ISSN: 2159-4473

Published in partnership with the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance

Archive for the ‘Issue 1.1’ Category

Review: A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, by Cristina Nehring

Review by Pam Rosenthal

It’s unlikely to surprise readers of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies that a book that promises to reclaim romance for our century makes no mention of the popular romance novel. Or that author Cristina Nehring evinces no curiosity whatever, either about the consistent reading habits of vast numbers of women or the robust sales of romance fiction during this time of economic hardship at the new century’s beginning. At the very least, however, this disjuncture is worth this journal’s attention. If, as Nehring has it, passionate attraction has been “defused and discredited” and “streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence,” how do we account for the fact that popular romance novels—promising risk, danger, adventure, and much, much more—continue to fly off the bookstore shelves?

“We have submitted Eros so relentlessly to our enlightened agendas of self-protection and indulgence…” Nehring announces, “that it has grown anemic.” Challenge and exhilaration have been forsworn or forgotten, the clash of big, passionate egos forbidden or at very least frowned upon: lovers exist in a state of permanent truce, an ongoing regime of power-sharing. The negotiated daily task lists and the hard-won niceness and fairness attending so many contemporary domestic arrangements have all helped shrink and shrivel the power of erotic attraction. The easy accessibility of erotic toys and ready acceptance of kink is merely the funhouse-mirror image of this timid new civility.

Erotic life, in sum, is duller, less exhilarating, and less authentic than it could be—perhaps, Nehring says, than it has been at other times and in other situations, when real romantic love, conceived in the besotted wisdom of the lover’s perception of the beloved, took shape amid conditions of inequality, absence and separation. Transgressive in practice, it was heroic in the face of failure. Whereas now, by striving for fairness and equality, by making try after try at open communication and clear, demystifying vision—in all our feeble attempts to make our relationships work in the short run of viable domestic life—contemporary couples only make matters worse.

Boldly anti-PC as it might be in content, in its form this argument is hardly new. At least since the French Revolution, polemicists in this mode have been relocating authenticity to earlier, pre-liberal, pre-modernizing thought and action, typically with very little real-world proof.[1] Most notably and successfully, perhaps, this form of argument was achieved with manic genius when Nietzsche situated the fall from grace in the thought of Socrates and Euripides and along the way redirected the academic canon toward the tough, tragic pre-Socratics.

Proudly polemical, serenely unconstrained by her weaknesses of social analysis, Nehring makes her points with impressive chutzpah. Her aim is to sound a note of dissatisfaction with the status quo and construct a countervailing body of inspiration. Or at least a reconstituted reading list: aspiring to a braver, brainier, sexier female amatory tradition, she situates the romantic lives of literary, intellectual women (and some men: Socrates is one of the tough, heroic lovers here) within a lineage of quest stories, fairy tales, and heroic renaissance epics. Fidelity is continually and often violently tested in this or that Patient Griselda variant; Tristan and Iseult unite and part and unite again; the virtue of the quest lies in its repeated attempts at the grail rather than the grail’s capture.

A vivacious storyteller, Nehring makes charming entertainment from antique narrative forms—at least until all the redundancies begin to blur together, finally to resemble a feminist community mural of a generation ago, with Mary Wollstonecraft, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Simone de Beauvoir, and a host of other favorite writing women and their consorts joined hand-in-hand with Achilles, the Amazon princess Penthesilia, and the Wife of Bath. “Herstory,” we used to call this clunky circle dance of inspiration. In Nehring’s svelter twenty-first century makeover, it reads like a set of smart, flirtatious post-feminist seminar papers, the most useful and memorable of which emerge from the examples that bracket the book: the lives and loves, writings and reputations of Mary Wollstonecraft and Katha Pollitt.

Wollstonecraft, of course, is the inventor of modern feminism and wrote two Vindications of her own: of the Rights of Men and, later, more famously, of the Rights of Woman. Attempting, at the end of the eighteenth century, to live her erotic and affective life outside of the bounds of conventional marriage, she met with some painful rejections, underwent deep depression, and twice attempted suicide.

Rejection, depression, and all, Nehring is right to admire Wollstonecraft’s amatory experiments as part of her feminist achievement. As she’s also right to decry Wollstonecraft’s critics, from disapproving female contemporaries to the 1970s feminist academics who remained embarrassed that so remarkable a woman could have been driven to suicide by men far less worthy of history’s attention.

And if you’re tempted to object that the 1970s were over a long time ago, take a look (as Nehring does) at the recent case of Katha Pollitt, whose witty political essays in The Nation have been beating back the tides of reactionary, sexist fatuity for decades (and whose first essay collection, Reasonable Creatures, also took its title from Wollstonecraft).

In 2007 Pollitt published a memoir. Learning to Drive: And Other Life Lessons began (though it didn’t end) with a story of failed love less tragic but more embarrassing than Wollstonecraft’s. Shabbily treated by a cheating longtime live-in lover, Pollitt didn’t attempt suicide. Instead (after tossing him out), she Googled him compulsively, perhaps for months. It must be stressed that she never did anything but point, click, agonize, and eventually recover to create a funny, honest and breathtakingly skillful rendering of the particularly awful public/private nature of rejection in our time—and sadly, to cause more than one latter-generation feminist reviewer considerable chagrin and disillusionment, that a movement icon could be driven to such lengths by a man[2].

Nehring is absolutely right to insist that when feminists don’t accord themselves and each other the right to be as feckless, as daring, and as disappointed at love as anybody else, feminism hasn’t come as far as it ought. But feminists and post-feminists ought to be able to read a text in its specificity, rather than merely look to it for ideology or inspiration. Unfailingly celebratory of strength found amid the excesses of violent passion, Nehring’s readings are otherwise slight, her range of reference surprisingly narrow.

Forget about popular romance fiction—I found it remarkable how few novels beyond The Sorrows of Young Werther she attends to. And when she does turn to the classic nineteenth century British novels, she does so with distressing shallowness—managing, for example, to draw an upbeat self-help message from a glancing treatment of Wuthering Heights, wherein “through his love of Cathy, Heathcliff acquires the courage to leave Wuthering Heights, conquer the world, and return to conquer his detractors.” Talk about “trivialization” and “domestication”: one of the great literary productions of failed love (and failed adulthood) comes off here as an inspirational self-esteem pep-talk.

Of course, as the entire discussion of Wuthering Heights (along with Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre) is shoehorned into a mere page and a half, there could be hardly room for much about the post-epistolary novel’s wide-angle view of place and routine, let alone about the restless ironies and complexities of free indirect third-person discourse. Perhaps Nehring’s editor insisted that her Vindication couldn’t go to print without at least mentioning Jane Austen; but whatever the reason, the mention she does make is coy and cursory.[3] Or perhaps this section is so weak precisely because (as I extrapolate the logic of A Vindication of Love) it’s the parallel and contemporaneous developments of the companionate marriage ethic and the realistic English novel that have dealt some major body blows to Nehring’s version of Eros.

Nehring seems to prefer literary forms that tend toward speech, exhaust themselves in a blaze of self-revelation, and are more about their speaker than their object. Love letters, lyric poetry, her own style of polemic: none of these build toward an overarching conclusion but rise and fall in series, bringing to mind an observation made by the man Nehring tells us she “learned the most about love” from. In Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougement said that:

Passion and expression are not really separable. Passion comes to birth in that powerful impetus of the mind which also brings language into existence. So soon as passion goes beyond instinct and becomes truly itself, it tends to self-description, either in order to justify or intensify its being, or else simply in order to keep going.[4]

Nehring does indeed keep going, most certainly toward dramatic yet highly generalized self-description. You’ll find her book convincing, I suspect, to the extent that you’re engaged by an authorial persona given to confiding that she bears “the bodily scars of a loss or two in love,” having been “derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled by love.” For my part, I began to feel trapped in a room with the Marianne Dashwood of the first half of Sense and Sensibility, with no Elinor in sight.

Struggling to understand why the bulk of Nehring’s reconstituted erotic literary tradition finally left me cold, I discovered that contrariwise, while reading her book I hadrather renewed my admiration for the nineteenth century realist novel and become all the more appreciative of the Marianne/Elinor dialogue that weighs good against good amid the conundrums of passion versus propriety, spontaneity versus social memory, and self versus community.

The conventional wisdom would have it, I guess, that we turn to those Austen remakes (and perhaps romance novels as well?) for their Laura Ashley prettiness, their promises of flights of reactionary escapism. But could it instead be that we look to them for visions of love within communities that we no longer know how to achieve or even describe? Perhaps the endless hunger for Austen remakes comes now because we’re drowning in memoir and other celebrations of the individual ego, from performance art to reality TV. My own prejudice (and probably why I write historical romance) is that romantic love has always been threatened and besieged, in ways that can be writ large within sets of manners that aren’t quite our own. But if love is in any greater danger these days than ever before, might not the threat lie within some contemporary surfeit of ego, and not (as Nehring has it) in the self’s domestication?

Nehring is surely right that feminism has created a new set of challenges for passion. Equal personhood is a tough slog; the burdens of shared day-to-day responsibility are daunting. We find our sources of passion and expression where we may. The question of how we love now is wider and deeper, more generally and continually engaging, than Nehring’s Vindication ever thought to ask.

[1] I borrow this point from Doody, Margaret Anne. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996, 18. Print.

[2] Salter Reynolds, Susan. “And Another Thing; Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories.” Los Angeles Times Book Review 9 September, 2007, 7. Print. And (for a richer, more complicated take), see Traister, Rebecca. “The Feminist Who Made Me Blush.” Salon Media Group, 26 Sept. 2007. Web.

[3] Nehring, p. 68: “Austen’s silver-tongued heroine hones her wit, multiplies her pride, and learns to say some eloquent ‘no’s.’ If she says yes to Mr. Darcy in the end, it is only because she has reconstructed him from the ground up.”

[4] de Rougement, Denis. Love in the Western World.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, 173. Print.


Review: Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, by Lisa Fletcher

Review by Pamela Regis

Romance criticism often conveys the impression that it was written by a scholar on holiday, as it were, from more important work on worthier fiction. Interesting things may be said about the genre, but the formalities of intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication have often been shrugged off, as though they were not really expected, let alone required, in this more casual context. What happens in romance criticism stays in romance criticism, this attitude suggests. No shoes, no Sedgwick, no problem.

Lisa Fletcher, by contrast, takes her project quite seriously. As she explains near the start of her important new study, Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, “this book charts one of the many ways in which romantic love is persistently and aggressively heterosexualized in Western culture and begins to consider the extent to which this campaign of normalization and exclusion is endlessly covered over” (15). By examining the statement “I love you” as it appears in historical romance fiction, Fletcher arrives at a new definition of this genre; with this definition in hand, she proceeds to analyze a number of historical romances, considering both “popular” and “literary” texts (the distinction is Fletcher’s). The range of novels she addresses is refreshing, although their distribution in the study suggests something about her sense of their interest as individual works of art: the book ends with two chapters on John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman and one to A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, while the “popular” section devotes one chapter to a trio of Georgette Heyer’s novels (These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, and The Corinthian), and one to an assortment of novels by a dozen romance authors who published between 1980 and 2005 (Margaret McPhee, Norah Hess, Mona Gedney, Pam Rosenthal, Patricia Potter, Rita Mae Brown, Jude Deveraux, Kathleen A. Woodiwiss, Virginia Henley, Catherine Coulter, Laura Kinsale, and Johanna Lindsey).

Despite its price, Historical Romance Fiction is essential for anyone working on Heyer, and important for anyone interested in the popular romance more generally. In particular, Fletcher’s efforts to define the genre will be of particular interest to students of popular romance fiction, if only because they offer points of departure or models to dispute. It is these broadly applicable, deliberately provocative aspects of her work that I wish to concentrate on in this review.

Fletcher’s Definition

In order to define the historical romance, Fletcher sets out into the thickets of postmodern theory, employing the ideas of, among others, J.L. Austin, Frederic Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Judith Butler, Andrew Parker, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Diane Elam, Shoshana Felman, Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes, D.A. Miller, and Umberto Eco. She seems at home in this environment: as in so many of these critics and thinkers, the compression of her exposition and professional specialization of her vocabulary make few concessions to the reader’s comfort. The determined reader, however, will be led to reexamine the idea of romance itself, and to consider the genre’s larger meanings. Certainly that was my own experience—although as the author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, I am more than an interested bystander in the effort to define the popular romance. Fletcher’s thinking and mine intersect in our nomination of “I love you” as a key element of that definition.

In my definition of the romance novel, “I love you” is the most common expression of one essential element of the romance novel (I identify eight such elements)—the declaration (A Natural History of the Romance Novel 34-5). For me, the phrase itself is less important than its structural function in the text; another phrase might also be employed for the declaration to occur. For Fletcher, however, this particular sentence is crucial. “I love you” is, for her, “the romantic speech act”: a performative utterance characteristic of the historical romance and revelatory of its function (25). “[R]omance is a fictional mode which depends on the force and familiarity of the speech act ‘I love you,’” she explains (7). To call something a “speech act,” in J.L. Austin’s terms, means that someone’s saying or writing it makes something happen: an event or condition is actually brought about by the utterance, rather than simply described by it. Statements that begin “I promise…,” “I bet…,” and “I apologize…” are all examples of speech acts. Rejecting the idea that “I love you” is simply a reliable report of its speaker’s emotional state, Fletcher focuses instead on what the sentence does—and, by extension, on what the genre defined by “I love you” also does, as though the entire genre were also a speech act, a performative utterance, in its own right.

If Fletcher’s attention to “I love you” as a speech act draws on J. L. Austin and Roland Barthes (notably the latter’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments), she draws on other theorists, notably Judith Butler, to explore the relationships between the performative utterance of “I love you” and the cultural institution of heterosexuality. This brief passage from her second chapter gives a sense of how she adopts and extends Butler’s ideas into the study of historical romance—and not just Butler’s ideas, but also some of her tropes:

[T]his book takes “I love you” as a synecdoche of heterosexuality’s insistent and compulsory repetition. “I love you” is uttered as the clarifying conclusion in the paradigmatic narrative of sexual intelligibility which ties a line of causality through the points of sex, gender, and sexuality (a male who is masculine desires a female who is feminine and vice versa.) To this extent heterosexual romance fictions can be read performatively as an incessant rendition of heterosexuality’s promised but never fully achieved absolute intelligibility. (34)

Note Fletcher’s adoption of Judith Butler’s personification of heterosexuality—the ideology (heterosexuality) “is…in the process of,” it “suspects,” it imitates, and it repeats itself:

As Butler explains, “heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing.” … Because it suspects its tenuous position, heterosexuality—“as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization” … is propelled into an endless repetition of itself. (34)

This personification does not simply make a very strong claim for heterosexuality’s force in the culture, but also allows Fletcher (like Butler before her) to sketch a sort of psychological profile of heterosexuality as a character, wracked by inner conflicts and anxieties. For Fletcher, “heterosexuality” is in a Butlerian state of unintelligibility—which I take to mean that its status as an adequate, complete account of human sexuality is never quite coherent, or “intelligible.” As a result, heterosexuality must endlessly repeat itself to reassert its as-yet unachieved (and never-to-be achieved because unachievable) state of coherence.

To read the utterance “I love you” as a performative, for Fletcher, means to accept the idea that “I love you” is less a report of the utterer’s feelings (indeed, the statement may be so devalued through repetition as to be incapable of making such a report) than it is as an assertion of heterosexuality’s rightness or “intelligibility.” In this performative interpretation, “I love you” recurs in any number of situations, including historical romance fictions, because no previous utterance of the words was—or could be—adequate to the task of making heterosexuality coherent, and thus of clinching heterosexuality’s status as both intelligible and hegemonic: a condition at once dominant, normal, and ideal.

Thus far, Fletcher’s argument might apply as well to a contemporary novel (or, for that matter, a film or popular song) as it does to the narrower case of historical romance fiction. Her turn to this particular genre comes through a discussion of the relationship between “I love you” and “history.” “Broadly speaking,” Fletcher writes, “the performative force of the romantic speech act (and of romance) depends on both a denial of its historicity, of the fact that it has always already been said before,” and on the fact that only this historicity and previous use allows it to possess such deep “familiarity and sense” (15). The phrase “I love you” thus “invokes a kind of continuous present,” but it is a present marked by a denial of any difference between that present and any other time: “’I love you’ is always said anew, but over and over again these texts insist that whenever and wherever it is said it means the same thing” (15). But if the performative effect of this utterance does not change with time, it cannot either reflect or be a distinctive part of the chronological setting of the novel, because its effect is always asserted in the now (“continuous present”). Read performatively, the “I love you” of a historical romance novel in fact belies history as it “interpellates” an ahistorical, hegemonic heterosexuality. The familiar, citational quality of “I love you,” especially in a historical romance, at once masks and (to the critical reader) reveals the anxiety with which this hegemony cites only itself, interrupting or precluding or taking up the space of (choose your metaphor) alternate possibilities in order to assert itself as an ideal. As Fletcher sums up the case, “[h]istorical fictions of heterosexual love are performative to the extent that they participate in the establishment and maintenance of prevailing ideas about the links between sex, gender, and sexuality” (15).

Romance and Claims of Heteronormativity

Fletcher’s claim is a serious one. For her, “fictional texts are intimate participants in the production and reproduction of the logical (and often, illogical) systems and matrices through which we are defined and define ourselves.” Moreover, “the importance and value of generic texts reside not just in their capacity to bear meaning,” but also in the role that entire genres play in the “ongoing construction of the [systems] by which we both make sense of and create ourselves and [our world]” (14). The system that most concerns Fletcher is heteronormativity: that part of our culture’s ideology that assumes that heterosexuality is the default or preferred condition of sexual orientation, and that any other is not just contrary to the reigning ideology, but not even an option: not on the cognitive map, as it were, of members of that culture. Heteronormativity precludes anything other, and historical romance is a vehicle of heteronormativity’s quiet interpellation—its incursion or reinstallation—into the minds of readers, authors, and the broader culture. The opportunity that this genre might provide to imagine another, better situation is precluded by heternormativity’s hegemony—its definition of, occupation of, and dominance over the situation.

This claim about the heteronormativity of romance may sound familiar. It delivers us to a place already mapped by Janice A. Radway more than two decades ago in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984; 2nd ed. 1991). Although the speech-act theory that Fletcher employs is very different from Radway’s ethnographic methodology, both critics arrive at the conclusion that romance as a genre is based on and disseminates an all-but-irresistible ideology. Radway blames patriarchy for the imposition of ideology on the readers she studied:

[W]hile the act of romance reading is used by women as a means of partial protest against the role prescribed for them by the culture [heterosexual union and maintenance of the domestic sphere], the discourse itself [i.e., the romance] actively insists on the desirability, naturalness, and benefits of that role by portraying it not as the imposed necessity that it is, but as a freely designed, personally controlled, individual choice. (208)

Both Radway and Fletcher regard this ideology as problematic, not least because it prevents our even imagining alternatives.

What, though, shall one make of the fact that romance novelists—both historical and contemporary—have also repeatedly imagined alternatives to heterosexuality that carry through to the end of the novel? The world of gay, lesbian, and other non-hetero romance fiction includes texts as generically and tonally diverse as Maurice by E.M. Forster (written 1913-14; published 1971) which depicts the betrothal of two heroes, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952) which depicts the betrothal of two heroines, and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen (2005), a Regency-era historical romance novel which depicts the betrothal of two heroes and a heroine. Each novel includes a declaration—everyone says “I love you.” Indeed, f/f, m/m, ménage, and other non-hetero unions are increasingly widespread in the romance genre. At the very least, the existence of these books points to a serious, unanswered challenge to Fletcher’s claims about the heteronormative significance of the “I love you” speech act and the genre it defines. True, Fletcher briefly warns us about the limitations of her study:

[M]y interest here is to draw attention to “I love you” as a heteronormative call to order; to expose the instability of this call in and of itself. While this approach forecloses the possibility of detailed consideration of gay or lesbian utterances of “I love you” in this book, hopefully my work suggests the need for and importance of such a study. (41-2)

This brief nod to the existence of other utterances of “I love you” hardly seems sufficient, however. Fletcher argues that the heteronormative hegemony of historical romance fiction precludes imagining alternative sexualities and structures of love, but now is it the critic herself who “forecloses the possibility”—and, in the process, sharply limits both the scope of her study and the persuasive force of her argument.

To be fair, I can imagine an argument about non-hetero romance novels that would view the very employment of the romance form, including “I love you”—the element that I call the “declaration” and that Fletcher recognizes as a “speech act”—as a capitulation to the reigning hegemony, and thus an unconscious endorsement of it. What seems at first as a departure from the dominant form would, from this perspective, succeed only in pointing out that form’s enduring power. In effect, simply by being a romance novel the non-hetero-monogamous romance would thus mark the desperate surrender of some always unidentified but never specified “better” version of love and relationship in return for the comfort of returning to the comfortable forms of the hegemonic culture.

On the other hand, the existence of m/m, f/f, and ménage romances—including historical romances—could just as easily be said to weaken any claim about the heteronormative ideology inherent in the form, opening an imaginative space between heterosexuality (which is no longer interpellated as compulsory or inevitable) and romantic love. From this perspective, non-hetero romance would be seen as employing the form to validate and even celebrate alternatives to heterosexual hegemony. Indeed, Suzanne Juhasz has found that lesbian romance leads to a disruption—not a reinscription—of heteronormativity:

The happy ending in lesbian romance fiction is that girl gets girl. For the happy ending to be satisfying, it has to be believable; to be believable, it has to be realistic; to be realistic, there has to be a plot and a concomitant development of character that make possible and probable what, in the world outside the novel, is more usually suppressed and/or repressed. The very literalness of the writing, the very linearity of the narrative support the fantasy or wished-for elements that this plot introduces. Yet in this fashion the romance also disrupts rather than maintains dominant social structures: specifically, heterosexuality and phallocentrism. (289).

This argument may lack the elegant unveilings and reversals of my thought experiment a moment ago, in which resistance turns out to be capitulation, and victory, surrender. It may, however, ring truer to the texts, to the lived experiences of readers, and ultimately to the historicity of romantic culture, which continues to evolve in ways that Fletcher’s study does not acknowledge or address.

I return to Fletcher’s description of her definition of historical romance fiction as “broadly inclusive.” It is significantly less inclusive than she claims. Fletcher’s sophisticated identification of heteronormative ideology in the historical romance novel is weakened by her exclusion from her analysis of the very texts that overtly—and if readers such as Juhasz are to be believed, successfully—employ the romance genre to depict non-hetero relationships. We are left with a much-reduced, albeit still-useful claim about the enforcement of heteronormativity in a narrow range of historical romance novels, if not in the subgenre as a whole.

Fletcher on Heyer and on the Late-Twentieth Century Popular Historical Romance Novel

In her chapter on Georgette Heyer, Fletcher identifies the author’s famous concentration on period dress as a key element of the novels’ way of making meaning. The critic sees “enormous symbolic and narrative importance” in “the dressing, undressing, and redressing of characters as feminine, masculine, or foppish” (58). Far from mere costume dramas, Heyer’s novels “are ambivalent, contradictory, and fascinating stories about the ‘tangle of preconceptions, conventions, and social emphases’ [the phrase is that of Heyer fan A. S. Byatt] which construct the heterosexual romantic subject” (53). Fletcher concentrates on three novels in which the heroine dresses as a boy, and uses close analysis of such passages as the opening description of the hero’s dress in These Old Shades—“He walked mincingly, for the red high heels of his shoes were very high”—to discern possible meanings of the hero’s foppery, the heroine’s masculinity, and the hero’s attraction to the boy that the heroine is pretending to be. Fletcher concludes that, in Heyer “[h]omosexual desire is both abnormal … and always already heterosexual (the boy is really a girl). Indeed … homosexual desire precedes and enables heterosexual desire. Homosexuality is imagined and pictured as a developmental stage towards, or infantile form of, heterosexuality” (67). Fletcher’s reading of the clothing in Heyer pushes beyond the usual critical claim on behalf of her concern for authentic period detail to uncover the gender and sexuality issues encoded by dress. It is a significant contribution to the study of this author.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of Fletcher’s analysis of a shelf-full of cross-dressing romances in “Performativity and Heterosexuality: Judith Butler and the Cross-Dressed Heroine 1980-2005,” a second chapter on the popular historical romance. As its title indicates, the chapter treats historical romances written over a twenty-five-year span, but Fletcher does not take into sufficient account the changes to this subgenre during this period, nor does she seem to have confronted, in any serious way, the methodological issues involved in choosing texts to study. All of Fletcher’s other texts—those by Fowles, Byatt, and Heyer—have attracted, and withstood, the scrutiny of earlier critics. They are on their way to being canonical romances; in fact, I would argue that Heyer is already canonical. When she turns to the “categorically unwieldy” world of less-studied popular romance novels, however—novels which are, as Fletcher explains in a footnote “too numerous and too fast-moving for scholarly researchers who are not themselves fans” to deal with—Fletcher has no canon to work with. How, then, did she choose her corpus? The note explains that she appealed via the web to those “fans” themselves, believing that “fans’ memories might be the best resource” for making the selection of study texts (73, n.1). But fans love novels for a variety of reasons, and are willing to ignore issues that Fletcher cannot set aside, including the quality of the writing, the presence of such moments in the plot as the heroine’s rape, and other material she finds “truly offensive” (90). One feels a bit wary of this chapter’s conclusions about Heyer’s heirs in the cross-dressing historical subgenre, or at least about the critic’s general statements about that subgenre, given the unconscious biases that may be at work in the selection process. Indeed, Fletcher herself seems to feel this unease, noting at the start of the chapter her sense that “projects such as my own are defied by the genre they attempt to classify” (73, n.1).


Fletcher’s difficulty in choosing study texts for this chapter illustrates a widespread and enduring problem in romance criticism. Statements about the historical romance—or any other genre—should be based on a representative sample of the range and quality of the genre. I readily agree with Fletcher, that finding such representative texts, among the “millions” of romances that only “kiss the retail shelf for a brief moment” is one of the difficulties of writing romance criticism (73, n.1). The sheer number of texts may be staggering, but perhaps that simply means that we romance critics have no choice but to set aside the dream of comprehensive, genre-wide analysis, and instead search out and study the most accomplished, most diverse selection of romances we can. The alternative, this study suggests, is to do with romance what Fletcher says that “I love you” does with human sexuality: to reassert, endlessly, a narrow account of what is natural or inevitable for the genre, one based on an incomplete notion of what romance has been in the past, and what it is right now.

Works Cited

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Lesbian Romance Fiction and the Plotting of Desire: Narrative Theory, Lesbian Identity, and Reading Practice.” Tulsa Studies In Women’s Literature 17.1 (1998): 65-82. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: New York U P, 2001. 276-91. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Penn P, 2003. Print.


Review: Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance, by Northrop Frye

Review by Jonathan Allan

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) remains one of the most cited and broadly useful theorists of the romance as a literary genre, not only in its form as an amorous novel but also in the tradition of the adventure story, historical novel, science fiction, and so on.  Frye’s major works on genre—Anatomy of Criticism and The Secular Scripture—are, of course, well-known; however, it is in Frye’s notebooks that readers find a literary critic struggling—as many of us do—to define the essence of the romance and its place in literary study.

In The Secular Scripture, Frye writes: “popular literature is neither better nor worse than elite literature, nor is it really a different kind of literature” (CW XVIII:23). For Frye, as his notebooks often attest, the nature of the ‘popular’ was an enduring concern. In his Notebooks on Romance, Frye writes (at some point between 1972-1977):

[T]he identification with the hero, or with the society portrayed in a soap opera as followed by housewives in a Newfoundland port, brings up the whole question of how far popular literature is popular because it outlines the kind of lives people live within. Shopgirl romance does outline and enclose the sensibility of a lot of shopgirls; detective stories enclose the sense of mystery behind familiar buildings. This is an aspect of the ‘popular’ I need to think about. (270-1)

Frye’s notes are filled with these notes-to-self: examples of how his mind was working to understand the romance, and also anticipations of how criticisms of his account of romance might unfold. Again and again, Frye wrestles with the role of the popular and popularity in the study of literature—the study, that is, as opposed to the evaluation of texts. For Frye, the place of value judgments in literary study is best left with the book review editor of a newspaper than it is with an academic deciding which works are “valuable” enough for academic study.

In his notebooks, as in his published work, Frye has a still-remarkable ability to recognize difference without allowing difference to become a measure of judgment and value. Thus, for example, Frye speaks about the various forms of romance ranging from the love story through to the adventure story, historical novel, and science fiction, neither ranking these subgenres nor lumping them together in an undifferentiated mass. It is a pleasure to see Frye, the literary critic par excellence, finding comfort and intellectual delight in the realm of the public and popular. For instance, Frye writes, “[t]his night side of the map runs out in Rider Haggard—with jet planes it’s no use talking about mysterious cities buried in Africa—you have to go to outer space” (201). Here Frye notes the ways in which romance (broadly construed) modernizes throughout its history, which, of course, finds its way into major statements on genre. Frye has no worries, it would seem, about drawing on ‘high’ or ‘low’ literature and feels comfortable writing on either or both in conjunction with one another.

In the volume, Frye provides one of the strongest defenses of romance. While preparing the lectures that would become The Secular Scripture, he writes: “[m]y thesis is, of course, that romance illustrates structure and realism only content, hence a genuinely literary history would put the romancers in the centre and make realism peripheral” (202). Romance thus becomes, as Frye would later write in The Secular Scripture, “the structural core of all fiction” (CW XVIII:14). Behind such statements, we can now see, lies a critical vision which effortlessly integrates literary history, philosophy,  psychoanalysis, and religious and literary texts. Indeed, Frye’s vision of romance articulates his own optimistic, even utopian spirit. “Romance and fantasy,” he observes, “are inevitably for writers who don’t believe in the permanence of their own society” (257).

Finally, a brief comment ought to be included here about the continued labors of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye project. Editor Michael Dolzani’s introduction to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance is a superb resource for understanding Frye’s theoretical work, and Dolanzi’s expert annotation of Frye’s notes offers readers nearly a hundred pages explaining anything ranging from the book Frye is quoting to terms used by the critic. Bringing Frye’s work to the attention of a new generation of romance scholars, Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance is an essential volume for future work on the genre.

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop.  The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976-1991. Eds. Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.  Vol. 18 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Alvin A. Lee, gen. ed. 27 vols to date. 1996 – .


Review: Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France: Love Stories, by Diana Holmes

Review by Annie Brancky

Despite persistent critical disapproval, the mass-market romance has tenaciously remained one of the most popular literary genres of the last century. Its overwhelmingly female authorship and readership make the romance novel an ideal compass by which to trace real women’s concerns and imaginations over the last hundred years. In her clear and compact study, Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France: Love Stories, Diana Holmes examines the development and endurance of popular romance in France from the Belle Époque to the post-modern age. From the serial novels of the early part of the century to Harlequin romances, from Georges Sand to Marie Cardinal, from conservative, moralizing love stories to lesbian popular romance, the author considers a wide array of works that speak to and about women’s desires. Holmes explores mass-market romance as a site in which woman writers and readers can communicate their desires, concerns, fantasies, and complicated senses of identity.

“Why, exactly, is romance a genre favored by women writers,” Holmes asks near the start of her study, “and what pleasures does it provide that explain its persistent popularity with readers?” (2). Why do women today continue to author and consume the same types of novels that women adored over a hundred years ago? One reason might be that women’s lives have not, in practice, experienced the metamorphoses that social and political changes have purported to bring; as Holmes observes, even as prevailing ideologies evolve, “it takes time for social change (for example economic and legal reforms) to translate into the intimacy of family relationships” (14). But the importance of the mass-market romance may also lie, the critic argues, precisely in the success it continues to enjoy despite dramatic achievements in women’s rights and personal independence over the century. Developments in the social, cultural, and material circumstances of women’s lives may explain the growing popularity of new variations on the romance genre that resonate more closely with modern women, yet women also continue to love romance novels that represent social and emotional circumstances that no longer reflect their present reality. Why do contemporary, independent women continue to turn to stories that center on love and the couple?

To respond, Holmes engages the ideas of such feminist theorists as Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin, the psychoanalytical arguments of Freud, and the sociological explanations of Pierre Bourdieu among many others. In her first chapter, she mobilizes a psychoanalytical perspective to look at the impact of early childhood fantasies and experiences (the oedipal drama, infantile bisexuality, separation from the mother) on adult desires. By considering Freud’s theories on the formation of gender identity and sexuality in conjunction with later feminist psychoanalytical approaches to these theories, Holmes concludes that romance novels unite the emotional and erotic quest for personal fulfillment with the desire to find one’s place in the social order. “Romance … deals with serious ethical questions: how to reconcile the fierce egoism of sexual and emotional drives with social responsibility, how to negotiate the boundaries between self and other, between loving desire and possessive control, between fascination with and fear of difference” (19). Despite the possible “dangers” to readers of a genre that prioritizes love, the mass-market romance remains “a narrative form chosen by women writers and readers, across classes and across three centuries, not only for its capacity to provide pleasurable fantasy, but also for its ability to reflect and reflect on their lives” (20). In the end, this brief survey of the theories that justify why romance continues to attract women raises interesting questions about gender, identity, and literature, but later chapters in which Holmes displays her strengths in literary analysis are more persuasive.

Holmes defines the romance genre as one in which the love plot is central to the narration, which consists of a meeting, a series of obstacles both internal and external to the characters, and a denouement that can be happy (resulting in marriage) or unhappy (resulting in separation). Yet with these consistent elements that define the genre comes great flexibility, and popular romance has been used in France to express a range of disparate political views, social classes, and historical circumstances. During the World Wars, novels by the brother and sister team of Jeanne-Marie and Frédéric Petitjean de la Rosière (commonly called “Delly” novels, after the authors’ nom-de-plume) adopted the popular romance structure to endorse and represent conservative, Catholic values that present both gender and class as “God-given” and necessarily intrinsic. Rather than question the social order, these novels reassured woman of the rightness of their own subordination in order to reinforce a traditional society. But the Delly novels, while extremely popular, were not the only voice for women during this turbulent time. Writers like Max de Veuzit and Magali offered women more nuanced novels that reflected their changing world. Their brand of romance, Holmes observes, tended to emphasize the importance of mutual love and marriage between equal partners: a sharply contrasting ideology embodied in the same popular form.

In postwar France, in part due to radical social changes wrought by WWII, such as greater employment opportunities and women’s suffrage, writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Françoise Sagan reached large audiences with works that openly questioned the social structures that shaped women’s lives. Nevertheless, these novels remained within largely heterosexual romance structures that depicted the conflict between feminine desire and exterior social demands. Holmes’ nuanced exploration of these texts and authors exemplifies the flexibility of her approach: on the one hand, all of them reflect the social tendencies of their historical circumstances, responding to those circumstances with various political and social agendas; on the other hand, they all deploy the basic framework of the romance novel, seeing that framework as the most effective and enduringly attractive means to express women’s realities to their readers.

Holmes focuses her study as much on readership as on authorship. She analyzes how changing laws and social practices at the beginning of the century—increased mobility, expansion in publishing, and state education of women, among others—contributed to the development of a body of women readers. Holmes traces the relationship between some of the most significant social and cultural events of the century and the ways in which they shaped literary tastes; for example, the World Wars provided greater independence and employment opportunities for women, successive waves of feminism questioned the patriarchy, existentialism undermined essentialist thinking, and the cultural revolution of ’68 overturned the dominant values of stability and consistency. Though she emphasizes these historical events and literature’s role in reflecting them, Holmes never underestimates the real, emotional, visceral, and (implicitly or explicitly) erotic pleasure of reading these romances that explains their popularity. “The very structure of the romance lends it erotic potential: the first encounter with the loved one arouses desire; the body of the narrative plays with this desire, in some cases endlessly deferring its satisfaction, in others partially fulfilling and thereby heightening it, until the climax of either perfect union, or loss and separation” (19). Both the content of the romance and the act of reading itself engage the body and the mind of the reader in a sensuous experience that attracts a wide variety of women writers and consumers.

Holmes confronts the criticism that romance promotes the limited and inescapable destiny of becoming a wife, and argues that while this may be true of some romances, many others offer the opportunity for women to explore a utopian, fantasized version of the real situations in which they find themselves. She sees romance as a “woman’s story,” the “quest for self-discovery and self-affirmation.” Indeed, for Holmes, whether it is a conservative Delly romance with a happy ending or one of Françoise Sagan’s “anti-romances,” “the genre demands some degree of affirmation of female subjectivity and agency” (141). The genre revolves around a woman’s conflict and her ability to resolve it, granting her a power in the fictional world that she may not have wielded in the real one. Holmes’ positive approach to the genre and her confidence in the value and interest of love stories makes Romance and Readership in Twentieth-Century France a compelling contribution to Popular Romance Studies. Whether they are avid romance fans or skeptical critics, readers will get a comprehensive picture of a genre that Holmes moves from the margins to the center of recent French literary history.


Review: Reading Nora Roberts, by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

Review by An Goris

In the landmark 1997 Paradoxa special issue on popular romance, Pamela Regis and Kay Mussell both noted that the study of individual romance authors was needed for the further development and consolidation of Popular Romance Studies as a critical field. (Mussell 10, Regis 146) Such single-author studies would effectively counter the stereotype that popular romance fiction is “formulaic” by demonstrating that popular romance, like any other kind of literature, is written by a multitude of individual, markedly different authors, each of whom deserves to be considered as such. Thirteen years later, alas, scholarly work on individual romance authors remains quite rare. Even the oeuvre of an incredibly popular romance author like Nora Roberts—who, with 164 New York Times bestsellers to her name and a staggering 400 million copies of her books in print (“Nora Roberts. Did You Know?”), is one of the most read authors worldwide—is discussed in only a handful of scholarly publications. Academic articles which focus exclusively on Roberts’ work are even rarer, and no book-length monograph currently exists, either on Roberts or any other contemporary popular romance author. Given this gap in romance scholarship, I was pleasantly surprised when I learned about the publication of Mary Ellen Snodgrass’ Reading Nora Roberts (2010).

Reading Nora Roberts is, however, not the scholarly work the field of Popular Romance Studies needs. In fact, despite Snodgrass’ professorship (proudly announced in the “About the Author” section), Reading Nora Roberts is not an academic study at all. Instead, it is a somewhat hastily put together book directed at what seem to be book club readers and, perhaps, interested high school students or entering undergraduates. (That Snodgrass is not addressing peer scholars but casual readers appears in, for example, the “discussion questions” at the end of each chapter, her repeated uncritical use of the term “feminism” without any regard for the complex theoretical debates the concept entails, and the summaries of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights she deems it necessary to provide.)

