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Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels
by Stacy E. Holden

Dr. Geneva Gray woke to the sound of nomads attacking her archaeological camp, which, though technically in Egypt, bordered all too closely the kingdom of Bah’shar.[1] Taken captive, the American was presented by the desert marauders as a gift to Sheikh Zafir bin Rashid al-Khalifa, leader of this fictional Arab country. Zafir recognizes Dr. Gray, or [End Page 1] Genie, for they had once dated when they both attended the same American college. Ten years ago, Genie had broken off the relationship after Zafir had informed her of his impending arranged marriage and then asked her to return to his kingdom as his mistress. Now a widower, Zafir does not endorse the illegal detention of Americans, but his response to this crisis is dictated by the cultural and political conditions of his Arab kingdom. “The ways of the desert are ancient and cannot be changed overnight,” he says (Harris, “Kept” 121). Bowing to political exigencies in Bah’shar, Zafir forces Genie to return to his palace in Al-Shahar, promising the noted scholar that in return for her captivity he will grant her exclusive rights to excavate the precious temples of the capital city. Thrown together, their simmering attraction threatens to blossom into love, a dangerous situation since Zafir’s people may not be ready to accept a Western queen. After an assassination attempt, the Sheikh sends his lady love back home, stating simply “we are two different people from two different worlds” (Harris, “Kept” 144).

The notion that Arabs and Westerners are “from two different worlds” has a long history in Western high art and popular culture, but its current iteration reflects a historically specific pessimism about Arab-American relations that has shaped cultural production in the post-9/11 world. Although not all Arabs are Muslim, and although the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not Arab, American popular media routinely conflate the two categories, such that news broadcasts, films, television series, and potboilers reify the various peoples of the twenty-two countries of the Middle East and North Africa into a single homogeneous entity that is dark, dangerous, religiously “other,” and dead set against the West (Markovitz; Shaheen; Takacs). American popular culture has thus fused the “Global War on Terror” announced by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks with the “Clash of Civilizations” predicted by Samuel Huntington in the 1990s, presenting conflict between an American-led West and an Arab-led Islamic East as the defining feature of international relations in the early twenty-first century (Huntington).

By my count, Harlequin and Silhouette have published at least eighty sheikh romance novels by twenty-one American authors since 9/11. According to cultural historian and literary scholar Hsu-Ming Teo, these stories of desert love can be read as subversive tracts, for they are presently the only form of American popular culture consistently evoking compassion for Arabs or the Arab world (Teo 216; 301-303). This compassion hinges on a cross-cultural exchange of values: the heroine ultimately embraces the family-oriented culture of the Arab world, while the sheikh adopts the liberal feminist agenda of his Western beloved and her compatriots (Teo 233).

Teo describes sheikh romance novels as “a valuable historical archive showing how ordinary, educated women understand and interpret Arabs, Muslims, citizenship, and belonging, and Western relations with the Middle East” (26). True to form, the ending of Harris’s novella “Kept by the Sheikh” helps scholars to appreciate one author’s political imagination in a post-9/11 world. This story does not end with Zafir and Genie in separate worlds, but rather brings the couple and their cultures together. Zafir changes the law prohibiting Bah’shar’s rulers from marrying foreigners and also holds a special vote to ensure that his people agree with him—which, conveniently, they do (Harris, “Kept” 186). And so, Zafir’s love for the American fosters democratic process, or at least some version of it, in the Arab world.

The ending of “Kept by the Sheik” becomes more significant when contextualized with its author’s life story. Like many Americans, Harris has a deeply vested interest in the [End Page 2] War on Terror now being waged in various areas of the Arab world. The forty-seven year old author not only grew up in a military family—both her mother and father were soldiers—but is also the wife of an officer, a now-retired Technical Sergeant in the Air Force. And Harris is as close to a “blue-blooded” American as found in this national melting pot, for she is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization in which descendants of those who fought for American independence actively promote patriotism through various charitable endeavors. On 11 September 2001, she was at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and her thoughts turned immediately to the precarious future of her husband and those who served with him. In fact, she had only just returned that very day from a visit to him in Italy, where he was then deployed to Italy supporting Operation Joint Forge, a NATO effort in support of Kosovo (Harris, email, 16 February 2014; Harris, interview, 16 July 2013).

Harris—much like the ten other authors and three editors interviewed for this article—denies an explicit intent to address politics in her romance novels, but both the text of her novels and the transcripts of her interviews belie this unassuming assertion. Indeed, the author reveals a belief that her novels may well contribute to a better American understanding of the Arab world. Analyzing the sheikh, a composite Arab hero that essentializes the region’s political and cultural complexities, she notes that “I think it’s important for romance reader to think of him as a man, to know that he is sexy and desirable as a man from their own culture could be. Maybe that’s naive of me, but I choose to believe having sheikhs populate romance novels makes readers think of them as people, not terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists who hate America” (Harris, email, Follow Up, 11 February 2013).

In this essay, I expand and supplement the textual archive relied on by Teo by adding a new set of documents: interviews with some of the “ordinary, educated women” who write and publish these texts. Methodologically, I am a historian by training—one whose work previously analyzed the political and economic conditions of Morocco and Iraq via oral history and other first-hand accounts—and so I am keenly aware of a need to expand the source base for examining the cultural trends represented by sheikh romances. For this essay, I interviewed eleven authors and three editors. This article was particularly influenced by interviews with six authors and two editors of Harlequin Presents, a category line specializing in stories about “alpha males, decadent glamour and jet-set lifestyles” set in a “sensational, sophisticated world” (Harlequin Presents). Another important resource was Susan Mallery, author of the Desert Rogue Series published by Harlequin in the Silhouette Special Edition line. Mallery and her editor Karen Richman made themselves available on multiple occasions via email and in person.

These interviews suggest authors of sheikh romances consciously and deliberately struggle against the negative stereotypes of Arabs perpetrated by the media and other vehicles of popular culture. They do so by deploying some of the more positive—indeed, one might say exotically upbeat—stereotypes drawn from the long history of Orientalist fiction and film. In a complex negotiation between their own desires, the traditions of the genre, and the expectations of readers and publishers, sheikh romance authors embrace an ideal of Arab-American reconciliation, albeit one in which the happy ending occurs according to Western sensibilities. [End Page 3]

The Popularity of Sheikh Romances in the Post-9/11 World

Among the sheikh romance authors whose work straddles the dividing line of the 9/11 attacks, few have been as consistently popular as Susan Mallery, whom Teo identifies as a “master of this genre” (Teo 284). Long before writing a sheikh romance, Mallery had admired the sheikh romance author Barbara Faith, who had been the sole author allowed to pen such novels for the category line Silhouette Special Edition. In 1998, three years after Faith’s death, Mallery’s editor, Karen Richman, invited her to submit a proposal for a sheikh romance novel in that line (Mallery, interview). Richman recalls that Silhouette had identified the author as a rising star and “so our plan was to go out with a three-book series, in three consecutive months to help market the series and profile her writing” (Richman, email). On a road trip through Louisiana with friend and fellow author Christina Dodd, Mallery plotted the trilogy. “I started with three books and really never thought I would do more,” she explained, “but the reader interest was huge and the mail started pouring in. So I kept writing them” (Mallery, interview in Shoemaker).

The popularity of Mallery’s “Desert Rogue Series,” now thirteen volumes strong, may be partly due to the author’s self-consciously idealized version of the Arab world. Each of Mallery’s books takes place in a fictional country located on the Arabian peninsula, and each country is explicitly described in both the text and in interviews as standing slightly apart from that real-world context, a “Switzerland of the Middle East” (Mallery, email; Kidnapped 179; Princess 11). Mallery does not set her books in real places, she has explained, because:

The real world of the Middle East is complex and difficult. There are religious differences and deadly conflicts. My books are about taking people away from the real world. So I created my own countries where my romantic stories can take place. There’s [sic] no religious issues, no war, no disagreements, except between the hero and heroine (Mallery, interview in Shoemaker).

In this quote, we find Mallery emphasizing a negative stereotype of the Arab world put forth in the nightly news as a lived reality in the Arab world. She is unapologetic in her decision to omit the media representations of disturbing events in real life and the negative stereotypes, thereby sanitizing this place it for consumption by her readers, most of whom are American.

Mallery’s effort to keep “real world” issues outside the borders of her novels was put to the test in 2001. The fourth book in her series was due out in November 2001, two months after 9/11. Since this book, titled The Sheikh and the Runaway Princess, had gone into production ten months earlier, the publisher could not change its plans and replace the monthly category romance with, for example, a tale of a fireman, which would have directly reflected American sensibilities after 9/11. The editorial staff at Silhouette worried that the book would not sell. After all, they had witnessed firsthand the trauma of 9/11. The American headquarters of Silhouette is in downtown Manhattan, and its employees saw smoke from the Twin Towers from their office windows as they followed news of the crisis on TV. Richman remembers, “we were a little worried about how readers would react, [End Page 4] especially with the fourth book in the series set to be published right after that terrible tragedy” (Richman, email). With two sheikh books in production, Mallery predicted extremely low sales and believed her career might be over (Mallery, interview). Sharing her concerns, editors at Silhouette re-named the sixth book, which was in production and due to be released in June 2002. Eliminating the Arab term “sheikh,” the editors titled the book The Prince and the Pregnant Bride, an ethnically neutral term that sidestepped potential antipathy about the Arab world (Mallery, email).

The fears of the Silhouette editorial staff proved unfounded, and Mallery went on to publish another seven books set in her fictional Arab world. Indeed, Mallery insists that there was “not a blip in sales. Nothing” (Mallery, interview). Since each of her sheikh romances had a press run of 100,000 copies, these culminated in sales of 1.3 million books (Reardon).

The popularity of Mallery’s series is not an anomaly, for other authors have found that 9/11 did not affect continuing interest in the Arab world. When 9/11 occurred, Sandra Marton was under contract to write The Sheikh’s Convenient Bride. In this story, an episode in the O’Connell family saga, CPA Megan O’Connell falls for her client, Qasim al Daud al Rashid, the King of Suliyam. As the wife of a retired New York City police officer, Marton was understandably distressed by the 9/11 tragedy (Marton, interview). Two weeks later, she informed her editor that she felt that she could not write the sheikh romance (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2013). Marton’s editor assuaged her concerns and quickly assured her that the sale of sheikh romance in the category line of Harlequin Presents had not suffered due to the 9/11 attack. The author ultimately decided to write the book for which she was under contract.

Marton felt at ease doing so in part because she created “a sheikh who was comfortable in Western culture” (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2013). In this way, she found her own recipe for generating a fictive Arab world that was comfortable for American readers. The sheikh in this post-9/11 novel is ethnically Arab, and yet he is culturally quite Western in his orientation. He is an alumnus of Yale University, and his American mother resides in California. The cover of the book deliberately eschews visual mention of Arab culture, since it features a naked man and woman in bed together. Noting that Arab clothing can be “off-putting,” Marton and her editor “had long ago agreed that my sheikh books would never feature covers in which my character was dressed in Arab garb.” Marton also insists that her stories “deliberately avoided religious discussion or religious rules.” Towards this last, her stories actually upturn the principles of the Islamic majority in the Arab world. She notes that she allows her sheikhs to drink wine, prohibited by Islam, “because I give them a backstory that involves being educated in the West” (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2-13). Her readers responded to this formula; Marton has since published five more books, each focusing on an Arab hero who is Westernized and an American heroine.[2]

Authorial anecdotes underscore the popularity of the sheikh hero in a post-9/11 world. Barbara McMahon writes for the category line Harlequin Romance. This category line is distinct from Harlequin Presents, because it targets readers who seek a more realistic fantasy, devoid of international glamour. McMahon reports that she “had a sheikh book come out the month after 9/11. I worried it would tank and I’d get no sales from it. However it sold as well as any of the other sheikh books I’ve done—phenomenally well as my editor said about it” (McMahon, email). [End Page 5]

Indeed, authors report healthy sales of books premised on stories of sheikh heroes courting American women among desert ergs. Jane Porter, who writes for Harlequin Presents, published seven romance novels set in the Arab world between 2002 and 2009.[3] “My sheikhs,” she asserts, “outsell anything else I write by $10,000 a book…They’re the highest selling” (Porter, interview, 17 July 2013). And speaking in terms of sales and of creative writing honors, Maisey Yates reports that “some of my most successful books have been sheikh heroes. Both my award nominated books have been sheikh books…My sheikh heroes tend to be reader favorites” (Yates, email).

Underscoring the profits to be earned from the publication of sheikh romances, editors have made concerted efforts to encourage the publication of sheikh romances. Linda Conrad, who writes for the category line Harlequin Romantic Suspense, reports that, “Several years ago my editor asked a few of her authors to consider writing Sheikh heroes for marketing purposes” (Conrad, email). She has since published four novels in which an Arab and an American fall in love as they work together to untangle international intrigue. In a like manner, Linda Winstead Jones, who writes for the category line Silhouette Intimate Moments, was asked to write a continuity series about sheikhs. In a continuity series, as she explains, “a group of editors comes up with the concepts and characters and hands that over to their authors” (Winstead, email). Thus, her books—The Sheik and I (2006) and Secret-Agent Sheik (2002)—explicitly result from and reflect market demand for Arab heroes in a post-9/11 world. Lynne Raye Harris’s editor requested a sheikh romance in December 2009, and Harris has since published a novella and three novels set in the Arab world. In fact, she identifies Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir (2015) as her best-selling novel (Harris, interview, 28 April 2015). Sandra Marton left Harlequin Presents and began to self-publish in 2013, initiating this risky business venture with a sheikh hero, an economically driven decision that underscores the popularity of the Arab fantasy with readers.

Overall, the numbers of sheikh romance novels increased notably after 9/11, even as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq heated up. Teo has compiled a revealing graph that demonstrates the numbers of sheikh romances published in a given year between 1969 and 2007. With numbers hovering around six in 2000, the lines of the graph morphs into a severe incline in 2002, with eighteen sheikh romances published that year (Teo 5). A reporter for the Chicago Tribune counted four sheikh romance novels a year published in the 1990s, compared with seventeen—quadrupling that modest tally—in the first six years of the twenty-first century (Reardon).

Forging a Fictional Kingdom

The political fantasy of the sheikh romance lies in the happy union of the two people from vastly different worlds, the United States and a generalized Arab region. Lynn Raye Harris notes that her American readers find the Arab world “so foreign, so Other.” Harris has an MA in English and so is familiar with theoretical Othering in Western imperial texts. She notes that these sheikh romances provide “such an Other experience, and I think Americans are fascinated with that” (Harris, interview, 28 April 2015). One critical tenet of [End Page 6] the novels, then, is that the world of the Arab potentate is differentiated from that of the American heroine.

Authors of sheikh romances universally situate their storylines among desert sands, a terrain abandoned in modern times, in order to underscore the differences between the Arab hero and his American heroine. They do this despite the fact that rates of urbanization in the Arabian peninsula, the heart of the Arab world, hover between 80 and 90 per cent (Barakat 29). Jane Porter notes that, “I don’t think I’ve ever written a Sheikh story that spends more than maybe twenty or thirty pages in North America. My Sheikh stories always take place in the desert” (Porter, interview 1 May 2014). This setting is unfamiliar—and attractive—to Western readers. In this way, the authors forge a fantastical kingdom that draws upon Orientalist notions. “Sand, camel, desert…tent,” recites Harris, who reflects on these heavily charged common nouns and asserts that “readers need the key words, because they create the world in their head” (Harris, interview, 17 July 2013).

Maisey Yates unwittingly broke this unspoken rule as a first time author of sheikh romances. In drafting The Inherited Bride, she wrote a story in which Princess Isabella Rossi of Turan seeks out some semblance of a normal life before doing her duty to her country by undertaking an arranged marriage to High Sheikh Hassan al bin Sudar of Umarah. When Hassan’s brother Adham seeks her out in Paris, the two—at least, in the initial draft—embark on a Mediterranean vacation in which the princess engages in “normal” activities, like eating hamburgers or walking in the streets, while the couple fall in love. Mention of the desert came late in the novel, thus being downplayed. After Yates submitted her draft, she notes that her “editor…sent me a revision letter, and she was, like, what is the point of doing a sheikh if you never have them in the desert? That is not what readers want. She said, what they go to it for is for this setting, and you haven’t given them that…You need to, you know, move the desert part forward because you are not fulfilling the fantasy” (Yates, interview). The setting establishes the hero’s credibility as a man from the Arab world, and this sets up the cultural differences between him and his leading lady, which is one inevitably wrought with political overtones.

And so, nearly without exception, authors of sheikh romances set their fictional countries in the desert. Mallery, for example, has created a network of desert states in the Middle East proper, including Bahania, El Bahar and the hidden city-state the City of Thieves.[4] These countries are rentier states. Thus, oil production largely accounts for the personal fortune of $14 billion of the royal family of El Bahania (Mallery, Prince and Pregnant 14). Her books are illustrated with a map of the Middle East that inserts these countries into the existing state system. Bahania is squeezed next to the United Arab Emirates, while El Bahar is contiguous with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In some sense, Mallery is counting on her readership’s vague knowledge of this region, for “Oman,” she notes, “is just gone, and I apologize to the people” (Mallery, interview). The author is quite conscious of her use of the desert setting as a genre trope, one whose familiarity is critical to the success of these romances. “The oasis,” she thus notes, “speaks to the traditional and stereotypical view of the desert. But it’s fun, and if they can have sex at the oasis, all the better” (Mallery, email).

Indeed, desert terrain exists for Mallery even in places where it would actually be a near impossibility for it to be present. Thus, the arid climate of Mallery’s desert setting dominates fictive Lucia-Serrat, which is an island country purported to be in the Indian Ocean, where, presumably, tropical terrain and sultry beaches would prevail. But even [End Page 7] natives of Lucia-Serrat, like ruler Prince Rafiq, though American on his mother’s side and educated in the West, feel the tug of the desert. Much of the novel takes place in California, where Rafiq has set up an office. And yet, when informed of his heroine’s virginity, he feels “the ancient blood of his heritage, of those long-gone desert warriors” (Mallery, Virgin 125). In a like manner, Kiley, his love interest, finds that Rafiq, like all princes of tropical Lucia-Serrat, has “the desert blood that flowed through their bodies [and] made them loyal unto death” (Mallery, Virgin 229). The desert defines the sheikh romance even when it is not directly set in the desert, not least because the desert influences the personality of the hero.

Mallery’s Rafiq is not the only protagonist for whom the environment determines personality. Maisey Yates has published three sheikh romances for the category line Harlequin Presents. In Forged in Desert Heat, her readers find that hero Zafar Nejem of fictive Al Sabah “wasn’t just from the desert; the desert was in him” (64). As he informs his love interest Ana, “The desert can make you feel strong and free, but it also makes you very conscious of the fact that you are mortal” (28). According to Yates, “My personal vision of a sheikh is a man steeped in tradition, and also honor. A man who is perhaps out of step with the modern world, because of how ‘apart’ he is in his desert kingdom. Deserts are harsh, so in my mind this creates the image of a man born to withstand the harshness of the world” (Yates, email).

Lynne Raye Harris is also fascinated with the desert and admits her choice of setting for her sheikh romances has been influenced by her reading of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the memoir of T.E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—in a graduate class on the Middle East. Focused on the Arab Revolt of 1916 in the area that is now the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, this British memoir was published three years after E.M. Hull’s novel The Sheik (1919), a book often identified as the forebear of today’s sheikh romance. An abridged version of that novel, Revolt in the Desert, came out five years later, its title speaking to the Western fascination with this seemingly deadly foreign terrain. Much like E.M. Hull’s novel, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom takes place in an untamed desert in which, ultimately, a Westerner “gone native” brings order and civilization to Arab society. Harris fabricates desert kingdoms for her sheikh based partly on Lawrence’s descriptions. “I know there are problems with Lawrence’s interpretation,” she admits, “and yet Pillars is so poetic that it does capture the imagination completely” (Harris, email 16 December 2011).

Like Mallery and Yates, Harris links the physical setting to the personality of her main character. The fictive kingdom of Jahfar, for example, is ruled by Adan Najib Al Dhakir. Here, the desert looms as an ominous force, for it seems—mistakenly—that his wife Isabella Maro had killed herself by walking into its shifting sands. Adan finds his amnesiac wife very much alive—and singing in a bar in Hawaii (another highly exoticized area populated by non-white people). The moment that he finds her, he “had the look of the desert, that hawklike intensity of a man who lived life on the edge of civilization” (Strangers 12). It is no surprise that Harris contends that “the desert is wild and untamable in many ways and, presumably, a man who comes from that wildness is also a bit wilder than any other type of contemporary romance hero” (Harris, email, “Follow Up,” 11 February 2013).

Culture Clash

[End Page 8] Emphasizing difference, Harris asserts of Arabs that “their country, their land, their customs—everything is so foreign to us as Westerners” (Harris, interview, 16 July 2013). Romance authors take pains to introduce a mysterious and somewhat colorful setting to their readers in order to establish that their sheikhs comes from a foreign culture. Reflecting and refracting common American beliefs, the authors portray a standardized Arab culture that is distinct from that of the United States. In doing so, they recycle common Orientalist conceits—patriarchy, despotism, and exoticism—that have littered American literature since the colonial age. In relying on stereotypes that have been perpetuated for 300 years, the “foreignness” of the Arab place is in fact quite familiar to Western readers; authors are not unaware of this paradox. “It’s a tad embarrassing to realize I’m playing into Western stereotypes,” notes Harris, “and yet I also have to say that I couldn’t write the story any other way.” As she delves into the reasons for this necessity, Harris shifts from the language of political critique—“playing into Western stereotypes” —to what she calls “the literary side.” “Taking it to the literary side of things,” she explains, “the story plays into underlying myths…that speak to the collective unconscious of the romance reader” (Harris, email 16 December 2011).

Many authors highlight their heroes in the text—not in the cover art—as an Arab Other by depicting them as wearing native costume. The hero may look good in an Armani suit, but he is far better-suited to desert robes, which his American heroine finds striking and sexy. Sabrina Johnson, for example, is a princess of El Bahania, but she also meets the criteria of an ordinary Western career woman, a must in modern-day American romances (Teo 222). She was, after all, raised in Los Angeles by her American mother and is a historian by training. Sabrina is in the desert looking for the fabled City of Thieves when its mysterious ruler Kardal rescues her from a deadly sandstorm. He is “dressed traditionally in burnoose and djellaba” (Mallery, Runaway 11). Despite being held captive, Sabrina is increasingly captivated by Kardal. “Desert sand,” she asserts, again highlighting his Arab Other-ness, “flowed through his veins” (Mallery, Runaway 119). This non-Western facet of Kardal makes her heart beat faster, as evidenced by Sabrina’s sartorial musing that, “Today he wore Western garb—a well-tailored suit in dark gray with a white shirt and red tie. She wasn’t used to seeing him dressed like a businessman. In some ways she found that she preferred Kardal in more traditional clothing” (Mallery, Runaway 159).

Amira Jarmakani has analyzed descriptions of clothing in sheikh romances and found that these texts “covertly racialize” the Arab Other (Jarmakani 919). In the United States, Arabs struggled within the court system to be recognized as “Caucasian” in the early-twentieth century (Beydoun). Jarmakani, however, argues that descriptions of Arabs in sheikh romances do more than attend neutrally to ethnic differentiation, thereby belying American legal understandings of whiteness. Instead, she warns of an ominous racial logic underpinning the desert fantasy. Admitting that “overt references to race or racialization are hard to find,” Jarmakani argues that “covert articulations of race, sometimes coded through the tropes of ethnicity or region, play a vital role in exoticizing and eroticizing the hero” (Jarmakani 906). She hypothesizes that “the most obvious or salient way in which sheikhs are covertly racialized through cultural markers are in what amounts to a fetishization of ‘Arabian’ forms of cultural dress” (Jarmakani 919).

Indeed, conversations with romance authors suggest that the promoting of an interracial romance is part and parcel of the fantasy that they want to create for their readers. Yates, a European-American married to an African-American man, deals [End Page 9] comfortably with issues of race and interracial relationships, which, for her, can be part of a romantic fantasy. Thus, she penned The Highest Price to Pay, which centered on a white fashion designer who falls for an investor from sub-Saharan Africa. Yates admits that she looks for elements of interracial romance, even in sheikh novels. And yet, in a conversation between Yates and Sharon Kendrick, it becomes clear that these are not easy to find. The latter shares that her editor took out a scene where the heroine looked down and found that sheikh’s “hand looked so very dark against her white skin” (Kendrick, interview). The evidence from these conversations does not detract from the differentiation through clothing identified by Jarmakani. Rather, it supports Jarmakani’s contention of a “covert” and “coded” language of racial difference. The romance industry may not want to racialize the sheikh, at least not in any explicit way, but romance authors themselves do often assert that they seek to promote fantasies in which people who belong to different races can find love, and if that desire cannot be expressed in discussions of skin color it remains legible elsewhere.

To facilitate their interracial/intercultural romance plots, the American authors interviewed for this article drew upon a variety of sources to forge a composite Arab world that often belies the region’s political and cultural particulars and complexities. This process is exemplified in the composite setting of Sandra Marton’s The Sheikh’s Defiant Bride. Marton’s romance is set in the fictional kingdom of Dubaac, which she invents as a state in northwest Africa on the border of the Sahara desert and seemingly in close proximity to Mauritania, a poor country whose GDP relies on fishing and some minerals, like copper and iron. Despite the logistics of the fictive country’s placement, however, Dubaac is modeled loosely on Saudi Arabia, for it is an oil-producing state, which is a rarity on the African continent. (Only two African nations are known for oil production: Algeria in North Africa, and Nigeria in West Africa.)

Marton superimposes not only the economic system of Saudi Arabia on Dubaac, but also its culture. In the opening of the book, Sheikh Tariq al Sayf engages in an “ancient custom” as a rite of mourning. Reflecting on his lost brother, he carries a hawk on his arm into the “endless silence of the desert” (Marton, Defiant 7). Chanting his brother’s name, Tariq unlaces the hood of the hawk and sets him free, hoping this action helps his brother’s spirit find peace.

Marton’s inspiration for this scene came from an exhibit on Saudi Arabian culture that she visited in London. There, the curator had arranged for a goshawk and his keeper to be maintained as part of the cultural experience for foreign visitors. Marton was allowed to put on a glove and hold the traditional bird of prey treasured and conserved on the Arabian peninsula. She notes that, “when I wrote that first chapter where he’s burying his brother and he sets his brother’s hawk free, that’s what I went back to, was that moment…I wrote that from my own feelings of what I felt that bird on my wrist wanted, which was to remain with me, but to be free to fly, which was a wonderful moment and I was able to use it” (Marton, interview). In this way, Marton clearly attends to the emotional impact of an American engaging Saudi culture, but she standardizes it so that the particularities of different countries merge into a single Arab world.

In this instance, the author anchored the culture of her fictive Arab kingdom in the real traditions of one country in the Arab world, but that is not always the case. Mallery, for example, draws inspiration for a fantastical Arab culture from a variety of literary and cinematic sources, many of which scholars would deem part and parcel of the Orientalist [End Page 10] canon. For example, she distinctly remembers purchasing Georgia Elizabeth Taylor’s 1978 historical romance The Infidel at a yard sale while in high school. Set in eleventh century Spain, when Arabs ruled Al Andalus, this book recounts the story of the fictional first wife of El Cid, who fought the ruling Moors. Violet Winspear’s Palace of the Pomegranate was the first sheikh romance that she ever read, and this, too, has been an inspiration in her perpetuation of sheikh romances set in the desert. An early Harlequin Presents, it tells the tale of socialite Grace Wilde, who falls in love with Kharim Khan while on an expedition in the Persian desert. Clearly drawn to Orientalist romance, Mallery also attributes inspiration to a 1986 TV movie called “The Harem” with Art Malik and Nancy Travis, in which the British heroine is taken captive by an Arab hero with whom she falls in love (Mallery, interview).

And so, the Arab world constructed by Mallery is an amalgam of these highly exoticized presentations (and a real hoot for those of us who have done hard traveling in an actual desert). Given the economic wealth of the protagonists in Mallery’s novels, she can “do some research on art or architecture and then just, you know, put sequins on it, metaphorically” (Mallery, interview). Thus, there are not only opulent palaces in Mallery’s work that date back to the eleventh century, but also fantastical desert encampments in which tents the size of small condos are provisioned with plush carpets, generators flushing in cool air, and tubs of steaming water (Bride Who Said No 208). In this way, Mallery grounds her works in a fantasy that eschews discussion of any factual differences between the US and specific countries of the Middle East and North Africa, instead celebrating an exoticized fantasy about a glamorous Arab culture.

Marton and Mallery are not the only authors to enunciate a standardized—and perhaps misleadingly colorful—Arab culture that is deliberately distinct from that of the American heroine. Jane Porter created the fictive sheikh kingdom of Ouaha in North Africa. The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride takes place among the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, which run along the northern Sahara Desert. Porter had not yet traveled to Morocco when she wrote these romance novels, the actual site of this mountain range, but she enjoyed doing research on this country. A constitutional monarchy, Morocco claims an urban population of 57 per cent.[5] The author, however, does not set her tale among the bright lights and tall buildings of densely populated Essaouira or Agadir, coastal cities near the Atlas Mountains. Instead, the plot takes place in a barren region where the American photographer Tally is kidnapped by Ouahan rebels while on assignment in Baraka. She is then held captive by their leader Tair. It comes as no surprise that Porter emphasizes how distinct her Arab hero is from American men; Tally finds he is a “man wedded to the desert” (Porter, Disobedient 56).

Porter’s construction of Sheikh Tair fits an autocratic, “archetypal” mold promoted by authors of desert romances. Speaking in general of sheikh heroes, Sharon Kendrick, the one British author interviewed for this study, insists that the sheikh is “the archetypal match-up man because he’s powerful, he has that kind of cruel side that women fantasize about and find very attractive, and he’s usually autocratic because he owns a very great, oil rich country” (Kendrick, interview). And, indeed, the political culture of Ouaha’s rebels is premised on notions of despotism, albeit benevolently implemented. “My word here,” Tair tells Tally, “is law. Anything I want, I get” (Porter, Disobedient 60). Tair himself notes the contrast between his culture and that of his American captive. “The American didn’t understand his world,” he reflects. “His world was primitive and it fit him…In the desert, [End Page 11] justice was meted out by a fierce and unwavering hand. If not nature’s, than his” (Porter, Disobedient 75). Thus, the desert setting renders Tair an Oriental despot, and his power over life and death sets the sheikh apart from his Western counterparts.

The establishment of seemingly incompatible lifestyles and values between the two protagonists is of primary importance to Porter, who takes pains to highlight the cultural differences that Tally and Tair must overcome in order to be together: differences marked not simply as those between East and West, but between a pre-modern, patriarchal past and a postmodern, egalitarian present. “Sheikh romances,” the author asserts, “don’t have to be politically correct. In fact, usually they aren’t” (Porter, email 5 December 2014). Porter thus has her hero call his lady love “woman” for most of The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride, while Tally can’t believe that she would “fall for a Berber sheikh? For a man that would rather kidnap women than meet them on an online dating service?” (Porter, Disobedient 141). The book’s plot pays clear homage to the silent film The Sheik, as does its emphasis on the erotic appeal of the sheikh romance tradition. “There’s an intensely sensual element in the desert romance,” states Porter, highlighting the Arab world as distinct and different, “with the powerful, mysterious sheikh as lover, that you don’t find in any other culture, and the appeal has been Valentino” (Porter, email 5 December 2014). Much like its cinematic predecessor, this particular romance provides a captivity narrative in which Tally falls in love with her captor. The tangles of the plot also nod at this Orientalist classic, for Tair saves Tally from a deadly sandstorm after she tries to escape his encampment. “The whole Valentino myth,” Porter states eighty-one years after the release of The Sheik, “you know, that’s kind of what American Westerners fell in love with.” The readers, she continues, musing on the expectations of her audience, “don’t compare me to history, they don’t compare me to facts, they compare me to the other writers who do the genre…So, you play with archetypes, reader expectations, and then what you as a writer kind of bring to that book” (Porter, interview 1 May 2014).

Ultimately, Porter’s plotline—like that of other sheikh romance authors—deliberately emphasizes the differences between an Arab sheikh and his American love interest. Porter identifies this distinction as part of her “personal fantasy” (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). Tally, for example, pushes Tair to see that “we’re completely different culturally. Our values clash, our interests don’t align” (Porter, Disobedient 151). Even upon realizing her feelings for Tair, Tally will admit, “Yes, she loved him but she didn’t understand him or his culture” (Porter, Disobedient 155). Porter may not have yet visited Morocco or North Africa, but her trips to other non-Western places, such as Japan and Turkey, have influenced her writing of sheikh romances. She finds that, “I like the culture clash, and I’ve always used that” (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). In this way, Porter sets up a plotline in which protagonists of dissimilar cultures are thrown together in the desert, an isolated setting that inescapably forces them to confront their differences.

Spoiler Alert! Cultural Tensions Resolved

Ultimately, the hero and heroine fall in love, for a Happily Ever After ending is a must in any romance novel, but this action is complicated by the need for an Arab sheikh and his American love interest to overcome a host of cultural differences. “You’re [End Page 12] fascinated by the history and the culture and the differences, which are fascinating differences,” notes Sandra Marton, enunciating a common premise among authors of sheikh romances, but, she continues:

the one feeling I do get, is that I can say something positive. I do agree there that I can say, in effect, to the reader: it’s not as cut and dry as you think it is. These people are not one stereotypical individual. There are differences, just as there are among westerners. And I think that’s a very valid part of what we do, which is to remind readers that not everyone is a newspaper headline (Marton, interview 18 July 2013).

It is clear that Marton consciously perceives her work as playing a “positive” role, however modest, in how American readers conceptualize a troubled and often demonized area of the world. Yet like other authors, she is caught between the desire to explore differences among her Arab and Western characters—“these people are not one stereotypical individual”; “not everyone is a newspaper headline”—and her desire to promote a fantasy of reconciliation that is not just between two individuals, but more broadly between their two disparate cultures: a reconciliation which often does rely on stereotypes, if only as a genre-defining shorthand.

The complexity of this task is visible in what authors say about their intentions concerning sheikh romance novels. For example, many clearly intend for their Arab hero to stand out not only as a foreign potentate but also as a man with individual and universal characteristics that transcend any one ethnic identity. Maisey Yates explains that “it’s important to me that all of my characters are treated with respect and treated as individuals, regardless of their backgrounds.” She continues:

Not to say culture doesn’t inform certain elements of character, but I feel like depending too much on what you ‘think’ an Arab hero would do is a danger. What would this hero do? That’s the most important question. He’s a human being like any other hero from any other race/culture (Yates, email 26 March 2013).

In a like manner, Lynne Raye Harris does not deny the political implications of an Arab hero and an American heroine finding their Happily Ever After, but she, too, wants to ensure that her readers see beyond the particularities of his ethnic identity. “As my editor always tells me,” she explains, “he is a character with the same problems and wants and needs as anyone else. Where he comes from is secondary—and yet it does play into who he is, especially when coupled with a Western heroine” (Harris, email 16 December 2011). The careful negotiation between sameness and difference that Harris describes as playing out in editorial discussions—ultimately, sameness is primary, though difference must be there—can also be found in any given sheikh romance’s denouement, and in the political fantasy offered in it.

Sheikh romance authors often see themselves as putting forward an alternative fantasy of the Middle East: one that emphasizes attraction, rather than fear, and one that implicitly contradicts Huntington’s contention of a perpetual Clash of Civilizations. “I would [End Page 13] love to think that we are in some way getting people to look at other people and other places, and saying it doesn’t all have to be, you know, American Velveeta cheese on white bread; there’s something else out there,” Sandra Marton insists (Marton, interview). Marton and other authors express the desire to break free from the negative stereotypes of Arabs put forth in other media via the vehicle of romance, a worthy intention indeed. In order to accomplish this goal, however, authors sometimes suppress certain aspects of Arab culture and contribute inadvertently to Orientalist discourse. Islam, for example, is the principal religion of the Middle East and North Africa, and highly misunderstood by many Americans. This religion is not necessarily off limits in romance novels, though the treatment of it by authors exists on a spectrum, one that ranges from complete omission of it to oblique or (occasionally) direct interaction with it.

In Mallery’s romances, for example, the reader experiences the complete elision of Islam as a religious force in her fictive Arab world. “I never discuss their religion at all,” notes Mallery, and then she jokingly adds of the people there that “I assume they’re all Lutheran” (Mallery, interview). Certainly, a not-so-close examination of her texts suggests that Christianity, not Islam, may be the dominant religion of the Middle East. As’ad, for example, the sheikh prince in The Sheikh and the Christmas Bride, is Western in his practices, drinking wine with dinner or when he needs to reflect (Mallery, Christmas 132, 197). What’s more, he marries a very devout Catholic, Kayleen James. Kayleen not only grew up in a convent, but she is considering a lifelong commitment to it when they meet. Thus, her only jewelry, besides a watch, is a pair of cross earrings and a cross necklace (Mallery, Christmas 118, 248). She insists—and As’ad allows—that Christmas is celebrated at the palace (Mallery, Christmas 143). Eventually, they will be married in a seventeenth-century cathedral in El Deharia (Mallery, Pregnant 182).

This is not the only occasion on which Mallery has “Christianized” her fictive Arab world, arguably putting many readers at ease with the idea of traveling—even imaginatively—to the Middle East. In The Sheikh and the Virgin Secretary, Kiley Hendrick and Prince Rafiq of Lucia-Serrat will marry in a church (Mallery, Virgin 181). In Bahania, Prince Jeffri of The Sheik & the Princess Bride describes the utopian interfaith religious community that defines his country, stating “Our people celebrate many faiths, and respect all.” This leads his lady love Billie, a fighter pilot, to muse that, “While the rest of the Middle East couldn’t seem to get it together, Bahania, and their neighbor El Bahar, offered religious freedom to all” (Mallery, Princess Bride 22). In a like manner, King Hassan of Bahania tells his daughter-in-law Cleo, a former night manager of a copy shop in Seattle, that “We celebrate many faiths in our country, and each is given its due” (Mallery, Pregnant 220). The text, however, strongly implies that the royal family is Christian, for the palace grounds are endowed with a fourteenth-century church, and this is where King Hassan’s daughter Zara will marry Rafe, an American soldier who earned the title of sheikh by saving the life of one of Bahania’s princes (Mallery, Pregnant 83). Readers are clearly directed to see the royal family as Christian.

Other authors of romance novels invite their readers to feel more at ease with Islamic cultures and practices. In Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir, for example, Lynn Raye Harris constructs the fictive Kyr, which is ruled by Rashid bin Zaid al Hassan. Harris never explicitly identifies Islam as the dominant religion of Kyr. And yet, her descriptions of Kyr incorporate Islamic elements into its narrative and settings. The cityscape of the capital has minarets (Harris, Carrying 72), Rashid notes early on that he had “missed the call to prayer [End Page 14] ringing from the mosque in the dawn hour” (Harris, Carrying 9), and most clearly, the name of Allah is invoked twice in the text, once by a servant and once by Rashid himself (Harris, Carrying 67, 179). None of this is to say that the novel does not draw on the Orientalist tropes of the genre. When he learns that American Sheridan Sloane has been accidentally impregnated with his royal sperm, for example, Rashid forcibly takes her to his kingdom, which he rules as a dictator, albeit a benevolent one. He tells the mother of his heir that “I am a king, and I must be harsh at times. But I am not a tyrant” (Harris, Carrying 126). Rashid exercises his power over nomadic tribes who live in the desert (Harris, Carrying 76, 151). From his palace, he deals with “national problems, including one between two desert tribes arguing over who owned a water well” (67).

Yet even as Harris’s plot and setting are consistent with some preconceived Orientalist notions of backwardness and despotism in the Arab-Islamic world, she uses that familiarity to undermine other stereotypes held by her readers. During a verbal sparring match with Sheridan, Rashid challenges the American to reconsider her conceptions of the Arab world: “‘I am a desert king. Of course I’m a barbarian. Isn’t that what you believe? Because I speak Arabic and come from a nation where the men wear robes and the women are veiled, that I must surely be less civilized than you?’” (42) Harris asserts that “I love that particular line,” and then she notes that:

you can’t beat the readers over the head with this stuff, and you can’t change a reader’s mind by preaching to them. But maybe that line will make someone think, ‘Huh, I did kinda think that, but he’s just a man, yeah, a rich man and a king, but a man with feelings and just a person.’ In that sense, I hope that I’m undermining the stereotypes as much as I can. Some readers won’t get that, and they’ll skim right over it. But I take very seriously the charge to make my Arab-Islamic people…people. I think that’s important (Harris, interview 28 April 2015).

Harris’s comments confirm the assertion of Teo that “whatever the representational failings of sheik romance novels, no other genre of American popular culture had determinedly and repeatedly attempted to humanize the Arab or Muslim other—even if, out of ignorance or incomprehension, imaginary Orients had to be created in order to do so” (216). And it is noteworthy that in pursuit of this “humanizing” project, Harris has Rashid mention not only the costume element that typically signals Arab male difference in the romance genre, the “robes,” but also an iconic signifier of Islam to many Americans, the veil.

In a group interview I conducted with several sheikh romance authors, the veil was a particularly lively topic, taking up more than ten minutes of the conversation. The wearing of Islamic dress means many things and takes many forms in different countries in which Islam is a presence. Sometimes, it can appear as a result of state-sponsored dress codes, as in Iran; elsewhere it emerges as a result of grassroots activism against the government, as in Egypt or Tunisia.[6] American romance authors are likewise divided—sometimes self-divided—when they discuss the topic. Some authors do not like the idea of women wearing what they see as an uncomfortable piece of clothing in order to achieve what they consider to be an outdated form of modesty. Others are more conflicted. Marton, for example, lives in a northeastern university town where she is increasingly seeing [End Page 15] women wearing “something approximating full burqa.” (This term refers to the costume of Afghan women.) “Part of me says, this is the way it is, this is their culture, they’re entitled to it,” Marton explains. “And that’s the rational part. The other part of me says it’s awful, I’m judging it, I shouldn’t judge it, I am, I’m judging it as a woman, and I’m judging it as a writer” (Marton, interview).

Unlike Marton, Porter sees defending women’s right to dress as they see fit as an unambiguously “feminist” stance (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). It seems fitting, then, that in her fiction, Porter also seems comfortable representing Islamic beliefs and practices. She credits this creative choice to the fact that she often traveled overseas with her late father, who legated to her a curiosity about foreign cultures and “the gift…of being told the world is beautiful and interesting” (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). She explains that she highlights cultural differences, because readers like the distinction and the concomitant idea that such distinctions can be overcome:

We like something that isn’t our neighbor next door because you can suspend your disbelief. It’s almost like Disney for adults because at the end of the story the foreign and the exotic and the frightening aspects are rendered, you know the toxic poisonous aspects, are rendered tame. You know the things that might be evil or bad just become good and accepting. You know the East and the West collide and ultimately, you know, in my books it’s not that the East is subjugated but that the East and the West find peace and that both cultures are respected and that we are drawn to the opposite. So for me personally, I think that is the fantasy element… (Porter, interview 18 July 2013).

In equating the Middle East with the adjectives “frightening” or “toxic,” this quote reflects an American conception of Islam as a catalyst for many of the ills in the Middle East, a conception actively promoted in the media. However, Porter then invites her readers to imagine a resolution premised on a mutual respect in which both protagonists manage to maintain their culture.

In her books, Porter embraces the challenge of creating a recognizably Islamic setting. In The Sheikh’s Chosen Queen, for example, she imagines a place—the fictive Sarq, located next to the United Arab Emirates—where 90 per cent of the population is Muslim (Porter, Chosen 65). There, Sharif Fehr rules. He is an autocrat described as “one of the most powerful leaders in the Middle East” (Porter, Chosen 13). Sharif, however, is confounded by his new role as guardian to his deceased cousin’s children, so he invites schoolteacher Jesslyn Heaton to take charge of them. The two had once dated in England, but Jesslyn finds now that “his baggy sweatshirts were gone, and the faded, torn jeans were replaced by a dishdashah or a thoub, as more commonly known in the Arabian Gulf, a cool, long, one-piece white dress and the traditional head gear comprised of a gutrah, a white scarflike cloth, and the ogal, the black circular band that held everything together” (Porter, Chosen 10). Sharif harbors anger towards Jesslyn for breaking up with him without explanation many years ago, but Jesslyn refuses, until the very end, to admit that her infertility made her feel unworthy of wedding the crown prince. Ultimately, the explicitly Muslim sheikh marries the explicitly Christian commoner, and Jesslyn is happy to learn that “Sharif had incorporated elements from both their faiths in the service.” A similar [End Page 16] “incorporation” of East and West is implied for the future of the country, as Jesslyn afterward assists in setting up an American School in Sarq. “Education,” this main character notes, “was one of the best ways to touch and improve the world” (Porter, Chosen 173-174).


With its explicit images and arousing fantasies in which Arabs and Americans ultimately live together in peace, the sheikh romance novel can be read as a form of socio-political erotica. By the end of each book, the American heroine always decides to live in the Arab world, while the sheikh unswervingly embraces the political and social values of his Western bride. Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in light of their authors’ intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one which exchanges Huntington’s vision of a Clash of Civilizations for a world in which the clash between individuals from two worlds, now at odds, is ultimately an erotic clash: one which leads them to fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together. For many of the authors interviewed for this study, reconciliation offered through romantic love is a microcosm of the broader attitudinal change they would like to foster. “I think it would be lovely for us as a culture to begin to stop being so afraid of North Africa and all the people and the men and the women and the children,” Porter says, speaking for many of her colleagues. “It’s hard with the current political situation, which is why I think that the fantasies of the stories are important and allow us still to have a relationship with a part of the world that the media can make very frightening to us” (Porter, interview 1 May 2014). Set in fictional kingdoms, filled with romance and politics, sheikh romances serve as the perfect vehicle to assuage American fears—anxieties found both in readers and in authors—regarding Arabs and their world.

[1] I would like to thank Mary Bly for her invaluable assistance in getting this project off the ground. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Romance Writers of America, which provided an Academic Research Grant (2012) that allowed me to travel to Atlanta and carry out many interviews with authors.

[2] See Marton, Sandra: books post-2006.

[3] See Porter, Jane. “Bookshelf.” for a bibliography. Porter will have a new sheikh book published in 2015.

[4] For a complete list, see, accessed 5 July 2015.

[5], accessed 13 December 2014.

[6], accessed 14 December 2014. [End Page 17]

Works Cited

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“Harlequin Presents.” Harlequin. N.p., n.d. Web, accessed 5 July 2015.

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Beydoun, Khaled A. “The Business of Remaking Arab-American Identity.” Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera, 15 June 2012. Web, accessed 6 July 2015.

Conrad, Linda. “RWA Sheikh Focus Group Invitation–Follow Up.” 13 July 2013. E-mail.

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—. Interview with Stacy E. Holden. 16 July 2013.

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—. “Kept for the Sheikh’s Pleasure.” Chosen by the Sheikh. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2010. Print.

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—. “Re: HIST 479–Essay 3.” Message to Stacy E. Holden and Kristen Blankenbaker. 16 December 2011. E-mail.

—. Strangers in the Desert. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2012. Print.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1996, reprint; New York: Touchstone, 2011. Print.

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Mallery, Susan. Interview by Stacy E. Holden. 18 July 2013.

—. Interview by Marilyn Shoemaker. “Susan Mallery Talks about her last book in her Desert Rogue Series.” Marilyn’s Romance Reviews. N.p., 1 October 2009. Web. 26 January 2013.

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[End Page 18]

Markovitz, Jonathan. “Reel Terror Post 9/11,” Film and Television After 9/11. Ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 201-225. Print.

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—. “Re: Sheikh Romance Novels.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 21 April 2013. E-mail.

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—. The Prince of Pleasure. Self-published, 2013. Kindle edition.

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—. The Sheikh’s Defiant Bride. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2008. Print.

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[End Page 19]



Chick Lit in Historical Settings by Frida Skybäck
by Helene Ehriander

Chick lit is a genre that usually depicts what life is like for young women in big cities, or occasionally—for the sake of variety—on fashionable country estates. They pursue their careers, go to parties, gossip with their girlfriends, and shop, while dating a series of men in their hunt for the right one. They contemplate their identity and their life, and they want everything at once so that their life will be perfect. Being slim and fit, having flawless nails and well-coiffed hair, enjoying success at work, and having a beautiful, well-kept home is a must for these women who aim for perfectionism and long for happiness. Chick lit is usually associated with the present day, and tends to be regarded as a humorous and ironic commentary on contemporary ideals and expectations. Most of the books classified in this genre take place in our own time. [End Page 1]

There are, however, several novels very close to chick lit that take place in a historical setting. These novels include many of the ingredients that we find in chick lit, but here it is grand balls instead of clubbing, muddy streets instead of asphalt, horse-drawn coaches instead of sports cars, rustling silk and bobbing tulle from dressmakers in Paris instead of famous designer brands, and visits to the confectioner instead of a latte at the sidewalk café. The important questions that the young female protagonists have to confront are not very different from those occupying Bridget Jones and her sisters, and it is not difficult for the reader to recognize herself and identify with them (Ehriander).

