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Archive for the ‘Issue 2.1’ Category

Review: Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying

Review by Jonathan A. Allan

As romance readers and scholars both know, the sexual ethos of the popular romance novel has changed over the years. Regnerus and Uecker’s book Premarital Sex in America (2011) provides a sociological context for some of those changes. Exploring the ways in which sexuality has changed and how it functions in contemporary American society, this work contributes to a growing body of scholarship on “late-adolescence” or “delayed adulthood,” or as Regnerus and Uecker prefer to call it, “emerging adulthood.” “Recently,” they write, “we heard, in the span of just a few hours, claims both that ’13 is the new 18’ and ’21 is the new 16.’ Confused? That’s understandable. But this is the conundrum of emerging adults, the group of Americans about which this book is written” (5). More specifically, the focus is on “Americans between 18 and 23 years of age” (6) which is now part of this “emerging adulthood” wherein one is, by the standard of “being 18” an adult but at the same time one does not self-identity (yet) as an adult. Clearly, at least within the realm of scholarship, there is a growing interest in a new liminal stage, located somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. This marks a pronounced shift in age studies, which previously, or more traditionally, had seen adolescence as the liminal stage between childhood and adulthood.

The book oscillates comfortably between statistical analysis and personal, and at times, anecdotal narratives from interviewees. The authors explain that “[t]o use only national survey statistics to answer our questions would be farsighted: it would give us the big picture, but could encourage all manner of misinterpretations of the data” (9) and that “[w]hile personal anecdotes may not matter much to social scientists, they often mean everything to our interviewees. Stories of what happened to them and the people they know carry exceptional weight in their own understanding of sex and relationships” (9). The methodology here is important because it allows for both a “big picture” overview of broad sociological changes and an engaging focus on specific cases, stories that end up meaning much more to the reader, given their relationship to the national survey statistics, than they otherwise might.

The authors often turn to examples from popular culture for context as well. “Hannah’s method lends itself to pregnancy scares—and to the real thing,” one anecdote explains, adding, “Had they ever had such a scare? Of course. It was like a scene straight out of the film Juno” (48). This work thus has the potential to influence the field of popular romance studies, because it already refers to and engages with relevant texts, particularly romantic comedy films. (The Forty Year Old Virgin thus “portrays a collective effort to rid the main character of a trait that he’s socially supposed to have lost about two decades earlier” [18].)  Scholars of romance in other media will find it a helpful model for bringing sociological data to bear on their chosen texts.

One of the many engaging things about this work is its historical emphasis, much of which seems relevant to the changing representation of sexuality in popular romance. For instance, Regnerus and Uecker speak of the ways in which the “sexual repertoire” (31) has changed, noting that, “[o]ral sex and other types of sexual activity are common within the sexual repertoire of emerging adults” (32) and then later concluding that “[a]nal sex is not in the repertoire of most, at least not yet. Its place is not yet clearly defined and may never be. Given that most Americans, especially women, strongly prefer vaginal or oral sex to anal sex, its practice could well wane in popularity or remain a ‘tried that once and that was enough’ sort of activity. Before then, however, anal sex may grow in popularity simply for the novelty attached to it and online porn’s disproportionate coverage of it” (39). One thinks here of the memorable discussion of anal sex as “the new oral” in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan—and of the contrast between that discussion, which focuses on erotic romance, and the fact that anal sex only appeared in a Harlequin Blaze, Private Sessions by Toni Carrington, as recently as 2010.[1] (It remains to be seen whether, in an imprint as wide and varied as Harlequin, anal sex will turn out to be something of a ‘tried that once and that was enough.’)

The longest chapter in the study, “Inside Sexual Relationships,” seems particularly useful to scholars of popular romance. In this chapter, the authors consider the economics of sexual relationships, observing that “[s]exual markets are like economic markets: we all inhabit them, and they affect everyone” (52). The book discusses the common motif of sexuality (and virginity) as a “gift” that one gives to another, chiefly women to men—a trope that recurs in popular romance film and literature—the persistence of what they call “the stubborn double standard” (62-65), and the rise of new terms and motifs in sexual culture, like “friends with benefits” (65). “Most young adults don’t actually use the term ‘friends with benefits,’ at least not when they describe such relationship for themselves,” the authors conclude (65-66):  it is a term more often ascribed than subscribed to, which suggests the enduring influence of cultural norms that link sex with romantic love. The authors’ economic discourse sometimes frames those norms in rather cold-eyed terms, as when they note that “romantic relationships last longer and are a far more stable source of sex” than more casual, less emotionally-invested interactions (72). But they also cast a refreshingly cold eye on the anxieties about young adult sexuality that periodically crop up in popular culture.  “Students are certainly having sex,” they observe in a later chapter, “but more sex occurs within romance relationships than all the media chatter about hooking up has led us to believe” (134.)

In the past year there has been considerable “media chatter” about the impact of pornography on young (and older) Americans—in particular, about the impact of porn consumption on the sexual desires and expectations of heterosexual men.  Premarital Sex in America explores the messages men may receive from “sexualized media,” from pornography to newsstand men’s magazines, in particular the current focus of these media on what they call “odd sexual requests” (86).  (These requests, one should note, they recognise as being “probably as old as humanity” [86].)   “One of the most common topics in American men’s magazines like Maxim,” they observe, “is unorthodox sexual positions and locations, even though another common topic—what women want—is largely inconsistent with these practices” (86).  They also attend to sexualized media aimed at women, noting, for example, that even if Sex and the City never “directly made anyone do things they might not otherwise have done,” the television show succeeded in “popularizing [. . .] the narrative of the very eligible, single white female who pursues sex and romance on her own terms” (127). A good deal of additional research remains to be done, however, by sociologists and others, in the representations of “unorthodox” sexual behaviour of female desire in romance media produced primarily by women, notably chick-lit and erotic romance fiction.

Although its focus is on premarital beliefs and behaviour, Premarital Sex in America also considers marriage, which it presents as an institution in limbo.  “A distinctive fissure exists in the minds of young Americans,” the authors argue, “between the carefree single life and the married life of economic pressures and family responsibilities. The one is sexy, the other is sexless. In the minds of many, sex is for the young and single, while marriage is for the old. Marriage is quaint, adorable” (172). Indeed, Regnerus and Uecker conclude that “[t]here can be no doubt that the ‘institution’ of marriage is in the throes of deinstitutionalization” (204). The chapter “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Relationship Norms in a Divided America” considers whether this “deinstitutionalization” is playing out differently in conservative “red states” and more liberal “blue states” (for readers outside the USA, the colors signify Republican and Democratic dominance at the polls, respectively). Some differences emerge from the data:  for example, somewhat ironically reds “romanticize relationships and marriage, and often experience more of them—and at earlier ages—than blues do” (234-35).  However, readers subsequently learn that young people in both sets of states “share much in common, including their commitment to serial monogamy and romantic individualism, two ubiquitous narratives among emerging adults” (236).

In the closing chapter of Premarital Sex in America, the authors theorise the importance of stories and narrativising sexuality.  “Stories,” they write, “tend to issue in sets of particular scripts. [ . . . ] Sexual scripts specify not only appropriate sexual goals—what we ought to want—but they also provide plans for particular types of behaviour and ways to achieve those sexual goals: the right thing to say at the right time, what not to do, who leads, how to hook up, where they should go, who should bring the condom, what is too much to ask someone, etc.” (237). Clearly, as the authors write, “sex is complicated” (250)! As we critics read and engage with popular romance texts—texts that may supply, or at least document, some of these “scripts”—we need to keep these complexities in mind, to problematise sexuality, rather than treat it as an ahistorical or transparent phenomenon.

If there is one drawback to this book, it is that despite its sweeping title, Premarital Sex in America only deals with heterosexual premarital sex. The authors acknowledge this limitation at the start of the volume.  ”Some will label our focus as heteronormative—that is, privileging heterosexual expression to the neglect of alternative sexualities—” they note, “but the primary reason for avoiding an extended treatment of different sexual forms and identities is that it would have to be a much longer book in order to pay adequate attention to other patterns, to say nothing of the dynamics by which they form and the courses they take” (7-8). One hopes that other authors and studies will fill in this significant gap, and that scholars who draw on this volume will not assume that its conclusions about straight “emerging adults” in the United States can be transferred in any simple way to LGBTQ Americans, or to young people in other countries, whatever their sexual orientation.

Despite its boundaries, this illuminating study makes a helpful case for seeing sex as “complicated,” in writing about it, theorising and historicising it, and indeed, living it.  Premarital Sex in America shows how sex is given meaning in both the social sciences and the humanities, and it reminds us that the complex nature of sexuality continues to haunt our critical and cultural imaginaries.

[1] For a greater discussion of this “first time” in popular romance, see Sarah Wendell’s review of the book at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:


Review: Chick Lit and Postfeminism, by Stephanie Harzewski

Review by Suzanne Ferriss

From almost the moment the terms chick lit entered the English vocabulary in the mid-1990s, the popular novels grouped into the category have faced derision, if not outright hostility in the popular press, as well as from so-called “literary authors” and “serious” academics. The authors branded—often unwillingly—with the label have been dismissed as chickerati, accused of selling themselves and their books as part of a commercial plot designed by publishers to peddle formula fiction to gullible female audiences.

Sound familiar? Naturally. Romance writers have been dogged by the same charges. But, as Stephanie Harzewski points out in the introduction to Chick Lit and Postfeminism, such vituperative criticism resembles that launched against another group of successful women writers: the novelists of the eighteenth century, such as Eliza Haywood, who took advantage of advances in publishing and an expanding middle-class readership to achieve recognition and success. Their successors in the nineteenth century, including Jane Austen, solidified women writers’ achievements while perfecting the novel itself, yet they still had to fend off criticism of the form as inferior literature. As Harzewski argues, “The critical reception of chick lit can be seen as another cycle of gendered antinovel discourse directed at the composer of romance and amatory fiction, a discourse that has punctuated the novel’s three-hundred-year history” (40-41).

But while few would now question a scholar’s decision to study the novel, critics of chick lit have encountered resistance, even though serious studies of popular culture are now accepted as routine—if not essential—contributions to critical discourse. Harzewski’s book, and a handful of others, are finally addressing the gap. In Chick Lit and Postfeminism, Harzewski makes the case for considering chick lit an “underanalyzed body of postmodern fiction” which provides “an accessible portal into contemporary gender politics and questions of cultural value” (5). Her book devotes sustained literary and feminist analysis to its origins, development and significance.

The astounding numbers alone, attesting to the cultural influence of chick-lit novels (and associated forms of what Mallory Young and I have termed “chick culture”), suggest that sustained critical attention to the form is necessary. Consider that Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, routinely identified as the novel launching the chick-lit genre, had, within 10 years of publication, been translated into 30 languages, sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, and, in 2001, became a popular film grossing over $245 million. As writer Jenny Colgan quipped, not all copies of Fielding’s novel have been “bought by lovelorn single women in London” (qtd. in Gibbons).

Harzewski notes that chick lit’s commercial success (along with its invocations of consumer culture) has been perhaps the greatest barrier to serious analysis of the genre. She argues that “Chick lit’s accessibility, humor, playfulness, and barrage of brand names at times overshadow innovative generic fusions and reflexivity” (53).

Her book excels in its analysis of chick lit in relation to established, traditional literary genres, from the Bildungsroman to the novel of manners. Scholars of romance fiction will be most interested in Chapter One, “Postmodernism’s Last Romance,” which considers chick lit in relation to the original romances of the medieval era and outlines its parallels and divergences from contemporary romance fiction. The chapter originated in an essay published in Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction (Routledge, 2006), but has been revised and expanded here to include a history of Harlequin publishers and a more thorough overview of the distinctions between the classic contemporary romances commonly identified by that name and chick lit.

For instance, Harzewski notes that while popular romance fiction adheres to a “one woman-one man” ratio, chick lit presents one woman involved with many men. If in romance fiction, the quest for romance is central, in chick lit, the heroine’s quest for self-definition and the need to balance work with personal relationships is given equal, if not greater, attention. The idealized protagonist of romance fiction, typically an active, intelligent beauty, is nowhere to be seen in chick lit, which features protagonists who are highly conscious and critical of their physical appearance and who are more often pictured as flawed than feisty.

More significant differences center on the characterization of men and depictions of love and sex. Harzewski argues that romance fiction presents men as objects of erotic desire who are valued for their sexual prowess. By contrast, in chick lit, she argues, men are “not really valued as individuals as much as a means to a lifestyle, wedding, or in some cases beauty boost” (33). The moments of genuine eroticism that punctuate and, for some readers, characterize romance fiction are missing in chick lit.

Above all, the two genres differ in their endings. There are no HEA (“Happily Ever After”) endings in chick lit, which offers “a more realistic portrait of single life and dating, exploring in varying degrees, the dissolution of romantic ideals, or showing those ideals as unmet, sometimes unrealistic, expectations” (40).

Subsequent chapters consider chick lit in relation to its most prominent, and oft-cited, precursors: the novels of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Chick lit is commonly seen as having a dual Anglo-American origin in 1996, the year that saw the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary in the UK and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City in the USA. As Harzewski observes, each now “has the status of a master plot” (91). Chick lit’s British roots extend to Austen and other nineteenth-century authors such as the Brontës and George Eliot (see Wells and Hale). With their Manhattan settings, the works of American writers, such as Bushnell, Plum Sykes and Lauren Weisberger, have invited comparison to Wharton’s novels set in Old New York (see Wells).

Chapter Two of Chick Lit and Postfeminism considers Bridget Jones’s Diary in relation to Austen’s novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice. There is little new in Harzewski’s analysis, which emphasizes general generic connections over detailed textual links. She notes, for instance, that chick-lit novels “lack the subtlety and ironic precision of observation that goes into the creation of Austen’s heroines” or “Austen’s dexterous use of silence” (67). Nonetheless, the chapter does provide a thorough comparison that will be useful to those new to the study of chick lit. In addition, Harzewski considers chick lit’s role in the current wave of Austenmania, the repackaging of both the author and her works for a popular audience, a phenomenon that has drawn much attention from Austen scholars in books such as Jane’s Fame and Janeites.

A companion chapter, on Sex and the City and other chick-lit novels set in New York, will be of greater interest to chick-lit scholars. It provides a thorough history of Bushnell’s career, supplemented by information from personal interviews Harzewski conducted with the author. She also argues persuasively that Bushnell cannot be dubbed “a quintessential ‘chick lit’ author” (94). Instead, she “can be credited more with inspiring commercial chick lit than directly authoring it” (108). Harzewski convincingly demonstrates that the close female friends featured in the television series and film versions of Sex and the City bear little resemblance to the characters in Bushnell’s novel, who are often antagonistic, if not openly hostile, to each other as they compete in a tight singles market. Instead, it is the novel’s “urban setting, its scenes of nightlife, its characters’ preoccupations with money and status” that have become part of the chick-lit formula (94). Bushnell’s novels do, in Harzewski’s view, share a thematic with Wharton’s fiction: they similarly feature women on the market navigating New York’s cut-throat social milieu and highlight the expenditures necessary to circulate in the set (110). However, she notes that Bushnell does not share “Wharton’s elegant, mannered narration” (113), an understatement indeed.

Certainly, chick-lit authors can claim more than two literary influences and Harzewski considers some possible twentieth-century precursors. She acknowledges that Imelda Whelehan has covered similar territory in her excellent study of popular women’s novels from the late 1960s and ’70s. In The Feminist Bestseller, Whelehan contended that chick lit shared common themes and literary devices with bestselling novels of the second-wave feminist era, including confessional narrative techniques that invite reader identification and a realistic treatment of women’s concerns with family, work, friendship and sex. Harzewski’s selections, some dating earlier (1920s-60s), extend the range of popular novels bearing kinship to chick lit. Her process of selection, however, is rather narrow and often seems more haphazard than meaningful. For example, she isolates two pre-WWII “career-girl novels”: Dawn Powell’s Wither (1925) and Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (1931). Certainly, these novels do share contemporary chick lit’s focus on urban, career life, but other popular novels of the same era could easily have been included, as well. For instance, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the bestseller of 1925, which prompted a fan letter from Edith Wharton, may bear greater resemblance to contemporary chick lit in its use of first-person narration, its flawed, materialistic protagonist and allusions to sexual license. Harzewski’s selections of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1970) are more problematic. Her contention that these “mental illness” stories anticipate the appearance of a “neurotic” protagonist in chick lit strains credulity on two levels: can characters who struggle with confidence and self-esteem issues accurately be called neurotic? And more importantly, can the serious portraits of mental illness in Plath’s and Atwood’s novels be compared to the lighthearted, humorous travails of chick lit heroines obsessed with their appearance and/or weight? Only Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1972) fits comfortably here, for, as Harzewski notes, not only does it exhibit the self-deprecating humor we associate with chick lit and share the genre’s critique of modern dating pressures on women, it has been cited by “Jennifer Weiner and Melissa Senate as a founding text of the chick lit genre” (133).

While Harzewski has extended the range of texts that might form part of the genre’s modern history, then, the unevenness of her analysis suggests that more work needs to be done by chick-lit scholars to develop meaningful connections among “feminist bestsellers” of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As the author herself notes, “we need to exercise discernment in claiming titles as chick lit because they are female-oriented, employ first-person narration, or are set in a city. Chick lit should be viewed primarily as a comedic genre deliberately written for women, whose light-heartedness and optimism upstage social criticisms” (147).