As a book for a wide but avidly interested audience, Reading Nora Roberts aims both to introduce the author and to facilitate discussion of her vast oeuvre. While her discussion of individual novels demonstrates Snodgrass’s skills as a literary scholar—she often displays real insight into Roberts’ narratives—the book is ultimately undermined by the critic’s apparently haphazard approach to Roberts’ oeuvre and the lack of clear direction in her argumentation.

One of the more puzzling aspects to negotiate as a reader of this book is the unexplained differences in the extent of Snodgrass’s discussion of Roberts’ works. As the critic surveys the course of Roberts’s career, in-depth analyses of some novels alternate with all-too-brief and underdeveloped discussions of others, creating a strange imbalance. For example, the chapter on Roberts’ work in the 1990s offers a detailed look at Montana Sky, but the equally long subsequent chapter on the 2000s consists of far more superficial discussions of five different novels. Snodgrass does not account for her differing approach. The in-depth focus on single novels is to be lauded both as a principle and in Snodgrass’ execution; indeed, Reading Nora Roberts reaches its most interesting potential when Snodgrass momentarily lets loose her literary analysis skills, as for example when she recasts Serena MacGregor’s retaliatory breaking of her father’s cigars as a “subtextual Freudian gesture of female violence to phallic symbols” (29), or when she discerns Sacred Sins’ “basic antithesis” as the “human need and male dread of sentimentality” (39). Unfortunately, Snodgrass does not place these novels within Roberts’ oeuvre in any coherent way, and this failure to give a satisfactory account of that oeuvre prevents her from creating the simultaneous sense of overview and depth that she seems to pursue. Although the critic interestingly identifies the presence of numerous socio-cultural themes in some of Roberts’ novels, she tends to oversimplify matters by all-too-brief readings, which fail to develop those promising interpretations. Instead, her discussions are often bogged down by lengthy plot summaries, which might please readers completely unfamiliar with Roberts’ works but are redundant for the experienced Roberts reader and the interested romance scholar.

Even taking the book on its own terms, as a publication for the general public, the book is ultimately disappointing. Although at times Snodgrass’ interpretations display promising potential, overall she fails to offer the comprehensive overview of Roberts’ oeuvre she sets out to provide. The presence of two virtually pointless chapters (one on Roberts on the internet and one on the author’s media presence) and the book’s inadequate length (a meagre 155 pages simply does not suffice to adequately discuss Roberts’ oeuvre of nearly 200 novels) give it the impression of being a hastily and somewhat casually thrown-together book. Worst of all are the steady stream of small but grating factual mistakes, including inaccurate character names (8, 100), repeated references to a trio instead of a quartet of friends in the Wedding Quartet series (85, 86), a description of A Man for Amanda (instead of Courting Catherine) as the first book in the Calhoun series (18) and the professional downgrading of Eve Dallas to “detective” (35). Such sloppiness on the part of both the author and her editors shows a curious lack of respect for Roberts, her readers, and the project of the book itself.

A brief online search indicates that Mary Ellen Snodgrass is not primarily a romance scholar, but has published dozens of guides and textbooks on a dizzying myriad of topics ranging from Greek Classics to nursing to relations between the US and Japan. Both Nora Roberts and Popular Romance Studies deserve better.

Works Cited

“Nora Roberts. Did You Know?” Nora Web. Nov. 18, 2009.

Mussell, Kay. “Where’s Love Gone? Transformations in Romance Fiction and Scholarship.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 3-14. Print.

Regis, Pamela. “Complicating Romances and their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 145-54. Print.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Reading Nora Roberts. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2010. Print.


Interview: Beverly Jenkins, by Rita B. Dandridge

The African American historical romance developed in nineteenth-century America but did not gain popularity as a genre until the twentieth century. Set in a specific historic time—usually during slavery, Reconstruction, or post-Reconstruction—the African American historical romance emphasizes tensions between two opposing forces, as it employs romantic elements of adventure and love. Because slavery and racism denied Blacks full political and social inclusion in American society, conflict in African American historical romances is often presented as opposition between Blacks who strive for sociopolitical freedom and the national majority who denies them full participation rights. The romance element centers in courtship and marriage that usually develop from the couple’s mutual involvement in racial uplift missions to advance the status of the colored community.

The first wave of African American women’s historical romances began with Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) and continued with Pauline Hopkins’ Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrated of Negro Life North and South (1900) and Zara Wright’s Black and White Tangled Threads (1920) and Kenneth (1920).[1] These novels contain colored protagonists[2] and have varied plots, settings, characters and romantic combinations, including interracial entanglements; each aims to disprove myths about Blacks’ moral degeneracy and their ill-suitability for assimilation into American society. For this purpose, their protagonists possess attributes that middle and upper-class Caucasians deemed worthy. Well-educated, temperate, frugal, and virtuous, they contribute to community uplift and marry respectably. As professionals, they represent the rising middle class, a rank above the Black masses. Properly armed, they possess the necessary weapons to battle the war against racism in order to assimilate into American society.

Of the novels in the first wave, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted dramatizes the black woman’s initiative in the freedom struggle and establishes a paradigm that other first-wave novels alternately adhere to and modify. Iola Leroy, Harper’s titular character, comes from a stable family, is educated, marries well, and works for the racial uplift of her people. A respectable family background, education, marriage, and community service were hallmarks to aspire to in attempting to dismantle racial injustice. For this reason, romance in the man-woman relationship in first-wave African American women’s historical romances is subordinate to sociopolitical struggles. Nevertheless, the romance paradigm is present—man and woman meet, fall in love, marry, and live the rest of their lives together. First-wave historical romance writers, as I have written elsewhere, “found the historical romance a useful and timely genre in which to encase unresolved sociopolitical issues regarding African American rights and status in nineteenth-century American society” (Black Women’s Activism 3).

Beverly Jenkins is the twentieth century’s (and, so far, the twenty-first century’s) best-selling African American historical romance writer.[3] She launched the mass-market second wave of African American historical romances with her first novel Night Song, published by Avon Books in 1994. Similar to first-wave novels, Jenkins’s historical romances evolve from particular moments in nineteenth-century American history and are shaped by confining conditions of race, gender, and class. With a strong revolutionary impetus, Jenkins’s novels reveal African Americans in the freedom struggle to secure their civil rights and assert their gender and class privileges in American society. Despite some similarities to the works of her foremothers, however, Jenkins’s eighteen published historical romances[4] extend the paradigm found in first-wave African American women’s historical romances in several ways.

First, Jenkins manifests a fuller view of history. Approximately a century removed from the historical periods of slavery, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction that she writes about, Jenkins carefully dramatizes that history and documents it, appending a bibliography to each of her novels. In Vivid, for instance, Jenkins revisits the post-Reconstruction era and details the difficulties that confronted Black female physicians, as illuminated in the life of Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the novel’s heroine. Dr. Lancaster enters the medical profession at a time when the racist theory of “negritude,” proposed by physician Benjamin Rush (1754-1813), was still prevalent. Rush’s theory, which Jenkins mentions in Vivid, hypothesizes that the color of black skin is a form of leprosy. As a result, Black physicians were limited to medical practice in the Black community. Another difficulty facing young Black physicians was the shift in the medical profession from bleeding patients in order to rid them of diseases to using antiseptics in order to prevent disease. This medical change is represented in the violent confrontation between Dr. Wadsworth Hayes, the elder white county physician who applies Benjamin Rush’s bleeding technique to a young Black child, and Dr. Lancaster, who applies the more modern cleansing methods of Dr. Joseph Lister (1827-1912) and fights to remove Dr. Hayes from his patient. Other details in the history reveal Dr. Lancaster’s engaging in difficult tasks outside her profession. She buries the dead, locates relatives of the ill, and performs household chores of her female patients; for her services, she often receives pay in the form of vegetables and farm animals. Dr. Lancaster is the fictional representative of Caroline Still Wiley Anderson, a black woman who received her medical degree in 1878 from the prestigious Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, but, because of her race, was restricted to a limited practice in the Black community.[5]

Second, Jenkins’ historical romances consistently celebrate nineteenth-century Black women who engage in racial uplift efforts in the public sphere. Jenkins depicts Black women in cohesive plots rather than in the digressive and episodic intrigues of her literary foremothers, offering a more comprehensive and sustained view of the Black woman engaged in racial uplift efforts. Sequential plotting aids the depiction of heroines in their tireless efforts; in their urgent and constant endeavors, Jenkins’s Black heroines seem to take their cue from Maria Stewart, a Black feminist who goaded Black women to action. In her 1832 “An Address Delivered before the Afri-American Female Intelligence Society of America,” Stewart urged Black women to “possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted” (53). Stewart’s message was heeded throughout the nineteenth century as African American women assumed public positions as abolitionists (Harriett Tubman), preachers (Jarena Lee), and teachers (Anna Julia Cooper). Black women in Jenkins’s second-wave historical romances engage in constructive activism as they assume responsible public positions as abolitionist (Hester Wyatt in Indigo), teacher (Cara in Night Song), and physician (Viveca Lancaster in Vivid).

Third, Jenkins revises the image of the mulatta heroine found in first-wave novels and depicts the darker-hued heroine who triumphs in public spaces. The darker-hued beauty in second-wave novels possesses masculine vigor and often dons pants. She is the antithesis of Frances Harper’s mulatta Iola Leroy who, despite her public service as nurse and teacher, relies on her husband to make decisions. Jenkins’s heroines also differ from the weakened heroines which African American male historical romance writers create. Clotel in William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or The President’s Daughter (1853) commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River, and Desiree Hippolyte, the quadroon mistress in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946), depends on the handouts of Stephen Fox, her white lover who abandons her during her pregnancy.

Fourth, unlike first-wave novels, second-wave novels present Black women fighting for self-determination in romantic liaisons with Black men. These men were often unwilling to concede public space to black women. As I have noted elsewhere, “Black men who [were] equally oppressed by race claim[ed] domination of women as their right” (“The Race, Gender, Romance Connection,” 185-186). The woman-man conflict is evident in Night Song, wherein Chase Jefferson, Cara Henson’s paramour, consistently intrudes upon her public space until she loses her teaching position.

Fifth, unlike first-wave novels that avoid sex in romantic relationships, Jenkins incorporates the more explicit treatment of sexuality found in the works of white European and American women writers. In part, she does this to indulge her ardent readers; in part, to satisfy her publisher’s demands. Avon Books, Jenkins’s publisher, broke new ground in the 1970s by publishing such erotically explicit historical romances as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower (1972) and Rosemary Rogers’s more violently sexual Sweet, Savage Love (1974). The passionate sex scenes in Jenkins’s novels, however, always take place between consenting black men and black women; there are no rapist heroes or “forced seductions” in her work.

As I sum up the genre in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Historical Romances, second-wave historical romances “offer a fuller view of specific historic moments, an expanded look at Black womanhood, a more complex and emphatic involvement of Black women in historic settings, and heated romance” (4). In addition to Jenkins, other Black woman historical romance writers in the second wave include Francine Craft (The Black Pearl, 1996), Roberta Gayle (Moonrise, 1996), Gay G. Gunn (Nowhere to Run, 1997), and Shirley Hailstock (Clara’s Promise, 1995).

My interview with Beverly Jenkins came in stages over the past eighteen months. I first sent a written copy of my questions to her in August 2008. She responded weeks later with a telephone call; we continued the interview by telephone and email in December and January of 2008-9. In preparation for this interview’s inclusion in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I emailed Jenkins a final set of questions in late January 2010, which she answered and returned a few days later.

RBD Why did you choose to begin your writing career with the historical rather than the contemporary romance?

BJ It wasn’t my choice really; it was the publisher’s choice. The first manuscript I sent out was a contemporary that was rejected, but the historical Night Song sold. Ironically, that rejected contemporary was published many years later as Edge of Night.

RBD How difficult was it for you to publish Night Song?

BJ It took me fifteen years to publish my first novel, which has since gone through six printings. The start was rough. My editor, Ellen Edwards, then Executive Editor of Avon, sent me a fourteen-page revision letter. She said she didn’t know if I could do the revisions. I did the revisions. The draft went from the editor to a freelancer. Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “nigger, nigger” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. There should be trust between editor and author.

RBD There are so many more contemporary romances published than there are historical romances. Why is that?

BJ Money drives the publishing business just like every other business. Back in the seventies and eighties, historical romances held the biggest share of the market, so publishers pushed that genre. But over time, the tastes of the readers changed, the times changed, and contemporaries began to be embraced. Now contemporaries rule. Romance can be very cyclical, though, so, who knows where the genre will be ten years from now.

RBD You are more than a century removed from the nineteenth century that you write about. How do your historical romance novels bring this era alive for your twenty-first-century readers?

BJ I bring the nineteenth century alive—I think—by placing my historical characters in the context of their everyday lives. Our bittersweet history in America is just that, but it didn’t stop us from building colleges or raising families or continuing to get up every day and put one foot in front of the other so life could be better. All the bullshit America threw at the Ancestors, we as a race survived, and by showing how we bent but didn’t break, how individuals coped in spite of [oppression], gives my readers a truer look at how we got over. Telling history through the lives and actions of a story’s characters as opposed to beating folks over the head with dates and boring lectures makes the history more accessible. It personalizes. Whether I’m dealing with the Exodus of 1879, the Seminole scouts, the Black Civil War vets, or the Black and Brown lawmen of Indian Territory, breaking the history down into stories seems to work well with the readers.

RBD How do your historical romances link to those of your nineteenth-century literary foremothers, Francis Harper and Pauline Hopkins?

BJ I do know that what these illustrious foremothers stood for—justice, equality, education, a commitment to community and the desire to push the envelope on race and gender—is something I consciously place in each of my heroines. I “borrowed” the concept from the great historian Dorothy A. Sterling. Her book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, is my bible. In it, she states that nineteenth-century Black women had three gifts: a strong work ethic, a commitment to community, and a penchant to push the envelope on race and gender. Whether it’s schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, journalist Kate Love, or banker Grace Atwood, I try to bestow at least one of Sterling’s gifts on them. Nineteenth-century Black women changed the world not only for themselves and the race but for women of other races as well. Women like Black abolitionist Maria Stewart, who in 1832 became the first woman in America of any race to lecture to a mixed audience; Rebecca Lee and other pioneering Black doctors of the late 1860s were often not only the first Black doctors, but many were the first doctors of any race in their communities. Their experiences helped shape crusading Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the heroine in my second novel, Vivid.

RBD The neo-slave narrative, another African American historical genre, has gained prominence. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose come to mind. What is your opinion about this kind of historical novel? What are your thoughts about the relationship of your historical romances to this body of work set in the same period as your novels and deal with similar issues of race, gender, and sexuality?

BJ I have read both of the titles referenced. Our novels are similar in the sense that all touch the African American experience. Mine differs in the model upon which it is based. Genre romance novels are based on the gothic tradition set forth by authors Daphne du Maurier[6] and Georgette Heyer,[7] and American authors Kathleen E. Woodiwiss[8] and LaVyrle Spencer[9]; but I have taken that model, given it a new spin that makes my work FUBU—for us, by us. I also include a bibliography at the end of each novel to help readers further their knowledge of the historical event/s featured in each novel, be it the Great Exodus of 1879, the Brown and Black outlaws and deputy marshals of Indian Territory, or the gens d’coleur of antebellum Louisiana, etc.

RBD By gothic model are you referring to the romance template in which an inexperienced young woman meets and falls in love with a mysterious older man, marries him, and then encounters awesome circumstances that potentially jeopardize their union?

BJ Yes. Your description was closely followed during the early days of romance, but now the model has advanced. Man-woman conflicts are the main elements. The man can now be younger than the female, and the woman no longer has to be a virgin. The genre has morphed with the times.

RBD What do you think of other African American authors’ use of genre fiction in pursuit of, perhaps, comparable goals (i.e., to revisit the past and accumulate cultural memory)? Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, for example, is a time-travel science fiction narrative that takes the heroine, Dana, an African American, back in time to nineteenth-century Maryland, a slave state.

BJ Genres. It has been interesting watching African American writers flip the switch, so to speak, on the traditional genres from romance to horror and begin to be accepted and successful in areas where we were not allowed to be fifteen years ago. L. A. Banks[10] is a prime example. Her Minion series has a vampire theme that is FUBU. Anytime small, evangelical/fundamentalist African American churches in the south embrace a vampire series, and they have, as said to me, Ms. Banks has hit upon something that in its own way speaks to the race and is viewed with value.

RBD While your novels contribute to the historical romance tradition in African American literature, they also break new ground. Would you comment on this point?

BJ I only see it as breaking new ground in the sense that you can now buy my books, and books by Brenda Jackson[11] and L. A. Banks and others, all over the world. FUBU books have been around since before the American Revolution, but being accessible to the market is the thing. Not sure if this is what you mean, but this is my first thought on the question.

RBD Global mass marketing certainly plays a big role in a book’s accessibility to the public, and I agree that in this sense your books have broken new ground. Moreover, some nineteenth-century Black women’s historical romances were serialized in small magazines such as The Christian Recorder, that had a small readership. But, I was also thinking about how you have expanded the concept of desire in your novels to embrace not only the agape longing to participate in racial uplift but also the erotic craving for one’s mate. The public and private manifestations of desire give your audience a fuller appreciation of Black women’s lives in the nineteenth century. Could you say more about erotica?

BJ Erotica is what romance fiction is all about. Romance started with erotic gothic and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower. Erotica is required to have romance fiction published. I read some of the romances by writers in the white canon, and I flipped the paradigm man-woman sex conflict to include relevant Black history. Our history puts meat into the novels. People outside the genre have no idea how important all books by African American authors are to their readers. Finally a whole slew of books about us—in every genre.

RBD Who buys and reads your novels?

BJ Black women. They love erotica. Before my books were published, they read white women’s erotica.

RBD Do Black men read your novels?

BJ Not many. A brother once told me that he didn’t read romances. He didn’t believe in romance. I told him, “You’re here! There must have been romance. Something must have been going on.” (Chuckle)

RBD What do you think are your major contributions to the historical romance genre?

BJ My contribution/s. It seems that I have been given the charge of telling our history in a way that is new and different, but also fills our racial soul.

RBD Thanks to you and your contemporaries Francine Craft,[12] Gay G. Gunn,[13] and Shirley Hailstock,[14] the African American historical romance has made considerable progress since the nineteenth century. Why do you think literary critics have not given more attention to your work?

BJ It’s that old double edged sword—and in our case, the sword has three edges: one, we write romance—which critics sometimes don’t look at as a “serious” genre; two, we’re female writers of romance, and the big one—we’re Black female writers of romance. Makes for a lot of crap to wade through sometimes.

RBD Most of your historical romances have strong public-service–oriented Black women characters: Cora Lee Henson, teacher, in Night Song; Dr.Viveca Lancaster, physician, in Vivid; Sable Fontaine, contraband camp worker, in Through the Storm; and Zahra Lafayette, Civil War spy, in Winds of the Storm. These women find themselves in conflict with outside forces, but they manage to resolve their problems with their self-esteem intact. What message do these novels send to your reading audience?

BJ The message is: Don’t tell a Black woman there’s something she can’t do. Goes back to Sterling’s gifts—particularly pushing the envelope on gender and race. Never tell us there’s something we can’t do.

RBD Your male-female characters express love for each other in your novels, but they also long for and celebrate freedom. Could you comment on the intersection between love and freedom?

BJ To be able to love is freedom. Poet and essayist bell hooks, who I’m looking forward to meeting one day, is a big romance fan and has written the best take on the intersection of freedom and love. I’ll have to run it down and get back to you on this one.

RBD Since our last correspondence, have you had an opportunity to read bell hooks’ essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom”? If so, do you have a possible interest in or reaction to bell hooks’ ideas about love as a “practice of freedom”?

BJ Rita, I apologize, but I still have not had time to read Ms. hooks’ work. The example I always go back to about love being the “practice of freedom” is a reference in the book Bull Whip Days[15] to “a man named Wyatt who was free and sold himself into slavery for the love of a woman.” It was a reference that took my breath away. The power and commitment of Wyatt speaks to a love that is both astounding in its depth and heart-breaking in its ramifications. He freely chose to make this decision and to me it is the ultimate example of love as the practice of freedom. I’m not sure if this is what Ms. hooks meant, but this is what it says to me.

RBD Does your position as an Episcopal lay minister have any bearing on the values and responsibilities evident in the characters you depict in your novels?

BJ Other than that the church [African Methodist Episcopal] is at the center of the community in many of my books, no.

RBD You have written more than a dozen historical romances from 1995 until the present time. Explain the evolution of your writing in terms of character development and relationships.

BJ Golly. Not sure how to answer this. The character development and relationships. There is no real evolution in the sense that the two factors have changed over the years. Both have [been] and continue to be strong—I hope. Sounds like a question for the readers.

RBD If there is one lesson that you wish the present generation to obtain about male-female relationships in reading your novels, what would that lesson be?

BJ Cherish each other—tomorrow is not promised.

RBD What do you consider to be the three most important themes in your historical romances?

BJ Love. Legacy. Endurance.

RBD What do you expect your legacy as an African American historical romance author will be for those historical romance writers who succeed you?

BJ Hopefully that I supplied my readers with edutainment. Education and entertainment.

Works Cited

Dandridge, Rita B. Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. Print.

—. “The Race, Gender, Romance Connection.” Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003: 185-201. Print.

Stewart, Maria. Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Activist: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Marilyn Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.

[1] I discuss first-wave African American women’s historical romances in greater detail in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African American Women’s Historical Romances (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 2-4.

[2] Prior to Frances Harper’s publication of Iola Leroy, African American women novelists published romances with white protagonists. These writers and their novels are Emma Dunham Kelly’s Megda (Boston: John H. Earle, 1891) and Amelia E. Johnson’s Clarence and Corinne; or God’s Way (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1890).

[3] In addition to her historical romances, Beverly Jenkins has published contemporary romances, romantic suspense novels, romance novelettes, and juvenile fiction. She has won prestigious awards, including the distinguished Golden Pen Award (1999) from Black Writer’s Guild; the 2008 Emma Award for Romantic Suspense, Favorite Hero, Book Cover, and Book of the Year for Deadly Sexy; and Author of the Year Award at 2008 Romance Slam Jam for Deadly Sexy. She is also the recipient of six Best Seller Awards from the Waldens/Borders Group and two Career Achievement Awards from Romantic Times Magazine. Jenkins has her own website at

[4] Producing one novel, sometimes two, each year, Beverly Jenkins’s historical romances include Night Song (New York: Avon Books, 1994), Vivid (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), Indigo (New York: Avon Books, 1996), Topaz (New York: Avon Books, 1997), Through the Storm (New York: Avon Books, 1998), The Taming of Jessi Rose (New York: Avon Books, 1999), Always and Forever (New York: Avon Books, 2000), Before the Dawn (New York: Avon, 2001), A Chance at Love (New York: Avon Books, 2002), Something Called Love (New York: Avon Books, 2005), Winds of the Storm (New York: Avon Books, 2006), Wild Sweet Love (New York: Avon Books, 2007), Jewel (New York: Avon Books, 2008), and Captured (New York: Avon Books 2009). Her historical romances for juveniles are Belle and the Beau (New York: Harper Teen, 2002), reprinted as Belle (New York: Kimani TRU, 2009), and Josephine and the Soldier (New York: Avon Books, 2003), reprinted as Josephine (New York: Kimani TRU, 2009).

[5] For a discussion of Dr. Caroline Still Wiley Anderson, see Darlene Clark Hine, ed. Black Women in America. Vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1993): 28-29.

[6] Daphne du Maurier is a British writer who wrote about adventure and romance in Cornwall, England. Her historical romance Frenchman’s Creek, first published in 1942 and reprinted with Virago in 2003, was made into a film with the same title in 1944. A television version of the novel was made in 1998, in which Tara Fitzgerald starred as Dona, the novel’s protagonist. See Richard Kelly, “Daphne du Maurier: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. New York: St. James P, 1994. Twentieth-Century Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

[7] Georgette Heyer (1902-74), a British romance writer, authored thirty-eight historical romances, most of which were set in the years of the Regency (1811-1820), the reign of the Prince of Wales who became George IV.

[8] Kathleen E. Woodiwiss authored The Flame and the Flower (New York: Avon Books, 1972), a novel whose content and marketing transformed the romance publishing industry. “Launched in 1972 as an Avon Spectacular, with all the promotion and advertising support usually given to bestseller reprints,” Carol Thurston explains, this novel “not only proved the commercial viability of paperback originals but also opened the door to a new American publishing enterprise”: specifically, “the erotic historical romance as a mass entertainment phenomenon.” See Carol Thurston, The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1987): 48.

[9] LaVyrle Spencer is an American novelist whose historical romances and other romances have made the New York Times best seller list a dozen times. Her writing career began with the publication of The Fulfillment (New York: Avon, 1979), a historical romance which her inspiration Kathleen E. Woodiwiss read and sent to her own editor at Avon. Spencer’s other well-known historical romances include, but are not limited to, Hummingbird (New York: Jove, 1983), Twice Loved (New York: Jove, 1984), and The Gamble (New York: Jove, 1987). Emphasizing family situations rather than male-female relations, Spencer has published twenty-four books and is a five-time winner of the RITA Award, the highest award Romance Writers of America gives to romance writers. Spencer’s 1988 induction into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame distinguished her at that time as one of twelve women to have received that award. See Carol Thurston, “LaVyrle Spencer: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. New York: St. James P, 1994. Twentieth-Century Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

[10] L. A. Banks is one of several pseudonyms for African American author Leslie Ann Banks. Banks has written more than three dozen novels in various genres including contemporary romance, suspense thrillers, and paranormal. Minion (New York: Griffin, 2003) is the first of twelve novels in the Vampire Huntress Legend Series. (Rita B. Dandridge, email interview with L.A. Banks. 7 February 2010).

[11] Brenda Jackson began her writing career with the publication of Tonight and Forever (New York: Kensington Arabesque, 1995), and to date has published more than sixty novels. Best known as a multicultural writer, she is the first African American author to publish under the Harlequin/Silhouette Desire imprint. A full-time writer, Jackson “is the first African-American writer to make the New York Times best-seller list with a romance.” See Patrick Huguenin, “African American Romance Writers Come into Their Own.” New York Daily News, 23 May 2009.

[12] Francine Craft has published only one historical romance The Black Pearl (1996) with the imprint of Pinnacle Books, a subsidiary of Kensington Publishing, with whom she signed a contract.  She now owns the novel outright and plans to reissue it.

[13] Gay G. Gunn has published only one historical romance to date and that is Nowhere to Run (Columbus, MS: Genesis, 1997).

[14] Shirley Hailstock has written only one historical novel to date, Clara’s Promise (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1995), about Blacks’ settlement in the Old West. For this novel, Hailstock was given the Utah Romance Writers Heart of the West Award. Hailstock’s idea for a second historical romance about cosmetology for Black women in the 1890s has not yet materialized. At the time she wanted to write the historical romance, Arabesque decided to accept only contemporary romances, the genre that Hailstock has been publishing since 1995. See Gwendolyn Osborne’s interview “Meet Author Shirley Hailstock.” The Romance 1 Dec. 2000.

[15] This reference is to Bullwhip Days the Slaves Remember: An Oral History, ed. James Mellon (New York: Quill, 1990), 445.


“There Were Three of Us in this Biography, So it Was a Bit Crowded: The Biographer as Suitor and the Rhetoric of Romance in Diana: Her True Story,” by Giselle Bastin

A photograph of a young Lady Diana Spencer provides another image of English romance. She is shown reading a novel by her step-grandmother, Barbara Cartland, but there is not just one book in the picture; at least five more are strewn around, all Barbara Cartlands. It is as though Diana is involved in dreamy but intensive research into the genre to which Barbara Cartland contributed so amply. Only a few years later Diana was, indeed, involved in a national romance of unprecedented scale, albeit one that ultimately devolved into the cognate genre of gothic horror. (Featherstone 172)

(please click here to view the photo described)

Diana: Her True Story (henceforth referred to as HTS), a royal biography about the Princess of Wales, was written by Andrew Morton in 1991 and released in 1992. The sheer number of copies sold (over two million) testifies to the book’s enormous popularity upon its release. Readers were given the opportunity to re-read the text when it was re-released on the princess’s death as Diana: Her True Story, In Her Own Words (1998). Diana’s most recent biographer, Tina Brown, has called HTS Diana’s most sustained “expression of choreographed rage” (296); it is a book described elsewhere by Jude Davies as a generic hybrid of “romantic novel, testamentary (auto)biography, [and] bildungsroman” (93). Davies’ general banner of “romantic novel” can be broken down further into a number of categories, and Morton’s book read for its intratextual use of some aspects of the romance fiction of Barbara Cartland; for its appropriation of some of the main tropes of genres as diverse as Mills and Boon romantic fiction and popular self-help discourses; and for undertones drawn from English “heroine” novels such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca. The application of these various genres in the telling of her own story suggests that Diana was well-versed in these narrative styles. The structuring and organization of HTS suggests, too, that Andrew Morton is equally adept in applying the dominant tropes from these same popular genres. Further, the familial connection between Cartland and Diana is cited by several biographers as evidence that Diana’s story, from the earliest days of her courtship and betrothal to Prince Charles, was shaped and configured along the lines of popular romance. Indeed, many a commentator, including Simon Featherstone (quoted at the start of this discussion), has seen in the familial connection between Cartland and Diana a framework in which to interpret the trajectory of Diana’s life.

However, of even greater interest here are the metatextual codes that are employed by scholars and media critics who have commented on the book. These metatextual codes turn out to be one of the most intriguing facets of HTS, offering as they do an insight into how discourses of chivalry and courtly love are loosely appropriated by commentators to either celebrate or denounce Andrew Morton’s role in the production of the Diana biography. Taken together, the narrative style of, and commentary about, HTS suggest that Diana’s “story,” true or otherwise, can only be interpreted within the frameworks of existing romance narratives. Moreover, such persistent recourse to different romantic narrative streams suggests that the emotional investment in the “romance of the century” was not so much Diana’s as the critics’ own.

“The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren’t terribly good for her”: Diana as Barbara Cartland’s Step-Granddaughter

The future self-titled Queen of Hearts became related to Barbara Cartland, the self-proclaimed Queen of Romance, when her father, the 8th Earl Spencer married Cartland’s daughter, Raine, in 1977. While not a fan of her new step-grandmother, Diana quickly became a fan of her not inconsiderable catalogue of novels, novels that Cartland happily supplied to the Spencer household in cartloads. Diana herself remembered Cartland’s fiction with a degree of fondness, telling MP Gyles Brandreth, “In those stories was everyone I dreamed of, everything I hoped for” (Brown 22). Julie Burchill charts how “Diana was a figure straight out of one of [Cartland’s] books, bringing her virginity triumphant to the marriage bed as a gift of love” (200).

According to Suzanne Lowry, Diana “might have been invented just to prove the point” of Cartland’s fiction, which is that virginity will win the prince (124). The critics’ equation of Diana with all things connoted “romance” found its origins in the earliest commentary about Diana, which emphasized the need for a royal bride to be a “virgin.” Certainly, popular commentary at the time of the royal betrothal that emphasized Diana’s virginal status, and analyzed the demand for such status, wittingly or otherwise drew parallels between the royal bride and Barbara Cartland’s fiction. As Rosalind Brunt has noted, Cartland became publicly identified in the 1960s and 1970s as “an active propagandist for virginity” (140), producing novel after novel that celebrated the “Happy Ending when the experienced Playboy Prince, the wealthiest and highest-born man in the land, discards the more sophisticated women he has dallied with to marry his teenage virgin bride” (135-6).

Many critics have been uncertain about the empowering effects of romantic fiction on Diana’s emotional and intellectual development. Sarah Bradford is one who bewails Diana’s immersion in “the world of Barbara Cartland’s novels in which strong men woo […] virgin brides and love triumph[s] over all,” seeing this as “perhaps the worst preparation for life in general and her own life in particular that [Diana] could have had” (25). Sally Bedell Smith suggests that Diana’s relative immaturity when she was first engaged to Prince Charles led to an “idealized version of marriage that was fed by the fairy-tale romances written by […] Cartland” (20). Diana Simmonds observes that “[Barbara Cartland’s books] have been translated into almost every known language except reasonable English,” and remarks that the novelist’s family connection to Diana may have become quite possibly “the single biggest drawback to Diana’s case for becoming the next Princess of Wales” because of “the access it would inevitably give the Queen of Romance to the Queen of England, something that apparently had the corridors of Buckingham Palace alternatively rocking with mirth and shudders” (130).  But it is perhaps Barbara Cartland herself who best summed up what the other biographers were keen to detail, when in 1993 she announced, “The only books [Diana] ever read were mine and they weren’t terribly good for her” (Brown 67), adding for good measure her opinion that the royal marriage had foundered because “[Diana] wouldn’t do oral sex” (144).

In The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown suggests that Diana’s “addiction to romance novels became a diabetes of the soul, leaving her spiritual bloodstream permanently polluted with saccharine.… She clung so tenaciously to her dreams that they became a wilful act of unknowing” (23). Brown identifies in Cartland’s plots a type of road map for Diana’s own psycho-social development. For example:

In the cad-about-town James Hewitt she saw only the Dashing Cavalry Officer; in the serious and private cardiologist Hasnat Khan, she saw the Heart-throb doctor who would be at her side in Florence Nightingale missions; in the coked-out playboy Dodi Fayed she saw the liquid-eyed Arab Sheikh who would whisk her away on a magic carpet…. [Diana’s step-mother was Raine, formerly Lady Dartmouth, and] … it is ironic that Raine was the daughter of Barbara Cartland. Fate was giving Diana the inside track on the perversion of her own fairy story. (23)

Like Brown, Featherstone draws a clear link between romance narratives and Diana’s life choices: “Her post-divorce emotional career resorted to other narratives drawn from Cartland and Mills and Boon. Army officers, sports stars, charismatic surgeons and playboys constituted the full range of the masculine stereotypes of English romance” (174). Biographer of the Queen, Ben Pimlott, recognizes that representations of Diana’s life also draw explicitly on the tenets of romantic fiction, saying of HTS in particular that “[It] was a new kind of [royal biography], for a new generation: although its style was that of a romantic novel.… The story was a moral classic about a young woman who had entered the legendary world which millions dreamt about” (553).

Another genre of romance that has been identified as an influence in the structure and content of HTS is that of the Harlequin/Mills and Boon style of popular fiction. Jude Davies finds a number of parallels between Diana’s story and the Mills and Boon formula (127-34). A brief application of Ann Barr Snitow’s well-known analysis of this romance mode to a reading of HTS suggests a number of possible parallels between the two.  Where Snitow identifies the heroine who must find ways of responding “appropriately to male energy without losing her virginity” (135), for example, Morton’s Diana must negotiate Charles’s leaping on her at a house party and offering her a lift (read: opportunity for sex) back to London (149); where Snitow’s heroine awaits her hero’s next move and fills her time working at menial jobs, maintaining a “holding pattern […] while she awaits love” (137), Diana attends a cordon bleu cookery class and performs a range of menial jobs such as house cleaning for her sister and her sister’s friends (Morton 40-43); in addition, she becomes a childcare worker at the Young England Kindergarten (43) and babysitter with “Knightsbridge Nannies” (38). Anne Barr Snitow notes how the Mills and Boon heroine feels awkward on early dates, and wears clothes that are too tight thereby revealing to her hero, in a passive act of self-exposure, her vulnerability (135). This is echoed in Diana’s early encounter with the English press which resulted in the now-famous “see-through” skirt photograph (Morton 51), and her wearing of the strapless black, cleavage-exposing evening gown to an early official function (61). The Mills and Boon heroine, Snitow continues, is surrounded by female friends (Diana’s Coleherne Court flatmates (Morton 43)); she is useful in a range of female roles (Diana “good with children” (Morton 42)); and is, above all, free of the taint of sexual experience (“I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what lay ahead” (Morton 44)). A Harlequin/Mills and Boon structure joins, therefore, with the image of Cartland’s royal virgin bride to situate Diana as a romance figure. Yet, in order to articulate why it is that, despite an adherence to all the other plot devices identified by Snitow, Diana’s narrative has nonetheless been robbed of both a Cartland and Mills and Boon “Happy Ending,” Morton has had to superimpose another meta-language onto Diana’s story, one drawn from self-help and personal testimony.

From the early chapter headings which chart Diana’s descent into self-doubt and misery within the royal household (“My Cries for Help” and “Darling, I’m Going to Disappear”) to chapter headings which hint at her passage to selfhood and recovery (“My Life Has Changed its Course” and “I Did My Best”), Andrew Morton’s application of the language of self-help and testamentary genres is evident in the shaping of the chapters of HTS. According to Davies, it is the testamentary mode that holds together the “realist, romantic and mythic registers” of HTS (93). Furthermore, Diana’s framing of her personal narrative and Morton’s shaping of her story so that it complies with the generic structures of two of the biggest-selling genres in the world today—the popular romance and the self-help manual—offer critics further evidence that Diana’s “true story” is one that can only be read within the parameters of these popular modes.

Whatever Love Means

One childhood friend of Diana’s reflected after the princess’s death that “Barbara Cartland’s books didn’t prepare [Diana for married life]” (Bedell Smith 97). Certainly, what they didn’t prepare Diana for was the heartbreak involved in discovering that that her pre-arranged aristocratic alliance with the Prince of Wales was never going to be the bourgeois companionate marriage of her dreams—one where the bride and groom are joined in a consensual marriage of mutual satisfaction and benefit, and the groom, within the Cartland plotline, is “the-always-intended-hero” (Brunt 145). Unfortunately for Diana, her expectations of romantic companionate marriage ran counter to the royal house’s views about feudally-structured aristocratic alliances. In the latter’s view, love, when and if it be required, is best found outside of the traditional marriage arrangement. As an acquaintance of Diana’s bête noir, Camilla Parker Bowles and her ex-husband Andrew, has remarked, everyone in the “country set” of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, where Prince Charles and Camilla did their extra-marital courting, slept with each other rather than outsiders because “’It’s safer. And it was considered an honour to have your wife or husband as a king’s paramour.’ Didn’t Andrew Parker Bowles mind [that his wife was the Prince’s mistress]? ’Mind? No. Loved every second of it. The idea is to keep it in the family. Better Us than Them, you see’” (Pearson 3).

Yet, apart from being a case where the princess simply got it wrong or didn’t “get the point,” it could be argued that the tropes of popular romance writing gave Diana the ways and means of contributing to a discourse of royalty perpetuated by the House of Windsor itself; one which had, by and large, been in circulation since the middle of the 20th century. The shift in this period, that saw stories about royal office and ceremonial meaning change to narratives about the modern monarchy’s existence primarily as a family that represents the “national family,” created precisely an environment responsive to Diana’s tale of marital breakdown and domestic woe. In presenting themselves as being “like us, but special,” the Windsors invited readings of their domestic arrangements that allowed for the same interpretations of family and marital breakdown that were occurring elsewhere in the lives of ordinary Britons. In addition, the shift in register from royal subject as public figure to one of private self with bourgeois constraints and yearnings occurred within a discourse community already familiar with the tropes of the modern romance novel, and also, in part, with English “heroine” novels such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca.

“Last night I dreamt I went to [Highgrove] again”: HTS and the English Novel

Diana’s early mastery of the codes and styles of romantic fiction connect her to a long tradition of English story-telling, one where a raft of female narrators have struggled toward selfhood via the narratives of struggle and redemption through love. According to Simon Featherstone:

[Diana] applied the lessons of her early study of Barbara Cartland’s fiction and her later mastery of the semiotics of Vogue, Tatler, Hello! and a newly virulent English tabloid press. [Diana] both constructed herself and was constructed by the narratives and discourses of this popular culture.… The ‘crowded’ marriage that followed became in multiple retellings a royal Rebecca, with its ingénue heroine intimidated by the presence of erotic ghosts and crippled by social naivety. Courtiers “hung on my every word … only I had none,” Diana recalled of an early visit to Balmoral, telling her biographer in true Daphne du Maurier style that on her honeymoon she “dreamt of Camilla the whole time” (174).

Diana’s testamentary monologues, and their fashioning along the lines of du Maurier’s and Brontë’s well-known novels, can be linked to a long British tradition of stories featuring a female character’s complicated journey on the road towards love. Alison Light has identified stories such as Rebecca and its “precursor” Jane Eyre as the literary models “from which the modern product developed” (Lowry 129-30). Certainly, stories about Diana’s post-wedding life and her “fight for freedom” from the royal system and the narratives about her transformation and empowerment are, according to Jude Davies, “consonant with the threatened female figures of nineteenth-century novels rather than with feminist iconicity” (107). But just as du Maurier alters her narrator’s agency in Rebecca by making her an older woman who is looking back, Ancient Mariner-like, “[on] her story of middle-class femininity [where she is] as much the victim as the producer of the [the story’s] fictionality” (Light 22), so too does Diana re-visit and re-shape her own romantic saga to take, what Alison Light refers to in reference to Rebecca, a form of “imaginary control of the uncontrollable” (22). Unlike Rebecca’s narrative voice, however, Diana’s story is mediated through a range of voices and interventions, from friends and family to professional associates who have watched Diana’s story unfold and unravel from the sidelines.

It is to these interventions that I should now like to turn, for in looking at how critics and scholars draw on the tropes of popular romance when critiquing the Morton-Diana collaboration, it becomes clear that it isn’t only the princess and her biographer who are dependent on modes of expression drawn from popular romance. What becomes clear from a grouping together of a number of responses to the Morton book is that language of chivalry—adapted and applied loosely by a number of sources—permeates much of the commentary about Morton’s involvement.

Princess in Distress: Morton as Diana’s Champion

The way that HTS was commissioned and executed, and the various responses that the book elicited upon its release, contain interesting references to the motifs of the traditional courtly love saga and to the codes of chivalry recorded in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in France and England. When reading how royal biographers, cultural commentators and members of the media and social establishment react to this book, it is clear that the language of courtly love and the chivalric code unconsciously informs the terminology used to describe the Morton-Diana arrangement. Descriptions of Diana’s securing of James Colthurst’s and Morton’s services are often couched in terms that resemble the feudal relationship that took place between noble women and their chosen knights in the mid-twelfth century. In order to interpret such responses it becomes necessary first of all to examine some definitions of courtly love and the chivalric code.

There never was a medieval Code of Chivalry as such, but many of the tenets of the movement were recorded in texts such as the eleventh-century Song of Roland which documents the battles of Charlemagne in the eighth century. After the primary role of serving God, medieval knights had to swear their allegiance to the liege lord and, among other things, protect the weak and defenceless, live by honour, protect the honour of fellow knights, speak the truth at all times, and respect the honour of women. The courtly love system was tied in nature and period to the codes of chivalry and codified the rules of love relationships. It was designed by noble women in the French royal courts of the mid-twelfth century. The women who have been most identified with its conception are Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie de Champagne, the latter being the one who commissioned a cleric named Andreas Capellanus to write down the codes of this courtly love ritual in a text entitled De arte honeste amandi (The Art of Honest Love). According to Deborah B. Schwartz, the courtly love relationship was:

modelled on the feudal relationship between a knight and his liege lord. The knight serves his courtly lady (love service) with the same obedience and loyalty which he owes to his liege lord. She is in complete control of the love relationship, while he owes her obedience and submission.… The knight’s love for the lady inspires him to do great deeds, in order to be worthy of her love or to win her favor.… The “courtly love” relationship typically was not between husband and wife, not because the poets and the audience were inherently immoral, but because it was an idealized sort of relationship that could not exist within the context of “real life” medieval marriages. In the middle ages, marriages amongst the nobility were typically based on practical and dynastic concerns rather than on love.

Given the relative absence of love within the marriage state and given women’s almost complete lack of self-determination in this period, women of the court used the courtly love rituals as a way of expressing their thoughts and desires for others outside of the sanctified union of marriage. This system of expression was a highly codified one and involved such rules as absolute insistence that the “relationship” (which was not expressed sexually—at least in principle) remain unknown to all but the two people involved and their closest intimates; the male “lover” had to remain attentive and discreet, and could love his lady only “from a distance.” The lady characteristically had to be both “married” and “unattainable,”  and the man had to remain “the vassal who serves her” (Thompson). According to Eileen Power:

the lover served his lady as humbly as the vassal served his lord. He had to keep her identity secret from the world, concealing it under some fictitious name when he praised her in song. He must … bear himself with the utmost humility towards her, showing infinite patience in the trials to which her caprices and disdains must (by all the rules) submit him. (16)

The lady’s unattainability was a central conceit within the courtly love code because married people were of equal rank, and as Alexander J. Denomy explains it, “once a woman becomes a man’s equal in marriage” in the courtly love tradition, “she ceases to be his goal” (23).

An early cultural observer of Diana’s social meanings observed that the young princess seemed from early on to attract “opportunities … for ritual displays of gallantry and protectiveness” (Lowry, 100). Examples of this range from public displays of “gallantry” such as a schoolboy kissing the princess’s hand during an early walkabout in the village of Tetbury before her marriage, to a man’s laying down of a cloak over a puddle during one of the princess’s appearances on her 1985 tour of Italy. Stories abound about the press pack’s early attempts to act as her “protectors”[1] a fact that stands in stark contrast to the princess’s last years as “Diana the Hunted” (Spencer).

Jude Davies perpetuates the chivalric imagery when he asserts that Morton self-fashioned himself as Diana’s “rescuer” (109). Other cultural critics, such as Julie Burchill and Beatrix Campbell have argued that Diana needed an interlocutor in order for HTS to have been released at all. Julie Burchill describes Andrew Morton as the “familiar who … helped [Diana] find a voice” (171); Heather Mallick, too, identifies his role as Diana’s defender as an act of “gallantry.” Taken together, such recurrent terminology bears scrutiny for what it reveals about the critics’ own investment in rhetorical codes drawn from courtly love and chivalric romance as they have been interpreted via contemporary evocations of such modes. In order to contextualize these rhetorical codes further, it is useful to examine the ways in which HTS was compiled.

Her True Story’s mode of production can itself be understood broadly in chivalric terms. The book began life after Diana employed, through her friend Dr. James Colthurst, the services of Andrew Morton, a freelance royal reporter with whom she had become familiar on the usual rounds of royal duties. The process involved Colthurst riding his pushbike to Diana at Kensington Palace—not exactly a white steed, but a humble, earnest expression of his willingness to serve—and his then giving Diana lists of questions to answer that had been prepared by Morton. Colthurst would then take the taped answers back to Morton. The whole process was designed to ensure that Morton and Diana never met directly in the preparation of the book and it was done in utmost secrecy as a way of avoiding the screening and vetting devices of the royal courtiers who control the flow of information from the royal houses. In the first of many references to Morton that engage with the language of romance and chivalry, Tina Brown refers to how Colthurst “sealed his pact” with Morton and agreed to undertake a “mission,” one that would require his complete discretion and weeks of his time (289).

Ben Pimlott contributes to the popular appropriation of medieval romance when he suggests that Morton did not merely undertake disinterested research about the princess but took up “cudgels on her behalf” (553). The insinuation here is that Morton’s relationship with Diana transcends the usual biographer/subject arrangement in that his part in the construction of Diana’s story—and importantly his pledge to cover for her and protect her “honor” by lying about her involvement in the book—recontextualises the biographer as one of the “suitors” in Diana’s life. By granting Diana “total deniability,” or rather, by agreeing to the demand that her involvement remain a secret, Morton’s role in the ensuing royal mêlée allowed him to assume the position of royal champion and protector of the princess’s honor. Morton positions himself in accounts of the story as Diana’s squire (which is interesting given later press denunciations of him as her errant Lancelot); according to his version of events, it is he who will witness the lady’s acts of indiscretion but remain silent about them. Of the “deniability” clause, Morton has said:

[Diana] had total, utter deniability, so that I would take the flak for it. It would be my responsibility. Some of her friends would bear the burden of it as well, and that was it, so Diana could say to [Prince Philip and] the Queen, “[It was] nothing to do with me.” (Diana: Story)

Elsewhere he has said: “The palace may have harbored extreme suspicions about [Diana’s] involvement, but she was able to say, ‘My friends were speaking out of turn; I didn’t realize this was going to happen.’ She could have played the card of being naïve and being used by this appalling tabloid journalist” (Royals and Reptiles).

Diana’s “innocence” and “honour,” so much a part of the discourses surrounding her early courtship and betrothal to Prince Charles, are central here to an understanding of the biographer as transgressor: transgressor of royal narratives as well as “sexual transgressor” of the royal person.

Early biographies of Diana such as Robert Lacey’s Princess led the way for dozens of hagiographic tomes that stressed, above all, Diana’s “freshness” and “innocence.” She was cast very early on as a figure of fairytale, and her journey into the arms of the prince labeled—by none other than the Archbishop presiding at her wedding—as “the stuff of which fairytales are made” (Clayton and Craig 84).

But just as early narratives of Diana are predicated upon the essential innocence and sexual naïf status of the princess, later narratives, of which HTS is the apotheosis, dismantle these earlier stereotypes and expose the myths of the child-princess to reveal instead the “mad”—some would say ropable!—woman in Highgrove’s attic. Critical reception of HTS forms part of a long tradition which has viewed Diana in a sexualized paradigm where she has been contextualized as either “virgin” or “fiend” (James 17), and hinges in large part on an essential sexualizing of both the book’s subject and its author. It is precisely in her loss of textual innocence in HTS that Diana intones the wrath of Establishment voices, who have a vested interest in the preservation of courtly codes of honour and sexual loyalty. To this end, given the difficulties involved in at first acknowledging their own future Queen as a sexual being, a transference of sexual misdemeanor onto the figure of the biographer becomes necessary.

The sexualization of Morton began early, with other journalists noting Diana’s special preference for him when he joined the entourage of royal reporters who covered royal tours. Royal correspondent for The Sun, Judy Wade, noted that as early as Diana and Morton’s first meeting that there was a sexual frisson between the two:

I vividly remember the first time Andrew and Diana met. I think it was at a cocktail party in Spain, or somewhere like that, and Diana immediately seemed to be interested in him. She was toying with his tie and making comments about what a bright pattern it was, and from then on Andrew always wore bright ties.… [The ties] gave her an excuse to always get close to him. She’d pick up his tie and pull it towards her and we were all standing back amazed, totally gobsmacked [by this].… And a press officer standing nearby said, “God, I think I’ll have to get a bucket of water and throw it over them.” (Di’s Guys)

Observations such as this inadvertently position Morton as yet another of the royal beaux catalogued in HTS, and in this lies one of the reasons for the envy that Morton’s access to the princess’s secrets evoked. As Brown says: “The rat pack felt jilted. Their pin-up girl had bestowed her favours elsewhere, handed the ingrate freelance Andrew Morton access his colleagues had been denied” (304). The rat pack’s sense that Diana had betrayed them contributes to an understanding of a narrative in which, as Beatrix Campbell has suggested, “these men were able to exercise their sexual fantasies about a future queen” (193). The “storm” of the book’s release “blew through the House of Windsor and every assumption of establishment consensus—discretion, deference and mutual protection” (294).

Words such as “collusion,” “used,” and “dabbling,” and references to Diana’s “indiscretions,” are used repeatedly by these speakers. Such terminology suggests a fear about what it was that Diana and Morton were doing together and about the dangerous secrets they were about to expose of this private world.

The Battle of Hastings and the Big Bottoms: Errant Guenevere and the Knight-Pretender

Years after HTS’s publication, when Diana’s complicity in the project became public knowledge, former media advisers and supporters of the princess reacted in ways which perpetuated the chivalric imagery and rhetoric. Unable to defend Diana’s “innocence,” the book’s detractors assume the pose of jealous and jilted lovers. Morton has said: “People like Max Hastings [editor of The Daily Mail] said that it was a disgraceful thing that I did it … [and] all the questions I got [were] “did she cooperate or not?” and I had to lie” (Royals and Reptiles). It is as if Morton has perpetuated an act of textual rape of the royal personage, and the worst part is the suspicion that she has played along. There is an implication in Max Hastings’s arguments elsewhere that Diana has “asked for it” when he suggests that there is no way that Diana’s pleas at this time for some privacy from journalists would mean anything because she would have been “unhappy if she’d been left alone” (Campbell 193).

Morton appears to have compounded his crime in the eyes of the Establishment by not only having had access to the princess’s personal secrets, but by talking about them afterwards—especially when he released HTS: In Her Own Words shortly after the princess’s death. In this instance, English journalist Mark Lawson accused Morton of being a “moral leper.” Lawson is yet another who joins a gentleman’s circle of individuals who have all, at one time or another, claimed to speak on Diana’s behalf and who have expressed disapproval of the one who got the chance to do so. From Lord McGregor, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, to Sir Max Hastings, editor of The Daily Telegraph; Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, columnist for The Sunday Telegraph, to various other Establishment types (a series of men who have been described by Robert Harris of the Sunday Times as “‘[the] big bottoms’ … well-off nasties, horribly out of tune with the times” (Malick 5)); a range of men questioned the authority of the Morton biography when the book was released, and were unable to believe that a royal princess would employ a journalist to employ the tone and style of a romance story to record the details of her royal life. What was so surprising for them in retrospect was that “their” princess, the woman whom they were so keen to defend, would collude in an act of transgression with a man who was not of her, or their, class. A friend of Diana’s, Lord Palumbo, said “If she’d come to me, we would have said ’No, don’t do it.’ But she didn’t want to hear that” (Diana: Life). Morton himself has noted “the class prejudice at work” in the attacks visited upon him in the wake of the biography’s publication. As Heather Mallick paraphrases him:

Morton was not a toff, but a grammar school boy from the north of England who attended a red-brick university. “I don’t speak with a plum in my mouth,” he says. Translation: He didn’t go to a fee-paying upper-class school like Eton and then on to Oxford or Cambridge. So he is not considered fit to question the mores of the Royal Family.

Max Hastings was the most eloquent on the subject of Morton’s “unworthiness.” He said in an interview on BBC 4 just after the serialisation of HTS in the Sunday Telegraph: “I’m bound to say [of] royal reporters [that] if you can’t get a job as a pianist in a brothel, you become a royal reporter” (Diana: Story). Some five years after the book’s release, Hastings reflected further:

I just found it so difficult to come to terms with the fact that anybody—whether the Princess of Wales or anybody else—could be so foolish as to engage a tabloid journalist like Andrew Morton, in indiscretions on that scale.… It was an extraordinary act in which it did seem amazing that she should want to talk at all, and to willingly engage the Murdoch press! (Royals and Reptiles)

When in 1995 he discovered that the princess had ignored his and others’ advice not to appear on the BBC Panorama[2] program, he shifted register from that of Royal Protector to that of a jilted and cuckolded “lover” in the Restoration comedy vein, exclaiming: “I’ve never had my advice so resoundingly not taken as [when I realized] … that at that very moment that we’d been having that conversation … [the BBC camera crew] were setting up the cameras upstairs!” In accounts such as this one, Hastings “blushes” to remember his cuckoldry and regrets that he ever stood by Diana and defended her character: “If I look back on ten years as editor of The Daily Telegraph, then I suppose the moment at which I blush most is to remember the Morton book”’ (Royals and Reptiles).

More blushing is discernible in the responses of Diana’s cousin, Robert Spencer, who is forced to express that he is “shocked” (Di’s Guys); and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, who exclaims:

One felt absolutely let down by Princess Diana. For a royal figure to put their own desire to get their marriage case understood by the public against their husband—this was an irresponsible thing for a royal princess to do. By the old rules of the game, if you marry into the monarchy, you take the rough with the smooth, and you’re also morally obliged to play by the rules, which she didn’t do. (Royals and Reptiles)

To this, Lord Deedes (Max Hasting’s predecessor at the Daily Telegraph) laments, “Diana didn’t play by the rules; the rules had changed” (Royals and Reptiles).

Various other “knight” figures wade into the debate to denounce Morton. Lord McGregor felt strongly that journalists, even when posing as biographers, should not “dabble their fingers in the stuff of other people’s souls” (Duffy). Lord McGregor defends the Queen’s Press Secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes (who also happened to be the princess’s brother-in-law) of having any involvement in or knowledge of Diana’s collusion with Morton, arguing that Fellowes had acted “honourably” in his claims that Morton acted alone (Brown 299). And Fellowes was, after all, a fellow for whom “[f]ealty to his sovereign was paramount” (Bedell Smith 275). Appalled by her betrayal, Robert Fellowes tenders his resignation to the Queen—or, in the words of one biographer, “to fall,” in the style of a Roman senator, “on his sword” (Wharfe 172).

Contributing to this language of jousts and fealty to the liege lord (or falling on one’s sword, a phrase derived from the ancient Roman Plutarch), Diana’s personal bodyguard Ken Wharfe suggests that this book “was not throwing down the gauntlet; this was unhorsing an opponent before he had even reached for his lance” (171). Tina Brown notes that Diana’s involvement in the Morton book would have been “stupefying not just to the Prince of Wales and the court” but to “all the ancient believers in the codes of loyalty to the monarch” (294). The Queen of Romance herself, Barbara Cartland, waded in to the debate, pointing out that Diana “did not have to marry a royal. No one dragged her along and forced her to do it…. But if you choose that path you simply can’t foul up the monarchy” (Morton 157). It was, as Andrew Morton notes in his Postscript to the 1993 edition of HTS, as if Cartland and some Conservative Members of Parliament “were keen to shut [me] away in the Tower of London” (157).

Clearly, then, when faced with an errant heroine who is refusing to play by the imperatives of the usual royal narrative—when the royal princess threatens to bust out of the frame configured for her along the lines of loyalty to the liege lord—she needs reminding of her duty in the language of the very codes she is breaking.

Tales of cuckolded journalists and “fat bottoms” and well-meaning father-figures, as well as unhappy damsels sacrificed to dynastic obsession, each contribute to a reading of the production of the Morton book as a tableaux of courtly love drama. Morton is the hand-picked champion who is to take the princess’s story of failed romance to the world—but he is to do so without anyone knowing of her involvement, and he is to take the blame for the ensuing fallout the minute the story becomes public. By using Morton as an outlet for her own frustrated desire to be freed from the hypocrisy that was her marriage to Charles, Diana does the very thing that ruptures the courtly code most: “In the Prince’s world, infidelity, especially his own, was one of marriage’s forgivable crimes. Talking to the press was not. The extent of Morton’s knowledge forced him to recognise that the betrayal was his wife’s” (Brown 299, emphasis mine). As a friend of Charles’s has been quoted as saying: “[T]he thing he relies upon from those close to him is discretion and loyalty. And Diana was disloyal to him. When the Morton book came out it was as if someone had died” (Pearson 2). By facilitating Diana’s story, Morton was seen to have committed an act of “treason.” Spared hanging, however, Morton was tried in the public forum of the press where the “big bottoms” rallied to the cause; unable to prove the guilt of the errant Guenevere, however, and disinclined by nature at first to presume that a royal figure would dabble her fingers in the stuff of her and her husband’s “souls,” they turned to discrediting Morton as Lancelot figure.

Critics may disapprove of Diana’s “dabbling” with journalists, or bemoan the “illusion of pleasure” that Barbara Cartland’s fictions offered her; illusions that left—to borrow from Ien Ang’s reading of Radway—Diana’s “‘real’ situation unchanged” (104), yet such responses remain blind to the multivalent possibilities that this mode of expression offered the princess. And those who are aghast at Diana’s willingness to employ this genre’s modes for her own purposes belie their own desire for what Janice Radway has identified as a “standard romantic plot” (Ang 105). For while Diana and Morton do stage Diana’s story according to their own mélange of what they deem to be a standard romantic plot, they nonetheless include their own crucial plot deviation—the princess does not live happily ever after—and this unsettles the mechanics and textual assumptions of the genres of the Cartland novel, the chivalric code, and the Mills and Boon texts, as well as the traditional royal biography. When complaints were heard that Diana could only have colluded with Morton (and Bashir on Panorama) because she “was in the advanced stages of paranoia” and had “lost the plot,” (Frontline) it could well have been because certain factions really did feel that Diana had not only lost the plot, but that she had altered it irrevocably for her own ends. For them, it is not so much that Diana had read too many of Cartland’s novels, but that she had not read them attentively enough. Cartland’s plots are predicated on the basic formula that the story will end well, “following the first kiss or the first orgasm of the wedding night” (Brunt 146); and that the heroine, well-versed in the didacticism of Cartland’s stories, will accept that her job is to transform her “[male partner’s] philandering into the transcendent category of enduring love” (141). When Cartland herself remarked that her romance novels weren’t terribly good for her step-granddaughter, she belied a suspicion that they weren’t good for her because, if anything, they didn’t teach Diana enough. What they did not teach her was that there are times when the hero’s philandering with other women does not cease; there are times when the courtship kisses do not transform into enduring love. When Diana’s pre-ordained “destiny” to “love one man” (Brunt 141) proves too complicated in the face of the fact that Prince Charles does not love her in return, Diana draws on the very narrative codes that she intends to dismantle. When, in the telling of her story, Diana realizes that the modern romance narrative has gone awry, Diana’s narrative draws on other conceits. By invoking English novels such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca—stories where the “heroine knows the hero loves her [thereby indicating that] the story is over” (Snitow 137)—Diana necessarily draws on other conceits. Far from being over, Diana’s story, as it turns out, has only just begun. Diana takes up her place in the pantheon of British romantic heroines who refuse to settle for anything less than a sense of selfhood achieved through the affirmation of love received from their hero. When Charles refuses her his love, her narrative shifts mode once again. Further, having interpreted the trajectory of Diana’s life from romantic ingénue to royal wife in terms of the prevailing tenets of popular romance modes, Diana’s and Morton’s critics then invoke the “authority” of the chivalric code of honor to denounce the princess’s collusion with her lowly vassal.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, then, media commentators and academic observers appear in this saga to be trapped within, or perhaps liberated by, the same rhetorical codes that they are endeavoring to deconstruct. So, by asserting either that Diana had applied the codes of the romance, or altered them in order to dismantle them, or altered them in order to empower herself, or compromised herself by allowing someone else to alter the plot for her, the conversations surrounding HTS share in common an investment in the rhetorical codes of the romance. One can’t help but feel that there is an irony in the idea that while the young Diana did not welcome the arrival into her life of an over-powdered and overpowering step-grandmother in the guise of Barbara Cartland, it has become nonetheless almost impossible to imagine the princess’s story without her.

Works Cited

Ang, Ien. Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Bedell Smith, Sally. Diana: In Search of Herself. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

Bradford, Sarah. Diana. London: Viking, 2006. Print.

Brown, Tina. The Diana Chronicles. London: Century, 2007. Print.

Brunt, Rosalind. “A Career in Love: The Romantic World of Barbara Cartland.” Popular Fiction and Social Change. Ed. Christopher Pawling. London: Macmillan, 1984. 127-56. Print.

Burchill, Julie. Diana. London: Orion, 1998. Print.

Campbell, Beatrix. Diana, Princess of Wales: How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy. London: The Women’s Press, 1998. Print.

Clayton, Tim, and Phil Craig. Diana: Story of a Princess. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001. Print.

Davies, Jude. Diana: A Cultural History. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Denomy, Alexander J. The Heresy of Courtly Love. New York: Declan Macmillan, 1947. Print.

Diana: Story of a Princess. BBC Channel 4, 8 Jun. 1992. Television.

Diana: Life of a Princess. Dir. Nick Ward. Writ. Tim Clayton and Phil Craig. ITV/Learning Channel, 2001. Television.

Di’s Guys. Dir. Peter Swain and Chris Warren. ITN Factual/Channel 4, 2004. Television.

Duffy, Martha. “Separate Lives.” Time/Life. Nov. 30, 1992. Web.

Featherstone, Simon. Englishness: Twentieth-Century Popular Culture and the Forming of English Identity. Edinburgh: UP, 2009. Print.

Frontline: The Princess and the Press. Frontline Online. PBS. Nov. 1997. Web.

James, Paul. Diana: One of the Family? London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1988. Print.

Lacey, Robert. Princess. London: Hutchinson, 1982. Print.

Lawson, Mark. “Morton’s Betrayal in Turning Death to Credit,” The Guardian. 4 Oct. 1997. Web. Jan. 2004.

Light, Alison. “’Returning to Manderly’—Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class.” Feminist Review 16 (April 1984): 7-25. Print.

Lowry, Suzanne. Cult of Diana: Princess in the Mirror. Oxford: Chatto and Windus, 1985. Print.

Mallick, Heather. “A Great Hope Crushed in its Infancy.” Frontline Online. PBS. 19 Oct. 1997 (in Toronto Sun). Web. 2 Oct.  2007.

Morton, Andrew. Diana: Her True Story. London: Michael O’Mara, 1992. Print.

Pearson, Allison. “The Waiting Game.” Times Online. Times Newspapers, Ltd. 13 Feb. 2005. Web. 17 Sep. 2007.

Pimlott, Ben. The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II. London: Harper Collins, 1996. Print.

Power, Eileen. Medieval Women. Cambridge: UP, 1995. Print.

Royals and Reptiles. Dir. Leonie Jameson. Blakeway Productions, 1997. Film.

Schwartz, Deborah B. “Backgrounds to Romance: ‘Courtly Love.’” Dept. of English, California Polytechnic State U. 13 Aug. 2007. Web.

Simmonds, Diana. Squidgie Dearest: The Making of a Media Goddess. Sydney: Pluto Press Australia, 1995. Print.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Feminist Literary Theory: a Reader. Ed. Mary Eagleton. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. 134-40. Print.

Spencer, Charles. “Eulogy for Princess Diana of Wales.” American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank. American Rhetoric. 6 Sep. 1997. Web.

Thompson, Diane. “Courtly Love Guide.” Dept. of English, Northern Virginia Community College. 13 Aug. 2007. Web.

Wharfe, Ken. Diana: Closely Guarded Secret. London: Michael O’Mara, 2002. Print.

[1] Royal reporters such as Arthur Edwards and photographers such as Harry Arnold and Ken Lennox kept very close to Diana in her pre-wedding days and have expressed in interview their dismay and the arrival of the paparazzi on the Diana circuit in the 1990s. See interviews with each in the Royals and Reptiles series.

[2]The Panorama program, where the Princess of Wales was interviewed by Martin Bashir for the BBC November 20, 1995, has attracted nearly as much commentary as the Morton biography.


“Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film,” by Hsu-Ming Teo

In 1919 a romance novel by a little-known Derbyshire woman was published, featuring the story of an aristocratic but tomboyish English virgin who, in her travels through French colonial Algeria, is kidnapped by an Arab sheik and raped many times. She eventually falls in love with this “brute” of an Oriental “native” (whom her brother would have equated with a “nigger”) but then discovers—much to her surprise—that her beloved Arab rapist sheik is in fact the half-English, half-Spanish son of a peer of the British realm. As for the sheik himself, the violent and priapic Ahmed Ben Hassan is reduced to repentance and redeemed by his love for Lady Diana Mayo. He reverts to “civilized” standards of patriarchal European gender norms, presumably forsaking rape and promiscuity (though not necessarily his penchant for strangling evil Arab opponents when he deems this justified). The two live happily ever after in the desert, leaving the reader with the final specter of an aristocratic English couple “gone native,”  it is true, but reigning imperialistically over the unruly Bedouin tribes of the Sahara in an area which was nominally under French colonial control. Edith Maud Hull’s The Sheik thus concluded with a reassertion of reactionary patriarchal gender relations as well as the fantasy of proxy British rule extended over French-colonized “natives”—a subtle display of one-upmanship in British imperial rivalry with the French.

2009 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of The Sheik. As is well-known, the publication of the novel and the release of the film starring Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role unleashed “sheik fever” in the western world. In the U.S.A., the book went through fifty printings alone in 1921, and it was the first novel to appear on the bestseller list for two consecutive years (Leider 153). It was continually reissued in paperback throughout the 1920s to 1960s, while it sold 1,194,000 copies in hardback by 1965 (Blake 67). The New York Telegraph estimated that over 125,000 people had seen The Sheik within weeks of the film’s opening in 1921. It screened for six months in Sydney, Australia, and ran for a record forty-two weeks in France (Leider 167-8). The word “sheik,” originally a term of respect referring to a Muslim religious leader or an elder of a community or family, suddenly took on new connotations of irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over-sexualized masculinity in the West—before ending up as a brand of condoms in America by 1931 (Edwards 50). The novel made a dramatic impact on the literary genre of Eastern love stories in Britain, reviving the popularity of the early twentieth century “desert romance” pioneered by novelists such as Robert Hichens and Kathlyn Rhodes, and spawning a series of forgettable imitations in other novels and short stories in women’s magazines. In the United States, the Tin Pan Alley hit “The Sheik of Araby” was composed in response to the film and rapidly became a jazz standard before being reworked by the Beatles in 1962. Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik (1925), and Valentino’s reprisal of his sheik role in the film version of 1926, brought the craze for all things romantically “Oriental” to its zenith in fashion and film.[1]

Sheik fever died down by the 1930s, but its impact on western popular culture was already indelible, particularly as fodder for spoofs and satires. It did not take long for the first mockery to appear. The Shriek of Araby (1923) lampooned the abduction scene in The Sheik where Valentino rides across the desert sands and snatches Agnes Ayres from her horse, throwing her over his saddle and snarling, “Lie still, you fool.” In The Shriek of Araby, a hapless young theater employee daydreaming about The Sheik attempts a comically bungled abduction of a young lady from the back of a mule.

Dick Dorgan, “Giving ‘The Sheik’ the Once Over from the Ringside”, Photoplay Magazine 21 (April 1922):90.

Dick Dorgan, “Giving ‘The Sheik’ the Once Over from the Ringside”, Photoplay Magazine 21 (April 1922):90.

The horseback abduction scene was a rich source of mockery, especially for American cartoonists and illustrators such as Dick Dorgan, who wrote a satirical review of The Sheik for the film magazine Photoplay, accompanied by the above illustration. It sometimes seemed that in some quarters, merely to insert the word “sheik” incongruously into the title was productive of mirth, as was the case with Ukulele Sheiks (1926). The spoofs or sly references to The Sheik continued long after desert romance as a literary subgenre had petered out. In the midst of the Second World War, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Anthony Quinn were featured in The Road to Morocco (1942)—a film which satirized the fantasy of westerners being kidnapped and incarcerated in harems by featuring American men as the abductees, imprisoned in the Moroccan princess’s harem. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, a number of Bugs Bunny cartoons made ridiculous references to abductions, harems, and even had the “wascally wabbit” dressed as a belly-dancer in one episode. References to The Sheik repeatedly cropped up in numerous comics and television shows as well (Michalak 7, 13-14). In 1984, John Derek’s film Bolero featured his wife Bo Derek playing a young, 1920s American flapper enamored with Valentino as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film begins with Bo Derek gazing up longingly at a poster of The Sheik. She travels to the Middle East, determined to lose her virginity to a sheik, but her plan goes awry when the sheik who has agreed to deflower her falls asleep instead.

Satires and spoofs, however, were not the only legacy of The Sheik throughout the twentieth century. Although the subgenre of the British-authored “sheik novel” had run out of steam by the late 1930s, the 1970s saw its revival, particularly in the form of the newly emerging erotic historical romance novel, produced primarily in the United States by authors such as Johanna Lindsey (1977) and Bertrice Small (1978). These historical romance novels found their counterparts in films and television shows of the 1980s such as the British television mini-series Harem (1986) or the Brooke Shields film Sahara (1983). By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the modern-day “sheik novel” was being produced by authors from various parts of the British Commonwealth and the United States. Australian and Canadian romance writers joined the British in producing contemporary Orientalist romance novels by the mid-1980s, but the subgenre became Americanized after the First Gulf War in 1991, growing steadily in terms of the output of American-authored publications and sales. The Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001 saw no diminution in the popularity of these novels about love stories between white women and Arab or Muslim men. On the contrary, 2002 saw the peak of publications so far, with at least twenty-two different contemporary sheik romances published that year, and four historical harem romances. In 2005, an estimated fifty-one million Orientalist romance novels were consumed by readers, prompting ironic comment in some newspapers and Time magazine, while the years since have seen no abatement in the popularity of this subgenre. Indeed, several websites have been set up that are purely devoted to Orientalist romance novels. E.M. Hull’s The Sheik has thus had a remarkably far-reaching impact on western popular culture over the last century; an influence that persists to this day.

Since the 1970s, feminist, postcolonial, literary, and film scholars have paid intermittent attention to Hull’s novel. Anderson’s The Purple Heart Throbs (1974) was among the first to describe the rough lineaments of the desert romance novel epitomized by The Sheik, while subsequent scholars such as Melman, Ardis, Chow, Blake, and Gargano proceeded to analyze different thematic issues woven throughout the book, often reading it against other types of contemporary texts and cultural phenomena such as the New Woman novels, sex manuals, divorce laws, and the 1920s fascination with T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia.” Still others such as Hansen, Raub, Shohat, Caton, Eisele, Studlar and Leider devoted attention to the novel’s translation onto the silver screen, exploring the meaning of Valentino’s masculinity and his sexual and ethnic status, as well as analyzing the manifestation of a particular American-Orientalist discourse in the film. Such readings of The Sheik have insightfully emphasized its sexual and imperial politics, while sketching the historical context for its reception. Apart from Caton’s essay, however, none of the previous studies compares the novel and the film at length, and none takes into account the differences between British and American societies that underlie both the production and reception of these texts. It is important to tease out these differences because the silent film version arguably eclipsed the novel in influence and made the story famous world-wide, not just in English-speaking countries, yet the novel and the film differ in significant ways. This essay considers The Sheik as both a novel and a film, comparing their similarities and differences of plot and meaning through the particular historical contexts of their production and reception. It begins with a brief discussion of existing scholars’ work on the novel and the various historical contexts that they have mapped out before proceeding to look at how World War I shaped the production of E.M. Hull’s novel, and how the British context of a white imperial culture and its fear of miscegenation with colonized “natives” influenced both the production and reception of the novel.

To argue for a direct causal relationship between a text and its historical context is never easy at the best of times, and near impossible where extant documentary evidence is so scarce. Hull’s papers tell us little about what influenced her to write The Sheik, while definitive information about specific readers’ responses to the novel is non-existent because of the lack of reader surveys carried out. However, given the prevailing cultural concerns of the First World War and the 1920s, it is possible to infer the contemporary roots of Hull’s preoccupations in the novel, as well as readers’ likely responses. The same applies to the American reception of Jesse Lasky’s film production of The Sheik, even though more documentary evidence about the film’s production process and its reception exists in this case, and some comprehensive biographies have been written about Valentino that discuss his role in the film. With these limitations in mind, this essay argues that beyond the obvious differences arising from the changes to the plot or from technological considerations of the media of literature versus film, the differences between the novel and the movie arise from Britain’s experience of sexuality, violence, and the First World War; understandings of whiteness and imperialism in both Britain and the United States; the different historical experiences of gender, race, and ethnicity in the two countries—linked to the colonial context in Britain, but to anxieties about immigration, assimilation, and citizenship in the United States; and finally, the different traditions of popular Orientalist discourse in the two countries—anchored to a “realist” mode of representing the geopolitical situation of actual colonies in the case of Britain, and arising from fairground and merchandising fantasies of “Arabian Nights” Orientalism in the case of the U.S.

Feminist responses to the novel

The Sheik elicited a polarized and visceral reaction upon publication in 1919. Billie Melman (90) has claimed that its sales surpassed all other bestsellers at the time; yet while it achieved instant cult status among its mainly female readers, contemporary literary critics and the self-appointed guardians of social morality were appalled, dismissing it as “a typist’s daydream” and condemning it for its overt portrayal of sadomasochistic sexuality—a response that has been repeated by feminists throughout most of the twentieth century (Melman 90). However, the last two decades have seen a growing body of scholarship on The Sheik which have revised earlier hostile opinions, and which have grown increasingly sophisticated in analyzing issues of gender, power, race, and imperialism in the novel.

The earliest responses by feminist scholars to The Sheik echoed its contemporary reviews which condemned it as a “poisonously salacious” novel, in the words of the Literary Review of 1921 (Blake 69). Objections were not made on the grounds of its portrayal of Arabs and the Orient so much as on the grounds of its portrayal of sex and the treatment of white women. In one of the first book-length surveys of the genre of romance fiction, Rachel Anderson declared that:

The Sheik is the most immoral of any of the romances, not because of lewd descriptions of sexual intercourse […] but because of the distorting view Miss Hull presents of the kind of relationship which leads to perfect love, and the totally unprincipled precept that the reward of rapists is a lovely English heiress with a look of misty yearning in her eyes (188-189).

Melman described The Sheik as “a prudishly told tale of masculine dominance and complementary feminine masochism and passivity” (102), while Mary Cadogan argued that the novel was “not only […] an anti-feminist tract in which rapist behaviour is rewarded but a justification of racism” (131).

From the late 1980s onwards, however, scholars began reading the novel within its historical context, paying closer attention to issues of gender and sexuality. Melman’s comprehensive chapter on the “desert romance” in Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties was among the first to pay sustained scholarly attention to the novel and, along with Michael Diamond’s detailed discussion in “Lesser Breeds”: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890-1940 (2006), it is still one of the most useful delineations of this subgenre. Melman pointed out that in addition to the “rape-cum-redemption” story, what caused the greatest outrage in the 1920s was not so much the “prurience” or “obscenity” of The Sheik and similar “sex novels,” but the fact that they were for women. These novels were regarded as “pornographic literature, manufactured by female writers for the consumption of a sex-starved mass female audience,” whose work experiences in the First World War and its aftermath had seen an increase in spending-power and leisure opportunities (Melman 92-93, 104). Underlying the outrage was a deep anxiety that traditional gender, sexual, and social mores were being subverted. The happy ending of the novel—such as it is—ultimately championed the idea that “the modern sexually emancipated woman can pursue pleasure without being punished for her presumption”; for unlike traditional novels, Diana does not die and is not destroyed by her rape or her subsequent enjoyment of sex (Melman 93, 102-3). In Melman’s eyes, despite whatever other crimes The Sheik might have been guilty of, it placed discussion of women’s sexual desires and sexual autonomy at the center of popular culture, thus contributing to a modern understanding and conversation about sex in the 1920s.

The exact historical period when women’s sexual desires were legitimated has been a subject of some debate. For Ann Ardis, The Sheik did not so much herald the radical legitimization of female sexual desire in the 1920s as perpetuate an “advanced” view of sexuality that dated back to the New Woman novels of the 1890s (287-296). Ardis focused particularly on the androgynous figure of Diana Mayo. Whereas Melman interpreted Diana as an interwar flapper, Ardis argued that Diana was actually a New Woman and, like so many other New Women in novels of the 1890s, she initially rejects heterosexuality, marriage, and domesticity. The periodization of the novel has received little attention apart from Ardis’s work. As it turns out, however, Melman’s and Ardis’s views are both plausible. Ardis has reason to date the work as an early-twentieth century novel, but this is only made clear in Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik, where references are made to German espionage in French North Africa and the implications for the coming Great War. In the film of The Sheik, however, the setting, clothing, and hairstyles date it as a contemporary 1920s story. Both authors nevertheless agree on the importance of The Sheik in legitimizing female desire in the 1920s as well as

legitimizing the female adventure plot […] for the operant fantasy here is not just about having an erotically satisfying relationship with an early twentieth-century version of a New Age sensitive and virile man; it is about galloping with him across the desert or hunting wild apes with him in the Sub-Saharan jungles. In the context of post-war efforts to redomesticate women, Hull’s romances insist upon women’s continued access to the public sphere, albeit in an extremely privileged way (Ardis 294).

Feminist critics in the 1990s thus began to move away from reading The Sheik as a reactionary narrative of sadistic patriarchal lust visited upon a masochistic, victimized woman suffering Stockholm Syndrome. Instead, they looked at the radical and potentially liberating aspects of sexual representations and attempted to descry Diana’s empowerment. Although Patricia Raub acknowledged that “in some respects, The Sheik can be read as an object lesson to young women who attempt to be too independent and self-reliant,” she agreed that “Hull was the first to celebrate sex from the perspective of the female partner” and she went on to argue that the novel demonstrates Diana’s access to power (120 and 122). Drawing on Jan Cohn’s Marxist-feminist thesis in Romance and the Erotics of Property (1988), Raub argued that Diana achieves wealth, status, and power over the sheik’s tribesmen via her relationship with Ahmed, while the sheik’s exercise of power over Diana is overturned by the novel’s end: “Almost against his will, the hero is himself captured by the heroine; he acknowledges his love for her. The heroine has been able to ‘remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love’” (Raub 126).

Such an argument is not without its problems. As Karen Chow has noted, although the sheik repents of his earlier autocratic treatment of Diana, he is equally dictatorial and disregarding of her wishes when he decides to send her away in order to make amends. Her attempts to seduce him fail, and it is only when she takes the drastic step of trying to shoot herself that he relents and gives way to her desire to stay with him. Diana may be empowered by forcing Ahmed to love her tenderly, against his will and prejudices, but this is a limited transformation. As he himself admits, and as his actions and the few instances of her fear of him in The Sons of the Sheik demonstrate, he cannot change what he is; indeed, he warns her that “you will have a devil for a husband” (296). For Chow, however, the novel fulfilled its function of empowering women readers and filmgoers, if not Diana herself. Chow argued that “ultimately, it is not Diana the character but the woman reader, writer, and filmgoer in the material world who is liberated by reading these steamy passages and creating a sex symbol in the figure of Rudolph Valentino” (73).

Although these scholars recognized the imperialistic background to The Sheik and mentioned Hull’s seemingly radical transgression of racial boundaries in the sheik’s rape of Diana and her love for an Arab, little was made of these aspects of the novel beyond passing comment. As Melman read it, the revelation of Ahmed’s “real” identity as a European, followed by Diana’s insistence that she cannot think of him as other than an Arab, are “gratuitous” since they occur so late in the novel (102). The work of Susan Blake and Elizabeth Gargano over the last few years, however, has focused more attention on the racial and imperial themes of the novel through postcolonial readings of the plot. Gargano argued that “The Sheik enacts an apparently transgressive erotic daydream, which first questions and then ultimately reaffirms the Englishman’s capacity for domination” (175). For her, the novel explores the crisis of masculinity that beset British culture in the wake of the First World War. Significantly, none of the European or American men are able to woo Diana successfully because they “embody a demoralized post-war passivity” in the face of the masculinized modern woman (176). The hypermasculine, violent, primitive, sexually potent sheik succeeds where “civilized” but emasculated modern western men have failed. But the sheik is of course a European, and Gargano compares his disguise with that of the famous “white sheik” of the war years and its aftermath: Colonel T.E. Lawrence. Both Englishmen are presented as “‘better’ Arabs than the Arabs,” and this serves to underline the fact that “an Englishman, raised under the same conditions of unimpeded freedom, absolute power over his subordinates, and constant physical activity, is still superior,” thus reaffirming Britain’s imperial mission and providing a suggested cure to enervated postwar British masculinity (Gargano 182).

Where Gargano argued that The Sheik was indeed an example of Orientalist colonial discourse perpetuating racial stereotypes, Susan Blake allowed for more heteroglossic and contrapuntal interpretations. Blake’s innovative and sophisticated reading of The Sheik against contemporary issues of race and divorce led her to conclude that the novel presents two competing stories about imperialism, gender, race, and miscegenation—told respectively by Raoul de Saint Hubert (the French novelist who is the sheik’s best friend) and Diana. What readers conclude about these issues at the novel’s end ultimately depends on whose voice they choose to listen to (Blake 75). For Blake, the central puzzle to be solved in the text is how:

[I]n a culture that divided humanity into biologically fixed and hierarchically ranged races, The Sheik creates a character who “is” both Arab and English. In a culture terrified of miscegenation, it permits an English lady not only to fall in love with a man she believes to be Arab, but to continue to think of him as Arab after his “real” identity is revealed and to settle into implied marriage with him in an Arab environment. As a popular novel, The Sheik necessarily supports the prevailing ideology of its time, but the nonconforming facts raise the question of what else it is doing (70).

Blake contended that in Saint Hubert’s story—a story by no means without its own internal contradictions—the understanding of race is biological. Saint Hubert tells the tale of the sheik’s European parentage that permits Diana to love and remain with Ahmed without the taint of miscegenation. This story thus supports conventional ideas about class, gender, imperialism, and race,  because at its close an aristocratic British couple, both performing traditional gender roles, rule over a tribe of Arab “natives”. In Diana’s story, however, the sheik remains an Arab and she loves him for being an Arab. Blake suggested that Diana’s understanding of race is cultural rather than biological, which is why she is able to continue regarding Ahmed as Arab (75-78). Diana needs Ahmed to be Arab rather than English because in this novel, violence is twice associated with the English: first with the sheik’s father, the Earl of Glencaryll, whose abuse led his wife to flee their marriage; and then with the sheik himself, who wreaks vengeance on the English because of his father’s domestic violence. Diana’s story thus subverts two interconnected and strongly-held imperial and patriarchal tenets about race, gender, and sexuality at that time: namely, “that sexual threat comes from the Other and protection from the English,” particularly within the shelter of the family and the domestic sphere (Blake 79). The novel, Blake argued, is “double-voiced” in every way, hinging on the “race” and subsequent identity of the sheik. “Raoul’s identification of the Sheik yields to the pressure of imperialist discourse to identify any Other as inferior […] Diana’s insistence that the man she loves is ‘Arab’—Other and equal, if not superior—resists that pressure and thus functions as a counter discourse” (Blake 78). However, I would argue that Orientalist discourse and the very text of The Sheik itself pose limits to the effectiveness of this counter discourse. Being Arab does not save Diana from domestic violence, for the novel confirms in one incident after another that Arabs are a brutal, cruel people who show a “callous indifference to suffering” (Hull 137).

Nevertheless, this body of insightful scholarship has illuminated The Sheik in many ways and explained both its popularity as well as its widespread appeal. It is particularly important to recognize that readers—both then and now—do not simply respond to a straightforward, univocal, monolithic story whose meaning is predetermined and closed-off to varying interpretations. Different or changing ideas about acceptable gender behavior, sexual curiosity and titillation, fantasies and fears about race and miscegenation, and differing attitudes towards imperialism, can all be accommodated within this text—albeit some more easily than others. Thus far, however, this body of scholarship has focused principally on the reception and cultural impact of the novel in the 1920s. Little consideration has been given to its actual moment of composition. Moreover, there has also been a conflation of British and American attitudes towards The Sheik, and towards imperialism, race, and miscegenation. In what follows, I want to explore more carefully the specific imperial, national and racial histories of Britain and the United States in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and then to compare the British novels with the American films in order to tease out variations in the plots and characters that created different meanings in the British novels and the American films of The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik.

E.M. Hull’s The Sheik and World War I

Edith Maude Henderson was born in 1880, the daughter of a New York shipowner and his Canadian wife. As a child she traveled widely with her parents, even visiting Algeria—the setting of her sheik novels. In 1899 she married Percy Winstanley Hull in London, and the couple moved to Derbyshire in the early 1900s where Percy Hull became an agriculturalist. After the publication of The Sheik, the press would run descriptions of Hull as “the shy wife of a Derbyshire pig farmer,” because the image seemed so incongruous with the shocking sex and exotic setting of the novel. Percy Hull did indeed breed prize-winning pigs, among his other agricultural pursuits, but he had begun his professional life as a civil engineer. During the First World War he served in the armed forces. It was this absence that prompted Edith Hull to begin her literary career. She began writing The Sheik “not with any idea of it being published, but rather as a means of distraction at a time when I felt very much alone” (Hull papers). The particular circumstances of the novel’s composition—probably in the later years of the war since it was published in London in 1919—are significant in shedding light on certain features of the novel: namely, its focus on sex, violence, and the Middle East.

Many scholars have pointed to The Sheik’s literary heritage of abduction and rape motifs from Richardson’s Clarissa, to Gothic novels and Victorian melodramas. The “Indian Mutiny” of 1857 had also given rise to a spate of rape novels within the British colonial context, as Jenny Sharpe and Nancy Paxton have shown. As Sharpe argued, however, “rape is not a consistent and stable signifier” in either British colonial or metropolitan discourse, “but one that surfaces at strategic moments” of cultural or political tensions (3). In the case of Anglo-Indian writing, as Paxton noted, the rise and circulation of “rape scripts” after 1857 served to consolidate British explanations and justifications for increasing imperial control in the colonies, especially India, as well as to attempt a remasculinization of British domestic politics at a time of increasing female independence (112). Novels featuring violence against women—especially middle- or upper-class women—were few and far between in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The New Woman novels and other sensationalist pre-war “sex novels” such as Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907) were more concerned with establishing women’s sexual desires and sexual identities, or debating the merits of sex outside marriage when ennobled by love—“the one motive which makes a union moral in ethics,” as Glyn explained in the introduction to the American version of her novel. Glyn’s Slavic “Lady” in Three Weeks certainly articulated the idea of sadomasochistic sexual love found in The Sheik, telling her young lover Paul Verdayne:

[A] man can always keep a woman loving him if he kiss her enough, and make her feel that there is no use struggling because he is too strong to resist. A woman will stand almost anything from a passionate lover. He may beat her and pain her soft flesh; he may shut her up and deprive her of all other friends—while the motive is raging love and interest in herself on his part, it only makes her love him the more […]

However, the lovers in Three Weeks did not actually enact such a scenario, because what the Lady loved about Paul was—in Glyn’s own explanation of the novel—his “straight and true” manhood, while their love influenced him toward “vast aims and noble desires for future greatness” (Glyn “Introduction”).

It was during the First World War that sex, violence, and rape came to the forefront of British culture and consciousness in a most dramatic way. A number of wartime developments was responsible for this: the onset of “khaki fever” among young women at the start of the war; tales of German atrocities in occupied Belgium and France that were used by the British government for propaganda purposes; and the return of war-traumatized veterans which was not only attended by mental illnesses and physical disability, but also by an increase in public and domestic violence.

The first of these occurrences problematized young women’s overt display of sexual desire in British society. As Angela Woollacott has shown, the outbreak of war in Britain was accompanied by an “epidemic of khaki fever” whereby, according to the press, adolescent girls and young working women flocked to military camps, sexually propositioning and harassing soldiers in towns and cities (325). In the nineteenth century, the open display of sexual desire or sexual behavior was associated with prostitutes. When the “amateurs” or “free-lance” girls succumbed to khaki fever in 1914, they were perceived to be sexually aggressive and shameless in their pursuit of soldiers, just like prostitutes. Even more shamefully than prostitutes, however, the “amateurs” did not do it out of a need to make a living. Furthermore, they displayed an independence of mind and spirit that was much deplored. As such, they “threatened a subversion of the gender as well as the moral order” (Woollacott 326). In response to this, the middle-class Women Patrols Committee and the Women Police Service were established to patrol gender and sexual behavior in public spheres. Middle-class women patrolling the streets took it upon themselves to censure and separate “couples thought to be embracing too closely, following those they suspected might be about to embark on unsavory courses of behavior, and warning youngsters of the dangers of overly casual behavior” (Levine 45). Khaki fever died down by mid-1915 when women were co-opted into war work and other forms of patriotic contribution to the war effort, but concern over women’s sexual behavior and the spread of venereal diseases meant that middle-class women continued to police working women’s sexuality in public places throughout the war (Woollacott 331).

If khaki fever brought to public consciousness an uneasy awareness of young women’s dangerous sexual desire and autonomy, then tales of German atrocities trickling back from the continent introduced rape and sexual violence into public discourse. The German invasion of neutral Belgium on August 4, 1918 had been Britain’s ostensible casus belli to declare war on the Central Powers. In making the case for war to the British public, complex legal arguments about obligations incurred by Britain under the 1839 Treaty of London were soon replaced by simpler, sensationalist accounts in newspapers, war pamphlets, and posters of German atrocities—particularly the rape, abuse, and torture of women and children. The raped Belgian woman came to symbolize the violated borders of Belgium itself in many propaganda posters. Artwork in these posters graphically portrayed the “innocent, virtuous Belgian or Frenchwoman violated. Belgium became a frail and ravished jeune fille, weeping and broken on the floor as the uhlan, the helmeted German cavalryman, leaves the bedroom” (Harris 180).

A. Truchel, Les Monstres, “He might at least have courted her...” poster. Source: Harris (1993), 171.

A. Truchel, Les Monstres, “He might at least have courted her…” poster. Source: Harris (1993), 171.

Other artists depicted a female Belgium stripped, bound, and raped. These images acquired more force as stories of rape and violence were amassed in Lord Bryce’s official Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, and they were widely repeated and believed at the time (Gullace 714, and Ward 29). By 1916, the British were compiling documents about the abduction of women and children for forced labor—including sexual labor—in The Deportation of Women and Girls from Lille. The bishop of Lille appealed emotively to a British and American audience, telling them that “promiscuity […] inevitably accompanies removals en masse, involving mixture of the sexes, or, at all events, of persons of very unequal standing. Young girls of irreproachable life […] have been carried off” (Gullace 742).

Even as stories of German sexual atrocities circulated in Britain, the “rape of Belgium” was also used as propaganda to try to persuade the United States to enter the war. When it did in 1917, at least two US war posters (below) referred to the raped Belgian woman, demonstrating just how widely this image had spread in popular culture.

American World War I Liberty Bonds poster

American World War I Liberty Bonds poster

American World War I recruitment poster

American World War I recruitment poster

In all these accounts, violence towards women and children was depicted as typifying the behavior of the German “Other.” The behavior of English soldiers, by contrast, was supposedly characterized by “honour, decency, rightness, and fair play” (Harris 29). This notion of honorable English or British masculinity and the chivalric treatment of women and children became more problematic in the later years of the war and its aftermath because of increases in domestic violence in all belligerent nations (Thébaud 68).

As is well known, the Great War had a traumatic effect on a whole generation of young men. Literature on the war and demobilized soldiers have usually portrayed these men as either shattered, shell-shocked neurasthenics or angry young men nursing bitter grudges against those who sent them to war (Adams 1990 and Fussell 1975). Demobilization was always going to be a difficult experience for men. If soldiers were discharged during the war, it was probably because of physical or psychological injuries. After the war, men had to face the problems of “finding a job, resuming family life, and curbing aggression” that they had been encouraged to develop and display during the war (Nye 430). The effects of the war on men’s lives were visible not only through the large number of amputees in public spaces after the war, but also in the behavior of demobilized soldiers. Men suffering from “shell shock” displayed their trauma through a “shivering, shuddering, fainting, halting, ‘mincing gait’” that distressed those who witnessed these symptoms (Leed 99). Such behavior undermined the “manliness” of shell-shock victims because of the prevailing belief in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe that a “true man” was one who was in control of his passions and his body (Mosse 101). If the “shivering” neurasthenic veteran symbolized the trauma of war, so too did the embittered and violent veteran—often said to be of working-class origins—who could not control his passions.

As soon as the guns fell silent in November 1918, members of the ruling classes and the British press began to express fears of “brutalized” working-class soldiers turning to violence and theft. According to The Times in May 1919, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police “feared that a battle-hardened husband might now murder his wife rather than, as before the war, administering ‘just a clip under the ear’” (Emsley 175). Meanwhile, as Clive Emsley has noted, the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs

believed that a significant minority of front-line soldiers had returned seriously altered by their experiences: They were subject to queer moods, queer tempers, fits of profound depression with a restless desire for pleasure. Many of them were easily moved to passion when they lost control of themselves. Many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening. They had gone through “an intensive culture of brutality”. Equally, and this he implied had prompted sexual assaults, “sexually they were starved. For months they had lived out of the sight and presence of women” (Emsley 175).

Emsley has argued that by and large, these moral panics about the return of a whole generation of psychologically-scarred, brutalized men failed to materialize, and that the statistics for indictable assaults show no significant increase in the postwar years. It is probably true that the majority of soldiers returned to the private life of what Alison Light has termed “Little Englanders” who eschewed imperial masculinity and politics for the quiet pleasures of tending their gardens, smoking a pipe, and doing crossword puzzles (Light 1991). There is currently insufficient research into the First World War and domestic violence in Britain to warrant any detailed or conclusive statements about the rate of increase in wife and child abuse, and it is certainly worth noting that nations on the losing side experienced the greatest political, social, and domestic violence (Nye 431). However, Susan Kingsley Kent’s work on the increase of violence against British women during the war and Elizabeth Nelson’s work on the First World War and domestic violence in Australia both suggest a correlation between war trauma and increased rates of wife abuse; while Simona Sharoni’s study of gender and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has likewise documented an increase in male violence against women and children during military conflicts which legitimize the brutalization of society. The fact that divorce rates in Britain rose after the war suggests increases in both adultery as well as “cruelty,” or wife abuse, because while men could petition for divorce solely on the grounds of adultery, until 1923 women had also to prove abuse in addition to adultery (Blake 81). An increase in male domestic violence would be unsurprising because as Nye has observed, returned soldiers felt “resentment at those who had stayed behind, including their wives, and the traditional patriarchal obligation to control one’s wife was a particularly exigent aspect of militarized masculinity” (430).

This social and sexual context of wartime and postwar Britain is important to The Sheik in obvious ways. It explains why female sexuality is so fraught with confusion and contradiction in this novel, and why passion is intermeshed with violence. In the New Woman novels of the 1890s and 1900s, the heroines exploring their sexual identities are middle class. In The Sheik, the aristocratic Lady Diana Mayo has an obviously passionate, sexual nature, but for her to be aware of this at the start of the novel would be to degrade her in terms of class as well as sexual morality, since wartime anxieties about young women’s sexual behavior were directed towards working-class and lower-middle-class women. Middle- and upper-middle-class women were the ones who patrolled and tried to regulate young women’s behavior, just as in the novel Lady Conway tried to uphold the rules that governed acceptable British behavior—like the stereotype of the imperial memsahib abroad. As others have pointed out, rape performs the function of permitting Diana to experience sex while absolving her from all responsibility, thus maintaining her status as a virtuous and virginal heroine. Not only does Diana endure rape, she actually comes to enjoy sex and to participate in it, thus transforming rape into consensual sex and even the suggestion of a modern, companionate relationship with the Sheik. As her months of captivity wear on, and despite the Sheik’s occasional reversion to cruelty, she comes to treasure the late nights when Ahmed “told her all the incidents of the day’s visit to one of the other camps, and from his men and his horses drifted almost insensibly into details connected with his own plans for the future, which were really the intimate confidences of a husband to a wife who is also a comrade” (Hull 283). The confused attempt to reconcile romantic, companionate love with sexual passion and violence within the home must have resonated with readers whose male family members had returned from the frontlines traumatized and, unable to cope with the transition to domesticity, sometimes prone to violence.

That Hull should have conceived of abduction and rape as a central plot device in the novel is therefore scarcely surprising, since rape stories were in wide circulation in British society at that time. The problem, of course, was that rape was associated with German wartime atrocities and there was no way that rape in a European context could possibly be anything but horrifying. Not until American troops began arriving at the Western Front in huge numbers after April 1918 did the tide of the war begin to change decisively in favor of the Allies. In fact, it is possible that when Hull was writing the novel, the outcome of the war was still undecided, with Germany tipped to win after the collapse of the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. Hull side-stepped these problems to a large extent because she formulated her plot within the subgenre of the desert romance novel, and this solved many of the dilemmas created by the war.

The Middle East was the only arena where fighting during the First World War in any way resembled glamorized ideas of noble heroes testing themselves on the field of blood. Where the static war on the Western Front diminished soldiers and often left men in the “feminine” position of cowering passively in the trenches, helpless in the face of heavy bombardment before being mowed down by an enemy they could not see, the war in the Middle East—particularly the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and the Arab Revolt—was active and mobile, and featured cavalry charges that conjured pre-modern images of chivalric warfare. In particular, the Arab Revolt initiated by Sherif Hussein ibn Ali in mid-1916 brought Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence to prominence as a result of the sensationalist reportage of the American journalist Lowell Thomas. Thomas’s dramatic war film With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia—in which Lawrence featured famously as the “white sheik” who, together with Sherif Hussein’s sons Feisal and Abdullah, led the Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire—debuted in London in 1917 and ran for six months. It is impossible to know whether Hull ever saw this film, or whether the “white sheik” in all his ambiguously-gendered, quasi-feudal, Orientalist glory inspired Hull’s English aristocratic white sheik, but the parallel is certainly there: the Englishman masquerading as an Arab, who alone is capable of uniting and leading the unruly tribes of the desert.

Gender, whiteness, and imperialism in the Middle East

The Middle East not only invoked the plethora of ideas about the Orient that had been circulating in Britain for the last few centuries; in Britain, the North African desert also conjured ideas about noble Bedouin as “true” Arabs (in contrast to their much-derided town counterparts) as well as memories of European women who had found in the desert a space to be free from European conventions and sexual and social behavior. In the scholarship on women’s travel writing, much has been written about the constraints of nineteenth-century femininity upon women’s travel writing and their behavior abroad (Foster, 3-25, and Mills 1991). Despite these well-documented constraints, however, European women traveling abroad were certainly aware of the possibility of sexual liaisons with “Oriental” men. A few women even acted upon their sexual desires and entered into long-term relationships with non-western men.[2] These were not technically illegal relationships. At no time did the British government actually pass legislation forbidding interracial unions within the United Kingdom or in its colonies. This distinguishes interracial relations in Britain from those in the postbellum United States, where miscegenation was prohibited in various states and only gradually repealed state-by-state, until the US Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Yet perhaps it was because of the porousness of these racial boundaries that British popular literature at the turn of the twentieth century became obsessed with interracial sex, the mysterious and fatal attraction “Oriental” men had for British women, and the horror of miscegenation. Without legislative barriers against interracial unions between white women and non-white men (unions between white men and non-white concubines were tacitly accepted), the full weight of social opprobrium was brought down upon the practice in popular culture. In The Sheik, if Diana will not or cannot save herself and embrace her traditional literary fate—death—resulting from rape, let alone interracial rape, then Hull the author must save her through the timely revelation of the Sheik’s English and Spanish parentage (albeit with an uneasy hint of Moorish blood in his heritage), thus shoring up the boundaries of white racial identity to appease her readers and potential critics.

From the start of The Sheik, readers are reminded that this is both an Oriental and an imperial tale. Diana is a representative of the white race and of British imperial prestige; her gendered behavior is a reflection upon the rival merits of the British and French mission civilisatrice that accompanied and justified colonial expansion in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Intermittently throughout the novel, then, British and French culture and colonial successes are subtly compared. French colonial control over Algeria is shown to be sadly wanting when Diana’s desert party is ambushed by Arab raiders. Moments before she realizes the seriousness of her situation, just before she is swept off her saddle and abducted by the Sheik, “Diana’s first feeling was one of contempt for an administration that made possible such an attempt so near civilisation” (48). It is precisely the feebleness of such an administration that permits the fantastical ending: the British aristocratic couple extending feudal rule over warrior-like Bedouin tribes in French colonial Algeria. In this novel, it seems that the French are mainly lauded for their loyalty to the British protagonists: the Sheik’s faithful valet, Gaston, is French, as is his best friend Raoul de Saint Hubert, who helps the romantic couple realize their love for each other (a fitting role for the Frenchman in the British imagination!), and who chivalrously sacrifices his own love for Diana in order to facilitate her relationship with the English Ahmed Ben Hassan.

Because Diana is cast as a victim through much of this novel, there is limited opportunity for her to undertake the usual role of imperial women in the colonies: as the memsahib organizing expatriate domestic life and policing the boundaries of sex and race (Stoler 2002); as the maternal missionary or social reformer shouldering what Antoinette Burton has called the “white woman’s burden,” rescuing helpless, downtrodden native women from their Oriental plight (Burton 1994); or as the intrepid woman traveler traipsing insouciantly into villages where no white woman has ever been, the amused cynosure of all eyes and the compassionate dispenser of medication and cheap trinkets (Teo 1998). Nevertheless, Diana’s imperial identity is established through the fact that as a white British woman, she has traveled widely throughout the world and even gone tiger-hunting in India. Imperial prestige (and behind it, the threat of imperial violence) enables her to embark on a journey into the desert by herself, unaccompanied by any other European and dressed in “manly” riding clothes without any regard to local custom or sensibilities. Diana’s powerful imperial identity is further emphasized through her intimidating use of her “imperial eye” to subjugate cowering natives—their eyes waver and fall before her haughty gaze (Hull 36 and 212), whether in India or in the North African desert. In fact, Hull is at pains to tell us that there was only one “native” whose gaze did not fall beneath hers—the Sheik, who is of course English. When Diana first stands before Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan—a figure formed in the image of the Gothic villain with “the handsomest and cruellest face that she had ever seen”—his “fierce burning eyes […] swept her until she felt that the boyish clothes that covered her slender limbs were stripped from her, leaving the beautiful white body bare under his passionate stare” (pp.56-57). Since she (and the reader) believes him to be Arab at this point, a clichéd trope of colonial relations is inverted here: the all-seeing, all-commanding gaze of the imperial eye gives way to the predatory, penetrating gaze of the supposed “native,” whose hungry stare consumes her whiteness—here transformed into a sign of her gendered vulnerability.

There are repeated references to Diana’s whiteness throughout the novel: the sheik’s lascivious glances at her “beautiful white body” (Hull 57), for instance, or the villain’s awareness of the “white woman who was Ahmed Ben Hassan’s latest toy” (196). Whiteness scarcely matters to Diana at first, yet although she is careless of this at the outset, her experiences in the novel teach her racial solidarity. Facing a greater danger from the bandit sheik Ibrahaim Omair later in the novel, with only the French valet Gaston at her side, Diana becomes aware of the overriding importance of white identity against the stratifications of class. At the moment when she and the French servant had faced possible death together, “all inequality of rank had been swept away […] they had been only a white man and a white woman together in their extremity” (211). While Diana’s aristocratic British imperial identity is important, therefore, it can also be subsumed within a broader white European identity, within the context of colonization and resistance or danger from non-white “natives.”

If Diana’s whiteness establishes her sexual desirability to all men—white and non-white—it also confirms the significance of her rape, since the only rape which counted in western imperial culture was the rape of a white woman by a non-white man; the far more common historical scenario of non-white women’s rape by white men received little comment throughout this period. If rape has broken her down, it is Diana’s interaction with social and racial inferiors within the colonial context which restores her sense of identity. It is her “childish” Bedouin maid Zilah who “in some indefinable way gave back to Diana the self-control that had slipped from her” (Hull 62). It is the French valet, Gaston, who serves her as devotedly as he serves the sheik, who returns to her a sense of what is due to her as an aristocratic Englishwoman (277). Yet any such sense of recovered status fluctuates. Over the next month of constant rape, she comes to realize that “her life was in [the sheik’s] hands, that he could break her with his lean brown fingers like a toy is broken […] She was utterly in his power and at his mercy—the mercy of an Arab who was merciless” (78).

To understand the full impact of the depiction of interracial desire and miscegenation in this novel, we need to remember that the nineteenth-century British Orientalist writings of men such as James Cowles Prichard and Richard Burton conflated Arabs, Africans, and animals as savage “creature[s] of instinct, controlled by sexual passions, incapable of the refinement to which the white races had evolved” (Kabbani 63). As Michael Diamond has shown, novel after novel from the 1890s to the First World War raised the specter of an Arab man attempting to “compromise” a white woman, only to be strongly rebuffed. In William Le Queux’s The Hand of Allah (1914), those English who “knew Africa, who knew the Arab” hated “the taint of black blood. To such men the sight of their own women introducing their daughters to that oily Egyptian sickened them” (Diamond 77). The heroine in Robert Hichens’s Barbary Sheep (1909) nearly succumbs to an Arab spahi while her husband is engrossed in game hunting, but she realizes in time that the Arab cavalryman is purely mercenary and “the peculiar disgust which so many white-skinned people feel towards the dark races of the earth suddenly rose up in her” (Diamond 78). A.J. Dawson’s Hidden Manna (1902) ends with the heartfelt exclamation: “God save us all from mixed marriages, I say!” (Diamond 78). In some cases British men, rather than God, save their women from mixed marriages; in many other cases women save themselves by drawing back from crossing racial boundaries.

In none of these pre-war novels did an Arab man actually have sex with a white woman. This was why The Sheik was such a bold and subversive novel for its time, despite its reactionary conclusion. Pre-war novels set in the Orient required white women to police their own sexual desires and uphold the imperial, racial, and bodily integrity of the white race. However, The Sheik broke with this convention to depict “proud Diana Mayo who had the history of her race at her fingers’ ends” (Hull 275) refusing this duty of the white race, choosing instead to abase herself before her love and sexual desire for the Arab man she believed the sheik to be. Fortunately for her, then, the sheik is actually European, a British peer of the realm. This racial legerdemain was an important plot maneuver for it excused Diana’s inexplicable attraction to the supposed “native,” dissipated the horrible specter of miscegenation, and provided the means of Ahmed’s repentance and redemption and consequently, the novel’s happy ending. Moreover, it meant that Diana would remain British in nationality, for the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act stated that “the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien,” losing the rights and privileges of British nationality. Not until 1948 could women from the United Kingdom retain their own nationality regardless of whom they married (Baldwin 522).

Hull returned to the themes of miscegenation, imperialism, love, and rape in the sequel The Sons of the Sheik (1925); but this time, the strictures against miscegenation were more pronounced, uttered by the sheik himself when he discovers that his son Ahmed has raped a Moroccan woman (who of course turns out to be the daughter of a French aristocratic family). The truly radical moment in The Sons of the Sheik occurs at the end of the novel after the heroine (by that stage pregnant with young Ahmed’s child) is abducted and savagely raped by the German villain. In the final pages of this novel, Ahmed decides that the heroine’s rape does not matter to him because his love for her is worth more than the fact that she has been violated by another man. This must surely be one of the first such episodes for a mainstream novel, whereby the rape of a woman by a man other than the hero is not punished by her death, and which still concludes in the union of raped heroine and hero. Significantly, at the end of The Sons of the Sheik, Hull finally presented readers with the rapist Hun of British wartime propaganda, whose brutality makes that of young Ahmed’s pale by comparison. Yasmin is in fact presented in the typical posture of the raped Belgian woman: “Crouched half naked on the ground, bearing all the marks of a desperate struggle, with her unbound hair streaming over her bare shoulders, she lay moaning and writhing in agony, her face hidden against the crumbling wall” (Hull, Sons of the Sheik, 358).

While Hull flirted with the specter of interracial sex between a white woman and an Oriental man in The Sheik, she would recoil strongly from the suggestion of miscegenation in The Sons of the Sheik and her subsequent novels. What had happened in the interim? If Arabs and other colonized peoples were “noble savage” allies during the war, their cause personified and glamorized by T.E. Lawrence, things changed rapidly after the ceasefire. In 1919—the year Hull’s novel was published in Britain—the Amritsar massacre, in which nearly four hundred anti-colonial protesters in the Punjab were gunned down by the British Indian Army, exacerbated colonial anxieties about race relations in the Indian sub-continent and revived Mutiny-era narratives of Indian rape of English women (Sharpe 123). After the Paris Peace Talks, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which replaced it, saw much of the Ottoman empire in the Middle East carved up and placed under British and French control as League of Nations mandatory states. Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1914. To Britain’s growing empire in the Middle East was added Palestine, the Transjordan, and Iraq. From the start, the assertion of British power in place of Ottoman suzerainty was strongly resisted in its newly acquired Middle Eastern territories. In 1920, fourteen thousand British and Indian troops stationed in Iraq put down an Arab uprising at the cost of four hundred fatalities. In Somaliland in 1920, the British bombed Muslim encampments when a Muslim leader rose up against British rule. In Iraq, where the British had installed Sherif Hussein’s son Feisal as a puppet king, revolts broke out sporadically throughout the 1920s and were met by Royal Air Force bombings before the British mandate was ended in 1932. Anti-colonial sentiment throughout the 1920s must have reverberated uncomfortably through the Orientalist romantic fantasies of novelists and readers, probably leading to its decline by the 1930s when it was replaced by the growing popularity of adventure stories about the French Foreign Legion inspired by P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste trilogy.

Meanwhile, domestic events in Britain brought home fears about “reverse colonization” and interracial unions. A sizable “black” (including Arabs and South Asians as well as Africans) population had lived in London and other British port cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff for a few hundred years, but these numbers increased during World War I, when colonial workers and seamen were recruited to make up shortfalls in British manpower (Tabili 9). Just as women’s contribution to the British war effort saw them gradually enfranchised after the war,[3] so did colonized men’s contribution lead to a demand for citizenship rights, and a sense of entitlement as subjects who had sacrificed for the British during the war. In such an environment, interracial boundaries began to be breached. The postwar years saw incidents of black men marrying white women. As Lucy Bland has argued, for white Britons this was a case of returned servicemen finding black men in their jobs, housing, and beds, partially contributing to the outbreak of race riots in Cardiff, Liverpool and London in the first half of 1919 (34). Newspapers screamed of “The Black Peril” (indeed, they had been doing so since 1917) and blamed black men for taking white men’s jobs and white men’s women (Bland 35 and 37). In response, the British parliament passed the Aliens Order in 1920, restricting non-white immigration (Caton 111).

Arab men then became a specific focus of concern in 1923 during the murder trial of Madame Fahmy, a thirty-two year old Frenchwoman who had married a wealthy Egyptian prince ten years her junior, and who subsequently murdered him. A connection was made between the trial and the immense popularity of “sheik” romances, as the Daily Mirror’s editorialized regarding the Fahmy case:

Too many of our women novelists, apparently under the spell of the East, have encouraged the belief that there is something especially romantic in such unions. They are not romantic, they are ridiculous and unseemly; and the sensational revelations of the trial […] will not be without their use if they bring that fact home to the sentimental, unsophisticated girl (Bland 47).

Indeed, Fahmy’s defense barrister argued in his summation: “Her greatest mistake—possibly the greatest mistake any woman could make—was as a woman of the West in marrying an Oriental” (Bland 46). Therefore, although Britain had no legislation against interracial unions, public sentiment regarding miscegenation was abundantly clear.