“Chick lit in corsets” is written by women, read by women, has female heroes, and conveys a picture of women as being basically the same throughout the ages, so that much is still as it was in the past. The readers, moreover, are often young, and this is the type of book that attracts teenage girls and their mothers. In this article I discuss Swedish “chick lit in corsets” with examples from two novels by the Swedish author Frida Skybäck (born 1980): Charlotte Hassel (2011) and The White Lady (Den vita frun) (2012). I am particularly interested in these narratives as adolescent literature and adolescent reading. Frida Skybäck’s novels are marketed by the publisher Frank Förlag as adult literature, but Skybäck deliberately writes primarily for teenage girls, and Charlotte Hassel has been offered to teenage readers in the children’s book club Barnens Bokklubb (Skybäck, interview).

Chick lit in historical settings

According to Rocío Montoro, “Chick Lit is sometimes seen as a revamped version, a rebranding, or (for some) simply a renaming, of other more traditional forms of popular writing, namely romance or romantic fiction” (7). “Chick lit in corsets” can be regarded as a genre hybrid with some of its roots in older romantic literature. The novels are very close to what is usually called “romance” but they also have several typical features of chick lit. Many of them could also be called “feel-good” novels, a designation that comes from the emotions they arouse in the reader. Kaye Mitchell writes in her article “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction” about how chick lit has also influenced the traditional romance. Chick lit is considered to have higher status and is treated with greater respect than romance, and authors and publishers alike believe that the romance genre has something to gain from being influenced by chick lit as regards, for example, the portrayal of better-educated, more ambitious heroines (Mitchell 134). Chick lit has also challenged the old boundaries between popular culture and more highly esteemed literature, and publishers tend to advertise romance together with chick lit so that the two genres will attract readers from each other (Harzewski 2011, 32, 41). That genres in today’s literature cross-fertilize each other is the rule rather than the exception, and there are many reasons for this. Authors who write in a particular genre are often regarded as innovative if they break one or more of the traditional structures. They can also profile themselves and express their personal authorial style by relating to the set framework of the genre, and by going against the conventions they can criticize the accepted norms and values of the genre. [End Page 2]

Maria Ehrenberg, in a book about present-day romance from Maeve Binchy to Marcia Willett, divides light historical novels into four categories:

  1. The unique person. In this category we meet historical personages and read about historical periods and events from the perspective of one person’s actions.
  2. Laborious everyday work. These books describe the misery and toil of everyday life.
  3. Recent history. The Second World War is a common topic here, and the narrative often continues down to the present day.
  4. The Miss Novel, also known as the governess novel or the manor-house novel. Here we find mystery and elements of thriller, as well as issues of class, money, and wealth. The historical backdrop is often sketchy and stereotyped, and the stories end with the by tradition dictated kiss (39-40).

Frida Skybäck’s novels do not fit into any of these four categories, although there are elements of the Miss Novel in particular. Maria Nilson writes that it may seem strange to call historical portrayals “chick lit,” and she cites as an example Anna Godbersen’s four-part suite The Luxe, which takes place in Manhattan in 1899–1900, of which at least the first part is close to chick lit (40). Nilson writes that it is fairly unproblematic to call the first book, The Luxe, chick lit jr., that is, chick lit for young readers: “There are parties and clothes and shopping and intrigues in an upper-class milieu. Then the series develops in a different direction, turning much darker, and it also becomes more difficult to identify the genre” (40, author’s own translation). Chick lit jr. is characterized by the inclusion of typical chick lit ingredients while simultaneously considering matters such as reaching adulthood, identity, awakening sexuality, the future, and relations to friends, customary elements in stories for adolescents and young adults (Johnson 141 ff.).

The action of Frida Skybäck’s debut book Charlotte Hassel (2011) takes place in 1771, with flashbacks to 1758. In 1758 Charlotte is a young woman from a well-off family who falls in love with a man of her own age. After a party she walks the short distance to her home, waiting for her parents, when an older man, influential and wealthy, follows her closely in order to assault her. Charlotte puts up a fight when he finds his way into her bedroom and tries to rape her, and she kills him with her letter opener in self-defense. When her parents arrive they help her get rid of the body and they send her to safety in England, where she finds a good life with a male friend, to whom she becomes engaged. Her parents and sister suffer fraud and extortion, and after thirteen years Charlotte decides to come back to Stockholm incognito to try to put things right. She also understands that a coup d’état is in the making. She meets once again the man she loved in her youth and breaks off the engagement in England; it turns out that her fiancé is homosexual and that they can only ever be good friends, which they remain even after Charlotte marries someone else. The kind, thoughtful homosexual male friend, with interests in fashion and interior decoration, is a common character in chick lit. The female characters in the novel are complex, and Skybäck plays with the stereotypes of the whore and the Madonna when she allows room for young women’s thoughts and feelings. [End Page 3]

In this novel there is plenty of female culture and feminine attributes: Charlotte buys mineral makeup, enjoys delicious pastries, and has exquisite dresses made for her. However, there is also a feminist intention in that Charlotte takes control over her life and her situation. She gets involved in the game of politics, showing a clear vision and sense of purpose as she averts the planned coup d’état. The reader follows Charlotte from the time when she is a young and somewhat insecure girl, which makes it easier for younger readers to identify with her, up to the happy ending, when she has developed into a grown-up woman who takes her share of what life has to offer.


The term “romance” is one that embraces a wide variety of literature on the theme of romantic love.[1] In Barbara Fuchs’s book Romance the analyses range from ancient Greece, through medieval tales of chivalry, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, to end with Harlequin romances. Fuchs also underlines how many sub-genres there are, and how popular contemporary romance literature is (124 ff.). Romances in the sense of romantic literature written by women for women usually have a similar construction, consisting of a number of set narrative structures that are varied in a more or less predictable way up to the happy ending when the heroine receives a kiss, an offer of marriage, or both. Frida Skybäck’s second novel, The White Lady (2012), contains less chick lit and more romance in the narrative, but it is powerful in its feminist message when it comes to emphasizing women’s right to shape their own lives and to be respected even if they are neither beautiful nor rich. This novel combines several literary motifs and patterns that often occur in both romance, chick lit and books for young adults: for example, the “ugly duckling”, “Cinderella,” and the orphan child (Harzewski 2006, 38). Most of the action takes place in the castle of Borgeby in Skåne. The story is about the fates of individual women, insolvency, and love across class boundaries: “love across the classes [is] an extremely common theme in historical romance,” Jerome de Groot writes in his survey in The Historical Novel (58).

Janice A. Radway, who has written a study of female readings of romance literature, Reading the Romance, states that the reading works for readers “as the ritualistic repetition of a single, immutable cultural myth” (194). But Radway goes on to claim, albeit in a rather limited study, that the reading women display different strategies and that their reading serves a number of different purposes. This is interesting given that romance literature and the reading of it has been criticized from many quarters for being conservative, presenting a distorted picture of society, fooling its readers, and even turning them into addicts and slaves since their real problems are never solved; instead they get stuck in a reading that brings temporary relief through illusory solutions. This outlook on the reading of romantic literature and female readers as victims has a long history. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1856–57) has achieved great significance with its portrayal of a reading girl who through time loses contact with reality and as a young woman falls into a destructive pattern with reading, eroticism, fashion, and shimmering pink dreams of romantic rendezvous, while she cheats on her husband, runs up huge debts, and ends up seeing suicide by arsenic as the only way out. [End Page 4]

Perhaps some romance literature over the years could be called escapist, and can justifiably be accused of building on stereotyped gender roles, with protagonists that are poor role models for young readers, but in today’s romance and chick lit there are interesting exceptions which actually use the genre and the form to communicate feminist messages to their readers through playful, knowing hints and examples of energetic heroines who shape their own lives. It is also not infrequent that the genre comments on itself in its portrayal of literature and reading. This gives readers the chance to read subversively and to read against the text; instead of passivizing the reader, this can give strength. It is also quite common for the female protagonists to be interested in literature, and using the wisdom they have derived from their reading. Maria in The White Lady enjoys the castle library and immerses herself not only in romantic novels but also reads, for example, contemporary female poetry.

Diana Wallace, who has written a study titled The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000, argues that the historical novel was one of the most important forms for women’s reading and writing during the twentieth century. She testifies to how she herself and many of the women she knows have read historical novels by and about women ever since childhood: “From an early age I read women’s historical novels avidly, as did my mother and sister. The same was true, I later discovered, of many of my female friends and colleagues, and of many of the literary critics, writers, and theorists who have been central to the development of feminist literary criticism” (ix). She points out, however, that there has been a tendency to associate female authors’ historical novels with romance and label them as escapist: “Associated with the ‘popular’, women writers have thus been doubly excluded from the established canon” (Wallace 10). What I think becomes clear when one studies what has been written about the different genres is that romance is perceived as a female genre while historical novels are masculine (and “serious”).

 Historical novels

Då som nu (“Then As Now”) by Hans O. Granlid from 1964 is still the standard Swedish work about the historical novel. Granlid does not write anything about children’s and young people’s literature, nor about young people’s reading, and of all the novels he analyses, only one is by a female author. The situation is similar in major English-language studies, and another remarkable thing is that, when the origin of the historical novel is described, only male authors are highlighted, with Walter Scott taking pride of place. Female authors and the genres they have developed and published their works in have to take a back seat as male authors set the pattern for how historical novels should be written.

In his introduction Granlid poses interesting and fundamental questions about what a historical novel is and what characterizes it. He is interested in the problems of analogy and archaization: that is, how the historical period is described in the literary work, how the matter is presented and placed in a particular time, how it is related to the present, and what specifically is archaized in content and style. Closely linked to the problems of analogy and archaization is the problem of anachronism: that is, what happens when writing about something from the past that is to be read in the present, made comprehensible to contemporary readers (Granlid 16 ff.). Archaization is thus about how the text is made [End Page 5] “old-fashioned”: anachronisms are things or expressions that are out of place in the period, and analogies are agreements between our time and the historical time.

Historical books often incorporate a large amount of fact in the narrative, which means that people often ask where the dividing line between fact and fiction runs. A historical novel can never be regarded as “true,” for somewhere the author has decided where history ends and the story begins: in other words, where facts give way to fiction, and if a factual event is described we must remember that it is slanted in some way by the author.

Maria Nikolajeva, in her book Barnbokens byggklossar (“Building Blocks of the Children’s Book”), discusses what a historical portrayal is, with examples from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1868. The novel is about the author’s experiences in a domestic setting during the America Civil War, and it is partly or mostly autobiographical. The book has been read by many generations of girls and has also been filmed:

Historical novels are set in the past. It is important to remember, however, that it is the author’s past, not the reader’s, that determines whether a novel can be called historical. From the perspective of a reader in the 1990s, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Nils Holgersson, and Elvis Karlsson all depict a bygone time, but they were written as contemporary accounts. This may seem unimportant, but it is crucial when we judge values in the text. Little Women expressed its period’s view of the role of women in society. A modern young people’s novel set in the same historical period as Little Women would perhaps express our modern view of the same issue. (Nikolajeva 49)

With regard to values, which Nikolajeva finds important, a story thus cannot just lie maturing and subsequently become historical (49).

Ying Toijer-Nilsson writes that most historical novels for young readers have a boy as the leading character (24). This no doubt has something to do with the conventions of historical books for young people, where war, for example, is a common topic, and girls have traditionally stayed at home while boys have been at the center of the exciting events. Moreover, girls and women learned early on to read texts where boys and men have prominent roles, whereas boys and men tend to read only about their own gender, since they are brought up to view anything associated with the female sphere as less important. However, Maria Nikolajeva writes in Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic that one can discern a change in historical narrative as regards the leading characters: “In particular, the masculine viewpoint of the earlier historical novel has been challenged by contemporary writers in favor of the ‘her-story’” (131). To attract all readers it has often been considered important that the protagonist should be a boy or a young man and that there is excitement enough to keep the reader’s interest to the very end. It has also been common for the author to choose to have both a girl and a boy, often siblings, so that readers of both sexes can identify with one of the leading figures. Kent Hägglund has written about the significance of the historical novel both for our perception of history and as reading matter for young people:

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, the historical novel has meant a great deal for the interest that children and young people take in [End Page 6] history. Novelists have often taken the lead in giving new perspectives. Women, children, minorities, and war victims of bygone times were given a central position in literature, long before they were included in school history books.

It has even happened often that authors of young people’s books have taken up an interesting topic before historians have tackled it. There is nothing strange about that: both historians and authors are driven by a conviction that knowledge of the past can help us in our lives here and now.

Both use knowledge and imagination to explore people and phenomena in a bygone time. But the researcher always reaches a limit where he or she must stop, and dividing lines between what we know, what we can assume, and what we have no idea about. The author has the freedom—or perhaps rather the compulsion—to step over that line, to give life to persons who never existed, to forge links, to invent. (Hägglund, author’s own translation)

Hägglund goes on to say: “Of course there are novelists who use a historical setting merely as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been enacted in the present.” The concept of the historical novel thus includes not only the time aspect but also a quality aspect. In research on literature and history there has long been awareness that history and fiction are closely related since all attempts to depict our past take some form of narrative, but this can be done in more or less responsible ways. There are and have been authors who have endeavored to write serious historical novels and there are those who have written what are somewhat condescendingly called “costume novels,” seeking to tell an entertaining story in a historical setting. In costume novels the historical period is just a backdrop; the historical details can be quite correct while the people and relationships are not put into any factual historical context.

There are thus many levels to take into consideration as a reader when reflecting on a historical novel and what is “true” and “correct”. The details must be accurate in that the clothes, for example, should correspond to the period and that there should be no cars in a period before the car was invented. In Frida Skybäck’s novels, the characters are placed in a historical time where genuine historical figures are named and possible historical events are depicted. Frida Skybäck, who teaches history and English, faithfully uses the vocabulary of the period and she is also careful to try to get the historical details right. During the time she was working on Charlotte Hassel, one of the books she read was the diary of Märta Helena Reenstierna (Årstafruns dagbok 1793-1839), and she learned how modern that lady was in her way of expressing herself, and how her thoughts did not differ noticeably from the way we think today. In both of Skybäck’s books there is an afterword outlining how much of the narrative is fact and how much is fiction.

Historical events must be correctly depicted, but as a reader one also has to be aware that they are probably depicted from a particular angle, perhaps with a specific intention, and that it is often the victor who writes the history. In historical accounts women, poor people, and children are portrayed less frequently than men, kings, and well-off people, although this is slowly changing (Brown and St. Clair 186). It is even more problematic in a historical narrative to picture how different people have thought and felt [End Page 7] through the ages. There is more documentation and material when it comes to men, but the material for women and children is very limited.

People are the same through the ages

“The problem for historians,” Karin Norman writes, “is that we have so little access to the way people perceived their own situation and justified their actions. It is easy to resort to ascribing our own thoughts and values and emotions to other people. It takes a balancing act between generalizing and relativizing: how similar or different were people in the past from us today? Similar or different in what way?” (51, author’s own translation). Authors have greater freedom in this matter than historians do. John Stephens, in his study Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, says that major historical events tend to be described through love stories and human relations in this kind of fiction (206). On several levels, as Stephens also points out, there lies a contradiction within historical fiction. While the text links past and present, it simultaneously gives the illusion of an older literary discourse. The discourse constantly balances between “the same” and “different.” In a broader perspective this is a matter of a transhistorical outlook versus cultural relativism (Stephens 202 ff.). As I see it, it is not a question of either/or, but of where the discourse is positioned on different occasions on a scale between these two poles. In portrayals of the past there must be more similarities than differences to facilitate understanding, especially for young readers. A text that is placed too far on the scale towards “difference” makes identification difficult and risks not being perceived as plausible, and may even be incomprehensible. It is also a matter of the level on which one wants to put the interpretation. If you go straight into the text and look at the details, relations, or emotions that display similarity or difference, you tend to perceive the text as showing a high degree of cultural relativism. If, on the other hand, you choose to abstract and raise the relations and emotions to a higher level, there is a good chance of seeing the text as transhistorical and common to all mankind. The foundation is similar but the constituents take on relative expressions depending on the time in which they exist and the culture and social class they reflect. The transhistorical position means that humanity, wishes, and needs are the same through the ages, but that they find different social expressions. In other words, one could say that people are alike through the ages and that it is the stage on which they act that differs from one period to another. People are steered by their environment and their culture, but they are basically the same; if we peel away or abstract the exterior, the human core is constant. By emphasizing the similarities and the basic correspondences, it is possible to create an understanding of both past and present.

This understanding is also used by Frida Skybäck. The distance from the historical period allows readers to see their own lives and their own problems in perspective, and it offers an opportunity to come to terms with these. Moreover, the reader gets an idea of what it means to be a woman here and now in comparison with what it could be like in the past. When women read about women and the things that have occupied women’s time and interest through the ages, it also establishes a historical community. Family sagas tend to be popular, and by reading them one can glimpse historical connections that would not otherwise be visible. Women get their share of history and can draw parallels to their own [End Page 8] experiences. Frida Skybäck’s The White Lady depicts two generations of women in parallel. The older woman has just had a daughter, and since she is growing increasingly weak from a terrible illness that she does not understand, she writes a diary for her newborn daughter. The novel ends with the daughter reaching adulthood and having a daughter of her own, for whom she starts writing a diary. Through her own mother’s notes she has found out who she is and has got to know the mother who drowned herself to save her newborn daughter when she was just a few months old. Diana Wallace writes: “As a genre, the historical novel has allowed women writers a license which they have not been allowed in other forms. This is most obviously true of sexuality where it has allowed coverage of normally taboo subjects, not just active female sexuality but also contraception, abortion, childbirth and homosexuality” (6).

In Frida Skybäck’s two books we find, beside the portrayal of the young woman who does not understand that she has contracted syphilis from her husband, accounts of pregnancy before marriage, the contraceptive methods used in those days, attempted rapes, a sexual relationship with a man who is not a potential future husband but a tender lover who teaches the young woman “the art of love”, and sexual relations across class boundaries. History is written here from a female perspective, and female concerns are visibly in focus. At the same time, this can be viewed as a comment on life today, an explanation for why we relate to these parts of life in a particular way. Girls and women are lifted out of their exclusion and marginalization, and the author has the liberty here to write alternative history. John Stephens says that what is depicted as universal human experience in a historical account can mean that our descriptions of the past are colored by our image of present-day reality (202 ff.). In Frida Skybäck’s books this is entirely intentional, a narrative device to enable the reader to reflect on herself and her own life as she reads.

Role play in a historical setting

Diana Wallace writes in her preface how history lessons in school disappointed her since they were never about women, and she sees this as one reason why so many girls and women have read and still read historical novels where women are allowed to be central figures (ix). Wallace goes on to write:

The “woman’s historical novel”, then, encompasses both the “popular” and the “serious” or “literary” ends of the spectrum, but one of my arguments here is that the two are intimately linked. [. . .] We need to read both “serious” and “popular” historical novels together and against each other if we want fully to understand the range of meanings that history and the historical novel have held for women readers in the twentieth century. (5)

Eva Queckfeldt has written about “the historical novel without history” in the annual of the history teachers’ association: [End Page 9]

To restrict the discussion solely to historical novels, these have been considered and discussed both as a source of knowledge and as an educational aid, not least by history teachers. The advantages of the novels are thought to be, among other things, that they let the reader experience the past in a different way from the textbooks. For example, the reader meets figures from the past and it is, probably rightly, assumed that this makes him/her familiar with the people of bygone times, their context, their everyday life, and their thoughts. This almost always concerns the “good” historical novels: Per Anders Fogelström’s novels about Stockholm, Vilhelm Moberg’s emigration epic, Väinö Linna’s crofter trilogy, to name just a few examples. These are novels written by authors who took pains to give as correct a picture as possible of the past. Often they were accounts that not even professional historians could object to.

The problem is that these good novels are just a small proportion of all the “historical novels” produced. There is also a whole undergrowth of novels that call themselves “historical.” (63, author’s own translation)

The good historical novels mentioned by Queckfeldt are also all by male authors, and she contrasts these with seven “pulp novels” in which reality is doctored for the reader and the novels’ “conflicts become simple and are explained as a result of the individual persons’ actions.” The plot “circles around LOVE for the female readership” (64, author’s own translation). These novels have such great defects in their language, the anachronisms are piled on top of each other, and all the historical details are so vague that they could be used almost anywhere. Queckfeldt argues that these novels, carelessly thrown together and trivial in content, are “without history.” Frida Skybäck’s novels counteract this by showing, from a female perspective, how history repeats itself and how today’s women are a part of the past, therein giving women a place where they refuse to “take shit from anybody.”[2]

Frida Skybäck plays with historical depiction, with romance and chick lit, and with the stereotyped characters of the whore and the Madonna, in order to give scope to women’s thoughts and feelings. By playing with genres she opens possibilities for readers to read subversively, to try out new roles and lines, and to find themselves and stand up for who they are. Frida Skybäck, who works as a teacher at an international high school in Lund, is also aware that in other countries much more historical material is used than in the Swedish school. In Sweden, history as it is taught is comparatively dry and lifeless, and she thinks that it is important to arouse an interest in the source of power that history represents through literature that can move people. Diana Wallace writes about how women in Mussolini’s Italy were prohibited from studying history at university: “A knowledge of history, this suggests, has the potential to be dangerously subversive [. . .]. It is not surprising that in women’s hands the historical novel has often become a political tool” (2). Compared with Madame Bovary’s tragic fate, this is the reverse way to view women’s reading: either girls and women read with emotion and can then be affected to the point of madness, or else they are able to read with the brain connected and the result can be a threat to the prevailing society.

Janice A. Radway has exposed the narrative structures in romances in the same way that Vladimir Propp in the 1920s identified the set narrative features of Russian folktales. Radway has found thirteen recurrent features, which she calls functions, in romances: [End Page 10]

  1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
  2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
  3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
  4. The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
  5. The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
  6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
  7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
  8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
  9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
  10. The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
  11. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  13. The heroine’s identity is restored. (134)

It is important to have knowledge of how narratives are built up, since this is also the foundation for our interpretation of them. When we recognize the set form, we know what type of story we are reading, and when we have read several of them we soon detect when an author is going against the familiar pattern. In these deviations an author’s ideological intentions can be obvious: for example, when an author with feminist ambitions breaks the pattern in a traditional romantic narrative. This also opens up for questions about how historical literature functions, namely, that it brings our history to life and invites the reader to take the step into an alternative time, a kind of role play where one can learn something about our history, about our own time, and about ourselves and the contexts to which we belong as girls, women, and humans.

[1] “The term romance derives from the French and was first used exclusively to refer to medieval romances (sometimes called ‘chivalric romances’) written in French and composed in verse. These narratives were concerned with knightly adventure, courtly love, and chivalric ideals, often set at the court of King Arthur. Later the term was used to refer to any medieval romance, whether in verse or prose, and regardless of country of origin” (Harzewski 31).

[2] This idiomatic expression is often used by young women in Sweden today to indicate that they do not accept infringements of their integrity, outdated values, stupid comments, or lack of respect. [End Page 11]


Brown, Joanne, and Nancy St. Clair. The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press Inc, 2006. Print.

Ehrenberg, Maria. Nutidsromantik: Från Maeve Binchy till Marcia Willett. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2009. Print.

Ehriander, Helene. “Chick lit i korsett.” Chick lit – brokiga läsningar och didaktiska utmaningar. Ed. Maria Nilson and Helene Ehriander. Stockholm: Liber, 2013. 159-173. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Godbersen, Anna. The Luxe. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

Granlid, Hans O., Då som nu. Historiska romaner i översikt och analys. Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1964. Print.

Hägglund, Kent. “Mot främmande land på Attilas häst.” Dagens Nyheter. 14 May 2001. Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. Chick Lit and Postfeminism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Print.

— — —. “Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 29-46. Print.

Johnson, Joanna Webb, “Chick Lit Jr.: More Than Glitz and Glamour for Teens and Tweens” Chick Lit. The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 141-157. Print.

Mitchell, Kaye. “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. Eds. David Glover and Scott McCracken. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 122-140. Print.

Montoro, Rocío. Chick Lit. The Stylistics of Cappuccino Fiction. London: Continuum, 2012. Print.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Barnbokens byggklossar. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1998. Print.

— — —. Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996. Print.

Nilson, Maria. Från Gossip Girl till Harry Potter: Genusperspektiv på ungdomslitteratur. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2010. Print.

Norman, Karin. Kulturella föreställningar om barn: Ett socialantropologiskt perspektiv. Stockholm: Rädda Barnen, 1996. Print.

Queckfeldt, Eva. “Den historielösa historiska romanen.” Historielärarnas förenings årsskrift. N.p., 1995-96. 63-70. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

Skybäck, Frida. Charlotte Hassel. Stockholm: Frank, 2011. Print.

— — —. Den vita frun. Stockholm: Frank, 2012. Print.

— — —. Interview by Helene Ehriander. 2 August 2012.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman, 1992. Print.

Toijer-Nilsson, Ying. “Lite välkommen ‘herstory’.” Abrakadabra 6 (1997): 24-25. Print.

Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

[End Page 12]


True Love’s Kiss and Happily Ever After: the religion of love in American film
by Jyoti Raghu

[End Page 1]


In this article, I investigate romantic love in American film as a site for experiencing a divine presence in the immanent everyday experiences of love, marriage and family (Williams, Dante 6, 8, 40; Williams, Outlines 7, 9, 14, 17, 29).[1] To explore this theme I focus on the “kiss” in romantic love scenes in American films. To me the kiss in film is symbolic of a potential theological event where divine grace may infuse itself on the lovers, making their lives sacramental. I explore how the kiss can offer theological insight into how romantic love transforms into a window of grace, beauty and glory through which a divine light shines through the sacrament of love (Williams, Outlines 17, 29).

I shall draw theoretically upon several intellectual threads, including courtly love and romantic literature, Christian theology and theological aesthetics, and postmodern theory. Then, rather than look at romantic comedy per se, I shall focus on two different genres and film series, the action-adventure Matrix trilogy, and the Shrek quadrilogy of animated fairy-tales. I look at these films because I am interested in popular films of different genres where romantic love plays a substantial part. Furthermore, the kiss is central to the love plot in both film series and thus they offer good examples of how the kiss functions romantically and theologically. I shall finally briefly visit two romantic comedy films, The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Something’s Gotta Give, to see how religious discourse plays out in romantic films.

Before I begin, I note two qualifications. First, this article presupposes and is written within a Christian theological and religious framework, though not adopting or espousing a Christian worldview. I do argue, though, that this Christian framework has left its legacy on modern and postmodern Western culture, including on romantic love and film. Second, while also treating other religious traditions and other international film cultures would enhance this investigation, unfortunately my own lack of expertise in either field limits me to a discussion of Christianity, postmodernity, and romantic love in American film. I hope, however, that this article may spur those with expertise in other traditions and cultures to take on similar investigations.

Courtly Love, Christian mysticism, and romantic theology

In his now dated work The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis writes of a “religion of love” as one aspect present in the European medieval genre then called courtly love literature, which, according to Lewis, is the precursor of romantic love literature (18).[2] He notes that this religion of love, as well as other aspects of the courtly love tradition, have informed and still inform our conceptions of love and romance, particularly in art and literature (Lewis 1-3). A glance at American film, past and present, would seem to validate Lewis’ idea. Not only is romantic comedy an ever-popular film genre, but romance seems to play its part in many American films. The search for true love, a soul-mate and a happily ever after, sometimes as the telos and summum bonum of life, seems to be an idea which dominates popular culture and which plays itself out as the preoccupation of many films. Moreover, this experience of love, in popular culture and in film, bears almost a sacred, salvific quality. [End Page 2]

According to Lewis and other noted scholars, courtly love literature, and the religion of love within it, has not been derived from the Western Christian tradition nor the mystical tradition, where mystics use erotic language and the sentiments and experiences of human, romantic love to describe divine encounters and the soul’s relationship with God (Boase 35, 85, 109; Lewis 18, 40). Courtly love and romantic literature from the medieval and early modern period only borrow the language and sentiments of Christian discourse for use in a completely different and profane direction (Boase 109-11; Perella 89-90). The two literatures are not analogous, partly because they differ in the object of love, one of which is human, and finite, the other which is divine, and infinite (Boase 83-85, 109-11). Moreover, the medieval Christian Church had no interest in promoting passion or romance within or outside marriage, while a staple of courtly love literature is passionate expression and desire (Lewis 13-17). Indeed, sometimes courtly love literature could be sacrilegious, extolling the virtues of secular love and erotic or sexual delight while mocking religious chastity and ascetic devotion (Lewis 18). According to this theory, courtly love or the religion of love and the Christian religion run counter to each other.

No doubt there is truth to this thesis. We need only to glance at the plethora of romantic comedy films to recognize this. A good majority of them do seem to worship and venerate this ideal of romantic love, particularly as the acme of human experience and fulfillment. Nevertheless, it would also do us good to question if that is all there is to it, or if there is some connection and relevance to experiences and discourses that have taken place within the Christian tradition, and even more so, if they might not bear some theological meaning and value.

For example, there are striking similarities between courtly love and early modern love poetry and Christian mystical discourse (Perella 85, 268-69). In Christian mystical discourse, as stated above, mystics often not only use erotic language and imagery, but also the sentiments and experience of human, sensual love to describe their experiences of God, from the biblical Song of Songs to the ecstasies of Saint Theresa (Perella 38-40). There is talk of love, sensual delight, passion, and ecstatic union with the beloved, which is here God or Christ (Perella 34-36). Moreover, in figurative art there is the same ambiguity, where representations of divine love or the soul’s relation to God are depicted in human amatory fashion (Perella 33). Since the two discourses existed side-by-side, and scholars acknowledge that the courtly love tradition may have borrowed language and sentiments from Christian discourse, is it not possible that when these sentiments are “secularized” within a human, romantic framework, that they might not bear a remnant or a surplus of meaning of the tradition from which they have borrowed? Likewise, could Christian mystical discourse not also bear a remnant of human erotic experience as well, insomuch as the two might appear more similar than believed in both cases? Why could the influence not flow in both directions? Why could courtly and romantic love literature not have influenced religious thinking, and why could it not become a bearer of actual religious meaning and experience?

Within the romantic love tradition itself some Christian writers do correlate human and divine experiences of love. One may help to lead to or understand the other, and they are inseparable in meaning under a Christian conception of love (Lewis 35, 41; Perella 86-90, 261). In the works of medieval authors such as Andreas Capellanus, for example, courtly love was a chaste and ennobling discipline, whose end was grace bestowed by the lady, grace that elevated the knight to blessedness (Lewis 33; Perella 100). But this [End Page 3] blessedness was not just in a secular sphere, or for secular delights or ends, but was a complement to Christianity: without Christian virtue and practice one could not attain the lady’s benediction. Service to the lady was also thought to develop Christian virtues, such as humility, faith, and devotion (Perella 116-20).

The exemplum of the fusion of human romantic and divine love, however, would be Dante. According to twentieth century English (Christian) writer and poet Charles Williams, there is a theological tradition of romantic love, or a romantic theology, present in poets and artists, of which Dante is the greatest figure (Williams, Dante 91-93; Williams Outlines 7). For Williams, due to the Incarnation of Christ in the world and in the flesh, all human experiences bear a spiritual significance; through Christ’s presence, they become possibilities of divine manifestation and an infusion of grace (Williams, Outlines 9, 15). For Williams this is particularly acute in romantic experience, including sexual love, particularly in marriage (Williams, Outlines 7-9). The experience of this love-feeling has a sacred aura to it that leads to God. There is something about the encounter with the human beloved that facilitates not only divine encounter, transcendence and grace, but also spiritual growth, devotion, and holiness. Williams writes:

The heart is often so shaken by the mere contemplation of the beloved that it is not conscious of anything beyond its own delight. The whole person of the lover is possessed by a new state of consciousness; love is born in him….But in this state of love he sees and contemplates the beloved as the perfection of living things: love is bestowed by her smile; she is its source and its mother. She appears to him, as it were, archetypal, the alpha and omega of creation…the first-created of God. (Williams, Outlines 16)

Moving from Dante’s experience of Beatrice and the medieval experience of romantic love where passion, even sexual feeling, can be ennobled to a spiritual vision of beauty, the profane here is rendered into a beatific vision, where the two loves meld and mix into one.

Moreover, this vision has the capacity to see the human transformed to the divine, while remaining as it is. Williams continues:

Not certainly of herself is she anything but as being glorious in the delight taken in her by the Divine Presence that accompanies her, and yet is born of her; which created her and is helpless as a child in her power. However in all other ways she may be full of error or deliberate evil, in the eyes of the lover, were it but for a moment, she recovers her glory, which is the glory that Love had with the Father before the world was. (Williams, Outlines 16-17)

Just as in the Eucharist the material bread and wine come to bear the flesh and blood of Christ, so the beloved through love becomes a theophany or window to the divine, remaining what she is yet also being more than this. She becomes sanctified and becomes the locus of sanctification through an experience of divine beauty. He finally explains this romantic theology:

This experience does at once, as it were, establish itself as the centre of life. Other activities are judged and ordered in relation to it; they take on a dignity [End Page 4] and seem to be worthwhile because of some dignity and worth which appears to be inherent in life itself—life being the medium by which love is manifested. A lover will regard his own body and its functions as beautiful and hallowed by contact with hers….His intellectual powers will be renewed and quickened in the same way. And—if Romantic Theology is correct—his soul itself will enter upon a new state, becoming conscious of that grace of God which is otherwise, for so many, difficult to appreciate. (Williams, Outlines 17)

As in the Incarnation or God coming to the world and flesh through Christ, so these everyday experiences of love and marriage are the very site through which life can be experienced as having a deeper divine reality; indeed, without the Incarnation or these divine hierophanies in the everyday, we would not really understand the divine at all. There is a religious spirit in love, to which poets, especially Dante, have born witness (Williams, Outlines 56). Interpreting Dante’s writings, particularly The New Life and The Comedy, through the lens of romantic theology, Williams again asserts the possibility of romantic love experience as a means of Christian grace. He notes that Dante’s first visions of Beatrice awaken a caritas and agape or Christian charity and love in him, and inspire a beatitude (Williams, Dante 94-97, 108). In The Comedy, she leads him not only to divine contemplation, but also to redemption and salvation because she inspires holiness and virtue within him, an in-Godding or taking of the self into God (Williams, Dante 107-08).

The important things to note about Williams’ romantic theology is that he finds the sacred in a common everyday experience, here of romantic love, and finds this also to be a means of sanctity and redemption (Williams, Dante 111). He writes that “holiness may be reached by the obvious ways as well as by the more secret.” (Williams, Outlines 46). If we neglect the spiritual meaning of these experiences, then according to him, we neglect a way of sanctity (Williams, Dante 111). Furthermore, since according to Christian tradition marriage is a sacrament of the church, it bears the possibility of bestowing grace, and of experiencing other sacraments, including the Eucharist (Williams, Outlines 36-37). Through married life, a couple may experience not only Christ’s manifestation and grace, but may relive the sacred experiences of Christ’s life through their marriage (Williams, Outlines 14). However, while they experience this transcendence and grace, the experience also remains human and immanent. It is not an allegory, or merely symbolic; as Beatrice, it remains what it is, two human beings living together, as well as something more (Williams, Dante 109).

This theme of romantic love and the intertwining of sacred and profane can also be found in Robert Polhemus’ treatment of 19th and early 20th century British literature in his work Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H Lawrence. Though I would disagree with Polhemus’ thesis that erotic faith in the British novels of this period is primarily a “religion of love” at odds with and supplanting traditional Christian faith, Polhemus’ work highlights the continuance of the courtly and romantic love strain in literature, and also the inextricable links in this literature between eros or erotic faith and religion, religious experience, and religious language (1-6, 22-24). For Polhemus the novel itself is a trajectory of the erotic and erotic faith (3). Though Polhemus characterizes this erotic faith in love as tenser, more complex, more uncertain, and less positive than the “happily ever after” trajectory of romantic love in American films which links them to themes of grace and redemption, nevertheless Polhemus’ work also attests to the power of [End Page 5] this erotic faith and belief and desire in the power of love, particularly to redeem and save (or damn in its absence), and its inextricability with traditional Christian theological ideals such as salvation and martyrdom (1-6, 47, 169). Whether it be the chastening and spiritualization of the erotic in Jane Austen (ch.2), the romantic passionate desire for ecstasy and union in Emily Brontë (ch.4), the attempted melding of the romantic, erotic and Christian in Charlotte Brontë (ch.5), the cult of domesticity and family in Victorian novelists such as Dickens (ch.6), the intertwining of the erotic with Christian themes of sacrifice in George Eliot (ch.7), the interconnection of the vulgar and holy in Joyce (ch.10), or the proclamation of the holy in the erotic and sexual in D.H Lawrence (ch.11), Polhemus underlines the importance of erotic love and desire in the lives of the characters, its ennobling and salvific (and sometimes dangerous) potential, particularly for the male, and its tensions with traditional Christianity (1-6, 10-12, 15, 47, 128, 249). Thus Polhemus’ work further supports and attests to this legacy of the intertwining of theological and erotic discourse, which carries over into romance in film.

We may ask at this point what all this has to do with romantic film. I draw upon these authors and traditions simply to assert that there also has existed a Christian tradition from Dante onwards that did not see human romantic love and divine love as contradictory, but as part of the same continuum, or that may have fused the two experiences. It not only used erotic imagery and love sentiments to describe divine encounters, but saw in the human experience of romantic love a shadow of the divine and a means of grace. This tradition, instead of disavowing passion, eroticism, and devotion or sublimating it to divine being, exalts this passion and eroticism within human relationships as a means to the divine; in other words, eros is also a part of the Christian way to salvation (Williams, Dante 111). Indeed, as theologian Richard Niebuhr has explained in his work Christ and Culture, within Christian history and tradition, there have been positive understandings of the relationship between Christ and human culture and society. In these views, human culture has its positive value, worth and goodness, where one sees within the human something of the divine, and where the human can become a bearer of divine meaning and significance.

This deeper meaning to romantic love still exists as a remnant and possibility in modern representations, including in romantic film. Though we exist in a secular or post-secular era, Christianity has left its legacy on culture and in art and literature. This deeper religious meaning in romantic literature is one legacy that can be observed in romantic film as well. Moreover, I think this becomes even more relevant in our (Western) postmodern era, where a focus on and an exaltation of everyday life and experience, sometimes to a sacred level, becomes possible. After the “death of God” (particularly a Christian, transcendent God), Western religious discourse has to be displaced to a human, immanent, secular level. Because of this courtly love tradition and its connection with Christian discourse, and this theology of romantic love that also runs through it, romantic love in our postmodern era, particularly in film, has become a bearer onto which religious discourse has been displaced. In reverse of the original situation, human, secular language and sentiment now may be used to describe religious experience and to engage in religious discourse. [End Page 6]

 A Theological Aesthetics of Popular Culture and Romantic Love

Theological explorations of religion and film often treat issues such as theodicy, suffering, sin, evil, the demonic, or alienation; or they often explore themes of larger relevance such as oppression, injustice, war, violence, and gender.[3] Treatments often deal with alienation and religious or spiritual experience as occluded, particularly in postmodernity (Coates 17-18). Often scholars hold the view that theologically relevant films must be those that unsettle us from complacency and force us to confront the complexities, i.e. evils, in human existence (Jasper 242-44; Deacy, Faith 23-24, 26). Films that provide entertainment and pleasure, or make us happy, are sometimes judged as mere “wish-fulfillment” fantasies, considered too “trivial,” escapist and illusory to warrant theological and academic inquiry (Deacy, Faith 25-26, 30-31).

Yet, as is the case with the courtly love tradition, Christian mystical discourse, and romantic theology, there is also another side to Christian theology, one that explores goodness and beauty, and sees in the humanly good and beautiful an expression of the divine in the human. According to this theology, to dismiss the beautiful, or here joyous, as something unimportant is to make life miserable, mean, and barren (Häring 338). This view contrariwise explores God’s goodness and love in His relation to human beings and the universe.

Christian theological aesthetics delves more into this theme. It concerns itself with the relationship of God with art and beauty, and with God as perceived and experienced through beauty and art. It often speaks of God’s glory, which includes and is inseparable from God’s beauty, and joy; glory is beautiful, the beautiful is full of joy, and a theology without joy is impossible (Barth 316-19). Beauty points to fact that being is in essence joyous (Viladesau 363). Pleasure and enjoyment are also experienced with God’s beauty (Moltmann 334). To believe in any finite beauty is to believe in the reality of the Absolute, or God; otherwise, joy becomes groundless and illusory (Viladesau 363). Without beauty, we lose our way to God, which makes us miss God’s glory here and now (Chittister 366). Indeed we must surround ourselves with beauty because beauty brings out that the best in life really possible (Chittister 367). Likewise, this beauty is more than just pleasant. Theologically speaking, divine beauty is often linked with truth and goodness (Häring 338-339). What is beautiful is also true, is also good.

Gratitude is likewise integral to the enjoyment of this presence of beauty, which manifests God’s glory (Moltmann 334). Gratitude for beauty and openness to its message are of utmost importance in the sacramental (Christian) life (Häring 341). Anyone who allows the beautiful in knows that life is a meaningful, wonderful gift, a gift of divine grace (Häring 342). God’s gifts of grace transform and enable us to see all things in light of beauty (Navone 358). Furthermore, since nothing exists that we have not been freely and lovingly given, in all creation is a motive for gratitude (Navone 356). God’s gifts manifest God’s will which is God’s love (Navone 357). Eros, a more intimate passionate love and desire than agape, is integral to our worship of God, religious life, and religious commitment, and also integral to God’s love for us (McFague 346-47; Balthasar 322). Without this passion and intimacy, love, human and divine, becomes cold and sterile (McFague 347).

Christian theological aesthetics often link art as the locus for experiencing this divine glory and beauty, and also link (human) beauty and pleasure (in the work of art) [End Page 7] with the divine. Works of art becomes sites for theophanies, where the divine manifests itself; the art form thus remains itself yet becomes more than itself (Bird 3).[4] This often manifests as an event, an encounter in which the divine presence reveals itself to us through itself.[5] The human representation in its finitude thus becomes a sign and symbol of something more beautiful and divine, expressed humanly through art (Balthasar 320). The real and original experience of beauty and joy in the work of art becomes analogous to a higher and more comprehensive experience of divine beauty and joy (Rahner 220-21).

Film can also be a very good medium for manifesting the divine. Experiencing pleasure in film images can open the viewer up to experiences of the beautiful, which lead to experiences of the good and true (Verbeek 172-177). Moreover, film is a total experience, operating on multiple levels. It works on us on a semi-conscious level that viscerally affects us as an embodied experience (Plate 59-60; Marsh 95-101). Emotion, sentiment and mood color our experience of film (Tan and Frijda, 51-55; Marsh 87-95; G. Smith 111-117). It affects us through images which cause emotional reflection (T. Martin 120). This emotional, immediate experience links it with all art in making it amenable to divine encounter (O’Meara, 213). It is a more totalizing experience than other forms of art (T. Martin 46), which may make it easier to experience the beautiful, which we are to experience in the totality of our being (Häring 338). Films also make us see in new ways through the more careful lens of the film experience (T. Martin 139; Plate 57), which may allow us to see the holy, or divine goodness present within them (Johnston, Reel n. pag.).[6]

When film becomes a site for divine manifestation, it shows us the divine possibilities for God’s manifestation anywhere and everywhere in a world-affirming way, including in everyday life (Greeley 92, 93, 95). Popular culture can be important theologically because it shows us how people may be experiencing the holy in everyday life. In an era of postmodernity (or post-post), popular culture in embodied life is the medium with which most people relate, and the site in which groups such as Generation X are having religious experiences (Lynch, After 96-102, 112-121). It can allow the divine presence through images which a postmodern audience may perceive and understand as potentially sacred.[7] What is necessary is a theological aesthetics of popular culture that relates it to everyday life in order to explore how popular cultural forms may enable transcendent experiences of encounter and also beauty, pleasure, and joy (Lynch, Understanding 189-194).

Furthermore, in the postmodern era, the divine encounter may be displaced, represented and manifested differently through popular culture, in secular or human forms that bespeak the same reality and experience in a form more comprehensible and authentic to a postmodern, secular audience (Eliade, “Artist” 179-80; Deacy n. pag).[8] With the focus on personal experience of the self and the aesthetic inner life in postmodernity, theophanies that flow through human forms and narratives in film may be more effective art forms (Lynch, “Sociology” n. pag.). [9] Pop or rock music may work better than classical, and embodied narrative styles than the abstract.[10] Most importantly, exploring divine manifestation through forms of everyday life allows us to view this life sacramentally, to see it possibly in a higher light as a manifestation of God’s beauty, joy, love, and glory infused with grace (Greeley 17, 92, 93, 95).

Popular films are an extension of the theological value of popular culture. In postmodernity, Hollywood and popular film also can provoke religious experience of the sacred (Graham, “Theology” 36, 41; Johnston, “Theological” n. pag.).[11] Romantic love, [End Page 8] because of its history with the courtly love tradition, Christian mystical discourse, and romantic theology, seems to be one bearer of this remnant of Christian theological aesthetics, where a divine beauty may be perceived to manifest itself in the forms of everyday life in film. The love of a divine Other may be held to manifest and represent itself through love of a human other. Indeed, as in romantic theology, in an era where Jesus struggles with temptations of marriage and family in The Last Temptation of Christ and where he is married in The Da Vinci Code,[12] romantic love, marriage, family, even sex, are not perceived as antithetical to or precluding manifestations of God’s presence in film. Moreover, discourse on love in film sometimes may stand in for discourse on religion. This shows us that the love story in postmodernity can sometimes bear the remnants of the former Christian story about grace and redemption.

The Sacramental Kiss in Romantic Films: The Matrix and Shrek

According to early Christian scholars, the kiss did hold meaning in Greco-Roman society. Often erotic and shared privately within the family, public kissing for reasons of friendship and reconciliation was also practiced (Klassen 126-27; Penn 6, 10; Phillips 5-6). But with early Christianity the kiss took on new meaning and importance, being not only practiced but discussed in the writings of Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Clement, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine (Penn, passim). From New Testament origins in St. Paul’s writings, the kiss finds itself in the Christian liturgy or worship service by the second century. Begun as a greeting among Christian brethren at church, by the fourth century it also found its way into the Eucharist and into Christian baptism (Perella 17-18; Phillips 7, 16-17, 27). It could thus be viewed as a means of the infusion of grace (Perella 43; Phillips 30). The kiss was also known as the kiss of peace, or pax, and thus was viewed as a form of communion, reconciliation, and forgiveness; the kiss of peace established concord and unity (Klassen 135; Penn 43-47). Moreover, from Greco-Roman times the kiss was thought to contain a magical-mystical meaning, thought of as a means of spiritual exchange; in Christianity it signified an exchange of souls (Penn 20, 37, 40-41; Perella 5, 26-28; Phillips 5). In Christianity the kiss thus also obtains a pneumatological significance; a kiss was a way of exchanging Christ’s spirit, and also of sharing the Holy Spirit (Perella 15-19; Phillips 8-11). The kiss must also arise from the heart in true affection; if it did not, then it could become the Judas kiss of betrayal, instead of the kiss of peace (Penn 65, 112-18; Perella 28). Though Christian authorities attempted to regulate the kiss’s erotic possibilities, at one time banning the kiss between members of the opposite sex (Penn 13, 80, 110-12; Phillips 24), a certain eroticism may have still remained, particularly evidenced through the use of the dove as the symbol of the kiss of peace and the Holy Spirit transferred thereby, since the dove also held erotic connotations in Greco-Roman culture (Penn 48-49; Perella 253-57).

In the Christian mystical tradition and in courtly love and romantic literature, the kiss conceit also continues. The erotic kiss could symbolize the kiss of God to the human, or the embrace of the soul with God (Perella 31-38). The kiss could also represent the completion of mystical experience, or illumination and an infusion of grace (Perella 43-45, 52-58). In medieval courtly love literature, while the kiss becomes profane, and perhaps [End Page 9] more erotic, it still appears, partially in the idea of a union of hearts or souls, and exchange of spirits (Perella, 90-91, 95-96). The kiss could also exemplify the telos of the devotion, and could signify a bestowal of grace or benediction, this time by the lady (Perella 101, 116). This idea of an exchange of hearts or souls in the kiss, and the kiss as an ecstatic moment, continues into love poetry during the Renaissance and Baroque periods (Perella 181, 184, 189).

 The Matrix trilogy

The kiss is central to the Matrix films. This kiss theme is more than just romantic; it is salvific, having a resurrecting power. In the first movie of the trilogy, when it appears as if agent Smith has killed Neo, Trinity tells Neo:

I’m not afraid anymore. The oracle told me that I would fall in love and that that man, the man that I loved, would be the one. So you see, you can’t be dead, you can’t be, because I love you.

Then Trinity gives him a kiss, and his heart revives. Getting up again, Neo suddenly is able to fight the agents without effort. He can stop bullets; as Morpheus says, “He’s beginning to believe” that he is the One, and acts accordingly. He is able to defeat the agent by going into his body and causing the agent to implode.

It is love that gives Neo the power to be the One, love as expressed through the kiss. This kiss thus is more than just a kiss; it confers a supernatural power. Moreover, Trinity’s name, as a representation of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, must be significant here, as it is Trinity’s love that repeatedly saves Neo. But the kiss is pivotal as the symbol through which this resurrecting power of love occurs. The kiss is thus salvific, and transforms Neo into the One.

This romantic love through the kiss develops further in the next film, The Matrix Reloaded. First, since Trinity and Neo’s love has already proven salvific, the erotic love scene between them shows us the importance of eros, intimate passion and desire, in romantic love, but also perhaps in something deeper, in our religious devotion and experience. It shows eros as a necessary aspect of human and divine love (McFague 346, 347; Greeley 165). This passion, since it is expressed by Neo the Savior, is not just a human passion but perhaps also a divine one (Balthasar 323).

In The Matrix Reloaded, the Merovingian, the dastardly Frenchmen, also acts as one foil to Neo. He explains his philosophy of life thus:

Causality—there is no escape from it. We are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why… why is the only real source of power. Without it you are powerless and this is how you come to me…another link in the chain.

What the Merovingian represents is a mechanistic universe of necessity, of rational and logical calculation, control, and manipulation. It is not only without eros, but without joy, [End Page 10] beauty, or love, and thus without goodness or truth. Neo, contrariwise, acts out of love and passion, here exemplified by his love for Trinity, which is what makes him a savior. Persephone, the Merovingian’s wife, and symbolic in her namesake, the Greek goddess who inhabits the underworld, is willing to help Neo if he gives her a kiss, that is, if he brings that passion, love and beauty back into her life and resurrects her. She explains:

You love her [Trinity]; she loves you. It’s all over you both. A long time ago I knew what that felt like. I want to remember it, I want to sample it. That’s all.

She also tells Neo that he has “to make me believe I am her.” The first kiss is terrible, but then Neo gives Persephone a long kiss as if she were Trinity, and she agrees to help them.

Neo then enters the Matrix and meets the architect. The architect also tells Neo that all the previous five anomalies were created to be attached to humanity, but declares that “while the others experienced this in a very general way, your experience is far more specific vis-à-vis love.” The architect refers to love as

an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason, an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth—she is going to die and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

He also calls hope “the quintessential human delusion.” Yet Neo chooses the door back to the Matrix, rushes to Trinity, and catches her just in time. Though she appears to die, Neo says, “I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.” This time, he resurrects her. She says, “I guess this makes us even,” and they kiss.

The architect, similar to the Merovingian, is interested in logic and reason, control and balance, not in love, joy or desire. What is missing in this technological means-end world is beauty and joy; here we value efficiency instead (Chittister 366). But Neo, as the sixth anomaly, is different, because he does love, and in a passionate, intimate way, exemplifying this love and passion in a way that shows how grace and love transcend this world of efficiency and utility, filling it with delight and lifting spirits (Häring 338, 341). Moreover, this love is once again salvific: contrary to the architect’s predictions, Neo is able to resurrect Trinity from death through the power of love, this time again consummated and exemplified in the kiss.

In the last film of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, the kiss does not play as central a role, but we do find a religious discourse taking place in the name of romantic love, where this love bestows a semi-sacredness to everyday life and the human sphere, bestowing (Christian) religious virtues. Rama-Kandra, whom Neo meets in the nether-subway world at the beginning of the film, explains why he is trying to save his daughter Sati:

I love my daughter very much. I find her to be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. But where we are from that is not enough. Every program that is created must have a purpose. If it does not, it is deleted.

Neo remarks that he has never heard a program speak of love, and thinks of it as a human emotion. Sati’s father answers: [End Page 11]

It is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?

Neo replies: “Anything.” Sati’s father also remarks that he is grateful for his wife and daughter, and that they are gifts. What is interesting here is the ability to appreciate everyday life and its beauty and goodness, here the beauty of a child and family, in an almost sacrosanct way which almost seems to appreciate them as gifts of grace. This also runs very counter to the technological, mechanical world of the Matrix.

Likewise, when Trinity is dying, she is grateful for the love Neo and she shared, without regret and fear. As she is dying, Trinity explains how much she loved him, and says:

How grateful I was for every moment I was with you, but by the time I knew how to say what I wanted to it was too late, but you brought me back, you gave me my wish, one more chance to say what I really wanted to say.

She asks Neo to kiss her one last time, and dies. Gratitude, often an integral part of divine grace, helps Trinity see the nature of life in an almost sacramental way, infused with (divine) goodness.     Thus, in the Matrix trilogy we can see a romantic love discourse that bears the remnants of a religious discourse, of salvation, of grace, of beauty, goodness, and of gratitude. Moreover, this discourse becomes heightened in postmodernity. There are certainly religious themes present in the Matrix, including Christian ideas, concepts, and symbols, and these link together with the love story in a meaningful way. We see this most clearly through the motif of the kiss.

 The Shrek Quadrilogy

At first glance, the Shrek quadrilogy does not seem to merit theological relevance. Yet these animated tales do play with love, romance and the kiss in such a way that also evidences remnants of religious discourse and experience within the romantic love story. In the first movie, Shrek, princess Fiona is waiting for “true love’s first kiss” which will release her from a spell that turns her into an ogre at night, and then she will take true love’s form. After she meets her true love, Shrek the ogre, they embrace and then comes their true love’s first kiss. Fiona is lifted up into the air amid light and sparks and comes down again in ogre form. She does not understand why she is not in love’s true form and says: “I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be beautiful,” but Shrek tells her: “But you are beautiful.” Then it is happily ever after.

Of course, this tale cleverly plays upon the fairy-tale ideal of romantic love. Yet, at the same time, “true love’s kiss” not only shows the influence of the romantic love ideal and literature derived from the courtly love tradition, but also evidences the importance of the kiss. The kiss is not only the completion and attainment of “true love,” but also bestows a grace, and inspiration, and gives a sanctity and blessedness to Shrek and Fiona’s love. The kiss takes place in a church, in front of a clergymen, and the sparks and lifting in the air show that there is something magical, supernatural to it. Being in a church, the kiss takes [End Page 12] place as the consummation of the marriage ceremony, which can be taken as sacramental. Yet, Fiona and Shrek remain the same; what this signifies is that the grace and blessedness bestowed on them, while transfigurative, is also something that can be found within their human lives and human experience of marriage.

In Shrek the music often helps to convey the mood and experience of falling in love.[13] The theme song for the movie is “I’m a Believer,” which starts with:

I thought love was
Only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else
But not for me
Love was out to get me
That’s the way it seems
Disappointment haunted
All my dreams

And then I saw her face
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace
Of doubt in my mind
I’m in love
I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her
If I tried.

We need only to think of Williams and Dante and their romantic theology to see how a vision of the beloved transforms experience and makes ready an acceptation of the good. The language also recalls religious discourse; the man becomes “a believer” or begins to have faith after this vision.

These themes, and the kiss motif, continue through the next three Shrek films. In Shrek 2, we have the evil Prince Charming trying to replace Shrek as Fiona’s rightful husband. In order to compete with him Shrek steals and drinks the potion called “Happily Ever After” which promises “beauty divine” to whoever drinks it, and becomes a hunk. Yet though Fiona has changed back into human form and Prince Charming pretends he is Shrek, a love potion does not work on Fiona, and Charming’s kiss to wed himself to Fiona is not effective. When Shrek finds Fiona and offers her his new and improved human form if they kiss before midnight, Fiona prefers the old Shrek. After midnight is their true love’s kiss as ogres with light, magic, and sparks. Fiona’s parents also accept Shrek now and again we end in a happily ever after.

Going back to the Christian theology of the kiss, we should remember that a kiss not from the heart, not with true affection, and not full of faith cannot have effect, cannot bestow the holy spirit or confer unity and peace, cannot knit the souls of the kissers; it becomes a Judas kiss instead. That is why Charming’s kiss cannot work. But since Shrek and Fiona are “soul-mates,” that kiss will always be effective in bestowing love and grace, and in transforming the lovers. [End Page 13]

Shrek 2 continues a postmodern religious discourse through this legacy of a Christian theological remnant and hyper-meaning within this romantic love tradition. For example, Shrek’s potion “happily ever after” promises him “beauty divine.” But in the end it does not really work. The theological significance that this could bear is akin to grace and mystical discourse. Mystics cannot make a divine encounter happen, cannot transform themselves into divine beings or experience divine union. God must “kiss” them, must do the initiating. The same holds true with grace; its infusion is something God bestows, not something we can attain by our effort. Romantic love often works in the same way in film; it is something that happens and that we cannot control, and which transforms us unexpectedly. Here, this theme is present not only with Shrek’s potion, but in the story of Prince Charming. He cannot make Fiona love him or manipulate the circumstances of love and happiness through his own efforts. Here one cannot make love happen, just as one cannot make beauty, goodness, or truth happen. The theme song of Shrek 2 is the Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love.” Some of the lyrics read: “Well I didn’t mean to do it; but there’s no escaping your love.” It is thus not for humans to control or decide but something that happens to one as a gift of grace.

The religious discourse through the romantic love story also continues in the third film, Shrek the Third. A disgruntled Prince Charming gathers an army of disgruntled fairy-tale villains who desire their own happily-ever-afters, and again unsuccessfully try to make them happen. Yet here a young King Arthur convinces these fairy-tale villains to repent and reform, while Shrek tells Charming to seek his own happily ever after, after which Charming is killed by a tower prop. Arthur tells them:

A:        You’re telling me you just want to be villains your whole lives?

V:        But we are villains; it’s the only thing we know

A:        Didn’t you ever wish you could be something else?

When they reply discouragingly, Arthur quotes Shrek’s speech to him:

Just because people treat you like a villain, or an ogre, or just some loser it doesn’t mean you are one. The thing that matters most is what you think of yourself. If there’s something you really want, or someone you really want to be, then the only person standing in your way is you.

The villains lay down their weapons and ponder other professions, such as growing daisies or opening spas. In other words, they have seen the error of their ways, have repented, and are redeemed and reformed of their wickedness.

We also see in Shrek the Third the repeated theme of “happily ever after,” not only in the plot ending, but throughout the film as a motif and desire. The “happily ever after” scenario in romantic comedy can be a romantic ideal, but understood theologically, it could signify (Christian) hope in life and in divine redemption and salvation (Greeley 108, 112; Brown 219) to be experienced on a human as well as divine level. Bringing back Williams and his romantic theology again, it helps us link the good, or even wondrous, in human experience with a divine goodness. Moreover, in these films, happiness is something that is constantly lost and must constantly be regained; read theologically, this could also symbolize the sacrament of marriage, which constantly bestows a grace that renews the [End Page 14] difficult or dull moments by bringing that grace or experience of love (Williams, Outlines 53). It is likewise salvific or redemptive; it constantly rescues Fiona and Shrek from evils and tribulations, and is sealed by the kiss (Williams, Outlines 47).

The last film, Shrek Forever After, ties everything together. Though Shrek is happily married with ogre triplets, he finds this life dull and monotonous. Because he cannot be grateful for his life, he nearly loses everything. Without his love story with Fiona, he ends up in a dystopia. Yet again the answer is “true love’s kiss,” which Shrek must receive by midnight. Though in this dystopia Fiona has no interest in love and dislikes Shrek, Shrek slowly restores her faith and makes her fall in love with him again. Though true love’s kiss does not work the first time, it works in the end, just in time, and reality is restored to normal. Shrek goes back to his children’s birthday celebration, grateful for all that he has, and we have the final happily ever after.

What stands out to me in this last movie as regards romantic discourse as a bearer of theological meaning and religious experience is the romantic theology of love, marriage and family as sacramental, holy experiences that can lead to redemption. Shrek lives in a state of ingratitude at the beginning of the film. He has forgotten to see his life as a gift of grace. After he has lost it all, Shrek realizes this. He states that “my life was perfect and there’s no way to get it back. I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.” He now sees all the good to be had in his everyday life, and is grateful for it. He tells Fiona: “You’ve already done everything for me Fiona. You gave me a home and a family.” Upon their true love’s kiss, Shrek tells Fiona: “You know what the best part of today was? I got the chance to fall in love with you all over again.” At the end of the story, he likewise remarks to Fiona: “I always thought that I rescued you from the dragon’s keep.” Fiona replies: “You did.” Shrek then answers: “No, it was you that rescued me.” He thus has seen his life in a new sacramental way, which has bestowed beauty and light upon it and has redeemed it and redeemed himself.

In this dystopia, we also see Fiona’s redemption from skepticism, and restoration of her faith. Fiona is cynical, faithless, and loveless. After Shrek kisses her and nothing happens, Shrek remarks:

S:         I don’t understand. This doesn’t make any sense. True love’s kiss was supposed to fix everything.

F:         Yeah, you know that’s what they told me too. True love didn’t get me out of that tower. I did. I saved myself. Don’t you get it? It’s all just a big fairy tale.

S:         Fiona don’t say that. It does exist.

F:         And how would you know? Did you grow up locked away in a dragon’s keep? Did you live all alone in a miserable tower? Did you cry yourself to sleep every night waiting for a true love that never came?

S:         But, but I’m your true love.

F:         Then where were you when I needed you?

She has lost faith not just in love, but in the good and beautiful in life, especially as freely given gifts. Everything now depends on her own human effort and will against a cruel world. That is why the kiss did not work; she no longer believes, or loves. [End Page 15]

Yet even here, there is still a ray of hope. After one of Shrek’s failed attempts to connect with Fiona, Puss remarks:

I am not believing what I have just witnessed. Back there—you and Fiona, there was a spark. A spark inside her heart I thought was long extinguished. It was as if for one moment Fiona had actually found her true love.

It is thus up to Shrek to restore her belief and faith in love through love. Through the sacrifices Shrek makes to save Fiona, Fiona comes to believe in Shrek and the power of love again: in the power of goodness, and in beauty and happiness. When Shrek apologizes for not having been there for her, Fiona says that it does not matter, that he is here now. Her life and her past are beginning to be redeemed through this experience of love, and her faith and hope are renewed. Then comes true love’s kiss, in which both Shrek and Fiona find redemption, and a renewal of the sacramental grace bestowed upon their love. Moreover, here true love’s kiss transforms the world and restores it to its rightful order as well, showing the power of love to renew the phenomenal world, exemplified in the married couple (Williams, Outlines 32). Without that love, in a world of cynicism, faithlessness, and disbelief, everything is a dystopia. With the grace and beauty of love, it is beautiful and joyous again, showing how love repeatedly renews the world (Williams, Outlines 32).

In the last movie, we see clearly the analogous relation of romantic love and religious faith, and how this romantic love narrative and discourse could stand in for that of religious faith, showing once again the transposition of Christian theological themes into romantic discourse. We can read the love story again as more than just a romantic love story, as that through which in postmodernity, due to the historical relation of romantic and Christian discourse, discourse on religion, God, and faith take place, albeit in a secularized, human form.

 Love as Religious Discourse in Romantic Comedy

In postmodernity the genre of romantic comedy also becomes a site in which religious discourse takes place, where discourse about love can be read as discourse about religion. What these romantic comedies show even more clearly than the above films is how the love story in film acts as a foil to the modern secular story of hedonism, value-neutrality, scientific rationality, skepticism, cynicism, and disbelief. Romantic love acts as a site which challenges this secular viewpoint by allowing for an experience of love which contains the possibility of a deeper significance as a divine, religious experience.

For example, in the 2009 comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Connor Mead is a New York City playboy, cynical about love and marriage. When refusing to give the toast at his brother’s wedding, he states that:

To me marriage is an archaic and oppressive institution that should have been abolished years ago. [End Page 16]

He goes on to say about love:

Love, it’s magical comfort food for the weak and uneducated. Yeah, it makes you feel all warm and relevant but in the end love leaves you weak, dependent, and fat.

Continuing on a little later, he says:

I wish I could believe in all this crap. I do. I also wish I could believe in the Easter Bunny….I am condemned to see the world as it really is, and love, love is a myth.

We could substitute religion, faith, or God very easily here for the word love, and probably marriage, and we would probably recognize this speech as the modern, secular, skeptical view of religion.[14] In the film, Connor seems jaded, cynical, and shallow, enjoying the swinging bachelor’s life. His moral reformation begins when his deceased lecherous uncle Wayne visits him, warning him to repent of his ways. This movie is playing upon Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge is warned to repent of his life and ways. The connection signifies religious and moral meaning, requiring the repentance and reformation of Connor. Connor does see the error of his ways, and begins a new life, a life of committed love.

Likewise, in the 2003 movie Something’s Gotta Give, Harry Sanborn is a sixty-three year old New York City bachelor also enjoying the hedonistic single life. He meets Erica Barry, the divorced mother of his girlfriend, and while he is convalescing in her home from a heart attack, they develop a special romantic relationship which turns into love. When they first make love, it is as if they have both experienced something new and wondrous in their lives, an openness and vulnerability but also passion and elation. That was the first night either of them had ever slept eight hours. We can chalk it up to just sexual desire, but something happens that also transforms their lives. Erica, repressed, uptight, and unemotional, can then not stop weeping, which finally helps her overcome her writer’s block and enables her to write her next play, and which opens her up to a relationship with another younger man. She appears happier than ever, and explains to her daughter it was because she let love in, even if it did not work out. Meanwhile Harry attempts to go back to his former playboy life, but to no avail. He is unhappy, and every time he sees Erica he has an anxiety attack which he fears is another heart attack. Realizing he needs to change, he goes back, tries to find every woman he has ever wronged, and makes amends. He looks for Erica in Paris, but finds her with another man. Yet she returns to him. When Erica tells him she’s still in love with him, Harry says: “If it’s true, my life just got made.” Harry then remarks: “I finally get what it’s all about. I’m 63 years old, and I’m in love, for the first time in my life.” And we have a happily ever after.

Erica and Harry’s first night together was a transformative experience, akin to a moment of grace. Whether realized before or not, it brought something missing from their lives into it, love, passion, or wonder, that changed and transformed them. They had to change their lives for the better: in Erica’s case learning to let go of control, open up and let love in; in Harry’s moral reformation and responsibility. Harry’s comment that he is in love [End Page 17] for the first time at 63 can be read as the possibility of redemption at any age and stage, which has been a part of the Christian message as well.


The kiss and romantic love in film can operate religiously and theologically. They have the capacity not only to bear a theological significance, but to offer an opportunity for divine encounter and transformation, as well as containing the possibility of a religious discourse. This is due to the origins of medieval courtly love and its relationship with Christian theological discourse, where medieval courtly love borrowed the sentiments and language of Christian discourse, particularly mystical discourse. Moreover, something of the humanly erotic also remained within sublimated mystical discourse, fusing the two experiences and making it more difficult to distinguish one from the other. This paved the way for romantic love, the descendent of courtly love, to contain the possibility of this deeper theological meaning and religious experience within it. In postmodernity, where God is dead, and where transcendence has been displaced onto immanence and the divine onto the human, this dormant religious and theological possibility of romantic love in culture and art can sometimes be activated, and can become pregnant with meaning. This holds particularly true in film. Moreover, in postmodernity romantic love in films can sometimes stand in for and represent religious experiences of God or for religious discourse. Therefore, I contend that romantic love in film can be one style, form and representation through which religious experience and reflection are taking place in postmodernity. It thus shows the religious and theological possibilities of popular culture and popular cultural manifestations.

Finally, I hope looking at romantic love in film in this light, in relation to theological aesthetics, contributes to opening up and freeing theology and film studies, which seldom treats the theme of romantic love as theologically or religiously pertinent. Theology and film studies should welcome more often these positive engagements with film and religious studies and popular culture. To quote the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf:

I see happiness as a right. I think that it is a human right to be joyful. The person who makes a dark, realistic film in India is wasting his time….Many things must yet change in India before the people’s lives become better…So why should the people be depressed by movies like that? They must be allowed to have some pleasure in life. The person who has had to sell his body for a morsel of food – you want to make a film for him about social justice? What is he supposed to do after seeing that film? (92)

Going on to speak about his profession, he says that “we filmmakers are here only to illuminate, to bring joy to life. All I seek is that, after seeing a film of mine, a person feels a little happier, and acts with a little kindness towards the world” (93). Like Makhbalhaf, we can aim to take seriously those filmmakers who by treating romantic love desire to bring a little more happiness and joy to life and to the world, and consider such a goal a legitimate [End Page 18] enterprise. We can also appreciate films (and scholarly work) that reveal and point us toward this joyous side to life, and realize their value.

I close with a discussion of the ending of Cinema Paradiso. At the end of the story Salvatore/Toto, who is now a famous filmmaker in Rome, watches the film his old friend and father-figure Alfredo left for him upon Alfredo’s recent death. The film is a composite of all the love and kissing scenes that Toto’s hometown’s Catholic priest had censored out of the movies. The film brings tears to Toto’s eyes, perhaps for the memories of his youth and the love for film that has made him rich and famous, perhaps for memories of Alfredo and how he changed his life, perhaps for remembering the past that he left behind. But it signifies something else as well: the kisses signal passion, wonder, beauty, ecstasy and joy, treated in courtly love and romantic literature, but also having origins in Christian mystical discourse and the Christian sacrament of the kiss. I hope this kiss can begin to be understood as that which sometimes graces life, not just in romantic love, but in all our everyday moments, and which may be read and understood as a symbol of human or divine goodness, not to mention the hope, faith and belief in the good, the beautiful and the true, and perhaps the happily ever after of romantic love or Christian redemption. Let us hope that we, unlike the priest, do not censor this out of film or religion, its study, and certainly not out of life.

[1] Though Willliams, as an Anglican, more clearly identifies the romantic love in the sacrament of marriage with the Incarnation and the life of Christ, I translate that here also to mean a divine, sacramental presence in romantic love and marriage.

[2] For readers not familiar with it, the courtly love literature and tradition is thought to have arisen in the 12th century in the Provence region of France, and was popular during the high Middle Ages. It concerned a knight’s love for and devotion to a lady of superior social standing, usually married, and consisted not only of a description of the knight’s passionate devotion, but also his service and humiliation to the lady. There existed also a system of rules and observances which must govern this service.

[3] See for example Zwick, Graham, May, Deacy Faith, and Deacy and Ortiz.

[4] The idea of a hierophany stems from religion scholar Mircea Eliade; a hierophany is an eruption of the sacred into the mundane or profane realm, where the sacred manifests itself into something profane, making that something both what it is and something more. A theophany is the same idea only with the eruption of God or the divine into the mundane. For more information see Eliade, Sacred.

[5] French philosopher of religion Jean-Luc Marion has written extensively about the event of God’s manifestation, sometimes called the saturated phenomenon, a revelation that gives itself from itself to a human subjectivity, and that human beings cannot control but are controlled by. The revelation can also often manifest itself through a work of art, as an encounter; it entails the revelation through the work of art to a passive subjectivity. Most of the writings of Marion are a propos to this phenomenon, but in particular Being Given may be of use in explaining this idea.

[6] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 2 and 3 of section 2, entitled “Seeing life.”

[7] For a discussion of the use of postmodern styles in relation to theology, see Detweiler, and Detweiler and Taylor. [End Page 19]

[8] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 5, 8, 12 and 14 of section 3, entitled “Cupitt and Bonhoeffer meet the Kranks.”

[9] Again this is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the relevant passages can be found in paragraphs 7-14 of section 2, entitled “The Subjective Turn in Modern Spirituality,” and in paragraphs 2-3 of section 3, entitled “Reading Film in the Context of the Subjective Turn.”

[10] See Detweiler and Taylor.

[11] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 1 and 2 in section 5, entitled “Finding God in the movies.”

[12] Though I reference the film, I actually have not seen The Last Temptation of Christ, but am just depending on what I have heard about the film.

[13] See J. Smith and Taylor.

[14] Ben-Ze’ev and Goussinsky consider the “ideology of romantic love” as an unattainable, unrealistic transcendental ideal that under certain circumstances can lead to fanaticism and violence, much in the way many modern intellectuals view religion, particularly fundamentalism (xii-xiv). [End Page 20]

 Movies Cited

Cinema Paradiso. Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. Perf. Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin. Miramax (US), 1988. Online download.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas. New Line, 2009. Online Download.

Shrek. Dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy. Dreamworks/Universal, 2001. Online download.

Shrek 2. Dir. Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Dreamworks/Universal, 2004. Online download.

Shrek Forever After. Dir. Mike Mitchell. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Paramount 2010. Online download.

Shrek the Third. Dir. Chris Miller and Raman Hui. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Paramount, 2007. Online download.

Something’s Gotta Give. Dir. Nancy Meyers. Perf Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

The Da Vinci Code. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan. Columbia, 2006. Online download.

The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Barbara Hershey. Universal, 1988. Online download.

The Matrix. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 1999. Online download.

The Matrix Reloaded. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

The Matrix Revolutions. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

Music Cited

Counting Crows. “Accidentally in Love.” Shrek 2: Motion Picture Soundtrack. Dreamworks/Geffen, 2004. CD.

Diamond, Neil. “I’m a Believer” lyrics. STLyrics. n.d. Web. 8 May 2012.

Duritz, Adam, Dan Vickrey, David Bryson, Matt Malley, David Immergluck. “Accidentally in Love” lyrics. Elyrics. n.d. Web. 8 May 2012.

Smash Mouth. “I’m a Believer.” Shrek: Music From the Original Motion Picture. Dreamworks, 2001. CD.

Works Cited

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, ed. Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. New York: Cross Road, 1995. Print.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. 1 Seeing The Form. Trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Ed. Joseph Fessio and John Riches. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982. 117-127. Excerpt in Thiessen 320-325.

[End Page 21]

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 2 The Doctrine of God. Eds. G. W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957. 650-659. Excerpt in Thiessen 315-319.

Ben-Ze’ev, Aharon and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Bird, Michael. “Film as Hierophany.” Religion in Film. Eds. John R. May and Michael Bird. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. 3-22. Print.

Boase, Roger. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977. Print.

Brown, Stephen. “Optimism, Hope, and Feelgood Movies: The Capra Connection.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 219-232. Print.

Chittister, Joan. “Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light.” Religious Life Review 40 (2001): 178-180. Excerpt in Thiessen 366-367.

Coates, Paul. Cinema, Religion, and the Romantic Legacy. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003. Print.

Deacy, Christopher. Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005. Print.

— — —. “From Bultmann to Burton, Demythologizing the Big Fish: The Contribution of Modern Christian Theologians to the Theology-Film Conversation.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 12. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

— — —, and Gaye Ortiz, eds. Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide. London: Blackwell, 2008. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 1 March 2012.

Detweiler, Craig. “Seeing and Believing: Film Theory as a Window into a Visual Faith.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 1. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

Detweiler, Craig, and Barry Taylor. A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 30 March 2012.

Eliade, Mircea. “The Sacred and the Modern Artist.” Criterion 1964 (Spring): 22-24. Excerpt in Apostolos-Capadona 179-183.

— — —. Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. Print.

Gilkey, Langdon. “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, IL. 17 May 1981. Keynote Address. Excerpt in Apostolos-Cappadona 187-192.

Graham, David John. “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 87-95. Print.

— — —. “The Uses of Film in Theology.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 35-43. Print.

Greeley, Andrew. God in Popular Culture. Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1988. Print.

Häring, Bernard. Free and Faithful in Christ. Vol. 2 The Truth Will Set You Free. Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1979. 102-109. Excerpt in Thiessen 338-343.

[End Page 22]

Jasper, David. “On Systematizing the Unsystematic: A Response.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 235-244. Print.

Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 4 March 2012.

— — —. “Theological Approaches.” Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. Ed. John Lyden. London: Routledge, 2009. Chapter 17. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 15 March 2012.

Klassen, William. “The Sacred Kiss in the New Testament: An Example of Social Boundary Lines.” New Testament Studies 39.1 (1993): 122-135. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. Print.

Lyden, John. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 2 February 2012.

Lynch, Gordon. After Religion: ‘Generation X’ and the Search for Meaning. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2002. Print.

— — —. “Film and the Subjective Turn: How the Sociology of Religion Can Contribute to Theological Readings of Film.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 5. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

— — —. Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. London: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Makhmalbaf, Mohsen. “Once Upon a Filmmaker: Conversation with Mohsen Malkhmalbaf.” Interview by Hamid Dabashi. Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present, and Future. London: Verso, 2001. Excerpt in The Religion and Film Reader. Eds. Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate. London: Routledge, 2007. 92-94. Print.

Marion, Jean-Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.

Marsh, Clive. Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2004. Print.

Martin, Joel W, and Conrad E Ostwalt Jr. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. Print.

Martin, Thomas M. Images and the Imageless: A Study in Religious Consciousness and Film. London: Associated University Presses, 1981. Print.

McFague, Sallie. Models of God, Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. 133-135. Excerpt in Thiessen 346-348.

Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology and Joy. London: SCM Press, 1973. 58-64. Excerpt in Thiessen 334-338.

Navone, John. Toward a Theology of Beauty. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996. 77-82. Excerpt in Thiessen 355-358.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951. Print.

O’Meara, Thomas Franklin. “The Aesthetic Dimension in Theology.” Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. Ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. New York: Cross Road, 1995. 205-18. Print.

Penn, Michael Philip. Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Print.

Perella, Nicolas James. The Kiss Sacred and Profane: An Interpretive History of Kiss Symbolism and Related Religio-Erotic Themes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Print.

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Phillips, L. Edward. The Ritual Kiss in Early Christian Worship. Cambridge, UK: Grove Books, 1996. Print.

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[End Page 24]


Creating a Popular Romance Collection in an Academic Library
by Sarah E. Sheehan and Jen Stevens

[End Page 1]


 “Who will we be studying in 100 years?”

– question from the audience at the opening keynote panel presentation at the 2013 Popular Romance Author Symposium (Princeton University, October 24, 2013)

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing critical mass of scholarly interest in the study of popular romance as a literary form in its own right. Scholars such as Pamela Regis, Laura Vivanco, Sarah S. G. Frantz, and Eric Selinger, among many others, have begun to publish scholarly and/or literary criticism of popular romance novels in the last two decades. Other indications include the establishment of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, several symposiums, the Popular Romance Project, and the fact that schools and universities such as the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, DePaul University, and George Mason University have begun offering courses that focus and/or incorporate popular romance novels (“Teaching Popular Romance”).

As Crystal Goldman argues in her 2012 article “Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries,” access to research materials is vital for romance scholars and students:

With no cohesive vision for which materials to collect and little justification for fiscally supporting popular romance studies materials, vital monographs, papers, and articles are not being preserved by libraries for future researchers’ use and may, indeed be lost from the record entirely (2).

Although Goldman does mention primary sources, her main focus is on secondary materials, i.e. materials about romance and related fields, and the issues that have previously prevented many academic libraries from systematically collecting them. Goldman also identified a list of 37 core secondary sources for popular romance scholarship (17-18). Secondary materials are definitely important, but the systematic collection of primary sources, the actual popular romance novels and short stories themselves, is vital.

Identification of Need

Academic libraries have long had an uneven record of collecting so-called popular contemporary literature. Although historical collections of items such as dime novels are not uncommon, popular contemporary literature is often not collected until it is, so to speak, no longer contemporary. Academic libraries that do collect it have often done so as part of so-called “leisure reading collections.” As Pauline Dewan notes, leisure reading collections have been making a comeback in recent years: [End Page 2]

Three recent trends in university and college libraries have prompted academic libraries to rethink their ideas about popular literature collections….Trend towards user-focused libraries, revitalization of the library as place, and promotion of literacy and lifelong reading (45).

These are all worthy goals and purposes, but they do not necessarily align with the systematic collection and preservation of primary source materials. Leisure reading collections are often leased from companies such as McNaughton. Based on the library’s desired profile, McNaughton sends a selection of books that the library may choose to purchase at the end of the lease period. Materials retained from such collections can be a source for popular fiction such as romance, but as in the University Libraries’ case, this often results in spotty collections – a title from one author’s series, two from another, and so forth. Moreover, materials that might work best for a leisure reading collection (and attract student attention) may not necessarily be those desired by future researchers.

As more colleges and universities begin to offer popular literature courses, there are indications that some academic libraries are starting to change or adapt their practices. In a 2007 exploratory study, Justine Alsop found that a majority of her literature librarian survey respondents did collect some popular contemporary literature. In addition to student “need” for light reading, her respondents cited reasons such as supporting the curriculum (most reported that their institutions offered courses in popular fiction), faculty requests, and preserving primary sources for future scholarly study (Alsop 583). However, there were still many barriers, including “budgetary constraints, the expectation of having ‘canonical authors’ in the collection, and lack of demand,” as well as an expectation that public libraries, rather than academic libraries, should be the ones collecting contemporary fiction (Alsop 583).

Lack of space and money are very real issues for many academic libraries, especially given the vast amount of popular fiction that is published. According to the Romance Writers of America, the romance genre alone generates 1.08 billion dollars in sales from over 9,000 titles in 2013 (“Industry Statistics”; Bosman). In a 1987 book chapter, Charles W. Brownson suggested one way of dealing with the mass influx of popular contemporary fiction for those collecting at a “Research Support” level:

Selection criteria are seldom based on the quality of the literature, so that statistical methods can be used. Wanting a sample of romances, for example, which the industry produces at the rate of about four a day, one might decide to buy those published on the first day of every month. They are alike, after all (or rather, their differences are statistical) (105).

Leaving aside the question of whether romance novels really are all alike, buying materials in this fashion, while it might result in good representation of the romance genre as a whole, would make it very difficult for researchers to study individual authors or even subgenres such as paranormal romance since there would be little continuity aside from date of publication.

However, leaving popular romance collecting to public libraries is not necessarily the best alternative. Public libraries have very different missions than do academic libraries. Aside from public library systems that include research branches such as the New [End Page 3] York Public Library, most public libraries do not collect for the long term needs of researchers and students, but instead, focus on the present reading interests of the populations that they serve. Collection development policies of public libraries should be guided by local reading tastes that may favor certain authors and sub-genres versus others. In Amy Funderburk’s 2004 Masters’ paper reviewing the number of award winning romance novels in North Carolina public libraries, she found that the relatively small number of reviews in standard library review sources of award winning popular romance novels resulted in a smaller number of titles being collected compared to the other popular fiction genres (19). Many standard library review sources, such as Library Journal, only publish popular romance on a quarterly basis. In 2008, the American Library Association publication Reference and User Services did publish an article on collecting romance genre fiction in public libraries, but it only listed five titles per romance sub-genre (Wyatt et al. 120).

In public libraries, as titles become less popular or simply wear out, they are often withdrawn in order to make room for newer titles. Again, the role of most public libraries is not to preserve items, but rather, focus on current patron needs. In fact, the growing adoption of e‑book databases such as Overdrive makes it even less likely that public libraries will be able to offer long term preservation of romance fiction since those e-book database titles are often leased rather than owned. In the early 1990s, collection development in public libraries underwent a shift from collecting “the best” to a collection philosophy of “give them what they want,” as articulated by Charles Robinson, the director of Baltimore County Public Library system. Robinson’s philosophy encouraged public libraries to purchase multiple copies of popular titles, fiction or non-fiction, to meet the current reading needs of the county library’s patrons. These multiple copies would be kept until they wore out or the library needed the space for the “next” hot titles. The expectation that public libraries will have research-worthy collections of popular romance novels just is not realistic in these days of shrinking budgets, public demand, and a now longstanding collection development philosophy (Baltimore County Public Library).

There are a few academic libraries that do systematically collect popular romance materials, mostly through their special collections. A prime example is the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University, which currently holds over 10,000 volumes of category romance series. Another is the University of Melbourne Library in Australia, which began collecting romance novels as early as 1997, with an emphasis on authors from Australia and New Zealand. One of the arguments used for establishing the collection at the University of Melbourne Library was that other Australian libraries were already collecting other genres of popular fiction (Flesch 120). Other schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, have focused on specific sub-genres such as nurse romances. These collections have an immense value in regards to long-term preservation of these materials. However, all three of these collections are housed in their respective library’s Special Collections, which means that the materials can only be used on site. While locating these materials in Special Collections may be desirable from a preservation standpoint (especially in the case of mass market paperbacks), it does limit student and researcher access. Moreover, these collections are set apart from the “main” circulating literature and literary criticism collections.

Circulating collections provide greater physical access for faculty and students as well as researchers and students at other institutions who have Interlibrary Loan access. [End Page 4] They can also enhance access to related secondary materials since most academic libraries in the United States use the LC (Library of Congress) classification system, which results in books both by and about a given author being shelved together.

The authors of this article would argue that there is value in systematically collecting popular romance fiction for circulating academic library collections. As no established collection development model exists specifically for this type of collection, the authors created a strategy using other genre collections such as science fiction as a model, and their skills as established liaison librarians in crafting the collection. Stevens’ long term experience as the English Liaison Librarian and Sheehan’s knowledge of the popular romance genre as both a reader and researcher (she had previously published Romance Authors: A Research Guide, which focused on primary and secondary sources for popular romance writers) was a unique combination that allowed this collection to be created in a relatively short time. In this article, the authors will describe how they established a popular romance collection at George Mason University Libraries, as well as discuss various issues that were encountered.

Process of Creating the Collection

George Mason University is a highly diverse, state-funded, growing institution, and has recently become one of the largest universities in the state of Virginia. The University Libraries encompass four libraries, in addition to a separately managed Law Library. Two of the libraries are on the large Fairfax Campus while the other two libraries serve the research and service needs of our distributed campuses. The Fenwick Library is the largest library and is generally considered the main research library of the University. The majority of the 1.27 million volume collection, including most of the literature and literary criticism books, is located in Fenwick Library.

Like many academic libraries, the University Libraries had sporadically collected romance novels, mostly through a leased McNaughton collection, gifts, and faculty requests. It had also collected secondary sources to support the courses in the English Department and other programs, and had 78 per cent of the core popular romance scholarship titles identified by Goldman (Goldman 17-18).

Sheehan and Stevens decided to begin systematically collecting popular romance novels at George Mason University in response to several campus developments. The first was an English department class: “Why Women Read Romance Novels,” created by Professor Jessica Matthews. Matthews created the course partly in response to the degree and depth of engagement that she observed on web-based forums devoted to reader discussion of popular romance novels (Ramage). First offered in 2011, it was successful enough to be offered again in 2013, with 38 students registered (George Mason University). In addition, Professor Matthews regularly teaches a “Marriage Plots” class that also incorporates several popular romance novels as part of the class’ required readings.

The second was the creation of the Popular Romance Project web portal, hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Part of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s mission is to “encourage popular participation in [End Page 5] presenting and preserving the past” in a digital environment (Roy Rosenzweig Center). In addition to the documentary film Love Between the Covers, the Popular Romance Project included a symposium hosted by the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Given that the Library of Congress is ready to highlight popular romance novels, academic libraries now have an opportunity to acquire resources that may have been previously considered fringe or not appropriate for scholarly study.

After learning about the Popular Romance Project, Sheehan contacted the coordinators and arranged to become a blogger for the site. One of the faculty members involved with the Popular Romance Project turned out to be Jessica Matthews. Over the summer of 2013, Sheehan met with Professor Matthews to discuss ways the University Libraries could support her research and teaching and whether there were specific popular romance titles that the University Libraries should acquire. As a result Sheehan asked Stevens to order several titles by Diana Gabaldon, an author Matthews studies.

Based on these developments, Sheehan and Stevens began discussing how they might best support faculty and students by acquiring a representative sample of additional popular romance titles, with the knowledge that this could never be a truly comprehensive collection. They decided early on that they wanted it to be a “teaching collection” that students and faculty could readily access and check out. Because of the way that Library of Congress Classification (the schema used by most academic libraries) treats literary materials, both the primary and secondary sources for a given author (i.e. books by and about Georgette Heyer) would be shelved together, which would facilitate browsing for secondary sources. Although anthologies with items by multiple authors may be shelved separately, libraries using Library of Congress classification generally shelve literary works by single authors by language, historical period, and then alphabetically by the author’s name, with the aim of keeping all of the literary works by a given author together, regardless of their genre (Literature Classification). The Library of Congress classification does have a specific subject heading, Love Stories, for any titles that involve romantic themes or stories, but that subject heading does not determine the shelving position – it facilitates finding the information in the catalog.

Sheehan and Stevens also decided that the materials should be accessible via Interlibrary Loan in order to facilitate access to students and researchers at other institutions. Libraries can choose to limit Interlibrary Loan access to materials in order to prevent loss; few if any Special Collection materials tend to be accessible via Interlibrary Loan.

After Sheehan and Stevens had a preliminary discussion with the Head of Collection Development, Sheehan wrote and submitted a formal proposal (see Appendix 1). This proposal included the following elements:

  • rationale (the academic programs, curricula, and faculty that would be served)
  • parameters (types of materials that would be collected)
  • who would make the selections and have control of the funds
  • the criteria used to select materials
  • materials and formats that would be excluded.

The proposal was accepted and a temporary fund was created that would allow both Sheehan and Stevens to purchase romance novels for fiscal year 2013/2014. Although [End Page 6] Stevens, as the English librarian, would have signing authority after the first year, selections would continue to be made by both Sheehan and Stevens. This way, the continued growth of the collection would not be dependent on one librarian. Instead of being a short term “special project,” it would become a standard part of the collection development process for literature. Once the proposal was approved by the University Libraries administration and Sheehan and Stevens were given a budget, they began the selection process.

As with literature as a whole, the question of canon is a vexed one for popular romance. The flurry of blogs and twitter posts in response to Noah Berlatsky’s Salon article about the need for a popular romance “canon” is a wonderful example of the difficulty of establishing a one-size fits all collection of popular romance novels (Berlatsky; Crutcher; Selinger). Although this discussion occurred well after the authors’ initial proposal, it exemplifies the types of questions that academic libraries face in selecting in romance and other popular genres. Sheehan and Stevens knew that it would probably be impossible to determine a “single” group of “best” authors for researchers and students, but decided that for the purposes of teaching and research, they wanted a collection that would reflect the historical development of the genre, as well as its range. Judging the quality of writing or story can be very subjective. By using their established knowledge of collection development skills, they anticipated creating a collection that, while not answering the question of canon, will contribute to the ongoing discussion. Sheehan and Stevens also knew this was a long term project, and that purchasing the foundation or historical collection would take many years to accomplish.

Sheehan and Stevens were fortunate, however, to have something of a head start. Since Sheehan’s work on Romance Authors: A Research Guide had itself involved selecting a group of authors to include, she had already done quite a bit of research in the area. Updating the resources was easily accomplished and provided the initial list of authors and in many cases identified works that would help demonstrate the variety and changes found in popular romance novels. Another important source was Jessica Matthews’ “Why Women Read Romance” syllabus (Matthews). As part of the proposal, Sheehan and Stevens had determined that the initial purchases for the first several years would focus on the “classics,” which they defined as winners of the RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. These “classic” novels represent authors and works that made a long term impact on the genre and continue to be highly regarded by readers and writers. These are the authors that helped define the genre for the last 30 years. Likewise, authors who produced current works that made “notable lists” such as the New York Times Best Sellers list or Library Journal’s “Best Books: Romance” would be collected. In November 2013, the website All About Romance released an updated Top 100 Romances Poll which also helped identify popular titles and specific authors to purchase (Top 100 Romances).

A number of authors overlapped on all the collecting criteria, which suggested places to start. Sheehan and Stevens also decided to focus the collection on individual authors rather than publisher series (i.e. the Harlequin Intrigue or Silhouette Special Edition series), which would help set Mason’s collection apart from what the Bowling Green Browne Popular Culture Library was already doing.

As with almost all other collection development done by academic librarians, reviews from trusted sources played a large role in the decision making process of what to buy. Often times the reviews are written by specialists in the field, such as RWA’s Librarian [End Page 7] of the Year winners, Kristin Ramsdell reviewing for Library Journal, and Wendy Crutcher on her own blog, The Misadventures of Super Librarian. Additionally, online resources such as the well regarded Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Read-A-Romance Month, and the long running All About Romance websites provide non-traditional (for the academic librarian) resources for identifying upcoming authors and reviews for titles.

Diversity of characters is an ongoing concern in what has historically been the white, heteronormative nature of much of popular romance genre. Recently, there have been several efforts, such as the Love in the Margins and the Queer Romance Month websites, that strive to publicize diverse authors and works. As they move forward with the collection, Sheehan and Stevens will continue to monitor the changing nature of the romance genre, including new sub-genres, and will adapt the collection appropriately. Faculty and students research interests at Mason will also help in crafting the collection based on what diverse authors are being studied.

Considering the prolific nature of many popular romance novelists, Sheehan and Stevens decided to vary the collecting levels for various authors – for some authors, collecting would be limited to a well curated selection, while in the case of other authors, their entire body of work, as available, would be included. In some cases, this was decided partly on a pragmatic basis. For instance, authors such as Jayne Ann Krentz and Julia Quinn had recently published new titles that were from a series of connected books, so Sheehan and Stevens decided to purchase all books in those specific series. Jayne Ann Krentz’s Arcane Society and Harmony series titles have the added benefit of encompassing the three current pseudonyms used by Krentz – Jayne Ann Krentz, Amanda Quick, and Jayne Castle. This allowed the University Libraries to readily collect works across a wide variety of romance genres, i.e. romantic suspense, historical, contemporary, futuristic, and paranormal, within one author’s body of work.

Format is an ongoing issue. For the foreseeable future, Sheehan and Stevens decided to select items in print format instead of e-books. This decision may seem counterintuitive for a 21st century library, but in the case of popular romance novels, few academic e-book vendors actually include romance in their collections (most academic libraries collect e-books as part of larger databases; libraries may purchase or subscribe to individual titles depending on the vendor and the title). In fact, most of the e-book vendors that include fiction, such as Overdrive, are actually based more in the public library market, and often lease rather than sell their collections. While some academic libraries such as Texas A&M (Clark 147) have experimented with using e-book readers for their circulating collections, the University Libraries have not undertaken such a project. That means that popular romance novels available via Kindle, Nook, or self-published on other electronic formats cannot be collected at this time by the University Libraries. The decision to stick with the print format may be reconsidered as technology changes and the University Libraries updates its collection development policies. For preservation purposes, Sheehan and Stevens also decided to acquire hardbacks instead of paperbacks as much as possible. Although paperbacks may be less expensive to purchase initially, they often ultimately cost more because of binding and/or eventual replacement costs.

These decisions, especially the print-only decision, do have larger ramifications for the University Libraries’ ability to collect popular romance genre novels. Many authors and publishers have begun to reissue older (and difficult to find) titles as e-books. Some authors, such as Eileen Dreyer, have even issued titles in e-book format only (i.e. Dreyer’s It [End Page 8] Begins with a Kiss). In turn, hardbacks can often be more difficult to find than paperbacks, especially once they are out of print. In many cases, there is no hardback edition available since the title was only published in mass market format. Fortunately, many publishers are reissuing major authors’ books in hardback.

Informed serendipity also played a role in what authors’ works were collected this first year. In a recent Library Journal’s “Romance Reviews” column by Kristin Ramsdell, Sheehan noted in the “Second Time Around” section that Carla Kelly’s Reforming Lord Ragsdale was being reissued (Ramsdell). A quick look in the online ordering tool GOBI from YBP Publishing Services identified several titles by Kelly, long out of print, that had been reissued. This allowed the University Libraries to then collect those popular romance titles far more easily. While Carla Kelly was not originally on their “short list” for the first year, Sheehan and Stevens decided that her “classic Regencies” would be a worthy and welcome addition to the collection.

Serendipity also played a role in what titles were purchased by specific authors. If a specific title by a given author was available as a hardcover in the online ordering system GOBI, that title was selected for purchase. For author Loretta Chase, the obvious title collected is the number one ranked book on the All About Romance website, Lord of Scoundrels. As Lord of Scoundrels is part of a series of connected books, the titles Lion’s Daughter, Captives of the Night, and The Last Hellion were also selected for purchase. As that series was checked in GOBI, both titles from Chase’s latest series The Dressmakers, Scandal Wears Satin and Silk is for Seduction, were also identified as available in hardcover, albeit in large print format. While that latest series had not initially been a high priority for purchase, the fact that the titles were available as hardcover upgraded its position. The fact that they could be ordered as part of the regular ordering process also meant less work for the Acquisitions department. As the semester unfolded, authors who met the initial criteria and had released new titles, especially in hardcover, were purchased, including Elizabeth Lowell, Jayne Ann Krentz, Debbie Macomber, and Sandra Brown.

The final way that serendipity played a role in building the popular romance novel collection was through gift books. The remainder shelves at local book stores became very useful collecting tools as well. Many popular authors’ current but not latest releases can be found on these remainder shelves for under $5.00 for a hardback book. While this might not be a consistent long-term collection development strategy, it did provide an initial cost effective way to add books to the collection. The books were purchased and then donated to the University Libraries as a gift. Jayne Ann Krentz, J.R. Ward, and Suzanne Brockman’s recent but not latest titles were purchased and then added to the collection as gifts. Several Susan Elizabeth Phillips titles were obtained at thrift stores for $1.00 each in hardcover and then added to the collection as well. Although remainder shelves and thrift stores are non-traditional sources for building an academic library collection, they will likely continue to be utilized in the future as a cost-effective way to add more titles to the collection. Similarly, as word of the collection was shared, fellow librarians and others began asking if their romance novels would be useful for the collection. Nine Kathleen Woodiwiss titles, all hardback, were donated as gift books to the University Libraries by a fellow librarian.

During the period that Sheehan and Stevens were selecting these initial titles, Sheehan contacted another institution that was also building a popular romance collection, the Hoover Library at McDaniel College in Maryland, only 65 miles away from George Mason University. As part of the establishment of the Nora Roberts Center for American [End Page 9] Romance, the Hoover Library received funding to build a collection of popular romance novels. After Sheehan talked to Hoover Library Director Jessame Ferguson, the authors decided to try to avoid duplicate efforts in such a close geographic region. Thus, during the first year of the project, they chose not to purchase materials written by Nora Roberts due to McDaniel’s focus in collecting Roberts’ works. Although they do plan to eventually collect Nora Roberts’ titles, Sheehan and Stevens will probably leave the more exhaustive Roberts collecting to McDaniel. As the collection grows, additional collaboration between the Hoover Library at McDaniel College and the George Mason University Libraries may be appropriate. If other academic libraries choose to collect romance novels, broader collaborative efforts could be useful for avoiding duplication and allowing libraries to collectively acquire a greater number of authors’ works. A complete list of authors and titles collected by the George Mason University Libraries during the first year is available in Appendix 2.

One issue that Sheehan and Stevens also wanted to address was bibliographic access. As mentioned earlier, the Library of Congress classification can enhance “browsable” access to related secondary materials. However, since authors are generally shelved by nationality and chronological time period rather than by genre, they can be difficult to browse for, especially in larger collections. Unlike public libraries, there is no “romance” or even “popular genre” section – instead, romance authors may be scattered throughout the literature collection. In order to make it easier for students and faculty to at least find items in the catalog, Sheehan and Stevens requested that their colleagues in Cataloging add the phrase “Popular Romance Novel Collection” as part of the MARC field record, field 710, so that students and faculty would be able to use it as a keyword search string in the catalog.

Future Considerations

Although it is too early to assess the results of the first year efforts via means such as circulation records, faculty and student reactions have been positive. Sheehan and Stevens also plan to monitor Interlibrary Loan request statistics. One title that had been previously purchased prior to establishing a systematic popular romance novel collection has already been quite popular on the Interlibrary Loan circuit. In 2009, while writing Romance Authors: A Research Guide, Sheehan had needed to consult Laura London’s 1984 The Windflower, a title that had long since been out of print. Since it was not available via Interlibrary Loan, Stevens ordered the title for the University Libraries collections as a faculty request. From 2009 through 2013, The Windflower was requested 14 times through Interlibrary Loan, with five of the requests coming from college and university libraries. The University Libraries was actually unable to fulfill five of the Interlibrary Loan requests because the title was already checked out. Demand for The Windflower may go down in the future since it was re-released in 2014 (RT Book Reviews). However, the large number of Interlibrary Loan requests for The Windflower does suggest that there could be interest in the popular romance collection outside of the boundaries of the George Mason University community.

Future steps for the collection include [End Page 10]

  • Developing a formal collection development policy for the romance collection that includes author selection criteria and preferred formats as part of the overall literature collection development policy. This is important partly for the sake of continuity for future selectors.
  • Outreach to faculty and students. This could include an InfoGuide, similar to ones that the Mason Libraries already has for the Juvenile Collection.
  • Usage assessment via circulation records and Interlibrary Loan requests. Since this collection is intended to serve the long term needs of future researchers and students, it may take some time to see results.
  • Discussion with the University Libraries’ Special Collections regarding the possibility of pursuing primary source materials from popular romance authors (i.e. manuscripts, correspondence, and other materials).

For those who would like to start (or help their librarians start) an academic romance collection, here are some suggestions:

  • Look at your curriculum and programs. What classes and programs might use or need these materials? What authors and/or sub-genres are they focusing on?
  • Assess what you already have. What can you build on? (The University Libraries already had a strong secondary collection with some scattered primary sources).
  • Look at Interlibrary Loan requests data. Have many popular romance novels been requested? Is there a larger author or sub-genre pattern that you can identify?
  • Identify colleagues and other allies that can help you make a case for establishing a collection.
  • Consider what the purpose of the collection would be. What special format issues might come up? Would you allow the titles to be requested via Interlibrary Loan?
  • How can you help patrons access the collection? Are there notations that could be added to the catalog records?
  • Look to see what other libraries in your area are doing (including public library research branches), and how their efforts might overlap, or, alternately, complement yours.


Many academic libraries are already starting to collect literary scholarship on popular romance novels. This is a significant development. However, only purchasing the scholarship and not the primary texts themselves does a disservice to the researchers and students studying the genre. Imagine a library, for instance, that collected literary scholarship written about Eugene O’Neill, but not The Iceman Cometh. Such a situation is currently the case for popular romance at many academic libraries. Although there is a vital place for popular romance Special Collections (just as there is for Eugene O’Neill Special Collections), circulating popular romance collections can also play a vital role in promoting [End Page 11] teaching and scholarship. In effect, it would mean treating popular romance novels like any other literary genre currently in circulating collections. Popular romance would not be the first popular genre to be treated so; over the past several decades, science fiction and other popular genres have slowly become more readily available in libraries as their scholarship has developed. The same should be true for popular romance.

Although it is unlikely that any one research library would have the funds, let alone the space, to comprehensively collect all of the popular romance authors that might be needed by future researchers, libraries can at least collect a limited number of authors based on their own curricular and faculty needs. Alternately, they could choose a few local authors to focus on. Groups of libraries could also work together in a complementary fashion. Doing so will ensure future researchers access and enable future scholarship. [End Page 12]

Appendix 1: Popular Romance Novels Collection Development Proposal

To:       Head, Collection Development & Preservation

From:  Sarah E. Sheehan
Liaison Librarian, College of Health & Human Services

Re:       Popular Romance Novels Collection Development Proposal

Date:   October 30th, 2013

I propose that the University Libraries collect popular romance novels in a considered and systematic way. As with all genre fiction, the study of popular romance novels has been increasingly recognized as a serious scholarly pursuit. Examples of this, include classes taught at multiple universities, consistent and ongoing programing at the Popular Culture Association conference, a scholarly, peer reviewed, open access journal (Journal of Popular Romance Studies), and at least three scholarly symposia held in the last four years.

The English Department currently offers several classes on popular genres including a class on marriage plots and a 200 level survey class on popular romance novels. Professor Jessica Mathews has been very supportive in suggesting titles and is an active scholar studying the popular romance novel genre. As more faculty find popular romance novels a valid area of study, it becomes important that the University Libraries be able to support that research.

In addition, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media in partnership with Library of Congress Center for the Book, the American Library Association and others is sponsoring the Popular Romance Project ( The Popular Romance Project will include a feature length film funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Brandeis University and others, as well as a website supported by the Center for History & New Media. In 2015, the Library of Congress Center for the Book will host an academic symposium on the past and future of the popular romance novel. Moreover, the American Library Association will host a traveling exhibit and a series of programs about the popular romance novel in conjunction with the Library of Congress programming.

Scholarship on the popular romance genre is a growing field and providing the actual romance novels to study the genre is important in moving the scholarship forward. The English Department, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media, the Cultural Studies Department, and the Women & Gender Studies Department could all use this collection for faculty and student research.

There is an overwhelming amount of popular romance novels published every year, and some of the most popular authors are highly prolific. Using a well-established criteria and focusing on faculty research are steps that can be taken to establish a collection that [End Page 13] provides a good representation of the genre. I would like to propose that I work with Jen Stevens, Humanities Liaison Librarian, in creating collection development criteria in order to build a research appropriate collection of popular romance novels.

Elements of the criteria will include,

  • Novels published by American and International romance novel authors from the 20th and 21st century.
  • Select novels from all the RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award winners.
  • Collecting influential novels listed on the All About Romance and The Romance Reader Top 100 lists.
  • A limited number of category novels. Category novels are the short novels that are written for a specific book line. An example is the Harlequin Romantic Suspense novels will focus much more on mystery and adventure than other Harlequin lines.
  • Hardback or trade paper formats are preferred, but novels that are only available in mass market paperback may also be added to the collection. [End Page 14]

Appendix 2: Popular Romance Novels Purchased for 2013/2014

Author Title
Amanda Quick Second Sight
Jayne Ann Krentz White Lies
Jayne Ann Krentz Sizzle and Burn
Amanda Quick The Third Circle
Jayne Ann Krentz Running Hot
Amanda Quick The Perfect Poison
Jayne Ann Krentz Fired Up
Amanda Quick Burning Lamp
Jayne Castle Midnight Crystal
Jayne Ann Krentz In Too Deep
Amanda Quick Quicksilver
Jayne Castle Canyons of the Night
Jayne Ann Krentz Wildest Dreams
Balogh, Mary At Last Comes Love
First Comes Marriage
Secret Affair
Seducing an Angel
Simply Love
Simply Magic
Simply Perfect
Simply Unforgettable
The Arrangement
The Escape
The Proposal
Then Comes Seduction
Brown, Sandra Deadline
Led Astray
Low Pressure
Fat Tuesday
French Silk
Not Even for Love
Where There’s Smoke

[End Page 15]

Chase, Loretta Captives of the Night
Last Hellion
Lion’s Daughter
Lord of Scoundrels
Scandal Wears Satin
Silk is for Seduction
Crusie, Jennifer Agnes and The Hitman
Anyone But You
Bet Me
Charlie All Night
Crazy for You
Dogs and Goddesses
Don’t Look Down
Faking It
Fast Women
Getting Rid of Bradley
Maybe This Time
Strange Bedpersons
Tell Me Lies
The Cinderella Deal
The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes
Trust Me On This
Welcome to Temptation
What the Lady Wants
Wild Ride
Dare, Tessa Any Duchess Will Do
Lady by Midnight
Romancing the Duke: Castles Ever After
Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright
Twice Tempted by a Rogue
Week to be Wicked
Kelly, Carla Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection
Double Cross
Enduring Light
In Love and War: A Collection of Love Stories
Marian’s Christmas Wish

[End Page 16]

Miss Billings Treads the Boards
Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career
Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand
Reforming Lord Ragsdale
Safe Passage
Lowell, Elizabeth Autumn Lover
Blue Smoke and Murder
Dangerous Refuge
Death Echo
Innocent as Sin
Only His
Only Love
Only Mine
Only You
Pearl Cove
Winter Fire
Macomber, Debbie Blossom Street Brides
Back on Blossom Street
Christmas Letters
Christmas Wishes
Good Yarn
Hannah’s List
Knitting Diaries
Shop on Blossom Street
Starting Now: A Blossom Street Novel
Summer on Blossom Street
Susannah’s Garden
Turn in the Road
Twenty Wishes
Miller, Linda Lael A Lawman’s Christmas
A McKettrick Christmas
High Country Bride
McKettrick’s Choice
McKettrick’s Heart
McKettrick’s Luck

[End Page 17]

McKettricks of Texas: Austin
McKettricks of Texas: Garrett
McKettricks of Texas: Tate
McKettrick’s Pride
Secondhand Bride
Sierra’s Homecoming
Shotgun Bride
The McKettrick Way
Women of Primrose Creek (anthology)
Phillips, Susan Elizabeth Ain’t She Sweet
Breathing Room
Call Me Irresistible
Dream a Little Dream
Fancy Pants
First Lady
Glitter Baby
Great Escape
Heaven, Texas
Honey Moon
Hot Shot
It Had to be You
Just Imagine
Kiss an Angel
Lady Be Good
Match Me If You Can
Natural Born Charmer
Nobody’s Baby But Mine
This Heart of Mind
What I Did for Love
Putney, Mary Jo Angel Rogue
Dancing on the Wind
One Perfect Rose
Petals in the Storm
River of Fire
Shattered Rainbows
Thunder and Roses
Quinn, Julia The Sum of All Kisses

[End Page 18]

Rogers, Rosemary Bound by Desire
Bride for a Night
Dark Fires
Lost Love, Last Love
Savage Desire
Scoundrel’s Honor
Sweet Savage Love
Wicked Loving Lies
Singh, Nalini Angel’s Flight
Kiss of Snow
Tangle of Need
Stewart, Mary Airs Above the Ground
Madam Will You Talk?
My Brother Michael
Nine Coaches Waiting
Rose Cottage
The Gabriel Hounds
The Ivy Tree
The Moon-Spinners
The Prince and the Pilgrim
The Stormy Petrel
Thunder on the Right
Wildfire at Midnight
Wind off the Small Isles
Stuart, Anne Black Ice
Chain of Love
Cold as Ice
Fire and Ice
Heart’s Ease
Ice Blue
Ice Storm
On Thin Ice

[End Page 19]

Silver Falls
To Love a Dark Lord
Ward, J.R. Dark Lover
Lover at Last
Lover Avenged
Lover Awakened
Lover Enshrined
Lover Eternal
Lover Mine
Lover Reborn
Lover Revealed
Lover Unbound
Lover Unleashed
Weiner, Jennifer Fly Away Home
Whitney, Phyllis A. Amethyst Dreams
Daughter of the Starts
Feather on the Moon
Golden Unicorn
Lost Island
Seven Tears for Apollo
The Quicksilver Pool
Thunder Heights
Woman Without a Past
Wiggs, Susan Just Breathe
et al More Than Words: Stories of Courage Anthology
Woodiwiss, Kathleen A Rose in Winter
A Season Beyond a Kiss
Ashes in the Wind
Come Love a Stranger
Forever in Your Embrace

[End Page 20]

Petals on the River
So Worthy My Love
The Elusive Flame
The Flame and The Flower
The Reluctant Suitor
The Wolf and The Dove

[End Page 21]


“About.” Roy Rosenszweig Center for History and New Media. n.d. Web. 30 April 2014.

“Laura London’s The Windflower to Be Reissued in 2014.” RT Book Reviews. 12 November 2013. Web. 18 April 2014.

“Literature Classification: General and Canadian.” Queens Library University. 20 April 2004. Web. 17 November 2014.

“Teaching Popular Romance.” Teach Me Tonight: Musings on Romance Fiction From an Academic Perspective. n. d. Web. 22 April 2014.

“Top 100 Romances Poll November 2013.” All About Romance. n.d. Web. 30 April 2014.

All About Romance: The Back Fence for Lovers of Romance Novels. n.d. Web. 30 October 2014.

Alsop, Justine. “Bridget Jones Meets Mr. Darcy: Challenges of Contemporary Fiction.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 33.5 (2007): 581-585. Web. 2 April 2014.

Baltimore County Public Library Blue Ribbon Committee. Give ‘Em What They Want!: Managing the Public’s Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 1992. Print.

Berlatsky, Noah. “I’m a Guy Who Loves Romance Novels – and Jennifer Weiner is Right About Reviews.” Salon. 21 April 2014. Web. 21 April 2014.

Bosman, Julie. “Lusty Tales and Hot Sales: Romance Novels Thrive as E-Books.” New York         Times. 8 December 2010. Web. 20 November 2014.

Brownson, Charles W. “Contemporary Literature.” English and American Literature: Sources and Strategies for Collection Development. Eds. William McPheron, Stephen Lehmann, Craig Likness, and Marcia Pankake. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1987. 102-126. Print.

Burcher, Charlotte, Neil Holland, Andrew Smith, Barry Trott, and Jessica Zellers. “The Alert Collector: Core Collections in Genre Studies: Fantasy Fiction 101.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 48.3 (2009): 226-231. Web. 2 April 2014.

Clark, Dennis. “Lending Kindle E-book Readers: First Results from the Texas A&M University Project.” Collection Building 28:4 (2009): 146-149. Print.

Crutcher, Wendy. “Little Miss Crabby Pants Fires The Canon.” The Misadventures of Super Librarian. 22 April 2014. Web. 22 April 2014.

Crutcher, Wendy. The Misadventures of Super Librarian. n.d. Web. 30 October 2014.

Dewan, Pauline. “Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Researching Collection Now More Than Ever.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 17 (2010): 44-64. Print.

Flesch, Juliet. “Not Just Housewives and Old Maids.” Collection Building 16.3 (1997): 119-124. Web. 18 April 2014.

Funderburk, Amy. Romance Collections in North Carolina Public Libraries: Are All Genres Treated Equally? MA Paper. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2004. Web. 18 April 2014.

George Mason University, Banner Registration System. George Mason University. n.d. Web. 18 April 2014.

Goldman, Crystal. “Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012). Web. 24 April 2014.

Love in the Margins. n.d. Web. 30 October 2014.

[End Page 22]

Matthews, Jessica. “Why Women Read Romance Syllabus.” n.d. Web. 18 April 2014.

Queer Romance Month: Because Love is not a Subgenre. n.d. Web. 17 November 2014.

Ramage, Lexie. “Students Read Up on Romance In Unique English Course.” Fourth Estate. 21 March 2011. Web. 8 April 2014.

Ramsdell, Kristin. “Romance Reviews: Second Time Around.” Library Journal. 15 February 2014. Web. 8 April 2014.

Read-A-Romance-Month: Celebrate Romance. n.d. Web. 31 October 2014.

Romance Writers of America. “Industry Statistics.” n.d. Web. 24 April 2014.

Romance Writers of America. “NWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Awards.” n.d. Web. 24 April 2014.

Selinger, Eric. “The Berlatsky Affair, Part 2.” Teach Me Tonight: Musings on Romance Fiction From an Academic Perspective. 27 April 2014. Web. 27 April 2014.

Sheehan, Sarah E. Romance Authors: A Research Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2010. Print.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: All of the Romance, None of the Bullshit. n.d. Web. 31 October 2014.

Smith, Rochelle and Nancy J. Young. “Giving Pleasure Its Due: Collection Promotion and Readers’ Advisory in Academic Libraries.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.6 (2008): 520-526. Web. 2 April 2014.

Wyatt, Neal; Georgine Olson; Kristin Ramsdell; Joyce Saricks, and Lynne Welch. “The Alert Collector: Core Collections in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 47.2 (2007): 120-126. Web. 2 April 2014.

[End Page 23]


Love in the Digital Library: A Search for Racial Heterogeneity in E-Books
by Renee Bennett-Kapusniak and Adriana McCleer

[End Page 1]

Introduction and Background

The romance genre is one of the bestselling genres in the United States (US). It is also the largest genre read in e-book (electronic book) format in the consumer market (RWA). An e-book format, for the purpose of this study, is defined as Adobe PDF, Mobipocket, Adobe EPUB, OverDrive Read and Kindle library downloads (OverDrive). The discovery of e-books and the growth of e-reading is rapidly increasing as more materials become available online and accessible on different technological devices. With this growth in e-reading, the demand for a diverse range of titles in e-book format is increasing. OverDrive, a global digital system that distributes e-books and other multimedia, offers the primary source for e-book library downloads. The Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC) currently has an OverDrive digital library (DL) of electronic materials for Wisconsin residents.

This exploratory case study examines how Wisconsin public libraries’ digital collections present a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by reviewing multicultural romance genre e-book title records in the WPLC digital library. Within this context, the study addresses the following questions: Do public libraries’ digital collections present a diversity of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their distinct service communities? What is the accessibility of these e-books within the digital system? This study analyzes the availability (number of titles, copies and holds) of the books as well as their accessibility (language selection and classification of titles) within the WPLC digital library system, determining whether the DL was supplying racially and ethnically diverse romance titles in e-book format and whether the e-books were accessible to potential users. The study also examines whether the DL is increasing the amount of these e-books in the collection to assist in the demand for the popular romance genre.

Romance Fiction and Multicultural Romance Fiction

Romance fiction has developed and expanded as a genre since its early beginnings. It is, by definition, a genre of literature that presents a fictional or legendary love story, tale, or prose narrative, which may include heroism, chivalry, adventure, and mysterious and/or supernatural elements (Merriam­-Webster). Romance fiction writing and leisure reading has been a popular activity for centuries. Subgenres include historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense, westerns, inspirational/religious, fantasy, and young adult romance (RWA). Romance novels specifically focus on relationships. They may contain varying sensuality degrees, from sweet to extremely hot (Bouricius 3-11). Readers can become involved on an emotional level with the story’s characters, experiencing a journey to a “Happily Ever After” that makes them feel satisfied at the end (Radway 61; Wendell 8). [End Page 2] Romance fiction has traditionally presented homogeneous representations of White, non-Hispanic characters, cultural traditions, and social values.

Multicultural romance fiction includes works written by authors who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska native, and/or Asian. It also includes romance fiction that depicts characters of color or indigenous characters and culturally diverse narratives, either by authors from that same racial/ethnic group or not (Bostic 214). The representations of characters of color or indigenous characters vary within romance fiction (and among other genre fiction), ranging from one-dimensional, stereotypical characters to characters with three-dimensional depth and realistic characteristics. The range contains problematic stereotyping of women of color and indigenous women as hypersexual, sexually aggressive, violent, or submissive sex objects in contemporary fiction (White 1-3; Gregor xiv). Characteristics of less educated people or those from lower socioeconomic classes have often been used to add “ethnic flavor” to stories (Forster paragraph 10). Narratives that interrupt and challenge such stories introduce more positive, relevant representations, highlighting culture, empowerment of families and communities, and a range of realities (White 7). Multicultural romance encompasses a variety of cultures, with the most frequent emphasis on African American romance (Ramsdell 290).

Authors of color and indigenous authors have been writing and publishing romance works for centuries, but it has only been within the past twenty years that they have benefited professionally and financially from such publications (White). Publishing companies did not publish African American authors’ romance fiction until the 1980s and only began introducing publications representing African American characters in the 1990s (White 6). Before this time, publications with African American and American Indian characters were rare (Osborne; Gregor 175-176). The early 1990s brought a boom in multicultural romance publications, with major publishing companies establishing specific multicultural imprints. In 1991, Ballantine was the first major publishing company to establish an imprint specifically focusing on multicultural books of “African-American, Asian, Latin, and Native American interest” (One World). In 1994, Kensington established “Arabesque Books,” an imprint focusing on African American romances (Osborne; White), and in 1999, “Encanto,” a line of “Hispanic contemporary romances.” The “Arabesque” imprint was sold to B.E.T. in 1998, which prohibited Kensington from publishing competing books. After this limitation was lifted, Kensington launched “Dafina” in 2000 “by and about people of the African descent” (Publishers Weekly, “Kensington Returns to African-American Market,” 1; Kensington Publishing Corp.). Furthermore, Harlequin developed Kimani Press, a division publishing mainstream fiction predominantly featuring African American characters, in 2005. Kimani now includes five distinct imprints (Harlequin; Reid). Harlequin also publishes Spanish translations in their “Bianca” and “Deseo” lines, which are popular romance novels written by White, non-Hispanic authors, featuring White, non-Hispanic characters (Engberg 237). Independent publishing companies have likewise committed to the publication of multicultural romance novels. Genesis Press, established in 1993, is the largest privately owned African American publishing company in the US. It has expanded to produce eight distinct imprints as well as classic and new books that are translated into Kiswahili. Parker Publishing is a small publishing company that was developed in 2005 to create literature for “Black and multi-ethnic readers,” including the Fire Opal line of publications (Parker Publishing). [End Page 3]

Encounters with literature that reflects one’s own experience, familiar settings, or recognizable themes can be empowering and validating. Encounters with literature that portrays a diverse range of representations and narratives can expand individuals’ worldviews. Librarians have the opportunity and the responsibility to facilitate such encounters by developing collections that portray diverse perspectives and representations, regardless of the local community (Bostic 216). Van Fleet in 2003 addressed the lack of diversity in popular fiction library collections by recognizing the failure to understand popular literature’s impact on social and personal validation (70). Library materials need to reflect the diversity of their service communities and present a diversity of ideas. These goals can be fulfilled through the development and maintenance of an e-book DL.

E-Books in Public Libraries

E-books range in format variety and are downloaded on an e­-reader or other technological device (Pawlowski 58). While the first e-book became available in 1971 via the Internet DL Project Gutenberg, e-book commercialization in the late 1990s was a turning point for their current ubiquity and popularity (Galbraith). Downloadable audiobook availability in 2004 helped spur librarians’ interest in providing access to e-books in public libraries (Pawlowski 55). NetLibrary became the first e-book lending platform for libraries in 1998 (Galbraith), while current library e-book vendors include Baker & Taylor Axis 360, EBSCO eBooks, Gale Virtual Reference Library, Ingram MyiLibrary, OverDrive, ProQuest ebrary, and 3M Cloud Library (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 4). OverDrive is the highest ranked vendor for e-book services in libraries by ReadersFirst, a group of 292 library systems working to improve e-book access and services for public library users (3-6). OverDrive offers the most e-book format options for libraries (Pawlowski 61). Adobe EPUB, or “electronic publication,” is the current industry standard for e-books as developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (Pawlowski 58-59). These e-books are accessible via e-readers, computers, handheld mobile devices, and tablets (Griffey 8; Library of Congress).

E-book popularity has been increasing in the last few years. There was triple digit growth in 2011 of e-­book discovery and online readers due to the expanding use of digital devices and consumer awareness (Burleigh). E-book collections and overall demand have stabilized, yet a 2013 public library survey reported that e-book circulation in libraries has continued to rise (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 3). Keeping note of item usage can show how popular the item has been among users over a period of time (Wolfram 169). A 2012 Pew study of e-book usage illustrated that 21 percent of the American population has read an e­-book (Rainie et al.). The most popular genre read in e-book downloads is romance (Veros 303). In 2011, OverDrive’s data from over five million users indicated romance was one of the top four genres searched in a DL (Reid). Libraries need to understand user habits to connect them to digital content (Menchaca 109).

Library development and maintenance of digital and print collections provides a diverse range of materials and formats for all users. Results from a 2013 PEW study indicates more than half of American participants definitely want more e-books offered as a library service (Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell). With the increase in e-book availability and popularity, public library collection practices have changed to include print and digital [End Page 4] content (Bailey 57). Findings from a 2013 study showed that 89 percent of public libraries offer e-books to their patrons and a majority (also 89 percent) expect their e-book circulation to increase within the next year (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey,”3). A study tracking e-book circulation from 2004-2010 at the New York Public Library (NYPL) depicts an increase in patrons and e-book usage, with e-book usage disproportionately higher. A 2009-2010 NYPL e-book study showed that usage rose 37 percent and reported that library e-book users read digital content repeatedly (Platt 252). Libraries need to refine e-book services to accommodate users’ interests and needs. Public libraries provide collections of popular digital materials by working with a commercial vendor, rather than through a direct relationship with publishers (Pawlowski 56), which can present a cumbersome user experience (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 3). A PEW survey comparing e-book and print titles revealed 50 percent of library e-book borrowers feel there are long waiting lists and a lack of novel titles in e-book formats (Rainie and Duggan). While few studies have examined public libraries’ e-book services (Platt; Rainie and Duggan; Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell), none specifically analyze racial and ethnic diversity within a public library’s e-book collection. This study explores diversity in the popular e-romance genre.

Library Policies and Philosophies

The Wisconsin state legislature’s policy for libraries states that libraries need to provide free access to information, a diversity of ideas, and knowledge, as well as providing electronic delivery of information, in order to maintain eligibility for state aid (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Wisconsin Statutes 43.00(a-b); Wisconsin Statutes 43.24(f-m)). Local policies and professional ethics drive public librarians’ commitment to providing materials that respond to community interests and needs, including racial, ethnic, and linguistic relevance and format interests.

The American Library Association Code of Ethics provides normative ethical guidelines for library and information professionals, beginning with, “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests” (“Code of Ethics”). This principle recognizes the profession’s commitment to serving all library users with equitable access, without distinction based on race or ethnicity. Librarians have the opportunity as well as the obligation to provide encounters with e-books that reflect their diverse communities’ experiences and portray a diverse range of narratives with the potential to expand their worldviews.

E-book collection development

The WPLC mission is to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). The Digital Library Steering Committee manages the WPLC digital library, including the development of policy and budget recommendations approved by the Board, decision-making for daily operations of the DL, and the establishment and management of a Selection Committee tasked with selecting materials for the DL. It is led by a member-selected Chair and membership is [End Page 5] comprised of one Board representative and one or more representatives from each partner, based on annual investment (Gold et al., “Members,” 2012).

The WPLC has a Digital Media Vendor/Product Selection Committee of eight members representing public library systems, individual libraries, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Wisconsin Interlibrary Services. This committee surveys the marketplace for products to support digital media material distribution in public libraries, develops criteria for WPLC vendor selection and contracts, and recommends a purchasing strategy for digital media to the WPLC Board (Bend et al. “Digital Media Vendor”). In 2011, the Vendor Selection Committee reported an “awareness of the inadequacy of the WPLC E-Book collection to cope with current demand” and a commitment to focus on offering “a rich collection of E-Books to public library patrons” (Bend et al. “Vendor Selection Committee”). The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning organized an E-book Summit in 2012, which spurred WPLC organization of a statewide initiative to pool funds and purchase $1 million of e-books and audiobooks (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). As of 26 April 2014, the WPLC digital library collection contains 9,433 romance e-book items, which has steadily increased by 505 items over the past two months.


            The researchers in this study investigated how the WPLC digital library collection presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflects the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by conducting an exploratory case study with targeted searches for multicultural romance e-book authors and book titles in the WPLC digital library. A case study method was chosen to examine and better understand (Stake “Case Studies” 237) this particular DL and was the first phase of a longitudinal examination (Glesne 22). Future phases will include triangulation of multiple sources of evidence to validate findings (Stake “The Art of Case Study Research” 45).

Wisconsin Demographics

            Out of the 5.6 million residents of Wisconsin, 878,000, or 15.5 percent, self-identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native in 2010 (United States Census Bureau). Within this group, 6.3 percent of Wisconsin Census respondents identified as Black or African American, 5.9 percent identified as Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), 2.3 percent identified as Asian, and 1 percent identified as American Indian or Alaska Native (see Fig.1). Additionally, 2.4 percent self-identified as some other race and 1.8 percent identified as two or more races. [End Page 6]

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010.

Wisconsin Public Library Consortium

The WPLC was formed in 2000 as a partnership of eight library systems and now includes 17 libraries and systems, covering almost all public libraries within the state (Gold et al. “For Patrons”; “Members”). WPLC focuses on increasing public access to information technology and digital materials through research, development, public awareness, library staff training, and public library cooperation (Gold et al. “About”). Advantages of consortium partnerships are vendor discounts, access to a larger breadth of titles, and less local spending on bestsellers that may quickly lose interest (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Schwartz, “OverDrive Data,” 6). The WPLC Collection Development Policy states its intention to “portray different viewpoints, values, philosophies, cultures, and religions in order to serve the varied statewide community” (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2).

Selection Process

The general descriptors for race and ethnicity by the US Census Bureau that are used as categories for exploration of multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library are Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native. The researchers use the term multicultural to represent the collective racial and ethnic groups throughout this paper. The researchers explored a [End Page 7] variety of romance websites, wikis, and books to select a range of racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles to include in the study.

The Reader’s Advisor Online website is based on the “Genreflecting Advisory Series,” a print book series published by Linworth Libraries Unlimited which is designed to help library staff with readers’ advisory, reference, and collection development in various fiction genres (Maas et al. “About”). The modular tab “Sample Core Collection” provides a recommendation list for basic romance collections, which includes a section for “ethnic/multicultural” authors and book titles organized under headings of “African American,” “Asian,” “Latino,” and “Native American (sometimes called ‘Indian’ in the trade)” (Maas et al. “Sample Core Collection”). The listing includes 31 authors, though the list might be used as a guide to be adapted and expanded to respond to the libraries’ specific needs. The modular tab “Publishers” lists trends in romance publishing and provides detailed information about various publishing companies and imprints, including Ballantine, Fawcett, One World, Genesis, Arabesque and Kensington (Maas et al. “Publishers”). The RT Book Reviews website is based on the RT Book Reviews Magazine that feature reviews of romance novel published along with blogs, news, awards, upcoming releases and themed booklists (Romance, “RT Book Reviews”). The website lists two themed (Asian and Native American) titles and a list of titles by author as recommended reads in 1999 and 2001 respectively (RT Book Reviews Themes: “Asian”; “Native American”). The All About Romance website consists of reviews, blogs, lists and features from readers and romance writers. The website offers a compiled list of Native American titles and authors from 2001-2007 (“American Indian Romances”). The Goodreads website includes options for a reader to find and share books as well as to create an account to keep track of personal books wanted or read (Chandler). Under the modular tab “Genre” is African American Romance, consisting of Most read this week titles tagged African American Romance and Popular African American romance books (“African American Romance”). These books are compilations from reader tags where contributors review books and place information on the website. The RomanceWiki website is based on the premise of Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute to the website., a leading literary blog, produces it. The website contains a range of information, featuring romance history and today’s leading romance bestsellers as well as reviews, books, publishers, authors, and articles of the romance genre (Simpson). Different categories in the RomanceWiki include information on titles, authors and publishers under the different category names. The categories examined on the website were African American, Chica Lit, Cuban-American Authors, Interracial Romance, Latina, Latina Lit, and Multi-Cultural (“Romance Sub-Genres”). The authors and book titles from these resources are categorized for inclusion in this study.


Study results were analyzed by examining the history (Huberman and Miles 436) of the collection, including availability and accessibility of titles within the WPLC. Data was then scrutinized for underlying themes or patterns and clustered into meaningful groups (Creswell 101). [End Page 8]


A total of 151 individual authors in the study identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native; or as authors who write multicultural romance fiction. A total of 153 individual book titles were identified as Black or African American romance book titles, Hispanic or Latina/o romance book titles, Asian romance book titles with settings in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, or historical and contemporary American Indian romance book titles. The researchers searched for each author and title individually in the WPLC digital library between 12 February 2014 and 26 April 2014. Keyword searches were conducted for authors’ names and book titles. Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks by selected authors.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

The results of these searches returned records for individual author titles and records for multiple author titles. In some cases, the catalog had multiple records of the same title, such as when WPLC digital library purchased copies of a title and partner libraries purchased additional copies of the same title for exclusive use by their local library cardholders. Additionally, 29.8 percent of the authors had e-book titles (see Fig. 2) and 15.7 percent of the individual book titles were available in e-book format within the WPLC digital library (see Fig. 3). [End Page 9]

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Data for each search includes the number of e-book titles present in the WPLC digital library; the number of copies of each title, the number of holds on each title, and the number of available copies of each title (see Fig. 4). Additional data includes subject headings (e.g., romance, fiction, African American fiction, historical fiction, urban fiction) and e-book format (e.g., Kindle, Overdrive, Adobe EPUB, Adobe PDF).

Racial or ethnic group Author Number of titles Number of copies of each title Number of holds on each title Number of available copies of each title
Black or African American Alers, Rochelle 18 2

Figure 4: Example of monthly data collection.

Additionally, the researchers found that in February 2014, at least 10.3 percent of the WPLC romance e-book collection was multicultural romance e-books, and in April 2014, 10.2 percent of the total romance collection was multicultural romance e-books. The total of multicultural romance e-book records (i.e., individual authors, individual titles, and titles by multiple authors) in the collection in February 2014 was 430 items and 926 copies, which increased by 19 items and 41 copies over the two-month study period. There [End Page 10] were likely additional multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library that were not found in this study because of the limited selection of multicultural romance authors and book titles.

The WPLC digital library provides a range of formats for the multicultural romance e-books. The e-books are available in four different formats, Kindle, Overdrive READ, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF. The findings reveal the first three formats presented balanced numbers, while the lowest availability was in Adobe PDF format. The Library of Congress states that a PDF format is widely used among individuals, so e-books presented in Adobe PDF might be accessible to a greater population. However, there can be limitations with Adobe PDF because the fixed layout can make it difficult to adjust text size. The WPLC digital library provides a balanced number of options, facilitating access to the multicultural romance e-books for current and potential users.

The researchers found that there were an adequate number of copies of multicultural romance e-books available to respond to user interest and appeal to potential users. Most of the multicultural romance titles listed two copies available at a time. One person may check out a copy of the title for seven to twenty-one days, depending on the format. All items are available for at least seven days and Kindle, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF may be checked out for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one days (WPLC). If an item is not available, users may place a hold on the item that prompts the system to send an alert when the item is returned by the previous user and available for checkout. Using NVivo data analysis software, the researchers conducted a text query for all holds and found that 82.6 percent had zero holds on the item, while the next highest holds were one (6.2 percent) and two (2.1 percent). The highest hold was eighty-one, but that was on a single item in one month. This outlier might have affected the results, which show that 78 percent of the holds are on American Indian records (see Fig. 5).


Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Data in February 2014 (see Fig. 5) depicted that the majority of the multicultural romance copies are Black or African American romance e-books. This aligns with Ramsdell’s point that there is a current emphasis on African American romances over other [End Page 11] racial or ethnic representations (290). The majority of the multicultural romance e-book titles are Black or African American, which is not proportionate to the percentage of Hispanic or Latina/o residents in Wisconsin. Further, each racial/ethnic category is diverse (e.g., nationality, culture, language, and religion) which may or may not be represented within the findings. For example, the majority of Wisconsin residents who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o also identify as Mexican (72.8 percent), followed by Puerto Rican (13.5 percent) (United States Census Bureau). These findings do not reveal the specific representation of distinct racial and ethnic groups in Wisconsin.

Item availability and holds influence the other, meaning if there are holds on the items, their availability decreases. Within the WPLC, the availability and hold status for each item is quite fluid and can change at any given time because the DL is a consortium of 17 libraries with library cardholders accessing the system 24/7. For example, this study shows a significant difference between the relatively low number and availability of American Indian books and the high number of holds for this category. This may be because of the mainstream popularity of authors who primarily write about White, non-Hispanic characters, and happen to have one or more books with characters who are American Indian. This may also simply be because American Indian stories were particularly popular at the time of the study. Romance readers can be loyal and may want to read everything by their favorite author (Bouricius 29) or might pick up a certain book because it is what they want to read at that particular time. This data is a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-books from February to April 2014. When comparing the three total data sets with the same totals compiled over the following two months, the researchers found there was not a significant increase or decrease in the percentage of total number of copies, item availability, or the number of holds with the percentage range of 5 percent or less for all of the racial and ethnic categories. More research needs to be undertaken to explore the data sets over a longer period to determine if the data remains constant within each racial and ethnic category.


Digital library materials need to be accessible to users with a range of information seeking behavior. A library user’s information needs, interests, and information seeking behavior can vary due to “cultural experiences, language, level of literacy, socioeconomic status, education, level of acculturation and value system” (Liu 124). In addition to exploring the availability of multicultural romance e-books, the researchers conducted advanced searches to investigate the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books. These searches were for all romance e-books available in languages other than English, and all romance e-books under the subject headings, “Multi-Cultural” and “African American Fiction.” Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks.

The WPLC digital library collection offers a minimal selection of romance e-books in languages other than English and the DL interface does not accommodate users that speak languages other than English. In February 2014, the collection contained 11 Spanish romance e-book title records, which increased by four items over the following two months. A German language romance e-book was added in March. While the WPLC digital library also contains materials in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Russian, Swahili, and Swedish, there were no romance e-book titles [End Page 12] found in those respective languages. The DL interface is in English and does not offer any options to change the interface to any other language. The advanced search tools provide access to the limited number of materials in languages other than English, yet access to this search tool is restricted by the tools’ exclusive English accessibility. The records that contain words or names in languages other than English are not consistently precise in their presentation. For example, the Latina author Caridad Piñeiro, a.k.a. Caridad Piñeiro Scordato, is listed as “Caridad Pineiro” and “Caridad Pi¤eiro,” neither record accurately representing the ñ in her name. These factors limit the accessibility for users that speak languages other than English or records for materials containing words or names in languages other than English. At the February 2014 WPLC Digital Library Steering Committee Meeting, members agreed on the future discussion item “Multi language interface: Selecting titles in languages other than English” (Gold et al. “Steering Committee Minutes”). Improvement in this area might make the multilingual materials accessible to users that speak and read languages other than English.

The limited subject headings to classify materials within the WPLC digital library present barriers to accessing racially and ethnically diverse romance e-books. The researchers found an advanced search limited to subject headings “Multi-Cultural” and “Romance” returned zero titles between February and April 2014. Only one subject heading, “African American Fiction,” was used to identify racial or ethnic subjects within romance e-books materials. The only other relevant subject heading, “Multi-Cultural”, was not attached to any of the romance e-books. Print materials need to be physically arranged within a particular section of the library, while digital materials such as e-books do not have such limitations. Additional subject headings might increase the accessibility of digital materials. For example, classifications of the Latina/o romance e-books subject headings were limited to Fiction, Romance, Suspense, Short Stories, Erotic Literature, Fantasy, and Western. There is an invisibility of the range of racial and ethnic diversity represented within the DL collection that is a barrier to the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.


Access and general issues

System usability is important in the discovery of and access to e-books. If a user is discouraged or disappointed with a search, it can lead to unsuccessful interactions with the system, leaving users unsatisfied (Xie 140). As stated earlier, accessing information from a DL can be challenging for users since some users are familiar with a traditional library of print books on shelves to browse titles (Lesk 204). This poses challenges for libraries to design an accessible system interface since there are many complexities to making digital items available and readily accessible for the online user (Van Riel, Fowler and Downes 244). Further research is needed to examine if the design of the WPLC digital library is a factor in current and potential users’ barriers to e-book access.

There can be additional accessibility issues that hinder users’ interactions with a system. These barriers are not covered in the scope of this study, but are explained briefly [End Page 13] here. Being a novice or expert user can determine the success a user experiences when searching in an online system. Users can have more difficulty finding or retrieving desired information if they have less experience with the system. In addition, a user’s information literacy or digital literacy skills can determine how well the user accesses materials within an online system. The fewer skills users have in understanding how to use a system, the less successful the interaction. Another possible issue is connectivity. Users might not have broadband access at home due to lack of infrastructure or affordability. Internet accessibility issues directly affect users’ access to online systems. If users have limited access to the Internet at home, they might rely on institutions, such as public libraries, to provide the access they need to find information.

Relationships between libraries and vendors

Publishers’ licensing agreements and commercial vendors’ policies limit the number and range of e-books. In 2013, “half of the big six publishers did not allow their e-books to be licensed by public libraries. Since then, Penguin has stated they will begin licensing e-books to OverDrive” (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 5). The WPLC Collection Development Policy explains how the selection criteria is based on the availability of titles from vendors (2), since some titles are not accessible for acquisition as a result of publishers’ limitations on digital editions of titles or limited embargos on new titles. The publishers might unexpectedly pull other titles from the collection (3). There are additional limitations on the DL collection from commercial vendors. OverDrive allows independent authors to submit titles for inclusion in DLs only if they have at least ten titles available. If authors have fewer books, it is recommended they work with an aggregator who can represent the independent authors as a collective. WPLC digital library contracts with OverDrive to follow these policies. If a local author wishes to add an e-book to the collection, it must be made available to all OverDrive DLs in the US. This can be beneficial to authors since Zickuhr et al. explained that 41 percent of users who read a library e-book are more likely to purchase their most recent e-book. However, OverDrive’s policies present independent authors barriers to making their works available. The option for libraries to increase their collections with items from individual authors can increase the collection by satisfying the demand for more titles, user-requested titles, and more multicultural romance titles by authors who are not represented by large publishing companies.

Commercial vendors hold the control over DL interface design and subject heading maintenance, which limits libraries’ system management. The vendors determine the options for e-book content and management systems for necessary or optional adoption by the contracted libraries. For example, in 2013, OverDrive announced its multilingual interface options in French Canadian, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish with plans to develop Japanese, Traditional Chinese, and additional language options. It was not possible for individual libraries to provide a multilingual interface before it was available through OverDrive. Additionally, libraries cannot customize the subject headings of their own DL collection records. The options to add or remove subject headings for specific titles through OverDrive is possible, yet it is necessary for OverDrive to receive multiple recommendations for subject heading changes before they make global changes to the record (OverDrive Partners). Collective groups of librarians, like ReadersFirst, work to improve users’ e-book access and public library services by addressing barriers to access to [End Page 14] e-books because of external issues related to publishing companies and commercial vendors.


The greatest barrier to developing or expanding e-book collections has been funding limitations, although there has been a lack of interest in some cases (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 3). Ashcroft mentions how licensing and costs are issues that continue to be a problem in regards to library e-books (405). While financial constraints can leave libraries in a dilemma, multicultural fiction might not be considered a “special” acquisition, since these might be the first items omitted during budget cuts (Bostic 210). Multicultural fiction might be a constant component of libraries’ offerings that requires careful selection and maintenance. A 2013 survey of public libraries reports 42 percent of Midwest libraries state they might purchase e-books, but it was not a priority (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 23). This data might foretell future barriers in regards to e-book collection development.

Selecting materials for a library collection involves the library, the library patrons, and an understanding of the literature available (Van Fleet 78). The WPLC Selection Committee is comprised of two representatives from each of the partner libraries, divided into 24 selectors for adult materials and 10 selectors for young adult and children’s materials (Gold et al. “Selection Committee”). According to the 2014 collection development policy, selectors refer to reviews in professional journals, lists of recommended or award-winning titles, and other selection resources to inform their decisions (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 3). Similar to recommending books to library patrons, a librarian needs to have knowledge of the literature and know what appeals to the patrons. Talking to the patrons to gain a sense of the community needs in turn guides the policy and procedures in acquiring the content for the collection (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 73). George Watson Cole points out that “the library is in existence by the grace of the public, and it is a duty to cater to all the classes that go towards making up the community in which it is established” (qtd. in Bouricius 36, emphasis in original). Community interest, anticipated interest, individual requests and reports of satisfaction related to authors, titles, or subjects, are considered important to the WPLC selectors (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). Libraries need to focus more attention on collaborative community assessments rather than library use studies alone, particularly to improve library services for racially and ethnically diverse communities (Bostic 217; Liu 131; McCleer 271). It is challenging for libraries to make an informed choice about collection development without knowing the interests, needs or concerns of the users (Ashcroft 399). Continued research needs to explore how the WPLC digital library conducts community assessment and analyses to inform their collection development.

With the popularity of the romance genre, more attention needs to be given to digital collection development of multicultural romance e-books. According to PEW in 2012, 56 percent of respondents specified that their library did not carry the e-book they wanted to borrow, which might be because the libraries are still building their digital collections (Zickuhr et al. “Libraries, Patrons and E-books.”). Moyer states libraries need to acquire different types of novels to give options to readers’ varied interests (230). Most romance readers enjoy reading a new book by their favorite author (Bouricius 47), so [End Page 15] varieties of romance novels are important to have in the collection. Beyond the limited availability and limited funds for multicultural romance fiction, acquisitions librarians must also work to select materials that present accurate representations of the diverse realities of individuals and communities of all races and ethnicities, taking care to recognize materials with subtle and overtly racist or discriminatory representations (Bostic 218). These limitations relate to users and systems that are compounded by external barriers, which affect the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.

Future Research

This study reveals the current multicultural romance e-book titles’ availability and accessibility within the WPLC digital library. Some of the challenges to diminishing availability and accessibility barriers can be addressed by the WPLC digital library. However, there are challenges presented by external sources: for example, the available subject headings can be limited by the OverDrive system and publishing companies can limit the available e-books. An advanced search in the WPLC digital library for the African American independent publishing house Genesis Press, Inc. returns only one listing. Such limited availability can be a barrier for all romance e-books and for e-books in general. Further research will distinguish the sources for such challenges as well as opportunities for improvement. Interviews with WPLC librarians, particularly Selection Committee members, might provide further insight to the barriers to selecting and purchasing multicultural romance e-books for the DL.

The racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles selected for this study were gleaned from a variety of romance websites, wikis, and books. Data analysis illustrates that some of the included authors are White, non-Hispanic authors who might have only one or two titles that include characters of color or indigenous representations, which is why they are listed in the various websites, wikis, and book resources for multicultural romances. Further research methods need to refine this selection process by removing these outliers from the data sets. The book titles need to be explored, rather than the individual authors’ comprehensive offerings in the DL. The selection in this study includes predominantly female authors. Future studies need to add male authors, such as African American authors Timmothy B. McCann, Colin Channer, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, Jervey Tervalon, E. Lynn Harris, Franklin White, and Van Whitfield (Cook 1; Rosen 38). Gay and Lesbian romance novels appeal not only to the homosexual reader but can also be of interest to heterosexual readers (Maas et al. “Gay and Lesbian Romance”). A search for “Gay/Lesbian” and “Romance” limited to e-books returns one title in the WPLC collection. Future studies need to specifically include the accessibility of various perspectives of sexuality and gender in romance e-books. Another search refinement needs to focus on how well a digital library presents complete book series (e.g., Brenda Jackson’s “Bachelors in Demand” series contains three out of the four titles).