This observation makes me question Harzewski’s choice of title, which may lead readers to expect a sustained analysis of chick lit in relation to postfeminist politics, in place of the thorough study of the genre that the book actually provides. In the book’s final chapter, Harzewski does provide a brief overview of the contested definitions of the term postfeminism, concluding that they range from negative (e.g., Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra) to positive (e.g., the various champions of the third-wave feminist movement) to neutral. To be fair, attention to postfeminism has been a recurrent trend of chick-lit criticism, for the two terms were fused in one of chick lit’s first appearances: in a title originally used by Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell for a collection of alternative feminist fiction (and Mazza herself has recounted the story of what she contends is its misappropriation). Whelehan has also claimed in The Feminist Bestseller that “both feminist bestsellers of the 1970s and the bestselling genre loosely known as chick lit are in dialogue with feminism” (5). Perhaps given that the overwhelming majority of chick lit novels are written by women about women and for women, attention to feminist politics is both inevitable and necessary. Certainly, one can argue, as Harzewski, Whelehan and others have, that chick lit novels dramatize, with great verisimilitude, the social realities facing contemporary young women as they negotiate a shifting set of expectations for career and relationships—at least those women who are educated, urban and white.[1] However, to the chagrin of some critics, such as Tasker and Negra, they do not engage directly with feminist politics. So it may be misleading to define chick lit, as Harzewski does, as “the most culturally visible form of postfeminist fiction” (8) without a clear definition of postfeminist. At various times in her book, the term is used to describe “a confusion of girlhood and womanhood” (9), “a manifestation of the spirit of capitalism being displaced onto the intimate life” (100), a negotiation of “the tensions between feminism and femininity” (150), and an “insistence on the right to female sexual pleasure” (152).

Harzewski appears to come closest to agreeing with Rosalind Gill that a postfeminist “sensibility” characterizes chick lit. She claims that “chick lit as a temper of postfeminism seems to express the fact that feminism’s gains in the professional arena have not abated the desire for romance” (180). As such it is not “antifeminist” (181), but does not offer an identifiable political position at all. And it might be worth asking whether it is right to expect works of literature—even or especially those written by women—to do so. As Harzewski claims, “it is not fully fair to judge chick lit as a template for some twenty-first-century transnational feminist how-to guide” (192).

The strength of this book lies, not in considering chick lit as a manifestation of postfeminism, however it’s defined, but as a group of contemporary literary texts with ties to classic and popular literature of the past. Its great benefit to chick-lit scholarship is in taking the texts seriously as works of literature, as texts which are often cleverly and creatively engaged in reappropriating and rewriting generic conventions while providing enormous pleasure to readers—and not just women. Just as not all romance fiction should be dismissed as formulaic, nor should all chick lit be written off as disposable, commercial trash. Instead, selected works deserve scholarly attention and reward serious literary study. Harzewski has outlined some possible directions such an analysis might take, by considering chick lit’s generic conventions and situating the texts in the history of popular romantic fiction. Her work paves the way for scholars of both romance and chick lit to take up the threads of her investigation or to pursue other directions of literary analysis.

Works Cited

Butler, Pamela and Jigna Desai. “Manolos, Marriage, and Mantras: Chick-lit Criticism and Transnational Feminism.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8 (2008): 1-31. Print.

Donadio, Rachel. “The Chick-Lit Pandemic.” New York Times. March 19, 2006. Web.

Ferriss, Suzanne and Mallory Young. Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Gibbons, Fiachra. “Stop Rubbishing Chick Lit, Demands Novelist.” The Guardian 21 Aug. 2003. Web.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2007): 147-166. Print.

— and Elena Herdieckerhoff. “Rewriting the Romance: New Femininities in Chick Lit?” Feminist Media Studies 6 (2006): 487-504. Print.

Guerrero, Lisa A. “Sistahs Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 87-101. Print.

Hale, Elizabeth. “Long Suffering Females: The Case of Nanny Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 103-118. Print.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Print.

Lynch, Deidre. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Mazza, Cris. “Who’s Laughing Now?: A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 17-28. Print.

Séllei, Nóra. “Bridget Jones and Hungarian Chick Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 173-189. Print.

Tasker, Yvonne and Diane Negra. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Wells, Juliette. “Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 47-70. Print.

Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

[1] Harzewski questions “the social accuracy of postfeminism as a descriptive term” and asks “whether this term can still be used responsibly outside the context of white Anglo-American metropolitan feminism” (23). This may explain her book’s paucity of allusions to varieties of chick lit that feature protagonists who are not exclusively white Britons or Americans. While limited, there are examples of chick lit that feature African-American, Eastern European, Indonesian, Indian, and Hispanic protagonists (see, for example, Butler and Desai, Donadio, Guerrero, and Séllei).


Review: Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre

Review by Johansen Quijano

The academic community has shown an increasing amount of interest in romance literature, in particular in romance novels, during the past decade. With scholars like Lisa Fletcher, Diana Holmes, and Pamela Regis dedicating volumes to the scholarly study of popular romance fiction, and with critical readings of individual works carving out an increasing space in academic publications, romance studies can only expect to grow and diversify into the study of romance in other genres and media. This is what Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, published by McFarland, attempts to do—explore issues of romance, sexuality, and eroticism in boys’ love, or yaoi, literature.

The first collection of its kind in the English language, Boys’ Love Manga is a compilation of fourteen essays dedicated to discussing and analyzing the implications of the boys’ love genre and its readership. The text attempts to create a comprehensive volume that thoroughly analyzes various factors related to boys’ love manga by arranging the essays into three major sections.  The first focuses on the global publishing market for boys’ love manga, the second section offers analyses of the genre and its readership, and the third focuses on “Boys’ Love and Perceptions of the Queer.”

The first section of the book, “Boys’ Love and Global Publishing,” focuses on the growth, spread, and commercialization of boys’ love as a genre. More informative than argumentative, the section opens with an essay by Hope Donovan which contrasts the gifting culture which allowed fans to be creators and distributors of boy’s love manga with the capitalist economies that currently dominate the genre in the U.S. This is followed by an essay by Paul M. Malone which details the evolution of boys’ love and yaoi fandom in Germany and an essay by Yamila Abraham which sheds light on both the fans and artists who make up boys’ love communities in Indonesia. Reflecting the perspectives of a scholar, a representative of the publishing industry, and a manga artist, this section is by no means comprehensive, but it is an excellent starting point for those wanting to learn about the nuances of the economic and cultural contexts for boys’ love fandom at the global level.

Scholars looking for insight into depictions of romance or sexuality in boys’ love manga will find the second section of the text, “Genre and Readership,” more useful than the first, as will anime and manga scholars interested in issues of romance and sexuality. In this section, the volume emphasizes the connection between boys’ love and popular romance research. Contributors M. M. Blair, Dru Pagliassotti, and Tan Bee Kee, for example, draw on Janice Radway’s ethnographic studies of the popular romance readership as inspiration for their work, with Blair tracing reader attitudes towards female characters in boys’ love manga and Pagliassotti clarifying the structural connections that can be made between the narratives of romance fiction and boys’ love manga:  an argument he frames with additional help from Pamela Regis’ account of the eight essential elements of the Western romance novel.  Using a research approach that is closer to the social sciences, Tan Bee Kee’s essay on Weiss Kreuz fanfiction is the only piece that deals with a specific title. This essayist’s notion of romance scholarship may be a bit outdated—the piece relies heavily on research from the late 70s and early 80s and skips over the feminist scholars that other authors in this section rely on—but his comments on yaoi as a transgressive genre are quite interesting, and complement an interest in transgression elsewhere in the section, and in the volume more generally.

Two other essays in this section will be of particular interest to scholars of popular romance in other media.  As she examines the authors’ forewords and concluding comments of boy’s love volumes, Marni Stanley draws on psychoanalysis to make the case that women’s interest in boys’ love manga does not come due to a desire to compensate for what she calls a “feminine lack”; rather, she argues, the genre empowers its female readership sexually and encourages them to imagine transgressive moments of eroticism: a claim that will sound quite familiar to scholars of popular romance fiction. Mark John Isola’s essay on yaoi and slash fiction, meanwhile, considers the similarities and differences between what he considers to be the Eastern and Western manifestations of the same impulses, so that these two can be seen, in effect, as subsets of the same transnational genre. Isola’s piece is particularly useful because it explains the differences in production and distribution of yaoi and slash fiction, as well as the economic incentives—or lack thereof—that drive their authors.

The last section of this volume considers issues of homosexuality and homoeroticism in boys’ love manga and how they relate to queer theory. Some of these essays discuss specific boys’ love titles, which makes for a refreshing change of pace from the ethnographic focus presented up to this point; notably Mark McHarry’s piece, which uses the boys’ love manga Song of the Wind and Trees to discuss how gay identity can be developed through projected experience. Others take a more skeptical approach.  Neil K. Akatsuka, for example, explores how the emphasis on feminine agency in these novels enacts a subtle “disavowal of homosexuality” in them, and he questions the actual queerness of the genre.  Mark Vicars and Kim Senior offer what amounts to a collection of short essays on a variety of topics related to boys’ love, mostly focusing on narrative, reader response, and issues of public reception. Returning to an ethnographic approach, Alexis Hall presents research in order to support the argument that American yaoi readers bring their own assumptions of sexual identity into their interpretation of the text while Alan Williams draws on the scholarship of academics like Mark McLelland and James Welker to explore the appeal of yaoi for the gay and lesbian communities. Concluding the volume, Uli Meyer attempts to bring discourse analysis into the analysis of yaoi texts, expanding the range of theoretical perspectives used to frame discussions of the genre, its readers, and its fans.

Boys’ Love Manga is a remarkably useful introduction to boys’ love texts and to the culture of boys’ love fandom.  It would serve as an excellent text for a course on manga and anime culture, sexuality and media, or romance in popular culture, and anyone who is unfamiliar with the genre or its conventions would be well served to pick up this volume. Seasoned manga scholars may find that it falls a bit short, especially because of its lack of close analyses of individual works; and the inclusion of pieces from authors related to the publishing and artistic industries, which admittedly provides fresh perspectives, also takes away from the overall academic ethos of the volume. As the first text of its type in the English language, however, this volume is a step well-taken in the expanding field of popular romance studies.  It should open the door to future, more in-depth scholarship on boys’ love manga, and on the production and consumption of popular romance in a transnational context.


Review: Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult Romance Novel, by Amy S. Pattee

Review by Kay Mussell

As a pre-teen reader in suburban Virginia, Amy Pattee and her twin sister Ellie, like many of their contemporaries, were avid consumers of the Sweet Valley High series of romances.   As an adult and a scholar, Pattee is Associate Professor of Library and Information Science at Simmons College, where she also teaches classes on children’s and adolescent literature.  In her study of the Sweet Valley High phenomenon, Pattee builds on her own early fascination with the imagined lives of twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield and evaluates the popularity and significance of the series in a multi-disciplinary context.   Drawing on interviews with former readers as well as scholarship from romance studies, critical literary theory, publishing history and economics, studies of children’s and adolescent literature, and popular commentary from published sources and the blogosphere, Reading the Adolescent Romance is a comprehensive and valuable addition to our knowledge of the cultural meanings of this enormously popular phenomenon.

Sweet Valley High, which began in 1983, was a publishing and media empire created and directed by Francine Pascal, who conceived the series, structured the plots, and worked with the actual writers of the franchise.  Although the characters were in high school, the initial target audience was girls in late elementary or middle school.  Set in California, the books featured gorgeous and popular identical twins Elizabeth, the good girl, and Jessica, the bad (or mischievous and self-absorbed) girl, along with a large supporting cast of their friends, competitors, and adversaries.  The plots focused on such teenage concerns as popularity, dating behavior, personal appearance, drugs and other temptations, romantic relationships, rivalries, and jealousy.  In addition to the original series, Pascal also created several spin-offs describing the twins’ lives before and after high school, along with a television series featuring the characters.  Some of the original books from the 1980s have been updated and reissued.

The Sweet Valley High books belong to two categories that are often devalued by critics:  romance fiction and teen series books (for example, Nancy Drew and others published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate).  Unlike scholars who study literary or canonical writers, many critics who analyze romances and adolescent series do not read or never have read these books for their own pleasure, which may lead to condescension toward the books and their readers.   In addition, romance scholarship often suffers from a small sample size or randomly chosen texts for analysis as a corollary to the assumption by some critics that all romances are alike.  Scholarship on fiction for children and adolescents, inevitably written by adult authority figures, usually privileges “realistic” novels with an acceptable message over the novels that teenagers may choose for themselves.  For critics who value originality in literature, the repetitive reading in both genres may be viewed as limiting or negative, rather than as a source of pleasure, as it surely is.  Pattee’s approach to her subject overcomes many of these problems.   Because her sample is both finite and comprehensive (that is, she knows the entire Sweet Valley corpus thoroughly), her conclusions are based on extensive evidence from a coherent body of work to which she brings multiple perspectives.   Because she interrogates her own former pleasure in reading the series, she effectively bridges the gap between readers’ self-selection of books they enjoy and the values of adult critics.  Within the theoretical contexts she uses, her close readings of many of the texts are deft and illuminating.

An important contribution of this fine study comes from Pattee’s in-depth interviews with a small group of former readers, including her sister.  The interviews focused on why readers found such pleasure in the series and why and when they stopped reading them, thus examining not only the stated reasons why the Sweet Valley books appealed to pre-teen and adolescent girls but also how reading tastes (and adult reinterpretations of their own experiences) change with age.  Former readers reported that they initially read Sweet Valley High in part as a kind of preview of what high school would be like.  Because the books were about girls who were older than they, reading gave younger girls the illusion of being mature and sophisticated.  While adult critics, teachers, librarians, and parents often discouraged girls from their interest in Sweet Valley High, the former readers experienced reading the books as subtly subversive or as a mild rebellion against adult authority.  As readers grew in ability to read critically, they too began to see the series as formulaic; and when the promised glamour of high school failed to materialize, most moved on to other kinds of books.  In the interviews, they describe both their initial pleasure and their subsequent more negative attitude.  In retrospect, some say they would not recommend that girls read the books, despite their own pleasurable experience with them.

The responses of Pattee’s interviewees, however, are not the only model for adult reinterpretation of the reading experiences of childhood and adolescence.  Pattee notes that some other former readers have started web sites in the blogosphere in which they can rail against the series.  In a recent article in The Irish Times Magazine, published after Pattee’s book appeared, writer Anna Carey reports that some former readers have returned to the Sweet Valley books and now read them for their “comic potential.”  “Indeed, the awfulness is part of what makes the books so entertaining to the many grown-up fans who write hilariously snarky recaps of the books on websites,” she writes.

Finally, Pattee’s study provides valuable groundwork for pursuing the larger question of how reading patterns change as readers change and grow.  We do not know enough about how individual readers (or interpretive communities of readers) develop over time, or even if certain kinds of reading for pleasure lead to the choice of other predictable genres.  Do readers of Nancy Drew become avid consumers of crime fiction?  If so, which of the many varieties of crime fiction do they favor?  Do readers of Sweet Valley High become readers of adult romances?  If so, which of the many romance genres are most appealing?  What insights can we find in longitudinal studies of reading for pleasure?  Amy Pattee’s book points toward ways of posing and answering questions such as these.

Work Cited

Carey, Anna. “So Bad They’re Good.” The Irish Times Magazine June 25, 2011. Print.


“Romancing the Past: History, Love, and Genre in Vincent Ward’s River Queen” by Roger Nicholson

There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.
(W. G. Sebald. ‘An Attempt at Restitution’)

I fell in love with Ngoungou, for he was a very fine looking Maori indeed, and he took me to be his wife according to Maori custom. There was feasting to celebrate our union.
(Caroline Perrett, ‘My Life Among the Maoris’)

Hayden White argues that history supplies its truths in forms of narrative, “mapping the limits of the imaginary and the real which begins with the invention of fiction itself” (Content of the Form 45). This paper tests those limits by focusing on two specific couplings of historiography and “fiction itself”: history and film, history and romance. My concern is with the impact of such blending, when romance seems to disturb the settled terrain of the historical record, as it often does in film, refiguring an established historical sequence of events and altering the cast of known actors. Romance, film scholars tend to say, figures in such a case because of its capacity to coerce the attention of the viewing audience, at some cost to that audience’s comprehension of events or relations between them (Toplin History by Hollywood 19). For Hayden White, however, the blending of “history” and “fiction” is structural, involving narrative modes derived from a common, cultural repertoire. Emplotment, in this account, orders understanding: “[narrativization] does not reproduce the events it describes; it tells us in what direction to think about the events and charges our thought about the events with different emotional valences” (Tropics of Discourse 85). White’s argument implies that fiction’s shaping work plays out in the context of a single fictional genre, a single “direction.” I argue, however, that tensions between and within genres bear significantly on the viewer’s sense of the historical past. Romance, for example, may be inherently hybrid: an impure genre (or tissue of genres) that may in fact lend itself, in a filmmaker’s hands, to the critical and revisionist project of historiographic metafiction.[1]

My primary case for this discussion is River Queen, a recent film (2005) by the New Zealand director Vincent Ward, where a remarkable love story is built into an equally sensational history of colonial warfare, as if the one both demanded and explained the other. Ward’s film begins, in effect, with competing texts: a diary and a map. The former is insistently personal, since the author—Sarah O’Brien, who is not known to history, but has historical foremothers—speaks of this record of her days as confessional and therapeutic; furthermore, since this introduction anticipates the final frames of the film, the diary has the force of testimony, as if this private, intimate history were the history that counts, a tale of exceptional suffering and heroic devotion, but also of romantic passion. The map works differently. As an aerial shot of the territory across which Sarah’s questing romance will range, it signals more immediately the public, geo-political dimensions of the colonial history into which her life is bound. A screen note briefly details this larger historical situation—the defining mid-nineteenth century period of the New Zealand Wars, when imperial and colonial government forces engaged in a string of battles with Maori tribes over issues of land and sovereignty. The very final action of the film is to acknowledge “with respect,” in the credits, the historical figures whose lives provided models for the film’s main protagonists, the questing Sarah, but also the insurgent Maori chief, Te Kai Po. The map and these framing screen notes, then, appear to define the film’s work as quasi-documentary, re-presenting an historical moment, even as the narrative that plays out between them focuses as much on a love story as it does on a political conflict.

We might conclude, then, that Ward’s film illustrates Pierre Sorlin’s familiar, broad conclusion—“Historical films are all fictional”(38)—in redrafting the historical record as an invented text of personal experience. “It is very seldom,” Sorlin writes, “that a film does not pass from the general to the particular, and arouse interest by concentrating on personal cases; this is one of the most direct forms of the appeal to identification” (38). More is involved, however. No matter whether a film aims to present a strictly historical narrative or just to tell a tale that has historical valency, presentation of historical action at a personal level inevitably produces a “distorted image of society” (41), at least insofar as large, social conflicts are played out as if they depend on the will and virtue of the individual, historical actor. Furthermore, the story of the individual actor—hero or heroine—means that the historical narrative is “arbitrarily shaped by the conventions of the genre”; genre places limits on “the course of events,” since it “requires a fixed organization of the story material” (41-42). In the filmic text, then, genre is the sign of fiction’s interference with the historical record.

This generic organization is not hard to see in River Queen. The film’s representation of the New Zealand Wars may centre loosely around one exemplary, historical engagement, but as the film progresses, continued military action devolves into a set of skirmishes, minimally explained, lacking the definition of a campaign. Ward makes narrative, intelligible sense of this otherwise shapeless history by threading it on the remorseless linearity of romance, since the film begins with the heroine, Sarah O’Brien, and lasts long enough for her to discover love, suffer in its cause, and finally settle into a happy future, the demands of passion finding a complex but conventional resolution. The film thus seems clearly to illustrate Hayden White’s argument that historical emplotment is a kind of “performance,” with “the choice of the story type and its imposition on events” serving to “endow them with meaning” (Content of the Form 44).[2]

Yet in River Queen the coupling of history and romance is demonstrably no easy relation, largely because romance is, itself, impossible to reduce to a single “story type.”[3] Before it proves to be the generic vehicle for a familiar passion, the film’s romance-as-love-story catches into itself other, equally enduring versions of romance as a genre, and in the process, other, more dangerous histories. River Queen employs the venerable traditions of the quest romance, and specifically a quest romance that revolves around the recovery of a lost child: a motif that goes back through Shakespeare to ancient Greek Romances and which is also a politically-charged antipodean tale, in fantasy and in fact (Pierce). And even the love history itself—the romance within the romance—must negotiate the erotic and cultural ambiguities of the captivity narrative, a romance subgenre that flourished in colonial societies, itself a striking instance of the interweaving of history and fiction. To say that history is “arbitrarily shaped by the conventions of the genre” (Sorlin 41) cannot do justice to the kind of internal variety and sophistication we see in River Queen, where there is no one “fixed organization of the story material” (42). Rather, history here is shaped by the tensions that form between the film’s distinct narrative genres and subgenres, and those tensions—as well as those genres—give the film’s version of history its affective turn.

Recovering the historical moment.

The historian Robert Brent Toplin, surveying the popular historical film, sees Hollywood’s deployment of “elements of romance” in such films as a way to “enhance audience interest”—and, by extension, to increase profits (19). Such an approach, however, ends up treating a film’s un-historical elements simply as instances of conventional storytelling, the stuff of emotional or ideological manipulation. It cannot account for the internal dynamics of a film’s constituent genres, nor for the artistic and intellectual subtlety achieved through the interplay between various genres and subgenres in an impure, generically blended text like River Queen. Indeed, the generic complexity of River Queen properly suggests not a commodified history-making, but a sustained effort to call a privileged historical account into question—the grand narrative of colonialism and its well-disciplined practices—in line with the textual activity that Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction. A film’s play between narrative orders may not be standard academic historical practice, that is to say, but it can call familiar interpretations of the past into question and draw attention to other, unobserved centres of sympathy, triggering perceptions that do not accord with standard understandings of the historical moment. Showing love in history, for example, when historiography is seldom interested in the question of love, may give to private and emotional life—and, although these are by no means identical, can give to a woman—what public national ‘history’ so seldom gives to any of these, the larger part.

In his own comments on River Queen, Ward has claimed that a primary objective was to produce a “woman’s film,” in the sense that the woman was to be the leading figure, not limited by or to the actions and activities conventionally assigned to women. [4] In truth, part of the ethos of nineteenth-century colonial romance fiction (including adventure stories, colonial love stories, and tales of settlement) was the independence, the enlarged range that it awarded to its young women, a reflection of the real world demands made of their mothers, whose workaday responsibilities seldom stopped at the front door, but took in much that related to the larger economy of the rural homestead. River Queen reflects this earlier, colonial model of the resourceful wife and mother, although the scene within which the enterprising woman acts is radically altered, turning from the orderliness of the homestead, where conflict is essentially personal, to the site of armed hostilities—not the normal territory for a Victorian woman, even in the colonies. Ward’s sensitivity to colonial gender relations, nevertheless, shows in the skills he allows to his heroine, as healer and nurse, but not surgeon; nursing did give women a role close to battle.[5]

Like other popular histories, River Queen tends to compose a narrative out of the competing desires of its leading characters to bring history into line with their wills: oppositions that are more immediately personal than political. Nevertheless, at the very outset, Sarah is placed by her relation to the land and to the colonial contest for land; in a sense, the action of the film is to give her the right to settle. The film initiates this action by opening up into a significant space, with an aerial view of a great river, Te Awa Nui, winding through the land, but laid out before us, as if a territory or domain is being mapped, as I have already noted. This camera’s gaze descends to the level of the river itself; space contracts into gorges and the winding river is suddenly peopled. The gorges wall the river, as if they mark the main path through this wilderness, but also construct an extraordinary set of fortifications.[6] The visual sensibility that Ward displays here seems completely in line with his painterly reputation; the combination of the establishing shot and the abrupt introduction of his leading characters also suggest the narrative economy of romance. And more is involved, it must be said, for a local audience, for whom the beauty of these scenes is creased with anxiety: the film was actually shot on the most symbolically fraught of New Zealand rivers, the Whanganui, a site of deep loyalties and intense hostilities, guilt and tapu.[7]

Much of the violent contest that makes up the spectacular action of the film, played out between the opposing hosts of British invader and Maori indigene, is organised in terms of upriver and downriver. It is also played out over the body of the young woman, Sarah (Samantha Morton), daughter of an army doctor, stationed in a frontier garrison some distance upriver. According to Sarah herself (in the voice-over that registers her role as diarist, war historian, and first-person narrator), the garrison is the most remote in the British Empire, fixing the border between the territories of Maori and Pakeha (the English settler).[8] As war breaks out, Sarah, having fallen in love with a local Maori youth (who has died from the “choking sickness”) and having given birth to their child, now hunts for her lover’s father, since, seven years on, he has captured her son, to be brought up in his own family. The war, historians tell us, was about land and sovereignty, but here the war is also about who gets to keep the child—and since no limits are set on Sarah’s search for her son, it is also about which community finally gets to hold the body of the woman: white settler society or Maori tribe.

The film thus plays on the familiar trope by which the woman’s body represents the colonial domain, and from the anxious, settler point of view, Sarah’s quest puts her at risk of being slaughtered or sexually violated. More, though, is at stake than the threat to Sarah. Rather, Ward emphasizes, there is also threat from Sarah’s actions, which embody the coloniser’s horror of going native. Major Baine (Anton Lesser), the commander of the British colonial forces, describes women who take Maori husbands as committing a crime, in a time of war, tantamount to treason. Sarah’s engagement with the enemy manifestly calls into question the legitimacy of British rule and colonial government, and it exposes the racist antipathies that undergird imperialism. “White woman join the rebels? Can’t allow that,” Baine says. Indeed, in order to take her search for her son into regions that would normally be barred against her, crossing the line between Pakeha and Maori, Sarah responds to a summons made by Wiremu Katene (Cliff Curtis), her son’s uncle, to employ her notable skills to treat the ailing Maori chief and war-leader Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison), an act which might well be considered treasonous. As Sarah travels upriver on this double mission, she is blindfolded, and the camera stays very close to her, emphasizing at once her powerlessness and her indomitable will.

Men’s bodies, too, are at issue in the film. Cinematic passages show off Maori bodies, in battle and in battle challenge—the haka—and the camera never awards the opposed forces of the colonial government anything like the same desirous gaze. This gaze has its historical antecedents: like the Zulus, the Maori resisted the mid-nineteenth century expansion of British imperial dominion with a prowess and tactical intelligence that gave them a reputation as a warrior people, not easily subdued (Belich); in the case of the Zulu, this inspired a period fetishism of black bodies.[9] Historical references to haka as war-dance likewise warrant its presence in the film, although it surely functions here primarily as a global sign of Maori-dom, displaying a theatrical aesthetics, compounded of ceremony, muscularity and monstrous wit. Like other popular media of historical reenactment, then—from sophisticated, quasi-theatrical performances to popular reality television programs like Colonial House, Frontier House, 1900 House, etc.; in Australia and New Zealand, The Colony, Outback House, Pioneer House (West)—Ward’s film mixes spectacle with experience, offering viewers an affective, embodied engagement with the past. As Ricoeur says of the affective historical text, in this film the audience can “imaginatively ‘enter’ a reconstructed past world as an attempt to grasp the feelings and decisions that instigate historical events” (Ricoeur 54),[10] here including “feelings” that are distinctly erotic, inspired by the camera’s attention to male Maori bodies. We are invited, that is to say, into an edgy confederacy with the vital forces of Maori insurgency, a confederacy that mixes moral judgement on colonial aggression with both fear and desire.

The complexity of our response to the Maori insurgents plays out most vividly in the film’s portrayal of two men: Wiremu Katene, Ward’s romantic protagonist, but also a leading Maori insurgent in the film (as in fact), and Te Kai Po, who, in the real world of the historical past, was Titokowaru, a brilliant general and a significant political strategist. For the film, as for the citizens of colonial Wanganui, terror finds a sensational source in the latter, who taunts his opponents—in history and in the film—with the most fantastically dreadful of endings:

“I have begun to eat human flesh and my throat is constantly open for the flesh of man. I shall not die; I shall not die. When death itself is dead I shall be alive.” (Belich 57)

Titokowaru despatched this warning on June 25, 1868. When it is restated in Ward’s film, it charges the fictive colonial moment with the full force of its original mix of violence and apprehension. Ward has spoken of his interest in investigating such sites of resistance to imperial power in territories that Europeans sought to dominate in the late nineteenth century, from Japan to Africa, from North America to New Zealand. This was, he says, “a volatile time, full of unique contrasts” (“Inspiration”). Titokowaru’s war was indeed extraordinarily “volatile,” not least in the shifting alliances that saw certain Maori tribes support Titokowaru, while others, known as kupapa,[11] opposed his ambitions, supporting instead the colonial effort to destroy his armed resistance to European expansionism. Caught between cultures, Wiremu Katene— the only one of the film’s central characters to retain his historical name—participates in the partisan flux performed in and between the battles staged in the film, just as he did in fact. As a Maori warrior, he embodies the constant threat felt by settler society, but as the film’s darkly impossible lover for Sarah, he embodies the eroticism of the Other, and thus the tensions, divisions, and barriers that conventionally spark passion in the love-story romance. Fashioning and refashioning his problematic identity, he is, like Sarah, a figure of unsettling possibility.

Through the film’s quest romance and love story plots, then, Ward presses romance (in multiple senses of the word) into a compact with history, retrieving and restaging moments of possibility from the tangled, even contradictory historical record. For example, if Titokowaru’s war backs the film’s narrative—offering both an historical analogue for the film’s action and the useful coherence of a known campaign—the film invites us to recall that Titokowaru’s relationship with settler society began in peace, before he became a warrior, and it ended when, undefeated, if not victorious, he progressed from battles into renewed commerce with the settlers. [12] His extraordinary life furthermore included, in legend at least, a curious incident following his Taranaki campaign. He fell ill and called on the services of an English woman, Ann Evans, who had been a nurse before migrating to New Zealand, where she married and eventually settled as homesteader and “healer” in Waihi—in the middle of the territory across which Titokowaru had waged his war (Belich 281). Ann, like Sarah, was brought blindfolded to Titokowaru’s sickbed. Ward couples this event to a second, largely unconnected narrative, concerning the abduction of a young Pakeha girl, Caroline Perrett, and relocates these stories to the very centre of the action, braiding them together with the historical campaign report to produce the charged, personal narrative of Sarah O’Brien’s quest.[13] Heroism ends up located in the play of feeling between boundary-crossing lovers or between mother and child, and not in the brutal, male clamour of conquest and resistance that makes up both public history and another genre that bears on the film, the epic.

Romance in captivity: the problem of culture.

Ward’s own comments on the fictions he most values—the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Beowulf—suggest the filmmaker’s interest in epic, and River Queen has been read by other scholars in this context.[14] Certainly there is an epic scope and agency to the film’s unusually active heroine, crafted out of local memories of the extraordinary lives of two women. My sense, however, is that epic ultimately defers to romance in River Queen, just as official history gives way to local legend. These shifts in emphasis connect the film less to the cinematic genre of the “woman’s film” than to a much older literary antecedent, the captivity narrative. This frontier genre gained tremendous currency in the New World, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, especially in America, but it was also widespread elsewhere: the early, historical publication of Caroline Perrett’s life among the Maori is one of many instances in Australasia.[15] From its earliest instances, this genre mixed fact and fantasy, public and private history, spiritual and ideological virtues and traditions, as a rule in service of demonstrating, at least on the surface, the virtues of white settler society.[16] Aesthetically, the captivity narrative combined “the large-scale, panoramic and global, with the small-scale, the individual, and the particular” (17): a strategy that Ward echoes in the interlocking campaign and quest histories of River Queen.

In Ward’s adaptation of the captivity narrative, captivity itself remains occluded, in that Ward refigures this history as the quest of a mother for her lost child. Yet as I have noted, Sarah’s quest begins with her being ferried upriver, blind-folded, which robs her of freedom and places her in the power of a boatload of (in the genre’s terms) “savage” warriors.[17] Captivity narratives, including Caroline Perrett’s, commonly provided quasi-ethnographical observations; here Sarah’s dealings with Te Kai Po, Wiremu Katene, and her son mean that we learn a great deal about Maori tribal society, especially at war. Sexual threat, a recurrent feature of the genre, is present too, but represented obliquely; it is in her time in Te Kai Po’s pa (a fortified village), that Sarah’s interest in Wiremu Katene is aroused and, indeed, gets noted—even by her son—in a context where sexuality is by no means over-ruled by seemliness. Where male captives might develop sexual and familial alliances with women among their captors, the women who do so in the genre are few, exceptional, and largely condemned: Sarah belongs in this company. To borrow a phrase from Kate McCafferty, a scholar of modern American captivity narratives, the whole production proves to be a “palimpsest of desire” (43-56). Beneath the public, military history, with its conflicting political desires, lies a layer of romance, marked by eroticism and private longing, but beneath the integument of romance lies the tangle of desires characteristic of capitivity narrative, xenophobic and xenophilic, reactionary and progressive, political and private.

The genre of the captivity narrative is far too large and far too American to be discussed here in detail. It is worth remembering, however, the scale of captivity and narrativisation at stake in the genre’s development worldwide: captivities in their thousands, producing narratives in their hundreds. [18] Numbers like these support the foundational, prototypical importance of the genre, especially in the American tradition, even as they suggest the impossibility of settling on a single definition of it or of the cultural work it performed. Certainly the captivity narrative changed over time, as white settlement spread from Puritan New England to the West, across the American plains, with the captivity narrative called on to answer to new cultural needs and fashions (Kolodny 187). Yet even if, as Kay Schaffer and D’Arcy Randall argue, these narratives are properly viewed as “cultural artefacts that helped to produce rather than reflect asymmetrical hierarchies of gender, race and class,” they also encode counter-narratives, alternative histories or resistant facts (109).[19] In particular, despite the fact that women are so often the victims, or get called on to collude in the male’s passion for domination, the captivity narratives constantly, collectively, turn their gaze upon women who, one way or another, are busy changing the scene. As June Namias puts it:

In this literature, white women participate fully in the so-called rise of civilization. In fact, what is significant about the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century representations of this material is that women are not only there, but they are frequently at the center of stories, histories and illustrations (23).[20]

Long before the “woman’s film,” the captivity narrative offered a genre in which to tell a heroic woman’s story in a surprising place, where women were subdued, suffered from a fundamental loss of community and close family and maybe survived, or even flourished, by virtue of accepting enforced marriage or sexual alliance: all elements central to River Queen.

Since American captivity narratives are so numerous, it’s tempting to conclude that its prominence is a sign of American exceptionalism: a reflex encouraged, perhaps, by the conventions of American captivity narrative itself. But comparable narratives were composed and published elsewhere, where other settlers were locked in conflict with other indigenes.[21] The Australian ‘Eliza Fraser’ narrative, for example, is quite as complicated, in content and publication history (including film), as any of the major American stories.[22] More to my immediate purpose, some one hundred and forty cases of captivity were recorded in New Zealand, several of which were turned into narrative (Bentley 11). Vincent Ward may well have been influenced by examples of filmed captivity narrative, like Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans;[23] it is quite as likely, however, that, in discovering Caroline Perrett, he also came across other New Zealand examples, a few of which include enforced marriage of some kind.[24] He could indeed have found fictional examples in nineteenth-century novels like H. A. Forde’s Across Two Seas, where, for instance, the four year old daughter of a settler family is abducted by a Maori band.[25]

River Queen both echoes and revises the conventions of captivity narrative—or, to be more precise, it draws on multiple narrative and political possibilities already existing within the genre. As her seven year quest develops, for example, Sarah is by turns both captive and rescuer. When she rescues her son, she finds that he has identified fully with his Maori family and is obdurate in his resistance to being returned to Pakeha society, and she decides to stay with him and join the Maori community, in order to maintain her family. As a result, Sarah is again made captive, and needs to be rescued—but the “captors” this time are those who would “rescue” and return her to Pakeha settlement, so that she must now be freed not by but from the colonial forces. If this twist foregrounds Sarah’s refusal to accept white society’s expectations of white women, in particular with regard to love, sex and marriage, subtexts within the captivity narrative back up this move. Overtly, these texts tend to condemn the woman who takes a man across racial lines; but they also repeatedly accommodate such transgression, affirming the priority of a woman’s choice of life in a different, opposed society. The last of the New Zealand captivity stories, Caroline Perrett’s, seems particularly relevant in this context (Bentley 212-35).

Lost in the bush as an eight year old child in 1879, Caroline was in fact abducted by a Maori tribe, apparently in revenge for her father’s desecration of Maori burial sites (as in River Queen). She was not rescued until 1926, when family recognised her for who she was by birth. In effect, she had lived her entire life as Maori, possessed indeed a Maori sense of difference from Pakeha; she loved and married Maori husbands, twice, with whom she had several children; in the event, she was by no means willing to give up her Maori life and family.

Love’s triumphs: new worlds.

The history of women captured, but choosing to live with their captors, taking lovers and husbands from among them—a history that already, itself, partakes of romance—helps Ward negotiate the sometimes conflicting demands of historiography and love story in River Queen. Clearly it supports the final turn in this story, when Sarah takes her Maori lover, Wiremu Katene, and chooses for herself a Maori family. Hers remains, however, an exceptionally difficult romance: unlikely on the face of it, threading its way through other, more pressing affairs, including both the military business that surrounds and interrupts her love story and her persistent, equally complicating effort to regain her son. Again Caroline Perrett comes to mind, for whom the declaration “I love you” seems to have been momentous, even if she can barely speak the words, since there is so much else to do, as wife and mother in her tribal community. Sarah, too, finds a great deal to be done, and although the demands on her are not so flatly domestic as they seem to have been for Perrett, they do tend to crowd her sexual passions from the screen, and even to undercut the popular romance genre’s conventional emphasis on a betrothal or marriage. Sarah does momentarily play at being a bride, but she perversely acts out this game with a mortally wounded Irish soldier, her father’s erstwhile companion Private Doyle, not with Wiremu Katene; for Sarah to say “I love you,” however, demands that she abandon Doyle, if only for a time, in order to meet Wiremu Katene, still in her theatrical gown, and to join him in a rough coupling that certainly shows their attraction, their sexual chemistry, but hardly serves as a climactic betrothal or marriage.

Indeed, the portrayal of romantic love between Sarah and Wiremu Katene in River Queen is mostly covert, a matter of glancing agreement, not fully acknowledged until very late in its history and, even then, not declared, as both society and the romance genre expect, in an explicit pledge of love. [26]What are we to make of this decision, on Ward’s part, to play down (at least in its tone) the love relationship that is otherwise so crucial to the film’s narrative structure?

One answer may lie in Ward’s negotiation between the different ways that the emotion of love is coded in different narrative genres, and the risks that are run when those genres are combined. In academic history, love is virtually invisible, requiring representation in legitimating social relations (e.g., marriages), if it is marked at all. In popular romance, by contrast, the need for affirmation of mutual feeling is paramount, but love is coded first in conventional forms of action that give it duration and a certain dynamic: quest, misunderstanding, exile, discovery, declaration, reconciliation, etc. The emotion of romance, that is to say, is inseparable from the actions of romance, the passion from the narrative. And if, as John Cawelti observes, “the moral fantasy of romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties” (41-2), a more dramatic staging of “love triumphant” at the end of the film might have the effect of reducing everything before it—the immediate dangers of battle, Sarah’s conflicting sympathies, Maori suspicion, and her violent pursuit by colonial troops—to nothing more than a set of “obstacles” she has had to overcome, the disasters that romance, as a genre, requires in order to defer love’s consummation. Love’s triumph would subsume the film’s military and political narratives into the “moral fantasy” of romance; it would, that is to say, romanticize not just history, but war itself, drawing our attention away from the savagery of military action—and the military action in River Queen is, by contrast, resolutely and unromantically portrayed as frightening.

Ward also may be drawing on another dynamic within romance itself: one identified not by Cawelti, but by another American scholar, Pamela Regis. In her Natural History of the Romance Novel, Regis identifies a characteristic movement in the genre from “a state of bondage or constraint to a state of freedom” (15) in which the novel’s protagonists, united at last, represent in microcosm a “new community” (38). This final happiness is frequently preceded by what Regis, following Northrop Frye, calls a “point of ritual death”: a moment in which a tragic conclusion is threatened but ultimately deflected by the romance’s larger comedic action, so that the freedom and new community with which the novel ends represent, in effect, a victory of life over death. Unlike Cawelti, however, Regis does not see this victory as necessarily complete. “Romance novels are a subgenre of comedy,” she explains, but although “the freedom won for the comic hero is total,” the freedom achieved by the romance novel’s heroine remains “provisional” and “constrained” (16). Indeed, she writes that “the heroine’s freedom in the form of her life, her liberty, or her property may be in doubt not only in the original society [ . . . ] but also in the new society at the end of the work” (16), so that the “new society” may seem an improvement over the old, but hardly a perfect wish-fulfilment or utopian ideal.

Regis’s nuanced description of the “new society” promised in the romance novel may help us understand the muted close of River Queen. On the one hand, Sarah O’Brien’s romance plot sees her suffer a “ritual death.” In the film’s final action, she is shot by colonial troops and tumbles into the great river, which then washes her away—but because this is a romance and not a tragedy, to fall into the great river is not to die, but to be carried into a second life downriver, in Castlecliff, at the river’s mouth. Our last sight of Sarah is in a three-cornered embrace with her grownup son and the man whom she loves and with whom she lives in this second life, Wiremu Katene. Their embrace does possess something of the force of a wedding, and it marks the visible emergence of a “new community,” Sarah’s own family, which is separated from a demanding, larger society.

But Ward ensures that we see both the freedom and the lingering constraints upon this community, the complexity of its liminal position vis-à-vis both Maori and Paheka societies. On the one hand, Sarah bears the moko (the chin tattoo) that marks her as both renegade and Maori by adoption. Taking charge of her own body, after the fashion of modern popular romance heroines, she has removed herself decisively from European society, settling with her family in a Maori community on the margins of the larger Pakeha world.[27] But neither Wiremu, her lover, nor Boy, her son, displays the tattoos that signal Maori identity, and we learn that Boy makes his way both confidently and profitably in a Pakeha world—as, in fact, an entrepreneurial tattooist. The defining signs of ethnic identity, then, are employed in the film’s final moments to separate this small community from the race and culture groups to which, at the beginning of their history, they were tied by birth and/or breeding, but also to hint at potential new configurations of connection, signified not just by Sarah’s heroic, maternal quest across racial and cultural lines, but also by Boy and his tattoo business.[28]

Although it is true that romance thrives on transgression, the family tableau of Sarah, Wiremu, and Boy hardly seems reducible to an odd-looking instance of boundary-crossing romantic love. It has the air of ideological allegory, as though miscegenation—New Zealand’s favourite, fraught, national myth—ruled here as the seed of future social and cultural harmony, the symbolic marker of a national cultural identity that refuses to give credit to race differences. (This is not simply a New Zealand phenomenon. As McCafferty points out, in the fictional captivity narratives of modern popular romance, a cross-racial sexual alliance is clearly the norm.) Perhaps, in fact, the point of the embrace lies in the way it signals the hybridity of historical romance itself, a once-colonial narrative mode now affording nostalgic pleasure as it imagines a moment in the national past when, however awkwardly, social and cultural difference could be resolved at the personal level. Historical romance, in this instance, offers a backwards-looking but future-oriented gaze; its future anterior tense, so to speak, at once resets the national clock, recuperates the past, and prefigures the arrival of Aotearoa—a new New Zealand, where whiteness is no longer a guaranteed virtue. It offers, in short, a quasi-magical solution, won by art, for the release of social tensions: a cultural fantasy that speaks poignantly, if indirectly, of the deadening, oppressive reality for which it serves as a form of compensation.

Film, Historiography, and Feeling

The Australian historian Mark McKenna notes the “sheer force of frontier history” that leads writers to feel “they cannot understand the country in which they live without first confronting the history of dispossession.” He argues that “there is never one moment when the past dissolves completely, leaving a new landscape in its wake” (106) It is difficult to resist the feeling that Ward was vulnerable to that kind of pressure and this impossible ambition, to compose just such a “new landscape.” Yet, whatever else he sought to do in this film, he certainly presents with impressive sharpness the material reality of some of the historical events it describes—and judges history by reference to values that orthodox, academic histories would barely recognise. The generic fracturing that makes it possible to locate in his film not only military history and love romance, but also quest, memoir, documentary record, captivity narrative and symbolic vision, suggests that he employs this range of narrative modes in the interest of prosthetic, communal memory (Burgoyne). As “cinematic history,” the film does indeed function as historiographic metafiction, critiquing existing accounts of the past and opening up new versions and visions.

The economy of film as a medium seems to demand compromises with a verifiable, historical truth. At the same time, however, such fictionalised history may generate a sense of the significance of past events, honouring them by giving them the kind of presence where the past is known on the senses, as if it were indeed a collective memory. Hayden White claims that the “value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” (‘Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’ 24). His point about the coherence, but also the fullness sought in historical narrative is fundamental to discussion of relations between history and romance, and peculiarly important in the case of film. Furthermore, in line with the affective turn in historiography, when historical narrative takes the form of romance, for all its limiting concentration on a singular set of characters, it constitutes an argument for a specific, but also intensely engaged apprehension of the past. Film in particular, it is widely acknowledged, offers an historiography that has a power and efficiency that academic history cannot match. It does large-scale action well—battle—it also puts place on show—battle-fields, but also perilous river gorges.[29] It also can deliver intimacy, which, outside such frames, seldom finds expression, or, indeed, even a moment in modern history. Whatever one thinks of its conclusions, The River Queen offers these access routes to the past, perhaps composing what Pierre Nora calls “living history”—which correlates with memory—a more or less public, but personally felt history (7-24). For Raphael Samuel, likewise, this kind of history, which he identifies as “unofficial knowledge,” is the antithesis of hierarchical, esoteric, academic history, that which is written. For him, the critical act in this theatre of memory is testimony, and testimony is capable of working in many forms, from diaries to family photographs. In effect, with all its resources for the making of image and narrative, film may renew testimony and revive memory, with a force and an economy that the printed historical text cannot manage.

In this regard, an emphasis placed upon the value of historical narrative that gives us access to the “structure of feeling” of some moment in the past is particularly useful for an appreciation of the work done by the affective, historical romance, even when the history is told at a remove (Williams 132). Fictional construction of the past, in conveying to us that most radical dimension—feeling—may deliver to us the kind of knowledge that one might argue history cannot do without. Perhaps there is more. W. G. Sebald claims, in taking account of writing about the past, that “only in literature [ . . . ] can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of fact and over and above scholarship” (McKenna 99).[30] My own claim, here, is a good deal smaller: we do not understand this recovery of the past, nor the need for it, if we fail to recognise how the complexity of the literary or filmed history is the consequence of its resources as textual representation. In particular, love’s history, love in history, is bound to be mediated by the complicated operations of embedded or framing genres—including the impure, but powerfully affecting narrative moves of romance.

Works Cited

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—. “I Shall Not Die”: Titokowaru’s War, New Zealand 1868-1869. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1989. Print.

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Brantlinger, Patrick. “Forgetting genocide: or the last of The Last of the Mohicans.” Cultural Studies. 12.1 (1998): 15-30. Print.

Burgoyne, Robert. “Prosthetic memory / traumatic memory: Forrest Gump (1994).” Screening the Past 6 (1999). Web.

Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. Print.

Colley, Linda. Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850. Westminster, MD: Knopf, 2004. Print.

Custen, George F. “Making History.” The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. Ed. Marcia Landy. London: Athlone, 2001. Print.

Dean, Janet. “Romance and Race in The Last of the Mohicans.” Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003. 45-66. Print.

Dixon, Robert. Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955. Print.

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Faery, Rebecca Blevins. Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, & Sex in the Shaping of American Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Gniadek, Melissa. “The Captivity of translation: the legacy of William Barrett Marshall’s Personal Narrative.” International Journal of Francophone Studies. 11.4 (2008): 581-600. Print.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Higgins, John. Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism and Cultural Materialism. Abingdon: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. The History on Film Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

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—. “Among the Indians: The Uses of Captivity.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 21.3/4 (1993): 184-95. Print.

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Low, Gail Ching-Liang, “His Stories? Narratives and Images of Imperialism.” New Formations 12 (1990): 97-123. Print.

—. White Skins/Black Masks: Colonialism and Representation. Abingdon: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Marquis, Claudia. “Romancing the Home: Gender, Empire and the South Pacific.” Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture. Ed. Beverly Clark and Margaret Higonnet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999. Print.

Maynard, Margaret. “Staging Masculinity: Late Nineteenth Century Photographs of Indigenous Men.” Journal of Australian Studies 66 (2000): 129–37. Print.

McCafferty, Kate. “Palimpsest of Desire: The Re-emergence of the American Captivity Narrative as Pulp Romance.” Journal of Popular Culture 27.4 (1994): 43-56. Print.

McKenna, Mark. “Writing the Past.” The Best Australian Essays 2006. Ed. Drusilla Modjeska. Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006. Print.

Modjeska, Drusilla, ed. The Best Australian Essays 2006.  Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006. Print.

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Pierce, Peter. The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

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Ricoeur, Paul. The Reality of the Historical Past. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1984. Print.

—. Time and Narrative. Vol. III. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Print.

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Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory. London: Verso, 1994. Print.

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—. History by Hollywood. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Print.

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—. The Past Awaits: People, Images, Film. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2010. Print.

—. River Queen. Silverscreen Films, 2005. Print.

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—. The Content of the Form. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Print.

—. “Historiography and Historiophoty.” American Historical Review 93 (1988). Print.

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[1] See Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, passim. See also Amy Elias’s revisiting of Hutcheon in Sublime Desire: History and Post 1960s Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), where metafiction expands—and splinters—into varieties of “metahistorical romance.”

[2]See also, Paul Ricoeur, ‘The Interweaving of History and Fiction,’ Time and Narrative, Vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 181]

[3] For pointed commentary on romance, see the introduction by Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia to Doubled Plots: Romance and History (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003): “History and romance trope each other” (xxv). For film, see White: “if it turns out to resemble a ‘historical romance,’ it is not because it is a narrative film, but rather because the romance genre was used to plot the story that the film wanted to tell.” (‘Historiography and Historiophoty,’ in American Historical Review (93 (1988), 1195)

[4] See Ward’s description of his ‘Inspiration’ in his comments on his website for the film: Also his interview with Clint Morris:

[5] It is also worth noting, perhaps, that Nightingale nurses arrived in the New World, Sydney, in 1868, toward the end of the New Zealand Wars; for some discussion, see Sioban Nelson, Say Little, Do Much: Nurses, Nuns, and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). One of the models for Sarah O’Brien, Ann Evans, was a nurse; see below.

[6] In his ‘Director’s Notes,’ Ward writes about working in dense bush, where he had to turn difficult circumstances to his advantage: “The hills around us would become our major sets. Why create period townships when we have seen so many clichéd in every western and period film and when the land herself has so much more power conveying a people who lived hard and survived subsumed by it.” (

[7] Tapu indicates sanctity and, in consequence, restrictions on use.

[8] The term is more broadly used now, for white New Zealanders of European descent. It is worth noting that there were in fact no riverbank garrisons of the kind Sarah describes; see maps in James Belich, ‘I Shall Not Die’: Titokowaru’s War, New Zealand 1868-1869 (Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1989), especially pp.12-13.

[9] See Gail Ching-Liang Low, ‘His Stories?: Narratives and Images of Imperialism,’ New Formations 12 (1990), 97-123; also White Skins/Black Masks: Colonialism and Representation (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996), especially chapters 2 and 3. For white interest in black bodies in Australia, see Margaret Maynard, ‘Staging Masculinity: Late Nineteenth-century Photographs of Indigenous Men,’ in Journal of Australian Studies 66 (2000), 129–37.

[10] Compare Ricoeur’s vision of what a historical text might do with Vanessa Agnew’s account of historical reenactment culture as “a body-based discourse in which the past is reanimated through physical and psychological experience.” Vanessa Agnew, ‘Introduction: What Is Reenactment,’ Criticism 46.3 (2004), 330.

[11] Maori allies of the colonial forces, often greater in number than the government troops, in this campaign; see Belich, ‘I Shall Not Die’, passim. See also Ward’s notes, briefly arguing that the Wars saw, in the mass, Maori fighting Maori, rather than Maori tribe battling colonial government.

[12] For discussion of the uncertain reasons for the Titokowaru’s abandonment of his pa at Tauranga Ika, in particular the sudden breakup of his alliances because of loss of mana, prompted by his sexual predatoriness, see Belich, ‘I Shall Not Die’, 242-46. In the film, Sarah, reflects in her diary on Te Kai Po’s abandonment of hostilities at precisely the point when victory seemed most in prospect; his perverse behaviour stems not from some fault of character, but rather from his conviction that this loss would design for his people a future other than the disaster he foresaw for them, a river of blood.

[13] Ward appends a note to the film, paying tribute to Titokowaru, but also to Ann Evans and Caroline Perrett.

[14] For a brief, but valuable reading of the film in the context of other New Zealand films on the Maori Wars, as epic, see Bruce Babington, ‘Epos Indigenized: the New Zealand Wars Films from Rudall Hayward to Vincent Ward,’ in The Epic Film in World Culture, ed.Robert Burgoyne (New York: Routledge, 2011), 235-60.

[15] See Trevor Bentley, Captured by Maori: White Female Captives, Sex and Racism on the Nineteenth-century New Zealand Frontier (Auckland: Penguin, 2004); for Perrett’s story, in particular, see pp. 212-235. Ward notes Caroline Perrett’s nick-name, ‘Queenie’; he also has Te Kai Po, inside the film, invest Sarah with Caroline’s nick-name, after she has cured him. In doing so, Ward connects Sarah to the riverboat that travels up and downriver, the ‘River Queen’, modelled on the PS Waimarere.

[16] See Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850 (Westminster, MD: Knopf, 2004), on the varieties of routes these narratives might take to publication, including spoken texts, presented in court, or testimonies offered in support of pleas for charity; “But the most complex and comprehensive testimonies of overseas capture . . . were . . . substantial accounts usually written in the first person and completely or in part by a one-time captive, but sometimes dictated to others” (13).

[17] Blindfolding is relatively uncommon in the American tradition, although frequent in modern captivity narratives. It is mentioned nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, in Australasian instances, although ritual humiliation, a likely purpose, is common in New Zealand captivity narrative.

[18] For the wider history of this genre, see Linda Colley, Captives.

[19] Also see Rebecca Blevins Faery, Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, & Sex in the Shaping of American Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 8-9, where she speaks of “cultural work” done by “representations” of “white women’s Indian captivity and of Pocahontas figures.”

[20] For New Zealand, see Trevor Bentley, Captured by Maori, 15, for very similar recognition that “female captives were not just central to the printed material, they were at the centre of events.”

[21]Gordon Sayre calls for this kind of comparison, even as he describes the genre as “unique to the English literature of America.” See American Captivity Narratives (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 4. Annette Kolodny usefully notes that the captivity narrative is “the single narrative form indigenous to the New World,” but we may need to expand that Eurocentric term to include not just the Americas, but also Australasia. See Annette, Kolodny, The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 6. Linda Colley, in Captives, would not accept even these expanded limits.

[22] See Robert Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), for this and other tales, including Rolf Boldrewood’s fictional captivity narrative, War to the Knife (1899), set in New Zealand, during the New Zealand Wars (53-8); Boldrewood was influenced by Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.

[23] See Patrick Brantlinger, ‘Forgetting Genocide: or the Last of The Last of the Mohicans,’ in Cultural Studies 12.1 (1998), on Cooper’s echoing “countless captivity narratives,” to create a novel where the erotic is “both interracial and racist”, only to have this large cultural offence compounded by Mann in the film, where sentimental racism disappears in a blitz of whiteness.

[24] He may have found Perrett’s story in the useful anthology by Bentley, although the history of the film’s production makes this unlikely; the story, however, was first published in a local newsletter, Historical Review, in 1966.

[25] When she is returned to her family, she has been stripped of her Pakeha clothes, wearing instead a Maori mat; later a local chief proposes marriage between young Daisy and his nephew. For discussion, see Claudia Marquis, ‘Romancing the Home: Gender, Empire and the South Pacific,’ in Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture, ed. Beverly Clark and Margaret Higonnet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999), 61-2. More typically, of course, in New Zealand as in America, children were abducted with their mothers, a circumstance that emphasised the precious circle of domestic virtue, even as it defined the fragility of European culture in frontier society.

[26] See, in particular, Lisa Fletcher’s Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity (Ashgate, 2008), which shifts discussion of modern romance by its insistence on the central place of this performative utterance. See also Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 22.

[27] For Ward’s aliveness to tattoo, see The Past Awaits: People, Images, Film (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010), especially pp. 124-30. Comparison with The Last of the Mohicans is instructive, firstly because of the racial prohibitions signalled by skin and mixed ancestry, as James Fennimore Cooper played them out, but also for the way that Michael Mann ironed out Cooper’s difficulties, draining away Cora’s mulatto heritage, leaving her dark, but very European and, in the person of Madeleine Stowe, fit for love. For Cora’s skin, see Janet Dean’s brilliant essay, ‘Romance and Race in The Last of the Mohicans,’ in Doubled Plots: Romance and History, ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden (Jackson: University of Mississipi Press, 2003), 45-66. also Patrick Brantlinger’s provocative review article, ‘Forgetting genocide.’

[28] Although the traditional, maternal quest romance is very different, I think here of Geraldine Heng’s Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003): “[A] nationalist imaginary at key junctures requires figures of maternity and family to instantiate concretions of feeling and thought” (207-8).

[29] Robert Rosenstone: “Film lets us see landscape, hear sounds, witness emotions as they are expressed with body and face, or view physical conflict between individuals and groups … altering our very sense of the past” (‘History in Images/History in Words,’ American Historical Review, 93 (1988), 1179).

[30] For an online text of Sebald’s speech, see


“When chick lit meets romanzo rosa: Intertextual narratives in Stefania Bertola’s romantic fiction,” by Federica Balducci


This article examines the work of Stefania Bertola (b. 1952), a prolific Italian writer of romantic fiction who creatively blends the codes and practices of romanzo rosa, Italy’s tradition of popular romance, with narrative tropes and cultural trends set up by contemporary Anglophone chick lit. In the landscape of Italy’s contemporary romantic fiction, where the dramatic and educational tones of romanzo rosa still permeate the genre in form and contents alike, Bertola’s novels represent a truly innovative and refreshing voice: one that has intertextuality, humour, and comedy as its key features. I discuss Bertola’s original position within the genre through a reading of the four titles that constitute the core of her production: Ne parliamo a cena (Let’s Talk About It Over Dinner), Aspirapolvere di stelle (Star Hoover), Biscotti e sospetti (Biscuits and Suspects), and A neve ferma (Firm Slopes).[1] As we shall see, in Bertola’s writing the generic features at work in romanzo rosa and chick lit are not only acknowledged, but also rearranged and reinterpreted, resulting in a complex, innovative body of work that successfully overcomes literary and stylistic boundaries in genre fiction.

In order to understand Bertola’s novels and their relationship with Anglophone chick lit and Italian romanzo rosa, it helps to have some sense of the latter tradition. To begin, then, I will give an overview of the romanzo rosa, followed by an account of the arrival of chick lit on the international stage, and more specifically in Italy. Finally, I will draw on scholarly work on parody and romantic comedy films to explore the role of humour, comedy and intertextuality in Bertola’s fiction.

Romanzo rosa: an overview

Critic Eugenia Roccella defines the romanzo rosa (often shortened to rosa) as a modern literary product, the result of changes in the Italian publishing market that took place in the early twentieth century (31). In those years, the development of a modern economy, particularly in Northern Italy, led to the growth of a literate middle class that, along with economic wellbeing, was seeking social and cultural acknowledgment. Publishers identified different targets based on factual data such as age and gender as well as potential interests, and the romanzo rosa established itself as the genre written by women, for women, about women (Spinazzola Modernità letteraria 211). Its rise can be located in the early 1920s with publisher Salani’s “La Biblioteca delle Signorine” (The Young Ladies Bookshelf), a series featuring sentimental stories with an edifying message and dedicated to upper-middle class young female readers (Ghiazza 137). Along with the occasional Italian author, the novels were mainly translations of English and French works;[2] as they were intended to have a pedagogical purpose for young women, female characters strictly adhered to the binary opposition between good and evil, that is, those who conformed to established moral and social codes of the time were awarded the happy ending, and those who failed at it were punished instead, quite often with death (Ghiazza 153). The success of the series prompted the reprint of the books a few years later under a new name, “I Romanzi della Rosa” (The Novels of the Rose), featuring a design characterised by a pink cover and a rose on the jacket, the graphic elements that would eventually label the genre itself.[3]

The popularity of such novels attracted the attention of other publishing houses that began releasing their own series. As Silvana Ghiazza maintains, in this phase the focus was not on the writers but almost exclusively on the imprint, which guaranteed the quality and tenor of the stories (136-37). While critics have mostly focused on the conventional aspects of the rosa novels produced during/within fascism, such as their homogeneous and repetitive formulas and their conservative representation of female fantasies, Robin Pickering-Iazzi holds a different and more challenging view. In Politics of the Visible: Writing Women, Culture, and Fascism she analyses Italian romance fiction and its conventions during the interwar years, exploring the implicit and explicit politics present in these texts. Using a critical model elaborated by Teresa de Lauretis and Cora Kaplan in the context of female identification in narrative and cinematic fiction, Pickering-Iazzi convincingly argues that “[w]ithin the hegemonic system predominated by Fascist institutions and the Catholic Church, which promoted models of femininity dedicated to the role of wife and mother, cast respectively as political and sacred, the romance novel, and mass culture in general, represented an alternative authority on modern canons of beauty and fashion, etiquette, and love” (103). Likewise, Antonia Arslan and Maria Pia Pozzato say that one of the most significant traits of rosa narratives is their active role in inviting both the expression of and a discussion about sentimental and sexual issues in Italy’s sociocultural landscape: “il rosa non si limita a raccontare l’amore e il sesso così come sono valorizzati e vissuti nella nostra società ma è anche un invito all’amore e al sesso” (“rosa does not just narrate love and sex as they are valued and approached in our society but is also an invitation to love and sex”; 1036).

The master of romanzo rosa was Liala (Amalia Liana Cambiasi Negretti Odescalchi, 1897-1995), who remains the most popular romance writer to date (Arslan and Pozzato 1039; Roccella 12); all her novels have been continually reprinted through the decades. Her career stretched from the early 1930s to the 1980s, and her life and writing are so deeply interwoven that they have become the rosa’s prototype and foundation stone (Lepschy; Roccella 53). A member of the Italian aristocracy, Liala married Marquis Cambiasi, almost twenty years her senior. Shortly after the marriage she met the aircraft pilot Centurione Scotto and the two fell in love. Cambiasi agreed to divorce but in 1926, before the paperwork could be completed, Scotto died while performing an acrobatic flight. Liala’s first novel Signorsì (Yes, Sir) published in 1931 by Mondadori, is inspired by these events and became an instant bestseller (Lepschy 183-84).

According to Pozzato, Signorsì presents the “estetismo di massa” (“mass aestheticism”) that would become a trademark of Liala’s writing. Characterised by a sophisticated vocabulary and syntactical constructions, this style was rooted in the late-nineteenth century literary movement of decadentismo (Decadence), whose tones and values Liala absorbed and reworked in a more popular form, aimed at a broader readership (90). The main features of Liala’s “mass aestheticism,” Pozzato explains, are stunning heroines and stylish heroes, moral integrity, exquisite settings infused with a sense of grandeur, and refined tastes expressed through close attention to visual details, particularly when describing clothes, houses, cars and other material belongings (90). From a formal perspective, Anna Laura Lepschy identifies a strategy of “double focalization” in Liala’s courtship plots; that is to say, the emotions of both male and female characters are granted equal visibility and importance in the story (186). There is no room here for a detailed analysis of Liala’s place and in Italian literature and culture, as it would require a much lengthier discussion.[4] However, I would point to Pickering-Iazzi’s fascinating analysis of Signorsì, which underlines the “culturally specific” form of the novel and considers it a landmark text in the genesis and development of a genre that, for the first time, was entirely “fashioned by Italian authors and stories” (99).

Indeed, Liala’s success boosted the rosa publishing market and while she wrote well into the mid-1980s, many other authors came along as the genre evolved. Some of them soon disappeared into the crowd of an overpopulated genre, but others built close relationships with their readers from the 1930s until the late 1970s through the pages of dedicated magazines, where they published their stories in instalments but also worked as journalists and often as personal advice columnists. As Roccella notes, simply by virtue of their novels’ subject matter, rosa writers came to be perceived as motherly figures as well as experienced friends, so to speak, assisting readers with complicated questions on issues related to everyday life and emotions (76).

During the 1980s, however, the landscape of Italian publishing changed. In 1981 the leading worldwide publisher of serial romance, Harlequin Enterprises, joined forces with Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, the historical Italian publishing house that had been one of the first to actively engage with mass-market fiction since the late 1920s, and launched Harmony, a joint venture designed to publish exclusively serial romances in translation. Harmony became almost immediately the reference point for a new kind of romance fiction in Italy, one that decreed the death of the so-called “rosa artigianale,” that is, the locally crafted romanzo rosa, in favour of new and imported serial romances (Roccella 109-14). The latter hit the marketplace with an abundance of titles ranging from historical to Regency to contemporary romance, and within a couple of years the success of Harmony novels among Italian readers was staggering: in 1983 readers were offered 25 new titles each month, all translated from English and quickly recognisable through definite visual features (Brodesco 42-45).[5] In fact, it could be said that Harmony brought romance back to the early 1920s, when the imprint, rather than the author, was the element that guaranteed the reader’s fidelity to the genre.

From the 1980s onward the home-grown rosa production and its literary tradition, which were already struggling to reposition themselves in Italy’s rapidly-changing society and publishing market, slowly disappeared under the weight of what Arslan and Pozzato have called “l’acritica colonizzazione da parte di modelli stranieri” (“the acritical colonisation by foreign models”; 1046). Those “modelli” included not only the serial Harmony romances, but also, after the 1990s a new genre of popular literature—chick lit—whose relationship with local Italian tradition would play out rather differently from the colonising pressure of Harmony.

The new kid in town: chick lit

Emerging in English-speaking countries in the mid 1990s with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, chick lit rapidly evolved into a worldwide cultural and literary phenomenon.[6] As Joanne Knowles maintains, chick lit novels feature “a female protagonist seeking personal fulfilment in a romance-consumer-comedic vein” (3). Knowles’ definition highlights the multifaceted and comedic nature of the genre, which Claire Squires reinforces by arguing that nowadays Bridget Jones is “not only a term for a certain social type [ . . . ] but also shorthand for a certain sort of novel and a certain sort of success” (159). Indeed, the resounding success of Fielding’s and Bushnell’s works (for the latter due largely to its TV adaptation) resides in their hybrid status, located as they are at the crossroad of social commentary, escapist fiction and literary tradition.

In Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, the first comprehensive scholarly study of chick lit, Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young point out the novelty factor that the genre brought into the cultural and literary landscape of the mid-1990s worldwide. On the one hand, chick lit was a decidedly new kind of women’s popular fiction, whose formal and stylistic features presented innovative elements such as the humorous tone used to negotiate sentimental relationships; on the other hand, write Ferriss and Young, these novels were explicitly “about and for” a new type of woman—middle-class, white, heterosexual and financially independent—caught in intricate discourses of consumerism, sexuality, race and class at the turn of the century (12). Some years later, the debate among scholars on the qualities and shortcomings of chick lit confirms that the genre is an intriguing subject for analysis, one that has been discussed equally as a marketing ploy, a “post-literary” and “post-romantic” cultural product, a genuine attempt at addressing the experiences and issues of contemporary women in Western society, and a commentary on feminism and its place in today’s society (Whelehan; Smith; Harzewski; Modleski; Knowles). As Imelda Whelehan points out, chick lit must be acknowledged as “a tendency found in popular women’s writing of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century which alerts us to key concerns and themes also to be found in popular culture more generally” (Teening chick lit).

Whether happily embraced or forcefully rejected—by critics, writers and readers alike—the genre has generated a great deal of debate in the social, cultural, and literary arena, crossing geographical and linguistic boundaries. A New York Times article on international chick lit published in 2006 observed that parallel to the novel’s success in English-speaking countries, translations of Bridget Jones’s Diary immediately came out worldwide: in Italy, France and Japan in 1998, then in Hungary and Indonesia, to name but a few (Donadio). The novel’s gesturing at both “triviality and seriousness,” pointed out by Squires (160), fostered its appeal across the global market, building the base for subsequent variations. Alongside the translations of American and British authors, local publishers around the world promoted and launched domestic writers, who, for their part, addressed local socio-cultural needs and values. In 2002, freelance journalist Zsuzsa Rácz published a novel that was hailed as the “Hungarian Bridget Jones,” prompting Nora Sellei to investigate the reception of both Fielding’s character and her local counterpart in postcommunist Hungary (173-74). In calling for a new interpretative framework for Rácz’s novel, Sellei maintains that while it openly acknowledged its debt to Bridget Jones’s Diary, the book was also “rooted in a complex but subtle way in Hungary’s postcommunist present,” capturing in real time the changes in language, society, and culture of the country (179-85). Similarly, Jenny Mochtar Djundjung’s study on chick lit in Indonesia offers a comparative reading of British and Indonesian texts that focuses on the representation and reception of key elements such as the female body and the single urban woman. Likewise, the rise in China of a new generation of young women writers engaging with themes such as consumerism, eroticism and urban lifestyle has been dubbed “Chinese chick lit” and read in the context of the recent changes in the market economy of the country, where discourses of globalised consumer culture, female empowerment and neoliberal agency borrowed from Western postfeminist media culture are shaping—but are also being shaped by—urban Chinese women at ease with mainstream commodities and languages from the West (Chen; Ommundsen).

In Italy, the translation of Bridget Jones’s Diary (Il diario di Bridget Jones) came out in 1998 and was received with great enthusiasm; two years later the HBO’s Sex and the City was aired in Italy, becoming an instant hit. In 2002, Mondadori teamed up with Harlequin Enterprises for a second time, looking to recreate their success with the Harmony books, and brought the chick lit concept into the country through Red Dress Ink (RDI). Established in 2001 as the dedicated chick lit imprint of the Canadian-based romance fiction giant, RDI claimed to “define, as well as offer books relevant to, the 21st-century woman [ . . . ] leading women’s fiction with attitude” (RDI Writing Guidelines).[7] In presenting the new genre to the Italian market, editorial director Alessandra Bazardi emphasised its innovative nature (compared to the traditional romance fiction published by Harmony until then), its role as social commentary, and the new and younger readership it was attracting (De Luca). In 2004, the New York Times featured an article about the first Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera (Italy), underlining “trendy upstarts like chick lit” as particularly successful in the country: “Italians [ . . . ] have taken to chick lit, the post-Bridget Jones literary phenomenon, and Italy has been the strongest foreign market for Red Dress Ink, Harlequin’s chick lit imprint” (Povoledo).[8] Indeed, other Italian publishers—particularly the ones with a solid background in popular romance—had started to launch dedicated chick lit series, such as Sperling & Kupfer’s “Pandora Shocking,” Salani’s “Femminili,” and Newton Compton’s “Anagramma.” As with Harmony, initially such series offered only translations, introducing the Italian readership to the most successful American and British chick lit writers, but local authors became gradually more and more visible.

Some Italian critics and reviewers have recently started to examine the sociocultural reasons behind the genre’s success and the generational representations that emerge from its contents, yet the object of their enquiry has been confined to foreign chick lit novels translated into Italian, with local writers going mostly unnoticed (Corbi; De Luca; De Rosa; Giovanetti; Manera). Admittedly, for many of these local writers, “chick lit” was a ready-made commercial label that would bring them visibility in the marketplace, and their works simply imitated the genre’s key features, roughly adapted to the Italian context. Others, however, begun to develop their own take on the genre and produced a genuinely domestic version of it. This is the case of Bertola, who retrieved the abandoned rosa tradition and blended it with chick lit themes and tropes, delivering an original narrative that, in the context of Italy’s popular genres, successfully reinterprets both genres in light of humour and comedy (Lepri).

Celestino Deleyto’s The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy (2009), a study on romantic comedy films that examines the genre from both a cultural and historical point of view, is particularly helpful for the analysis of Bertola’s approach to chick lit and popular romance. Deleyto defines romantic comedy as the genre “which uses humour, laughter and the comic to tell stories about interpersonal affective and erotic relationships” (30). Rather than focus on the genre’s narrative structures, which in romantic comedy must follow a fixed pattern, Deleyto draws our attention instead to the transformative power of the comic perspective. In Deleyto’s view, the presence and scope of humour in romantic comedies has an importance far beyond merely making these films enjoyable; in fact, humour becomes instrumental for the interpretation of all the many issues and themes at work in the story. Certainly, writes Deleyto, romantic comedies draw from ideas about love and relationships that are specific to the cultural and historical context in which they are created, and they always feature a tidy closure where these ideas are wrapped up in a satisfying (if not predictable) ending, but it is humour that provides the unique angle from which these ideas are read and evaluated. The comic perspective, Deleyto continues, accounts for the way the characters interact and evolve in spite of their sociocultural habits and constraints, creating “a space of transformation and fantasy” where both the characters and the audience understand the complexity of sentimental relationships (45-46).

Although elaborated within film genre studies, Deleyto’s observations can be applied to narrative fiction as well, and in particular to Bertola’s works, where humour and comedy play a fundamental role in storytelling, creating a space of “transformation and fantasy” through the playful deployment of various narrative codes and conventions. In this respect, Bertola’s technique is better understood in light of Margaret A. Rose’s Parody / Meta-fiction, in which she discusses parody as “a form of meta-fiction” or “a technique of stylistic ‘imitation’ and distortion” (19). Central to Rose’s argument is the idea of parody as “the meta-fictional ‘mirror’ to the process of composing and receiving literary texts” (59), a concept that she explains through the analysis of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Rose notes that Austen “marks herself as a reader of the text, the value of which she is questioning [and] ironically mirrors her use of parody in the use of parody by one of her characters”; this way, says Rose, the mirror adds to its “mimetic” function a “dialectical” one, as it works in several directions at once, inside and outside of the novel itself, making “characters, author and reader [all] simultaneously the targets and the tool of satire” (70-72). Rose also introduces the notion of the transformative power of parody, which she locates in its structure:

[T]he structure of the parody—based on the imitation, quotation or distortion of the target text creates a dialectic of imitation and transformation, superseding the act of imitation itself, and uniting the parody work with another text and literary tradition, while at the same time changing the direction of this tradition through its refunctioning of its models. (158)

Such process of transformation through “imitation, quotation or distortion of the target text” holds with regard to Bertola’s novels, and is at the core of her creative engagement with cultural and stylistic models derived from opposite directions: the tradition of romanzo rosa and contemporary chick lit. If Italian popular romance had always been permeated by a “serietà assorta” (Spinazzola Immaginazione divertente 54), a distinctive tone of sombreness in support of the educational message that the story was required to deliver to its (female) readers, Bertola borrows the comedic nature of Anglo-American chick lit in order to infuse with an ironic tone the melodramatic seriousness that is romanzo rosa’s hallmark and its most enduring legacy.

Chick lit, romanzo rosa and comedy in Bertola’s fiction

A first example of Bertola’s use of irony and comedy to mediate chick lit and rosa comes from the management of male characters. Following the rosa tradition, Bertola’s heroes are still temperamental, have striking features and are well upward on the professional ladder, but these stock characteristics are always cleverly rewritten. A case in point is Filippo Corelli of Aspirapolvere di stelle, a bestselling writer whose striking features and passionate prose make him particularly successful among female readers:

Era una specie di Brad Pitt padano, profumato e vitale come un albero di arance. Era alto, forte, sorridente, era tutto dorato e appassionato, metteva felicità a vederlo, e tanto più seducente e misterioso appariva il contrasto con le sue occasionali malinconie [ . . . ] Era più luminoso, più caldo e più profumato degli altri uomini. E che profumo . . . Cos’era? Non lo aveva mai sentito . . . E quel colore di capelli? Che biondo era? Non lo aveva mai visto. Anche l’azzurro degli occhi era di una sfumatura sconosciuta. Non proprio blu. Turchese. Non proprio celesti. Blu? Non troppo azzurri. Verdi?

He was like a Brad Pitt from the Po Valley, fragrant and vigorous like an orange tree. He was tall, strong, smiling, everything in him was golden and passionate, just looking at him would make you happy, so that the contrast with his occasional melancholy seemed all the more alluring and mysterious [ . . . ] He was brighter, warmer and more fragrant than other men. And that scent . . . What was it? She had never smelled it . . . And that hair color? What shade of blond was it? She had never seen it. Even the blue in his eyes was an unknown shade. Not quite blue. Turquoise. Not really celeste. Blue? Not too light-blue. Green? (62-65)

Together with the reference to movie star Brad Pitt, displaced in the rural landscape of Italy’s Po river valley, Corelli’s features come across not so much as rapturous but rather as comically exaggerated in the meticulous yet unsuccessful attempt at capturing the exact shade of his eyes. Here Bertola is playing on the redundant descriptions of stunning and sensitive male heroes in popular romance, which readers would perhaps overlook if the writer had not previously cast Corelli as a narcissistic sexual predator, who relentlessly uses his good looks to seduce women. Because the main plot is based on the fact that all the female characters in the novel are unaware of Corelli’s true nature and easily fall under his charming spell, the audience is put in the position of truly enjoying the comic effect at work.

Bertola’s use of the comic also recreates the “transformation and fantasy” proposed by Deleyto as a key feature of the romantic comedy genre, as humour often helps the characters (and the audience) in understanding and negotiating intimate matters. In Aspirapolvere di stelle, for example, Gabriele confesses his love to Ginevra with a dramatic “because I love you” in the middle of a quarrel. But as the excerpt below shows, Bertola immediately puts under comical scrutiny this fundamental trope of popular romance:

“Mi può venire in mente” le spiegò con pazienza Gabriele, “perché ti amo.”
Si bloccò, sconvolto lui stesso da quello che aveva appena detto. Mai e poi mai, in tanti anni di dedizione alla femmina, aveva pronunciato quella formula spaventosa. Aveva detto di tutto, dal desolante “Lo sai che a te ci tengo” all’ingannevole ardente “Ti adoro” [. . . ] Per fortuna, la stasi temporale passò inosservata perché si era bloccata anche Ginevra, a cui nessuno aveva più detto “ti amo” dai tempi di un remoto fidanzato giovanile. [ . . . ] Ma un “ti amo” così, a dieci centimetri, con quegli occhi fiammeggianti, be’, era qualcosa.

“I can come up with it” Gabriele explained patiently, “because I love you.”
He stopped, shocked by what he had just said. Never, ever, in many years of dedication to women, had he pronounced those frightening words. He had said everything and anything, from the bleak “You know I care for you” to the deceitfully passionate “I adore you” [ . . . ] Fortunately, the temporary standstill went unnoticed because Ginevra was shocked too, as no one had said to her “I love you” since the days of a remote high-school boyfriend. [ . . . ] But an “I love you” like that, ten inches away, with those burning eyes, well, that was something. (86)

The declaration of love is one of the eight essential elements of the romance outlined by Pamela Regis (34) and Bertola’s reassessment of the hero’s momentous “I love you” equally dismisses and holds up the codes and language of romance fiction. The impenitent bachelor Gabriele cannot believe that he has just uttered “those frightening words,” which he has always avoided and paraphrased with less compromising ones, and realises that his attitude toward commitment may have changed just because he has been able to say them. Ginevra, who on her part is aware of Gabriele’s feelings but is not ready to reciprocate them yet, is forced to admit to herself that such passionate words are indeed “something.” This way, the writer has reaffirmed the pivotal role of the declaration in romance narratives, but the comedic tone has displaced its usual frame of reference, to the advantage not only of the plot and its development, but also of the audience, who is engaged in a richer, more playful reading experience.

A further example comes from Biscotti e sospetti, where after a very long courtship Mattia finally spends the night with Violetta. The morning after, the two have the following conversation over breakfast:

“Non vuoi sapere quando torno? Quando ci rivedremo? Che ne sarà di noi? Se abbiamo solo passato la notte insieme o se c’è di più?”Lei ridacchiò. “E tu? Vuoi saperlo?”

Mattia le andò vicino e la baciò molto.

“Io lo so.”

“Okay, allora prima o poi confronteremo le nostre informazioni.”

“Don’t you want to know when I get back? When we’ll meet again? What will become of us? If we have just spent the night together or there’s more?”

She giggled. “And you? Do you want to know it?”

Mattia went over and kissed her a lot.

“I already know it.”

“Okay, then sooner or later we will compare our data.” (227)

The dialogue humorously mocks the load of emotional expectations after a sexual encounter, with Mattia taken aback by Violetta’s lack of concern about their relationship, and it does a very good job in delivering a happy ending that is both predictable and unconventional: on the one hand, the characters carefully avoid the declaration of love that would celebrate them as a couple; on the other hand, Mattia’s bold kiss and Violetta’s laid-back response leave no doubt about their blissful future, giving the scene a romantic closure that is understated and emotionally satisfying all the same.

The characters’ jobs are another area where Bertola engages with both chick lit and romanzo rosa features in a comedic way. In Biscotti e sospetti, for example, Caterina proudly embraces her family’s working-class tradition of seamstress but with a twist, as she specialises in quality clothes for blow-up sex dolls: “Io faccio vestiti per le bambole gonfiabili. [ . . . ] Sarta, non stilista. Sono una sarta come mia madre e la mia prozia, però in un altro ramo. Loro fanno vestiti per le signore vere” (“I make clothes for blow-up sex dolls. [ . . . ] Seamstress, not designer. I am a seamstress like my mother and my aunt, but in another branch. They make clothes for real women”; 17) The humble profession of seamstress, reclaimed by Caterina as opposed to the modern and more glamorous designer, frames her within the traditional feminine domestic sphere as her mother and aunt before her. At the same time, those class-inherited skills are now updated and transferred to a different field, one that could not be more edgy and sexually charged. As a result, Caterina ironically embodies dispositions that are antithetical to one another: chick lit’s middle-class, smart and sexually savvy professional, and the working-class, humble and chaste labourer of the traditional popular romance. Likewise, in Aspirapolvere di stelle the three protagonists Penelope, Ginevra and Arianna run a cleaning and catering company called “Fate Veloci” (Speedy Fairies). Each of them specialises in a domestic task (cleaning, gardening and cooking, respectively) and their services are in high demand among Turin’s upper-class families. When they are hired by a critically acclaimed writer (Filippo Corelli) to perform domestic duties in his villa, the brief they receive describes the tasks in detail:

Quello che Filippo Corelli voleva dalle Fate Veloci era una perfetta e totale gestione di ogni faccenda domestica, dalle pulizie alla cura del giardino. Voleva cibi perfetti ma solo quando li avesse richiesti, voleva mobili lucidi e profumati, voleva un terrazzo accogliente anche nel cuore dell’inverno, voleva legna per il camino sempre ben impilata nelle ceste, voleva lenzuola profumate, camicie stirate, bagni schiuma che non finissero mai, dentifrici sempre nuovi, frigorifero sempre pieno ma sempre pieno di sorprese. E non voleva, invece, nessuno che gli parlasse, gli chiedesse, gli stesse fra i piedi, passasse davanti allo studio in cui lavorava.

What Filippo Corelli wanted from the Speedy Fairies was the perfect and total management of all household chores, from cleaning to gardening. He wanted the perfect food, but only when he requested it, he wanted shining and fragrant furniture, he also wanted a cozy balcony in the middle of winter, he wanted firewood always well stacked in baskets, he wanted scented linen, ironed shirts, endless bubble baths, always new toothpaste, a refrigerator always full but always full of surprises. He didn’t want, however, anybody speaking to him, asking him questions, bothering him, wandering in front of the studio where he was working. (23)

As we can see, the “the perfect and total management of all household chores” is intended literally and encompasses a list of impossibly exaggerated duties that, indeed, could be successfully carried out by magical creatures only. The image of the “domestic goddess” portrayed in popular media culture is upgraded to a better and more efficient domestic fairy, who does her magic and quickly disappears.[9] By stretching this fantasy to its limits, Bertola plays on the supposedly natural competence of women in relation to domestic duties and intensifies the gendered nature of such a fantasy in a way that is less denigrating than ironic, emphasised by Corelli’s childish repetition of “he wanted”.

Finally, the following excerpt from A neve ferma offers a good example of how Bertola recasts chick lit’s obsession with beauty and appearance:

Ginevra aveva compiuto trentadue anni in ottobre, e quindi avrebbe dovuto combattere [le rughe] già da sette anni. Invece aveva appena cominciato. Si era data alle creme la settimana prima, e adesso cercava di recuperare con lo zelo. Dopo la crema idratante, considerò con attenzione gli altri barattolini allineati sulla mensola del suo bagno tutto rosa. Meglio l’emolliente con la calendula, carota e ginseng, o quello al ginko biloba e alla vite rossa? E buttarsi decisamente sulla crema tonificante all’olio di jojoba e al burro di karité? Si guardò ben bene allo specchio. Non vedeva la minima traccia di rughe di nessun genere. Cedimento dei tessuti? Assente. Con un sospiro di sollievo, scelse la crema alla vite rossa, che meglio si accordava alla stagione.

Ginevra had turned thirty-two in October, and should have started to fight [expression wrinkles] seven years ago. Instead, she had just begun. She got seriously into creams the week before, and now was trying to catch up. After the moisturizer, she carefully considered the other jars lined up on the shelf of her all-pink bathroom. Better the emollient with calendula, carrot and ginseng, or the one with ginkgo and red vine leaves? And how about going decidedly for the jojoba oil and shea butter tonifying cream? She took a very good look in the mirror. She couldn’t see a trace of wrinkles of any kind. Sagging skin? Nope. With a sigh of relief, she chose the cream with red vine leaves, in tone with the season. (5)

As Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff have noted, in chick lit narratives “the body is constructed in a highly specific way: it is a body that is always already unruly and which requires constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline, and remodelling in order to conform to judgments of normative femininity” (498). In the quoted paragraph, Ginevra, at the age of thirty-two, feels that she should engage with a plethora of skincare products in order to avoid wrinkles and premature skin ageing. In evoking the surveillance of the female body that so often recurs in chick lit, Bertola plays on discourses of normative femininity presented in women’s magazines and adverts, whose language she mocks in the detailed description of exotic and mysterious ingredients that promise miraculous effects. Moreover, the passing nod to Ginevra’s all-pink bathroom adds a visual detail that frames the scene in an utterly feminine space. The writer then works by subtraction, formally and stylistically: on the one hand, the passage stresses the contrast between Ginevra’s commitment to catch up with time and discipline her body—she is seriously into skincare now—and her overwhelming inability to choose the appropriate product among the many she has bought. On the other hand, the narrative structure builds a tension that is eventually released in a comic anticlimax where Ginevra, upon realising that her skin is still quite flawless, chooses a cream that complements the autumn season.

As we have seen, Bertola’s relationship with rosa and chick lit narratives is not just a passive update of formulaic conventions in light of contemporary literary trends; rather, it actively re-contextualises generic rules and conventions through comedy and humour. From this perspective, Bertola’s dynamic engagement with chick lit and romance narratives is most evident in the intertextual and metafictional subtext of her novels, inasmuch as it sets up a transformative dialogue between the old texts, the new ones and their readership, as I shall discuss in the final part of this article.

Intertextuality and metafiction in Bertola’s novels

As many critics have noted, intertextuality and metafiction are at the core of chick lit, a genre that Claire Squires aptly describes as a “genre-crossing fiction [ . . . ] placed between the ‘mass’ and the ‘literary’ market, by appealing to and playing on the conventions of romance fiction” (160). Suzanne Ferris, for example, has discussed Fielding’s overt borrowing of and homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (72), while Stephanie Harzewski has investigated the influence and presence of Edith Wharton’s fiction on Bushnell’s writing (108-14).

Bertola addresses mass-market popular romance and its place in Italy’s literary scene in Ne parliamo a cena and Aspirapolvere di stelle, with different yet related purposes and outcomes. In the first case, Veronica is an upper-class, stay-at-home mother who lands a well-paid contract with Harmony, and her family’s reaction is self-explanatory: “Scrivi Harmony? Gli Harmony?” (“You write Harmony? The Harmony?”; 214). The italicised definite article exposes the notorious fame that accompanies the publisher in Italy’s literary landscape, where over the years the word “Harmony” has become shorthand for cheap writing and inappropriate readings, regardless of the genre they belong to, and effectively conveys a sense of disbelief that is implicitly judgmental. Bertola, however, immediately reframes such conversation when Veronica impatiently dismisses her family’s biased notions and comments that being an accomplished writer in a highly specialised and thriving genre where competition is fierce will give her independence, both in the personal and the professional sphere. In the case of Aspirapolvere di stelle, by contrast, Bertola uses the complicit relationship that her characters entertain with mass-market romance to address and re-contextualise chick lit tropes:

Sono fantastica, pensava. Nessuna di queste slavate schiave del dovere potrebbe immaginare che nel mio cuore di perfetta e amorevole madre brucia un vulcano di passione (in effetti, Arianna aveva ricominciato a leggere gli Harmony). Sono una vera donna moderna, che concentra in sé la madre, la femmina, la compagna, l’imprenditrice . . . proprio come in un articolo di “Marie Claire”!

I’m amazing, she thought. None of these washed-out wage-slaves could ever imagine that in my heart of perfect and loving mother burns a volcano of passion (in fact, Arianna had started reading Harmony novels again). I am a truly modern woman, mother, feminine, partner, and entrepreneur all at once . . . Just like in a “Marie Claire” article! (78)

Arianna’s final line brings to mind the ambiguous relationship that chick lit characters entertain with glossy women’s magazines and the unachievable models of femininity they present, along the lines of Bridget Jones’s famous claim of being a “child of Cosmopolitan culture [ . . . ] traumatised by supermodels and too many quizzes” (59), yet it is the phrase in brackets that offers the chance to discuss Bertola’s interest in the forms and conventions of chick lit and popular romance. A few paragraphs earlier, Arianna said that she was not interested in Harmony romances; however, since the way in which she talks is indeed modelled on romance stock phrases (such as “in my heart [ . . . ] burns a volcano of passion”), the narrator intervenes to point out that Arianna is in fact reading such novels. Once again, Bertola introduces Harmony novels to play on the stereotype of the unsophisticated woman duped by these readings, but this time around her narrative strategy invokes a more active involvement of the audience. Indeed, the shift in the mode of address (where the writer uses a free indirect discourse that combines third person narrator, first person narrator, and external omniscient narrator) emphasises the stereotype but simultaneously tweaks it in a way that, as Rose reminds us, becomes a parodic “refunctioning” of it (158).

More examples of “genre-crossing” appear in A neve ferma, a novel where metafiction and intertextuality are performed through a direct and explicit engagement with the Italian tradition of romanzo rosa. One of the main characters is an aristocratic lawyer who secretly reads love stories and dreams of a love-life modelled on their characters, as the following excerpts shows:

Mario Mongilardi leggeva romanzi d’amore. Questa sua segreta attività era iniziata quando aveva nove anni, e passava le vacanze con sua cugina Ada, tre anni più grande, accanita lettrice dei Romanzi della Rosa Salani, che aveva trovato a mucchi nella soffitta di casa. … Mario aveva cominciato a spararsi Prima o Poi, Oltre gli Scogli, Sei giorni e altri significativi titoli. Poi, ormai assuefatto, era passato a più nobili autrici, e aveva letto tutta Jane Austen, le più significative fra le Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell e via via, fino a Margaret Mitchell e Rosamund Pilcher. Naturalmente erano letture segrete, portate avanti con somma discrezione. … Sul suo comodino sbandierava Clive Cussler, Stephen King e, quando voleva darsi un tono più intellettuale, Niccolò Ammaniti, ma nel cassetto chiuso a chiave c’era sempre un romantico romanzo femminile. Quindi lui sapeva. Sapeva da sempre, si può dire, quale fosse il suo destino.

Mario Mongilardi read romance novels. This secret activity had begun when he was nine years old and was on holiday with his cousin Ada, three years older, serial reader of the Romanzi della Rosa Salani. [ . . . ] Mario had started to feed himself on Prima o Poi, Oltre gli Scogli, Sei giorni and other meaningful titles. Later, by then addicted, he had moved on to the noblest authors, and had read all of Jane Austen, the most significant among the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and so on, up to Margaret Mitchell and Rosamund Pilcher. Of course these were clandestine readings, carried out with utmost discretion. [ . . . ] On his bedside table there were Clive Cussler, Stephen King and, when he wanted to appear a bit more cultured, Niccolò Ammaniti, but in a locked drawer he always kept a woman’s romantic novel. Therefore he knew. He had always known, one might say, what his fate was. (94)

The educated, professional male passionate about romance but ashamed to admit his guilty pleasure is not an original creation, but Bertola positions this narrative device in an intertextual framework that refers to a very specific literary tradition. Alongside with critically sanctioned female authors such as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and mainstream romance writer Rosamund Pilcher, the narrator of A neve ferma mentions the Salani’s imprint “Romanzi della Rosa” as part of Mario’s book collection, quoting actual titles to back up the character’s extensive knowledge of the genre.[10] By doing so, Bertola goes to the roots of the Italian tradition and, instead of making up romance titles by exaggerating their flamboyant style, she takes advantage of existing novels and links them to the works of critically sanctioned women writers. The metafictional and intertextual elements are even more subtle when we note that Salani, the publisher of Mario’s “meaningful” novels, is also Bertola’s publisher, thus inscribing A neve ferma itself in the very same tradition. As a result, while it is up to the reader’s awareness to notice and fully appreciate all the references at work in the quoted passage, the “Romanzi della Rosa” series is deployed as the bait that would lure Mario into the underbelly world of women’s romantic fiction. The dangers of such gendered and clandestine activities are then reinforced by the language and phrasing, which on the one hand cleverly imitate the lexicon of drug addiction, and on the other hand hyperbolically frame the novels as womanly readings. A few sentences later, the comic element is reinforced by the nod to manly popular writers such as Clive Cussler and Stephen King, but particularly to the critically acclaimed Italian pulp author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose books Mario puts on display in order to show a less feminine, more gender-appropriate taste.

Moreover, Mario is depicted as an avid reader unable to separate fiction from reality who constantly uses romanzi rosa to decipher people and situations, a narrative technique that is consistent with Rose’s aforementioned observations on parody as metafiction in Austen’s Northanger Abbey. According to Rose, parody is a transformative process which “mirrors the process of composing and receiving literary texts” (59), which we see clearly at work when we learn that Mario, duped by these readings, has been waiting for his true soulmate to come along, and when he meets his childhood friend Emma he convinces himself that she is the one:

Inevitabile, inaspettata, un giorno avrebbe incontrato LEI [ . . . ] la donna del destino, la magica fanciulla che avrebbe spazzato via tutte le altre, trasformandolo in un marito fedele e appassionato, proprio come i vari Conte Hubert e ingegner John e Darcy e Rochester dei suoi libri preferiti. E adesso, da vari indizi, aveva identificato questa nemesi dei sentimenti in Emma. Proprio come in una storia dei Delly, era una ragazza del paese, di bell’aspetto, colta, gentile, elevata, figlia di semplici ma oneste persone. [ . . . ] Una sola cosa lo disturbava. Doveva esserci, da qualche parte, un ostacolo. C’era sempre, nei romanzi.

Unavoidable, unexpected, one day he would meet HER [ . . . ] the woman of his destiny, the magical young lady who would sweep away all the others, turning him into a faithful and passionate husband, just like Count Hubert and Darcy and Rochester from his beloved books. And now, from various clues, he had identified this nemesis of the feelings in Emma. Just like in a Delly story, she was a girl from his hometown, handsome, intelligent, gentle, refined, the daughter of simple but honest people. [ . . . ] Only one thing bothered him. There must have been, somewhere, an obstacle. There was always one, in the novels. (94-95)

The above passage reveals Mario’s function in the narrative as a self-reflexive, metafictional approach to romance fiction: just like in a story written by the French siblings Delly, best-selling authors of early 20th century romance across Europe, Emma displays all the traits of the conventional romance heroine, as she is of humble origins, beautiful and tender. At this point, to conform to the romance narrative structure and match the courtship plot that Mario has in mind, their relationship must encounter an obstacle that would make their final union all the more meaningful. Here Bertola applies the parody to the romance trope of the “barrier” between the heroine and hero analysed by Regis, who defines it as the element that “drives the romance novel” (32). It could be external, such as a physical separation or rules imposed by society, but also internal, and in this case it will refer to the motivations, feelings and personality of the hero and heroine. Furthermore, Regis points out that “through [the barrier] element the writer can examine any situation within the heroine’s mind or in the world itself” (32), and Bertola makes the most of such an opportunity to further characterise Mario. In fact, when he learns that Emma is still in love with the man who has just dumped her, his reaction is one of relief: “Mario respirò sollevato. Tutto andava per il meglio” (“Mario sighed in relief. Everything was fine”; 105). Later on, when he tells his cousin and fellow romance reader Ada that he has finally found the woman of his destiny, he triumphally adds: “È perfetta Ada. C’è anche l’ostacolo (“She is perfect, Ada. There’s even the barrier”; 125). To make the situation all the more comic, shortly afterwards Mario falls in love with Emma’s friend Camelia, but once again, blinded by his beloved stories, he understands this event as an additional barrier in his relationship with Emma, stubbornly reading his situation in terms of the many love triangles he has seen in old romances.

The intertextual framing and Bertola’s use of parody become more evident when we look at specific tropes of the genre and how they are recast. In his study on the language of humour, Walter Nash argues that “a test of good parody is not how closely it imitates or reproduces certain turns of phrase, but how well it generates a style convincingly like that of the parodied author” (84). The focus here is on the writer’s “creative allusiveness,” which directs the audience toward either a specific author or text or, more generally, on “pseudoparody,” which Nash defines as the technique that evokes “a hazy recollection of rhetorical procedures” that readers would immediately recognise as familiar (100). Bertola’s “creative allusiveness” is well on display in the next passage, where the fierce and temperamental male protagonist is put under scrutiny. Mario is on his first date with Emma but does not know how to behave, so once again he resorts to his fictional role-models:

Darcy, l’aviatore John o il Conte Hubert, di fronte a una frase così avrebbero inchiodato la Donna Del Destino al più vicino faggio, sussurrandole incoerenti parole d’amore. Mario si sentiva un po’ pigro, quella sera, ma comunque baciò Emma.

Presented with a sentence like that, Darcy, John the aviator or Count Hubert would pin the Woman Of Destiny to the closest beech tree, whispering incoherent words of love to her. Mario was feeling a little lazy, that evening, but he kissed Emma anyway. (105)

Here Mario finds himself in a very tricky place: he acknowledges that the situation would require him to act boldly and audaciously, because this is what romantic heroes like Darcy or Rochester would do, but at the same time he is feeling a bit lazy, and eventually the dramatic and romantic gesture turns out to be an ordinary kiss. The effect is an anticlimax highlighted by the use of the adversative “but,” which pinpoints the split between the two worlds that Mario inhabits and brilliantly conveys his feeble attempt at living up to his fictional standards.

Likewise, the trope of the barrier is played throughout the narrative as Camelia and Mario, clearly in love with each other and sharing the same romance-mediated fantasies, withhold their passion in the name of the barrier—that is, Emma—until the end of the novel, when the obstacle is removed and the pairing successfully settled. Here Bertola’s parody takes a step further, as the removal of the obstacle comes in the form of a friendly (and anticlimactic) agreement between the two women, which leaves Mario quite baffled:

“Ma io non voglio sposare Camelia. Voglio sposare te.”

“Strano. Sei pazzo di lei.”

“Sì, be’, è solo una cosa . . . cioè, perché tu ami quell’altro, e allora io . . . si tratta di superare gli ostacoli, in modo che il nostro amore possa . . . be’. . . diciamo trionfare.”

“But I don’t want to marry Camelia. I want to marry you.”

“That’s odd. You’re crazy for her.”

“Yeah, well, it’s just . . . I mean, because you love that other guy, and then I . . . it all boils down to overcoming obstacles, so that our love can . . . well, triumph, so to speak.” (222)

Mario’s hilarious struggle to make sense of such an infringement of the genre’s main trope, in which the long-suffering lovers eventually triumph over the adversities, is all the more significant because he does not realise that he has been part of it all along, just in a different role and from a different perspective—one that readers, by contrast, have been able to anticipate and enjoy throughout the narrative.


Bertola’s novels occupy and innovative place in Italian romantic fiction. Rather than approaching Anglo-American chick lit and the Italian tradition of romanzo rosa as formally distinct genres, Bertola opts for a smooth interplay between the two. The result is an artful intergeneric dialogue in which these traditions are put in relation to one another in terms of themes, narrative structures and stylistic features: from chick lit’s comedic and tongue-in-cheek tone, to the intertextual references within the romance canon, to the multilayered and metafictional structure of the plot, as in the case of A neve ferma. More specifically, Bertola’s most important contribution to the genre is her use of comedy and intertextual parody, a strategy that is best read in relation to Deleyto’s transformative power of the comic space in romantic comedies. The comic space outlined by Deleyto is one that allows the interaction of several generic, cultural and social signifiers, which in turn loosens (and simultaneously enriches) the fixed set of features that the genre deploys. Similarly, in the landscape of Italy’s romantic fiction, Bertola’s comedic and intertextual approach to rosa and chick lit staples sets up an equally flexible framework that, running through all her work, plays on the social, cultural and literary background of both genres. The result is a new romantic narrative that is not derivative, but thought-provoking and creative in its own right.

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[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from Italian in this article are mine. Bertola has also written a comic self-help manual on how to cope with a sentimental break-up, and in 2010 published a collection of short stories. She is a literary translator and an accomplished screenplay writer involved in the production of successful TV series for many Italian networks, for example the sit-com I Cesaroni (2006-ongoing) and the historical romance Elisa di Rivombrosa (2003-2005). The latter has been exported to Spain, Germany, France, Canada, Belgium Poland and Russia among other countries.

[2] Under the pseudonym Delly, brother and sister Frédéric (1876-1949) and Marie (1875-1947) Petitjean de la Rosière wrote more than 100 books. Ghiazza argues that their production is the epitome of the conservative ideology and educational purposes of the genre (153-55).

[3] For the history and development of romanzo rosa, see Arslan and Pozzato; Banti; Ghiazza; Pozzato; Roccella; Spinazzola (1977; 1985; 1995).

[4] See Pozzato; Rosa; Roccella (51-74). Also, it is worth noting that in 1963, Italian Neoavanguardia (or “Gruppo 63”) belittled critically acclaimed novelists such as Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000) as the “Liala” of Italian literature because of their conventional use of language and narrative structure, which the avant-garde movement rejected in favour of experimental writing and political engagement.

[5] According to Harmony’s website, the latest sales figures account for 5 million copies sold each year (400 million in thirty years), with around 50 titles released monthly (Harlequin Mondadori). On serial romance, see also Rak (81-88).

[6] The term “chick lit” first appeared in 1995, as the title for the anthology of women’s short stories Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, co-edited by Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell. The collection promoted a new kind of fiction rooted in feminist women’s writing that was also an ironic and thought-provoking commentary on issues concerning young women (Mazza 18).

[7] RDI’s publications ended in 2009; the guidelines have since then been withdrawn from Harlequin website. See also Craddock.

[8] The article also explains the marketing strategies adopted by Harlequin Mondadori to launch the new imprint, such as merchandising tie-ins like moisturisers, instant coffee and jewellery brands.

[9] On the figure of the “domestic goddess” in popular culture, see Hollows.

[10] All the cited novels were written by British novelist Elynor Glyn and published by Salani between 1925 and 1934, obviously in translation.


“Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels” by Jonathan A. Allan

Almost every major critic of popular romance fiction—and probably minor ones too—notes that in reading the romance novel, readers will encounter virgin heroines. “For most of the genre’s history,” Pamela Regis explains, “the romance heroine was depicted as a virgin” (35). Indeed, in the first wave of romance scholarship, the trope of female virginity was often presented as a necessary feature of the genre. “Virginity is a given here,” Ann Snitow thus declares in her influential early article, “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different”:

The heroine is not involved in any overt adventure beyond trying to respond appropriately to male energy without losing her virginity. [ . . . ] [S]ex means marriage and marriage, promised at the end [of romance novels], means, finally, there can be sex. (309)

Snitow’s study was not based on a very broad sample of the genre—she only considers a handful of Harlequin romances—and it is tempting to dismiss her claims as dated, given the evolution of romance fiction since the 1980s.[1] But consider some recent Harlequin titles: The Timber Baron’s Virgin Bride (Clair, 2009), The Spaniard’s Virgin Housekeeper (Hamilton, 2009), The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl (Kendrick, 2009), Capelli’s Captive Virgin (Morgan, 2009), Rescuing the Virgin (Rosemoor, 2009), The Virgin’s Price (Milburne, 2009), His Convenient Virgin Bride (Dunlop, 2010), Virgin on Her Wedding Night (Graham, 2010). And novels with female virgins in the title are not the only ones where such characters appear. Clearly, the virgin heroine is still a regular character in popular romance fiction.

Indeed, even if modern romance fiction no longer insists on “making heroines compulsorily intact and reifying a hymenal virginity,” as a more recent scholar, Jocelyn Wogan-Brown puts it, what she calls the “cultural performance” of female virginity, at least in some metaphorical sense, remains remarkably important to the genre (346). “Harlequin romances (within the many subgenres)” have come to “represent virginity not as an essentialized and mystical anatomical condition,” this scholar writes, “but as an interior state, produced by volition and emotion” (346-7). Bloggers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, whose familiarity with the genre is far broader than most scholars’, concur: the “sexually unawakened heroine” who is “relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity,” remains “one of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica” (37), they explain in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance. “No matter what type she is,” they add, “she is definitely not the ho-type” (37).

What, though, of the sexually unawakened hero? Is there a “type” for the male virgin in popular romance? At first glance, this figure is perhaps a rarity, both in fiction and in scholarship. Many current studies of the popular romance hero, for example, focus on the “alpha male” hero, a figure who tends to be as sexually experienced as he is powerful, masterful, and—at least as the novel begins—emotionally reserved. In fact, as an anecdote from romance author Monica Burns reveals, the alpha hero may seem hard to square with the idea of male virginity:

A little more than a year ago, I was getting ready to write my March 2011 release Pleasure Me. My editor and I had talked at a conference, and she’d asked me to make the hero a virgin. My initial [response] on the outside was, ummm . . . sure, I supposed I could. Inside I was thinking WTF? I write alpha heroes. How in the hell am I going to write an alpha male who’s never been with a woman?

Even Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer’s discussion of the virgin romance hero, which appeared last year in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, finds oddly little to say about him: “Virginal heroes do exist in the genre,” they point out—but their discussion quickly moves on to cite a short questionnaire attached to the Mills & Boon edition of Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, which seems to play down this figure’s importance. “[M]any heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced,” the questionnaire explains.

In this article, I hope to move beyond merely acknowledging the virgin hero’s existence to a more complex, theorised understanding of him as a complex character within the genre of popular romance fiction. My argument is that male virginity in romance novels is worthy of a more significant study than it has thus far been afforded—in part because male virgins are treated so differently in these novels from the ways they appear in cinematic representations, and in part because studying the virgin hero allows us to revisit some of the most puzzling and provocative of Northrop Frye’s pronouncements on the “romance,” broadly considered: in particular, his claim that in “romance” there is a “magical emphasis on virginity, the fact that virgins can do things other can’t” (CW XV:219, 236), but that “this prudery [about virginity] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187). With Frye in mind, my approach to the topic will be anatomical; that is, I will anatomise various “types” of the virgin hero in modern popular romance fiction, with some exploration of how they overlap and relate to one another. I will close with an extended discussion of one recent romance novel, When the Duke Returns, by Eloisa James, to demonstrate how a single text can make use of several distinct tropes concerning male virginity and the quest-like narrative structure surrounding its loss.

To understand the construction of male virgins in popular romance, we might begin by turning to the burgeoning field of “virginity studies.” Unfortunately, this body of research so far only contains the scantest of mentions of male virginity. In Hanne Blank’s book, Virgin: The Untouched History, the most “untouched” of topics is the male virgin; and the culture surrounding male virginity is surprisingly peripheral to Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History. Laura M. Carpenter’s Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, however, offers us insights not only into the modern social realities of male virginity, but perhaps also into the silence surrounding it in scholarship. While “girls can be labelled ‘sluts’ if they have sex without love,” Carpenter reports, “boys can be labelled ‘wimps’ or even gay should they not have sex early enough in their adolescence” (12).[2] Male virginity not only must be lost; it must be lost as quickly as possible: if Virginia is for lovers, as the old advertisements used to proclaim, then (male) virginity is for losers. In Frygian terms, when the male is beyond the ‘normal age’ to lose his virginity, he becomes an alazon figure, the kind who serves as “an object of ridicule in comedy or satire” (CW XXII:331).

I am not the only scholar to make this connection between the male virgin in popular culture and the alazon. In his reading of the recent Hollywood comedy The Forty Year Old Virgin, Celestino Deleyto struggles to argue that Andy, the hero of the film, cannot quite be seen as “a ridiculous man or as an Aristotelian alazon” because of “other traits of his character [that] are more affirmative” (259). We might, however, reverse the argument, since those affirmative traits serve precisely to contrast and counterpoint Andy’s long-enduring virginity, which otherwise would indeed leave him simply “an object of ridicule” (Frye, CW XXII:331). He often seems like one in any case: as Deleyto himself notes, “one of the narrative and commercial goals of the centrality of Andy’s sexual innocence is its exploitative potential: it becomes the perfect excuse for the deployment of gross-out discourse on sexuality” (260). Inasmuch as the film moves beyond that “gross-out discourse” into telling an actual love story it proves itself to be a romance, rather than simply a sex farce, but it’s clear that the “Happily Ever After” of Andy’s romance plot requires him to lose his virginity to the film’s heroine, Trish—after which, we are assured, he will not only retain all those other, “affirmative” traits, but will put them to their proper use in the context of a truly “adult” (which is to say, sexual) relationship.

The Forty Year Old Virgin frequently invokes the discourse of ridicule that Carpenter describes surrounding male virginity: that is, the question of whether Andy is “a wimp” or “gay.” It does so for comic effect, notably in the film’s repeated bantering exchanges about “how I know you’re gay.” But one might well wonder how the representation of the virgin hero in this film, which was written and directed by men (Steve Carell and Judd Apatow), differs from the representation of the virgin hero in popular culture that is written by women, for example, popular romance fiction.

As Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak write in their introduction to Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000, several issues are at stake in the study of female-authored masculinity. The first of these arises from questions of power. As Frantz and Rennhak explain, feminist scholars have long studied the ways that male characters in female-authored texts serve as “catalysts for the subject-formation of the female characters, sparking in them emotional reaction and ideological resistance,” but this is not their only function. Rather, “the male characters of female novelists represent the authors’ negotiation with the ideologies of gender, class, and sexuality” (3) in their own right, with ideological and political issues playing out in the literary bodies and behaviour of a novel’s men. Fictional men are no more “natural” than fictional women; no character, in short, is created without an ideological potential.

But more than merely an interest in ideology should draw us to the study of female-authored masculinity. If, as Annette Kolodny observes, a male reader “in opening the pages of a woman’s book, finds himself entering a strange and unfamiliar world of symbolic significance” (174), part of that strangeness and unfamiliarity may lie in the degree to which issues of desire play out in the female construction of masculinity: desires that the male reader finds embodied both in “symbolic” ways and, sometimes, quite literally. As Frantz and Rennhak remark, “when women construct and write about men in fictional worlds, not only do they analyze the causes and effects of patriarchy, as Woolf does in A Room of One’s Own, but they also construct their own realities, imagining alternative masculinities that are desirable from a woman’s perspective” (2). The male reader may thus confront an analytical, even diagnostic representation of masculinity at its patriarchal worst, or he may encounter an idealised representation of some “alternative masculinity” at its post- or anti- or reformed-patriarchal best—or even, most unsettling of all, he may face a male figure who somehow combines or moves between these extremes.

The romance novel, of course—particularly in its popular manifestation—has been predominantly theorised as being a genre written “by women, for women.” What, then, can we say about the virgin hero of the romance novel? How might he be read in political or ideological terms? Might he turn out to be one of those “alternative masculinities that are desirable from a woman’s perspective”? Certainly the treatment of the virgin hero in romance fiction seems different, and generally more desirable, from the representation of male virginity seen in other media, fictional and otherwise, if only because the virgin hero tends to be a complex character, not a joke to be laughed at or a tragic figure to pity. Romance novels have been criticised and even discarded by the academy for the ways in which they unconsciously reinforce patriarchal norms, but when we read these novels with a particular focus on the virgin hero, we find that they are remarkably self-conscious about those norms, allowing us insights into both gender and genre.

In my study of virgin heroes, I have come across a variety of archetypes—by which I mean a “typical or recurring image” (Frye, CW XXII:91) in literary and cultural texts—of the male virgin in popular romance. The first archetype is the sick virginal hero: that is, the hero who was, for some specific period of time, too sick or too weak to lose his virginity, unable to perform sexually and therefore unable to “perform” adult masculinity as well. In Katherine Kendall’s First and Forever (1991), a Harlequin Temptation, we are introduced to a mature heroine, Laura Daniels (she is 35), who meets a younger man, 22 year old Alex Shaw, who happens to be a virgin. “I’ve never been with a woman, Laura,” he tells her forthrightly: “I’m a virgin” (136). The announcement of virginity seems to be one of the requirements of the male virgin romance novel: indeed, as far as I can tell, all virgin heroes at some point confess that they are virgins, as though this articulation were a defining feature of virginity itself, at least for a romance hero. The romance heroine’s virginity, by contrast, may be declared aloud, but it is often also “written” by her body in the form of pain during sexual intercourse, blood on the sheets, or other signs that the hero must read and respond to—and if he fails to see any signs, like the hero in Maureen Child’s atypical Last Virgin In California, this is a surprising twist on the trope. (“In every book she’d ever read, the hero always noticed a thing like that,” Child’s heroine thinks to herself, a little disappointed [156].)

The speaking-aloud of the hero’s virginity often arrives, for the sick virgin hero, in the context of some explanation of his wounded, hence virginal, status. In the case of Alex Shaw, a car accident gets the blame: “I was seventeen. Guy hit me head on. He crossed the line and hit me. When I woke up . . . [ . . . ] It’s impossible for me to covey the pain, the horror—the goddamned fear” (135). Some of that “horror” spills over into the depiction of Alex’s recovery and his life after the accident. As he further explains: “While I learned a lot during that time, I managed to miss quite a few things about the real world. I feel so . . . different, so ignorant of life. I never really had any friends. I fell behind other people my own age” (136). What Carpenter says about virginity loss in everyday discourse—that it “represents a rite of passage, a process of transition from sexual youth to adulthood” (143)—thus seems true in this novel, since Alex’s transition to adulthood has been delayed (“I fell behind”). A later passage makes this issue quite explicit. “Alex was a boy,” the heroine thinks to herself. “He should be making out with girls in the back seat of a car at a drive-in. His first time should be a joyful adventure. Not a self-conscious performance where the only thing on his mind was the review he’d receive the next morning” (140-41). As a “boy,” Alex should lose his virginity in a boyish way, as part of an “adventure.” Although he is physically capable of “performing” sexually, he seems here too emotionally frail (which is to say, still too much like a child) to endure the rigors of a female “review” of his “performance,” which includes his performance of adult masculinity. This scene concludes with Alex being sent home by the heroine, still a virgin, in a cab—it’s as though he were even too young to drive, at least metaphorically speaking.

The construction of virginal Alex as a “boy” in First and Forever leads quite naturally into a second common archetype: the student virgin hero, with the heroine as his teacher. Kendall makes the most of the erotic potential built into this archetype, and of the power imbalance as well. When Laura arrives at Alex’s apartment, she promptly and playfully takes charge, and Alex is glad to go along with her mix of metaphor and role-play scenario:

“Time for night school.” Wordlessly she led him to the bedroom and stationed him next to the water bed. Kicking off her shoes, she turned on the lamp next to his bed.

“Lesson number one,” she began with a smile that put to rest any doubts about her talents at seduction. “Sometimes it’s better with the lights on.”

Alex returned her smile, intensifying it. “Should I take notes?” (163)

She continues elaborating a series of lessons:

Laura closed her eyes, fighting off the lush, lazy heat that threatened to drug her into speechlessness. “Lesson three,” she managed at last, opening her eyes. “Female anatomy.”

“I think I’m going to like this class.” (163)

As the scene comes to a climax, the power dynamic is reversed, with Alex assuming the generically-typical quality of sexual mastery. Although she begins by leaving the lights on, Laura eventually “couldn’t watch any longer, closing her eyes to the delicious things he was doing to her body. Things no man had ever been able to do to her body” (167). One thinks of Frye’s observation that, in a romance, “virgins can do things other can’t” (CW XV:219, 236)—and, perhaps, of the sharp contrast between Alex’s immediate sexual prowess and the Andy’s goodhearted, fumbling, and extremely brief first time in The 40 Year Old Virgin, which is played entirely for comic effect. Although it’s true that the two men both respond with boyish enthusiasm to their first sexual episode—“Wanna do it again?” Alex asks (169)—this parallel hardly cancels out the striking, generically-specific difference between them when it comes to satisfying the heroine, perfectly, right from the very first time.

In Bonnie Dee’s The Countess Takes A Lover (2009), we see a variation of the teacher/student motif, one common enough to be its own archetype. This time, the student is a genius, and in the genius virgin archetype, the hero has not had sex because he is simply too intelligent to be concerned with carnal matters. His mind has been elsewhere. In The Countess Takes A Lover, readers are told about a virgin hero of twenty-five years of age:

Science and reason had always been the guiding forces of his life. Animal impulses were for the uneducated, unthinking louts. There must be more to life than satisfying base lust with bestial coupling; otherwise the whole of society might as well run about in animal skins cooking shanks over open fires. (31)

The genius virgin hero gives visible form to an enduring dichotomy in patriarchy: that is, the association of men with intellect and the mind, and women with emotion, sex, and the body. In this line of thought, only men are fully human—and as we can see in that reference to “uneducated, unthinking louts,” within the category of “men,” some men are more fully human than others. Needless to say, the novel does not endorse this line of thinking—rather it introduces the dichotomy in order to undo it.

This process plays out even more vividly in Jo Davis’ Under Fire (2009). Here our virgin hero Zack Knight, 26, is a “so-called genius” (3), while the heroine, Corinne “Cori” Shannon, is an exotic dancer who works for private parties at night and—to trouble the patriarchal dichotomy—also studies during the day to become a nurse. Cori exudes sexuality: “she was sex incarnate” (75) and “she put the ‘voom’ in vavoooom” (11). Zack’s sexuality is alluringly present, but repressed, a duality that plays out nicely in the novel’s choice of career for him (he’s a fire fighter) and in his behaviour at the outset of the novel. “He’d never been good at relating to women on any level—pathetic, but true—” we learn, “and now he had to keep from staring like an idiot at the goddess standing in front of him” (2). But if being a “genius” makes him “like an idiot,” this doesn’t last:

Her big, white smile blasted him with a double shot of desire. Awakened his slumbering libido. She was sex incarnate, a treat he’d never sampled. He’d wondered if she’d believe his innocence, then reminded himself it didn’t make any difference. Even if he wasn’t a disaster zone, Cori was way out of his league. (75)

In this novel, as we’ve seen elsewhere, the hero has to articulate his virginity to the heroine, a moment that shifts the novel back into the student / teacher model we saw in First and Forever:

“I’m sort of . . . new at, you know . . . ”

Sitting up, she stared at him, processing what he’d said. Holy crap! “You mean, you’ve never gone down on a woman before?”

He groaned, slapping a hand over his eyes. “More than that. I’ve never had sex with a woman, period.” (143)

Following his virginal announcement, Cori begins to introduce Zack to the pleasures of sexuality and, of course, not only does he lose his virginity, but “the sex was pretty damned amazing” (149), not embarrassing, frustrating, or disappointing, to either party.

The discourse of male virginity in Under Fire also introduces us to a fourth common archetype: the virgin hero as commodity. “Good god,” Cori ponders at one point, “how on earth had she snared one of the last sexy male virgins over the age of twenty-one?” (143). Such a construction of female virginity is certainly not novel in any sense; female virginity has long been prized and required at marriage, reducing women to the status of commodities. The commodification of male virginity, by contrast, is rarely so reductive as female virginity—and when it is, when the male is now commodified and spoken of as an object, a virgin, rather than as a subject (who just happens to be a virgin), this reduction is often played for comedy. Consider Katherine Deauxville’s The Last Male Virgin (2002) in which we are introduced to Dr. Peter Havistock, “the author of the surprise bestselling book Determining Anthropological and Developmental Social Factors Among the Papua New Guinea Aborigines in the Antorok Valley” (6). Indeed, his celebrity is so popular that readers learn that “[t]he Harry King show called. They want me to be interviewed on CNN tonight” (23). Havistock, in this interview, explains how he survived a plane crash that killed his parents—a variation, perhaps, on the sick or wounded virgin motif—and how he subsequently spent a great deal of time in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Pressed by an interviewer, he has no embarrassment about his state: “I believe what you are getting at is that I’m still a virgin,” he says (39). For Havistock there is nothing out of the ordinary about his lack of sexual experience; for Harry King and his viewers, there is nothing but shock: “I’m sorry, Doctor, I’m told our lines are jammed, so we are going to have to answer some of these calls. It seems a lot of people would like to talk to you” (40-41). The question of why the phone lines are jammed is quickly answered: Havistock has become a fetishised commodity.

Deauxville clearly has fun, throughout the novel, playing with popular culture stereotypes and readers’ expectations. Havistock, for example, is utterly unfazed by his virginal identity, with no fear that it brands him as a “wimp” or as “gay” or as something less than an adult man. Indeed, he turns the tables on a woman who gives voice to those views:

Leslie snapped. “To many people in our society here in the U.S., and maybe to most of the world, a man who is twenty-nine years old and hasn’t had sex is . . . is . . . unnatural!”

He raised his eyebrows. “Hmm. You mean it’s assumed that at my advanced age I must simply be more interested in having sex with myself?”

Leslie couldn’t help a little shudder. “I don’t believe you know how unattractive that sounds.”

“Nevertheless, that’s what you implied. Damn. Is that what the majority of the citizens in the United States believe I’ve been doing for the past fourteen years?”

She hesitated. “Well, I know it sounds bad, but can you blame them for thinking it?” (89)

Playing with the usual Romantic-primitivist assumption that indigenous cultures are more sexually open than the West—Havistock’s book recalls Margaret Mead’s famous Coming of Age in Samoa, just as his name recalls that of sex researcher Havelock Ellis—our virgin hero explains that “[f]rustration and sexual repression have no meaning in their [Antorok] language; they don’t think of themselves that way” (Deauxville 93). In such a cultural context, many of the meanings of male virginity seem to fall away, leaving Havistock quite bemused by his effect on American women:

“And they [Antorok] would never understand why my saying I’m a virgin on television is evidently like a shot of Viagra to apparently hundreds of women.”

“Women don’t take Viagra! At least, I don’t think they do. But you’re . . . you’re an aphrodisiac, that’s for sure.” (93)

Although he shares some traits with the sick virgin hero and the genius virgin hero, Havistock’s openly announced “aphrodisiac” quality seems linked neither to a boyish arrested development nor to a charmingly awkward repression of the body. It’s all about his status as a commodity, a rare thing that can be desired, when it’s advertised on television, by hundreds of women at once.

In conclusion, I want to consider the ways these various archetypes come together in a particularly complex novel with a virgin hero, Eloisa James’s Regency historical novel When the Duke Returns. The novels of Eloisa James have a rather large number of male virgins; by my count, at least five of her novels incorporate them, and this repeated use of the trope suggests an effort to explore its narrative and symbolic possibilities. This novel tells the story of a duke, Simeon, who returns home to his wife, Isidore. The pair was married via proxy while he was travelling through exotic lands; upon his return the twenty-three year old bride-now-wife realises, to her disappointment, that her groom-now-husband (six years her senior) not only is a virgin, but intends to remain one. The first chapter emphasises this departure from the usual male-virginity trope:

“He’s a virgin.”


“He’s a virgin and—”

Your husband is a virgin?

“And he won’t bed me.”

Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont, sank into her chair with a look of almost comical dismay on her face. “Darling, if there were ever grounds for annulment, these are they. Or this is it,” she added with some confusion. “Is he some sort of monk?” (11)

The attention to language here, as Isidore’s friend Jemma wonders whether these “grounds for annulment” should be singular or plural, reminds us that the hero’s virginity, too, is partly a matter of language: in the romance novel, as I argued above, it must be announced and articulated to be real.

As this opening chapter continues, the female friends repeatedly discuss male virginity as an emasculating, even monstrous phenomenon. “What sort of man stays a virgin until he’s near to thirty?” Isidore demands. “That’s almost disgusting. How am I supposed to introduce him to the bedroom, Jemma? Men do this sort of thing on their own. Honestly, if he’s never used his equipment—well, who’s to say that it will function at all?” (13). In part, of course, this speech reveals her anxiety—Isidore, too, is a virgin, not an older, more experienced woman like Laura in First and Forever—and in part it reveals her frustration about being treated as a commodity, “Isidore, property of the duke” (10) rather than as a woman with her own emotional, social, and even sexual desires. