Monday, November 12, 2012

PhD Students at Work

I'm always keen to hear/read about forthcoming research on romance so I thought I'd mention some work that Jodi McAlister and Jack Elliott have been doing on some of the nuts and bolts of popular romance fiction.

Jodi, who's studying at McQuarie University, has been interviewed by Smart Bitch Sarah:
What I really want to do is work out how virginity functions as a narrative trope in romance, and how this is changed over time. You know those people that pull apart cars for fun to see how they work? I'm like that, but for stories. I guess I'm a narrative mechanic: I love pulling stories to bits to understand how/why/whether they work. I want to work out what function virginity serves as a literary device - how it drives plot, how it drives character, and why it pops up so often in romance in particular. To do this, I'm tracing the history of the virgin heroine in the romance plot - I take a bit of a tour through medieval romance, then through the rise of the novel and its shadowy twin the pornographic novel - before coming back to the modern romance. I'm really interested in what happened once virginity loss scenes started to be regularly represented on the page instead of behind closed doors, something that really kicks off once The Flame and the Flower ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) is published in the early 1970s. I'm looking at virginity loss scenes and comparing to them to autobiographical stories about virginity loss and seeing how they matched up, as well as trying to tie them back to a historical framework.
Jodi's also written a post for the Popular Romance Project about how Fifty Shades of Grey combines elements from the popular romance with some from "its shadowy twin, the pornographic novel":
it can be argued Anastasia and Christian’s happily-ever-after, if we think of this to mean “enduring long term commitment to each other,” occurs at the beginning of Fifty Shades Darker. And yet the series continues, with a growing emphasis on sex scenes. It would seem that the romance plot is co-opted into the pornographic structure—Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is used to engender the repetitive climaxes on which pornography relies. The romance plot is used to create what Steven Marcus calls pornotopia: a world in social institutions and textual events are used merely to create sex. 
Jack Elliott is studying at the University of Newcastle, Australia and he's also written for the Popular Romance Project. He's been taking a very close look at differences in the language used by European (mostly UK), Antipodean and North American romance authors and has come up with findings such as this: "North American writers prefer 'near' rather than 'close.'" and
look at the striking preoccupation with time in the North American novels! “Forever” and “anymore” are both words favored by North Americans—although the more workaday “afterwards” is not (that’s a European word).
Earlier this year he had a post up about changes in the titles of Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances.
The image, "Power House Mechanic," came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain because it was created in 1920/1921 by Lewis Hine.


  1. Hi Laura! I was wondering if there are any research studies dealing with the depiction of the Catholic Church as the villain/ evilness or in general as an easy target / maybe shortcut for snarky commentary in the romance books from british and american authors.

    Because I've read several books (one was Scottish medieval, the other a paranormal book set in Chicago at present) and it bothered me they have such clear signs of this "Catholic Church is Evil".

    I find interesting that these views aren't more disputed. I know they are used as a shortcuts and as an easy target, but I'm astonished for the lack of interest in these bad depictions that left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

    If you're wondering, yes, I'm a Catholic and oh yes I'm from Spain :-D

  2. I've never come across any studies on that (or, indeed, any anti-Catholic romance novels) but I have the impression there were plenty of evil monks and priests in the early gothic novels and according to Ana M. Acosta's "Hotbeds of Popery: Convents in the English Literary Imagination," Eighteenth-Century Fiction 15.3 (available for download here) there were a number of "convent novels published in England between 1765 and 1800" (616) which were anti-Catholic in nature. So there would be precedents for anti-Catholic sentiments in romantic fiction.

    As a counter-balance, perhaps, I should mention that I have come across a few romances written by Meriol Trevor (including one, The Marked Man which was published by Mills & Boon). She also "wrote enchanting children's books, novels and an award-winning biography of Cardinal Newman. Her Catholicism and understanding of history quietly underlaid all her work" (The Guardian).

    In another Mills & Boon historical, False Fortune by Ann Hulme, the hero is a Catholic and the heroine's father, though a Protestant, says:

    As for Catholic Emancipation - possibly I shan't see it come about in my lifetime, but I am certain, quite certain, you will see it in yours. Then you, and your children, will enjoy the same rights as any other English gentleman! Which is as it should be. (147)

  3. Yes, I'm aware there were many early gothic novels who featured evil priests. In romance, I've encountered a few recent novels with signs of anti-catholicism:

    CELTIC STORMS by Delaney Rhodes is the most recent and resounding case, reviewed at Dear Author. Also, BRIDE FOR A KNIGHT by Sue Ellen Welfonder.

    In both novels there's a romanticized view of the druidism Versus Catholic Church and their priests, depicted as liars and corrupts.

    Other romance books who shared similar trends: ACROSS A MOONLIT SEA by Marsha Canham and REDEEMING LOVE by Francine Rivers.

    Also, CARVED IN STONE, a paranormal book by Vickie Taylor who used a real-life legend about the origin of the gargoyles. And let me tell you the original legend is a beautiful tale about the conversion of the french pagans into Christians:

    "The gargouille ... was allegedly a serpent-like water-spouting dragon that appeared in the Seine River in France. It was said to terrorize boats and flood the land. In the legend, Saint Romain, the archbishop of Rouen, lured the monster to shore using a convict, and then made a cross with his fingers to tame the monster. " (Wikipedia)

    Well, Vickie Taylor altered the legend to fit it better with her own vision of the origins of the Gargoyles. She changed the legend to make the poor priest Saint Romain look as an evil man who punished and cursed the village people making them as gargoyles using a pagan ritual (which I didn't understand why, how a priest could have known anything about pagan rituals or have an interest to use them). All this only to make him look a villain, the poor, defamed man. I've just thought, what a poor way to kill a legend.

  4. The romance genre is very large and varied and while some romances reflect on and sometimes challenge attitudes and stereotypes that are held by the society in which they're written and read, others merely reflect them so I suppose it's only to be expected that some anti-Catholicism would turn up in some romances.

    Now that I think about it, I have written a critique of Bettina Kahn's The Book of True Desires in which the "villain is a Spanish aristocrat with an uncle who is a 'bishop of the church' (85)," though any anti-Catholicism there would presumably have been bound up with the stereotyped depiction of Spanish and Hispanic characters.

    I haven't read any of the books you mention, so I can only really comment on the reviews of them. For example, I took a look at the Dear Author review of Celtic Storms and given that the reviewer mentions that "We are told how independent and brave Darina [the heroine] is: she’s even an atheist who only worships herself!" and the main villain is a pagan who engages in "sacrificing children to Gallic deities," it seems that this might be more anti-religion-in-general rather than specifically anti-Catholic.

    Marsha Canham's novel, though, as described in some considerable detail in one Amazon review seems a clearer example of anti-Catholicism (the reviewer addresses the issue of whether the anti-Catholicism could be ascribed to historical accuracy in depicting Protestant characters in Tudor England):

    sheer and unrelenting anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish bigotry [...] overwhelms this story. Given the feelings of English Protestants toward Spanish Catholics, I can understand that some portrayal of this was necessary. But when historical bigotry has to be portrayed in a novel, it is *always* put in the mouths of unsympathetic characters and acknowledged as such. In ACROSS A MOONLIT SEA Simon tells Beau that he hopes his father is in hell, a father who was never shown to be cruel or evil toward him or anyone else. The only reason given for this prayer of Simon's is because his father (who was French, not Spanish) was a devout Catholic who made yearly pilgrimages to Rome.

    I also found a description of the anti-Catholicism in Rivers's novel. It's in the romance sub-genre known as "inspirational" (i.e. religious) and since the audience has tended to have "an evangelical Protestant background" (Library Journal) I suppose it will tend to show devout Protestants in a good light.

  5. Continued from my previous comment, due to Blogger's word limit......

    The intended audience probably does make a difference. Certainly it has done in the past for Mills & Boon (who are the romance publisher I've studied):

    For Mills & Boon [in the 1950s], the market in Ireland remained a large and lucrative one, so important to the firm's fortunes that it often cramped writers' styles. Whereas we have seen that in the 1930s Mills & Boon authors had more freedom, and their novels were occasionally banned in Ireland, times had changed. 'We have to be very careful indeed that there are no complaints about the novels in this important market,' Alan Boon advised authors in 1958. 'The possibility of being banned in this market is a very serious matter.' Ireland, he added, 'objects strongly to divorce, bedroom scenes, illegitimacy, or seduction in novels, even if in the context the comment is unfavourable to such.' (McAleer 213-14)

    and in 1959 a readers' report sent to Boon discussed the problems there would be if the hero of a particular novel was depicted as a Muslim:

    If the hero is a Moslem, I don't think it helps much that he is a lax one! The Eire readers would find much matter of offence here. If, on the other hand, he is made an RC (because of his French upbringing) then we must expect roars of rage from the manse. (208)

    So I get the impression they were trying very hard to keep both their Catholic and Protestant readers happy.

    McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

  6. Thank you for your long replies Laura.

    I agree there are hundreds of romance books of all kinds, and it's clear there have to be many plain and fully stereotyped ones. Also, both CELTIC STORMS and BRIDE FOR A KNIGHT are very far from being brilliant books.