An advanced search limited to the subject heading “Urban Fiction” resulted in 116 titles in February and increased by 13 titles over the following two months. Urban Fiction, also known as “Street Lit”, is set in a predominantly city landscape with plots delving into the realities and culture of the characters. It is traditionally a genre written by and for African Americans, though there are also urban Latino fiction novels and it is branching out into different sub-genres (Morris 2, 43). The search for urban fiction narrowed by the [End Page 16] subject heading “Romance” returned 20 titles consistently over two months. While some of these 20 titles were Black or African American romance titles, not all urban fiction romance can be categorized as multicultural romance. Further research needs to focus on this subject heading specifically within the DL.

Further studies of multicultural romance e-book accessibility needs to explore items found through the process of browsing. In 2012, OverDrive reported that nearly 60 percent of readers rely on browsing practices to encounter new e-books instead of searching for specific titles, and romance is the most popular genre for browsing (Schwartz). In this study, several items were added to the data sets because of the researchers’ browsing within the WPLC digital library, but this was not an intentional research method. A study designed around browsing digital collections might further explore multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility.

This exploratory study provides a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility in the WPLC collection. Expanding studies in this DL can give area libraries a more comprehensive understanding of the WPLC multicultural romance e-book collection and identify specific areas that need improvement or refinement. A continuation of this exploratory study to include data over an entire year will establish a record of increases or decreases of multicultural romance e-books over a significant period. This data will be beneficial to discover patterns in collection development for distinct racial and ethnic groups.


This exploratory study finds that the WPLC digital library provides a foundational collection of multicultural romance e-books, which presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and provides a general representation of the racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. In 2010, a total of 15.5 percent of Wisconsin residents identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native (United States Census Bureau), and 10.3 percent of the entire WPLC romance e-book collection were multicultural romance e-books. The findings do not precisely align with the specific racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. The multicultural romance e-books in the WPLC digital library present an adequate number and range of formats, which is beneficial to user access and appeal to potential users. The barriers to the accessibility of these items are related to language, subject headings, and system interface. Further research will explore the source of these barriers and opportunities for refinement. Overall, the WPLC has developed a solid foundation for fulfilling their mission to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats. Continued development of the multicultural romance e-book collection will enhance their public library services to all of the 5.6 million Wisconsin residents with an interest in romance fiction. [End Page 17]

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[End Page 21]


A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata
by Vassiliki Veros

Authors of romance fiction create vast economic capital but this does not necessarily lead to cultural capital. Libraries are collectors and endorsers of cultural capital evident through the selection of materials for library collections and the creation of metadata and metatexts to connect the cultural product to their user. [End Page 1]

In this article, I will be focusing on print/physical book collections and I will discuss how the practice of applying a generic “Romance” or “Mills & Boon” as the catalogue title for books on paperback display stands in libraries creates an absence of metadata which in turn prevents the interplay between cultural capital and economic capital. I explore this interplay by examining Australian cultural institutions, the readers’ advisory process and the way paratext and metadata are used as tools in cataloguing processes so as to facilitate the reader.

Matching a reader to a book is recognised as a core practice of public library work. In library practice this is referred to as readers’ advisory. “Every book has its reader” (Ranganathan 75) is the idea at the heart of Readers’ Advisory services which are user-centered. Joyce Saricks defines readers’ advisory as “patron-oriented library service for adult fiction readers. A successful readers’ advisory service is one in which knowledgeable, nonjudgmental staff help fiction readers with their reading needs” (Saricks and ebrary 2005, 1). Readers’ advisory staff work directly with their readers in delivering reading suggestions but also in developing programs and marketing collateral such as booklist pamphlets, shelf recommendations, posters and displays as well as taking part in staff training in understanding current reading trends, genre studies and service delivery. Amongst the various tools that readers’ advisory staff use to deliver services to readers, the library catalogue allows librarians to access the fiction that will deliver a satisfying service to the reader requesting assistance with their seeking of reading material. The catalogue, more so than any other reading aggregation tool, connects the user with the loan item that is held within the collection. If a book does not have a record in the catalogue, it is placed outside the resources that readers’ advisors can use. E-books remain outside of the scope of this paper as this is not a practice that extends to digital collections.

Conceptual Framework

Bourdieu explores the interrelationship between social, economic and cultural capital within fields and explores them in relation to the influence of power (Bourdieu 126). Cultural capital can be objectified, embodied and institutional. Objectified cultural capital is found in cultural objects and goods such as art, music and literature. Embodied cultural capital is knowledge, tastes and dispositions that are acquired through experiences in the context of home and family, work, community and society. Institutional capital is the capital that is recognised through official structures such as educational institutions. The bestowing of meaning on cultural objects is embodied through cultural capital—that is, the cultural capital that is created and promoted through educational and cultural institutions. Librarians engage in the creation of cultural capital through their practices of selection, cataloguing and promotion of texts deemed suitable for library collections. The authors of romance fiction create economic capital through the sales of their books. It is well documented that sales of romance fiction surpass all other fiction genres (Romance Writers of America; Ramsdell 2012, 15).

Bourdieu writes about the interdependency between the capitals: economic capital should lead to cultural capital and cultural capital to economic capital, but they are not fixed, rather they shift and are influenced by one another (Bourdieu 80). For example, “literary” fiction is bestowed cultural capital through institutions, such as the review [End Page 2] process and library collections, thus leading to economic capital. Romance fiction creates vast amounts of economic capital as it is commercially successful, yet it lacks cultural capital evidenced through the lack of literary reviews, social criticism and lack of collection (Curthoys and Docker 35; Flesch 12; Selinger 308; Ramsdell 1994, 64). Libraries are cultural intermediaries and library use “is accepted as a sign of cultural participation and an indicator of cultural capital, suggesting that libraries can be regarded as sites for the production, dissemination and appropriation of cultural capital” (Goulding 236). Libraries have various roles in society and are institutions of cultural capital. I will explore how cultural, social and economic capital co-exists and intersects in relation to libraries and romance fiction.

Romance fiction and libraries

Despite the significance of romance fiction in contemporary culture, as evidenced by sales figures that make it the most popular of all genres, writers and readers alike are routinely marginalized (Flesch 109; Brackett 347; Vivanco 114). This extends to public libraries, with incomplete catalogue records and unplanned acquisition practices.

In this paper, romance fiction refers specifically to category romance fiction defined as “works of the Mills & Boon type” (Vivanco 11). Juliet Flesch in From Australia with Love also limits her research to the books referred to as category fiction, that is, books published under a series imprint. In Australia, this has predominately been Mills & Boon. She states that “[a] problem with the study of Australian popular romance, even if one excludes from consideration – as I have done – historical romances and longer contemporary novels, is the sheer volume of material for study” (Flesch 43).

Romance novels have yet to receive critical acceptance, which perhaps will be the benchmark for gaining legitimacy from cultural institutions. There have been positive changes in the perception of the romance reader and the literary appeal of romance writing, as well as the emergence of dedicated librarians who develop romance readers’ advisory tools and guides to reading, programs, selection guides and scholarship, through to the establishment of romance fiction review sections in library trade publications (Ramsdell 2012; Adkins et al.; Charles and Linz; Mosley, Charles, and Havir; Ramsdell 1994).

In libraries, as Kristin Ramsdell has noted,

Romances tend to be haphazardly acquired (often through gifts), minimally catalogued and processed (if at all), randomly tossed onto revolving paperback racks, and weeded without thought of replacement when they fall apart (2012, 34).

This suggests that these books are not considered to possess cultural capital. Other examples of this bias abound. For example, in 2012 on the blog of Library Journal, a leading industry publication in the US, the blog’s Annoyed Librarian commented about readers, stating, “it’s also hard to feel sorry for customers who were duped into buying a ‘bad’ romance novel by a good review. After all, they’re all bad books. It’s not like people are reading romances for their literary quality” (Annoyed Librarian). To be clear, there was [End Page 3] substantial backlash from practitioners in the comments on this blog post, but the authority remains with the industry-endorsed blogger. The National Library of Australia’s blog post regarding their Mills & Boon legal deposit collection is headed with “Who’d have thought: Mills & Boon at the National Library,” carrying a tone of incredulity rather than a tone of “here is an interesting collection” that other special collections are afforded in their description on the Behind the Scenes blog (Maguire). Richard Maker, in discussing the genrefication of library spaces and the reader-centred approach, states that,

Most readers who like literary fiction are not primarily concerned with genre. They tend to be more eclectic in their tastes, therefore, the first category, ‘Literary Fiction’, overrides the second [Science-Fiction]. (In terms of the selection of books by the reader the converse is also largely true. By definition the patron who prefers only Romance novels usually has a narrower reading range) (175).

In libraries, cultural capital is recognized through practices such as cataloguing and collection development. Cataloguing involves the description of a book or other item by its author and title and can include the assigning of subject headings. In Bourdieu’s terms (471) these practices have become “doxa”. In other words, they are unquestioned and acceptable practices within the field of librarianship. Joyce Saricks identifies and discusses this library practice for paperbacks that are not catalogued other than with an accession date and barcode item. She states:

Why would you have a collection that you have no access to? The cost of adding them to the database must be far less than the staff time spent trying to find them, day after day, for patrons. Looking for uncatalogued material, which may or may not be on the shelf, is exceedingly frustrating for both staff and patrons and the collection becomes less useful. Unfortunately, many administrators fail to calculate this on-going staff time when they decide not to put items in the database (Saricks 422).

Paperback romance fiction in the past was commonly added to library collections only through donations (Flesch 59), not through a thoughtful, deliberated selection process. Though this is no longer the case for all libraries, it is a practice that is still in place. Romance fiction is not afforded full catalogue records through budgetary constraints at the detriment of the library service to the reader yet romance fiction should be afforded the same treatment as other genres (Ramsdell, 2012 37).

Cataloguing and the Interplay between Paratexts and Metadata

To understand the basis of library cataloguing practices and the creation of catalogue records conceptually, it is important to explore the levels of access to a cultural object, in particular, paratext and metadata. Gerard Genette in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation describes paratext as the material that is at the threshold of the text (2): that is, all the art, acknowledgements, prefaces, covers, advertising, distribution and intertexts [End Page 4] and interviews with the design team (publisher, author, designer) of a text. Genette says that without the paratext the reader cannot access any of the text (Genette and Maclean 261). Paratext has two elements. Epitext are the items that are attached to the actual codex, such as the cover art, blurbs, title, author and publisher information, index and contents pages. Peritext are the collateral that promotes the text, that is, author interviews, marketing and publicity materials. Genette shows how liminal devices and conventions, both within and outside the book, form part of the complex mediation between book, author, publisher, and reader.

A text also has metatextualities: that is, the metatext, which is the data and information that is developed in relation to the text by users outside of the text’s creative team. “All literary critics, for centuries, have been producing metatext without knowing” (Genette xix). Metatext is created by people such as literary critics, cataloguers and reader reviewers. Literary criticism, for example, is metatext; it cannot be controlled by the creators as it is published outside of the paratextual threshold. This is not to say that there is no communication between the paratextual team and the developers of metatext. Publishers send information to national libraries to consult on the Cataloguing-in-Publication (CIP) record and publishers send reviewers and critics copies of their books. CIP is a catalogue record that is created by national library cataloguers who receive title pages, author names, blurbs and a synopsis of the book sent by the publishing team (Intner and Weihs 5). Often, the metatext can be hard to disregard as it carries authority (Genette 339). Literary critics, reader reviews and fanfiction are all part of a novel’s metatexts as is a library catalogue record which is a book’s metadata (Van der Veer Martens 582). Metadata is structured data that supports the function of its object or text (Greenberg 1876).

Here, the concern is with the creation of a cataloguing record as metatext. Professionals in roles such as cataloguers and database administrators make high-level decisions on the information that is made available for both the end users (readers) and the intermediary (librarian), helping the reader access the text. Books have their subject headings decided upon by third parties (cataloguers), unlike metadata that is generated by the creator, for example, fanfiction whereby the creator tags their work with subject headings that are either preset or of their choice (Lawrence and schraefel 1746). Metadata is an instrumental part of a reader and a librarian accessing the items that are available in a library. This structured data acts as a resource description and discovery tool. Institutions use international standards, such as MARC/RDA records in catalogues, which subsequently are used in readers’ advisory and reference searches. Paling, in Thresholds of Access: Paratextuality and Classification, describes the cataloguing process as belonging to the paratext. Librarians, and more precisely, cataloguers, are not part of the creative process. Instead they are third parties in the selection of descriptors to be assigned to a book (Paling 134). In this process, they create access to the cultural object, thus enhancing its cultural capital.

Cataloguers are professional metadata creators because they make “sophisticated interpretative metadata-related decisions” so as to classify and give value laden attributions to content created by other individuals (Greenberg 1882). Raymond Williams in his discussion of culture notes that, “we need to consider every attachment, every value, with our whole attention; for we do not know the future, we can never be certain of what may enrich it” (363). This is particularly true for cataloguers who are creating the attachments that bring the reader to the text. The guiding ideology for cataloguing since the [End Page 5] late nineteenth century has been based on Cutter’s principle of user convenience in which “the convenience of the user must be put before the ease of the cataloguer” (Caplan and ebrary 54). Cataloguers are attributed with the ability to decide upon interests and values that need to be attached to a text they have received, whether through legal deposit requirements or through the CIP scheme available to authors and publishers pre-publication (Chapman 114). Third-party metadata is also created for items that have been selected for a library collection through outsourcing, for example, by library suppliers and not by the library staff themselves—though they would have been responsible for giving cataloguing instructions to the supplier (Edmonds 125). This metadata needs to be enriched so as to enable other library service provisions, particularly in reference and readers’ advisory services. The cataloguing decisions of a public library, whether it is in a local council, district, county or shire, differ greatly from the role of a cataloguer in a national or state library, which may indeed have a more open line of communication with a book’s creative team due to the CIP process (Genette 32; Paling 140). Using CIP data, cataloguers select suitable subject headings that are then sent back to the publisher for inclusion in the books’ paratext, i.e. on the verso of the title page. Occasionally, a publisher may request for a change of subject headings but this depends on the awareness of the author and/or publishing team in how these subject headings are created (Intner and Weihs 6).

Catalogue records exist on national bibliographic databases for published books due to a number of accepted practices between publishers and national libraries including CIP, legal deposit requirements and International Standard Book Number requests which assign a unique number to books. This core level metadata is made available for public and local libraries to download through copy cataloguing practices and for readers to search, either through their own national libraries or through World Cat—a collaborative database allowing a federated search of subscribing libraries and booksellers across the world through the one portal. Many libraries rely heavily on copy cataloguing and preexisting catalogue records can be obtained and local modifications can then be made to the record (Caplan and ebrary 57).

The catalogue record not only contributes to the creation of cultural capital: in Australia it contributes to the development of economic capital. The metadata entered into a local library management system is not only utilised for connecting a reader to a text and for staff to create resource lists, displays and programs using the materials that are held by the library, but, just as importantly, it is used as a system for administering and managing resources including copyright, digitisation schemes and payment schemes such as the public lending right. The Australian Ministry for the Arts describes Public Lending Rights (and Educational Lending Rights) as:

Cultural programs which make payments to eligible Australian creators and publishers in recognition that income is lost through the free multiple use of their books in public and educational lending libraries. PLR and ELR also support the enrichment of Australian culture by encouraging the growth and development of Australian writing (Public Lending Right Committee).

Public Lending Right is a program with which authors receive economic capital on the basis of having received endorsement by cultural institutions. That endorsement comes from the [End Page 6] cataloguing record and the record of borrowings of that item. Thus, it can be seen that it is not just the cultural object itself which is part of the interplay between cultural and economic capitals. As Pecoskie states, although the book itself is central to what she calls “the informational sphere”, following Genette and Bourdieu, it is other elements including the cataloguing record that create the links between writers and “cultural agents (including libraries)” and consequently between the cultural and the economic (Pecoskie and Desrochers 232).

It is the metadata connected to books that is instrumental in connecting authors to cultural capital and, by extension, institutionalised economic capital. The catalogue record is the form of metadata that allows readers’ advisors to promote and endorse the text that is waiting to be discovered. In the absence of any catalogue record, the text cannot be discovered. But that text cannot be discovered if the metadata does not exist. Paratextual conventions serve a functional and informational purpose as they are the access point for information (Pecoskie and Desrochers 232). Readers’ advisory services are already making some use of other aspects of the paratext in order to bring together titles that have similar characteristics (Pecoskie and Desrochers 236). These are reader appeal factors (Saricks and ebrary 2009, 40) that connect works across genres. Pecoskie writes, “Libraries can capitalize on the documented information regarding award nominations and prizes won […] in order to bring together titles that may have similar characteristics – or, to speak in cultural terms, have been deemed worthy by the application of similar criteria” (236). If there is no cataloguing record for romance fiction, there is no starting point for adding other elements of paratext, such as award status or best seller listings. If libraries do not produce metadata for romance fiction, books cannot be found as the result of a catalogue search, and they remain invisible to the readers’ advisory team and to readers. Thus, they cannot be recommended to readers and within the cultural institution of the library, their cultural capital does not increase through borrowing. And even if the books are borrowed, the lack of cataloguing records means that the borrowing of the particular book is not recorded. The loan is recorded only as a generic item. This in turn, through Public Lending Right, affects the creation of economic capital, because there is no evidence on which to base payments to these authors whose works are held in the public library.

Evidence of practice

Cataloguing records are used as the basis for recording loans of books. As already noted, in some Australian public libraries, paperbacks are often not catalogued with a full author and title entry. Instead, a record is given a generic title such “General Paperbacks” and then an accession number is given for each item that is attached to this record. This practice, which is not found in every public library, has grown out of the resistance to paperbacks since their introduction to library collections (Mosher 3). Paperbacks were seen as quick reads, disposable and many libraries chose to keep them physically separated from their hardback fiction collections as well as giving them base level accessioning.

This practice, then, identifies each book only by a number. It is no longer seen as having been created by an author; the book becomes detached from its creator. It is also detached from its title. By removing not only the author but the title and all other paratextual and metatextual elements that connect the book with its potential readers, [End Page 7] both the author and the reader cease to exist (Barthes 55). Romance fiction is a genre where name recognition is very important (Proctor 16) as readers often read an author’s oeuvre rather than a single title. In the library context, an author has to be acknowledged as it is often the most authoritative and effective way of accessing their body of work. In creative practice, Australian authors of romance fiction are aware that this practice is impacting their visibility (Veros 302).

Evidenced below are library catalogue records which show this practice. Each title has listed the number of copies attached:

Fig 1. ‘Mills and Boon 2013’: Catalogue record/retrieved 13 April, 2014

Fig 1. ‘Mills and Boon 2013’: Catalogue record/retrieved 13 April, 2014

A detailed display of the items in this record shows only the collection, shelf number and availability status of the copies:

Fig 2. Detailed display: Catalogue record/retrieved 13 April, 2014

Fig 2. Detailed display: Catalogue record/retrieved 13 April, 2014

[End Page 8] This practice is not confined simply to romance fiction, but to other paperbacks such as thrillers, westerns and Science Fiction as well, as the following example shows:

Fig 3. Catalogue record/retrieved 13 April, 2014

Fig 3. Catalogue record/retrieved 13 April, 2014

These collections are rendered even more unsearchable through the use of unnatural language for their titles. xxGeneral, xxRomance, xxPaperbacks are terms that readers will not search for when they are accessing the library catalogue.

This practice, however, sometimes leads to unexpected consequences. Public library collection management systems are being updated to include features which promote the most popular items in the library catalogue. A letter received recently shows how the practices which were intended to show that an item was not deemed an integral part of a library collection actually led unintentionally to the creation of cultural capital in a different way.

When we installed a new LMS in 2010 it had a few new features that we didn’t have in our old system. Most obvious was the box on the main catalogue search screen called ‘What are others are reading’ this box displayed the Hottest Title, Hottest Author and Hottest Subject as a teaser for readers. It wasn’t long before our library’s hottest title was established – Mills & Boon. It made the list and stayed there for months. This upset certain staff, including our manager, as they would have preferred to see ‘real’ books listed (personal communication).

The letter went on to explain that the IT team discovered that the one title kept showing up as there were large numbers of items attached to the one record.

Since they weren’t ‘real’ books that also meant they didn’t need a title, author or ISBN – just a barcode. Every single Mills & Boon we received was added to that single record – for decades. You could borrow them but you certainly couldn’t search for them as we had no idea what titles we actually had. And [End Page 9] borrow them people did – Mills & Boon books are one of our highest turnover items and as they all linked to the same record it was a clear winner in terms of loans (personal communication).

The concern of the manager and other staff was that they didn’t want their library web page to show that “Mills & Boon” was their highest loaned item as they wanted a variety of titles showing up on the “Hottest Title” lists.

The issue was finally resolved by ‘blocking’ that record from the display list so ‘real’ book titles could be displayed. There was (and still is) great resistance to actually cataloguing individual Mills & Boon titles (personal communication).

This example shows clearly that library practices are intended to minimise opportunities for the creation of cultural capital from category romance fiction. The consequent impact on economic capital for the authors does not seem to have been considered.

Conclusion and implications

This paper has shown that the cataloguing practices in some Australian public libraries do hinder the interplay between cultural capital and economic capital. The impacts of cataloguing practices, which may in the first instance appear to be a cost-saving measure within the library, can be costly in terms of lack of service provision to the reader. Further, the practices can diminish the case that public libraries can make for the use of the services they provide. Circulation figures are often used as a justification for funding from their parent organisations and similar to the retail success of romance fiction, collections of paperback category romance fiction are highly borrowed and highly used. Yet the books which do not merit even a partial author/title entry into a library catalogue remain invisible to anyone other than the physical user who accesses collections by being physically present in the library and discovering their reading choices through browsing. This may have been suitable in the twentieth century when the only access to collections was to physically visit the library but library catalogues have for many years been accessible through the internet. People make their reading choices from browsing the catalogue thus necessitating the Library of Congress to expand subject headings to allow for fiction titles (Saricks and ebrary 2005, 8).

As Intner and Weihs indicate, when a library makes a decision to diverge from standard practices, “no visit from the Catalog Police to the agency will ensue” (Intner and Weihs 11). However, changes to cataloguing practices are not impossible. These practices tend to be formulated through a mixture of “peer pressure, institutional culture and what is acceptable within that institutional culture” (Adkins et al. 65). While peer pressure is slowly bringing about change, it is still the case that the very common form of catalogue entry, which is one record with many attached items, lacks meaningful metadata. Thus it is that category romance is rendered unsearchable through the library catalogue. Non-existent metadata leaves no cultural imprint in institutional collections for scholars and archivists and the public to reflect on the presence of romance fiction in Australian society. [End Page 10] Cataloguing of literary fiction, which sells less than a third of that of romance, is comprehensive, yet romance fiction is not catalogued to the same level (Veros 301). This has consequences for systems of institutional payments such as Public Lending Rights: books that remain uncatalogued results in libraries inadvertently withhold payment from eligible authors. In other words, these items do not generate the economic capital which is due to their authors. Aside from any economic impact, romance fiction authors whose books receive this treatment do not receive institutional recognition from libraries for their institutional role as publishers in creating this cultural capital.

“[A] group’s presence or absence in the official classification depends on its capacity to get itself recognized, to get itself noticed and admitted, and so to win a place in the social order” (Bourdieu 483). To a large extent, the readers and writers of category romance fiction do not yet have a place in the social order mediated through the library. This finding has implications for practice and suggests the need for further research. From a practice perspective, the lack of recorded metadata for certain types of cultural objects in a public library borders on censorship. The lack of cataloguing record leads to those cultural objects becoming invisible within the constraints of the institution. This in turn can be seen as a form of censorship, because readers’ advisors are unable to meet the reading needs of certain readers and the readers themselves use alternative places to find the reading they enjoy, for in their use of the catalogue, the books they would like to read are hidden from them. Further, the lack of metadata for paperbacks in general raises questions about the way that metadata may be assigned to the same cultural objects now available in electronic form as e-books.

This analysis of the role of cataloguing records in the interplay between cultural capital and economic capital has shown that there is a need for further research, at least in two areas. The first is the significance for metadata and paratext in the creation of cultural capital in other forms of popular fiction, including user-generated content such as fan fiction. The second is the importance in economic and cultural terms of the inadvertent withholding of Public Lending Right payments to authors of category romance and other categories of cultural objects which are not given full metadata records in public libraries. [End Page 11]

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[End Page 12]

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[End Page 13]


Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks?: Romance, Ethics and Human-Dog Relationships in a Rural Australian Novel
by Lauren O’Mahony

If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practise kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.
-Immanuel Kant

In the Australian cultural imagination, men have been the dominant participants in representations of rural or remote life. While men have “battled” against the land “as an object to be mastered and controlled” (Schaffer xiv), women have often slid into the recesses of country life and its representation; either they have been absent from depictions of rural life or boxed into stereotypical roles such as that of “farm wife”.[1] A short story by acclaimed Australian poet Henry Lawson goes so far as to state, “They blamed me, but I didn’t want her to come; [the bush] was no place for a woman” (As quoted in Schaffer 194).[2] While Lawson may be read as being glib for trying to rhyme “I didn’t want her to come” with “no place for a woman”, his quote reflects a common historical assumption that women are incompatible with or in need of protection from Australia’s rural environment.[3] Although such a sentiment stains the reality and depictions of rural Australian life, a recent flurry of representations of women as active participants and contributors in rural settings has appeared on screen and in print. The television program McLeod’s Daughters (2001-2009) is perhaps the best known contemporary depiction of women running farming properties and working the land,  however the genre of mainstream Australian rural romantic fiction is where some of the most exciting and progressive representations of rural women are emerging.[4]

The contemporary rural romance is a publishing phenomenon of the new millennium. As reviewer Carol George notes, the appeal of the genre is strong enough for some readers that, “By the end of them you yearn for a ute, a pair of boots and wide open spaces” (As quoted in Dunbabin 4). The genre arguably emerged in the wake of Rachael Treasure’s debut novel Jillaroo (2002) which has reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies (“Steamed Up” 39).[5] Having published five novels, two short story collections and two e-books up to 2013, Treasure is now regarded as the “queen” of Australian rural romance,[6] a genre that now includes authors such as Nicole Alexander, Karly Lane, Fiona Palmer and Fleur McDonald. The genre’s success is evidenced in the dramatic growth in book sales from 56,609 in 2004 to 138,261 in 2010 (“Steamed Up”39). The rural romance’s appeal to readers must be partly attributed to the complex representation of rural life, one that is at times gritty and others romanticised. While other sub-genres of romance utilise dogs and other animals as pets and companions, the rural romance is bound to its context where animals appear as pets and companions and in a functional sense as products for meat, fleece and breeding or to assist in the day to day workings of farms and stations.[7] Novels such as Jillaroo, reflect on what it means to live, act and love in a context where synergistic relationships between humans, animals and the environment are vital to financial success, [End Page 2] survival and contentment. As this paper argues, rural romances are also interesting in their use of romance plots to represent heroines battling for their “place” in rural life.

This essay textually analyses Rachael Treasure’s novel Jillaroo (2002) with a focus on the interconnectivity between the romance narrative, human-dog relationships (especially between heroine Rebecca Saunders and her kelpies) and understandings of ethical behaviour. I argue that dogs play an intrinsic role in the heroine’s life and work, in the development and delay of the romance with her hero, Charlie Lewis, and ultimately in the resolution. Firstly, I apply Pamela Regis’s theory of the romance novel including her definition, three social trends that shape the construction of romance heroines and the essential romantic elements. I do so to understand Jillaroo’s narrative progression to the heroine’s freedom. More than just the heroine’s freedom is at stake because the community and environment, including the animal stakeholders, depend on the heroine overcoming impediments to her quest and her romance so that all can share the happy ending. Secondly, I examine the role of kelpies in the construction of Rebecca’s gender identity. Her dogs enable her to navigate highly masculine spaces in the rural setting and subsequently transmit her specialised knowledge of kelpie breeding and training to men. Rebecca and her dogs challenge the hermetic seal of these spaces as closed to women and as sites where hegemonic masculinity is cultivated and reinforced. Thirdly, I describe the relationships between the central male characters and dogs. Symbolically, dogs are employed to indicate the mental health and “interspecies competence” (Fudge 11) of central male characters, namely the hero Charlie and Rebecca’s father Harry Saunders. These male-dog relationships reflect Kant’s admonition that how a man treats animals determines the health of his heart. Overall, I argue that Jillaroo emphasises certain ethical behaviours to readers via its romantic structure. The novel explores intraspecies competence between rural men and women and reflects on “interspecies competence” between humans and animals, particularly through the heroine’s quest and her relationship with working dogs.

 Dogs, Romance, Ethics and the Rural

In Jillaroo, the elements of romance, the presence of dogs and notions of what constitutes ethical and unethical behaviour are firmly bound together. Jillaroo, the quintessential Australian contemporary rural romance, spans ten years in the life of its heroine, her family and their farm, Waters Meeting. Eighteen year old Rebecca Saunders wishes to take control of the property from her father and restore it to its former glory via sustainable practices and natural husbandry methods, including those she has used to train her dogs. However her father, Harry, denies her that right. Harry believes that a woman’s place in rural Australia is as a wife, mother and worker in an off-farm occupation such as nursing or teaching. For Harry, farms are controlled by men through patrilineal inheritance[8] from father to son representing a narrow, though terrifyingly common, view of rural women.[9] However, Rebecca grew up with a superwoman mother who raised three children while working full-time as a vet and a grandfather who taught her how to farm by reading the landscape and working with animals rather than only working them. Thus, Rebecca grew up believing that her sex played no part in her farming abilities or in developing her ‘natural’ instinct with animals and the land. With her grandfather long dead [End Page 3] and her mother fleeing her marriage, children and property to work in the city, Harry’s mismanagement catastrophically affects the land, the family and himself, the hubristic patriarch. Determined to succeed her father, Rebecca realises she needs experience and qualifications to convince Harry of her capabilities and prepare for the immense task of restoring the farm. The narrative spans her quest to restore Waters Meeting alongside her romantic relationship with the likable hero, Charlie Lewis. Through her quest, Rebecca, with the help of her kelpies, challenges traditional expectations of rural women, subsequently becoming a heroine for every country girl who dreamed of doing more than standing on the fence watching the men.

Jillaroo is a novel primarily about the pursuit of freedom at a narrative and representational level. At the narrative level, in following Pamela Regis’s approach to romance in A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), the heroine and hero overcome various obstacles that eventually enable their union. Regis defines romances as “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (Regis 19). She asserts that eight elements (the society defined, meeting, declaration, attraction, barriers, point of ritual death, recognition, betrothal) are essential to all romances. The eight elements form part of Regis’s defence of the genre against critics, including feminists, who argue that romance prolongs the enslavement and bondage of women (Regis 3-4). Instead, Regis argues that romances progress towards a heroine’s freedom, the primary stimulus for reader’s enjoyment. Indeed, as Regis states, “[t]he genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings” (Regis xiii). To demonstrate how heroines experience freedom and readers experience joy, Regis proposes the eight essential elements which together span the entirety of a work. While it is impossible to analyse every narrative detail, Regis’s key elements support the notion that heroines change and grow, often for the better, by novel’s end. Her theory enables a reading position that accounts for the complex transformations of heroines and issues over a narrative rather than isolated in single scenes. In Jillaroo, as I show below, while Rebecca and Charlie’s romance is central to the story, three key elements, the society defined, point of ritual death and barriers reveal much about the gender, animal and environmental rights in this context. As I argue, Jillaroo exemplifies the allegorical function of romance; the novel emphasises the heroine’s pursuit of equality in a rural context with the help of her dogs and her search for positive change and the ethical treatment of others in her family and towards the environment.

Before examining the role of working dogs in the essential romance elements in Jillaroo, it is important to contextualise the narrative in relation to what Regis describes as the three dominant social trends that “meet and clash on the pages of the romance novel” (Regis 55). Regis names these, “the rise of affective individualism, the importance of companionate marriage, and English Law as it applied to married women” (Regis 56). While Regis discusses these three trends as they appear prominently in English romances from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they have relevance for the context represented in Jillaroo, especially to understand the treatment of women and animals. Being a contemporary romance, the three social trends should be automatically in place for Rebecca Saunders. However, as a rural romance, traditional patriarchal understandings of gender still shape men and women’s actions and thoughts. Rebecca is an affective individual who is self-driven, motivated and longs to run her family’s farm. Legally she has property rights, however her father Harry believes that women, especially his daughter, [End Page 4] have no right to work the land, symbolising what sociologist Margaret Alston argues is men’s historically entrenched view across the agriculture industry (Alston “Gender Perspectives in Australian Rural Community Life” 152-4). Rejecting her offer to run Waters Meeting, Harry Saunders instead advises Rebecca to “do a teaching or nursing course, then…marry a nice farmer who isn’t up to his neck in debt or paying his way out of a bloody divorce” (Treasure 7). While no legal impediment prevents her running or owning the farm, she is impeded by social and cultural mores. For the third social trend, Rebecca believes in companionate marriage, particularly that she will find a partner who shares her love for the land, animals, community involvement and is willing to work equally alongside her. While a contemporary heroine should automatically have the right to property, Australian rural society, particularly represented by her patriarchal father, restricts her appropriation of this right. The tension over Rebecca’s desire to run Waters Meeting and the outdated understandings of women’s “place” in rural life clearly colours the romantic elements and their progression towards freedom.

The relationship between the heroine and her dogs plays a key role in both her romance, her construction as a rural heroine and the novel’s wider meditation on the ethical treatment of others. I now wish to read the novel through Regis’s elements of romance to determine the role her “crew” of dogs play in the progression towards freedom and the deeper critique of rural gender inequality. Regis’s first romantic element, the “society defined”, indicates the “flawed”, “incomplete”, “superannuated” or “corrupt” attributes of the context in which the courtship occurs (Regis 31). The relationship between humans and dogs symbolically assists in defining this society, one dominated by hegemonic masculinity. In the novel’s first chapter, dogs establish a binary between Rebecca and her father, Harry. Rebecca is introduced as she musters a herd of sheep with her “little kelpie”, Mossy (3). To manoeuvre Mossy, Rebecca “whistled to her dog” and told her to “go way back” (3) emphasising an economy in communication and the exertion of little effort to have the dog perform the required tasks almost “motionless” (3). Even a reader with little first-hand experience of kelpies will realise this relationship between owner and working dog results from extensive training and a strong mutual rapport. Just as Rebecca is about to secure the sheep in a pen, this scene is broken by an “outburst of barking and the rush of hooves raising dust” (5). Her father rushes to control “[h]is crew of motley dogs [who] were working in a pack, singling out a sheep and chasing it to the fence, biting as they went” (5). Rebecca’s Mossy struggles to keep the sheep together while Harry’s dogs cause “chaos” (5). Harry violently picks up one of his dogs by the collar to discipline him where, “The young pup’s eyes were fixed on the sheep and his tongue lolled to the side of his mouth as he panted. So keen to work, Mardy was oblivious to the fact he was being choked” (5). This action indicates Harry’s excessive force alongside the dog’s inadequate training; the dog is so obsessed with tormenting the sheep it is ignorant of being strangled. These initial human-dog relationships position readers to connect with Rebecca who is clearly more capable and knowledgeable in this context and disidentify with Harry. This initial scene can be read through Michel Foucault’s understanding of governance in The Hermeneutics of the Subject where he links “taking care of oneself” to the “exercise of power” where, “One cannot govern others, one cannot govern others well, one cannot transform one’s privileges into political action on others, in rational action, if one is not concerned about oneself” (Foucault 36). Harry’s inability to control his dogs or his own [End Page 5] actions suggests both an inadequate level of self-care and self-knowledge while implying his inability to govern or run the farm effectively.

The narrative further demonstrates the “flawed” and “corrupt” aspects of this society through the dynamics of human-dog and human-human interactions. The scene with the dogs foreshadows a heated argument between Harry and Rebecca where she expresses her wish to devote herself to sorting out the “mess” of the farm, a mess created by Harry’s mismanagement. Flashbacks from Rebecca’s point of view reveal that she “had been her grandfather’s girl” (9) where he had taught her about “the world around her, about the animals and the trees and how to find a beast and how to work a dog” (9). The memory contrasts her relationships with her father and grandfather where she remembers Harry as “never…being there” (9) or teaching her farming practices. She traces his withdrawal of love to her “passion and a connection with the land that he never seemed to grasp even after years of farming” (10). During her childhood years she escaped into the “world of her dogs”:

She trained them, loved them, talked to them, studied them. She peered deep into their brown eyes and reached their souls. Her dogs were a way of escaping her father’s seething undercurrent of anger and his inability to show her love” (10-11).

This play on presence and absence in her relationships with male authority figures and the learning of essential knowledge of the land and dogs assists in positioning the reader’s sympathies while emphasising society’s flaws, many of which appear to stem from historically entrenched gender inequality represented through isolated characters like Harry. Harry immediately rejects Rebecca’s offer to help restore the land telling her there is “no future in [farming]” (6). To add insult to injury, he cruelly tells her he never wanted her as a child, particularly as a girl child, and threatens to shoot her “wretched” (10) dogs unless she immediately leaves. Rebecca warns him that he risks “losing the lot” (10).[10] Harry’s threat of violence against her dogs can be read as a metaphor for the status of women in this flawed society. Erica Fudge, in her essay on the construction of a history of animals, links discussions of animal rights to those of women’s rights. She argues that women who think about animal welfare can be seen as considering “their own degraded places in society [where] the dog is a representation of the human; it is not, paradoxically, a dog” (7). Fudge’s observation applies to Jillaroo in that while laws prevent Harry physically hurting Rebecca, the close relationship she has with her prized dogs, where they perform as if almost a part or extension of her, means that the threat to the dogs is literally a threat to her. She has no choice but to pack her swag, clip her three dogs to her ute and leave in a self-imposed exile. These initial scenes indicate society’s problems that Rebecca faces locally as well as the context’s larger structural inequalities, mainly in terms of gender inequality.

Although Rebecca’s dogs are pivotal in constructing the problems of the society, they play a more subdued role in her romantic relationship with Charlie Lewis. Once Rebecca departs from Waters Meeting, her trusty dogs help her find work as a jillaroo and she later meets Charlie. It is important to note that dogs are absent from the initial scene where Charlie and Rebecca meet. Jillaroo’s meeting, attraction and declaration scenes extract Rebecca and Charlie from their daily lives through Regis’s optional romantic [End Page 6] element, the wedding, dance or fete. This optional element offers celebration, “inclusion” and community engagement (Regis 38) removing heroines from society’s normal constraints. Rebecca and Charlie meet on a rare weekend away from their families and farms at the “B and S Ball” a notoriously fun, and sometimes feral, event.[11] They meet late that evening after Rebecca has consumed numerous drinks. She stumbles across a naked Charlie Lewis who is performing a daring, drunken stunt. The narrator describes the meeting from Rebecca’s viewpoint:

Bec looked up and saw in a halo of light against the night sky a naked young man. He was wearing a red plastic bucket on his head and standing on top of the guttering. The light cast shadows over his tall, muscled frame…If Sal had been there, Bec thought, she would’ve said out loud, ‘He’s got a big wanger!’…She…felt a tingle of desire run through her. He had a damn good body (80).

Charlie then launches himself from the roof in a shopping trolley, crashing onto the floor at Rebecca’s feet, announcing, “I think I love you” (81) before introducing himself. Charlie’s friends carry him away into the night before he and Rebecca can speak properly. In this single scene, Rebecca and Charlie meet, express their instant mutual attraction as “love at first sight” and Charlie drunkenly declares his love. The next day they have a fleeting river kiss, further deepening their attraction. The intense combination of these three romantic elements (meeting, attraction and declaration) fast-tracks their relationship before they must return to their normal lives. The absence of Rebecca’s dogs in this scene restricts the focus to the couple only, allowing Rebecca to experience her attraction to Charlie alone, untainted by any response from her dogs.

While her dogs are absent from the initial meeting scene, they play a much greater role in the relationship’s development. The narrator reinforces the couple’s mutual attraction once they separate after the B and S ball; they face a geographical barrier as Rebecca returns to jillarooing on Blue Plains station and Charlie to his family’s farm. Despite the initial attraction’s intensity, progress towards a longer term relationship is slow and complicated. Occasionally the third person narrative point of view reveals Rebecca’s fantasies where she “dreamed of the river kiss” (92), “smiled as she thought of Charlie, up there in a big John Deere [tractor]. Naked” (92) or how Charlie remembers Rebecca as a “stunner” (104). Further confirmation of their attraction occurs when Rebecca believes herself to be “in lerv” (original emphasis 160) while Charlie fantasises “about a girl with blonde hair, the bluest of eyes and a cheeky grin” (209). The similarity of their fantasies portrays their attraction as mutual and companionate. Rebecca’s work on Blue Plains sees her travelling to agricultural shows to exhibit pedigree rams. These trips enable Rebecca to enter her young kelpie “Dags” in dog trials. Such competitions involve the dog being instructed by its owner via voice and body language to herd sheep into a pen. According to kelpie specialist Tony Parsons, dog trialling requires a dog with “keenness tempered with pliability [and] the ability to accept a high degree of discipline while still retaining the desire to work” (Parsons 74-75). Similar to the novel’s first scene where Rebecca and her dog Mossy herd the sheep, Rebecca’s participation in the dog trials demonstrates the dog’s skill under instruction. Although she enters many dog trials, Rebecca’s first trophy win happens the day Charlie Lewis visits the same show. Charlie’s [End Page 7] congratulatory comments to Rebecca reinforce their mutual attraction as they gush over meeting each other at the ball while simultaneously enabling Dags to meet and respond to Charlie. Although Rebecca scoffs at winning a trophy, saying it will “make a good dunny-roll holder” (154), Dags “relishes the attention” from Charlie who congratulates him and scratches his ears, leading the dog to “lean…his body against Charlie’s leg, wagging his tail” (155). Rebecca confirms the dog’s instinct and her own attraction to Charlie by saying, “He likes you. He only does that to people he trusts” (155). Charlie’s enthusiastic interaction with Dags serves as a foil to Harry’s earlier treatment of dogs at Waters Meeting. Although this encounter between Rebecca and Charlie is brief, it indicates his suitability as a hero and the hope they may have more time together in the future. Because dogs are so important in Rebecca’s life, it is crucial that her lover have a sympathetic and non-violent relationship to them also.

As Rebecca and Charlie’s relationship develops, dogs play a more central role in its progress. Rebecca reveals she will soon depart from Blue Plains to attend agricultural college. She manages to arrange for her dogs to have pens at the college and rents a house with her friends where she is also allowed to keep the dogs. While geographical separation has hindered their relationship, Charlie conspires to attend the college and shows up at a party to usher in the new semester, much to Rebecca’s delight. After they dance at the party, Rebecca introduces Charlie to her dogs, an internal monologue revealing to the reader in a moment of youthful exuberance, “If Dags reacted the same way as last time to him, she knew he was a good person, and in this drunken moment she’d give her whole soul to him” (241). While Dags’ response to Charlie is only implied, Rebecca’s attraction to Charlie continues through the party, implying the dogs approve of her match. Charlie reveals to Rebecca that his decision to study at the college was purposely to be with her and planned so his graduation would coincide with hers. The night ends with Rebecca offering to show Charlie her “train set” (246) that she happens to keep in her bedroom, a euphemism for “let’s go to bed”. They do not consummate their attraction that night due to their drunkenness however the next morning when they wake up feeling “crook as a dog” (247) they begin to make love only to be interrupted by Rebecca’s roommate letting her dogs into the room playfully stating, “Thought you guys might like to do it doggy style” (248). The interruption enables Rebecca to again introduce Charlie to her “crew” of dogs and see their response, again a favourable one. Rebecca suggests that they go out to “grab some grease to fix the hangovers and take the dogs out to the river” (248). There they frolic in the water, the dogs “[swimming] in circles about them” and then they properly consummate their attraction on the river bank. The dog’s ongoing involvement in these key romantic scenes creates a tension because at times they delay the relationship’s progression and in others, they are actively involved in its progression. Nevertheless, the dogs’ positive engagement with Charlie suggests he is a suitable hero for Jillaroo’s heroine.

Dogs become a point of conflict and a comfort as new barriers emerge to disrupt Rebecca and Charlie’s union. Although they are together mid-way through the novel, of course Rebecca still has not fulfilled her quest to assume control of Waters Meeting from Harry, start the much needed restoration and exert an ethical influence over characters, such as her father, to change their behaviour for the better. Charlie and Rebecca’s fairly carefree time at college ushers in a period when internal and external barriers emerge that stymie their romance. When college finishes, they have no home of their own signifying an external barrier to their relationship. Although Rebecca now has the experience and [End Page 8] knowledge to restore Waters Meeting, her father still blocks her return. With no other choice, she, Charlie and her dogs move to the Lewis cropping farm. Rebecca is horrified to discover it is flat, animalless, riverless and treeless (275) with its “manmade and sinister” artificial waterways (340). There the romantic relationship frays under the watchful, disapproving gaze of Charlie’s parents. Charlie’s father refuses to employ Rebecca, believing similarly to her own father than she should be a homemaker or work off-farm in a pink-collar job. As well, Charlie refuses to confront his parents about how he really feels living and working on the farm. His inability to speak his mind becomes his own internal barrier signifying that he is not ready to love the independently minded Rebecca. Charlie also promises to build Rebecca a proper kennel and run for her dogs so she does not have to keep them tied up all day in the skillion shed (328). However, he never makes the time, putting the crops and machines first (328). During the time on the Lewis farm, Charlie and Rebecca fight regularly, including about Charlie’s inability to build the dogs a serious home or obtain sheep for Rebecca to practice trialling. During this difficult time, her dogs become a confidante (310) and a comfort, Dags, “push[ing] a wet nose under her hand” (311).  Rebecca’s internal barrier becomes her need to be honest about her relationship with Charlie and recognise she loves the confident Charlie she kissed in the river not the muted man incapable of speaking up around his family. Wider barriers in Rebecca’s family and at Waters Meeting also build against the relationship. Until they are resolved, Rebecca cannot be free, the couple cannot be together, the society cannot be reformed and the reader cannot feel the relief of resolution.

The internal and external barriers eventually accumulate in “the point of ritual death,” which Regis defines as “the moment…when the union between the heroine and hero, the hoped-for resolution, seems absolutely impossible” (Regis 35). This element includes mainly figurative or symbolic death, but can also show real death (Regis 35). Because dogs provide loyal companionship and reliable working partners to numerous characters in Jillaroo, they are also present in the ritual death scene. Symbolic and actual deaths build from the beginning of the novel including the failed marriage of Rebecca’s parents Harry and Frankie, Rebecca’s exile from her home and the slow creep of drought and depression that envelops Waters Meeting. The farm’s ongoing failure and increasingly strained family relationships see Rebecca’s brother Mick and his wife Trudy also flee the property. Like Rebecca and Frankie before them, Mick and Trudy move to the suburbs away from the “now-stooping” (231) Harry. The day they leave, Harry projects his anger physically, verbally and emotionally onto Tom (Rebecca’s brother), the only human member of the Saunders family left on the farm. Harry’s wrath leads Tom to move from the family homestead with his horse and dog Bessie to the farm’s remote mountain hut. Rebecca only has sparse communication with Tom at this time, telling him she has been “dog-sick worried about you” (256) in one message. The sense of death intensifies as Harry turns to alcohol and suffers depression that “settle[d] over [him] like a black cloud” (254). The family’s departure and Harry’s alcoholism sees Tom unable to leave “frozen with fear, a deep fear of the outside world” (254). Tom journeys from hut to farmhouse leaving food for Harry, feeding the remaining animals and paying the bills; the narrator observes that the farm, “now in the dry, […] looked barren and heartless” (253). When Tom attends his mother’s city wedding, another optional romantic element according to Regis, which should be a happy occasion, Rebecca observes, “how his shoulders sloped downwards and [End Page 9] his clothes hung from his skinny frame” (278). Drunkenly, Tom creates a scene, telling Rebecca:

The waters haven’t met in over a year—both rivers have run dry! There’s no stock left, `scept for Hank and your lonely old horse, and Dad’s shot all the dogs. Didn’t even bury the bastards. Just left them on the end of the chain to rot (281).

In Tom’s desperate words, readers sense the encirclement of death around and through the farm, grimly warning of the ritual death scene. Tom’s words reveal the life ebbing from the river juxtaposed with the more disturbing images of “starving stock”, the animals bearing the burden of human and natural folly. The dangerous state of Harry’s now alcohol-addled mind is eclipsed by the murder of his dogs that is made worse by their bodily desecration in still being chained in death and denied even a hasty burial. Again, dogs become literal and figurative victims of Harry’s extreme actions and the ill-health of his heart. Figuratively their deaths symbolise the deeper social and ecological devastation at Waters Meeting and the quickening rush towards the hopeless point where resolution, harmony and restoration seem impossible. While the reader is positioned to think that Harry’s ignorant crimes against the land, animals and people warrant a sentence of his own narrative death, the invocation of death alongside deep suffering instead anticipates Tom’s suicide.

