarely admit it. [...]
Only a few weeks ago, [...] government described these jobs as “low skilled” and therefore low value. [...]
Yet this crisis has shown that we still rely on people to keep the lights on, to stock supermarket shelves, and to care for the sick and elderly. These “low skill jobs” are the bedrock of our society. (King)