These events, both domestic and foreign, undoubtedly had an impact on both the production and reception of Hull’s output in the 1920s. Her subsequent novels such as The Sons of the Sheik (1925) and Captive of the Sahara (1931)—like those of her fellow desert romance novelist Kathlyn Rhodes—insisted on the impossibility and outright danger of interracial unions between Europeans and Orientals. Prolonged intercourse of any sort was detrimental to one or the other—usually the Oriental. The most dangerous figure in these later stories was the hybrid male: the Arab or Egyptian who was half-white, or who was culturally white. Occupying the status of both hero and eventual villain, the sheik who affected whiteness would inevitably reveal his dark desires and his degenerate Oriental self. According to novelists such as Hull and Rhodes, despite the sheik’s desire for racial and cultural whiteness, he was helpless to control the baser instincts resulting from his biological race. Relinquishing his desire for the white woman, or even sacrificing his life for her, ultimately constituted his one heroic act. In Hull’s Captive of the Sahara, the Bedouin sheik—who falls in love with the English heroine and who invites her to his desert stronghold, the City of Stones, only to imprison her there when she refuses to marry him—ends up dying to protect her. This, and the fact that he (an actual Arab, unlike Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan) never forces himself upon her, are his only virtues in a tragic tale of unrequited love and misguided anti-colonial ambition. The “native’s” love for the white woman threatens her reputation and destroys him. Whatever timorous gestures The Sheik had made towards breaching the boundaries of the white imperial race through the body of the white woman, therefore, the vast majority of English novels in this subgenre during the 1920s and 1930s reverted to the argument that it was the white woman’s responsibility to uphold this boundary and to police ruthlessly her own dark desires for the sake of all “races.” Interestingly enough, however, none of these storylines was ever as popular as the prospect of the taboo interracial union initially played out in The Sheik.

The specific historical circumstances of E.M. Hull’s novels thus shaped the contours of her plot and changed the social taboos she was willing to test or break. Where she was prepared to challenge social attitudes towards women’s sexual desire and the significance of rape for women in The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik, miscegenation was not a boundary she was ultimately willing to breach. However, when her story of The Sheik was translated into an American film, the permeability of white boundaries—gendered, corporeal, social, and political—was once again challenged, as was the meaning of whiteness itself. Across the Atlantic, on the far side of the American continent, Hollywood began to develop an alternative understanding of whiteness in the desert romance, and of white women’s relationship to non-white, but not-black, men. Through Hollywood, and particularly through Rudolph Valentino’s role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, “ethnic” Americans, who occupied a precarious position within the polity, vaulted over the bodies of Africans and Arabs to consolidate their position as white American citizens.

The Sheik in America

Even before the publication of Hull’s The Sheik in the United States, American popular culture was already well-acquainted with a commodified, consumable Orient that was paradoxically modern in its love of exotic primitivism. As Holly Edwards has shown, American artists began to incorporate Middle Eastern themes into their paintings from the late nineteenth century onwards. Many were no doubt influenced by the French school of Orientalist painting, but in the United States Orientalism served two different purposes in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It connected American Protestant narratives of a Chosen People in a Promised Land to the biblical landscapes of the Middle East; and it also expressed nostalgia for a pastoral or frontier ideal that was vanishing, replaced instead by an increasingly urban society characterized by the commodification of consumer goods, sexuality, physicality, and the exotic Orient (Edwards 17). The 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago was especially significant in this transition. Not only did the Fair align and affirm American visions of the Orient with European imperial hierarchies of ethnographic difference and cultural inferiority through the condescending display of Oriental villages from Egypt and Algeria, for example, but it also situated the Orient within the modern idiom of salacious sexuality through Sol Bloom’s concoction of the scandalous but popular “hoochy-coochy” Oriental belly dance (Edwards 39).

From the turn of the century onwards, Oriental material culture served as department store and advertising backdrops for selling sensuous luxury items, cigarettes (Mecca, Medina and Omar, and the famous Camel brand), home furnishings, fashion, and film. This was the paradox of Orientalism: exotically primitive and inferior, Orientalism was also a playful discourse through which modern Americans could indulge the pleasure of the senses and experiment with alternative forms of sexuality, gender relations, and mystical rituals. Orientalism was used to explore and transform how Americans related to each other, and this explains the popularity of masquerade balls and the use of Oriental motifs in freemason and other occult male societies at this time. These Oriental role-plays offered “the opportunity to try on surrogate identities and taste illicit pleasures while protected by disguise. People moved across class and ethnic boundaries to dabble in what were perceived to be risqué behaviors” (Edwards 40). Because the United States had no formal sustained imperial relationship with “the Orient” at this time, and because British and French interests successfully blocked the expansion of American oil interests in the region until after World War I (Little 2002), American Orientalism in the early twentieth century was not so much about the justification and extension of imperial power as about the Orient as an imaginary space for American “pleasures, fantasy, and escapism, in the mode of the Arabian Nights.” For Americans, “the Orient represented the option of luxury and self-indulgence, far from the rigors of a humdrum desk job” (Edwards 23). Therefore American Orientalism, as William Leach has argued, “was symptomatic of changes taking place within western society—and especially in cities—that had little to do with imperialism or with the desire to appropriate somebody else’s property, but that symbolized a feeling of something missing from western culture itself, a longing for a ’sensual‘ life more ’satisfying‘ than traditional Christianity could endorse” (105).

This understanding of the Orient as an exotic commodity that could satisfy a more sensuous age was further strengthened by the spectacular use of Oriental imagery in the Broadway production of Hichens’ The Garden of Allah, which premiered in 1907. That the play opened in New York, popularly known as “Baghdad on the Hudson” for its commerce and seedy immigrant life, was particularly apt. The Garden of Allah featured live camels, technological feats producing whirling sandstorms on stage, and meticulously researched recreations of Algerian scenery (Edwards 44). The visual spectacle of the Orient soon overshadowed the play’s narrative content, which was confusing and soon forgotten. It ushered in a pre-war vogue for Garden of Allah tie-ins, with hotels and restaurants being decked out in furnishings reminiscent of the stage play, while all manner of consumables were associated with the phrase “Garden of Allah”—from women’s perfumes to table lamps. As Edwards observed, the “migration of Garden of Allah imagery from story to product epitomizes the process whereby the Orient was constructed and then disseminated in forms that conformed with American dreams and patterns of consumption” (45).

This is distinctly different from Orientalist discourse in Britain at the same time, which was more artistic, literary, and anchored in travel narratives or scholarly treatises on the Orient. This is not to suggest that the British Orientalist discourse was more “authentic” or “true” to “the Orient” than the American variant. As Said has argued persuasively, the discourse of Orientalism was never simply a more or less accurate representation of “the Orient;” it was a discourse which actively “Orientalized” the Orient, investing it with the qualities that made it seem inevitably “Oriental” to Europeans. In any case, as Timothy Mitchell has shown with regard to Egypt, European colonial authorities sometimes restructured the physical space of Orient so as to render it comprehensible within the pre-existing discourse of Orientalism. Villages, army barracks, and towns were reorganized along the lines of the replicas constructed for world fairs or exhibitions, exemplary of certain “political truths” about the colonized (Mitchell 1988). The discourse of European Orientalism was thus not necessarily more “authentic” or “true” than the discourse of American Orientalism.

Nevertheless, despite this active “Orientalizing” of North Africa, the British (and French) relationship with the Orient was still constrained by the geopolitical realities of colonialism: different types of political relations with local rulers; the lucrative provision of financial services; trade, investment, and the building of infrastructure; administration of the civil service; control over the military and containment of anti-colonial activities; and the existence of sizable expatriate European populations in key colonial towns and cities (as well as tourists traveling through lands rendered safe by the assertion of political dominance and military power). To this extent, then, British Orientalism differed from the extravagant and glamorous Orientalist fantasies peddled by American business and the entertainment industry to whet consumer appetite for new fashions, furnishings, and a new, more sensuous “national dream life for men and women” (Leach 107).

It was little wonder, then, that the novel should have enjoyed the same success in America as in Britain, although perhaps for different reasons. Indeed, its fame spread even further afield when the secretary of an entrepreneurial Hollywood mogul, Jesse Lasky (of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount), urged her boss to cast Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role of the film (Leider 152). Hollywood had shown an early fascination with the East, and the Oriental film was one of the most popular genres in the first two decades of the twentieth century, beginning with George Méliès’s The Palace of A Thousand and One Nights (1905). The filtering of the East through the “Arabian Nights” meant that from the start, Hollywood productions of desert romances differed from their British counterparts in terms of the attempts to recreate the “authentic” Saharan desert—something on which British filmmakers often prided themselves. It may have been that British cultural familiarity with the region through the writings of its novelists, travelers, Orientalist scholars, and the realism characteristic of the paintings of artists such as Ludwig Deutsch and John Frederick Lewis, laid a greater expectation of “naturalism” and “authenticity” on British filmmakers.

Famous Players-Lasky was bound by no such considerations. Neither George Melford, the director, nor Lasky were much interested in historical or geographical verisimilitude. Melford certainly took advantage of the setting and the story to film some dramatic long shots of Arabs riding en masse across the rolling desert dunes, while Pathé Company footage of actual Algerian town scenes were spliced into the film for exterior crowd scenes (Leider 155). However, the interior shots made no attempts at realism. They were often staged within arched doorways or framed by opulent draperies and awnings, creating a proscenium-like effect throughout the film that distanced the audience from the action on-screen, forcibly reminding audiences they were watching the elaborately staged realm of Hollywood Oriental fantasy (Caton 116). This was the “Arabian Nights” Orient of advertisements and hotel, restaurant, or department store designs. Melford’s habit of using a “keyhole” effect to frame certain sequences within a black circle reinforced this fantasy, and was also reminiscent of the French artist Gérôme’s tondo of his Orientalist harem fantasy, Le Bain Turc. Again, no attempts at “authenticity” were made with Valentino’s sheik costume or the interiors of the sheik’s tent. Rather, they were the fashionable confections of his partner, Natacha Rambova (Leider 156-158). This, then, was never an attempt to represent the “real Orient” (or what westerners perceived it to be), but to indulge what were clearly American fancy-dress fantasies of the Orient, and the story was filmed in a way to emphasize this (Leider 155-156).

The film of The Sheik differs from the novel in many significant ways, perhaps the most crucial being the characters of Diana (played by Agnes Ayres) and Ahmed Ben Hassan, and the initial encounter between them. In the film, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is at a hotel casino where the sheik is allowed to display a chivalrous, gentlemanly side to his nature (in the novel, of course, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is his abduction and rape). The sheik spots Diana as he is entering the casino, which has been closed to other western guests. Diana, angry at being kept out of any public place by “a savage desert bandit” is told by a French officer that the sheik is a “rich tribal prince who was educated in Paris” and in Biskra, “his slightest wish is law.” Like the novel, then, the film downgrades the authority of the French in colonial Algeria. The French permit colonial relations to be overturned, so that Arabs are able to keep Europeans out of a space within a hotel owned and inhabited by Europeans. Diana veils herself, masquerades as a dancer, and gatecrashes the sheik’s party, but her white skin gives her away. In their exchange, Diana is shown to be haughtily rude while the sheik displays an ironic courtesy towards her. She is positioned as an arrogant imperialist, telling the sheik that she intruded because “I wanted to see the savage who could bar me from this Casino.” Unlike the novel where Diana is a passive victim of the sheik’s lust, unwittingly drawing his attention because of her beauty, in the film it is Diana’s own discourteous action in failing to respect social and racial boundaries at the hotel that brings her to the attention of the sheik. She is not without power or agency in their initial encounter either. When he unmasks her in the casino, exclaiming “The pale hands and golden hair of a white woman,” she draws a revolver on him. Her act mimics in miniature the conquest and colonization of the Middle East—at the barrel of a gun, a gun that she loses in the desert at the moment of her abduction and the loss of her power as an imperial subject. The man who abducts her, however, is not a complete stranger to her but one whose attention she has deliberately courted. This is important in ameliorating the shock of the abduction.

The abduction scene proceeds according to the novel, but the rape scene is again different. For one thing, rape is deferred a number of times. The sheik forces Diana to change out of her riding clothes and dress for dinner, then she tries to escape by running out into a sandstorm. She is brought back by the sheik who then kisses her. This kiss, which leads to the rape in the novel, is interrupted in the film when the sheik himself has to head out into the sandstorm to rescue the men’s horses. When he returns, he sees Diana on her knees beside the divan, her hands clasped in desperate prayer and a jeweled cross displayed prominently on her chest (in the novel there are no references to Diana’s Christian religion). He approaches her stealthily, one hand outstretched and ready to debauch her, but he is conscience-stricken at the sight of her weeping prayers. Head bowed in dejection and perhaps in remorse or pity, the sheik then leaves the bedroom and sends the Arab maid Zilah to comfort and tend to Diana. What happens next is open to interpretation. Those who were familiar with the novel inferred the rape because the following caption, “Through the dull slumber of despair—until morning tempts back a desire to live” seemed to suggest the same plot as the novel, as did Diana’s subsequent costume as a subdued Arab woman. In Kansas City, the widespread understanding that Diana had been deflowered led to the film’s ban locally (Leider 166). However, other audiences concluded that Diana was not raped.

This ambiguity in interpretation was very much due to the fact that Lasky wanted the film to evade the censors so that it would be as “mainstream” and popular as possible (Leider 162, 167). As Steven Caton has argued, the film can be interpreted as a shift from rape to romantic courtship. Caton noted that the scene where the sheik leaves Diana sobbing in the maid’s arms is in fact full of symbols of phallic detumescence: the sheik’s upraised right hand drops in dejection as he leaves, and the lit pipe or cigarette that the sheik habitually holds in his hands are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, both the sheik and Diana are fully clothed the following morning, Diana wakes alone, and the sheik places a rose on Diana’s breakfast tray, signaling an intent to court her in the traditional western manner. Leider noted that:

Many of the original reviewers of The Sheik complained that the movie, in toning down the rape, changed what had originally been the story of a woman overpowered by a man into one about a woman having her way with a compliant male. They argued that Hull’s tale had lost its spine in the process of being adapted from book to screen. […] Woundingly, they used the language of castration, speaking of the movie version as “mealy, emasculated” (167).

A review in a film magazine, for example, castigated the censors for “patting ‘The Sheik’ into a decorous mood mild enough for the most tender mind. His fierceness—which so delighted the gentle spinster readers—is all gone […] and his attitude toward the kidnapped heroine is that of a considerate and platonic friend rather than the passionate, ruthless lover” (Pictureplay 1922).

The sheik’s emasculation is complete at the film’s conclusion. Where the novel ends with the sheik wresting a pistol away from Diana’s grasp before she shoots herself, the film ends with the wounded sheik waking from a coma to hear Diana offering her life to God in return for his recovery. The two are reconciled in a way which emphasizes the vulnerability of the sheik. While Diana is upright, watching over him and playing nurse, the sheik is weak and bedridden. It is a final image not dissimilar to a World War I Red Cross poster featuring a nurse as “the greatest mother in the world,” cradling a wounded soldier whose head is bandaged. By the film’s end, the sheik’s turban—symbol of his Oriental Otherness—has been replaced by a stark white bandage around his forehead, while the clothes he wears seem no different from a European man’s. The transformation that his love for Diana effects in him—from savage Bedouin sheik to wounded white European man—is encapsulated in his final words: “the darkness has passed and now the sunshine.”

Under Melford’s direction, Diana reprises the role of the white woman in the imperial mission, bringing Christianity and European civilization to the Orient, and rescuing Ahmed from his racial and cultural apostasy at the film’s end: “Pray God, dear friend, to save his life,” she says, “Oh, if He would only accept my life in exchange for his!” Even prior to this, she brings civilizational “light” to the Oriental tents of the sheik: dressing for dinner, reading books, and engaging in “cultured” behavior, especially when the French novelist Raoul de Saint Hubert visits. These activities—the upholding of ruling-class European standards of behavior—are by no means insignificant. From the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century, any white woman who immigrated to the colonies and married a white man was deemed to have fulfilled her duty to the empire. This was because white women—especially middle-class women—were seen as civilizing influences who would prevent white men from “going native,” taking indigenous concubines, and undermining the hierarchical racial structure on which British colonialism was based. As Adele Perry has shown with the case of British Columbia in the 1870s, for example, the population was considered to be lacking in white women’s influence of culture, gentility, morality, and piety. Without white women’s presence, white Canadian men were dangerously exposed to the temptations of “all the evils of heathendom” and “risked becoming a disgrace to the English race itself” (Perry 501). English literature set in the colonies around this time similarly emphasized that the role of an Englishwoman was to marry and be a helpmeet to an earnest Englishman whose life was dedicated to the service of the empire—whether in the form of involvement in the colonial bureaucracy, the army, or in public works such as building railways or dams. After marriage, a wife’s service to the empire took the form of creating a pleasant home environment for her husband and serving him (Teo 2004).

The film thus follows the novel’s imperial agenda, as did many other Hollywood films of the interwar years. So many Hollywood films were based on British imperial adventure novels, that in 1939 The Daily Express praised Hollywood for “glorifying Britain’s empire” and noted that “the British empire need not worry for propaganda while Hollywood does its imperial publicity” (Webster 63). Where the novel of The Sheik emphasized the role of white men in extending and controlling the empire in the Middle East, however, the film gives equal emphasis to Diana’s role as a white woman within this imperial project. Moreover, because of the film’s ending, Diana retains her spirit and sense of agency—tempered by love and tenderness—whereas in the novel she is crushed and driven to self-destruction. Where the British novel condemns and destroys the New Woman, replacing her with a more traditional “womanly” woman—passive, submissive, helpless, and even suicidal—the American film applauds modern, feminist-influenced femininity. Indeed, a few years earlier Jesse Lasky had requested Cecil B. De Mille and Jeannie Macpherson to “write something typically American that would portray a girl in the sort of role that the feminists in this country are now interested in […] the kind of girl that dominates […] who jumps in and does a man’s work” (Leider 165).

The imperial civilizing mission, and the role of the white woman as enlightened as well as enlightening in every sense of the word, is visually expressed through the aesthetic use of film lighting technology to “privilege and construct an idea of the white person” (Dyer 84). Diana’s whiteness is first emphasized when she enters the sexualized space of the Oriental casino where the sheik and the other Arabs are engaged in the “marriage gamble where brides are won on the turn of a [roulette] wheel.” She stands out from the other veiled women and is unmasked because of her whiteness. When the sheik takes her hand, his hands are colored and shown to be much darker than hers. Film is of course a technology of light, and in these films light is literally used to convey stark messages about the civilizational light brought by western women into the benighted lands of the East. As Dyer has explained, early film stock tended to show white people as dark-skinned unless lighting was used strategically to highlight skin and to eliminate shadows. During the 1920s, Hollywood developed a convention of using the key light, the fill, and backlight to keep the white figure “separate from the background as well as creating, when wanted, the rim and halo effects of heroic and glamour lighting” (Dyer 87). In The Sheik, the whiteness of the heroine’s skin, and the effect of light on her, around her, or flowing from her to the hero, is carefully created. Although Agnes Ayres —like Diana in the novel—is not blonde in this film, her clothing often reflects the light, and her hair is backlit in such a way that she is radiant with light. This accorded with the developing traditions of cinema lighting, whereby “idealized white women are bathed in and permeated by light. It streams through them and falls onto them from above. In short, they glow” (Dyer 122).

In the era of black and white silent films, colors and clothing were crudely symbolic. The villains in American Westerns wore dark clothes and a dark hat, whereas the Western hero was symbolized by his white hat. The same symbolism can be seen in The Sheik. When Diana is abducted, she wears light-colored riding clothes and a topee—the costume of European imperial authority that is also worn by Raoul de Saint Hubert. Forced by the sheik to change into a dark evening dress, the symbol of her white European, Christian identity then rests in the large cross that is seen prominently around her neck. However, clothing is more ambiguous for Arab men, particularly the sheik. In the opening scenes, he and the other Arab men are dressed in white robes. By the time he has Diana in his power, however, his white robes have given way to darker, multi-layered, richly textured striped or patterned garments of white, black, and other shades. In the final sickbed scene, when the sheik, through Diana, reclaims his whiteness and literally sees the light, he is simply dressed in a nondescript pale shirt and breeches. Without his characteristic turban, he is indistinguishable from a European man.

The scenes of conflict between Ayres and Valentino in The Sheik emphasize the contrast between his darkness and her light. Valentino’s hands were artificially darkened so that they would stand out against her skin and her clothing whenever he held her. Although his face is darker than hers—as was the tradition for all white men juxtaposed against white women in film at the time—his face nevertheless appears white when he is not in close proximity to Ayres. Leider noted that as a southern Italian, “Valentino’s dark complexion might have been highlighted as an asset, since he was playing a hot-blooded, charismatic Arab chieftain.” However, given widespread racial fears of miscegenation and nativist sentiment about white purity, and given the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in the 1920s, “the producers played it safe: only in the posters and lobby cards, especially those in color, does Rudy’s skin look tan or even black. On-screen, his face appears white, but his hands show darker” Leider 159). This schizophrenia of lighting and coloring reflects the ambivalence of Americans towards racial and ethnic others, and towards citizenship and even whiteness itself.

The Sheik was produced in a context of increasing white American concern over immigration from southern and eastern Europe that eventually resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924—the Johnson-Reed Act—which included a “national origins quota” system for Europeans, limiting immigrant numbers to 2% of the existing population group in the 1890 census. As Matthew Frye Jacobson has argued, the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. The response of newly arrived European immigrants—Irish, Italians, Poles, and Slavs—or their descendants was to scramble for inclusion into and consolidation of a catch-all white “Caucasian” identity, constructed at the expense of black Americans then migrating from the agrarian South to the urban and industrial North and West (Jacobson 7-8). The crucial test for belonging was, of course, naturalization and citizenship, restricted since 1790 to “free white persons,” and later amended in 1870 to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Rather than challenging the racial basis of citizenship, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries instead saw a raft of legal attempts to have certain marginal groups declared “white” (Gualtieri 52-53).

Significantly, in contrast to Britain—where Arabs were associated with “blacks” until the Second World War—in the United States, Arabs, Syrians, Lebanese, and Turks were declared a “white” race under the landmark 1915 Dow v. United States ruling by the Circuit Court of Appeals. The “fact” of Levantine whiteness was established in a series of naturalization cases heard in federal courts between 1909 and 1915. Syrians such as George Dow and his supporters deliberately constructed themselves as white, appealing to a shared sense of Christian entitlement, their ancient civilization, and the Semitic roots they shared with Jews who were considered racially white (Gualtieri 42-46). For the new immigrant groups, however, whiteness was unstable and precarious. To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks. Inclusion into white identity and white society was provisional, dependent upon their occupations, associations, and behavior. They were only white as long as they upheld the “white man’s code.” It was possible for these groups to slip into blackness if, like Italians in Louisiana, they worked alongside blacks, maintained business relations, or even intermarried with them—in which case they would be treated as blacks (Jacobson 57). In New Orleans, eleven Italians were lynched by the White League in 1891 while in Tallulah, Louisiana, five Sicilian storekeepers were lynched in 1899 (Jacobson 56-58). Levantine immigrants were not exempt either. Syrians were the targets of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, while in Florida, the lynching of Nicholas Romey shocked the Syrian community, who were not only outraged but “bewildered” that he had not been recognized as a white man. In the words of the Syrian-American newspaper ash-Shaab:

The Syrian is not a negro whom Southerners feel they are justified in lynching when he is suspected of an attack on a white woman. The Syrian is a civilized white man who has excellent traditions and a glorious historical background and should be treated as among the best elements of the American nation (Gualtieri 47).

Valentino’s role as the pseudo-Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik must be contextualized within this history of competing versions of whiteness and citizenship in the United States, as well as within discourses of American Orientalism. Rudolph Valentino, born Rodolfo Guglielmi, emigrated from southern Italy to New York in 1913, where he worked at a number of odd-jobs and made a living as a “taxi dancer”—a professional dance partner in popular dance halls—before heading west to Hollywood in 1917. As Leider has observed:

He didn’t set his sights on romantic or heroic roles. Physical traits determined casting choices and he knew he looked foreign, which meant he would be typed as a villain. Ethnic and racial stereotypes were still rigidly fixed, and moral qualities attached to skin tone and hair color, as well as nationality. Blonde women tended to be cast as virgins, brunettes as vamps. To American directors and producers, and much of the audience, dark skin implied contamination. The most popular leading men of the moment were all clean-cut, square-jawed, all-Americans […] like Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lockwood, and Wallace Reid. (87)

Films featuring Italians—such as The Criminals (1913), which focused on the Mafia kidnapping of a child, or D.W. Griffiths’ Italian Blood (1911)—pathologized them and called their whiteness into question (Leider 50). Griffiths dismissed Valentino as “too foreign looking” for anything but villainous roles, and Valentino, accepting the inevitable, advertized himself in Motion Picture Studio Directory as “a New Style of Heavy.” In the end, it was white American women—actresses like Dorothy Gish and Carmel Myers, or screenwriter and Metro executive June Mathis—who persuaded male directors to cast Valentino in leading roles. Through these women’s assistance, Valentino became Hollywood’s first swarthy romantic hero, helping to “redefine and broaden American masculine ideals. Only after Valentino could a blonde leading lady accept and return the ardent kisses of a screen lover with dark coloring” (Leider 4). Even so, he did his best to stay out of the sun, recognizing that he had a propensity to tan and fearing that he would become “like a Negro” and “too black for pictures” (Leider 162).

In The Sheik, then, the spectacle of Valentino the Italian immigrant representing Ahmed Ben Hassan the Arab raised questions about white identity, civic belonging, and social acceptance—represented by the right to marry a white woman. In the context of contemporary debates over whiteness, immigration, and citizenship, Caton has argued, the revelation of Ahmed’s mixed parentage “has a precise correlate in the contested notions of whiteness and non-whiteness […] Could Italians in America (Valentino, for example) claim to be white?” (Caton 114). Could, then, the Jewish Americans who flocked to and dominated Hollywood’s burgeoning film industry? Caton contended that the “immigrant who is neither white nor black but confusingly in-between could become a ‘bourgeois’ citizen of the country with the helping hand of the patronizing white woman. […] Libidinal attraction to a dangerous type is justified and legitimated for the sake of a national melting pot, paid for by the exclusion of the black man” (116).

Originally non-white-but-not-black, Valentino/Ahmed Ben Hassan can become white through his love of a white woman, who tames and redeems him through Christian courtship and marriage. This process of conversion and redemption is in direct contrast to the novel, where it is Diana’s feminist-inflected, modern femininity which is tamed and crushed by Oriental rape. In the film, Diana’s second abduction and attempted rape by the evil robber Sheik Omair takes place after Ahmed Ben Hassan, under the Frenchman Saint Hubert’s influence, has reluctantly agreed that because he loves Diana, he must send her back to her own people. From this point on, Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man takes place at the expense of darker others. His initial “otherness” is now displaced onto the villainous Omair, who is not only much darker in complexion but who also associates with Africans, in contrast to the Frenchmen with whom Ahmed surrounds himself. Sheik Omair is guarded by a giant Nubian and surrounded by the classic Hollywood iconography of African otherness: nearly-nude dancing girls and tom-toms. In the act of rescuing Diana, Valentino/Ahmed survives a near-fatal attempt on his life, whereas black-affiliated Omair and his Nubian guards die. Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man thus takes place at the expense of villainous black men. In the final scene, as I have mentioned before, he is stripped of the outward symbols of Oriental otherness—his thobe and his turban—and left only with his shirt and breeches, while Diana kneels by his side and lays her head on his wounded breast. As Caton remarked, this is “allegorically significant in the context of American race relations,” for “it offers the dream of a partnership between white and ethnic other, implied by the handclasp of Diana and Ahmed before the final fade-out” (Caton 116). To American women, the film thus offered a potentially different message of racial, ethnic, or cultural incorporation than did the British novel.

However, Valentino’s—and, hence, other ethnic heroes’—acceptance as a white man was gendered and conditional. While many women idolized him as the “perfect lover,” for some others, as for a Photoplay reader, he looked “wicked […] maybe because he is not an American” (Studlar 299). In point of fact, Valentino never became naturalized as an American citizen because he was torn between his roots as an Italian and the country which had made him famous but which also consistently questioned his masculinity and his racial heritage. He was famously reviled by American men who “feared that American women, duped by immigrants—especially those, like tango pirates, who achieved a masquerade of good breeding—would bear offspring who would inherit the ancestry of their dark foreign fathers, an ancestry that was considered to be tainted” (Studlar 299). Just as Arabs could be represented and displaced by a more acceptable “white ethnic” like Valentino, in time, swarthy but romantic ethnic heroes in Hollywood would be represented and displaced by “Anglo-Saxon” actors such as Ronald Colman (The Night of Love), John Gilbert (The Cossacks), Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Baghdad and The Gaucho), and Richard Barthelmes (The White Black Sheep). As Studlar has noted, “such stars could temporarily satisfy female desire for erotic exoticism without threatening either American men or the nation’s Nordic/Anglo-Saxon purity” (Studlar 301). This sequence of the colonization and displacement of the exotic ethnic/Arab figure by an indisputably “white” man echoed uncannily the displacement of the Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan by the white Earl of Glencaryll in The Sheik, but it also served to emphasize that these white heroes were at their most erotically charged when masquerading as non-white men. This is of course the paradox of Orientalism: a discourse which creates and propagates images of inferior “others,” it simultaneously expresses the consciousness of a lack on the part of the western self/culture, and a yearning for the exotic other.


The Sheik was one of the most important popular cultural artifacts produced in the twentieth century, a text whose influence is still evident today in countless songs, romance novels, films, television series, comics, cartoons, and in the very transformation of the connotations associated with the word “sheik” itself. Today, however, what remains of the text in popular memory is the image of a white woman abducted by a swarthy Arab man in flowing robes, perched on a galloping steed thundering over desert dunes. Meanwhile, the Arab-turned-English sheik himself has become inextricably intertwined with, and perhaps even lost in, the image of the Italian-turned-Arab-turned-American matinee idol Rudolph Valentino, whose death soon after the completion of The Son of the Sheik denied him any opportunity to sever his eternal association with the sheik by playing other subsequent roles. Both images—the horseback abduction and Valentino as the sheik—simultaneously evoke fun and fantasy, ridicule and romance; and perhaps that is why relatively little attention has been paid to both the novel and the film in comparison to other popular novels and films throughout the twentieth century.

Scholars in film and literary studies have certainly redressed this neglect over the last two decades, but apart from Caton’s work, discussions of the film and the novel do not generally overlap. Furthermore, although Hull’s novel, in particular, has been read within a plethora of different historical contexts pertaining to the 1920s, the circumstances of its production in the midst of World War I and its subsequent reception arising from the different imperial, ethnic, racial, and Orientalist contexts of Britain and the US have received little mention. This is not to suggest that the film and novel did not overlap, or were radically different in meaning and reception in Britain and America respectively. This is clearly not the case. The foregrounding of Diana’s desire for adventure, passion, and the exotic Orient is shared by both novel and film; as is her arrogant confidence arising from her position as a white imperial subject who has the power, ultimately, to rescue the European male “gone native,” and restore him to his white self. Where the novel crushes her and reduces her to submissive passivity to the sheik, however, the film celebrates her spirit and shows her triumphant over a somewhat debilitated sheik at the end. Still, the Hollywood film shares the novel’s imperial assumptions and obligingly confirms the novel’s insinuation that the French are weak colonizers who are best cast as adjuncts to the plot and to the British protagonists, even though the setting is in French colonial Algeria. Both novel and film condone the role of violence in romance—even though the film subsequently cloaks the novel’s rape scene in coy ambiguity—and, of course, both exalt the figure of the sheik as a menacing, mesmerizing, sexually potent, Oriental romantic hero. These things, and many other lesser details, the two texts have in common.

Yet the differences are equally significant. The first point of differentiation between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film is the tradition of Orientalist discourse incorporated into each text. Like many of her fellow “desert romance” novelists in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Hull drew from a tradition of Orientalist literature concerned with historical accuracy, “authenticity,” naturalism, and verisimilitude, seemingly conscious about how well her descriptions of notable tourist destinations—Biskra or the North African desert—matched the descriptions in British travel accounts. Indeed, she herself would go on to write a travel book, Camping in the Sahara (1926). Moreover, British Orientalist discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was grounded in concerns about colonial matters in the East. Said is surely correct in arguing that during this time, Orientalism served to justify European domination of its colonies. Hull commented on, or wrestled with, actual or potential colonial or racial problems in The Sheik and her subsequent desert romances. The justification and extension of British imperialism, especially in contrast to the French, is a significant part of the novel.

However, coming from a specifically American tradition of fairground and department-store Orientalism, Lasky’s film was less concerned with verisimilitude or the depiction of actual geopolitical regions, and more absorbed in creating a fantasy “Arabian Nights” space which emphasized the visual, spectacular, commoditized exotic: Oriental curtains, rugs, draperies, cushions, lamps, furniture, clothing, headwear and cigarettes. In this and subsequent sheik or desert romance films, Orientalism and “Arab-face” offered American men a way of experimenting with alternative masculinities that indulged the senses and reveled in “feminine” commodities such as exotic clothing, while combining this with a dangerous and violent ideal of the heroic lover. This ideal, first propagated by the British novel, had a very particular and poignant resonance for British audiences in the 1920s.

Hull’s novel was produced during a period of trauma: the constant reports of defeats, stalemates, and heavy casualties arising from the First World War—a war in which her own husband was involved; the stories of German atrocities trickling back from Belgium and amplified by the British government; the upheaval of social and sexual mores on the home front; the trauma of returned soldiers—often shell-shocked, neurasthenic, or embittered—trying to adapt to civilian life; and the domestic violence meted out against both strangers and loved ones that sometimes ensued. This must have influenced Hull to conceive the violent rapist hero whom the heroine could still fall in love with, because his Oriental otherness, brute strength, arrogance, confidence, and sexual prowess—part of his hyper-masculinity—were no doubt attractive in an age dominated domestically by what Sonya Rose has called the “temperate hero” (2003).

The Sheik was then received within a context of backlash against women. Although women over thirty received the vote in 1918, this limited victory for female suffrage was offset by the retrenchment of women from the workforce to make way for returned soldiers, and by hostility against young working-class women for taking men’s jobs or, in large port cities, for consorting with other men, especially “black” men. Women were certainly not passive in the face of this backlash. Many young women defiantly celebrated what gains were left to them after the war: access to the public sphere and to the new forms of consumerism and public entertainment that swept Britain in the 1920s—shopping, dancing, and movie-going, where they consumed Hollywood fare such as The Sheik. These were entertainments which celebrated and gave expression to female sexual desire, including the desire—fulfilled in fantasy if not reality—for dangerous “black” men, among whom Arabs and South Asians were included. In the end, Hull indulged women’s sexual desire but firmly reined in their interracial fantasies, diverting them instead to the figure of the heroic British man in “Arab-face.”

In many ways, the United States shared the same historical memories as the British; after all, Lasky’s film was released merely two years after the publication of Hull’s novel. However, the historical circumstances, and therefore the meaning, of these events differed in small but significant ways for Americans. For example, the American experience of the war was signally different from the British. The same motif of German atrocities in Belgium was used as American propaganda after the US declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, but the American public had not been bombarded with such stories for years as had the British public. For the Americans, the war was of a far shorter duration and lesser impact in terms of the war-wounded and the dead. Four million men were immediately mobilized but the first troops only made it to France a year later, at the end of March 1918, and these troops only experienced one victory after another from then until November 1918. The casualty rate for mobilized American soldiers was eight per cent, compared with forty-four per cent for the British. Whatever the war traumas experienced by individual soldiers, American society as a whole was not traumatized by World War I. Consciousness of the war was not part of the context in which the film was either produced or received.

The same broadly shared attitude towards race which nonetheless masked significant variations can also be seen in Britain and the US, which were both hostile to interracial relations between white women and non-white men. Despite the lack of any legal prohibition against interracial relations in Britain and its colonies, such unions between white women and non-white men were treated with deep revulsion and condemnation, because the boundaries of the imperial race and its inferior colonized subjects were being breached—something that British society strongly objected to especially after the 1857 Indian “Mutiny.” Arabs were generally placed on the same footing as Africans in this imperial hierarchy of race. In the US, however, anti-miscegenation laws were aimed squarely at African Americans and sustained by the myth of the black man raping the white woman (while ignoring the actual reality of white men raping black women). Arabs, while not quite securely “white,” were nevertheless differentiated from African Americans, and in the early 1910s, consolidated their citizenship rights as Americans on the basis of not being “black.” Here, the history of immigration plays into the construction of racial and white identity. For the British, racial questions held their greatest significance in the empire; within Britain itself, apart from the pockets of non-white populations in port cities, subjects were white precisely because they were British. In the US, however, European immigration from the postbellum era onwards raised the question of who could be considered white and, therefore, a potential citizen. The boundaries of “whiteness” were gradually extended to include the Irish, eastern and southern Europeans, Jews, and eventually Arabs—all of whom combined to form a “Caucasian” race which again differentiated itself against black Americans.

When George Melford directed The Sheik, the same process of incorporating the Italian/Arab Valentino into white society can be seen. Arabs are “white” enough to be played by Italians who, in turn, have become “white” enough to represent Englishmen (albeit with a hint of Spanish-Moorish blood). “White” Arabs associate with white people like the French. Unlike the degenerate bandit Omair, the white sheik distances and differentiates himself from indisputably “black” people like Nubian slaves. The racial and white ethnic logic of this film only makes sense within the context of the history of American racial, immigration, and citizenship policies of the early twentieth century: a history in which black people are constantly represented in servitude of some sort, but where non-white/not-black people can be assimilated into the body politic as citizens if they distance themselves from blacks.

In the end, we cannot determine how many readers and film-goers were attentive to the various nuances and differences between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film. Contemporary reviews of the film in magazines such as Photoplay or Pictureplay seemed to latch on to one overwhelming difference: the emasculation of Ahmed Ben Hassan in the film. This they blamed, not so much on Valentino for his portrayal of the sheik, as on the producer and director for choosing a film that would inevitably “give the censor’s knife full play” (Pictureplay 1922). Regardless of how cognizant audiences were of these differences, they are important because they show the various ways the Orient became “Orientalized” for two different audiences in the early twentieth century, and they indicate the different purposes that a heteroglossic Orientalist discourse could serve: as escapist entertainment, certainly, but also as an intervention by a previously unknown woman writer into British imperial matters as well as into the wartime and postwar debate about women’s sexual desire, and as a medium of exploring American racial identity and inclusion into full citizenship. Finally, whatever else The Sheik did or did not do, it placed women at the center of Orientalist discourse as both producers and consumers of the novel and the film, thereby making them complicit in its legacy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Works Cited

Adams, Michael C.C. The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Print.

Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Subliterature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974. Print.

August, Melissa. “Sheikhs and the Serious Blogger.” Time Life Group, 22 August 2005. Web.

Ardis, Ann. “E.M. Hull, Mass Market Romance and the New Woman Novel in the Early Twentieth Century.” Women’s Writing 3 (1996): 287-296. Print.

Baldwin, M. Page. “Subject to Empire: Married Women and the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act.” The Journal of British Studies 40 (2001):522-556. Print.

Blake, Susan L. “What ‘Race’ Is the Sheik? Rereading a Desert Romance.” In Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Bland, Lucy. “White Women and Men of Colour: Miscegenation Fears in Britain after the Great War”. Gender & History 17 (2005):29-61. Print.

Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Print.

Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still. London: Macmillan 1994. Print.

Caton, Stephen C. “The Sheik: Instabilities of Race and Gender in Transatlantic Popular Culture of the Early 1920s.” In Noble Dreams Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930. Ed. Holly Edwards. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Chow, Karen. “Popular Sexual Knowledges and Women’s Agency in 1920s England: Marie Stopes’s ‘Married Love’ and E. M. Hull’s ‘The Sheik’.” Feminist Review 63 (1999):64-87. Print.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1988. Print.

Diamond, Michael. “Lesser Breeds”: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890-1940. London: Anthem Press, 2006. Print.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Edwards, Holly. “A Million and One Nights: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930”. In Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930. Ed. Holly Edwards. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Eisele, John C. “The Wild East: Deconstructing the Language of Genre in the Hollywood Eastern”. Cinema Journal 41 (2002):68-94. Print.

Emsley, Clive. “Violent crime in England in 1919: post-war anxieties and press narratives.” Continuity and Change 23 (2008):173-195. Print.

Foster, Shirley. Across New Worlds: Nineteenth-Century Women Travellers and Their Writings. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990. Print.

Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.

Gargano, Elizabeth. “‘English Sheiks’ and Arab Stereotypes: E.M. Hull, T.E. Lawrence, and the Imperial Masquerade.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 48 (2006): 171-186. Print.

Glyn, Elinor. “Introduction to my American readers”, Three Weeks (1907). Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, #8899, September 2005. Web.

Gualtieri, Sara. “Becoming ‘White’: Race, Religion and the Foundations of Syrian/Lebanese Ethnicity in the United States.” Journal of American Ethnic History 20 (2001):29-58. Print.

Gullace, Nicoletta F. “Sexual Violence and Family Honor: British Propaganda and International Law during the First World War.” American Historical Review 102 (1997):1-33. Print.

Hansen, Miriam. “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship.” Cinema Journal 25 (1986):6-32. Print.

Harem. Dir. William Hale. Highgate Pictures, 1986. Film

Harris, Ruth. “The ‘Child of the Barbarian’: Rape, Race and Nationalism in France during the First World War.” Past and Present 141 (1993):170-206. Print.

Hull, E.M. The Sheik. New York: Buccaneer, 1921. Print.

Hull, Edith Maude. Papers. Reference 7EMH. The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University. Print.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Print.

Kabbani, Rana. Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient. London: Pandora, 1994. Print.

Kent, Susan Kingsley. Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Pantheon, 1993. Print.

Leed, Eric. “Fateful Memories: Industrialized War and Traumatic Neuroses.” Journal of Contemporary History 35 (2000):85-100. Print.

Leider, Emily. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. Print.

Levine, Philippa. “‘Walking the Streets in a Way No Decent Woman Should’: Women Police in World War I.” Journal of Modern History 66 (1994):34-78. Print.

Light, Alison. Forever England: Femininity, Literature, and Conservatism Between the Wars: London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Little, Douglas.. American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Print.

Lindsey, Joanna. Captive Bride. New York: Avon Books, 1977. Print.

Melman, Billie. Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988. Print.

Michalak, Laurence. Cruel and Unusual: Negative Images of Arabs in American Popular Culture, 3rd ed. Washington DC: American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee, 1988. Print.

Mills, Sara. Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Mitchell, Timothy. Colonizing Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.

Mosse, George L. “Shell-Shock as a Social Disease.” Journal of Contemporary History 35 (2000):101-108. Print.

Nelson, Elizabeth. “Victims of War: The First World War, Returned Soldiers, and Understandings of Domestic Violence in Australia.” Journal of Women’s History 19 (2007):83-106. Print.

Nye, Robert A. “Western Masculinities in War and Peace.” American Historical Review 112 (2007):417-438. Print.

Paxton, Nancy L. Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 1999. Print.

Perry, Adele. “‘Fair ones of a purer caste’: White women and colonialism in nineteenth-century British Columbia.” Feminist Studies 23 (1997):501-524. Print.

Raub, Patricia. “Issues of Passion and Power in E.M. Hull’s The Sheik.” Women’s Studies 21 (1992):119-128. Print.

Reardon, Patrick T. “The Mystery of Sheik Romance Novels.” Chicago Tribune. 24 Apr., 2006. Print.

Rose, Sonya. Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Sahara. Dir. Andrew V. McLaglen. Cabal, 1983. Film.

Sharoni, Simona. Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995. Print.

Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.

Shohat, Ella. “Gender and Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema.” In Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. Ed. Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997. Print.

Small, Bertrice. The Kadin. New York: Avon Books, 1978. Print.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

Studlar, Gaylyn. “‘The Perfect Lover’? Valentino and ethnic masculinity in the 1920s.” In The Silent Cinema Reader. Ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Tabili, Laura. ‘We Ask for British Justice’: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1994. Print.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. “Romancing the Raj: Interracial Relations in Anglo-Indian Romance Novels.History of Intellectual Culture 4.1 (2004): Web.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. “Exotic Excursions: British Women’s Travel Writing, 1890-1939.” Diss. University of Sydney, 1998. Print.

The Sheik. Dir. George Melford. Famous Players-Lasky, 1921. Film.

The Sheik.Pictureplay. January 1922. Silents Are Golden. Web.

Thébaud, Françoise. “The Great War and the Triumph of Sexual Division.” A History of Women in the West. Vol. 5. Ed. Françoise Thébaud. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1994. Print.

Ward, Paul. “‘Women of Britain Say Go’: Women’s Patriotism in the First World War.” Twentieth Century British History 12 (2001):23-45. Print.

Webster, Wendy. Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Whitaker, Brian. “Those Sexy Arabs.” The The Guardian, 23 March 2006. Web.

Woollacott, Angela. “‘Khaki Fever’ and Its Control: Gender, Class, Age and Sexual Morality on the British Homefront in the First World War.” Journal of Contemporary History 29 (1994):325-347. Print.

[1] This essay assumes that “the Orient” is a Western discursive construct rather than existing geopolitical reality but, for ease of reading, will omit scare quotes from the terms “Orient” or “Oriental” in subsequent references.

[2] For example, Lady Jane Digby and Margaret Fountaine.

[3] Women over thirty were given the vote in 1918. It would be another decade before they were enfranchised on the same terms as men.


“There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre” by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer

Modern romance novels written in English have a pedigree which stretches back to the eighteenth century:

Harlequins can be traced back through the work of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen to the sentimental novel and ultimately […] to the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela is considered by many scholars to be the first British novel (it was also the first English novel printed in America). (Modleski 15)[1]

Defined as novels in which “The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” (RWA) and which conclude with “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA), romances constitute a genre which, despite being “so stable in its form” (Regis 207), has not remained unchanged: “Although the base plot […] remains constant, themes vary from decade to decade and author to author” (Dixon 8). With regard to the portrayal of sexuality in the genre, however, it has been suggested that although many modern romances “portray human sexuality more explicitly than in the past, […] assumptions about male sexuality […] have not altered as much as one might expect from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to one of last month’s Harlequin Romances” (Mussell 4). It has also been argued that “the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types — the sweet romance and the erotic romance — with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities” (Thurston 7). We have examined primary texts in English which span more than two centuries, and which include both “sweet” and more explicit romances, in order to explore some of the continuities and variations that exist in the interactions between the bodies of the “individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.”

Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock’s “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology” provides a framework within which many of the existing analyses of the physical appearances, social statuses, and sexual behaviours of the characters in romance novels can be pieced together to reveal differing models of romantic relationships. Scheper-Hughes and Lock’s essay, which draws on Michel Foucault’s theories about the body, can be summarised thus:

The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective […]. While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. (Kramer)

This tripartite approach to understanding the human body can usefully be applied to the protagonists of romance novels. We can think of them as individuals with physical bodies (the individual body), as representations of cultural identities (the social body), and as characters existing in a particular political context (the political body). Each character’s three bodies can be conceptualised and analysed separately, but they exist simultaneously and therefore, as we shall see, a description of a character’s appearance in the least sexually explicit of romances may nonetheless intimate much about the sexuality of his or her social body.

Since each protagonist has three bodies, there are six bodies in a monogamous romantic relationship. Although we will discuss all six bodies, our discussion will centre around some socio-sexual aspects of the social bodies and a few socio-political elements of the political bodies. We focus in particular on one configuration of the six bodies which is both extremely common in modern romances and has a long history within the genre, and then briefly discuss a few alternative configurations, some of which are relatively recent innovations and others of which have been present in romantic fiction for centuries.

The Individual Body

As humans, we understand that we have a body; our consciousness is embodied in a physical self. This is the individual body, an “expectant canvas of human flesh” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 10). The individual bodies of heroines vary, and one may have “a pair of fine eyes” (Austen, Pride 73) while another has a “lush lower lip and unblemished skin” (Lindsey 65), but “some indication, however slight, of the heroine’s physical attributes has always been an important part of the romantic novel” (Anderson 85). Social beliefs are inscribed on the “expectant canvas” of the body as soon as value judgements are included in the description. A heroine’s appearance, for example, may be compared to particular ideals of feminine beauty and attractiveness:

Was he looking at her nose? ‘Strong’ was the euphemism that people tossed around but Grace knew what she saw in the mirror every morning. Her nose was too big for the perfect oval of her face, too distinctive. Like her height, another ‘advantage’ that she had been encouraged to flaunt rather than conceal. She knew without vanity that she was beautiful, but not in the classical sense of the word. Her features taken piece by piece were far from perfect — apart from her nose, her blue eyes were too widely spaced, her mouth too full — but together with her gleaming cap of midnight-black hair they formed a striking whole. Her beauty was ‘unique’ and in this era of mass-production uniqueness had an inflationary value. (Napier 6)

Ann Barr Snitow has suggested that “There are more descriptions of his [the hero’s] body than of hers [the heroine’s]” (248), and although

The body of the romantic hero may represent an ideal of masculine beauty, […] beauty here is the equivalent of physical strength, and physical strength itself becomes a sign of something more, a definition of authentic virility as a power that is always scarcely contained. (Cook 155)

Descriptions of a hero whose “Iron-hewed strength rippled from every muscle” (Lindsey 47), or whose “gold-blond hair had been cut military short, a style that looked both severe and sexy” (Mallery 19), certainly call attention to his strength (which may be a component of his socio-political body) and to the potent sexuality of his socio-sexual body.

Since sexual desire is such an important part of romantic relationships, it is unsurprising that even in “sweet” romances, or in scenes which involve non-sexual activity, descriptions of the protagonists’ individual bodies are often overlaid by references to their socio-sexual bodies:

Harlequins revitalize daily routines by insisting that a woman combing her hair, a woman reaching up to put a plate on a high shelf (so that her knees show beneath the hem, if only there were a viewer), a woman doing what women do all day, is in a constant state of potential sexuality. (Snitow 249)

Bodies are more than flesh, blood, and bone: the social and political bodies co-exist with, and are written on, the individual body.

The Social Body

The social body can be thought of as the way in which the individual body relates to its cultural context. Descriptions of the protagonists’ clothing and adornments can be particularly helpful in revealing the social body. In Johanna Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, for example, we are told that the hero’s preference for “simple attire said a lot for his character” (274). His avoidance of ostentatious dress reveals his lack of vanity and is a culturally approved masculine behaviour, albeit perhaps a historically anachronistic one for a novel set in the Middle Ages.[2] Clothing may thus assist both in distinguishing between male and female individual bodies and in increasing or decreasing the former’s masculinity and the latter’s femininity, for although “The ‘naturalness’ of gender is constantly invoked, […] masculinity and femininity are disciplines of the body that require work” (King 33). Women, for example, are expected to construct their social bodies through how they dress and adorn themselves. In turn, “Cultural constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19), and women’s fashion has been deemed problematic by many feminists because it can reinforce negative images of women:

Turning woman into an ornamented surface requires an enormous amount of discipline and can cause discomfort, not to mention untold feelings of inadequacy. […] Female styles over the years have also served to confirm myths about woman: as duplicitous, over-sexualised temptress; delicate and weak or narcissistic, frivolous and obsessed with trivialities. (King 36)

Culturally constructed “ideas about men and women, their appropriate behaviors and attributes, and their relations to each other” are called “gender ideologies” (Blackwood 240-41). Despite the fluid nature of gender across cultures, each culture’s ideologies about gender tend to assume that gender is natural, inherent, and determined by a person’s sex at birth. For example, “the social sciences in the postwar period […] posited women as expressive (emotional) and men as instrumental (pragmatic, rational, and cognitive)” (Gutmann 388). Cross-cultural studies have found that

most societies hold consensual ideas — guiding or admonitory images — for conventional masculinity and femininity by which individuals are judged worthy members of one or the other sex […]. Such ideal statuses and their attendant images, or models, often become psychic anchors, or psychological identities, for most individuals, serving as a basis for self-perception. (Gilmore 208)

Masculinity can be defined as “anything men think and do to be men” (Gutmann 386, emphasis added). In many societies, perhaps even all cultures, “there is a constantly recurring notion that real manhood is different from simple anatomical maleness” (Gilmore 208) and that manhood must be earned or achieved in particular ways. After his first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, a rare virginal romance hero tells his heroine that “I gave you my virginity; you gave me my manhood” (Napier 133). Zilbergeld suggests that sexuality is an area in which men feel under particular pressure to earn and demonstrate manhood:

One of the cornerstones of the masculine stereotype in our society is that a man is one who has no doubts, questions, or confusion about sex, and that a real man knows how to have good sex and does so frequently. For a man to ask a question about sex, thereby revealing ignorance, or to express concern, or to admit to a problem is to risk being thought something less than a man. (5)

Manhood, then, is a status which once achieved must be maintained, and it therefore appears to be a status more easily lost by males than womanhood is by females. Jo Beverley’s Cyn Malloren, for example, must frequently fight to maintain his manhood because his individual body constantly calls it into question:

Despite all evidence to the contrary people would persist in seeing him as fragile, even his family who certainly should know better. […] As a boy he’d believed age would toughen his looks, but at twenty-four, a veteran of Quebec and Louisbourg, he was still disgustingly pretty. He had to fight duels with nearly every new officer in the regiment to establish his manhood. (6)

As Gilmore has observed,

femininity seems to be judged differently. It usually involves questions of body ornament or sexual allure, or other essentially cosmetic behaviors that enhance, rather than create, an inherent quality of character […], femininity is more often construed as a biological given that is culturally refined or augmented. (208-09)

Even if she chooses not to augment her femininity but instead performs actions and behaviours associated with masculinity, a heroine may do so without losing her womanhood. In E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, for example, Diana Mayo’s “boyish directness” (6) and the fact that she is “far more at home” (14) in “smart-cut breeches and high brown boots” (13) than in “pretty dresses” (14) are the result of having been “brought up as a boy” (9). Nonetheless, “Diana Mayo, with the clothes and manners of a boy, was really an uncommonly beautiful young woman” (17), and one who at a ball can be found “ten deep in would-be partners” (3). By contrast, cross-dressing heroes are extremely rare, and if a hero acts in ways which are associated with femininity, this will tend to be dealt with circumspectly, so as not to impugn his masculinity. Cyn Malloren may disguise himself as a woman for a time, but he does so to play “knight-errant” (Beverley 25) to a “damsel in distress” (28). He is an experienced soldier, and the reader is aware that beneath the feminine dress he has chosen to wear, his individual body bears witness to his masculine socio-political and socio-sexual bodies: “He had a scar across his chest which it seemed no woman could ignore. It came from a minor wound, a long shallow saber cut, but it looked dramatic” (31). The scar is described in considerable detail while Cyn is dressing in “female garments” (58) for the first time and the reader is again told that women find it irresistible, thus emphasising the masculinity of Cyn’s socio-sexual body: “All the women who had been favored with a glimpse of it had been impelled to touch it, […] some with a finger, some with their mouths” (58). It also provides information about his socio-political body: seeing the scar convinces the heroine that “you really are a soldier” (59). In addition, even in disguise “His jaw was a little too square, his cheeks too lean. He carefully applied rouge to them, and was heartened to realize that for once he looked too masculine” (65). In another romance, analysed by Mary M. Talbot, it is the hero’s choice of profession which poses a threat to his masculinity since

Artists are assumed to be male, but at the same time there is some sort of problem with having an artist as hero. There is a shadow of doubt cast on the gender identity of artists. Being artistic is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. He is made ‘whole’ by the label Anna attaches to him: ‘He’s a portrait painter’. The hero […] is established as artist but reassuringly masculine, meaning heterosexual. (93)

Sexualities of the Social Bodies

Gender ideologies create, and are simultaneously created by, beliefs about human sexuality. There are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about the differences between male and female sexuality (Kane and Schippers). A clergyman in Richardson’s Pamela, for example, attempts to excuse Mr. B.’s abduction and intended rape or seduction of Pamela on the grounds that “’tis what all young Gentlemen will do” (135). These differences, however, may not all have biological causes: “Foucault […], Tiefer […], and others have argued that sexuality is constructed within particular sociocultural contexts and discourses” (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755). Far from being entirely innate,

sexual potential takes its form through a number of social processes, including ideologies of religion or ritual, ethnicity, class, gender, family, and reproduction, as well as the material and social conditions of everyday life. These processes provide the interpretive context for sexual feelings, desires and longings. (Blackwood 237)

Women have long been constructed as sexually “feeble and passive, literally a receptacle for the desires of the male” (King 31). This may explain why so many romance heroines, particularly in older romances, are virgins who are initiated into sexual activity by a romance hero, although thereafter they may enjoy sex immensely. Romance author Doreen Owens Malek argues that the heroine’s virginity is important because

virginity is a gift that can only be given once, and it is ideally bestowed on a woman’s great love. This giving of virginity adds an immeasurable element of drama and power to the story. It changes the heroine, of course, but in romance novels it also changes the hero. (118)

It is significant that Owens Malek only discusses the virginity of female characters. Virginal heroes do exist in the genre, but as acknowledged in a short questionnaire which Mills & Boon appended to Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, “Many heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced.” In Owens Malek’s description of virginity there is no suggestion that the hero might be a virgin whose virginity would be considered a “gift that can only be given once” and would change the heroine. Napier’s virgin hero, Scott Gregory, does, however, use this kind of language:

‘Couldn’t you tell, Grace? Was my gift such a paltry thing? I thought one’s partner could always tell.’ […]

‘What gift? T-tell-what?’ she stammered […]

‘Why, that it was my first time, of course.’ (133)

If we reword the quotation from Talbot which we cited earlier in the essay, so that “artist” is replaced by “male virgin,” we can say that this gender reversal casts

a shadow of doubt […] on the gender identity of [male virgins]. Being [a male virgin] is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. (93)

Grace, in her attempt to reconcile Scott’s claim of virginity with the knowledge that he has “been out with lots of women” (139), eventually asks “Are you homosexual?” (140) but Napier has already defused most of the suspicions about Scott’s sexuality and masculine identity by ensuring that the revelation occurs after Scott has lost his virginity and demonstrated that in all other respects his sexual behaviour is identical to that of a great many other romance heroes. Having literally, as well as emotionally, chased the heroine until she surrendered to him:

His desire […] had proved insatiable. And, although the second and third time they made love it was not with the stunning speed of the first, it was still fiercely, gloriously energetic. […] He made her feel unutterably sexy […]. In short, he was every bit the fantastic lover. (131)

By taking the lead in initiating sex, ensuring that his partner experiences hitherto unknown heights of pleasure, and demonstrating the stamina necessary to repeat the experience several times in one night, Scott has proved that he is indeed a man.

The group of cultural beliefs about masculine sexuality known as the

male sexual drive discourse was identified by Hollway […]. Zilbergeld […] identified the following themes: sex is a male performance; the man is responsible for orchestrating sex; a man always wants and is always ready to have sex; for a man, all physical contact must lead to sex; and birth control is the woman’s responsibility. Similarly, Reinholtz et al. […] included the following in their list of common themes in communication about sexuality: male sexuality as uncontrollable, female responsibility for male sexuality, sex as a force of nature, and men as dominant and women as submissive. These researchers also identified a theme they labeled, “romance,” the cultural notion that when two people “fall in love,” sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755-56)

With the possible exception of ideas surrounding contraception, since modern romance heroes often take responsibility for providing condoms, these beliefs about gendered sexuality frequently appear to underlie the sexual behaviour of characters in the romance genre. However, although “both men and women perceive men’s sexual drives as greater than women’s” (Kane and Schippers 655), there is

a clear and consistent pattern of gender differences in beliefs […] related to sexual power […]. Women are much more likely to see men’s sexual power as greater than their own, while men are much more likely than women to hold the view that women’s sexual power is greater. […] In terms of value judgments regarding power differentials, both men and women are likely to see the other group as too powerful. (Kane and Schippers 655)

In the romance genre, however, perhaps because it often offers “a fantasy of female empowerment” (Phillips 55), the heroine will tend to possess “an unrelenting and absolute power […] over the hero’s mind and body. The conventional line is often literally ‘No other woman had affected him like this before’” (Johnson-Kurek 127). It is possible for a hero to resist the power of the heroine’s allure. He may even seek to deny the possibility of any attraction, as Darcy does when he states that “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen, Pride 59). He cannot, however, resist indefinitely and Darcy eventually confesses to Elizabeth Bennet that “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (221). If she is aware of the attraction the hero feels towards her, a heroine may exult in it:

his mouth, hard and hungry, fell upon hers, dragging over her lips as though to punish her.

But what Jessica tasted was victory. She felt it in the heat he couldn’t disguise, and in the pulsing tension of his frame, and she heard it clear as any declaration when his tongue pushed impatiently for entry.

He wanted her. (Chase 160)

Madeline has a similar response to the evidence of her hero’s desire:

She’d seen the desire that flamed in his eyes when he held her. She’d felt the tremors in his arms and heard the pounding of his heart. A heady sense of feminine power shimmered in her veins. It thrilled her that she could cause such a reaction and made her eager to test her power over him once again. (Lovelace 133)

The Mighty Wang

Each of these heroines has aroused her hero’s Mighty Wang. The term “Mighty Wang” (Wendell and Tan 36) was coined by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan as a humorous way to describe the extremely large and effective sexual organ possessed by many a romance hero. The Mighty Wang (MW) can also be thought of as a symbol of the male sexual drive discourse: it is a penis functioning as a symbol of the ideal masculine socio-sexual body. The term “MW,” as it is used in this paper, will refer not to the individual body’s penis, but to the hero’s socio-sexual body. The appropriation of the name of this particular body-part to refer to the whole of a hero’s socio-sexual body seems particularly apt given that in romances there is frequent “use of the personal pronouns — me, he, him, himself — to signify this body part […]. The seemingly unavoidable use of these pronouns is a […] curious euphemistic practice because it equates the man’s penis with the man himself” (Johnson-Kurek 119). The sentence “She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm” (Castle 172) is an example of this kind of writing: the part seems to become the whole. Conversely, when the reader is told that a hero’s body has “Long, long legs, […] a broad back that went on forever, all golden-skinned and rock-hard” (Lindsey 47), the allusion to another part of the hero that might be long, broad, and hard is not subtle.[3]

When the MW performs acts which are common to the male sexual drive discourse, he is giving a demonstration of the socio-cultural attributes of masculine sexuality. Although Austen is so discreet about these matters that the reader is left to surmise what she or he will about the precise ways in which “the utmost force of passion” (Pride 228) might be expressed physically, many of the more explicit modern romances take the reader into the bedroom to observe the MW in action; it is not uncommon for the hero’s penis to be, if not quite “Two Feet Long, Hard As Steel, And Can Go All Night,” as described in the title of Zilbergeld’s chapter on “The Fantasy Model of Sex,” at least unusually large, hard, and possessed of immense stamina. Although Zilbergeld was writing in 1978, his comment that “Much of the explicitness of recent […] fiction serves only to give more detailed presentations of the same old myths” (53) continues to ring true in relation to the romance genre. The size of Ranulf’s penis, for example, is implied when, prior to his second sexual encounter with Reina he partially reassures her by reminding her that “you have withstood my size once without dying” (Lindsey 177) and Dain fears that his immense organ will damage his virgin wife: “His lust-swollen rod strained furiously against his trousers, a great, monstrous invader that would tear her to pieces” (Chase 223).

The MW exists “in a state of constant hornytoad” (Wendell and Tan 84) and Wendell and Tan have noted its immense stamina:

There is a concept of recovery time that never really affects the romance hero, and thus casts mortal men with normal turgid boners in a shameful light, because immediately after having a great orgasm, real men need at least a half hour before they can think about going another round. (167)

Another of the characteristics of the MW as it appears in more explicit romances is that it can “Elevate sexual intercourse to near heavenly experiences, one orgasm at a time” (Wendell and Tan 84). During Clare’s first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, she experiences “passion without subtlety: a primal, desperate need for union that swept them both into the heart of the storm” (Putney 292). This, however, is merely “a synopsis” (300), and “the unabridged version” (300) which follows is so intensely pleasurable that afterwards Clare murmurs “This could make someone forget about God, for it is hard to imagine that heaven can offer anything more” (301). If the heroine is sexually experienced, she has generally never had sex quite as good as the sex she has with the MW. In Merline Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, Madeline, despite “Having twice been wed, […] was yet a stranger to the feeling that suddenly coursed through her at the sight of this tall, broad-shouldered man” (29-30) and the contrast is even greater once they actually reach the bedroom:

her first lord, as gentle as he’d been with her young innocence, had lacked either the skill or the stamina to hold himself in check. And in his eagerness, her second lord had all but spilled himself afore he got his braies off. But Ian had wrung responses from her she’d never dreamed she was capable of. (226)

In less explicit romances, the description of the MW’s kisses may seem to foreshadow the even greater delights still in store for the heroine. Germaine Greer once sarcastically commented of a Barbara Cartland romance that “when handkissing results in orgasm it is possible that an actual kiss might bring on epilepsy” (178). Cartland did not, of course, write a scene in which handkissing literally resulted in orgasm but she did use hyperbolic language to describe the intensely pleasurable sensations experienced by her heroines while kissing:

his mouth came down on hers […] and it was even more wonderful than she had thought it could be.

She had not imagined a kiss could make her feel as if a streak of sunlight ran through her body, making her pulsatingly alive. (Cartland, Problems 138)

The heroine of Beverly Jenkins’s Josephine experiences similarly intense sensations while being kissed by a MW:

Her whole world seemed to have come alive in response to his kisses. Now she understood how a girl could become overwhelmed and allow a boy to take liberties he shouldn’t. The soaring sensations and rising emotions were so exciting, Jo didn’t want to stop.

They had to, however, and they both knew it. (227)

In Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, the pleasure and power of the MW’s embrace almost render the heroine unconscious:

He had caught her in his arms so fiercely that the breath was almost crushed out of her. His dark face swam before her eyes for an instant, then his mouth was locked to hers, in a kiss so hard that her lips felt bruised. She yielded, carried away half-swooning on the tide of his passion. (277)

Another way in which the sexual potency of the MW may be revealed is via a description of the hero’s sexual history: Richardson’s Mr. B. has an illegitimate child by a woman he seduced; Cartland’s Duc de Savigne has had many liaisons with “women whom he takes up on an impulse and apparently without any consideration for their feelings, discards […] as soon as they bore him” (Love 8); and another hero, prior to meeting his heroine, “took what the wenches threw at him, never doubt it” (Lindsey 223). While multitudes of former sexual partners can serve as a demonstration of the MW’s allure, this can also be expressed via descriptions of women who find the hero attractive but who may not have had direct experience of his sexual prowess. Mr. B., for example, “is admir’d, as I know, by half a dozen Ladies” (Richardson 41) while Adam Morgan is “a young man accustomed to having young ladies jump at his beck and call” (Jenkins 176) who has “never had a young lady throw my interest back in my face” (188). Given the number of willing females available to him, it takes a very special woman to capture the MW’s permanent attention: a woman with a Glittery HooHa.

The Glittery HooHa

Although the term “Glittery HooHa” (GHH) “emerged at the internet discussion board Television Without Pity” (Vivanco) between 2004 and 2006, authors have long been describing heroines as glowing, sparkling and glittering. Pamela has “speaking Eyes” which can “overflow” with tears “without losing any of their Brilliancy!” (Richardson 186) and we learn of Syrilla that

there was something more than mere beauty about her, he thought, which made her different from other women.

It was the fact that she was so intensely alive, and that when she was animated she seemed almost to sparkle as she spoke, while her eyes shone as if they had captured the sunlight. (Cartland, Love 81)

A more recent example of a glittering heroine is Jo Best, whose “dark unblemished skin glowed with health and beauty. She was by far the most radiant young woman he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing” (Jenkins 123).

The GHH is a symbol of the female socio-sexual body and in particular of female sexual allure. Its glitter indicates the desirability of the heroine’s socio-sexual body. When Mr. B. states that Pamela is “so pretty, that go where you will, you will never be free from the Designs of some or other of our Sex” (Richardson 87), he is revealing that he himself has some quite definitely sexual “Designs” upon her GHH. Austen is much more reticent about sexual matters and Darcy has no immoral “Designs” on Elizabeth, but when he notices “the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (Pride 70) and is “forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing” (70), it is evident that despite having initially “looked at her only to criticise” (70), he is unable to deny the growing attraction he feels towards her GHH. As is demonstrated by Pride and Prejudice, there is no need for a heroine to be either the most beautiful woman in the novel, or one whom all men find irresistible. What matters is the special effect her GHH has on the hero:

A woman with a hooha as glittery as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Our Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the Glittery HooHa to snare him forever. […] For yea, no matter how many hoohas he might see, never will there be one as glittery as hers. (Crusie, Stuart, and Rich 237)

The heroine’s GHH is not merely sexually alluring; it is powerful enough to render a MW monogamous. Even while the attraction remains unconsummated and the hero’s physical penis (which is part of his individual body) has not penetrated the “hooha” or vagina (which is part of the heroine’s individual body), it is not uncommon for the hero to realise that his MW is no longer attracted to other women and their less glittery GHHs. Cyn Malloren “found he had difficulty imagining being aroused by any woman other than this one” (Beverley 68). In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the hero sets up a date with a woman who is not the heroine. She kisses him, and “In the old days, that would have set the fires burning. But not tonight” (85). That, and his inability to concentrate on anything except the heroine, enable the woman to reach an accurate diagnosis:

“Poor man,” she sighed. She reached up and kissed his cheek. “I guess we all meet our Waterloo someday. Looks like this is yours.” […] That same thought was only beginning to form in his own mind. He smiled sheepishly. (86)

In romance, then, it is often “the heroine’s task to remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love” (Cohn 30) and her success is made possible by her GHH.

Not all romance heroes need their sexuality to be “remade” in the same way. Some heroes have repressed, rather than hyperactive, MWs. Heyer’s Simon the Coldheart, for example, states that “There is no place for women in my life, and no liking for women in my breast” (16). In this case, the GHH regulates the MW by bringing forth a “new-born passion” (298). In Napier’s Secret Admirer, the hero’s sexuality was affected by his step-mother who, when he “turned fifteen […] decided that it was time I was taught the facts of life … on a practical basis” (154). Sent to a private boarding school by his father as punishment for what was assumed to be the attempted rape of his step-mother, Scott found that his “guilt and revulsion about sex in general was reinforced by the crude boastings in the dorm” (156). After that, he “never felt so strongly attracted to any one […] that I was willing to allow myself to be vulnerable” (158), but the heroine’s GHH changes his attitude towards sex. Whether hyper-sexual and promiscuous, or repressed and underused, the MW is attracted to, and then regulated by, the GHH.

Although the GHH is irresistible to the MW, the MW is also extremely attractive to the GHH. In some cases “The hero’s proximity alone can send the blood pounding through her veins, make her hands tremble, deprive her of speech and reason” (Douglas 26). In Anne Herries’s Captive of the Harem, the heroine expresses this attraction in terms of magic:

The sweetness of that kiss had surprised her, and aroused a longing for something that she did not understand, robbing her of the will to resist him. She had felt as though he cast a magic spell over her by some sorcery — was it this that made so many of the harem women eager for his notice? (99)

The heroine, who is generally unaware of the extent of her GHH’s power over the MW, may initially fear the “magic spell” cast by the MW. Such fears are not unfounded. In Barbara Samuel’s The Love Talker, in which the hero is quite literally a magical being, we are given a description of the full extent of the damage a MW can cause to women whose GHHs are not glittery enough to tame it:

The Love Talker is a fixture of Irish faery lore, a seductive and dangerous being indeed, a conscienceless faery who ravishes the senses of unsuspecting women and leaves them to pine away to their deaths. In all the poems and stories, he is the King of Rakes, a libertine of unholy power. (195)

This reflects the way in which male sexuality is culturally constructed as an active, unemotional, possibly dangerous part of masculine behaviour.

In a romance novel, the sexual desires and activities of a hero and heroine often reveal their growing emotional attachment, but how, when, where, and with whom the protagonists have sex, as well as the ramifications of their sexual activity, can express socio-cultural ideologies about what constitutes “ideal” sexuality.

The Political Body

Sex is not simply an activity engaged in by individual bodies: “Cultures are disciplines that provide codes and social scripts for the domestication of the individual body in conformity to the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). These codes and scripts are often translated into law, making it illegal to go against the cultural definition of normality. One of the most significant differences between the social body and the political body is that while the social body may be subjected to cultural sanctions, such as being socially marginalised, the political body may be disciplined by the state, especially through imprisonment.

Romances, however, generally conclude with the political bodies of the protagonists being rewarded. One of the key narrative elements of a romance is the “betrothal,” a “scene or scenes” in which “the hero asks the heroine to marry him and she accepts; or the heroine asks the hero, and he accepts” (Regis 37).[4] Marriage, or even the promise of marriage, gives both cultural and legal recognition to their relationship and legitimises the joining of their social and political bodies as well as of their individual bodies. In romances the pairing of the hero and heroine’s individual bodies, and of the MW and GHH, is complemented by the pairing of their socio-political bodies, which we shall call the Phallus and the Prism.

The Phallus in Romance

Teresa Ebert has described the romance hero as the personification of the Phallus:

The phallus […] is ideologically disguised as a full, embodied presence. […] Harlequin Romances, for example, are saturated with representations of the male anatomical organ. These representations take the form of tropic substitutions for the penis, as in such descriptions of the hero as “straight and tall, as brown and unbending as the monster trees rearing … behind him,” and “the erect masculine figure astride the horse”; or, more directly, “the thrusting weight of steel-hard thighs and hips.” These images […] reify the penis and thus mystify male power, sensuality, and sexual difference as physical and natural, while concealing the production of the phallus as signifier as well as the construction of male prowess and privilege in signification behind the naturalized penis. (34)

Perhaps the conflation of the Phallus with the penis occurs because while “generally ethnographers have concluded that few men actually equate their manhood with their genitalia, nonetheless many studies indicate that they are a favorite point of reference” (Gutmann 396). Regardless of the cause of the conflation,

The penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused […] with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. (Gallop 97)

In this essay the “Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.

At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero abducts the heroine on another man’s behalf before marrying her himself, and in Napier’s Secret Admirer the hero poses a threat on a business level because he’s “powerful enough to destroy us if he wants to — he’s done it before to other companies” (22). Not infrequently the heroine is wary of the Incomplete Phallus, and rightly so, since he may attempt to use his power and authority to imprison or coerce her. In Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, the hero is convinced that the heroine is nothing more than a GHH to be controlled and has her confined within an isolated castle. In other romances the MW and Incomplete Phallus may work in conjunction, through rape or sexual assault, to assert their dominance over the heroine. This is the case in Richardson’s Pamela, in which the hero attempts to rape the heroine, and in E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, in which the hero succeeds in such attempts.[5] More recent romances do not tend to include rapes of the heroine by the hero, but one can still find “ritual” versions, such as a punishing kiss which serves to demonstrate the social status and/or physical power of the Incomplete Phallus, and the sexual potency of the MW.

The Incomplete Phallus tends to have obtained his power and authority from one or more typically male-dominated cultural areas. He frequently has high social status (e.g. Duke, Sheik), wealth (billionaire, tycoon), or both. With or without wealth, he usually displays fighting skills or at least physical strength (SEAL, warrior, cowboy). In his most obviously patriarchal guise he has the ability to regulate society by enforcing the law (police officer, sheriff), or he may try to perfect society by fighting a corrupt system (outlaw, spy, private detective). There are, of course, other professions open to heroes, but many of them seem to involve power in forms strongly associated with masculinity.

Many Incomplete Phalluses lack emotional connection to others, but this lack can manifest itself in a number of different ways. A hero with a very strong MW and a very Incomplete Phallus may be a rake who spends much of his time engaging in sexual activity, as Dain does in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels:

He lusted for virtually every attractive female he saw. He had a prodigious sexual appetite […]. If he lusted for a whore, he paid her and had her. If he lusted for a respectable female, he found a whore as a substitute, paid her, and had her. (49)

In slightly less extreme cases this type of hero may be a “passionate, romantic figure with a past, perhaps most familiar in Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester” (Mussell 119). Sometimes rakish behaviour is ascribed to a deep emotional pain suffered by the hero:

He had deliberately set out to defy the conventions, to shock decent men and women, to become a by-word for everything that was debauched and immoral.

He had succeeded, but strangely enough it had not eased the hurt which had caused him to behave in such a manner, and the wound within himself had not healed. (Cartland, Love 84)

Although a rake generally acts in response to the demands of his MW, particularly where the heroine is concerned, his Phallic attributes may be considerable. Richardson’s Mr. B., for example, is a landowner, Justice of the Peace, and Member of Parliament and Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan states that “The French Government has no jurisdiction over me. I am not subject to it. I am an independent chief, my own master. I recognise no government. My tribe obey me and only me” (Hull 63).