While Regis argues that symbolic or literal representations of death are essential to romance, Jillaroo’s engagement with existential realities including real death is perhaps best explained by the rural setting where death is a reality of daily life. Christoph Armbruster notes how some Australian literature turns to the morbid realities of contemporary rural life linked to existential realities such as death, despair, meaninglessness, denial of agency and belonging (Armbruster 128-150). Armbruster’s comments particularly resonate with Tom and Harry’s situation on Waters Meeting. Powerless to stop the farm’s deterioration, his father’s alcoholism and his own mental decline, Tom leaves groceries on his father’s car bonnet and scrawls a message in “red raddle” (287): “Will this make you see, dad?” (287) before hanging himself as one might hang a meat carcass. Tom’s dog Bessie alerts Harry to Tom’s suicide by first whining at the homestead’s back door, “leap[ing] over the gate [and] disappearing into the garage” (286). Bessie then sits and barks once at Harry. He follows the dog, noticing that Tom has left him a box of groceries, a last desperate gesture of care towards his father, and hung a side of lamb from the beams. Criticising Tom in a drunken slur for not using the “killing shed” (287) for the lamb carcass, Harry’s closer inspection reveals it is not a side of lamb, but Tom’s body. Harry cannot contain his shock and fear of the situation, screaming and fleeing the garage into the house. Yet, it is Tom’s loyal animal companions that stay with him even in death; Bessie sits at Tom’s feet and his horse Hank strolls into the garage then also rests near the body. While Harry cannot fathom the immediate horrors of Tom’s death, Bessie and Hank stay nearby, mourning in their own animalistic way, unperturbed by the inert body. Tom’s death is the extreme point of ritual death where a happy ending is jeopardised because although Rebecca is strong, she, like most romance heroines, as Regis suggests, cannot undo real death (Regis 35-36). Indeed, Rebecca’s grief creates uncertainty that she can ever be free to complete her quest or establish a permanent relationship with Charlie.

While Tom’s death sends Rebecca into a deep depression initially, it also ignites a chain of recognitions towards the romantic resolution. Although Regis argues that heroines [End Page 10] are central to recognition scenes (Regis 36-37) in Jillaroo Harry begins the series of recognitions that ultimately lead to the novel’s conclusion. Tom’s death acts as a circuit breaker for Harry to transform himself and his world view. He swears off alcohol and starts restoring the farm (315), seeking help from Landcare to better manage the river vegetation and reaches out to his neighbours to sell him hay for the cattle (335) thereby indicating a changed attitude to the environment, the animals in his care and the people around him. He even recognises Rebecca for who she really is: someone capable of healing the farm and decides to ask her home. However, before he has a chance to ask her, he loses an arm in a machinery accident, a symbolic castration. His accident provides the chance to speak to her when she visits him in hospital. Harry apologises and Rebecca decides to return to Waters Meeting. Harry’s accident and changed attitude is perfectly timed for Rebecca who despises the Lewis farm and longs for the “weight of the mountains” at Waters Meeting (340). When she and Charlie arrive back at Waters Meeting, the years of neglect are immediately apparent. From Rebecca’s perspective the whole farm appears to have just “given up” (379) however she is determined to stay and put her new experience and knowledge into action. Charlie immediately opposes the idea, pessimistically telling her “It’ll take a lifetime to fix this mess” (393). Rebecca accuses Charlie of being a “mummy’s boy” and he dismisses the idea of helping her because he refuses to “drop everything [he has] at home” (395). Rebecca responds, “Charlie, you don’t have anything at home. Your dad controls it all and your mum controls you!” (Original emphasis 395). Rebecca defends her decision to stay at Waters Meeting and never leave again (396) arguing:

You’re just like all the other bastards! You think I don’t have a right to work the land, but because you’re a man, you do! You’re entitled to your bit of flat, chemical-and-salt-infected dirt, but I’m not entitled to my rundown, destocked bit of mountain country. Don’t you stand there and tell me there’s nothing here for me. I’ve got a chance to fight for this place…I’m entitled to it! (396).

Rebecca’s determination to stay at Waters Meeting is threatened by Charlie who suggests she cannot restore the farm singlehandedly and accuses her of choosing her father and farm over him. In response he again declares his love for her and his intention to ask her to marry him; yet the cost of his love is that he wants them to live on the Lewis farm. Of course, Rebecca rejects his proposal which subsequently causes Charlie’s departure from Waters Meeting and their relationship to momentarily end, an elongation of the ritual death element. Her dogs again provide comfort, “lick[ing] her tear-stained face” (397) in her moment of devastated rage. Furious at the situation she decides, “like a madwoman” (398) to lop the huge pines that surround the Waters Meeting homestead. The dogs, normally co-conspirators in her work endeavours, “slunk away and sat at the back door looking fearful” (398). The romance and happy ending are again jeopardised, however at least Rebecca and her crew of dogs have returned home.

The novel delays the full romantic resolution by first emphasising Rebecca’s quest to restore the farm. Although she has some help from her family, Rebecca exerts most of the effort needed to restore the farm, at times feeling “the debt to the bank…would crush her” (439) until eventually she turns the farm’s debt into profit. Although her financial luck starts to turn, to be a romance, the narrative must resolve her tumultuous relationship with [End Page 11] Charlie in the form of a “betrothal.” As Rebecca repairs the farm through sustainable management practices and organic methods, the point of view remains with her revealing her and Charlie’s mutual longing for each other as letters from Charlie “slowed to a…trickle and then suddenly stopped” (440). Rebecca assumes he has met someone else (440). To maintain Waters Meeting’s success, her rural advisor urges her to hire an irrigation and plant-cropping manager to grow feed for her stock and enable her to take time to rest. Coincidently, Charlie has become desperate to leave his family farm, yearning for Rebecca and “even miss[ing] her dogs” (461). He sees an article about Rebecca in a glossy magazine, complete with pictures of her and her dogs. After absorbing the article and pictures recounting her successes, he notices an advertisement for the job at Waters Meeting. When he applies for the job, it creates the opportunity for a romantic reunion. The possibility of working alongside Rebecca in a cropping and irrigation role creates the recognition that Charlie can equally contribute to life at Waters Meeting.

The presence of animals is sustained into the final idyllic images of the novel. In the last chapter, sometime later, Rebecca and Charlie are swimming in the Rebecca River, playing and splashing together with their horses. They ride out of the water into the paddock with its new irrigator and lucerne crop. Charlie turns the irrigator on and the novel concludes with the image of them together, “[t]hen Rebecca pulled Charlie down into a soft forest of sweet smelling lucerne that grew at the foot of the mountains. Waters Meeting. Their place” (468). While dogs are not mentioned in this final chapter, their unwavering presence throughout the novel leads readers to assume their involvement in the final scene. Their absence may indicate, like Rebecca and Charlie’s original meeting, the sense that a focus on the couple only is needed in this final scene. Although Rebecca and Charlie do not marry, readers are positioned to believe they have an enduring love, providing the certainties of resolution.[12] What is important in this final chapter is the ethical positioning of the characters and reader. Through the successful completion of her quest and her “betrothal”, the novel endorses certain kinds of relationships between humans, animals and the environment, particularly those that are non-violent, organic and companionate. The endorsement of such values and the positioning of the reader to identify with the heroine who displays them, thereby imparts a powerful lesson about the ethical treatment of others.

 Gender, Dogs and “The Health of Man’s Heart”

While dogs are integral to Rebecca and Charlie’s romantic story, the relationship between dogs and the heroine plays an important part in allowing her to navigate the patriarchal rural context and positioning the reader sympathies. Although Rebecca has stereotypical feminine qualities including her prettiness and care towards others, she has characteristics traditionally associated with men and masculinity that assist her entry and successful navigation of spaces stereotypically regarded as for men only. I argue that Rebecca exemplifies the characteristics of Sherri Inness’s ‘tough’ woman who express their toughness in four main ways: body, action, attitude and authority (Inness). Rebecca’s dogs work in conjunction with her toughness enabling her to enter male spaces and usurp male [End Page 12] authority. Her toughness also complicates her gender construction, subsequently challenging stereotypes about what rural women can do and where they can go.

Before I describe how Rebecca’s toughness, with the help of her working dogs, enables her to disrupt the patriarchal spaces in the setting, it is worth outlining Sherrie Inness’s theory of tough women and girls. In Tough Girls, Inness argues that toughness is usually associated with men and masculinity where the historical connection between men and toughness encourages the perception of men as the ‘real’ heroes and leaders in our culture (Inness 14-15). Popular culture, Inness asserts, that lacks tough heroines continues the stereotypes of what constitutes acceptable feminine and masculine behaviour while leaving stereotypes and domains of male privilege unchallenged (Inness 14-17). As Inness argues:

Because they adopt some characteristics that are coded as masculine in our culture, tough women challenge this division, which is central to how members of society think about gender and the differences, whether real or imaginary between men and women (Inness 15).

While Inness resists confining toughness to a single definition, she suggests that women express toughness through the body, attitude, action and authority. In Jillaroo, Rebecca’s toughness, helped by her relationship with her dogs, can be read in each of these characteristics thereby seeing her transgress gender stereotypes.

The narrative demonstrates Rebecca’s toughness via descriptions of what her body looks like, what it does and where it goes. According to Inness, the body houses obvious signs of toughness via muscles or athleticism. Muscles, as Inness suggests, are symbolic of “overcoming even the most overwhelming odds” and “physical and mental discipline” (Inness 24). Rebecca shows her toughness through her body and her muscles where hard and unforgiving station work has given her “golden brown” (71) arms, shoulders with “lean muscles” (72) and “cracked” dirt-encrusted skin. Her muscles and calluses testify to her ability to undertake dirty physical work such as mustering sheep, chainsaw hulking trees or lifting heavy mineral blocks.[13] Indeed, the first scene of the novel, mustering sheep, demonstrates her ability to economically use her body to direct the working dog whereas other moments show her working strenuously alongside men. Rebecca’s muscularity and physical ability invite the reader’s trust that she can surmount any obstacles including those to her romance and her quest to restore the farm.

Rebecca’s dogs enable her to demonstrate toughness especially in her actions and attitude. Inness suggests that tough women show their intelligence through what they do, particularly using their judgement to know when and how to act and when to wait (Inness 26). In relation to attitude, Rebecca, is similar to tough women who, as Inness describes, “display little or no fear, even in the most dangerous circumstances; if she does show fear, it must not stop her from acting” (Inness 25). Inness’ tough woman also “appear[s] competent and in control” (Inness 25). Rebecca’s tough actions and attitude are striking when she retreats from Waters Meeting after fighting with her father. She drives northwest and after three days, with only fifty dollars in the bank, encounters a stock sale knowing it is her best chance of finding work. She observes men struggling to move a herd of sheep with a tired dog. Although she knows they are thinking how young and female she is (46), she offers to use her own dog to help move their mob. The men are wary, saying [End Page 13] that if her dog bites any sheep, she must pay for it, telling her “I hope you’ve got some cash on you” (46). A true tough heroine, Rebecca coolly replies, “Well. Actually I don’t…I’m flat broke, unemployed and homeless…but at least I know my dog won’t bite” (46). Confident in her ability and in her dog, she easily moves the sheep and is later offered a job as a jillaroo on Blue Plains Station. Even in the thick of a “male” space and under enormous pressure, she remains level headed and fearless, placing trust in herself and her dog.

Rebecca demonstrates her toughness in action and attitude by also not acting in particular situations. Inness emphasises that tough women must know when to act, when to wait and when reflection is required before acting (Inness 26). Rebecca shows her tough action and attitude when she rejects her father’s farming methods including questioning his purchase of a reproductively challenged ram (8), pitying his untrained dogs and declaring her desire to help run Waters Meeting (6). Although she argues with her father, Rebecca realises the futility of confronting a man prone to physical and emotional violence. She also knows the time is not right for her to assume control of the farm. Instead, she chooses to retreat from the farm to gain knowledge and skills so when the right time comes, she is ready. For Inness in Tough Girls and Gifford in Pastoral, not acting or retreating have positive implications; however, Diane Negra criticises the tendency towards the narrative trope of “retreatism” in postfeminist media texts, where heroines return to their home towns to fulfil stereotypical feminine roles (Negra). In Jillaroo, Rebecca retreats away from her home and the stereotypical expectations of women in the rural context. Her retreat demonstrates that there are different kinds of retreat, not just the postfeminist kind; for the tough woman she retreats because of bad timing or the need to prepare properly for the task ahead. Rebecca also retreats because of her father’s threat to murder her dogs. Later when Harry loses his arm and asks her to return, his threat of violence has dissolved and she has the experience and knowledge to ensure the farm’s restoration and financial success. Rebecca’s journey back to Waters Meeting therefore shifts her initial retreat to a “return” (Gifford) in turn demonstrating her good judgement.

Rebecca constantly demonstrates the fourth main characteristic of tough women, authority, particularly with the help of her dogs. Inness, quoting Richard Sennett, argues that authority relates to qualities such as “assurance, superior judgement, the ability to impose discipline, the capacity to inspire fear” (Sennett as quoted in Inness 26). Inness further states, “[t]he tough woman must have authority because she often acts as a leader, and a leader with no authority is not capable of leading, especially in times of great stress” (Inness 26). Rebecca develops and maintains her authority around men by being capable in ways they understand and by performing tasks they respect. For example on Blue Plains Station, she works as hard, if not harder, than the jackaroos, which goes against the expectation of women in this context. During her time on Blue Plains, readers learn about the reluctance to hire women in this traditionally male dominated context. Bob, the station manager, had reservations about hiring Rebecca because he worried about her romantic notions of rural life, however she gradually earns respect. She was “expected to do everything Dave [her roommate] did. From lifting heavy mineral lick-blocks for the sheep onto the ute, to banging steel droppers into the rocky ground” (72). The narrator also explains that Rebecca “Never once [leant] on a broom. The shearers noticed this and liked her for it” (92). Her ability to match the strength and tasks of the men, as well as the advantage her well trained dogs provide in this context, garners authority and respect. On [End Page 14] at least two occasions, Rebecca “talks dogs” (95, 327) with men in contexts usually dominated by men and masculinity. Through such discussions, she demonstrates her authority on dog breeding and training, one based on human-canine partnerships and communion, and transmits that knowledge to men. These scenes are invested with hope that her gentle but disciplined approach to dog training will reach a greater audience and the violent treatment of dogs, such as that enacted by Harry, will become a thing of the past. The examples of Rebecca’s toughness, helped by her canine off-siders, disrupt gender certainty and the binaries traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity. Her character shows that gender is not determined by sex; indeed women can have stereotypically masculine characteristics such as those associated with toughness.

While Rebecca’s toughness is enhanced by her partnership with her dogs, ironically her femininity is also addressed in conjunction with her interest in dogs. Like her toughness, which disrupts spaces traditionally dominated by men, symbolically her dogs are repeatedly called upon to disrupt her femininity. For example, in preparation for the B and S ball, Rebecca engages in a rare evening of feminine adornment including painting her nails and donning a “short red dress” (72). The narrator pre-empts all this by stating that, “Rebecca wasn’t the kind of girl who usually had time to paint her nails, or would even bother. But she had the feeling tonight would be special” (63). Even her male room mate Dave notices her effort, making fun of her nail polish, suggesting, “You’re keen to get a bit, judging by those nails…You planning on breaking the drought tonight?” (71). These markers of femininity are disturbed by Rebecca completing her station chores, an allusion to the fairytale Cinderella. Rebecca’s chores include riding a four-wheel bike to kill a sheep, give offal to the pigs then feed her dogs, all of which must be completed before she departs for the ball. The narrative sustains the feminine symbolism of nail polish yet juxtaposes it against the reality of Rebecca’s jillaroo work and her interest in cattle dog training:

Bec’s nails looked so out of place on the handlebars…They reminded her of the cover of a Jackie Collins novel, not that she’d ever bothered to read one [preferring] kelpie training manuals and the Department of Agriculture’s guide to building better sheep yards (67).

The narrative interplay between Rebecca’s dressing up with her Jackie Collins nails, her completion of the farm jobs and the introspective revelation that she prefers reading about dog training over popular women’s fiction together destabilise gender certainty, showing the fluidity of gender as she moves in and out of stereotypical and non-stereotypical gender performances.[14] Just as the narrative establishes one gender stereotype, such as the use of nail polish, it is undercut by the quick shift to the reality of farm life. In another related example, when Rebecca appears in her short red dress, Dave wolf whistles (72). This example reinforces Rebecca’s ability to “dress up” and cater to the male gaze. However, the narrator does not leave this image unchallenged, undercutting her attractiveness by having Rebecca respond in a “blokey way” by saying, “Cheers, buddy,” as she opens a can of beer to drink (72). Both her words and action are traditionally associated with men. In another scene Rebecca travels to the city to attend her mother’s wedding and decides to stop into a town to shop for an outfit to wear to the ceremony. The narrative reveals her “looking heartlessly for a dress…mov[ing] amongst the shoppers as though she wasn’t there at all” (129). The shop assistant assumes she is a shoplifter due to her disinterest; however [End Page 15] Rebecca has two issues here. Firstly, the omniscient narrator states, “she hated shopping” (129) and secondly, she is distracted by her worry for her “good-looking” dogs chained up on the back of her ute: “they could be stolen easily” (129). Through the fluid narrative movement between gender stereotypes in narrative moments such as these, Rebecca’s character, “reveal[s] the artificiality of femininity as the “normal” state of women” (Inness 21). Indeed, her interest in dog training and breeding, stereotypically the domain of men, and her disinterest in stereotypically feminine rituals such as shopping, reinforces the fluidity and unfixed movement of gender attributes.

Rebecca’s gender qualities challenge stereotypical understandings of what women can do because she enters traditional “male” spaces and engages in processes and practices normally associated with dominant hegemonic masculinities (Alston “Gender Perspectives in Australian Rural Community Life” 141). While the fact she is a woman makes men initially suspicious of her presence, Rebecca’s toughness enables her to enter sites typically dominated by men as their equal such as livestock saleyards, pubs, and farm organisations. According to Alston (2005) and Campbell (2000), these are spaces where knowledge is constructed, particular truths “become privileged” and in turn “ensur[es] that a male view of the world dominates” (Alston “Gender Perspectives in Australian Rural Community Life” 143). Alston however argues that the production of hegemonic masculinity is “constantly open to challenge and is a site for struggle” (Alston “Gender Perspectives in Australian Rural Community Life” 144). Rebecca’s complex gender construction, particularly her fluid appropriation of masculine and feminine characteristics depending on the situation, shows that gender is unfixed. As well Rebecca shows that these sites as domains of male hegemony are in themselves constructions that can be resisted, challenged and changed. Indeed the partnership between Rebecca and her kelpies enables her not just to enter sites like stockyards, but to remain there and demonstrate her ethical behaviour towards animals as well as her superior skills and knowledge. The representation of a heroine capable of entering these locations and performing equally, in some cases better than men, challenges the conventional understanding of women in these contexts but also offers the hope that her treatment and knowledge of working dogs as well as her adherence to sustainable and organic farming will inspire or motivate others.

The relationship between Rebecca and her kelpies, a sign of impressive “interspecies competence” (Fudge 11) clearly mediates any reading of her as a romantic and tough heroine. However, Rebecca also plays a role in the positive development of human-animal relationships in other characters. Dogs in Jillaroo become a symbolic mechanism for assessing the “health of a man’s heart” as Kant suggests. Indeed, Charlie has a good-natured relationship with her dogs and they approve of him as a romantic suitor to their owner. Harry however has a more complicated relationship with animals where he clearly enacts his vitriol on his untrained dogs for much of the novel. While I have outlined these violent incidents already, part of the novel’s romantic resolution is another of Regis’s romantic elements, the optional element of the “bad converted”. Regis describes this as “a scene or scenes [where] one or more opponents of the marriage [is] converted to an acceptance of it and incorporated into the society formed by the union at the end of the novel” (Regis 39).  After Tom’s death and Harry’s accident, Rebecca is invited to return to Waters Meeting enabling her to reunite with her land and later with Charlie. More importantly, Tom’s suicide causes Harry to change so much that he tirelessly helps Rebecca on the farm, despite his disability, and they begin to build their father-daughter [End Page 16] relationship from scratch. The indicator of Harry’s ultimate transformation is his request to buy a puppy from Rebecca saying, “if I’m going to be any use to you with one arm, I’d better learn how to work one of your fancy dogs…I’d be better off doing [work] the quiet way. Horse and dog” (434). Rebecca’s response is that Harry should start by reading a Tony Parsons kelpie training manual, saying, “Who said you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks?” (434) Once he starts to train the puppy, Cloe, the narrator describes how Rebecca “marvell[ed] at how much her father had changed…[having] at last found a companion and some compassion for working dogs” (442). Harry’s behavioural and attitudinal transformation becomes most obvious in reading Jillaroo through Regis’s elements of romance with a focus on the symbolic value of dogs within rural culture. Harry’s new foray into dog training is the ultimate sign of his now positive participation in the new community created as a result of Rebecca’s successful quest and her restored relationship with Charlie. Harry’s transformation and shift in world view adds to the reader’s enjoyment of this novel’s ending suggesting that the romance plot and the ethics plot are intertwined.


In Regis’s defence of the romance novel, she emphasises the way that heroines and heroes overcome impediments to their relationship through the ‘barriers’ and point of ritual death. In overcoming the barriers and ritual death, once the heroine is free, “she chooses the hero” (Regis 16). Regis names the freedom of heroines as “two great liberations” (Regis 15) where surmounting barriers enables them to unite with their hero and through “cheat[ing] ritual death…[she] is freed to live” (Regis 15). In Jillaroo, Rebecca prevails against the literal and symbolic renderings of death including the death of her brother Tom, the disintegration of her relationship with Charlie and the decline in the land due to drought and mismanagement by her father. Choosing to be with Charlie is therefore one aspect of Rebecca’s freedom as the narrative concludes; having survived everything else, she is now “free” to “choose her hero” and can then enjoy her love with Charlie. However, her freedom also springs from overcoming the external family barriers, such as Harry not allowing her to run the farm, and the wider traditional expectations of rural women that attempt to block her quest to acquire experience and knowledge. In contesting the expectations of women in rural culture by entering ‘men’s spaces’ and succeeding in tasks they usually perform with the help of her kelpies, Rebecca challenges the gender inequality around her and models ethical non-violent behaviour towards others (humans, animals and the environment). Subsequently, she is freed (even if only momentarily) to run her farm and subsequently the reader “rejoices.” The treatment of animals, especially dogs in this novel, can be read as a metaphor for the treatment of women, as Erica Fudge states, we can “learn new things about the humans if we look at the animals” (Fudge 8). While it is no secret in contemporary sociological research that significant gender issues shape life in rural Australia, Jillaroo assists in communicating those issues to a wider audience and providing fictional role models for rural women.

Dogs play a vital role at various textual levels of Jillaroo. While references to dog phrases such as “deserting bitch” (282), “been on my tail” (450) and “dog eared” (459) frequently appear in this novel maintaining the presence of dogs even when they are not [End Page 17] active participants in a scene, it is through their active participation that the most important ideas of communion between humans, dogs and ultimately non-human life are realised. In particular, Rebecca’s depiction as a breeder and trainer of working kelpies is unique in representing a woman working with dogs in this way. This representation of a human-dog relationship disrupts any dominant discourse that suggests that men are the main dog masters in rural life and reflects Rachael Treasure’s own life as a dog breeder and trainer.[15] While romance generally may not need animals, rural romance, with its focus on agriculture and farm life, cannot escape the presence of animals, especially those who toil for our food and wares. The representation of those animals and the wider environment can be a touchtone for gender and ecological issues in a time when there is much work to be done in terms of humans ethically engaging with each other, the world and other species.

[1] Margaret Alston argues that “it appears that women’s work is being discounted and devalued, and certainly not recorded. Economic historians still appear to see men as the norm and women as the ‘other’” (Alston Women: The Hidden Heart of Rural Australia 4-6).

[2] In her study of national character in relation to women and rural Australia, Kay Schaffer ascribes this comment (what she suggests is also a ‘common refrain’) to the title of a short story of acclaimed Australian poet Henry Lawson from his collection Short Stories and Sketches: 1888-1922 (Schaffer 194).

[3] See Schaffer (1989) and MacKellar (2004) for discussions of representations of women in the bush.

[4]Juliet Flesch in From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels, discusses a number of rural romances by Lucy Walker published during the 1950s and 1960s featuring women transgressing the gender expectations of the day. They include women who run large properties or work as rouseabouts, shearers and even loggers (Flesch).

[5] An overview of ‘chook lit’ novels by the Library News journal notes that the works of Lucy Walker published between 1953 and 1977 with their “suntanned, laconic Australians and huge outback stations” were suggestive of an early incarnation of rural romance. See “Chook Lit”.

[6]  Treasure’s five books are Jillaroo (2002), The Stockman (2004), The Rouseabout (2008), The Cattleman’s Daughter (2009) and The Farmer’s Wife (2013). Treasure has also written a screen play Albert’s Chook Tractor for SBS TV, a non-fiction e-book about dog training called Dog Speak and a collection of short stories, The Girl and Ghost-Grey Mare (2011). She was awarded the title of Tasmanian Rural Woman of the Year in December 2006 which included a $10,000 bursary that she used to write Dog Speak and create a DVD. She has also published Fifty Bales of Hay, a collection of rural erotica inspired by the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey novels.

[7] Dogs appear in novels by Janet Evanovich, Jennifer Crusie and Jayne Ann Krentz. Crusie has also co-authored a novel with Anne Stuart and Lani Diane Rich called Dogs and Goddesses.

[8]Margaret Alston uses the term “patrilineal inheritance” to describe the practice of sons inheriting farms from their fathers, a practice she describes as “ensur[ing] that farms [End Page 18] are owned and controlled by men.” See Alston, Women: The Hidden Heart of Rural Australia 7.

[9]See Alston (1995) for a detailed exploration of the traditional roles of men and women in rural Australia.

[10] This refrain of “losing the lot” in the novel parallels Harry’s futile attempt to retain control. According to Mayer, “losing a farm is more than losing a job. It is a way of life or a vocation…for a farmer all is lost, job, home- and perhaps that of many previous generations livelihood and very sense of self.” (Mayer as cited in Davies.)

[11] The B and S ball (otherwise known as the Bachelor and Spinster’s Ball) is a rural tradition in Australia. Young men and women gather to dance, drink and socialise away from the sometimes stressful life on the land. Such balls are also geared for community benefit as they bring income to host towns. Most importantly, they are an opportunity for young people to meet a potential partner. See “Balls in the Bush” and “Bachelor and Spinsters Ball” for more information about B and S Balls.

[12]It is important to note that in 2013, Rachael Treasure released The Farmer’s Wife, the sequel to Jillaroo, its premise “She got her fairytale ending—but life had other plans…” (book cover). The Farmer’s Wife sees Rebecca in a hopeless marriage to Charlie and again battling to save her beloved farm from environmental desecration.

[13] Rebecca stands in contrast to other contemporary romance heroines who sometimes experience their body in a way that Michele Hammers has noted in television show Ally McBeal as a “barrier to women’s full effective participation in professional spheres.” See Hammers for a more detailed discussion of contemporary television heroines and the body.

[14] See Taylor for a more detailed discussion of gendered performances in relation to femininity and the “discourse of the new.”

[15]Treasure has written a non-fiction e-book about dog training called Dog Speak. She was awarded the title of Tasmanian Rural Woman of the Year in December 2006 which included a $10,000 bursary that she used to write Dog Speak and create a DVD (See Brennan). [End Page 19]

 Works Cited

Alston, Margaret. “Gender Perspectives in Australian Rural Community Life.” Sustainability and Change in Rural Australia. Eds. Cocklin, Chris and Jacqui Dibden. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2005. 139-156. Print.

—. Women: The Hidden Heart of Rural Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1995. Print.

Armbruster, Christoph. The Search for Meaning in the Australian Novel. New York; Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1991. Print.

“Bachelor and Spinsters Ball”. July 14 2007. Web.

“Balls in the Bush”. July 2007. Web.

Brennan, Janette. “A Woman of Many Talents.” Tas Regions. March 2007. 2. Print.

Campbell, Hugh. “The Glass Phallus: Pub(Lic) Masculinity and Drinking in Rural New Zealand.” Rural Sociology, Vol.64/4, (2000): 562-81. Print.

“Chook lit.” LibNews. Nov 2012-Feb 2013. 2012. Print.

Davies, P. “The Causes and Effects of Stress in Farming Communities in East Anglia.” Ed. Institute of Rural Health. Gregynog, 2005. Print.

Dunbabin, Sandy. “Write Country Stuff.” Tasmanian Country. Sept 1 2006. Print.

Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle: Curtin University Press, 2004. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College De France. Trans. Burchell, Graham. Ed. Gros, Frederic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Fudge, Erica. “A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals.” Representing Animals

Ed. Rothfels, Nigel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. 3-18. Print.

Gifford, Terry. Pastoral. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Hammers, Michele L. “Cautionary Tales of Liberation and Female Professionalism: The Case of Ally Mcbeal.” Western Journal of Communication Vol. 69/2, (2005): 167(16). Print.

Inness, Sherrie A. Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Duties Towards Animals.” Bioethics: An Anthology. Eds. Kuhse, Helga and Peter Singer. Second Edition. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. 564-565. Print.

MacKellar, Maggie. Core of My Heart, My Country. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004. Print.

Negra, Diane. “”Quality Postfeminism?” Sex and the Single Girl on HBO”. 2004. Genders Online Journal. June 22 2004. Web.

Parsons, A.D. (Tony). The Working Kelpie. Melbourne: Nelson, 1986. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Schaffer, Kay. Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.

“Steamed Up.” The Weekly Times. 28 Dec 2011. Print.

Taylor, Anthea. “What’s New About ‘the New Femininity’? Feminism, Femininity and the Discourse of the New.” Hecate Vol. 29/2, (2003): 182-90. Print.

Treasure, Rachael. Jillaroo. Camberwell, Australia: Penguin, 2002. Print. [End Page 20]

Treasure, Rachael. The Farmer’s Wife. Sydney, Australia: Harpercollins, 2013. Print. [End Page 21]


After Happy Ever: Tender Extremities and Tangled Selves in Three Australasian Bluebeard Tales
by Lucy Butler

Introduction: Tending the Bluebeard Tale

“We must tend the myths […] only in that way shall we survive.” Janet Frame (2007, 109)

The Bluebeard tales of Margaret Mahy, Sarah Quigley and Marion Campbell suggest that we use narratives of romance actively, if not often critically or consciously enough, to negotiate our relationships and give shape and meaning to our lives. This is what makes reprising the familiar romantic scripts, particularly the foundational stories of myth and [End Page 1] fairy tale, a vital undertaking. Narrative is not the bearer of ideology in any uncomplicated sense in these works, and the meanings of even so seemingly transparent a text as the fairy tale prove to be highly unstable and adaptable. In these relatively recent works by female writers in Australasia, Bluebeard’s key tropes of fragmentation, repetition and revelation are remobilised to challenge the fiction of romantic sufficiency and to complicate the popular representation of romantic love as a site of self-realisation. These writers are not working in a purely critical or revisionist mode, however: their stories partake of the pleasures and seductions of narrative and visual representations even as they challenge popular romantic mythology. If these postmodern Bluebeard tales are riddled with unresolved tensions, then this reflects the conflicted, often contradictory, and yet still central position of romantic love in an apparently post-romantic age.

The Bluebeard fairy tale, written by Charles Perrault in 1697,[1] has many affinities with Gothic romance novels, yet it also lends itself to a critique of popular romance. As several commentators have pointed out (Warner; Tatar), Bluebeard is an anomaly in the fairy tale canon in that it begins where most tales end: with marriage. Bluebeard’s secret chamber can be seen as a repository of “the detritus of his failed romances” (Haslem 2003), and reprising the tale, in the texts considered here, amounts to prising open the paradoxes in popular representations of romantic love. Beginning where romance narratives tend to finish, unlocking the door of “happily ever after” to reveal a bloody chamber, Bluebeard is apt for examining the complications concealed behind the rather glib final phrase of the classic fairy tale romance.

Bluebeard is a story that female characters in contemporary film and fiction tend to stumble into unawares, as though the narrative were submerged in contemporary culture. The mute adolescent heroine of New Zealand author Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence (1995), for instance, suddenly realises that she has been caught in the cage of a certain story: “It was the tale of a bride who was allowed to go anywhere in a house except for one forbidden room[…]” (110). Similarly, in Francesca Lia Block’s Bluebeard story, “Bones” (2000), the diminutive narrator is in danger of falling prey to the infamous photographer Derrick Blue: “He took a key from his pocket. I wasn’t afraid. I couldn’t quite remember the story” (162). With this forgetting in mind, I will briefly summarise the plot of Perrault’s Bluebeard tale.

Bluebeard is a very wealthy, mysterious nobleman who wants a wife but his suspect past and repellent blue beard make it difficult for him to find a bride despite his great fortune. He finally convinces a peasant girl to marry him. Shortly after the wedding, Bluebeard announces that he has business to attend to elsewhere. He gives his new bride the keys to every room in his castle and tells her that she can roam freely as long as she doesn’t enter one particular small room. Once alone, however, the young wife cannot contain her curiosity and soon finds herself opening the door to the forbidden chamber, where she makes the grisly discovery of the mutilated corpses of Bluebeard’s seven previous wives. She drops the key to the chamber in shock, and it becomes stained by the blood and gore on the chamber floor. Bluebeard returns and demands to see the key that betrays his wife’s disobedience. As punishment, she must join the other brides in the bloody chamber. Bluebeard prepares to decapitate his wife but her brothers appear with swords drawn, just in the nick of time, and kill the tyrant. The heroine inherits her husband’s riches and marries a more worthy man. [End Page 2]

Bluebeard is a fundamentally ambivalent tale; it cannot be summed up by Perrault with a single moral like his other tales, but requires two: the first warns wives not to pry, while the second tells husbands that times have changed and they can no longer assume quite the same authority. Fairy tale scholar Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, notes “the porousness of stories to their tellers’ temper and beliefs” (1995, 255). Bluebeard proves to be highly malleable in the hands of contemporary writers, open to different and even contradictory moral slants.

In her recent study of the Bluebeard tale in the English tradition, Casie Hermansson (2009) points out that references to the Grimms’ Bluebeard variants “Fitcher’s Bird” and “The Robber Bridegroom” have become much more prevalent in feminist revisions of the tale (170).  In “Fitcher’s Bird” the wily heroine rescues herself through her own cunning, reassembling the corpses of her sisters in the process. Poetically, she leaves a grinning skull bedecked in bridal finery in her place as she flees the castle disguised as a bird. It is not surprising that this version of the tale has held particular appeal for feminist-oriented writers and artists challenging the classic fairy tale tropes of feminine passivity and victimhood. Though it is Perrault’s better-known tale that is explicitly referenced in the works in this article, their female protagonists clearly have a defiant spirit and, like the Grimms’ heroine, enact various rescues and “re-memberings”.

With its vivid images of domestic violence and relative lack of magical elements, Bluebeard is hardly a bedtime story by modern standards, and it is not surprising that Disney has yet to animate it. But while it may be less immediately visible than more comfortable or comforting tales, Bluebeard remains a powerful narrative in contemporary culture: the secretive man with the dark past and the compulsively curious woman determined to get to the bottom of it is an enduringly popular theme. While the early tale had little to do with love and romance in its current conception, concerned instead with material gain and physical survival, Bluebeard has been used to signify the redemptive power of love, as well as its potential blindness, and contemporary authors are putting yet another spin on the tale’s tropes of fragmentation, repetition, and revelation. The qualities of secrecy and curiosity, while they continue to be symbolically gendered, are no longer attributed to male or female per se, but are instead used to investigate broader problems of romantic love in relation to language, knowledge and self-definition.

Postmodern Bluebeard tales foreground the act of storytelling and its role in shaping romantic relations: they are self-conscious in their storydom and acutely aware of the power at stake in assuming any kind of authorship. Their (anti)heroines are unable to slip seamlessly into the romance narratives they don’t quite believe in yet long to inhabit nonetheless. Instead, they must negotiate a constant tension between competing selves and stories in the realm of romantic love. Genuine empathy and embodied compassion grow in the cracks of the official love story, while true illumination is most often found in moments of collision with sister selves, the other women in Bluebeard’s chamber, with whom the protagonists inevitably share aspects of their stories and identities. The revelation and recognition of this unbidden kinship is key to breaking with romantic delusion in the works considered here. In the current context, where love is very often experienced as a succession of monogamous relationships, the Bluebeard trope of repetition is especially potent, as Alison Lurie suggests (129). The substitutions of love unsettle a romantic mythology predicated on subjective uniqueness. Confronting the other girls and women who have occupied the same place in the romantic narrative helps to break the spell of [End Page 3] perfect romantic sufficiency, fracturing the self-enclosed world in which the heroine’s love fantasy thrives.

Several commentators have pointed to the prevalence of a doubled, ironic first person narrative voice in recent Bluebeard tales. Warner, for instance, notes the tendency for narrators of contemporary feminist fairy tales to adopt a tone of feigned naiveté, employing “the voice of a child who is not a child, whose voice is always doubled, always deceitful, always masked” (1995,193). Voice is at the fore in the works of Mahy, Quigley and Campbell. Like the influential tales of Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom return to Bluebeard and its variants repeatedly in their work, these Australasian tales are highly artful accounts disguised as first-person confessionals, employing an often disingenuous intimacy with the reader that questions the power inherent in any act of apparent disclosure. Maria Tatar suggests that the Bluebeard tale turns on “the quest for intimacy through knowledge” (2004, 6). The disingenuous confessional mode enables these authors to play the fine line between knowledge and disavowal in romantic relations, and to interrogate the submerged tension between the supposedly private, unmediated emotional experience of love, and the highly constructed, cultural nature of the love story.

Much has been written on Australasian Filmmaker Jane Campion’s acclaimed Bluebeard tale, The Piano (1993).[2] The following section will focus on another mute protagonist of New Zealand fiction. Like Campion’s Ada, the imaginative and silent heroine of New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel The Other Side of Silence (1995), reclaims her voice in the course of her passage through the Bluebeard tale. As in The Piano, Hero’s voice is literally submerged beneath a sea of competing stories and truth claims; its surfacing requires learning to balance embodied, imaginative and abstract truths in the pursuit of love and self-definition. Like Campion, the late Mahy is one of New Zealand’s most awarded and successful creative practitioners but her work, written for children and young adults, has received far less critical attention. Her portrayal of the power of story to shape human relations is rich and nuanced, as the following section aims to demonstrate.

Refusing to sing in the cage of story: Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence

As in many postmodern Bluebeard tales, voice (and voicelessness) is at the heart of Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence. Mahy, who died in 2012, produced some of New Zealand’s most popular and influential Young Adult fiction. The Other Side of Silence is a Bluebeard story dealing with the problematic nexus of love, story and self-definition in the deceptively simple first-person narrative voice characteristic of contemporary fairy tales. It is a coming-of-age story about finding one’s way in the thicket of love and family life, amidst a disorienting swirl of competing stories about who and how to love.

Hero, the third child in a large family of loud talkers and powerful thinkers, stopped speaking three years before the action of the novel begins. Electively mute, Hero wields the power of withholding speech in a family dominated by oppressive eloquence and endless argument. Hermansson points out that now, “[e]ven in juvenile literature, postmodern self-reflexivity is the norm” (159); Hero’s very name suggests the novel’s self-consciousness [End Page 4] about the power of story to shape identity. The novel celebrates the power of stories, from the academic text to the fairy tale, to transport and transform even as it warns that this power can equally circumscribe and maim. Recognising this power, Hero chooses to withhold her words; yet she remains, in the heart of her silence, “a word child” (4), living out private stories on her own terms. These terms change abruptly, however, when she falls from her fantastical flights in the tree tops into a tale so twisted that only her schooling in Old Fairy Tales could have prepared her for its unfolding.

Eva Illouz asserts that the postmodern romantic condition is characterised by “the blurring of the boundary between the real and its representation” (1997, 15, emphasis in original). This blurring, key to the three Bluebeard tales examined in this article, is treated most explicitly in Mahy’s novel. Hero imagines being turned into a book, and while she would prefer The Jungle Book, “I would probably have been turned into Old Fairy Tales, which was the book everyone read me when I was small” (8). She uses this book for “divination” and her familiarity with it lends a sense of inevitability to the novel’s unfolding. She remarks of the Credence house and garden into which she tumbles: “it seemed as if I had been working my way towards it from the very first time anyone ever told me a story” (14).

All of the female characters in this tale are intoxicated by the power of story. “Real life is what you are supposed to watch out for, but an invented life, lived truly, can be just as dangerous” (3), Hero observes at the beginning of the novel. Hero’s mother Annie is a successful academic and best-selling author of books on how to raise brilliant children. Hero’s older sister Ginerva, for many years a poster-girl for her mother’s theories, ran away from home, returning during the course of the novel battered almost beyond recognition by her new career as a stunt car driver. The main Bluebeard figure in this tale is Miss Credence, the “deeply strange” neighbour into whose story Hero falls. Miss Credence lives as her father’s ghost, haunting his huge, decrepit estate. Like all Bluebeard figures, Miss Credence is deeply private, and she is so enthralled by Hero’s silence that she offers her a job clearing her neglected house and garden. Miss Credence is the daughter of a former Vice Chancellor of the University, “a world figure in the field of symbolic logic” (85), whose influence she cannot escape but whose power she can never inhabit, though she wears his academic gown, smokes his cigarettes and stalks cats with his old hunting rifle.

Under the spell of her dead father’s disdain for anything but the highest order of abstract thought, and desperate to protect his reputation, Miss Credence has secretly locked her “substandard” illegitimate daughter in a chamber in the tower. Chained to her bed, the unspeakable secret at the heart of her mother’s tale of romantic abandonment, Jorinda Credence is Hero’s abject symbolic sister. Incarcerated for all of her eighteen years, Rinda claws and gnaws at her own flesh, screaming “dreadful, silent screams” (159). It is only by passing through Bluebeard’s chamber and bringing this “terrible twin” (141) to light that Hero can rescue herself (assisted by Sam, her love interest) and reclaim her voice.

Hero immediately recognises the inevitability of what she finds in the forbidden chamber (protected, in this contemporary tale, by a security system rather than a key): “As soon as I actually saw Rinda I wondered why I had not known all along that it was she who was up there, waiting for me like a terrible kind of twin” (141). In contemporary female-penned Bluebeard tales, as noted, recognising the suffering of one’s sisters is critical to breaking with abuse and finding one’s own power. It enables the heroine to view her predicament in broader, cultural terms, the first step in empowering her to change these [End Page 5] terms. Rinda Credence has been rendered silent and invisible because she doesn’t fit her mother’s story of intellectual brilliance. Underlining this sisterly doubling, Miss Credence has painted a picture of her damaged daughter as Ginerva, Hero’s sister, from a photograph in a newspaper article lauding Ginerva’s childhood genius, before Ginerva broke free from her mother’s story of intellectual brilliance. It is this painting that reveals Miss Credence as a Bluebeard figure to Hero, well-versed as she is in the old tales, and sends her on the search for the forbidden chamber.

Acutely and ambivalently aware of the shaping power of story, the sisters in this novel go to extreme lengths to avoid being circumscribed by the stories of those around them. Hero opts for self-imposed silence, while Ginerva embraces dangerous physical extremes that keep her in the body and the moment, free from her mother’s “prodigy” mythology. Story is powerful, but it is not monolithic, Hero discovers. Crucial to her survival of the Bluebeard tale is Hero’s belated realisation that the bars on the windows where she and Rinda are held are not steel but flimsy painted wood: “I had been looking at the idea of a cage, rather than a real one” (156). It is a symbolic cage, a cage of story and expectation, though the consequences of such conceptual prisons can be real enough.

Hermansson observes of contemporary Bluebeard: “[t]he story is not only about Bluebeard; the story is Bluebeard” (160), and in Mahy’s novel, the trap is the tale itself. When Hero falls into Miss Credence’s garden, Credence immediately gives Hero a new fairy tale name, which is also her daughter’s: Jorinda, from the Grimms’ ‘Jorinda and Joringel’. “The name was a leash that could be used to twitch me into place,” Hero realizes (23). Hero senses that her fairy tale tendencies have been turned against her: “I don’t belong in this story, I kept thinking over and over again. I don’t have to give in to it” (85). And later: “my secret story had somehow broken free, and was twisting back on me with its jaws open” (127). But if Hero can’t control her story, then nor can her captor: “Miss Credence was still a storyteller of a sort, but I knew she wasn’t in charge of the story any more. The story was in charge of her” (85). Stories are never entirely in the service of the teller, the novel suggests, and they can turn from comfortingly familiar to oppressive in the blink of an eye. You have to know the tricks, Mahy suggests, “tend the myths” (as Frame puts it), pay attention to the old stories that have serious consequences, even, or especially, if they are operating just beneath the surface of our consciousness. Hero both loves and fears the battered books that have been handed down from her parents through her siblings to her. The stories call to her: “Make me true, they would say to me over and over again. Make me true” (30). But if narrative is so volatile, so open to different turns, therein lies opportunity, Hero discovers. Once she gets her fictional bearings and regains some agency, her curiosity, initially a compulsion in classic Bluebeard fashion, becomes an assertive call to action. She is then able to repeat actively, rather than passively[3]: “it wasn’t enough just to be something magical. I must do something magical. I must push the story on” (138).

Houses in Bluebeard tales are often symbolic extensions of their occupants’ psyches. The stagnancy and secrecy of the forest-shrouded Credence mansion is in stark contrast to the transparency of Hero’s family home, which is perpetually under renovation and wide open to the world. The Credence mansion is a shrine to the late Professor’s brilliance. Hero intuits the way his intellectual arrogance undermined his relationships. She perceives the gown worn by the Professor, and now by his daughter, as a kind of defence against the uncertainty of intimacy: “He must have felt comfortable behind a fence of long, black [End Page 6] folds” (89). In typical Bluebeard fashion, the Professor is as wealthy as he is isolated. Once his wife–despised as an intellectual inferior–dies, the house becomes lifeless.

On first entering Credence mansion, Hero encounters a photograph of “Professor Credence, smiling across a dead stag which was stretched out at his feet” (82). His daughter copies his posturing with the cats she shoots, but Hero observes that Miss Credence’s expression more closely resembles the stag’s. Mahy critiques an academic authority that reduces the wild, messy aliveness of the world to something dead certain, something pinned and final. In postmodern renditions Bluebeard very often seeks a kind of fixing rationality that oppresses the other. American novelist Lydia Millet’s Bluebeard (1998), for instance, kills because the unruly bodies of his wives debase the romantic ideal. Bluebeard often appears as an erudite puritan, an aesthete, a collector, or an obsessive in popular culture, as Warner notes (1995, 269); there are many examples of this in the serial killer genre, most famously perhaps The Silence of the Lambs (Harris, 1988). The ultimate meaning of the other can be fixed only in death in these contemporary takes on the Bluebeard tale, and the quest for definitive knowledge in the name of love is figured in images of physical suffering and psychic fragmentation.

In The Other Side of Silence, Miss Credence is so deeply entrenched in her father’s mythology of academic brilliance above all else that she can escape only by shooting herself in the head. And the head is where the problems happen in this novel, as Mahy depicts the attachment to rigid categorical knowledge or excessively abstract thought as an obstruction to loving relationships. If, as Tatar suggests, the Bluebeard tale turns on “the quest for intimacy through knowledge” (2004:6), then in Mahy’s fictional world some ways of knowing are more apt for intimacy than others.

In true fairy tale fashion, Hero falls in love with the teenager who helps to rescue her from Bluebeard’s chamber, though she remains the hero of the story rather than Sam. There is more power in being the author of a tale than in being its hero, though, as Hero recognises. The majority of the novel is told in the first person, and the reader is privy to all the things that Hero doesn’t say to the people around her. But the novel’s brief fifth part takes place in the third person, three years after the main action of the novel. The now fifteen year old Hero has just completed the novel that details her passage through Bluebeard’s chamber. In the continuing tussle between concealment and disclosure characteristic of the Bluebeard tale, Hero’s hidden novel draft is discovered and read by her parents against her wishes. Her mother delightedly declares Hero “a writer” and prepares to send the book to a publisher. Hero is not so sure. She decides to take the advice of Old Fairy Tales once more: “Tell your sorrows to the old stove in the corner” (181). She burns the manuscript, deletes the electronic copies, and goes running with Sam, who reminds her gently that there’s more to life than thinking. Sam shows her that she can transform herself not only through flights of fantasy and intellectual brilliance, but through flights of physical being. Like the wily third sister of “Fitcher’s Bird,” Hero finds freedom in a winning combination of cunning, imagination and daring physical action.

Hero is suitably ambivalent about the power she assumes in authoring Rinda’s story (her symbolic sister is slowly being rehabilitated to speak, under the fascinated academic eye of Hero’s mother Annie). Closing the book, we realise that, in keeping with the disingenuous narrative style Warner cites, the tale we have just read is Hero’s story, the one she has supposedly destroyed. And so the irresistible lure of story wins out, but only [End Page 7] when integrated with embodied empathy, compassionate engagement and critical awareness.

The Other Side of Silence explores the need to balance privacy with transparency, solitude with connectedness, and to reconcile inner and outer worlds. The power of stories to shape relationships is not inherently positive or negative in this novel, but it is profound. Opening these relationships to transformation is not a matter of exchanging fiction for reality, imaginative knowledge for empirical or vice versa. The Bluebeard trope of revelation and the tale’s characteristic play of repression and disclosure bring to light the hidden stories at the hearts of the characters’ various identities, breaking them up that they may be better “re-membered” in respect of the physical world and the freedoms and desires of other people.

Love’s double-trouble: substitution and successive selves in Sarah Quigley’s ‘North of the Lights’

In New Zealand author Sarah Quigley’s Bluebeard story “North of the Lights” (1998), the themes of seriality and repetition, the doubling of husband and wife in pursuit of knowledge, and a playful, self-reflexive narrative voice work to question the wisdom of staking one’s sense of self in fairy tale romance plots.

‘He kept his ex-wife in a teapot above the stove’ (8). The opening line of Quigley’s short story, the first in her collection having words with you, signals its play on the Bluebeard tale. It is a photograph of his ex-wife, but this is enough to unmoor the female narrator Greta from the imagined certainties of her marital relations. In this story, Bluebeard’s wife is an illustrator of children’s books who spends her days in the world of fairy tale, while her journalist husband Alec prides himself on his hard-nosed rationality. Alec is arrogant and indifferent, but there is little evidence that he is still infatuated with his first wife Isobel, nor has a horrific fate befallen her. In fact, the photograph confronts Greta with the fraudulent nature of her own identity, the aspects of herself that she has repressed in order to marry her husband:

The past that I had buried ten fathoms deep, hastily, furtively, wiping my hands clean: or so I thought. But Isobel saw the remains of clay beneath my fingernails: she, with her sharp and shining eyes. (11)

In this Bluebeard tale, both husband and wife have a “secret” past, and each constructs the other in terms of deceptive surface and secretive interior. Cristina Bacchilega emphasises the doubled structure of the Bluebeard tale in her study Postmodern Fairy Tales (111). Bluebeard seeks to test his wife’s loyalty and obedience by giving her the key that she is forbidden to use, and reveals her to be the treacherous creature he suspects her of being. She betrays him to penetrate the secret chamber because she likewise suspects him of concealing his true identity, and finds him to be the monster she feared. Both are rewarded, in a sense, by having their worst suspicions confirmed. Postmodern Bluebeard tales such as Quigley’s depict a romantic mythology that diminishes the other to a prop in a personal [End Page 8] drama, an idea to assuage an imagined lack, or an aspect of the anticipated fulfilment of the self.

Hermansson notes that in contemporary renditions, “Bluebeard’s wife insists on her rights to access patriarchal institutions, now to include her husband’s own mind” (158). In Quigley’s story, the probing in which Bluebeard’s wife engages is on one level a valid and vital curiosity, a pragmatic approach to love and marriage. But this can easily tip over into a violation of the other’s inner world, as the compulsion to investigate and scrutinise the other helps to create the hidden horrors that it reveals (in the Bluebeard story, first wife notwithstanding, this is quite literally the case). Moreover, the urge to know the other completely is driven by the need to shore up one’s own identity, reliant, as it is in Quigley’s tale, on a fiction of perfect romantic sufficiency. In “North of the Lights”, Greta has attempted to entirely remake herself in her marriage to Alec, but after the revelation of Isobel, Greta can no longer pretend that either she or her husband is a clean slate.

I was a fraud. My partnership with Alec was one in which my weaknesses were rigorously ignored in the hope that they would vanish. And for a time it worked. Even I believed I was one of life’s predators, one of those red-lipped girls with reckless eyes. I pruned my past without compassion, severed my bleeding toes to cram them into my chosen slipper. (12).

Ann Snitow (1979/1996) observed in her seminal study of popular romance fiction that it is characteristic of classic romance narrative, and indeed of the fairy tale, that the privileged couple be removed from the flow of life and time, as well as from other social bonds, existing in pristine isolation (195-7). There are only two characters in this story: Greta and Alec. And Isobel, but she exists primarily as a symbol in their relationship. Greta’s “happy ever after” can be sustained only in the total absence of history and social context. When Isobel finally appears in person late in the piece, dropping in to pick up some papers, the game is finally up for Greta, who is forced to confront the fact that Isobel, in herself, isn’t the problem. The problem is Greta, and all the relationships she has “negated” in order to marry her husband: “sister, daughter, friend. And self” (12). Isobel, bearer of history, context and materiality, ruins the romantic plot and inadvertently sends Greta back to herself.

In another aspect of the doubling of Bluebeard and his wife, the revelation of Alec’s secret is equivalent to the revelation of Greta’s own. “Isobel” unleashes all the messiness and complication that each has in their own way denied. Greta has sustained the fiction of romantic sufficiency through the very fairy tale images (Bluebeard, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood) that are now turning on her, undermining her romantic assumptions. Like Hero in Mahy’s tale, Greta discovers that the fairy tale images that are her bread-and-butter are volatile, open to different and even contradictory messages. These tales are never entirely contained by the intentions of their creator, but may speak much more than she would like to hear. Alec, for his part, seeks control, or “absolute mastery,” as Greta puts it, of all that is unknown and uncertain, through a framework of rigid rationality that is untouched by his wife’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.

The destabilizing effect that the discovery of Isobel has on Greta’s identity is greatly exacerbated by the fact that she has staked her identity entirely in her marriage, severing anything that doesn’t fit. Alec’s relentless rationality renders him opaque and [End Page 9] impenetrable, much like Ed in Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” (1986), to both the reader and his wife. This is especially problematic because, having stripped herself of history, family, friends, Greta’s sense of self is completely contingent on her husband:

Through the mating of our possessions, my new identity had been born. I had created a brave new nature for myself, with fragments chipped from my lover’s side.

Biblical overtones? Perhaps. My trade, as I have said, is with legends, myths, fairytales. Alec’s lay in facts: a warning in itself, had I stopped for one moment in my brave new directionless stride. A journalist and a children’s illustrator, a gingerbread villa in Thorndon: highly suitable, happy ever after. But stories today demand more sophisticated endings. (9)

Along with a self-reflexive nod to the reader, whose complicity is foregrounded in contemporary Bluebeard, as Hermansson notes (160), in the marriage of Greta and Alec we again see staged the contest of knowledge that marks the Bluebeard tale. Greta’s husband, like most postmodern Bluebeards, deals in precision, bending the material world and indeed his own marriage to his will, wilfully blind to anything that doesn’t fit his rationalist paradigm. Lying awake at night, worrying about Isobel and what she means, Greta observes of Alec:

In sleep he lost the absolute mastery he had over the physical world. His fingers, so deft in the daylight hours and in the long slow evenings when they wielded a pen with the ruthlessness of a surgeon – these fingers would now twitch loosely on my skin. (8)

The image of a surgeon ruthlessly cutting resonates with images used by Mahy and others to evoke the perceived aggression of definitive truth claims and the violence of categorical language. Hero observes of her brother working on his MA thesis: “I came to imagine the poor fact lying there, panting and helpless, and Athol ruthlessly fixing it in his notebook, not so much with the point of his pen as with a skewer of words” (27). Quigley’s “ruthlessness of a surgeon” again calls to mind the opaque heart surgeon husband of “Bluebeard’s Egg”, and the famously severed finger in Campion’s The Piano. Roland Barthes[4] and Angela Carter[5] both also depict a lover performing a figurative dissection of the other in the name of love and knowledge.

As noted, in contemporary Bluebeard tales, the lover’s quest for knowledge is undermined by their anxious solipsism: they seek not to discover the other but to confirm pre-existing romantic expectations in which they are already heavily invested. An inquisitional approach to romantic relations is both necessitated and thwarted by the fact that the other is so central to one’s own identity, as is clearly the case for Quigley’s narrator. The attempt to catalogue and fix the other in the service of one’s own desire or identity is Bluebeard’s death-dealing quest and a trap the heroine must evade, even while she is prone to doubling her husband by demanding the assurances on which her self-identity rests. Again, Greta and Alec are doubled in their attempts to lay definitive claim to [End Page 10] one another. If Alec has a scalpel-like precision, Greta wonders: “how could I plant my stake in his heart without seeming insecure, possessive, a grasping imperialist?” (12).

Contemporary Bluebeard tales such as Quigley’s playfully expose the epistemological unease that frequently underlies and undermines romantic aspirations of unity and transparency. They may use different tools, but both Greta and Alec cut, reduce, contain the potential complexities of their relationship, and so their union is very fragile. It takes no more than a photo of an ex-wife to render it untenable. The story ends with Greta on an evening bus heading North, leaving her husband, returning to the muddy roots of her own history. Greta “confesses” to the reader that she is not Greta at all, but “Margaret McArdle from Palmerston North. […] There, I’ve said it. My secret is out” (12). These little asides to the reader create a disingenuous intimacy that mocks our expectations of transparency and disclosure, while Alec himself remains “in the dark”. In keeping with the theme of confounding certainty, Quigley complicates our identification with, and our access to, her protagonist, just as Greta herself is denied access to her husband’s inner world.

Bluebeard’s wife doubles not only her husband’s secret past and his aggressive approach to love-through-knowledge, she also impersonates his impenetrability. “I was equally pleased at the conviction of my own disguise. Spiky, glittering, I caught and reflected back his self-sufficiency” (10). This “hardness” is a performance Greta finds impossible to sustain, but it doesn’t matter much to Alec, as long as she remains installed in his “gingerbread villa”. He taunts her, knowingly or not, with her structural secondness:

 “Isobel used to say that too. Old Isobel. Christ, we had some fights.” His gaze raked the dim room like the beam of a lighthouse, picked out the golden teapot. I wonder now why I had no premonition of my fate as his lean fingers extracted the curling photo. Curiosity was all I felt as I stood at Bluebeard’s door. (10)

At this moment of revelation, Greta’s marriage, her very sense of self, is compromised: “Alec released Isobel from her circular prison and my own incarceration began” (1998:10). Like “the Second Mrs de Winter” in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), whose earnest efforts to create a loving marriage are mocked by the ghost of the first wife whose irreverence and unruliness represents all that has been repressed to create such as union, Greta is haunted by Isobel. “[N]ow that Isobel had seen the outside world, she was no longer content to stay in the darkness” (11).

In his seminal treatise on romantic love, A Lover’s Discourse (1978/2002), Barthes notes: “The lover painfully identifies himself with some person (or character) who occupies the same position as himself in the amorous structure” (129). The power of a mere photograph of the first wife to undermine Greta’s own identity speaks to a problem at the intersection of the dominant humanist model of integral selfhood and current romantic mythology that the Bluebeard tale is apt to address. Cultural theorist Dominic Pettman calls this problem “the trauma of the second love” (29). Through its repeated destruction and reformulation of the romantic couple, Bluebeard renders the loved object infinitely substitutable, challenging the romantic ideal of the singular merging of souls. The sheer number of bodies in Bluebeard’s chamber, as much as their dismembered state, threatens the sense of a unique and integral self. As Warner notes: “the seriality of the dead wives also marks their anonymity, their interchangeability, the failure of stable subjectivity” [End Page 11] (1995, 271). The serial aspect of the Bluebeard tale, in more recent renditions, highlights the threat posed to the identities of both lover and beloved when confronted with love’s tendency to repeat. No matter how many assurances one demands from a romantic partner, this suggests that it is ultimately impossible to avoid the fact of one’s somewhat contingent position in the romantic narrative. Pettman continues:

It is this inherent interchangability which lies at the brutal heart of the lover’s discourse. The fact that almost every text produced in its name insists otherwise only serves to highlight the power of denial needed to keep such knowledge at bay. (27)

We are confronted with this fact more frequently than ever in contemporary culture, where we are very rarely the first love, even if we are lucky enough to be the last, and a culture of successive monogamous relationships may be one reason for the renewed interest in the Bluebeard tale in recent decades (Lurie 129).[6]

In Quigley’s story, Greta lacks the necessary “power of denial” to sustain the fiction of her marital identity: “Once Isobel had exposed me there didn’t seem much point in going on with my life” (12). Confronted with the fraudulence of her romantic persona and the losses she has sustained to maintain the fiction, Greta is cut off from her creative life, unable to create the characters for her illustrations: “How could they live when their identities depended on mine, and I no longer had one?” (12). She is also divorced from her embodied self: “Barefoot, I could not feel the grass beneath my feet” (13). She takes to bed: “Invalid in both senses of the word” (13). In true Bluebeard fashion, Alec grows strong in inverse proportion to his wife’s languishing. She feels his “casual kisses” (13) robbing her last vestige of strength.

As observed, in Bluebeard tales both old and contemporary, a traumatic and illuminating encounter with Bluebeard’s former wives is key to breaking the spell of a suspect marriage or ending a period of romantic delusion. In Quigley’s tale it is indeed Isobel herself who breaks the stasis and sets Greta free, sends her back in search of Margaret. The abrupt fall of romantic idealisation into material reality that Isobel’s visit represents turns out to be exactly what Greta needs. If Isobel’s symbolic presence was incapacitating, her physical presence has precisely the opposite effect, bringing Greta back to her “senses”, in both senses of the word. Isobel’s “thick ankles” humorously suggest both the end of idealisation and Isobel’s groundedness, a refreshing contrast to the narrator’s capacity for fantasy. Isobel’s ankles anchor Greta to the earth again and to her own body; as she watches Isobel leave she feels “the hot boards scorch [her] feet” (15).

The substitutions of love, particularly unsettling in the context of a contemporary romantic mythology predicated on subjective uniqueness, helps to explain how the Bluebeard tale retains its currency, and why it cuts so deep. In contemporary versions of the tale the trope of repetition undermines the ability of romantic union both to complete the self and to guarantee the self’s uniqueness. Confronting Isobel, Greta has to relinquish the fantasy of her marital identity, her perfect romantic sufficiency, and recognise that she is, quite literally, an “other woman”. [End Page 12]

Tender Extremities: unravelling romantic love as self-identity in Marion Campbell’s Not Being Miriam

Slipping between first and third person narration, between genuine disclosure and disingenuous confessional, and indeed between different versions of the self, Mahy and Quigley challenge romantic aspirations of transparency and unity. They problematize the search for definitive knowledge in the name of love by presenting identity as an unstable construct created by many overlapping and competing stories. Australian writer Marion Campbell pushes this notion even further. Campbell takes the Bluebeard themes of fragmentation, repetition and revelation played out with witty fairy tale simplicity in Quigley’s short story and adds further layers of complexity, crafting a compelling exploration of the damage done in the struggle for subjective affirmation in and through romantic union.

As in “North of the Lights,” a photograph of an idealised first wife is pivotal in Not Being Miriam (1988). In another instance of the doubling of Bluebeard and his wife, Elsie dismembers a huge photograph of Miriam, the beloved first wife, which her abusive and sentimental husband keeps in the closet. She wraps the strips of photograph around herself like bandages, making literal the way she has been brutalised by the image of an idealised former love. Campbell’s novel deals with the overlapping lives and identities of Bess, Lydia and Elsie, three Australian women of different ages, ethnicities and socio-economic situations. It charts their struggles for distinction, recognition and self-identity within the limited frameworks and entrenched mythologies of their romantic relationships, relationships that, while seemingly subsidiary to these women’s considerable talents and desires, continue to be their main point of reference.

Campbell’s quite radical and political novel suggests, even more strongly than the preceding works, that roles in romantic plots, while they are always gendered, have a complex and unstable relation to the biological sexes of the participants. Bess, whom we first encounter as a young girl in Campbell’s novel, initially struggles for self-definition in an intense and passionate relationship with her younger sister Cassandra. Bess wants to be an actress. So does Cass, and she refuses to stay in the supporting roles her older sister assigns her. While Cass grows up to make her living as an actress, Bess settles for teaching drama. But she is always acting, and her identity is self-consciously tenuous and provisional.

Throughout the novel, Bess’s, Lydia’s and Elsie’s identities shift and merge, overlapping with each other and underpinned by the fictional, mythological and historical women with whom they identify. Ariadne is the “A” to the sisters’ “B” and “C”. Bess discovers the Classical Adriadne at a young age, in a rage at her romantic abandonment by her childhood crush Peter, who prefers the blonde, pretty Cass. “This is who Bess can be. Ariadne who learnt the plan, drugged the guards and gave the thread. Who knew” (15). But if Ariadne knows, then Cassandra does too. And it is Cass that Bess guards jealously, not Peter, who is peripheral, an object traded between sisters. Cass is self-contained and Bess experiences Cass’s opacity as a threat to her own identity. Expressing the constant tension between disclosure and secrecy that marks the Bluebeard tale, Bess wants to dissect Cass, to “ransack her sister for her secret” (23). [End Page 13]

It is Cass, and later Lydia and Elsie, who have the crucial relation to Bess’s own identity, just as relationships with former wives and sister selves are key in Quigley’s and Mahy’s stories. Yet it is the romance narrative that frames these relationships and a ubiquitous romantic mythology that turns the wheels of story. While these inter-female relationships seem to run deeper in Not Being Miriam, it is the love relation that is the lynch pin of identity. Bess absorbs this lesson as a young girl, in her identification with Ariadne, who is in the Dictionary of Classical Mythology under A for Abandonment. Ariadne is her abandonment by Theseus, and so she barely exists.

Bess’s identity is informed by the feminist politics of her era and education, but perhaps more profoundly shaped by the obsessive iteration of one particular classic love story. This is the story of their Aunt Mamie, which Bess and Cass act out every day after school for years. This story turns out to be a fabrication, a consolation for Mamie, a working-class beauty flattered into a Bluebeard marriage with a very wealthy, controlling and secretive man. Mamie’s attachment to her love story is enduring, and the end of the novel finds her re-enacting it in her nursing home, confused old people stammering through the lines she used to assign to her nieces. But, unlike Bess, Mamie knows it is a fiction.

Highlighting the fact of one’s contingent place in the love story, the characters in Not being Miriam play a kind of musical chairs within the romantic narrative. And, as Bess, Elsie and Lydia in their different ways discover, there is always someone left standing when the music stops. Bess’s identification with her role as the handsome stranger who sweeps her beautiful young Aunt Mamie off her feet in Florence is intensely passionate; “sick,” her sister says. Years later, Bess’s Italian husband abandons her and takes their son, and so Bess switches places within the romantic narrative, identifying even more deeply with Ariadne. Bess is also the Other Woman: for Lydia, with whose husband Harry she has an affair, and for Elsie, whose husband’s beloved first wife she uncannily resembles. Structurally speaking, Bess is Miriam, even as she identifies with Elsie, the next door neighbour whose pain she inhabits through a radically destabilising form of empathy, a transformational self-becoming-other that she has never achieved in her romantic relationships. Passionate identification with other experience, which we encounter first as child’s play in Not Being Miriam, becomes a dangerous undertaking with very real consequences.

In Bess’s connection to Elsie, empathy is a kind of contagion. Bess comes to inhabit, not Elsie per se, to whose history and specificity she is a genuine stranger, but Elsie’s conflicted place in the romantic narrative: “Sliding back toward sleep, Bess finds Elsie anyhow, embodies her. Her veins become knotted, tumescent” (88). Bess both fears and desires this loss of self.[7] Lying on her couch next door, she feels her loss of boundaries mirrored in her surroundings: “‘Like a bad cosmetics job on a burns victim, she feels the house as if it’s her own tissue stretched almost beyond endurance’” (85). Domestic space is charged with significance in Bluebeard tales. Like Quigley’s Greta and Mahy’s Miss Credence, Bess shuts herself away in a house that was once a place of pride and union but falls into sickly stasis, out of the flow of love and life.

Bess becomes Elsie becomes Miriam. Bess becomes Miriam through Elsie’s painfully ambivalent gaze: [End Page 14]

The poster-sized photo of his Poor Late Beautiful Wife is still there all right. Bess rocks with Elsie’s shame. She winces with recognition. She hasn’t refused from Elsie the mixture of awe and worship she offers. Miriam in that foggy enlargement could be Bess. Spitting or bloody splitting image do they say? Elsie asked. […] Bess loses herself tracing out these features. Hers. The Other Woman’s. Bess loses herself finding Elsie’s pleasure, Elsie’s pain. She contracts back to something like a reclining hologram of Miriam, the Late. (89)

If Ariadne is Bess’s mythological forebear, it is the second Mrs de Winter with whom Elsie identifies. Semi-literate, Elsie hasn’t read the novel, but she watched the film again and again as a girl. Raised in poverty, Elsie knows that economic and romantic dependence are intertwined: in Hitchcock’s film, as in Aunt Mamie’s story, the great wealth of the Bluebeard figure and the material security he offers propels the romantic plot and drives his wife’s compulsion to make the marriage work despite so many misgivings.[8] But even as a girl, Elsie intuits that material dependence is only part of the picture. Married to a man who abuses her children, Elsie’s mother pleads:

 Else, for all our sakes, I’ve got ter make a go of it this time. Otherwise where would we… what would we…

Else could have said it for her. She can answer it too. What you do is you get a job. Else will get a job. They needn’t be trapped. She’s not going to be forced to stick with a man if he turns nasty like Stan. What is it that’s made him go nasty? He was young and happy in the marriage photo. (95)

You get a job. And Elsie does. But Elsie’s mother is dependent on Stan for her sense of self, and it is this subjective dependence that her mother cannot relinquish and that compels her to make such shocking sacrifices to “make a go of it”. Elsie, despite her youthful insight and defiance, ends up playing out her mother’s familiar script. Love songs go around and around in Elsie’s head – “Love was just a glance away. A warm embracing dance away” (132) – alternating with self-loathing: “Slut, she says to the dressing-table mirror. Bleedin fat cow” (132).

Elsie’s husband Roger, like Stan, cruelly disregards both Elsie and her children. But this, it seems, she can tolerate. What is intolerable is his continued romantic devotion to his first wife, so jarringly at odds with his treatment of Elsie. She endures daily reminders that she is not the “real” wife of Roger Miller, and in a world where identity is vested in the marriage plot, this means she is nothing at all. Elsie lives in the shadow of the idealised former love, Miriam’s poster-sized image ill-concealed in the closet behind Roger’s trousers. Like all of Bluebeard’s wives, Elsie’s curiosity is compulsive: she can’t stop looking at Miriam.

Miriam had the finest skin, not a flaw, not a single flaw. Always says everything about Miriam twice. He still puts the notice in the In Memoriam column every year […] [End Page 15]

And I’ve made a home with another,
Deep at heart, I’m still your lover.

How suddenly, that’s what she was: another. And I’ve made my home with another. Fancy Roger talking about himself like that too. Well. Now the scissor traces out loops on the skin of the photo, on the skin of how she looked. […] As an old woman she probably would’ve got a profile like Punch, nose jutting down to the chin (105- 106).

But Roger’s romantic idealisation is perfectly maintained by Miriam’s absence, fed by the tragedy of her premature death. Miriam robs Elsie of her rightful place in the romantic narrative, and thus of her own identity. In desperation, Elsie even tries the famous line from Rebecca on her husband – “I’m Mrs Miller now” (133) – but it predictably fails to have the desired effect. “My bloody arsehole you are!” Roger rages (133).

Elsie’s lack of identity, a fact published by Roger in the newspaper every year, is the fact through which Bess enters Elsie and inhabits her pain, which is also of course Bess’s own. To stop Roger beating Elsie, Bess strikes him with a snow dome of the Eiffel tower, a relic from his first marriage that he keeps on the dresser, killing him poetically with an emblem of his hypocritical romanticism. Despite the myriad material problems in their relationship, it is the symbolic gesture of cutting up Miriam, and Roger’s consequent rage, that destroys their marriage and ends Roger’s life.

In this penultimate scene the three women finally come together. Lydia sits in a taxi on the street, hearing the screams at Elsie’s house and seeing Bess run next door to intervene. Imaginatively, Lydia inhabits Bess inhabits Elsie, as these strange unbidden sisters haunt each other in and through their unhappy marriages. Their complex interconnectedness grows like an invasive vine through the romantic framework, disturbing the love story, the official narrative which gives explicit shape and meaning to their lives. In a final slippage of identity, after Bess goes to prison for manslaughter her sister Cass moves into her house and resumes the (condescending but quite successful) project of Elsie’s “liberation”.

If Mahy and Quigley critique a grasping, fixing knowledge of the other, implying the oppressiveness of this search for certainty, then Campbell questions “the quest for intimacy” through knowledge of another kind. Critic Toril Moi notes, and Bess discovers, that the empathetic, merging knowledge sought as perfect union “is not knowledge at all but confusion” (432).[9] The failure of perfect knowledge or communion is not the failure of love, however; it may be, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas asserts, “precisely what nurtures love” (103). A gifted physicist, Lydia knows “the danger of certainty” (115), and that there is “no matter only tendencies” (113). The increasingly punning, poetic and fragmented language as the novel progresses evokes more open, multivalent and fluid ways of approaching love relations: “I’ll underpun their purpose, sound the lisp as a way of saying, whisper monstrosities[…]” (137).

The punning on “tender”, in particular, playfully critiques demands for singular certainties in the realm of romantic relations. “Tender” insists on meaning more than one thing at once, in a way that is poetically appropriate for the novel’s complex deconstruction of romantic mythology. Love is legal tender in Not Being Miriam. If for Lydia, sitting in her [End Page 16] taxi, things are “only tending to happen” (113), Elsie knows that flesh is real enough. She knows that the wisdom of the body is worth something: “Somewhere the things she knows will count. […] She can pick what’s fake. And she can trust her hands. Her fingers practically think” (96). A certain kind of love is associated with death, in this multivalent tenderness. Elsie asks the butcher if his meat is tender. “Tender love? he says. Tender, you’re asking if it’s tender. Why it’s tender as a woman’s heart. On pay day” (131).

Bess like/as Ariadne is stranded at the novel’s end, “beached in the sway between am/am not”. But this place of deep uncertainty and several selves is preferable to being “mythaken, fixed in constellation” (137) the novel implies. Limited categorical knowledge is associated with sight, while tentative and truly tender connection is a touching of extremities, a connection that respects difference and distance and leaves space for the shifting seasons of the self. These tender extremities are the feet of Quigley’s Greta, anchoring her to the earth and to an embodied self built from sedimentary layers of muddy history and connectedness. They are the “blind fingers” (181) of Mahy’s Hero, working beyond the privileged sense of sight and its association with unequivocal truth.  Not Being Miriam leaves Bess/Ariadne, feeling her way back, to her body and her roots: “I found the fissures with my fingers, I was sightless in reply” (139). And while it may not rely on the conventional romantic coupling, self-realisation in these tales is never a solo journey, but one undertaken with a chorus of sisters and shadow selves.


There is an opera written by Maurice Maeterlinck (Ariane et Barbe-bleue, 1901, opera composed by Paul Dukas in 1907) in which Ariadne attempts to rescue Bluebeard’s wives. The rescue fails because the brides prefer to remain captive in the castle of mythology, but the story suggests the malleability of myth and the porosity of its boundaries. The Bluebeard tales of Mahy, Quigley and Campbell propose not a rejection of fictionalised romantic relations in favour of an (equally mythic) unmediated embodied experience of love, but rather recognise the limiting nature of many stories that currently shape (although never entirely condition or contain) our expectations and experiences of love. They challenge us to open these stories up to both critical scrutiny and creative reconfiguration.

New Zealand writer Janet Frame observes: “we must tend the myths, […] only in that way shall we survive” (109). Perhaps in these renewed Bluebeard tales, however, the less-than-tender myths of romantic love are not so much tended as tenderised. The relentless repetition that marks both romance and violence in the Bluebeard tale, and the phenomenon of this tale’s perpetual retelling, implies the importance of re-entering and manipulating the stories that mould romantic experience. These Australasian writers treat romantic myth and fairy tale as a bundle of loose ends, threads that suggest the many possible re-entry points into the labyrinth of human intimacy. [End Page 17]

[1] Marina Warner (1995) discusses the way in which literary fairy tales evolved from folk tales with heterogeneous oral origins and primarily female tellers.

[2] Both Maria Tatar (2004) and Cristinia Bacchilega (1997) write on The Piano as an exemplary postmodern Bluebeard tale.

[3] In Stephen Benson’s terms: ‘narrative itself is always a remembering or a retelling, yet when generic norms become static the repetition is passive. It is only by drawing out other submerged, partially silent narrative voices that we can seek to hear the conflict and tension that lie beneath the surface, to repeat actively rather than passively, and thus generate change’ (1996:109).

[4] ‘To scrutinize means to search: I am searching the other’s body, as if I wanted to see what was inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body (I am like those children who take a clock apart in order to find out what time is). This operation is conducted in a cold and astonished fashion; I am calm, attentive, as if I were confronted by a strange insect of which I am suddenly no longer afraid’ (2002:71).

[5] ‘When I’d first loved him, I wanted to take him apart, as a child dismembers a clockwork toy, to comprehend the inscrutable mechanics of its interior. I wanted to see him far more naked than he was with his clothes off. It was easy enough to strip him bare and then I picked up my scalpel and set to work. But, since I was so absolutely in charge of the dissection, I only discovered what I was able to recognise already, from past experience, inside him. If I ever found anything new to me, I steadfastly ignored it. I was so absorbed in this work that it never occurred to me to wonder if I hurt him’ (1996:72).

[6] Like other fairy tales, Bluebeard’s fortunes wax and wane depending on its ability to speak to current social circumstances. Tatar identifies a spate of Bluebeard-themed films in the 1940s, for example. The tale was being used in this era, she suggests, to play out the anxieties provoked by husbands returning from World War Two, having acquired bloody and unspeakable pasts in the course of their war service which made them strangers to their wives (2004:90).

[7] The Bluebeard tale, Tatar notes, is particularly apt for showing us how our fears and desires are deeply intertwined (2004:10).

[8] Even Hero, in Mahy’s novel, reflects: ‘I was trapped by my own silence and the lure of an extra twenty dollars’ (1995:90).

[9] ‘In the very moment the knower merges with that which is known, both entities are abolished as such. In this way imaginary knowledge undercuts all other forms of knowledge, blurring all boundaries and dissolving all definitions in its way’ (Moi, 1999:432). [End Page 18]


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Rebecca. (1940). Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.

Notorious. (1946). Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.

The Company of Wolves. (1984). Dir. Neil Jordan.

The Silence of the Lambs. (1991). Dir. Jonathan Demme.

The Piano. (1993). Dir. Jane Campion. [End Page 22]

In the Cut. (2003). Dir. Jane Campion. [End Page 23]


Marriage, Romance and Mourning Movement in Cherie Nowlan’s Thank God He Met Lizzie
by Mark Nicholls

Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997) stands out as an extremely rare example of an Australian romantic comedy/drama.  Like most romantic comedies, this film is really about the negotiation of an obstacle to union and marital happiness.  What is generically atypical [End Page 1] about the film, and the source of its drama, is that this obstacle emerges only once the marriage is solemnized and in the form of nothing more concrete than what we might call the ghost of a girlfriend past. The last few shots of the film present the eponymous “He”, Guy (Richard Roxburgh), and Lizzie (Cate Blanchett) with their children, “slip, slop, slapping” (an eighties promotional slogan for liberal sunscreen application) beside a Mercedes station-wagon in a Sydney beachside car park.  Within the span of less than a minute, the camera moves in, very slightly, before tilting up and left, fractionally, framing the actors in a medium shot that will hold them for the last ten seconds before the credit sequence rolls.  This final shot is a freeze-frame, the highpoint of a gradual slowing of their motion which began, almost imperceptibly at first, ten seconds into the sequence and continues, seemly unhindered by two slow dissolves, before reaching its final point of stasis.  The image presented is picture-perfect and is the sort of snapshot of domestic bliss that will probably end up on the family piano.  Whatever substantial doubts over the question of Guy’s current state of happiness, raised both by his voiced-over letter to his sponsor-child and Martin Armiger’s stingingly melancholic score, the picture itself is one that many spectators understandably associate with desire.  The sun, the beach, signs of material comfort and the blessings of children and family togetherness all add up to an idea that many aspire to.  This is also an idea that lies beneath and relies upon the expression of divine gratitude explicit in the film’s albeit ironical title.  Like this apparent irony, the crushing feelings of domestic ambivalence implied by this final image make a telling impression on us.  This image and the marriage that lead to it have such an impact on us because they are so dearly protected by our genuine ambivalence over the question of desire and its relationship to romantic love, marriage, children and family life.  The film does not tell us about this ambivalence – it reminds us.

Given what we know about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce rates since the Second World War and what scholars such as Irving Singer have highlighted in the vast historiography of romantic love, the potential incompatibility of romantic love and marriage should be a truism of modern life.  At the very least we ought to consider love, as Catherine Belsey has considered it in its paradoxical postmodern form, as “ceaselessly suspected” even if “endlessly pursued” (Belsey, 74). From Belsey we understand love in postmodernity as ”naïve”, defined by opposites, contained by a “fundamentalism” of material transformations, commodification and social surveillance. The fundamentalism of marriage and contractual bonds marks desire’s fragility. The interventions of Law are the mark of its absurdity.    Another transformation, for Belsey comes through the media and cultural expression. Love is considered silent in its essence. Through the media, however, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, (what it packaged up as) love is endlessly loquacious, even enduringly citational in its banal expression of nightly paraded clichés. Stories and narratives thus place lovers in the passivity and imprisonment of uncharacteristic behaviour, thus becoming victims of this very fundamentalism (Belsey, 73-84).  Doubtless we can view Thank God He Met Lizzie as just such a banal expression.  But the terms of the relationship represented within the film, its practicality and a sense of inevitable doom linked to a relentlessly enduring quality, sustain comparison with much of the essence of Belsey’s portrait and its critique.

There is, of course, an array of theoretical treatments and methodologies contextualising romantic love, any number of which might be employed in relation to Thank God He Met Lizzie.  In this article I will emphasise certain discourses of [End Page 2] melancholia as highly useful in reading the film, but I do not wish to impose this psychoanalytic approach to advocate the exclusion of others.  Accordingly, I find it extremely useful to look to comparative mythology and Joseph Campbell, if only briefly, to provide a summary position on romantic love.  This is to employ a working definition, which I have found enduringly communicative of romantic love’s essential discourse.  Campbell places the origins of the love/marriage divide at the beginnings of romantic love in the troubadour traditions of twelfth century.  Marriage in this context was about the power of the family, the church and the state.  Romantic love coming in with the troubadours stood in radical distinction to that power.  A personal expression, romantic love supported the courage to live one’s life according to one’s own pattern. Jealously opposed by established authorities, however, romantic love threatened disaster and eternal damnation.  As a prime example, Campbell looks to the romance of Tristan and Isolde. Campbell’s reduction of Tristan’s reaction to the news that he and Isolde have drunk the love potion that will bring them together in disaster encapsulates the dilemma.  Once Isolde’s nurse tells him, “You have drunk your death.” Tristan replies:

By my death, do you mean this pain of love? . . . If by my death, you mean this agony of love, that is my life.  If by my death, you mean the punishment that we are to suffer if discovered, I accept that.  And if by my death, you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too. (Campbell 235-6)

The ever-increasing commodification of what used to be called “courtship and marriage”, however, coupled with the impossible material expectations of middle-class lifestyles after marriage, have produced an adherence to a perverse contemporary mono-myth of romance – nice boy meets nice girl and they stay nice for the rest of their lives – in order to keep the whole thing going.  The simplicity of Thank God He Met Lizzie’s exposé of that adherence makes the point about the romance/marriage disconnect obvious.  Even in its most practical and conservative incarnations such as friendship and companionship, the viability of love and the prospects for intimacy in relationship to marriage, as Guy will experience, is chillingly impossible.  In Seminar XX Encore Jacques Lacan invokes the notion of courtly love.  In doing so he provides an insight into the drama of the unconscious underpinning this incompatibility.  For Lacan the aristocratic acts and aesthetics of courtly love are a performance of desire that stand in for consummation.  They are a proxy, an alibi for desire itself, giving cause and excuse for the obstacles and blockages that pile up against sexual intimacy.  Perhaps the most refined of all forms of perversion, such acts of courtly culture are a potent metaphor for Lacan’s general notion that “in the case of the speaking being the relation between the sexes does not take place” (Lacan 138-141).  In its own context the more contemporary forms of courtly culture, ritual and commodity concern in Thank God He Met Lizzie play an equally perverse role.  In Freud’s useful phrase to account for perversion, we may read Guy and Lizzie’s marriage of convenience, and the social and commodity fundamentalism that support it, as a sophisticated process of deferring desire by “lingering over the intermediate relations” (Freud 1991, 62).  What we see in the final freeze-frame image of the film, however, suggests a general and logical reluctance to do anything about their perversion.  In this particular era of commodity romance the film’s simple, perhaps even banal deconstruction of the love and marriage relationship is, nevertheless, instructive. [End Page 3]

I will begin here by outlining the film’s general themes.  Given the narrative primacy of Guy in the film, I will also highlight the way in which the film relies heavily on Guy’s agency, his fantasy of loss and his expression of male melancholia – another of the great cinematic perversions – for its emotional impact.  Despite its potency, the concept of male melancholia, however, cannot account for this impact alone.  By beginning this article with a description of the film’s final slow-motion to stasis sequence, I wish to highlight that the sadness, and perhaps even grief, which dominate the spectator’s experience of watching the film are not solely reliant upon the who of loss expressed by the male melancholic Guy, but the what of loss experienced by both characters and spectators more generally.  I argue that what is mourned by the spectator watching the film, in its obvious advancement towards stillness, is not merely Guy’s loss of love through his separation from his former girlfriend Jenny (Frances O’Connor), but the loss of the palpable sense of movement that we know Guy once experienced in his life. It was this capacity for movement that also gave Guy and Jenny the ability to present each other the gift of freedom and the gift of movement that it implies.  As Laura Mulvey has written of ideas of stillness and movement, this is the trauma of her primary form of “delayed cinema”, “the actual act of slowing down the flow of film” (2006: 8) as we have observed it in the final scene.  This last minute retardation acts in the service of one particular form of narrative cinema which, Mulvey considers, creates a “desire for the end, elongating the road down which the story travels, postponing the structurally inevitable conclusion” (2006: 144).  Mulvey’s “two grand conventions of narrative closure that allow the drive of a story to return to stasis: death or marriage” have merged in Thank God He Met Lizzie into a drive towards stasis, a sense of advancement towards stillness, Freud’s death instinct as a kind of “no fault” marriage (2006, 71).[1]

“The trouble with happiness is . . . you remember it.” 

Alexandra Long’s screenplay begins with Guy’s awkward failure to meet a potential partner at a catered affair expressly designed for the purpose.  He then continues his misfortune on two blind dates before finally meeting Lizzie in a chance encounter involving a pregnant cat.  We see Lizzie and Guy only once together, lounging by some Sydney side waterway, before the wedding plans are in full swing. A priest is brought in; Guy informs his sponsor child Fong Hu; and Guy then buys Lizzie a professionally wrapped engagement present which seems to seal the deal.  Only once is Jenny, the “ex”, named in discussion and it takes the particular probing of the Catholic priest to raise the spectre of a three shot mini-montage in which she features at passionate moments in their past relationship.  The devil of romantic desire seemingly exorcised, the wedding ceremony takes place off screen, and the major part of the film, anchored to the excessive social ritualism of the wedding reception, can then proceed.

The wedding reception is regularly punctuated by expressions of the fakery and cynicism of the event.  These moments provide the cues for extended flashbacks of Guy’s life with Jenny; their meeting at less sophisticated and less well-catered pubs and parties, embarrassing family get-togethers, the ups and downs of their sexual appetites, the traumas of foreign travel, their fights and, finally, the growing irreconcilability of their differences leading to the bitter-sweet termination of the relationship.  Before these [End Page 4] flashbacks are done, the functionality of the wedding is made chillingly explicit when Lizzie’s mother Poppy (Linden Wilkinson) produces a forged letter purporting to be from Fong Hu giving an innocent and moving blessing on their nuptials.  Knowing it to be a fake, the letter causes Guy momentary terror before he gives into his sense of decorum and continues with his duties at the reception.  Later in their hotel room, released of his first night obligations by a tired and emotional bride, that terror is magnified by a speech Lizzie gives him, calmly advocating her need and desire for what used to be known as an “open marriage”.  Shocked then resigned, “overwhelmed by life’s choices” as Margaret Smith has observed (Smith, 48), Guy does not argue the point.  The film then cuts to a devastating scene in which Guy sees a vision of Jenny in Martin Place.  He approaches her with enthusiasm, only to see the vision first disappear in the crowd of cold and wintry spirits rushing to work, and then become occluded by the family picture postcard scene described above. “The trouble with happiness”, Guy writes (and narrates) to Fong Hu, “is you don’t know when you have it, you remember it.”

“Like a horse and carriage”

Something about Thank God He Met Lizzie that stands out immediately, for an Australian film made in the late 1990s, is how banal, unselfconscious and middle-class it seems in its milieux and subject matter.  This film is essentially a melodrama of “first world problems.”  As a film about the basic disconnect between romantic love and marriage, however, how could it be otherwise?  And yet what could be stranger in the context of Australian cinema since Strictly Ballroom (1992) than a clear and straightforward picture of the persistently questioned, but ultimately unshakable marriage customs of the audience for which it is intended?  In this sense, “the melodrama of one bourgeois addressing another” as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith puts it (91), which is present here, relies on a certain sense of the mundane to expose the fact that the most significant of our emotional dilemmas are usually those closest to home.  The greatest strangers to us are most often ourselves.  In another sense, however, like Noel Coward and David Lean’s timelessly affecting Brief Encounter (1946), the effectiveness of the film’s theme relies on its very simplicity of expression.  Any extraordinary estrangement of the audience from the world represented, such as Matthews observes as central to the types of love stories praised by Andre Breton and Surrealist thought generally (Matthews, 37-50), runs the risk of clouding the already complex issue.  The obvious message of the disconnect between romantic love and marriage seems so lost in our culture, the clinging to the mono-myth of romance so tenacious, that Thank God He Met Lizzie impresses upon its audience the fact that all attempts at mystification run the risk of supporting that very tenacity.  Placing this affair amongst the guns of Verona Beach (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 1996), the mentally ill characters jumping off Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge (Angel Baby, 1995), in the elite world of Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, 1997) or even simply making it happen between “old folk” (Innocence, 2000) or university intellectuals (What I Have Written, 1995), threatens to portray it as something that happens to other people.  In its dramatic understatement and lack of hyperbole, in its very middle-class context, a comparatively [End Page 5] rare milieu within Australian cinema, Thank God He Met Lizzie demonstrates that the romantic love/marriage disconnect is not portrayed as “their” problem but “ours”.

Marriage, as represented in Thank God He Met Lizzie,is a department store gift registry length list of abominations.  From the plot description and brief visual analysis I have already presented, we can see that the film’s marriage portrait shows us the manipulation, deception, convenience, emotional entrapment, fear of loneliness, class anxieties, overwhelming community involvement and expectation, nostalgia and compromise that seem central to the institution.  Whether any of these characteristics really has the potential to shock any adult who has experienced more than about three weeks of a settled domestic relationship is an important point.  As a summary of any important partnership, this liste de mariage, might well, at different times in our lives, argue for both the need and the genuine use for the institutionalisation of such relationships.  The film itself does not totally shun this point of view.  In this context, however, it is testament to the work of the film that these “abominations” do appear shocking and detestable however familiar and even necessary they may be.  Beyond what it presents as familiar and practical, however, it is in the way this particular portrait of marriage represents the desire for intimacy in relationships that we see the real source of its conclusions about the abhorrence of marriage.  The same may be said for the film’s rendering of even something so basic in marriage as the desire for friendship and companionship.

In their only real moment together as a couple, before they become caught up in wedding preparations, Guy and Lizzie are lounging by the water and talking about how her father, a surgeon, once told her she could become “a doctor, a lawyer or a piece of shit”.  Once assured that his own occupational status, or relative lack thereof, will pass muster, Guy begins to admire Lizzie’s once fair hair.  Lizzie embarks on a deconstruction of the validity of the adult blonde before Guy attempts to stop her by saying, “Don’t tell me about it. We’ve got the rest of our lives to find out about each other.  It will be boring if you tell me now”.  In this playful moment, Lizzie presses on, in an intimacy “over-share”, with information about her family history and her first sexual encounter, before Guy stops her mouth with a kiss.  At that point the scene dissolves with a high medium shot framing their headless bodies rolling on-top of each other, a clear allusion to the essential biology behind the union which seems to trump all other threatening complications.  The personal back-stories of each character, Guy’s relationship with Jenny, and Lizzie’s “married by thirty and then have affairs” agenda among them, will emerge as part of their discourse soon enough.  The essential fear and mistrust of genuine intimacy, expressed through Guy’s concealment and Lizzie’s shocking frankness, as part of their marriage is the most disturbing aspect of the film’s portrait of married life.  As Cate Blanchett says of the couple, “They sort of don’t want to know about each other.” (Blanchett, “Cast Interviews”)  Somewhere between the need to be kept in ignorance and the need to be horrifyingly overly-informed lies the film’s representation of the fear of the line between intimacy, true partnership and marriage.  Importantly, this is a fear that the film does not restrict to its portrait of marriage, but one that is also an acknowledged part of its idea of romantic love.  Guy knows this fear as much in his relationship with Jenny as with Lizzie.  The difference is that with Jenny he has the freedom to express it and explore its implications, however bleak they may be. [End Page 6]

Lizzie is the frankness expert in the film and she knows how to use that frankness in the fight against intimacy.  When Raoul (Jacek Koman) is teasing her about her pre-ordained vision of a marriage of convenience, she defends herself by saying “you couldn’t expect me to make a commitment like that to someone I knew.”  Despite Lizzie’s sophistication in this matter it is Jenny, from the safety of a presumptively directionless, one night pub pick up, who is able to best present the threat of the information/ignorance/intimacy triad.  When Guy explains to Jenny that he would like to get to know her before getting involved, Jenny replies, “Oh, see, you are taking a big risk there . . . you might get to know me and find out you don’t like me and then you’ll miss out on a fantastic root.” Of course, nothing about this proffered one night stand suggests any real potential for intimacy.  The point made, however, is that deep knowledge of one’s partner threatens emotional intimacy and emotional intimacy is presented in the film as not only a threat to good marriage, but also a threat to good sex.  Avoidance of this kind of intimacy may be desirable within a twenty-something relationship and it may also suit the requirements of thirty-something marriage.  Just where it leaves the obvious search for intimacy in our lives generally is the film’s insoluble dilemma.

If the scenes with Lizzie provide us a view of the film’s cynicism about marriage, the Jenny flashback sequences speak of love in its romantic mode.  The flashback scenes of Guy’s relationship with Jenny may be about the work of nostalgia but they are not nostalgic or rose-coloured in content.  Certainly they are warm, colourful, charmingly chaotic, passionate and, above all, full of movement.  In their isolation from community interests and lack of middle-class consciousness and decorum, these moments stand in high contrast to Guy’s experience of the formal bourgeois ritual of the wedding and its preparations.  For all their relative warmth and colour, however, these moments with Jenny speak of a love that is full of a sweet sort of pain, an affair that is fleeting, potentially fatal (when they are drugged and robbed while on holiday), fading and ultimately lost without the benefit of hindsight.  As Guy makes clear in the last words of the film, these moments represent a happiness that is not known but only remembered.  Like Brief Encounter, the key to the emotional power that this relationship holds over the spectator is the fact that it is represented in flashbacks that are visually designed in a very separate and distinct way from the sequences of the main plot.  Most importantly such flashbacks obviously indicate that the relationship is located in time past and that, for all its potency in the present, the relationship is over and probably done with.  As is the case with Brief Encounter, the “probably” gives the narrative its romantic potential, but this potential is so grounded in the armed camp-like detention of the protagonists’ present life that any real thought of romantic fulfilment is little more than fantasy.

Just over an hour into the film, as Lizzie’s “married by thirty” plan is outed by Raoul, Guy reflects on the scene of his break up with Jenny.  The scene is typical of all Guy’s reminiscences throughout the film, but the act of breaking up and the directness and honesty with which the decision is arrived at give the scene a devastating resonance.  It is the most moving scene of the film and, in many ways, the most expressive of any real form of love exchange.  Common to all their scenes together is the movement of Kathryn Milliss’ hand-held camera, never resting and always maintaining a feeling of uncertainty and high energy in the spectator.  As in the moment in this scene when Jenny rushes to find Guy’s hidden photos of Fong Hu, this off-balance movement, like their relationship itself, sometimes becomes disconcerting.  Also a feature of all their scenes together, in contrast to [End Page 7] the shades of grey and white of the scenes with Lizzie, is the explosion of colour about them.  Whatever mood is portrayed, and in this film mood can move across a scale between joy and horror, the richness and variety of colours provides a depth of feeling and a sense of emotional substance to their scenes together.  This colour is matched by their Hepburn/Tracy-like, screwball physicality and a verbal banter routine, as here, when they squabble over Jenny’s annoying habit of leaving her clothes on the floor, and the quibble she makes over the plural form of cactus and “other related succulents”, in light of her extensive collection of cacti that have now become odious to Guy.

Where the break up scene turns away from the expected levity, however, is when Jenny introduces the issue of Fong Hu, Guy’s sponsored child in Vietnam.  In all their years together, we discover, Guy has never told Fong Hu anything about Jenny.  Challenged over this, Guy babbles on for a moment about Fong Hu’s innocence and cultural sensitivities over the question of why he and Jenny are not married.  What he does not say or understand about his relationship with Fong Hu, and what Jenny’s challenge implies, is that it is a model of the structure of his desire.  In the face of the dilemmas of emotional intimacy with Jenny, the distance, cultural estrangement and age gap he enjoys with Fong Hu provides him with an ideal relationship. Ultimately he sidesteps that emotional conundrum, an intimacy challenge to, what we might think of as, his melancholic “crypt” of solitude (Abraham and Torok, 135-6), by introducing the strain of discussion that will end in their separation.  This sidestepping is an act of resistance that demonstrates the line against emotional intimacy that they are clearly unwilling, or unable, to cross.  That resistance, however, does manage briefly to give way to a mutual expression of a degree of honesty about their states of mind, which makes the scene even more affecting.  Guy says he wants space (his crypt), but Jenny counters by pointing out the emptiness and untouchability of this space.  Guy longs for the things and the feelings “you can’t touch”, but Jenny does not want to hear about his feelings – the feelings he now complains he no longer has.  Her reaction to this admission is genuinely empathetic, but like a true melancholic, he wants the “magic” back and she cannot see why.  In many ways this is a confused, illogical and, in terms of characterisation, inconsistent line of argument, but not incompatible with the truth of the moment as we might expect it to be played.  It is at this point of confusion, the clueless moment of “what do we do now?” that they find the “end of the line” and resolve to separate. Jenny bursts into tears as Guy holds her with an expression of exhaustion and sadness.

Jenny and Guy’s last and final scene together in the film, in which they announce their break up to Jenny’s devastated parents, simply underlines the trauma of the previous scene.  The substance of trauma is found in the very basis of romance at the heart of their relationship: that is, the inevitable incompatibility between love, their mutual desires, and the broader, social context of their lives.  With Jenny’s mind and body moving towards children, this broader context undoubtedly implies the move towards permanent union.  This is the very announcement Jenny’s parents were obviously, eagerly expecting. But such external expectations of permanent union and grandchildren are the antithesis of romance.  What such expectations fail to acknowledge, in their push towards the altar, is the potential for a genuine clash between female biological imperative and male emotional inexperience. Guy’s isolationist emotional reticence, frequently expressed in social work and counselling contexts as “men in sheds”, and his protection of his “space”, with Fong Hu delineating that space, may look like a sit-com joke.  That very reticence is, however, an [End Page 8] equally potent combatant in this clash and plays a role, similar to Jenny’s desire for children, in breaking up the relationship.  What is ultimately, amongst all their scenes in the film, the most strikingly consistent element in the break up scene is the representation of the inevitable demise of their union.  If Thank God He Met Lizzie shows its portrait of marriage as both lacking in real intimacy and doggedly persistent and unbreakable, the film shows romance as brutally true – honest, but with a lively discourse of intimacy – and hopelessly lost in the empty and intangible space of the past.

Man Melancholy

As to Guy’s “men in sheds” emotional obstructions, it is worth nothing that Thank God He Met Lizzie was released in the same year as Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, this co-incidence suggesting the usefulness of the critical territory of male melancholia.  Given the dynamics of male impairment and loss, most notably represented in the films of Martin Scorsese and Jeremy Irons, which highlighted a continuing strain of cinematic male melodrama into the 1990s, this context is obviously seductive in reading Guy’s lament (Nicholls 2004; 2012).  This approach relies heavily on a reading that privileges Guy’s point of view and constructs both Lizzie and Jenny as objects of an emotional empowerment through loss that has been the project of male melancholic discourse since Hamlet (Schiesari, pp. 5-6).

The scene of Jenny’s final appearance in the film might have easily been lifted from Lolita or, indeed, any of Scorsese’s final scenes of mournful parting in films from Taxi Driver (1976) to Shutter Island (2010).  Prompted by Guy’s sadness and his sense of horror when, on their wedding night, Lizzie suggests they pursue an open marriage, the scene cuts to a windy, cold, drab and grey working day morning in Martin Place.  Guy is on his way to work when he sees Jenny in a bright red coat, the only real colour in the sequence, walking towards him.  Guy smiles enthusiastically as they approach each other but as Jenny appears to see him her expression moves gently from a contented air to one of cold reproach. Martin Armiger’s violin and string concerto pauses for seven seconds as the camera is over-cranked, shooting Jenny in slow motion until she finally comes to a halt.  As the music track resumes and a very brief piano accompaniment is added into the score, Jenny stands staring towards Guy.  Although Jenny seems frozen, other city dwellers pass in front of the camera, at first momentarily obscuring our view of Jenny, and then the shot goes to black as if one of these walkers has lingered.  When the shot cuts back to the scene of action, Jenny has gone.  Guy’s point of view shot (although not in his own close up) then remains in slow motion for a few seconds more, before standard cranking returns to the sequence as a whole.  But for one jump cut, Guy’s close-up is held for an excruciating twenty seconds while his confused state of mind tries to work out where Jenny went and what happened.  The sequence then ends with a high, extreme long shot of Guy in the square, looking around, still in his state of confusion, while his fellow workers cross his path from every direction, in their frantic and disinterested walk to work.

The reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie as an expression of male melancholia is a compelling one. Certainly Guy demonstrates its key tendencies: a sense of separateness from a conservative and over-bearing group (Lizzie and her world), the trauma of loss (his life and separation from Jenny), a tendency to fetishise and a refusal to relinquish that loss [End Page 9] (his inescapable reminiscences of that life), an outward show of conformity, self-sacrifice and renunciation of that refusal (going through with the marriage when he knows it is a fake), and finally, a consolidation of his personal authority through melancholic display (the attraction of the spectator’s prevailing sympathy for him) (Nicholls, 2004, 1-14).  Guy duly performs all these tendencies throughout the film and they take up the major part of the film’s duration.  They are also summarised in the Martin Place scene where, as the man in the grey flannel suit, Guy interrupts his dutiful walk to his Lizzie lifestyle-supporting job to perform his desire, his radicalism, his loss and to receive the mandated adulation and sympathy as the great bourgeois of sorrows.  In the years following Daniel Day Lewis’ Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (1997) and Jeremy Irons’ performance as Humbert Humbert, Richard Roxburgh’s incarnation of the melancholic Guy is a performance of emotional “sad man candy” that is too similar to shun the comparison.

Implying an unrevised Mulvian representation of visual, and emotional, pleasure for both male and female spectators (1989: 14-28 & 29-38), however, the celebration of male loss in narrative cinema is a discourse that can be equally empowering to spectators across the spectrum of gender and sexual identity.  But this is the case because it is a discourse.  It is the nature of the expression of loss that multiple perspectives leak out.  In the case of the Martin Place scene, for example, the dubious nature of Jenny’s actual presence in the scene, as opposed to being there as a phantom of Guy’s fantasy, has to prompt us to consider whether she was, in fact, in that or in any of her scenes.  Could Jenny not simply be a fantasy image constructed by Guy in the face of the intolerable realities of his present situation?  Is she, in another sense, simply a substantially unrecognisable version of Lizzie when young, before she got old and serious?  Given the lively ambivalence of the discourse of male melancholia, I am not willing to dismiss it as an utterly suitable reading of the film, any more than a variety of other readings.  Looking at the film some fifteen years later, however, what strikes me about it now is the very force of that ambivalence.  Fifteen years later, older and hopefully wiser and at a distance from the predominant sad men of late nineties art house cinema, the reading of moral and emotional objectification of Lizzie and Jenny in the film seems to me somewhat questionable.  In the secondary form of Mulvey’s notion of “delayed cinema” she posits a “loose parallel with Freud’s concept of deferred action (nachtraglichkeit), the way the unconscious preserves a specific experience, while its traumatic effect might only be realized by another, later but associated event.” As in this quite different notion of “delayed cinema” to that considered above, in a contemporary reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie other details that have “lain dormant” can now be “noticed” (2006: 8).  In this context and in an updated reading, Lizzie and Jenny may appear to merge in their desires, but no more so than they all merge together with Guy’s similar desires for a life of stability, home and family – the “no fault” marriage.  Such a re-evaluation may not leave us feeling any more positive about the representation of Guy’s destiny with Lizzie, but the film’s exposure of the past as equally prone to, and fast moving towards the dilemmas of that present, leaves both it and Jenny as in no way looking like a fantasy or the ideal.  Reading the film simply as an expression of male melancholic perversion in the context, therefore, is inadequate.  The problem with the male melancholic reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie is that it threatens to limit the extent of what is mourned and who mourns.  We may feel sadness at Guy’s story, but the sadness of Jenny, her family, their friends and, indeed, the implicit grief and lack at the heart of Lizzie’s character, echo a more profound and general sense of loss and sadness that is the [End Page 10] experience of the audience watching the film.  It is an experience of loss that goes well beyond a generalised male melancholic expression of “poor Guy”, “horrible Lizzie” and “I just really miss Jenny”.

 “A relationship is like a shark”

Woody Allen is one of the greatest expressionists of the cinema of male melancholia.  In the substance of his various character and relationship studies however, we can see that he is committed to the very general audience experience of loss that I am interested in here.  Allen specialises in the charms of the type of break up scene we experience in Thank God He Met Lizzie.  In his Husbands and Wives (1992), Gabe (Allen himself) and Judy (Mia Farrow) conclude a long argument sequence with a final scene of lyrical reminiscence of their life together which leads to a mutual realisation of its ending.  It is a sad but sweet moment, typical of Allen’s films since Annie Hall (1977), which so often appear to work as a kind of palliative to the sadness and trauma of romantic separation.  The reason these films work as great films to watch after a break up, or in the middle of any relationship turmoil, is that they advocate the virtues of change and movement.  As Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are considering breaking up in Annie Hall, Alvy observes that, “a relationship is like a shark it has to constantly move forward or it dies.  And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”  This is a cute gag certainly, and the role of the humour in these so-called Romantic Comedies is central to their palliative aspect.  As Freud points out in his 1928 essay, humour is about assuaging fear and pain, reminding us, “Look here!  This is all the seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child’s play – the very thing to jest about.” (Freud, 1950, 220).  Accordingly, this type of humour is never far away from psychological insight, not to mention the many physical acts of movement in Allen’s work, particularly walking.  It also relates directly to the privileging of mobility over stasis that I have emphasised in my reading of the Cherie Nowlan’s film so far.  It is, therefore, a humorous line of dialogue that helps us understand the very nature of melancholia and loss, in a gender-wide sense and beyond the perversions of male melancholia, as we can read it in the film.

Central to the work of melancholia in classical Freudian terms is the subject’s unwillingness to move on and free him or herself from loss and the past.  This “inhibition of all activity” is read by Freud in both psychological and physical terms (Freud, 1984, 252, 263).  In the work of Julia Kristeva, we read the logical, and perhaps happy extension of this ceaseless mourning in the ultimate stupor, stasis and immobility of the death drive (Kristeva 1989, 119-128; 2000, 47, 54-5).  I am drawn to these ideas of movement, and the lack thereof, by considering more recent work on the idea of melancholia brought to the foreground by a 2011 exhibition at the Dax Centre in Melbourne under the curatorship of Charlotte Christie.  In the exhibition book of essays, child psychiatristPia Brous looks at the idea of melancholia in relation to psychiatry and neuroscience and highlights the work of Australian biological psychiatrist Gordon Parker.  As Brous puts it, Parker “conceptualises the “core” of melancholia as a disorder of movement rather than that of mood.”  For Brous this conceptualisation has it that “psychomotor retardation or agitation is the essence.” (Brous, 14) [End Page 11]

As we have observed in Thank God He Met Lizzie, it is exactly this type of psychomotor capacity and retardation that is at stake.  Through the apparently simple strategy of contrasting the Jenny scenes of mise-en-scene colour and camera movement with the creamy, Steadicam and stable diegesis of the Lizzie scenes, and by gradually bringing both to a final point of stasis and freeze-frame, we locate the true centre of despair in the film.  This visual manifestation of the “cinema’s paradoxical relation between movement and stillness”, as Laura Mulvey has considered it, has a direct connection to the idea of death and destruction (2006, 71& 104).  What is mourned in the film is not Jenny and not the apparent freedom of the youth and lack of responsibility that, from one perspective and in contrast to Lizzie, Jenny seems to represent.  When Jenny says of the “magic” that Guy wants to get back, “why would we want to do that?” she really seems to be saying “why would we want to go back to what was before?”  What Guy mourns, however, and we join him in this, is this very notion of movement.  The symptoms of melancholia in the film are its predominant aesthetic of stability found in the scenes of the present with Lizzie.  At the very point when the worst possible expressions of Lizzie’s character become apparent, Guy cannot resist the incredible propulsion towards this stability, a death-drive to a place of still life, where change is impossible.

The scenes with Jenny threaded throughout the wedding reception may be about fun and freedom and romantic experimentation, but the break up scene is not only extremely sad, but the freest and most romantic thing about the film.  It impresses such a response on us because it implies the greatest of all acts of mobility, the ability to change.  The scene demonstrates that, however dead inside Jenny and Guy have become, however intolerant of each other’s feeling and foibles, at that point in their lives they still have the ability to move on, to change, to break up and explore the positive side of the experience.  This break up is so moving because it is the ultimate sign of love, a gift of love and life.  In this context, the break up says, “I love you so much that I am willing to set you free and to spare you the pain of the living death of stasis and immobility.”  This is the very immobility to which not only the final snapshot scene turns, but also where Guy’s final, perhaps fantastically perverted, vision of Jenny in Martin Place rests, before both fade to darkness.

[1] Since the early 1970s, divorce in Australian law is all “no fault”.  I am using this phrase to highlight the idea in the film that marriage is essentially perverse but that the film’s protagonists are not to blame for it. “Fault” is still part of popular discourse of divorce, but is not part of the legal grounds for divorce in Australia. [End Page 12]

Works Cited

Abraham, N & Torok, M. “Mourning or Melancholia:  Introjection versus Incorporation”. The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994. 125-138. Print.

Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Blanchett, Cate. “Cast Interviews” in “Special Features” Thank God He Met Lizzie, (Cherie Nolwlan (dir), Stamen Films, The Australian Film Commission, The New South Wales Film and Television Office, Magna Pacific, Becker Entertainment 1997). DVD.

Brous, Pia. “Melancholia: A Vista from Psychiatry and Neuroscience”. Melancholia (Exhibition Booklet). Melbourne: The Dax Centre, 2011. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “The Mythology of Love,” in Myths To Live By. London: Paladin, 1972. 119-135. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905)”. Trans. J. Strachey. The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. Ed. A. Richards.  London: Penguin, 1991. 33–169. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia (1917 [1915])”. Trans. J. Strachey. The Pelican Freud Library, volume 11, On Metapsychology. Middlesex: Penguin, 1984. 245-268. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Humor (1928)”. Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers,Volume 2. Ed. E. Jones. London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1950. 215-221. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt: The Power and Limits of Psychoanalysis. Trans. J. Herman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. L. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “God and the Jouissance of the Woman”. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and The Ecole Freudienne. Ed. J. Mitchell, and J. Rose. London: Macmillan, 1982. 137-148. Print.

Matthews, J. H. Surrealism and Film. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “The Death Drive: Narrative Movement Stilled”, in Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books, 2006, pp 67-84. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989. Print.

Nicholls, Mark. Lost Objects of Desire: The Performances of Jeremy Irons. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012. Print.

Nicholls, Mark. Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob. Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2004. Print.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “Minnelli and Melodrama (1977)” in Movies and Methods, volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985. 190-194. Print.

Schiesari, J. The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Print.

Singer, Irving. The Nature of Love. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print

Smith, Margaret. “In Review: Thank God He Met Lizzie”, Cinema Papers, November 1997, no. 121: 47-48. Print. [End Page 13]


A Masculine Romance: The Sentimental Bloke and Australian Culture in the War- and Early Interwar Years
by Melissa Bellanta

In 1915, the Australian poet and journalist C. J. Dennis published a book of verse called The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. When read in sequence, the verse told a love story about an uncultivated young man, Bill, and his sweetheart, Doreen, who worked in a [End Page 1] Melbourne pickle factory. Though written in verse, the narrative was what we might now call a romantic comedy. Its humor sprang from the fact that Bill was the antithesis of a romantic type, yet he proved himself a hopeless romantic just the same. In the parlance of the day, Bill was an Australian “larrikin.” He was a young rowdy from the city who spent most of his time fighting, gambling, drinking and street-hawking – yet by the end of the narrative he had transformed into a loving husband and family man. Told in the first person by Bill, the work proved enormously popular. It sold prodigiously during the First World War, prompting Dennis to write four spin-off works over the following decade. Over that period, the currency of The Sentimental Bloke (as it became known) grew rather than waned. It became a multi-media phenomenon, comprising a silent film and travelling stage musical, and it was frequently recited on radio and in concert halls.

Crucial to the success of The Sentimental Bloke was the fact that it was a masculine romance. It was a love story expressing heterosexual romantic feeling from a male point of view and in a self-consciously masculine way. As such it touched a cultural nerve. The war and early interwar years were rife with confusion about men’s relationship to women and romance. Australian men had been expected to be warriors during the war, but upon return were expected to transform into caring spouses (Garton). Romantic Hollywood leads such as Rudolph Valentino became celebrities in early interwar Australia, admired for their sophistication and charm (Matthews 4; Teo 2012: 1). At the same time, however, prominent voices such as the bohemian artist and writer, Norman Lindsay, decried romantic love as feminine and marriage as suffocating to men (Forsyth 59). The Bloke helped audiences to navigate these conflicting messages. It insisted that it was possible for a modern Australian man to be romantic without compromising his masculinity, provided he did so in a sufficiently straightforward manner and steered clear of “Yankee” suavity.

The content and reception of The Sentimental Bloke requires us to think more subtly about the relationship between Australian masculinity and romantic sentimentality across the early decades of the 1900s. Chiefly, it requires us to give more credence to Australian men’s interest in certain forms of romantic popular culture, and to masculine constructions of romantic feeling, than most previous scholars have allowed. Yet Australianists are not the only ones who will benefit from contemplating The Sentimental Bloke. In the field of romance studies at large, romantic love is still largely treated as “feminized love,” to borrow Anthony Giddens’ phrase (43). As things stand, the phrases “masculine romance” and “masculine sentimentality” function almost as oxymorons within romance studies – the key exceptions being in a few discussions of homosexual romance (eg. Shuggart and Waggoner 26–7). My hope is that this discussion will prompt romance scholars to take more interest in masculine romance, and to consider in particular how this relationship developed in the war and early interwar years.

The multi-media phenomenon of The Sentimental Bloke

Almost as soon as it hit the bookstores in late 1915, it was apparent that The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (later shortened to The Sentimental Bloke) held a powerful popular appeal. Dennis had engaged in canny publicity for The Bloke in the preceding years, [End Page 2] publishing a few poems about Bill in an earlier work (“The Sentimental Bloke”, Bulletin). The publicity paid off because by 1920 approximately 110,000 copies of the book had sold in Australasia and the United Kingdom (McLaren 92). That was an astonishing figure for any Australian work given the country’s population was less than five million at the time. Yet it hardly represented the total number of those familiar with its verse. Reports of The Bloke being read aloud in workplaces, performed on recital stages, borrowed from the New South Wales Bookstall Company Library and handed around among Australian servicemen indicate that it reached a considerably larger audience (Chisholm 58; Lyons and Taksa 67; Laugesen 51).

In 1919, the Australian film-maker Raymond Longford released a cinematic version of The Sentimental Bloke. Longford’s film was also a commercial success. It broke box-office records for an Australian-made film after it premiered in Melbourne that October (Bertrand; Pike and Cooper 120). A theatrical version of The Bloke was also successful after it opened at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre in September 1922. It starred Walter Cornock in the lead role, a man described for years afterwards as the “Original Sentimental Bloke” (“Walter Cornock Coming”; “Pot Luck”). The production played for twelve weeks in Melbourne before touring Australia and New Zealand for almost two years. Versions of the musical continued to be performed throughout Australasia for the rest of the decade, during which time recitations of the verse were also broadcast on radio and performed on the elocution stage (e.g. “Today’s Radio”; “Today’s Broadcasting”; “‘The Sentimental Bloke’: A Triumph of Elocution”).

Inspired by the success of The Sentimental Bloke, Dennis wrote four loosely-connected works of verse between 1916 and 1924. These were The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), Doreen (1917), Digger Smith (1918) and Rose of Spadgers (1924). The Moods of Ginger Mick was also narrated by Bill and became a best-seller in its own right. It concerned the decision by Bill’s larrikin friend Ginger Mick to enlist in the Australian Imperial Forces and travel overseas to take part in the war. Ending with Mick’s tragic death in battle, it had sold over 70,000 copies by 1920 (McLaren 119). Ginger Mick was also made into a film by Raymond Longford in 1920 (Pike and Cooper 129). Although beyond the scope of my discussion here, fresh adaptations of The Bloke continued to appear throughout the rest of the century. These included a talkie film directed by Frank Thring in 1932 (poorly executed and unpopular, and thus omitted here), a ballet by Victoria’s Ballet Guild in 1952, a new stage musical and recordings of the verse by the country music singer Tex Morton in the 1960s, a television drama in 1976, and another rendition in dance by the Australian Ballet in 1985 (Boyd; Dermody; McLaren 199–200; Ingram). Across this period the book continued to sell: indeed, it is still the highest-selling work of poetry in Australian history (Butterss 2009: 16).

The larrikin everyman

When The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke first appeared, some critics hailed Bill as a novel figure in Australian popular culture. According to a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Dennis had broken new ground with the work: “a poetic cycle has never been written about such an unpoetic individual as Bill” (“The Sentimental Bloke” SMH 1915). [End Page 3] This claim was inaccurate. Dennis was not the first Australian writer to use a rough male figure as a romantic protagonist. Four years earlier, in fact, the Sydney-based writer Louis Stone had published Jonah, a novel about a street-fighting larrikinwho fell in love with a poor-but-genteel woman and struggled to win her regard. The Melbourne writer Edward Dyson had also included a romantic larrikin as a supplementary character in his collection of narratively-connected sketches, Fact’ry ’Ands (1906).

Back in the 1890s, the romantic larrikin had been sent up in the odd vaudeville act performed on Australia’s Tivoli Theatre circuit. These were modelled on English offerings about romantic Cockneys such as Albert Chevalier’s famous music-hall song, “My Old Dutch” (Bellanta Larrikins 35). The use of Cockney figures to voice masculine romantic sentimentality was indeed a feature of British popular culture from the last years of the nineteenth century. In Australia, however, theatrical songs such as “I’ve Chucked Up the Push for My Donah” (meaning “I’ve given up my street-fighting friends for my sweetheart”) had a mocking rather than celebratory air. Created in 1892 for the touring British burlesque comedian, E. J. Lonnen, this act ridiculed the very concept of larrikin romance (Bellanta Larrikins 36).

Though the idea of writing about a romantic larrikin was not original, the way in which Dennis went about it was. The bushman had long been presented sympathetically in Australian culture: a spare, usually solitary figure often portrayed as the essence of the Australian character. The same could not be said for the urban larrikin. In spite of Dyson’s and Stone’s efforts and the occasional story by Henry Lawson (e.g. “Elder Man’s Lane”), larrikins had overwhelmingly been portrayed as vulgar or frightening before Dennis published his work. Back in the 1880s, in fact, the press had fomented a full-scale moral panic about a “larrikin menace” in the colonial capitals after a number of nasty pack rapes of young women took place in inner-industrial Sydney. News reporters had written sensational stories of these outrages, calling their youthful perpetrators larrikin “brutes” and “fiends.” (Bellanta Larrikins 86–91). By the turn of the century, some writers and artists had started creating mocking caricatures of larrikins – the vaudeville routine just mentioned being an obvious example. Bill was obviously different from these earlier representations in that he was offered as a subject with whom audiences could identify.

The fact that Bill was offered to audiences as a subject of affectionate identification was apparent from the opening moments of The Sentimental Bloke. He was depicted in the throes of dissatisfaction with his ne’er-do-well life, wishing for something more uplifting, though he scarcely knew what it might be:

 … As the poit sez, me ‘eart ’as got

The pip wiv yearning for … I dunno wot.

The preface, written by Henry Lawson, an iconic literary figure in Australian culture, signaled that this yearning of Bill’s gave him the status of everyman. “Take the first poem”, he wrote. “How many men… have had the same feeling – the longing for something better – to be something better?” Bill was thus presented as an ordinary “bloke” rather than the denizen of a brutish underworld. Though his quaint vernacular and lack of guile, he was able to voice the feelings of any fundamentally decent man, rough around the edges or otherwise. [End Page 4]

The romantic properties of The Sentimental Bloke

Bill might have appeared alone and vaguely yearning in the opening stanzas of The Sentimental Bloke, but it was clear from the next poem that the narrative concerned romantic love. From that moment, the plot proceeded almost as if anticipating Pamela Regis’ hard-line definition of romantic fiction in her Natural History of the Romance Novel. Following its trajectory, one can tick off each of her “eight essential elements” of romantic narratives (30). In the first place, it began with a description of “the initial state of society in which heroine and hero must court” in the form of Bill’s disconsolate musing about his larrikin life (30). It then proceeded to the meeting between hero and heroine; introduced obstacles to their union in spite of their mutual attraction; and came to a point of what Regis calls “ritual death” (35–6), in which it seemed impossible that Bill would prove himself capable of true romance. As one would expect, it then showed Bill’s prospects being reborn, ending with the pair joyfully united against the odds.

The first obstacle to Bill’s romantic union with Doreen was in the form of a straw-hatted suitor, a man Bill called the “stror ‘at coot” (47–52). Unable to help himself, he challenged this socially-superior rival to a fist-fight (50). Doreen was so displeased by this show of roughness that she quarreled and split from Bill. The pair reconciled soon afterwards, after Bill heard her singing a plaintive love-ballad at a neighborhood “beano” (party) and decided to make amends. A more serious obstacle arose after the pair was wed. This took place after Bill was tempted into a drunken bender with his larrikin mate, Ginger Mick. Nursing his hangover in bed the next day, he was painfully aware that he might have destroyed his romance with Doreen. “Eight weeks uv married bliss / Wiv my Doreen, an’ now it’s come to this!” (86). This point of “ritual death” was soon turned to new life, however, when the couple left the city for a small farm. In the final moments of the action, Bill and Doreen appeared blissfully ensconced in their own cottage, mutually delighting in a newborn son.

The illustrations accompanying the print version of The Sentimental Bloke highlighted its romantic properties. Drawn by Dennis’ friend Hal Gye, they portrayed Bill as a “Cupid” or “chivalric innocent” (Elliott 254; Cross 57), complete with chubby thighs and stubbily diaphanous wings. On a dust-jacket for an early edition, Gye depicted the couple à la Romeo and Juliet, with a cherub-like Bill playing a concertina at the foot of a balcony as Doreen looked down from above (Figure 1). Advertisements for the silent film similarly highlighted its romantic character. One created for West’s Olympia cinema franchise broke down the narrative into its key romantic elements. It comprised four cartoons representing stages in Bill and Doreen’s love-story. In the first, Bill appeared, sad and lonely before he met Doreen; in the second, Doreen was shown snubbing Bill after their quarrel; in the third, the pair were tearfully reconciled; and in the fourth, “hitched.” [End Page 5]

Sentimental Bloke cover

Figure 1: Cover image by Hal Gye for a 1919 edition of Dennis’ work

[End Page 6]

Brisbane Courier 26 December 1919

Figure 2. Brisbane Courier 26 December 1919

[End Page 7]

Australian masculinity and the “open secret” of romantic sentimentality

Since The Sentimental Bloke was so obviously presented as a romance, one might be forgiven for expecting that the text and its protagonist would have been ridiculed in the Australia of its day. A great deal of what we hear about Australian culture and masculinity in this period emphasizes the dry-witted bushmen as a key figure, “laconic” and “sentimental as a steam-roller” (“Anzac Types” cited in Caesar 150). Much has also been written about the celebration of the tough and irreverently humorous returned serviceman in 1920s Australia (e.g. Seal; Caesar; Williams 127–33; Fotheringham 2010). Historian Richard Waterhouse has argued that opposition to Victorian-era piety and morality was paramount in urban Australia’s popular culture by the end of the First World War (176), while Peter Kirkpatrick (52) and Tony Moore (117–43) show that members of interwar Sydney’s bohemian scene regarded marriage and domesticity contemptuously. In actual fact, one of these bohemians did ridicule the Bloke for his romantic sentimentality. The earlier-mentioned artist and writer, Norman Lindsay, burnt a copy of The Sentimental Bloke on a crucifix and described Ginger Mick as “maudlin rubbish” (Butterss 2009: 16; 2005: 118).

Fascinatingly, though, mocking reactions of this kind were rare. Even masculinist papers such as the Bulletin and the Lone Hand produced glowing reviews (“The Sentimental Bloke” Bulletin; “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”; “C. J. Dennis”). The vast majority of critics responded to Bill much as he was presented to them: with affection and/or empathy. After the silent film was released, for example, a reviewer for the Green Room suggested that he had been nervous about whether Arthur Tauchert, the actor playing Bill, would do the justice to the character. “Nearly everybody knew Dennis’ creation by heart, and we all had a hazy mental vision of the gentleman who loved Doreen to distraction”, he wrote. Happily, the actor had acquitted himself admirably: “Tauchert’s Bloke is the Bloke of Blokes” (“C. J. Dennis’ Characters”). Five years later, in 1924, a country Victorian critic waxed rapturous about The Sentimental Bloke musical: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry… and you’ll join in and say it is the greatest of all” (“The Sentimental Bloke” Horsham Times).

Reports of audiences laughing and noisily applauding recitations of The Bloke point to the fact that ordinary citizens also responded warmly to Bill (e.g. “Lawrence Campbell’; “The Sentimental Bloke” SMH 1922). One of Dennis’ friends, Alec Chisholm, would later recall the enthusiasm he and his colleagues at a country newspaper felt for The Bloke early in its career. Even the most “hard-bitten” of compositors used to beg him to read from it as they worked, Chisholm wrote. “We knew in particular ‘The Introduction’, that delicate tale … of the initial meeting between the Bloke and the ‘bonzer peach’ [Doreen]” (58). Another middle-class reader recalled that even though she had not been a fan of the colloquial verse during her childhood in the 1920s, “The Sentimental Bloke was a great favorite of Dad’s” (cited in Lyons and Taksa 67).

Because The Sentimental Bloke relied so heavily on colloquialisms, it was never regarded as Literature. As Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa observe, the work never received “official sanction” (67). It was left off school and university curricula and ignored by most academics until the late twentieth century. Yet this lack of official approval offers vital clues as to why Bill was regarded so affectionately. One of the reasons he was so widely favored [End Page 8] was that he tapped a vein of “unofficial” knowledge about men and romance that had long existed on the sly, as it were, in Australian culture. The Bloke presented masculine tenderness as what Eve Sedgwick would call an “open secret” (145), in other words. Its comedy sprang from the suggestion that all men had the capacity for romantic feeling, even though they tried to hide it beneath a hard-bitten or laconic exterior. Everyone knew that men could be sentimental even though “officially” this was not supposed to be true.

One of the ways that The Bloke gestured at an ordinary belief in male sentimentality was via its original title, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. By this means it likened its fourteen poems to romantic songs performed by the earnest young Bill. Male vocalists sang romantic ballads such as “Annie Laurie” and “Belle Mahone” any night of the week in Australian homes or vaudeville shows in the years before, during and immediately after the war (Bellanta “Australian Masculinities”). Just in case fans missed the allusion, the sequel Ginger Mick made explicit reference to these commonplace songs. In a letter written to Bill from a military camp in Egypt, Ginger Mick declared that ballads such as “Bonnie Mary” and “My Little Grey Home in the West” were dear to Australian servicemen’s hearts. Laced with memories of sweethearts and romantic picnics, these songs helped to sustain Australia’s soldiers as they coped with battle far from home. “When I’m sittin’ in me dug-out wiv me rifle on me knees”, Mick began:

 An’ a yowlin’, ‘owlin’ chorus comes a-floatin’ up the breeze,

Jist a bit o’ “Bonnie Mary” or “Long Way to Tipperary”–

Then I know I’m in Australia, took an’ planted overseas.

… O, it’s “On the Mississippi” or “Me Grey ‘Ome in the West”.

If it’s death an’ ’ell nex’ minute they must git it orf their chest.

’Ere’s a snatch o’ “When yer Roamin” – “When yer Roamin’ in the Gloamin”.

’Struth! The first time that I ’eard it, wiv me ’ead on Rosie’s breast.

We wus comin’ frum a picnic in a Ferntree Gully train…

But the shrapnel made the music when I ’eard it sung again (61).

In her rich study of Australian servicemen’s reading habits and entertainments during the war, Amanda Laugesen reveals a considerable interest in romantic and otherwise sentimental cultural forms. In their letters home, she tells us, numerous Australian soldiers mentioned the works of Gene Stratton Porter, “a [female] American novelist who wrote romantic novels with a strong moral message and whose works sold in the millions” (62). Others mentioned the sentimental novelists Marie Corelli, Jean Webster, Hall Caine and Charles Garvice (who also wrote under the female pseudonym Caroline Hart) (61–2) – many of whose works were made into films in the 1910s. Laugesen also notes that troop publications “clearly articulated a strong sentimentality focused on home and family” (61), and that servicemen’s vaudeville shows routinely featured romantic songs of the sort referred to in Ginger Mick (79–104; Bellanta “Australian Masculinities).

In pointing to a significant cross-gender interest in romantic ballads and novels, Laugesen gives us a sense of why Dennis was able to appeal to folk knowledge about masculine sentimentality in The Sentimental Bloke. Her examples also suggest that we need to revisit the standard scholarly accounts of male cultural preferences in early-twentieth century Australia. Those accounts tell us plenty about adventure novels and sporting [End Page 9] dramas (e.g. Crotty; Dixon; Fotheringham 1992). Some also tell us about “galloping rhymes” and stories about stoic bushmen (e.g. Schaffer; Murri; Dwyer), but are silent on the topic of a male investment in popular romance. As The Bloke’s success makes clear, however, neither representations of galloping adventurers nor of laconic bushmen amounted to the sum total of popular understandings about Australian masculinity. Nor did men confine themselves to cultural forms that promoted such stereotypical versions of masculinity in the early 1900s. Their cultural consumption was always more complex than that.

A plain approach to romance

If The Sentimental Bloke tapped a vein of unofficial knowledge about masculine romantic feeling, it also, as I said earlier, touched a cultural nerve. The work’s combination of comedy and sentiment sprang from the fact that masculine romance was indeed edgy territory in the war- and early interwar years. It is true that ballads such as “Bonnie Mary” continued to be performed and cherished in the 1920s and even beyond. They were starting to be seen as old-fashioned by then, however, with their quaveringly tender choruses and address of the beloved as “thou” and “thy” (“I have watched thy heart, dear Mary… / Bonnie Mary of Argyle”). Earnest songs of this kind were made the subject of irreverent parodies, in some cases by men who were embarrassed by their emotional impact and wanted to demonstrate that they were not in their thrall (Seal 57–9; Bellanta “Australian Masculinities” 426–7). Similar things may be said of the sentimentality focused on home and family among Australian servicemen during the war. That sentimentality had to be carefully managed in order to prevent it from detracting from military solidarity, hedged about by jokes and the celebration of male-on-male company (Seal 66, 75–7).

Contending claims made about the relationship between men and romantic sentiment became even more apparent after the armistice, when servicemen were being repatriated en masse into the world of civilian work and family. During this period, the allure of marriage and domesticity on the one hand, and of carousing and military fellowship on the other, made for a degree of ambivalence about both sets of ideals (Garton). It was in this context that The Sentimental Bloke’s suggestion that all men were romantic in spite of their hard exteriors (and friendship with mates) really came to the fore. Yet the work went a lot further than gesturing at the “open secret” of men’s romantic feelings. It also suggested that there was a distinctively masculine approach to romantic sentimentality that any man might adopt without fear of embarrassment, the hallmarks of which were plainness and straightforwardness. These were the qualities that marked out a “real” man’s romantic tendencies from a woman’s, and distinguished him from effeminate types.

The key way in which The Sentimental Bloke constructed a masculine approach to romance was by juxtaposing the exemplary Bill with two other male characters, both of whom were portrayed as comparatively effete. The first of these men was the parson who conducted Bill’s marriage to Doreen. The second was the straw-hatted rival who also sought Doreen’s hand. Of these, the parson was the most effeminate. In both Dennis’ original text and Longford’s adaptation, he was dressed in flowing vestments and comically labelled “’is nibs” or “the pilot cove” by Bill. At the start of the wedding scene, Bill mocked [End Page 10] his mincing manner, mimicking his reading of the vows in what was supposed to be a sing-song voice: “An’–wilt–yeh–take–this–woman–fer–to–be / Yer–wedded–wife?” Bill then interjected robustly:

 O, strike me! Will I wot?

Take ’er? Doreen? ’E stan’s there arstin’ me!

As if ’e thort per’aps I’d rather not!

Take ’er? ‘E seemed to think ’er kind was got

Like cigarette-cards, fer the arstin’.

Still, I does me stunt in this ’ere hitchin’ rot,

An’ speaks me piece: “Righto!” I sez, “I will.” (77)

As the ceremony proceeded, Bill became steadily more frustrated with its “swell” and “stylish” character:

 … Ar, strike! No more swell marridges fer me!

It seems a blinded year afore ’e’s done.

We could ’a’ fixed it in the registree

Twice over ’fore this cove ’ad ’arf begun.

I s’pose the wimmin git some sorter fun

Wiv all this guyver, an ’is nibs’s shirt.

But, seems to me, it takes the bloomin’ bun,

This stylish splicin’ uv a bloke an’ skirt. (79)

This scene was instrumental to The Bloke’s message that plainness and directness were characteristic of a masculine approach to romance. There was no doubting that Bill was powerfully in love with Doreen (“Take ’er? … ’E stan’s there arstin’ me! / As if ’e thort per’aps I’d rather not!”) Unlike the parson or the “wimmin”, however, he believed that his feelings stood for themselves without need for elaborate packaging.

The idea that Bill’s stance on romance was solidly masculine was reinforced by his contrast with the “stor ’at coot.” This “coot” was full of simpering smiles and “tork” about his office job in Doreen’s company. Bill, on the other hand, was incapable of glib eloquence: “No, I ain’t jealous – but – Ar, I dunno!” (39). His inability to “tork the tork” was portrayed as a sign of the genuineness of his romantic intentions: a cause for laughter, perhaps, but also proof of his salt-of-the-earth straightforwardness. The “coot” also dressed in what Bill contemptuously described as a “giddy tie an’ Yankee soot” (49), while Bill himself preferred ordinary street attire. The film made this distinction even more conspicuous by choosing the weedy Harry Young to play the “coot”. His slender physique was an obvious foil to the burliness of Arthur Tauchert’s Bill. [End Page 11]

Figure 3. A still from the Longford film showing Bill’s confrontation with the ‘stror ’at coot’. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Australia.

Figure 3. A still from the Longford film showing Bill’s confrontation with the ‘stror ’at coot’. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Australia.

 Australian masculinity and the Americanized culture of romantic love

Preserved in the subtitles to the film, Dennis’ description of the coot’s dress as “Yankee” added another dimension to the representation of Bill’s masculinity in The Sentimental Bloke. In the eyes of certain interwar critics, at any rate, the Bloke was seen as quintessentially Australian, a refreshing change from the American characters who were becoming increasingly prominent in Australian popular culture. As early as 1916, in fact, a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald described The Bloke’s use of an Australian vernacular as a welcome break from the “Yankee slang” so often served up to Australian audiences in “comedies and in plays dealing with the American criminal class” (“The Sentimental Bloke” SMH 1916). Comments of this kind were also made in relation to Longford’s film. One Brisbane critic praised its Australian scenery and ambience, pleased that it moved “right away from the rather hard and artificial American convention” (“Entertainments.”)

The idea that Bill represented a specifically Australian masculinity was partly influenced by the surge of interest in national identity that accompanied Australia’s effort in the First World War (Seal; Williams). Yet it was also influenced by a consciousness of the [End Page 12] growing clout of American popular culture in Australian society. As Jill Matthews tells us, all manner of mass-produced American commodities began making their way to Australia during the 1910s. These included “technology, machines and gadgets, business methods, fashions and amusements” (Matthews 11). The arrival of “Yankee” commodities was even more apparent in the 1920s, a decade in which American manufacturers and entertainment companies vigorously expanded their international reach (12; Teo 2006: 182; Glancy). The majority of the Australian public was manifestly enthusiastic about American culture and products in this period; there would not have been a market for them otherwise. Even so, a niggling concern about Americanization was growing among the general populace. This was apparent in a defensive insistence on the Australianness of The Bloke, which in cinematic form was vaunted as a “True Australian Film.” After the premiere of Longford’s Bloke, a writer for Sydney’s Picture Show even commended him for marshaling a team “as great in their particular sphere of acting as any teams D. W. Griffith ever assembled”, attempting to place him on a par with the great American filmmaker (cited in Tulloch 65).

In press interviews about his films in the early interwar period, Longford emphasized his nationalist passion for Australian settings and characters (“C. J. Dennis’ Characters”; “The Man Behind ‘Rudd’s New Selection’” 32). Later in the 1920s he would speak bitterly of the early troubles he had experienced trying to convince cinemas to screen The Sentimental Bloke. Australian film distributors and cinema owners had been so much under the thumb of American operators that he had been forced to hold the premiere for the film in Melbourne Town Hall, he complained (Blake 35–36). These complaints reinforced the fact that the Bloke came to be regarded as “intensely Australian in type” during the 1920s, investing him with a normative power through his association with Australian national identity  (“Sentimental Bloke” Townsville Daily Bulletin; see also “The Sentimental Bloke” Brisbane Courier). More pertinently, they helped to ensure that Bill’s approach to romance was understood as an Australian alternative to the American culture of romantic love.

As Hsu-Ming Teo tells us, Australia’s culture of romantic love was undergoing a process of Americanization in the 1920s (2006). By this, she means that a more commodified approach to courtship and romantic fantasy was emerging, modeled on developments that had already taken place in the United States. For decades in America, a premium had been placed on gifts and paid outings as the key means for a man to express romantic feelings towards a woman (174–77; Illouz). American popular culture also celebrated men who made declarations of love with a suave eloquence: Al Jolson singing the smash hit “You Made Me Love You” (1913), or the alluring heroes of romantic films such as The Sheik (1919) and The Big Parade (1925). In addition, American advertisers promoted commodities such as soap and lipstick to female consumers on the basis that they would enhance their chances of romance with glamorous men. A similar process was just starting to become evident in Australia at the end of the First World War.

The Americanizing influences on Australia’s culture of romantic love were largely directed at young women in the 1920s. Advertisers did not begin inducting Australian men into romanticized consumerism until the 1950s. Before then, “items of personal or leisure consumption for men” – products such as Berger Paints, Dunlop rubber, Boomerang whisky, and General Motors-Holden cars – were advertised through images of factories rather than appeals to men as consumers with romantic desires (Teo 2006: 181–86). This [End Page 13] made for a disconnect between young Australian men’s and women’s approach to the culture of romantic love that became increasingly apparent over the interwar era. The disparity was strikingly evident by the time American servicemen arrived in Australia in their thousands during the Second World War. Young Australian women tended to regard these “Yanks” as romantic heroes, while Australian men resented the Americans’ success with “their” women and superior access to consumer goods (Lake 1990; 1992; Connors et al 140–88).

Knowing what we do about the representation of Bill in The Sentimental Bloke helps us understand why Australian men’s approach to romantic love tended to be so different from Australian women’s. The work treated Bill’s lack of glamor and suavity as a boon; proof not just of the genuineness of his romantic intentions but his Australianness. Crucially, it also suggested that Australian men risked compromising their masculinity if they entered too enthusiastically into the Americanized culture of romantic consumerism. “Intensely Australian” types were neither supposed to indulge in glibly romantic “tork” nor trouble over their appearance if they wanted to avoid accusations of effeminacy. They were supposed to regard being plain and unadorned as a good thing, even in their dealings with women. This was not because Australian men did not care about romance, however, but rather because such things detracted from the honest force of their feelings.

The gender of romantic love

With all this talk of Australianness, it would be easy to assume that non-Australian scholars have little to learn from The Sentimental Bloke. This is not the case. Admittedly, the fact that plainness and straightforwardness were claimed to be characteristic of “intensely Australian types” suggests that an unusual degree of emphasis on these qualities could be found “Down Under.” Yet Australia was not the only place in which one could find critiques of elaborately packaged sentimentality, or of an Americanized culture of romantic love, in the war- and interwar years. In Hollywood and the Americanization of Britain, for example, Mark Glancy discusses divisively gendered reactions to the romantic actor Rudolph Valentino, whose glamorous masculinity was regarded as suspicious by many British men in the 1920s. In The Decline of Sentiment, American film scholar Lea Jacobs also speaks of a decisive shift in cultural taste taking place in the United States if not also Anglophone society more broadly, beginning in the 1910s and reaching critical mass the following decade. This shift was away from the “genteel” conventions of Victorian sentimental culture, she tells us, and towards a more informal and understated aesthetics. Its predominantly male advocates presented it in gendered terms: as a movement away from feminine standards of taste towards something simultaneously more modern and robustly masculine (1–24).

As Jacobs sees it, the movement away from elaborate or genteel sentimentality attracted a motley collection of participants. Some were modernist cultural producers. Others included the naturalist writers, film-makers and critics who gravitated to New York in the 1910s. Both the naturalist novelist Theodor Dreiser and the critic H. L. Mencken, for example, were keenly interested in experimenting with vernacular speech. They believed [End Page 14] that the vernacular conveyed feeling more honestly and forcefully than the polished language of Literature (11–12). In this they had something in common with Dennis, regardless of their other differences. Similarly, the film-maker Thomas de Grasse and his colleagues had something in common with Raymond Longford in spite of the fact that they were unlikely to have been aware of each other’s work. Like Longford, America’s naturalist film-makers rejected glamorous characters in favor of depicting “plain folks” on screen in the 1910s and 1920s (29).

While there was a wide-ranging reaction against Victorian-era sentimentality in English-speaking society, The Sentimental Bloke suggests that scholars such as Jacobs go too far. It reminds us that not all reactions against “genteel” involved a rejection of sentimentality per se. An analogous point may be made about reactions against a glamorously consumerist culture of romantic love. It was possible for a critic to take umbrage at the commodification of romantic love in American[ized] popular culture without spurning romantic love in its entirety. Jacobs’ use of the phrase “decline in sentiment” is misleading because of this, for it implies a wholesale rejection of tender feeling rather than a more limited movement away from a certain sentimental style among certain cultural arbiters.

Another reason that the concept of a “decline in sentiment” is misleading is that it overlooks the fact that “genteel” sentimental forms continued to be consumed and enjoyed in Anglophone culture on the sly, in spite of the fact that they were criticized as old-fashioned or embarrassing. A continued interest in romantic ballads was an obvious example of this. In Britain, at any rate, regular performances of such ballads by male vocalists continued well after the Second World War (Hoggart 53–66). More pertinently, the concept of a wholesale feminization of sentiment – of the rejection of sentiment on the basis of its connections to femininity – overlooks the likelihood that a range of “masculine” expressions of romantic sentimentality developed in the early twentieth century. I have explored only one example of this here, although I began by noting that Australia’s first examples of romantic larrikins were influenced by British depictions of romantic Cockney men. It would be fascinating to explore the use of the Cockney vernacular and characters to voice masculine approaches to romantic love in British culture in the early 1900s, as well as to investigate analogous examples in the United States and elsewhere. The multi-media character and enormous popularity of The Sentimental Bloke in Australia certainly suggests that examples of masculine romance might fruitfully identified and explored elsewhere in Anglophone society.

The persistence of masculine sentimentality in Anglo- or American culture across the twentieth century has attracted attention from a number of scholars in recent years. International scholars such as Jennifer Williamson and Eve Sedgwick (131–46) have indeed grappled with similar issues to those discussed in an Australian context here (see also Chapman and Hendler; Shamir and Travis.) Sedgwick in particular has highlighted the fact that heterosexual men’s expressions of tender feeling remained an “open secret” in American culture and everyday life long after masculinity was “officially” supposed to have become incompatible with sentimentality. At the very least, this work should alert romance scholars to the need to take the relationship between heterosexual masculinity and romantic sentimentality seriously. It suggests that romance scholars should give more [End Page 15] thought to the complex relationship between masculinity and romance in twentieth-century culture instead of treating romantic love as “feminized love”. Many men were uncomfortable with elaborate expressions of romantic feeling or the consumerist culture associated with American popular romance by the 1920s. Demeaning romance as feminine was not the only response to this discomfort, however – another was the construction of avowedly masculine articulations of romantic sentiment such as that of The Sentimental Bloke. [End Page 16]

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