    About the atheism aspect in CELTIC STORMS, I remember, this shows in BRIDE FOR A KNIGHT as well. In this book, the hero is the atheist, a cynical man who distances himself from both religions.

    But I object in the way which both religions are treated on those books. To my mind, the Catholic Church is always receiving the worst treatment and this aspect shows strongly, at least in the book I've read, BRIDE FOR A KNIGHT.

    In that book, the paganism is always viewed in a warmer way (only some minor aspects are criticized only by the hero, the atheist).

    I recommend BRIDE FOR A KNIGHT, even though is a very plain story, but the use of druidism vs catholicism is pretty fascinating
    as symbolized in the Saint Brigid Pond.

    This Pond brings together both religions and according the way is used, it's bonded to benign aspects (druidism) or malign ones (catholicism of course). Brigid was the Celtic god for fertility, motherhood etc. but was christianized and converted to Saint by the Catholics.

    In a litheral way, the references used here are those of light, sun, warmth, etc. applied to Brigid as a Celtic God and darkness, coldness, death, and of something mournful or gloomy applied to Brigid as a Saint and the Catholic Cemetery.

    So when the mother of the hero dies at childbirth after she is given to drink some water from the Pond, the blame falls on the Catholicism aspect of the Pond, the Brigid God as a Saint. His husband, the father of the hero, rejects then the Catholicism.

    When the heroine bathes on the Pond the hero worries this is a bad sign and maybe she won't be able to have children (again Catholic aspect of the Pond).

    Now, positive aspects of the Pond related to Brigid as the Celtic God.

    The midwife gave his mother the water from the Pond thinking in Brigid as the Celtic God of Motherhood etc.

    The heroine visits very often the Pond and is seen by the hero under a daylight, very sunny very bright, magical, protective light. They made love there as if they were in summer.

    So the symbolism of something light, of brightness, warmth, etc is very powerful when related to Brigid as a protective Celtic God but again is depicted as death or something sinister, ominous and gloomy when is attached to Brigid, the Saint.

    I've found all of this pretty fascinating.

  7. I wonder if this exploration of the meanings of the pond are related to what Catherine Roach has identified as the role of the "romance narrative" as

    a guiding story that provides coherence and meaning in many people’s lives; a story whose truth value lies in the extent it is held to be true by people who shape their lives around that story, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is in this sense that the romance narrative is mythic or religious: it often functions as a foundational or idealized story about the meaning and purpose of life. According to this story, it is love that gives value and depth to life; our purpose is to find a well-suited life-mate worthy of our love and to love well and be loved by this mate and a circle of family and friends.

    Part of my jumping off point here is 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” (1). Erotic faith is the belief “that people complete themselves and fulfill their destinies only with another … that in the quest for lasting love and the experience of being in love men and women find their real worth and character” (27).

    Roach, Catherine. "Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

  8. Continued ......

    The idea that the "the romance narrative is mythic or religious" has also been proposed by Angela Toscano, who argues that "Romance is a genre that deals in the ineffable—the ineffable nature of love, the ineffable nature of sex, of identity, of God, of beauty" and "It is no surprise then, that the two ineffable experiences or encounters common to humans become metaphors for each other. The divine is uttered in terms of sexuality, and sexuality is uttered in terms of the divine."

    Barbara Samuel, a romance author, speaking to a group of other romance authors in 2004 said that:

    We don't write romance novels out of some foolish notion that the world is all sweetness and light. We write them in spite of the fact that there is evil afoot in the world. We write them in defiance of knowing how bad it is out there. We write romance because they are powerful acts of faith, acts of light in a dark world.

    Romance novels are born of the sorrows of women-they protest, with great gentleness and deep firmness, the nature of evil. Romance novels are acts of tremendous bravery, a heart-felt dare to believe that a better world is possible. That love conquers all. That if there is enough love, it will finally blot out the darkness.

    Some romances use the language of religion/theology much more explicitly than others, of course, but I think it's possible to see most, or perhaps even all, of them as affirming or exploring "the meaning and purpose of life." That probably does mean that some of them will query particular religious traditions (while others, of course, will embrace/reinforce the teachings of those traditions).


    Samuel, Barbara. "Acts of Faith: Writing Romance as an Act of Courage."

    Toscano, Angela. "The Liturgy of Cliché: Ritual Speech and Genre Convention in Popular Romance." Paper presented at McDaniel College's "Popular Romance in the New Millenium" conference, November 11, 2011.