A second type of Incomplete Phallus may be identified by his devotion to his work (often in one of the typically Phallic professions listed above) and his avoidance of family ties. This type of hero’s Incomplete Phallus tendencies thus take precedence over those of his MW. Often this behaviour too is shown to be an imperfect coping mechanism developed in response to emotional trauma. Napier’s business “piranha” (22), for example, has been “taking over electronics companies, and offering preferential deals to anyone who has business with RedWing” (97) as part of his plan to destroy his father’s company in revenge for the way his mother was treated:

My mother died because she couldn’t afford a life-saving operation. […] She asked him for money and he told her that she had made her bed and now she could lie on it … but he meant die on it. […] my father had no humanity. (97)

He may be an emotionally wounded warrior, like Susan Mallery’s Rafe, whose “‘[…] folks died when I was four. There wasn’t anyone else. I became a ward of the state.’ […] He’d learned to take care of himself and never need anyone” (183). Diana Palmer’s Tony, a “professional soldier” specialising “in counterterrorism” (41), was physically abused by his father, who also “started doing things to my little sister, when she was about eight. […] My mother caught him at it […] She stabbed that knife up to the hilt in his stomach, all the way to the heart. […] I never saw so much blood” (70-71). Then, “When my sister and I went into foster care, it was like the end of the world. Especially when they separated us. […] She killed herself” (57). As he acknowledges, “I’ve got a past that’s going to make it hard for any woman to live with me on a permanent basis” (74). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero is an emotionally damaged, illegitimate, mercenary knight who has

no home, but it was his burning ambition to correct that lack. It was his only goal, yet it was an all-consuming one. It was all he worked toward, hiring out to any man no matter the task, no matter the difficulty, no matter his own feelings in the matter. His ambition did not allow for scruples. (15-16)

This particular ambition, and his authoritarian attitude towards his followers, put him on the brink of transforming into a third type of Incomplete Phallus.

This type manifests the incompleteness of his Phallus by the way in which he assumes his patriarchal authority and family duties. Although he may work hard, be a (phallic) pillar of the community, and a devoted father or brother, he tends to be an authoritarian patriarch who is emotionally flawed in some way. Darcy is an example of this kind of hero, since he has both high social standing and wealth, his father is deceased and he therefore stands in loco parentis to his younger sister, and he is declared by one of his servants to be “the best landlord, and the best master […] that ever lived” (Austen, Pride 270). This patriarch’s flaw, the evidence of his emotional lack, is his pride. Simon the Coldheart embodies, as far as that is possible for a human, the qualities of justice — “If it was a question of judgment or arbitration men found Simon relentlessly, mercilessly just” (Heyer 19) — and of omniscience:

‘[…] God alone knows what will come to this poor land!’

‘Nay, not God alone,’ the secretary said. ‘My lord knows also.’ (97)[6]

God-like in his own domain, Simon is omnipotent and one might say he “Suffer[s] the little children to come unto” (Mark 10:14) him because he “dost love children” (Heyer 114). In general, however, he seems incapable of feeling warmer emotions: “something he seemed to lack, for with all his assets and attainments, he was cold as stone, almost as though some humanising part of him had been left out in his fashioning” (130).

The Prism

The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism. The word appears in the rakish Marquis of Vidal’s mocking designation of Mary Challoner as “Miss Prunes and Prisms” (Heyer, Devil’s Cub 49), a phrase which characterises her as prim and disapproving. The term “Prism,” as used in this essay, also draws on Jayne Castle’s Orchid, set in a futuristic society in which many individuals are “talents” but only a few, including the heroine, are “prisms”:

talents […] possessed a specific type of paranormal power that could be actively used. […] The psychic energy that talents produced endowed them with a sixth sense. But unlike the other five senses, it could not be accessed except in brief, unpredictable, erratic bursts without the aid of a prism. […] In them, paranormal energy took a different form. Prisms possessed the ability to focus the powers of a talent for an extended length of time. (3)

Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.

The Prism embodies the Mother aspect of femininity and the Incomplete Prism’s motherliness tends to manifest itself in differing combinations of two different qualities. The first is nurturing tenderness, and the second is feistiness, which may also be thought of as an incomplete version of maternal authority and

the lioness aspect of the female personality […]. It’s acceptable for a woman, socially, to be outspoken and rude when defending her children — everyone knows not to get between a mother bear and her cub. (Wendell and Tan 59)

With the decline in the number of virgin heroines there may have been an increase in the proportion of heroines who are biological mothers, but childless heroines have long been given opportunities to display the nurturing aspect of their Prisms. Such heroines may often be found caring for children, either due to their jobs or because they have responsibility for younger siblings or abandoned infants. Slightly less blatant demonstrations of the Prism’s nurturing motherliness include expressions of love and care for animals or vulnerable friends. As Wendell and Tan declare in their humorous “ten commandments of heroine conduct” (36):

Thou shalt have a nurturing streak larger and warmer than the South China Sea. Thy desire for children shall be unquestioned […]. And shouldst thou choose to remain child-free, thou freak of nature, verily thou shouldst display your nurturing streak with animals. (36)

Elizabeth Bennet’s mother is so incompetent a parent that Elizabeth attempts to provide her sisters with both maternal care and authoritative maternal guidance. When her older sister Jane is “very unwell” (78), it is Elizabeth, not their mother, who feels “really anxious” (Austen, Pride 78) and tends to her during the illness. Furthermore, “Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavour to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement?” (241). In Cartland’s The Problems of Love, the heroine has taken on the role of mother: “I now have the family to look after, because my mother died five years ago” (11). On this heroine’s wedding day it also becomes apparent that in some respects she resembles the hero’s mother: “I was thinking in Church today when we were married that you were like the lilies that were arranged on the altar. I have never felt that about any other woman with the exception of my mother” (145). In some romances, the heroine may express motherly feelings towards the hero. Mary, the heroine of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, recognises that

it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake.

‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’ (110)

Similarly Jessica sees “the lonely little boy in” Dain (Chase 269), and understands that he needs “love […] he needed it far more than many, because, apparently, he hadn’t had so much as a whiff of it since he was a babe” (269). In some romances this motherly nurturance may take a very literal form: Sarah S. G. Frantz has written of one romance hero that his

desire to suckle (to be suckled) at his wife’s breast, when read against his whole character, can be read as the desire to return to the mother’s nourishment that he never received as a child, as his need for his lover to embody his mother and his mother to be his lover. (25)

Gentle maternal qualities are not the only traits demonstrated by Prisms, for as the Rev. Mr. Villars instructs Evelina, “Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men” (Burney 242). The Prism’s feisty “fortitude and firmness” may be displayed on behalf of others, as when Elizabeth Bennet angrily rejects a marriage proposal from Darcy, “who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister” (Austen, Pride 222), or in self-defence, often against either an untamed MW or an Incomplete Phallus. Pamela, for example, although only a servant, constantly expresses her resistance to her master’s designs upon her virtue:

when you forget what belongs to Decency in your Actions, and when Words are all that are left me, to shew my Resentment of such Actions, I will not promise to forbear the strongest Expressions that my distressed Mind shall suggest to me; nor shall your angriest Frowns deter me. (Richardson 211)

In Devil’s Cub, Mary goes so far as to shoot and injure Dominic when his untamed MW is about to rape her (Heyer 102).

In the end, displays of feisty strength in the heroine tend to bring forth positive characteristics in the hero, but as Incomplete Prisms differ in their type of feistiness and Incomplete Phalluses vary in the qualities they lack, each heroine will bring out slightly different personality traits in her hero: Pamela’s feistiness is focused on preserving her virtue, and she therefore stimulates her hero’s piety; Elizabeth Bennet’s blunt honesty about Darcy’s arrogance inspires him to become more self-aware and kind; Margaret “stole what men thought was not there to steal. Thy cold heart” (Heyer, Simon 300) and so teaches Simon to love; and Josephine is “a beautiful, headstrong woman” (Jenkins 100), and so the “man who marries you will have to have patience, a strong mind and an even stronger wit” (100).

Completing the Phallus

The Incomplete Prism’s feistiness poses a challenge to the Incomplete Phallus’s authority and its nurturance gentles him, bringing into focus his softer qualities. Many romances conclude with the hero “endowed with maternal qualities; he is not simply the phallus but also the maternal phallus: the ideal mother and father” (Treacher 80). However, since the Father also has nurturing qualities it should not be assumed that a Completed Phallus is an androgynous parental figure. The transformed hero is “the ideal male, who is masculine and strong yet nurturant too” (Radway 97). In becoming a Completed Phallus the hero suffers no loss of his culturally ascribed masculinity: he will still tend to exert control and power over others, but he is more likely to take the heroine’s views into account, and protectiveness will take the place of jealousy and aggression. Johanna Lindsey’s Ranulf, for example, becomes the Lord of Clydon and his military prowess ensures the safety of Reina, her lands, and dependants. The Completed Phallus’s Prism-inspired paternal care for the wider community may also be expressed politically. As the Marquis of Osminton declares:

I had never expected a woman to think seriously as you do on social and political questions, which have always been left to men. […] It will help and inspire me to make a greater effort in that direction than I have done in the past. (Cartland, Problems 144)

If he couldn’t before, he will now be able to express his feelings and often becomes an emotionally involved father. In Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, for example, Dain could initially only think of his illegitimate son as an “unspeakable thing” (293) which “was as foul inwardly as it was hideous outwardly, […] there was not a scrap of good it could have inherited from its depraved monster of a sire” (293-94). Dain’s own self-loathing has clearly affected his perception of the child who looks so much like him, but Jessica forces him into a situation in which he cannot help but realise that his son is indeed “just like his father, he needed someone […] to accept him” (340). Jessica’s conviction that Dain is not “a monster, impossible to love” (339) alters Dain’s perception of both himself and his son, and enables him to accept love for himself and show it to his child. In much less traumatic circumstances the Marquis of Osminton, too, is reconciled to the idea of fatherhood and confesses that

Once, before I knew you, […] I thought that children might disturb my well-organised life and perhaps be destructive, but now, because I love you, my darling, I can think of nothing more wonderful than to see you holding my son in your arms. (Cartland, Problems 146)

If he had feelings of loneliness or uncertainty about his role in life, these will be resolved by the Incomplete Prism. Barbara Samuel’s Galen is a faery cursed “to wander between the mortal and faerie realms, never to cross to either,” and so experiences a “loneliness so vast ‘twould make stones cry” (Samuel 199). His suffering lasts for 285 years, until he meets Moira who feels the allure of his MW, but is able to resist it in order to break the curse. As a heroine with a strong Incomplete Prism, she “wanted to protect him, protect him from the despair she’d glimpsed on his face […], protect him from having to return to the lost world of his exile” (247). Clare Morgan may not have to break a faery curse, but she is “the one Marta foresaw […] who would heal her Nikki’s heart” (Putney 346). It is thanks to Clare that “Nicholas Davies, the Gypsy Earl of Aberdare” (12), a man who says he doesn’t “give a damn about anyone or anything” (17), becomes involved in his local community, is reconciled with an estranged best friend, finds himself emotionally “free” (377) from his dead wife’s betrayal and his deceased grandfather’s hatred, and “can believe in my childhood again” (376).

The final transformation of the Incomplete Phallus may take place in a dramatic, emotionally charged scene. In Susan Mallery’s The Sheikh & the Virgin Princess, Rafe is an emotionally-wounded warrior hero who has power and status but is clearly an Incomplete Phallus because he has no desire to become the head of a stable family unit: “Rafe had told her that she was a marriage-and-kids kind of woman and that he wasn’t a marriage-and-kids kind of guy” (158). Zara intuits the reason behind this stance: “she knew. She read it in the pain in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders. After a lifetime of people turning away from him, he wasn’t about to trust her with something as fragile as his heart. Not before he knew that she would be willing to stay forever” (247-48). By demonstrating that she is indeed “willing to stay forever,” the Incomplete Prism transforms Rafe into a Completed Phallus:

The thick, angry barrier around his heart shattered and blew away. […] He knew then that he had to believe her or lose her forever. That he was nothing without her. That he had finally found a safe place to belong.

“I love you,” he told her. […] “[…] I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please do me the honor of marrying me.” (248-49)

In a way that parallels the GHH’s regulation of the MW, the Incomplete Prism completes the Phallus, making him a happier, better man than he was without her: “till within these few Days, I knew not what it was to be happy. […] I hope, from her good Example, […] in time, to be half as good as my Tutoress” (Richardson 308).

Completing the Prism

As with Incomplete Phalluses, there is variation in what is lacking in Incomplete Prisms. Some extremely feisty Incomplete Prisms are described as having a boyish appearance or behaving mannishly. Diana Mayo, for example, “looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy” (Hull 2). It is said of Lady Margaret that she “fights at the head of her men” (Heyer, Simon 135) and when she “don[s] boy’s raiment” (196) in an attempt to escape from Simon she looks like “a slim stripling” (198) and declares “In man’s clothes I stand, and a man will I be” (216). Feistiness taken to the point of mannishness is depicted in these two novels as a characteristic of which the heroine must be broken, at least insofar as she relates to the hero, so that she can become a Completed Prism. Diana Mayo’s sheik adopts particularly violent methods:

with a greater arrogance and a determination stronger than her own Ahmed Ben Hassan had tamed her as he tamed the magnificent horses that he rode. He had been brutal and merciless, using no half measures, forcing her to obedience by sheer strength of will and compelling a complete submission. (Hull 226-27)

She comes to think of him as “A man of men. Monseigneur! Monseigneur! Mon maître et seigneur” (245) and Lady Margaret murmurs “Stern, merciless conqueror! Simon, mon maître et mon seigneur!” (Heyer, Simon 299).

Another way in which heroines may demonstrate their feisty nature is by engaging in “Too Stupid To Live” (TSTL) behaviour. This type of behaviour was “first recognized […] at romance supersite All About Romance” (Wendell and Tan 31) but AAR’s Laurie Gold has clarified that the term

tstl, or too-stupid-to-live […] actually came from a very well-known author who wrote me about it in 1997 and asked to remain anonymous. A tstl heroine does things like going […] where specifically told not to by the hero and ends up endangering both with her foolishness.

In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the heroine knows that “some crazy person is trying to kill me” (48), and she has been told that her apartment “is a death trap […]. […] Easy entrance and exit right outside the door, no dead bolts, a perfect line-of-sight aim for anybody with a high-powered rifle with a scope” (48). Her safety can only be assured if she moves in with Tony, whose professional skills will enable him to act as her bodyguard. She does so, but after an argument with him she decides to prove to him that she “wasn’t a doormat. No way was she staying in here to listen to him cavorting with his girlfriend! No way!” (82). Unfortunately, and rather predictably, the hit man “was watching and followed her home” (93). Tony only just arrives in time to save her. TSTL behaviour on the part of the heroine thus gives the hero an opportunity to display his manly prowess, and may demonstrate the extent to which the heroine needs the protection of a Phallus.

Removed from the context of TSTL behaviour, and described in terms which are more flattering to the heroine, this protection could be thought of as a benefit which accrues to the heroine once she has taken indirect control of his Phallus: “his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command” (Phillips 58). Once the heroine of Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart marries Ranulf, for example, she is safe from attacks by other males intent on usurping her wealth and power. Regardless of whether one views this outcome as evidence of the heroine’s lack or of her triumph, the end result is that the Completed Prism falls under the protection of the Completed Phallus.

Marriage to the Phallus may also enable a Prism to enter the socio-political elite or, “Put more polemically, popular romance tells the story of how the heroine gains access to money — to power — in patriarchal society” (Cohn 3). Millie, a woman who “came from a poor background, and lived on a meager budget” (Palmer 58), marries Tony, who is “rich” (62). In Richardson’s Pamela there is an even more marked elevation in the social status of the heroine: the landowner hero marries “his Mother’s Waiting-maid” (261) and “She was regularly visited by the principal Ladies in the Neighbourhood; who were fond of her Acquaintance” (499). In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet, though not noted for her intelligence in other matters, perceives the material benefits which will accrue to Elizabeth upon her marriage to Darcy: “how rich and how great you will be!” (386). By the end of Devil’s Cub Mary, a commoner, is engaged to the Marquis of Vidal who is “one of the biggest prizes on the matrimonial market” (Heyer 14).

Increased access to money and power may give the Completed Prism greater opportunities for displaying the nurturing aspects of the Prism. After her marriage to the Earl of Aberdare, Clare may have had to give up

being a full-time teacher, but […] now that she had Nicholas’s deep purse to plunder, she was able to help people on a broader scale. There were no more hungry children in Penreith, and the valley was becoming the prosperous, happy place she had dreamed of. (Putney 379-80)

Similarly, whereas Richardson’s Pamela as an Incomplete Prism, having received a charitable gift, exclaimed “O how amiable a Thing is doing good! — It is all I envy great Folks for!” (18), once she has been transformed by marriage into a Completed Prism she is able to reward her new servants, take Mr. B.’s illegitimate child into their home, and display “a diffusive Charity to all worthy Objects within the Compass of their Knowledge” (499).

The conclusion of Richardson’s novel also reveals that Pamela “made her beloved Spouse happy in a numerous and hopeful Progeny” (499), and in the epilogue to Thunder and Roses we learn that Clare “was almost sure that the next Gypsy Earl was on the way” (Putney 380). Dain and Jessica require no such epilogue for although they have only “been wed five weeks” by the end of Lord of Scoundrels, “It is easy enough to calculate. One fertile marchioness plus one virile marquess equals a brat” (Chase 373). Given the increase in recent decades of premarital sex in romances, it is now not uncommon for the virility of heroes and the fertility of heroines to be demonstrated long before either their wedding or the end of the novel. The heroine of His Lady’s Ransom, for example, falls pregnant after one night of “wild, prolonged and very thorough couplings” (Lovelace 273) with the hero; they marry a few months later, and in the final chapter their baby lies “in a basket on the table, gurgling” (353). Regardless of the method by which romance authors impart the information, it is common for them to provide evidence that the Completed Phallus and Prism, secure in their domestic bliss, have produced, or will produce, a suitable number of offspring.

The Alchemical Model of Relationships

In the model of romantic relationships outlined above, the processes of transformation are complex and involve the protagonists’ individual bodies, a GHH and MW, and an Incomplete Phallus and Incomplete Prism. Frantz suggests that a heroine who gives her breast milk to a supplicant hero is “appropriating patriarchal power for herself, but she is also then generous enough to return some to the hero, who continues to embody patriarchal power” (27). In such scenes, the individual bodies of the protagonists perform actions which can be read as symbolising the changes that are occurring to their socio-political bodies: the Incomplete Prism becomes a Completed Prism through her relationship with the Incomplete Phallus, and does so in a way which renders him Completed too. The GHH tends to be the catalyst for the transformation, because by ensuring that the MW desires union with this particular GHH, the hero’s Incomplete Phallus is brought into contact with the heroine’s Incomplete Prism. The Incomplete Prism then transmutes the glitter of sexual attraction into the gold of a socially sanctioned relationship between a Completed Prism and Completed Phallus. This, then, may be termed the alchemical model of relationships and it has been summarised by Mr. B., who admits to Pamela that “after having been long tost by the boisterous Winds of a more culpable Passion, I have now conquer’d it, and am not so much the Victim of your Love, all charming as you are, as of your Virtue” (Richardson 341); or, put more succinctly, “her Person made me her Lover; but her Mind made her my Wife” (474). Here “your Love” and “her Person” seem to refer to what we might term the heroine’s GHH, whereas her “Virtue” and her “Mind” are aspects of her Prism.

It is only because the heroine possesses both a particularly glittery GHH and an Incomplete Prism that she is able to have a transformative effect on both the MW and the Incomplete Phallus; as Janice A. Radway observed with regard to Alaina McGaren, the heroine of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, “It is […] the combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or of admitting dependence” (127). A GHH unaccompanied by an Incomplete Prism will be unable to effect the transformation of the Incomplete Phallus, as is demonstrated in Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man in which, as the heroine is aware, the hero has frequently found other women sexually attractive and “the brassier they are, the better you like them” (50). These women, however, appear to have lacked Incomplete Prisms, for as the hero explains:

“Those glittery women are fine for a good time. You don’t plan a future around them.”

He was insinuating that they were fine for a one-night stand. (60)

The brassy glitter of these promiscuous women is very different from the special glitter of the heroine, who is “illuminated” (59) and displays a special “radiance” (59) when in the presence of the hero. Her GHH is so closely associated with her Incomplete Prism that, like Mr. B.’s Pamela, she “would never go to bed with a man she hadn’t married” (58), and both novels conclude with the hero and heroine safely united in matrimony. Cartland’s Syrilla also has a glitter which is quite clearly inextricable from her Prism: “she had a radiance in her face that was not of this world” (Love 87), and since for the hero she “brought back dreams […] of a woman who could be innocent and pure and inspire a man spiritually as well as physically” (152), she may serve as a reminder to the reader that where some heroines are concerned, marriage is definitely Holy Matrimony.

The initial fear that many heroes experience in response to their overwhelming desire for the heroine can therefore be understood not solely in sexual terms (as a fear of a monogamy caused by a desire so strong and so specific for the GHH that the MW can barely feel attraction towards any other woman), but also as a fear of the gentling which will occur as his Incomplete Phallus is focused by the Incomplete Prism. The way in which the heroine’s GHH binds the hero to her, enabling the Incomplete Prism and Incomplete Phallus to act on each other and become Completed, has been described by Cook as

a bargain: his love for her sex. […] He finds pleasure in the confession of love because love is something he has learned to deny and fear, often as the result of a terrible experience in earlier life. She finds pleasure in the confession of sex because she can give freely to the hero what he has brought about in her and not fear the ruin of her identity. The formula of the bargain creates a kind of symmetry, a pretence of equality. The father of desire meets the mother of love and they exchange gifts. Each makes the other complete in a fantasy of total union.

But the bargain is also, on the heroine’s part, about attaching desire to social convention, to propriety, to marriage. It is part of her traditional role that she should represent virtue. […] Her function is to […] reassure us that, in the end, desire and the law are compatible. (157)[7]

There can be no better representative of the “traditional role” than Pamela, whose would-be seducer is so thoroughly reformed by his interactions with her Prism that he becomes “the best and fondest of Husbands; and, after her Example, became remarkable for Piety, Virtue, and all the Social Duties of a Man and a Christian” (Richardson 499).

Some Alternative Models

Although the alchemical model of relationships, in which a GHH regulates a MW, an Incomplete Prism focusses an Incomplete Phallus, and an Incomplete Phallus completes an Incomplete Prism, has been present in the genre for centuries, there are alternative models of how the six bodies of romance protagonists can interact, some of which also have a very long literary history. It would be impossible to offer a comprehensive survey of all of these models in the space available, and this section therefore provides only a very brief overview of just a few of the alternative models to be found within the genre.

One of these alternative models offers the reader a hero who, at the start of the novel, already embodies masculine perfection. His MW needs no regulation and almost all he requires in order to become a Completed Phallus is a wife. Marriage is necessary in order to comply with the demands of heteronormativity: as Fulk tells the young Simon, “a man must take a wife unto himself” (Heyer, Simon 115), or, as Austen somewhat satirically observes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride 51). Among these near-perfect heroes are Frances Burney’s Lord Orville, who is depicted “as a fully formed paragon of male manners from his first appearance” (Hamilton 429), and Austen’s Mr. Knightley. A more recent example may be found in Heyer’s The Nonesuch. Sir Waldo Hawkridge, the novel’s hero, is known by this nickname which

means perfection! […]

‘A paragon, certainly.’ […]

‘[…] they say the Nonesuch is a clipping rider to hounds too. […]’ […]

‘Sir Waldo is first in consequence with the ton, and of the first style of elegance, besides being very handsome, and hugely wealthy!’ (20)

Sir Waldo, who “commanded as much liking as admiration” (169), is also a philanthropist and a responsible and caring role model to his younger cousin. This kind of hero is “the more conventional, sensitive, mature and competent husband-lover” who “has great strength and stability and seems particularly solid and trustworthy” (Mussell 119-20). He can be found in the novels of Betty Neels, which jay Dixon recalls reading “to fill my need for a knowledgeable and calm father-figure” (35). As Mussell observes, such heroes

appeal […] because of their implicit stability, their self-knowledge, and the status they can confer through marriage. If this figure seems more mature and sensitive than other men, and more attractive and intelligent, he offers an assurance of sexual fidelity because he knows his own mind in choosing the heroine. […] His strength and power derive from self-assurance, self-control, and uncompromising moral principles. (124)

Since his MW is already perfectly regulated, and he already manifests the full range of qualities required to be a Completed Phallus, the heroine’s GHH and Prism function solely to attract him and assure him of her suitability, but there is no need for them to effect a major transformation of his personality. She, however, may be taught by him, as is the case in Austen’s Emma, or enjoy the benefits which, as described above, generally accrue to a Completed Prism. In The Nonesuch, for example, Ancilla Trent is saved from life as a governess and restored to the social circle from which her father’s death had distanced her. In addition, Sir Waldo’s philanthropy will give her ample opportunity to manifest the charitable, caring aspects of the Completed Prism, particularly as his “mother […] will welcome you with open arms, and will very likely egg you on to bully me into starting an asylum for female orphans” (275).

Many modern “inspirational” romances feature an explicitly Christian version of this near-perfect type of hero. His possession of a MW may be implied via descriptions of his individual body: “The heroes’ physical stature and good looks reinforce their virility and attractiveness to heroines” (Neal 149). In Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, for example, Samuel Hart is “broad-shouldered” (13) and although “It was inappropriate that she should notice his well-defined cheekbones or his recently shaved, firm, square chin, […] she had. Even his deep, rich voice arrested her attention” (15). The use of the word “inappropriate” suggests that Josie, the heroine, is not merely cataloguing the features of Samuel’s individual body: despite his status as “a widower, a father and a preacher” (109) he has “a fluid agility and masculine grace” (109) — in other words a MW — which “she couldn’t help but appreciate” (109). That the ideal Christian romance hero’s MW is pre-regulated and incapable of succumbing to uncontrollable lust is made very clear in the guidelines provided by some publishers. In Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired romances, for example, “Any physical interactions (i.e., kissing, hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality” (eHarlequin). Similarly, the guidelines for Barbour Publishing’s Heartsong Presents stipulate that:

Physical tension between characters should not be overdone. Do not be overly descriptive when describing how characters feel in a particular romantic moment, for example, kissing, embracing, and so on. It has been our belief from day one that we can tell a great love story without going into excessive physical detail. People can easily imagine the desires and tensions between a couple who are blossoming into love. Kisses are fine (no tongues or heights of arousal, please).

One consequence of the sexual restraint demonstrated by this near-perfect Christian romance hero is that he poses a challenge to some aspects of the “male sexual drive discourse” so often present in the mainstream romance genre’s depiction of heroes’ socio-sexual bodies. In addition to having a well-regulated MW he

retains all the rugged individualism, toughness, and power of secular heroes but combines this traditional masculinity with gentleness, patience, and attention to female needs, from snuggling to child-rearing. (Barrett-Fox 97)

He, like the near-perfect secular hero, is thus in possession of a Phallus which can become fully Completed without the need for major personality changes. However, despite the strong similarities between the near-perfect Christian hero and his secular counterpart, there is one very significant difference between the processes by which their Phalluses, and the Prisms of their heroines, become Completed: “The transformation that seems ‘magical’ in secular romances is explained by divinely sparked spiritual growth in their evangelical counterparts” (Neal 5).[8] Returning again to Samuel Hart, we find that he has an almost perfect Phallus, “He represented everything that was good and perfect about fathers and husbands” (St. John 157), but he does occasionally make mistakes and “Whenever he overlooked the obvious, whenever he let pride get in the way of what was best, God graciously pointed his foolishness out to him” (209).

The “beta” hero presents a challenge to the gender roles underlying all of the previous models because his Phallus is never Completed: he is never transformed into an authoritative, patriarchal figure. He is “More playful and relaxed,” “More of the ‘boy (or man) next door’ type,” “Considerate of his heroine’s feelings and opinions” and “The sort of man that a reader can actually imagine meeting, falling in love with, marrying — and being able to live with!” (Walker 100). Jayne Ann Krentz scornfully describes him as a “neurotic wimp” and “a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking ‘modern’ man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start” (109). It is indeed true that “you don’t get much of a challenge for a heroine” (109) from such a hero, if that challenge is understood in terms of demonstrating the power of her Prism and GHH. He brings into question the role of the heroine in the alchemical model because he tends not to need her to tame, gentle, domesticate or regulate his bodies.

Although Krentz attributes the beta hero’s appearance in romance to “a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing” (107), he is not a recent invention. Edward Ferrars in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is

too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart […]. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (49)

Like the more recent “beta” heroes, he has been found wanting by some readers:

There is a strong tendency among critics to disparage Edward Ferrars as romantic hero. […] I suspect that Edward’s gender dissonance has stymied even professional readers. […] Edward […] lacks aggression altogether: for the most part he is retiring, he is passive, and he is as backward a lover as ladies are enjoined to be. […] As to society, Edward lacks ambition and the desire to be somebody in the world […]. Against the grain of the affluent gentry’s model for men, but consonantly with the female model, he aspires to nothing higher than a happy domestic life. (Perkins 5-6)

This “beta” hero is favourably contrasted with an “uncommonly handsome” (75) rake, as is also the case in Heyer’s Cotillion, in which she “was teasing her fans […] by making ineffective Freddy the hero rather than handsome Jack Westruther” (Aiken Hodge 91). Jack is “a tall man” (Heyer, Cotillion 110) with “powerful thighs” (110), whereas Freddy is “a slender young gentleman, of average height and graceful carriage” (36), and this smaller, less physically powerful individual body is matched by a less attractive socio-sexual body and a very socially acceptable but non-dominant socio-political body:

He was neither witty nor handsome; his disposition was retiring; and although he might be seen at any social gathering, he never (except by the excellence of his tailoring) drew attention to himself […] he was too inarticulate to pay charming compliments, and had never been known to indulge in the mildest flirtation. But a numerous circle of male acquaintances held him in considerable affection, and with the ladies he was a prime favourite. The most sought-after beauty was pleased to stand up with so graceful a dancer; any lady desirous of redecorating her drawing-room was anxious for his advice. (108-09)

Many “beta” heroes are neither shy nor sexually inexperienced, but as a type the “beta” hero, because of his lack of a Completed Phallus and the fact that he often possesses character traits more often associated with femininity, challenges the way in which particular groups of traits (such as those which are characteristic of the Prism) tend to be assigned only to individuals of one biological sex.

Although the Phallus is firmly associated with masculinity and the Prism with femininity, psychologists have long acknowledged that no individual is exclusively imbued with qualities ascribed to only one gender:

In every human being, Freud […] remarks, “pure masculinity or femininity is not to be found either in a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture.” […] It is now generally accepted […] that masculine and feminine principles are not inherent polarities […]. Still, […] there exists a recurrent cultural tendency to distinguish and to polarize gender roles. (Gilmore 214)

Sexual, social, and political power are expressed in highly gendered ways when the MW and Phallus are strongly associated with heroes and their male individual bodies, while the GHH and Prism are strongly associated with heroines and their female individual bodies.

Elizabeth Bevarly’s Dr Mummy challenges such gender roles, but unlike romances featuring “beta” heroes, it does so by reversing the biological sex of the characters who, by the end of the novel, possess the Prism and Phallus. Perhaps in order to neutralise the threat to the hero’s masculinity which might result from this departure from the usual configuration of the six bodies, the transformation is not revealed until the epilogue, long after the hero’s “appealingly rugged, startlingly handsome […]. And big. Really, really big” (24) individual body has been established as being in conformity with the masculine ideal. The relationship between Nick and Claire’s socio-sexual bodies also conforms to romance conventions: “Nick’s hot, unyielding body before her, and the sense of his overwhelming possession thrilled her in a way that nothing else could” (117). The transformations undergone by their socio-political bodies, however, are anything but conventional. Nick begins the novel as an Incomplete Phallus: law enforcement is a typically Phallic profession and he works as a “narcotics detective” (15). Years before the start of the novel he had wanted to marry Claire and become a Completed Phallus:

He’d wanted them to have a half-dozen kids, just as his folks had done. He’d […] wanted Claire to stay at home with the kids, had wanted to work himself to death to take care of the family financially. […] And Claire just couldn’t see that happening. She hadn’t wanted to give birth to and care for six children — or even one child. She hadn’t wanted to be a homemaker — she’d wanted to be a doctor. (48)

Nick’s dream of having a large family with Claire is achievable, but only by abandoning traditional gender roles. By the end of the novel he has been transformed into a Completed Prism, a homemaking, stay-at-home parent who is “in charge of the bake sale this year” (184) and certain that “the job I have now is so much more important than the one I had before” (185). Claire, initially an Incomplete Phallus who had resisted parenthood, dedicated herself to her highly paid professional job, and who “had always had difficulty revealing any honest emotion” (56), becomes a Completed Phallus as the family’s only wage-earner.

Romances featuring protagonists of the same sex may also offer new dynamics between, and depictions of, their six bodies. Phyllis M. Betz states that in a lesbian romance “The very fact that two women have determined to pursue a passionate relationship contravenes traditional social norms and expectations” (105), and as Paulina Palmer has observed, “By placing characters who identify as lesbian in a heterosexist frame and highlighting the tensions this generates, they alert the reader to the ideological limitations of the romance genre and the social codes which it inscribes” (203). Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park, for example, opens as Lady Joanna Sinclair is walking and daydreaming about romances, and so it is while “half expecting to find Ivanhoe” (2) that she first encounters Lady Diana March and “instead of a knight in shining armor there was a fair damsel […]. She was […] dressed in brown turkish trousers” (2). Lady Diana’s individual body is female, but her socio-political body has traditionally masculine attributes, as indicated by her attire and the comparison with Ivanhoe. Her “excellent birth […], her friends at the highest level of English society, and her vast fortune” (164-65), as well as the role she plays in rescuing Joanna from familial oppression, mark her as the possessor of an Incomplete Phallus. As the more sexually experienced of the two, her socio-sexual body can be thought of as a MW. For her part Joanna, who despite having been married has “never been in the throes of a Grand Passion” (111), has a GHH and as the mother of a young daughter and a woman in need of protection, she is clearly an Incomplete Prism whose love will heal Diana’s emotional wounds. In many respects, then, Pembroke Park tells the traditional story of how a GHH and Incomplete Prism work together to gentle and complete a MW and Incomplete Phallus, but because that MW and Incomplete Phallus belong to a person with a biologically female individual body, Diana “flagrantly sidestep[s] every rule of social decorum!” (4).


Romance novels, because they deal so explicitly with sexuality and men’s and women’s roles within sexual relationships, are cultural agents (primarily for women) for the transmission of gender ideologies. Gender ideologies, in turn, “construct men’s and women’s sexualities” (Blackwood 240). Although we have stressed the degree of continuity that exists in the depiction of the alchemical model of heterosexual romantic relationships, the genre has responded to changes in social attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles. In addition, despite the fact that all romances feature protagonists with three bodies (individual, social, political) there are some romances which offer alternatives to the pairing of a female protagonist’s individual body, GHH, and Prism with a male protagonist’s individual body, MW, and Phallus. Such romances provide alternative “guiding or admonitory images” (Gilmore 208) regarding ideal masculinity or femininity. Due to the diversity that exists within the genre, the many bodies of romance heroes and heroines may be sites of reinforcement of, or of resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. London: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Bevarly, Elizabeth. Dr Mummy. 2000. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2001. Print.Beverley, Jo. My Lady Notorious. 1993. New York: Signet, 2002. Print.

Burney, Frances. Evelina. 1778. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Cartland, Barbara. Love Locked In. London: Pan, 1977. Print.

Cartland, Barbara. The Problems of Love. London: Corgi, 1978. Print.

Castle, Jayne. Orchid. New York: Pocket, 1998. Print.

Chase, Loretta. Lord of Scoundrels. New York: Avon, 1994. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich. Dogs and Goddesses. London: Little Black Dress, 2009. Print.

Herries, Anne. Captive of the Harem. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2002. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Cotillion. 1953. London: Pan, 1966. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Devil’s Cub. 1932. London: Pan, 1969. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Simon the Coldheart. 1925. London: Arrow Books, 2005. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. The Nonesuch. 1962. London: Pan, 1975. Print.

Hull, E. M. The Sheik. 1919. London: Virago, 2002. Print.

Jenkins, Beverly. Josephine. 2003. New York: Kimani, 2009. Print.

Lindsey, Johanna. Defy Not the Heart. New York: Avon, 1989. Print.

Lovelace, Merline. His Lady’s Ransom. 1995. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008. Print.

Mallery, Susan. The Sheikh & the Virgin Princess. 2002. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2003. Print.

Martin, Michelle. Pembroke Park. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad, 1986. Print.

Napier, Susan. Secret Admirer. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1992. Print.

Palmer, Diana. “Silent Night Man.” Married by Christmas. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008. 5-115. Print.

Putney, Mary Jo. Thunder and Roses. New York: Topaz, 1993. Print.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. 1740. Ed. Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Samuel, Barbara. “The Love Talker.” Faery Magic. New York: Zebra (Kensington), 1998. 193-260. Print.

St. John, Cheryl. The Preacher’s Wife. New York: Steeple Hill, 2009. Print.

Secondary Texts

About the Romance Genre.” RWA RWA (Romance Writers of America), 2007. Web. 25 Jan. 2010.

Aiken Hodge, Jane. The Private World of Georgette Heyer. 1984. London: Arrow, 2006. Print.

Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974. Print.

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. “Hope, Faith and Toughness: An Analysis of the Christian Hero.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 93-102. Print.

Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Print.

Blackwood, Evelyn. “Women’s Intimate Friendships and Other Affairs: An Ethnographic Overview.” Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 237-47. Print.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. Print.

Cook, Jon. “Fictional Fathers.” Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction. Ed. Susannah Radstone. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988. 137-64. Print.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999. Print.

Douglas, Ann. “Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman.” The New Republic 183 (30 Aug. 1980): 25-29. Print.

Ebert, Teresa L. “The Romance of Patriarchy: Ideology, Subjectivity, and Postmodern Feminist Cultural Theory.”Cultural Critique 10 (1988): 19-57. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S. G. “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Ed. Lydia Cushman Shurman and Deidre Johnson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 17-36. Print.

Gallop, Jane. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter’s Seduction. London: Macmillan, 1982. Print.

Gilbert Albino, Lucia, Sarah J. Walker, Sherry McKinney, and Jessica L. Snell. “Challenging Discourse Themes Reproducing Gender in Heterosexual Dating: An Analog Study.” Sex Roles 41.9-10 (1999): 753-74. Print.

Gilmore, David D. “The Manhood Puzzle.” Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 207-220. Print. Rpt. Of Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1990. 2-29.

Gold, Laurie. “Frequently Asked Questions.” All About Romance. Web. 5 May 2009

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: Paladin, 1971. Print.

Gutmann, Matthew C. “Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (1997): 385-409. Print.

Hamilton, Patricia L. “Monkey Business: Lord Orville and the Limits of Politeness in Frances Burney’s Evelina.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 19.4 (2007): 415-40. Print.

Heartsong Presents: Guidelines for Authors.” Barbour Publishing. Web. 8 Feb. 2010.

Johnson-Kurek, Rosemary E. “Leading Us into Temptation: The Language of Sex and the Power of Love.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 113-148. Print.

Kane, Emily W. and Mimi Schippers. “Men’s and Women’s Beliefs about Gender and Sexuality.” Gender & Society 10.5 (1996): 650-65. Print.

King, Angela. “The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 5.2 (2004): 29-39. Print.

Klaniczay, Gábor. “Fashionable Beards and Heretic Rags.” The Uses of Supernatural Power: The Transformation of Popular Religion in Medieval and Early-Modern Europe. Trans. Susan Singerman. Ed. Karen Margolis. Cambridge: Polity, 1990. 51-78. Print.

Kramer, Kyra. “The Heroine’s Three Bodies: Jennifer Crusie’s Feminist Reconceptualization of the Heroine’s Body.” Nothing But Good Times Ahead: the Novels of Jennifer Crusie. Ed. Eric M. Selinger and Laura Vivanco. Forthcoming. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. “Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1992. 107-114. Print.

Kuchta, David. “The Making of the Self-Made Man: Class, Clothing, and English Masculinity, 1688-1832.” The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Ed. Victoria de Grazia and Ellen Furlough. Berkeley, CA: U of California P., 1996. 54-78. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984. Print.

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006. Print.

Owens Malek, Doreen. “Loved I Not Honor More: The Virginal Heroine in Romance.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1992. 115-120. Print.

Palmer, Paulina. “Girl Meets Girl: Changing Approaches to the Lesbian Romance.” Fatal Attractions: Rescripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Gina Wisker. London: Pluto, 1998. 189-204. Print.

Perkins, Moreland. Reshaping the Sexes in “Sense and Sensibility.” Charlottesville, Virginia: UP of Virginia, 1998. Print.

Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1992. 53-59. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature.1984. Chapel Hill, PA: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

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

Saunders, Kate. Introduction. The Sheik. By E. M. Hull. London: Virago, 2002. v-xi. Print.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Margaret M. Lock. “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly ns 1.1 (1987): 6-41. Print.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P., 1983. 245-63. Print. Rpt. of Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61.

Talbot, Mary M. Fictions at Work: Language and Social Practice in Fiction. New York: Longman, 1995. Print.

Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. Print.

Treacher, Amal. “What is Life Without My Love: Desire and Romantic Fiction.” Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction. Ed. Susannah Radstone. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988. 73-90. Print.

Vivanco, Laura. “One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in the Modern Romance Genre.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric M. Selinger. Forthcoming. Print.

Walker, Kate. Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. Abergele: Studymates, 2008. Print.

Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Print.

Writing Guidelines: Steeple Hill Love Inspired.” eHarlequin. Harlequin Enterprises. Web. 8 Feb. 2010

Zilbergeld, Bernie. Male Sexuality: A Guide to Sexual Fulfillment. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1978. Print.

[1] For a more detailed analysis of the genre’s history, see Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel.

[2] Simplicity in men’s apparel was not unknown in the medieval period but, “In the Middle Ages, the norms regarding clothes were based on the nearly timeless precept that differentiations in social structure should be recognized by means of dress, hair and beard. However, at the same time – thanks to Christianity – clothes were endowed with a number of moral-symbolic interpretations […] controversy was caused on the one hand by the fashions prevalent at royal and aristocratic courts, and on the other by the symbolic attire of the ascetic religious movements, which opposed in equal measure the opulence of the Church and of the laity” (Klaniczay 52). It is only in much more recent centuries that simple fashions for men have been widely adopted by the aristocracy: “Clothing historians have labeled the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the era of ‘the great masculine renunciation,’ a period of increasing modesty and simplicity in middle- and upper-class men’s dress” (Kuchta 54).

[3] Unusually, this description is given from the point of view of a gay male, Theodric, who also observes the hero’s “tight, exquisitely curved arse” (47).

[4] Regis acknowledges that “In romance novels from the last quarter of the twentieth century marriage is not necessary as long as it is clear that heroine and hero will end up together” (37-38).

[5] Rape may also function, as Kate Saunders has observed in her introduction to The Sheik, as a way to ensure the heroine “is morally off the hook, in an era when female sexual desire on its own was shameful and improper” (vi).

[6] Another indication of his near omniscience is that “No matter how softly one might creep up to him, he always knew of the approach, and needed not to see who it was who drew near” (111).

[7] With regard to the “pretence of equality,” Cohn suggests that “the belief that a fair bargain has been struck between two parties when one offers rank and wealth and the other, moral improvement is the kind of pious wish-fulfillment called on to mask social relations that are far less benign” (140).

[8] Another significant difference between Christian romances and many secular romances is that characters in Christian romances have a fourth, spiritual, body. The existence of a spiritual body is explicitly mentioned in Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, in which the reader is informed that a minor character’s “physical body lay beneath the lush grass in the fenced-in cemetery behind the tiny white church. His spirit had gone on to be with the Lord” (7).


“Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” by Catherine Roach

The “story of romance” is the guiding text offered by contemporary American culture, and more generally the culture of the modern West, on the subject of how women and men (should) relate: find your One True Love—your one-and-only—and live happily ever after.[1] To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites: Disney princess movies consumed by three-year-olds, the wedding industry, Hollywood, pop music lyrics, advertising, popular magazines, the diamond jewelry industry, and more. One of the most important of these sites, where romance is taught, re-told, and—a crucial point—experimented with in new forms, is in the literal “romance story” of mass market genre fiction.

While there are clearly significant differences—among these media forms and certainly among the diversity of the immense romance readership, as well as in the variety of subgenres and plots within the romance publishing field—nonetheless there are significant similarities across these categories as well. The basic plotline of the romance narrative holds true despite subgenre variation, which, as we’ll see in the case of erotica and paranormal, can serve simply to highlight the core genre message. As such, likening readers and novels and considering the phenomenon of romance narrative as a whole allows important insights to emerge. More specifically, in this article, I argue romance novels are so popular partly because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them—work that derives from the mythic or religious nature of the romance narrative that serves to engage readers in a “reparation fantasy” of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women.[2]

Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. Romance novels function as an antidote, as a way of pleasurably working through—in fantasy, in the safe and imaginative play world of fiction—the contradictory position of the heterosexual woman within patriarchal rape culture. This complex work, we will see, involves reconciling women to the limits and threats specifically posed to them as women by the culture, yet also teaching women to refuse to accept such limits and threats as normative and empowering them to expect or demand better for themselves. Furthermore, I argue that the industry subcategories of erotica (including gay/lesbian and “slash” romance) and paranormal—both areas of strong recent growth within the overall genre—offer new and highly effective literary means for women to use romance fiction as a way of working out their position within the culture. Indeed, the mainstream growth of erotica in particular signals important changes in American cultural attitudes towards women’s sexuality and perhaps, finally, a loosening of the patriarchal knot of allowable sexual expression.

This article forms the initial part of an ongoing monograph project on the romance narrative in popular culture, focusing especially on popular romance fiction. I seek to understand how this romance narrative functions and how it is currently changing, both as a genre of popular literature and as a form of human relationship. Unlike some lines of previous academic inquiry into romance fiction, my goal has little to do with either critique or defense of the genre, nor do I aim for close literary reading of individual authors (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). Like Tania Modleski, I seek to read “symptomatically” (2008, xix), not intending by this metaphor for romance fiction to be taken as illness or pathology, but simply as a rich cultural site that yields much insight into critical issues of gender and sexuality in America today. I seek to place romance fiction in the broader context of the romance narrative in popular culture; and to adopt a framework of cultural studies, religious studies, gender studies, and sex-positive feminist theory to ask questions about meaning, fantasy, fear, and desire in how the romance narrative plays out in the realms of both popular and high culture in which this story holds such vast sway.

Love as God: Healing and the Religious Eschatology of the “Happily Ever After”

What fascinates me is how, even with the possibility of new and more open twenty-first century norms for gender equality and sexual experimentation, the romance narrative continues to thrive and endure. The power of the story does not die. In fact, romance sales show new dominance in the market; for example, yearly growth in number of new titles rose from 5,184 in 2003 to 10,497 in 2007 (Romance Writers Report 2009). According to industry research compiled by Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels constitute, by far, the largest segment of fiction publishing, with $1.4 billion in yearly US sales and half of mass market paperbacks sold.[3] We chase romance—even when it is to our detriment—we structure our lives around it, we fashion much of our art and pop culture from it. There is a mythic and even religious nature to this endless quest for love, this search for our “One True Love,” this desire and yearning for happily ever after.

Although the romance narrative finds one of its major contemporary expressions in the publishing industry of popular romance novels, more broadly speaking, the story of romance is perhaps the most powerful narrative at work in popular culture and, since its ascendance in the nineteenth century, may well be the most powerful narrative in art and culture in general (Coontz 2005, Polhemus 1990). By calling romance a “cultural narrative” here, I mean a guiding story that provides coherence and meaning in many people’s lives; a story whose truth value lies in the extent it is held to be true by people who shape their lives around that story, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is in this sense that the romance narrative is mythic or religious: it often functions as a foundational or idealized story about the meaning and purpose of life.[4] According to this story, it is love that gives value and depth to life; our purpose is to find a well-suited life-mate worthy of our love and to love well and be loved by this mate and a circle of family and friends.

Part of my jumping off point here is Robert Polhemus’s powerful study of nineteenth-century British novels of love and romance, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (1990). In his analysis of these novels that stand as high literary precursors to twentieth-century popular romance fiction, his key concept of “erotic faith” provides a reading of the emotional dynamic that the romance narrative then turns into story. Erotic faith, he writes, is “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love” (1). Erotic faith is the belief “that people complete themselves and fulfill their destinies only with another … that in the quest for lasting love and the experience of being in love men and women find their real worth and character” (27). John Keats, for example, in a recent movie dramatization, proclaims, “There is a holiness to the heart’s affection” (Bright Star 2009). Polhemus’s point is that we have faith in love, a reverence for it. Starting in the late eighteenth century with the growth of secularism springing from the Enlightenment, in the art and in the marriages of  western Europe and North America, people increasingly fell in love with the idea of being in love. This faith in love has become a new form of faith, to “augment or substitute for orthodox religious visions” (4), but with such close psychological functionality between the two forms of faith that “religious feeling and eroticism run close together” (10) and “love and theology may be surrogates for each other” (19).

Erotic faith takes on story form in what I’m calling the romance narrative: spun out in prose in the novel, be it the literary high fiction of Pride and Prejudice or the popular mass market fiction of The Sheik and the Vixen; or in advertisements, Hollywood flicks, and pop lyrics; or again as mythic or archetypal template to make sense of one’s own relationship practice. In all cases, the shared and underlying mythic conviction is in the idealizing power of love to make the world, in reality so often harsh and even tragic, a better place. In line with the promise of orthodox religious faith, love offers the promise of redemption and even salvation. In novels, the love plot is the story arc by which characters mature and, the novel teaches, is the means by which real-life people can mature as well. Love leads to compassion, mercy, understanding, and kindness; it tempers pride, harsh judgment, and the violent outbursts of a reflexive defensiveness; it grants the inner peace and self-confidence for the lover to be a stronger and wiser person. In all these ways, erotic faith is the conviction, explored in the ups and downs of the romance narrative—girl and boy meet, fall in love or lust, suffer through internal and external conflicts, break up, get back together, and then live happily ever after—of the healing power of love.

But to go further and flip the equation: while the romance narrative is “religious” in its faith in the healing power of love and in the scope of its mythic quest for love, the central religious narrative of western history is also “romantic.” Christianity, that central religious narrative, is easily read as a love story. In the context of  western culture, wherein the artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific heritage are all strongly shaped by the Christian religious tradition, the narrative core of that tradition is essentially a romance story. The mythic narrative of Christianity follows the pattern of the romance narrative, with a guaranteed happy ending (for well-behaved believers or the “saved”), wherein all works out and you live forever after. “Find your one true love and live happily ever after” is one way to describe the narrative content of Christian theology, of the ideal relationship between the believer and the One True Love of Christ the Son or the Christian Father God, and then the believer’s reward of life everlasting. “Are you the One?” the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, as many a lover has pondered early in the game (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20). “God is love,” asserts a key New Testament passage (1 John 4:8, 16), a theological notion that erotic faith easily flips into its own central dogma that “Love is God.”

This two-directional religious analysis allows us to see both the romance narrative within the Christian religious story, thus highlighting the omnipresence and cultural power of this narrative, as well as the religious aspect of the romance story itself, thus highlighting the mythic work of healing and salvation carried out by this story.  The point I seek to make through this parallel is the deep-rootedness of the cultural belief that there is a resurrection power to love. The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith,  western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.

To make this argument clearer, we need to consider one particular aspect of the romance novel: namely, the ending. In romance, the ending is crucial. Romance novels, as well as the romance narrative more generally, are defined by their “HEA”: the happily-ever-after ending, or what RWA calls the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Web), wherein the protagonists resolve their various internal and external conflicts and commit their lives lovingly to one another. Stereotypically, this ending involves the hero and heroine solving the problems that kept them apart, declaring their mutual love, getting married, and often conceiving or bearing a child. Increasingly in contemporary romances, the protagonists may not marry and reproduce, but still make some sort of deliberate decision to be together, a decision that brings to their lives a sense of fulfillment, joy, and the ongoing promise of hot sex.

This ending is important because it highlights the core fantasy work of the romance narrative: everything will be all right; it will all work out; whatever pain and betrayal and disappointment and loneliness haunts you will end; you will be loved by a most worthy partner despite your flaws: absolutely, devotedly, without fail, never-endingly (“for all eternity, and even beyond” promises Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl [386]). This fantasy is the idealized version of reality that Northrop Frye (1957) sees as the central characteristic of the romance myth.[5] Authors I’ve interviewed talk about the ending as a contract they have with their readers: no matter how wounded are their characters at the book’s beginning and how further tortured are those characters by the plot conflicts in the book’s middle, all will be well by the end. The HEA is a sacred guarantee in a romance novel: the author will not let the readers down by failing to provide the emotional resolution in the reading experience of love conquering all, healing all wounds, and leading to the promised happily ever after.

The true significance of this HEA, I submit, lies not in its presence at the end of every romance novel, but in its presence in the larger culture. The Christian mythic narrative and the romance narrative both highlight eschatology. Both are narratives concerned with the eschaton, the end of the world or the ultimate destiny of the characters involved (from the Greek eschatos for “last” or “farthest”). A romance, from the very beginning of the story, promises its HEA; the end of the story is inherent from the very beginning, as part of its very narrative structure. The romance story is narrative eschatology. A romance is a story about how to get to a healing end—an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed. To be human is to desire and quest for love. This is what is both wonderful and foolish, even dangerous, about the human condition. The romance narrative tells this story of love and the human condition, in all its vulnerability and risk and wonder and foolishness.

To connect this analysis back to the context of patriarchal culture—true to eschatology, this HEA ending is not just the ending of a particular book nor of a genre of popular literature. The ending of romance novels—in which the heroine and hero will love each other well, for all their lives, and their love binds up their wounds—is not just the conclusion of a story. The romance ending, like the Christian eschaton, is the end of all endings, the ending beyond endings. It is the foundational premise of hetero-normative masculinist culture: that a woman must be under the protection of a man, yoked to him and to at least some extent in his control. But here’s the rub: as evidenced by the enormous female readership of romance novels, this premise is foundational as well to much female fantasy life: that a woman will be protected, yet also pleasured, by the perfect love of a good man.

Lust, Loins, and Literature: Romance Novels as Mirror of Changing Sexual Norms for Women

Feminist scholars of the romance genre have long been engaged and troubled by this paradox: women seemingly love to read novels in which they are bound to men. Thus, the genre limits women (but does it?), yet the genre empowers women (but does it?). Much scholarship has prodded, and continues to prod along these lines, as variously nuanced feminist critique and/or apologia for the genre (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). From a feminist perspective worried about romance novels’ take-away message for women, there is room for concern. However, while readers may sometimes consume these novels in voracious quantity and with great attachment to the genre (reading “religiously” in another sense of the term), they by no means read uncritically. The advent of online readers’ communities exposes the rich interplay among readers, texts, and authors; far from accepting characters’ choices and any views implied by authors, readers often argue back (Wendell and Tan 2009). They post comments deriding the “too stupid to live heroine” along the lines of “why would any sane woman act like that?” or “why would she fall in love with a jerk like him?” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume readers, perhaps especially young adolescent girls, do derive something from their reading experience in terms of a “moral of the story,” and that this moral may well have some sort of ramification in the lives of women. In the books’ complex and ambiguous nexus of women’s imagined fear and desire, shame and pleasure, hurt and healing, vulnerability and protection, pleasure and anxiety, risk and reward, bondage and freedom—what lessons then emerge for readers?

Contemporary romance novels do feature, almost universally, strong and empowered heroines in storylines bucking patriarchal convention mandating male leadership and female submission, but they also, by definition, pretty much always end in monogamous pair-bonding. In contrast to the second-wave feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to live happily ever after in a romance novel, a woman does need a man (and a man needs a woman). To the extent that romances push a vision of women’s lives as incomplete unless they are with a man, a vision of women’s happiness and mature fulfillment necessarily achieved through monogamous, heterosexual marriage and motherhood, this would remain a rather limited, traditional, and patriarchal vision of a woman’s life possibilities. In this regard, I am heartened by the growth of erotica, paranormal, and the new lines of gay and lesbian romance with their ménage stories; non-“vanilla” sex scenes; and heroines who even after pair-bonding remain kick-ass vampire-killers, or vampires, or some other form of strong female alpha or high-achieving professional. Although romance fiction can sometimes seem to offer a narrower vision of women’s lives—perhaps even create false expectations and impossible goals—on the other hand, judging by its massive readership, this vision is hugely appealing to women. So, why, and is that a problem? Just what is at stake in the romance novel? What does happen in reading it? What work does it do for its women readers, and does this work have any feminist liberatory potential?

I want to take a new tack on these issues by focusing on the recent rise of erotica, which I argue allows us to probe this paradox differently, by picking up the lines of inquiry I’ve laid out in regards to the HEA and its central motif of the healing power of love. I grew up reading romance novels (indeed, an important part of my motivation in this project is the chance it offers to interrogate my own fascination with the genre). I used to call the books—with amused affection—“trashy novels.” My friends and I, and my mother and some of her friends all bought, read, traded, and discussed our trashy novels. Were I to parse this descriptor now, I would see in it, on the one hand, a fondly-intended denigration of the genre as lowbrow (not the “good” literature I read for school), and on the other hand, a somewhat titillated adolescent sense that I was getting away with something naughty. I wouldn’t have been allowed to read Playboy or watch porn videos in the house, but although these stories were equally sexually explicit, and thus in that sense “trashy” or smutty, they were acceptable because they were both “romance,” with its legitimizing married HEA, and “novel,” thus still better than reading nothing at all. The genre has developed in many ways over the thirty years I’ve been reading it, but one of the most fascinating developments is the rise of the entirely “trashy” subgenres of erotica (which doesn’t necessarily end with monogamous pair bonding) and “romantica” (which generally does).

This rise is a controversial one, and benefits from a brief contextualization within the recent and equally controversial rise of sex-positive culture and sex-positive feminism. Kayla Perrin is a USA Today bestselling romance novelist who wrote this speech for her character Lishelle in the erotic romance Getting Some (2007, 133):

See, this is what I don’t understand. If guys fuck a hundred women, they’re heroes. They feel no shame in bedding a woman they’ve just met. But if a woman has a one-night stand, my God, she’s a dirty whore. How dare she like sex? This is the twenty-first century, honey. It’s high time we women embrace our sexuality and bury the shame. We have needs, the same as men do. Why do we feel so friggin’ bad about going after what we want?

Lishelle’s passionate endorsement for women to embrace their sexuality highlights how the story of romance is rapidly changing, especially for young women today. A new era is opening up wherein women can write or read such erotica, “hook up” with multiple partners and different types of partners, post images of themselves on altporn sites like Suicide Girls, attend Tupperware-style sex toy parties, wear porno-chic fashion, work as strippers, or simply revel in Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, yet still be “good girls” (“Good Girls Do,” reads one recent newspaper headline). The gay rights movement (LGBTQ) is an important part of opening up this narrative; “romance,” including in publishing, no longer means only heterosexual, female-virginal, monogamous, deeply-in-love pair-bonding. The category of what is culturally acceptable in love and romance has—at least in some quarters—grown much bigger. To use Polhemus’s term, our faith in what legitimately counts as the erotic is expanding. This phenomenon of potentially liberating new attitudes toward women’s sexuality is what commentators and scholars characterize in various forms as “sex-positive culture” or “sex-positive feminism” or “striptease culture” (Nagle 1997, McNair 2002, Johnson 2002, Roach 2007). We see its boldly playful echo in such romance groups and blogs as History Hoydens, Smart Bitches, Word Wenches, Historical Hussies, Rip My Bodice, and the Smutketeers.

This effect is further seen in the recent publishing rise of erotica and romantica, and the concurrent intensification of sexual content in much of mainstream romance fiction. Romance novels, like the wider romance narrative, are in the midst of a sea change as they become affected by this sex-positive culture—indeed, I would argue that many romance novelists today are doing sex-positive feminism in their writing. How can we evaluate the complex implications of this change as a current large-scale cultural experiment, both potentially liberatory and at risk of re-inscribing tired patriarchal norms of women’s erotic desire, fantasy, and pleasure? Does today’s romance fiction help move women’s sexuality from margin to crossroads to center, or simply re-marginalize it anew? How are romance novels affected by—and also responsible for shaping—new societal changes about what’s acceptable sexually, in terms of the novels’ level of graphicness, underlying attitudes toward sexuality, treatment of pregnancy and STD protection, etc.? And how does this new trend toward more explicit sexuality in romance novels and more sexual choices in lifestyle relate to such apparently opposite cultural trends as, for example, the premarital abstinence movements of “True Love Waits” and father-daughter “Purity Balls,” as well as the rise of inspirational romance novel sales (with little to no explicit sexuality)?

I take the rise of women’s erotica as indicative of an important cultural moment of change and counter-resistance. Romance authors are opening up restrictive sexual taboos in ways that have true potential to lessen social injustices (for women, sexual minorities, and men too long restricted to a narrow macho role). These new romance narratives can unchain young women from an often destructive and desperate sense they have to find “Mr. Right” early on and not let go. They can give people permission to explore love and sexuality, and ultimately themselves, in new liberatory ways, but these ways are, admittedly, at the same time clearly fraught with risk and danger. Part of the risk is women turning themselves into what author Ariel Levy (2005) termed “female chauvinist pigs” through the internalization of a sex-bunny sensibility that simply gives flesh to every boy’s wet dream fantasy, and then those women experiencing the type of losses Laura Sessions Stepp laments in her book Unhooked (2007) about the campus hook-up culture. Another part of the risk is the early sexualization of the “porno-tot” phenomenon and the loss of innocence and health risks feared by the abstinence movement. In all of this, there is a daunting challenge for the “new erotica” to pull off, but—perhaps—real potential as well, to help us live in ways that are richer and, ultimately, more loving.

Getting a Good Man to Love in Patriarchy: “Come Back to the Bed Ag’in, Alpha Honey!”

We arrive finally at the crux of the tension, the paradox at the heart of the romance narrative. If romance is one of—or even the—central cultural narrative(s), with roots stretching into the culture’s foundational religious story, and if this narrative is being experimented with in new and potentially liberatory ways for wider sexual justice, then romance novels are doing deep work for their readers and for the culture. By “deep work,” I mean that this work is partly unconscious (Modleski 2008), operating at the level of both individual psychology and larger socio-cultural dynamics. The purpose of this work, I argue, is to assuage the drag and rub of patriarchy, to try to make up for the costs to a woman’s psyche of living in a culture that is always just a little, at least potentially, in certain ways against her. As Frye says, “Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality” (1956, 136).

Let’s put it this way: if, to at least some extent, it’s still a man’s world out there, if the name of the game is patriarchy, then a woman is safer from the dangers that game poses to women—rape and other physical attack, diminished pay rates, employment discrimination, abandonment with children, restricted travel and other life options, general infantilization, misogyny, a life-long low-level anxiety over her sexual vulnerability—to the extent she is in committed relationship with, and thus protected by, a good man. The notion of “good man” here is represented by the romance hero possessing the unlikely profile of high alpha traits that both guarantee he can protect the heroine, and that render him immune to the predations of patriarchy—for patriarchy is a system of violent control and power-over that victimizes lower-caste males as well—in combination with the high sensitivity of the most enlightened pro-feminist lover. This good man/alpha hero is a fantasy, an illusion, in the sense of a powerfully-appealing figure based in wish-fulfillment. As Freud (1927) said, an illusion may have truth to it—for certain lucky young girls, their prince really does come; think Grace Kelly, for example. The story of the alpha hero does have such truth to it—in that love does heal wounds, romance does offer sweetness, most people do seek such and generally find such, to at least some extent—but it is also a fantasy, or illusion, and in the sense of a wish-fulfillment, is highly unlikely to be literally and wholly true. Such is the power of fantasy to offer both truth and illusion. I suspect the resonance of romance novels lies in the central paradox of this interconnected fantasy power of deep truth and of wish-fulfilling illusion.

Romance is fantasy in the sense of pleasure and escape from reality, where true love does not always conquer all nor heal all wounds—key premises of the romance narrative. But more specifically, romance does deep psychic work for its readers by functioning as a fantasy antidote to patriarchy, to the extent that it is still a man’s world out there: the heroine and, vicariously, the female readers get that fantasy paradox of an alpha male who is strong and dominant, yet also caring and sensitive; sexy and desired, yet devoted totally to the heroine and her sexual pleasure; indeed he is helpless and lost without her love. Part of the reading pleasure, too, is the fantasy conquest of patriarchy. According to Frye, one of the central and climactic images in the romance is that “of the monster tamed and controlled by the virgin” (1957, 201). In my reading, this taming is the central dynamic of the romance novel as well. Apart from any realism imparted by rich details, these novels essentially represent a mythic fantasy world in which Woman: the Virgin, the Maiden, the Princess Warrior, Everywoman, tames and controls the monster, Man: the patriarchal alpha hero, who has the power to easily harm her, but who will not, because she has cracked open his frozen patriarch’s heart and taught him to love (Frantz 2002).

These are large claims that must await full unpacking and exploration in future research and writing, but as an exemplar here, I want to focus on the HEA and healing in a final argument that both the subgenres of erotica and paranormal (often combined) highlight or intensify the dynamics of the HEA and of its central reparation fantasy of redemption, salvation, and wholeness. Both erotica and paranormal are highly effective at doing the deep work of the romance novel HEA and thus can more clearly reveal this deep work. The messages to women here are three: you can’t fight patriarchy, you must fight patriarchy, and patriarchy will end. All this is encapsulated in the complex HEA promise: you will get a good man to love. Vignettes from three recent romance novels illustrate these messages.

Maya Banks’s Sweet Persuasion (2009) is a BDSM romantica tale, featuring Serena, a successful business woman whose fantasy is to be a sex slave to Damon, the charismatic owner of a sex club. This, and similar plot lines, allow for exploration of a submission and surrender theme to the erotic desire and possessiveness of a powerful man not widely seen since the “bodice-ripper” domination and rape plots of the 1980s (Wendell and Tan 2009). BDSM romantica allows for a more politically-correct exploration of this dynamic, as here the heroine surrenders willingly, in a fantasy power game, and Damon’s complete authority over her—“I want the security of knowing I am … owned,” Serena says (70)—is ultimately benign. While he puts her in bondage and takes a crop to her, Damon also feeds, clothes, and bathes her—literally by hand; fully supports her professional ambitions; puts up charmingly with her meddling friends; buys her a wardrobe; and sends her to the spa. He demands total control over her, but he’s also a good man, who loves her well and devotedly. “I wanted to own her. I wanted her to own my heart” (253), he says of a previous failed relationship, when explaining his desire to Serena. The lesson Serena learns in the end: “it takes someone strong to give up ultimate power, to allow a man to take care of her, to make decisions for her” (284). Patriarchy is literally the name of the game here: Serena wants to play sex-slave to a strong alpha master. Thus, the message: you can’t fight patriarchy, lest you be a bad slave and displease your master; but you must fight patriarchy, in the sense of holding out for no less than this perfectly egalitarian master. For while the master here rules, no matter—by the time of the HEA, it’s clear he rules to serve and to cherish. And so patriarchy ends. Although he’s in charge, she has him: she owns his heart. Through identification with both the heroine and hero, the female reader experiences her subordinate and vulnerable position within our still-patriarchal culture as one that nevertheless promises her safety and pleasure, precisely because this particular patriarch has capitulated to her, fully and completely.

In Joey W. Hill’s BDSM romantica novel Natural Law (2004), the power dynamic is reversed between two under-cover cops; instead of patriarchy ruling, here it’s the “matriarch” or Mistress in charge. Violet is petite, a “pixie,” yet formidable: a dominant Mistress born. Patriarchy is already overturned here, in that the deep fantasy work of this story is that of resisting and rejecting male rule for a matriarchy where man is the subordinate, required to obey the woman’s every command, and wanting nothing more than to fulfill her will and satisfaction as his own. Yet although Mac is a willing male submissive, he is still the alpha through and through: physically much stronger, a seasoned detective, no weakling who would leave you prey to harm (he in fact takes a bullet for Violet by the end of the story). Like Serena and Damon, Violet and Mac finally find each other after a long and painful life quest of loneliness and self-doubt; these couples complete each other and find healing and wholeness through surrender to their special form of love. Violet, unlike Serena, upends the patriarchal dynamic; she is “someone strong” in a different sense than Serena, but not in any sense that emasculates Mac. He enjoys “serving a Mistress’s pleasure,” he says self-confidently, as much as he enjoys “being a cop, or watching a Buccaneers game, or spending a day out in the Gulf on my boat. Being a sub doesn’t make me less of a man” (277). The female reader fantasy here is one of overt power, but although she’s nominally in charge (you must fight patriarchy), he’s the strong alpha male all the same (you can’t fight patriarchy), perhaps even more so—because if it takes a real man to eat quiche, wear pink, and drink Chardonnay, surely it takes a man on the archetypal level of a romance novel warrior-king to accept bondage and open himself to the pleasure of anal penetration by his Mistress (patriarchy will end).

The warrior-king becomes real, and becomes vampire, in my last example: J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover (2005), the first book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. In paranormal romance, the hero can be more alpha—bigger, stronger, more deadly—than in non-paranormal: he can grow fangs, possess supernatural strength, teleport, heal miraculously fast, etc. While “Wrath” is all that—indeed, his name says it all—he, like all males shaped by patriarchy’s “tough guise” or mask of emotional straight-jacketing, cannot love. He can only disdain erotic faith as the religion of women and weak men. He is the über-patriarch: violently aggressive against all enemies, an arrogant macho hardass toward the brotherhood, “six feet nine inches of pure terror dressed in leather” (3). Yet he’s immediately drawn to Beth, a beautiful woman thrust into his keeping, about to turn into a vampire herself. He gives into lust, but fights love. For a man to open himself to love means he’s weak, “pathetic … pussy-whipped,” Wrath goads a happily-mated brother (186-87). But by the end, as Wrath and Beth find peace and completion in their love bond and a new life mission together to rebuild vampire civilization, Wrath is a changed man. Still the ultra-violent patriarch toward any who would dare hurt his queen, he has literally had Beth’s name carved into his back; kneeled at her feet; offered his body, heart, and soul as hers to command; and then asked, with head bowed, “Will you take me as your own?” (333). The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues, and you get a good man to love; that is, you now have the alpha-king for your own, as you have fought and vanquished him on the battlefield of love.

All three of these examples have in common what I am calling a reparation fantasy in the HEA’s work of imagined healing. One of the Latin etymologies for the term “religion” is re-ligare, “to re-bind” or “re-tie” (the term “ligament” has the same root). From this perspective, religion represents a threefold sense of original unity, recognition of loss or wound, and attempt to repair and reconnect sundered parts back into a whole. Plato’s Symposium dialogue famously casts this threefold sense as an origin story of humanity and humans’ rather foolish yet poignant endless quest for love. In the dialogue, humans began as four-footed symmetrical beings, then were cut in half by the gods, and now are forever on a quest for their missing other part: our better half, our soul mate, our one-and-only, our One True Love. In the Symposium and the three romance novels above, love renders us whole, heals and completes us, resolves life’s quest, brings true peace. From this perspective, both romance and religion are reparation fantasies, deep mythic stories of the powerful healing that comes about through meaningful and intimate relations.

One last idea: for Leslie Fiedler, the American literature critic of the mid-twentieth century, American fiction is driven by the dream of interethnic male bonding and the “myth of the dark beloved,” in which people of color forgive and love white folk, despite the predations and horrors of racism. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) is his controversial essay on Huckleberry Finn and also The Last of the Mohicans, two iconic American stories authored by white males about a “dark beloved:” an African-American or Native American male other who shares an adventurous quest with a white male protagonist. Fielder’s essay is essentially about the literature of white male America as a reparation fantasy for racism, offered with remorse and affection on the part of the racists. Romance fiction is a different, reverse type of reparation fantasy, one centered on sexism and patriarchy and offered not by those who perpetuated the discrimination (as in Fiedler’s formulation), but by those subjected to it. Instead of a myth of the dark beloved, we have a myth of the “alpha beloved.” Women readers/authors/fictional heroines, like Jim in Huck Finn and in Fiedler’s provocative title, bear no grudge and invite the master, “Come back to the raft”—or the bed—“again, honey.” A woman can proffer this invitation because she has taken her stand against patriarchy, and though the system remains, so too has it ended. The romance fantasy, in other words, is that the hero will come, in all his fierce and possessive patriarchal warrior-king glory, but that he will also forever stay: emotionally vulnerable, devoted unto death, serving his mistress with his sword and with his heart. The fantasy is that patriarchy overall remains in place—he remains a ruling alpha, and so can protect her—but this system, and he as its representative, never threaten or diminish the heroine.

She gets a good man. And she gets him to love.[6]

Works Cited

Banks, Maya. Sweet Persuasion. New York: Berkley Heat, 2009. Print.

Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Apparition, 2009. Film.

Coddington, Lynn. “Wavering Between Worlds: Feminist Influences in the Romance Genre.” Paradoxa 3:1-2 (1997): 58-77. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review. June 1948. Print.

Frantz, Sarah. “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. and ed. James Strachey.  New York: Norton, 1989. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.

Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. Print.

Hill, Joey W. Natural Law. Akron, OH: Ellora’s Cave, 2004. Print.

Johnson, Allan G. The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Rev. and updated ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Johnson, Merri Lisa, ed. Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. Print.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press, 2005. Print.

McNair, Brian. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media, and the Democratisation of Desire. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Nagle, Jill, ed. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Perrin, Kayla. Getting Some. Don Mills, Can. Spice, 2007. Print

Plato, Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989. Print.

Polhemus, Robert M. Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

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

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

Roach, Catherine M. Stripping, Sex, and Popular Culture. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2007. Print.

Romance Writers of America. Romance Writers of America. Web.

Romance Writers of America. Romance Writers Report. April 2009. Print.

Stepp, Laura Sessions. Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

Ward, J.R. Dark Lover. New York: Signet Eclipse, 2005. Print.

Wendell, Sarah and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside, 2009. Print.

[1] In my use of the cultural descriptor “modern West” here, I draw on Stephanie Coontz’s (2005) history of marriage, with its central thesis that starting in the later eighteenth century, a “gigantic marital revolution had occurred in Western Europe and North America during the Enlightenment” (5). The ideal of the sentimental and passionate love-based marriage—in radical contrast to the more economically and politically pragmatic notions of marriage that had predominated before that time and that continued as the norm in other parts of the world—came to dominate in  western culture through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[2] By “patriarchy,” I adopt Allan Johnson’s definition of a cultural system that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered” and that valorizes violence and control (2005, 5). High rates of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and violence against girls and women form a central part of such culture, as well as high rates of violence against men. I share in Johnson’s analysis that contemporary American culture remains marked by such patterns, although these patterns have clearly lessened through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the growth of human rights and the influence of the successive waves of the women’s movement and feminism. To the extent that both patriarchy and popular romance fiction reading are phenomena with global reach, this analysis could be broadened beyond contemporary America as well, but for now, I confine my analysis to this cultural complex.

[3] Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the US-based professional writers’ organization devoted to the publishing genre of popular romance fiction, with a membership of approximately ten thousand published and aspiring authors. For publication and sale statistics, visit the organization’s website at

[4] Northrop Frye’s (1957) archetypal criticism in his classic theory of myths is useful here as well, where he lays out a theory of generic plots or mythic narrative structures: “In terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

[5] Although what Frye (1957) means by “romance novel” differs from the popular women’s fiction under consideration here, there is significant continuity between these forms of prose fiction as well. This issue of the historical lineage of contemporary women’s romance novels in terms of the long-established literary forms of both “novel” and “romance” bears further study.

[6] I thank two very astute anonymous peer-review readers who helped me see my text more clearly with excellent suggestions for revision and expansion. I am grateful as well to the College of Arts and Sciences and New College at the University of Alabama and to the Romance Writers of America for academic grant support that made this research possible. Academic audiences at the Popular Culture Association 2009 annual conference and a Women’s Resource Center talk at the University of Alabama provided useful feedback as well in working out my ideas. Finally, I thank Eric Murphy Selinger for leading me to Robert Polhemus and colleagues Deborah Weiss, Fred Whiting, and Ted Trost for helping me think through key ideas in this paper.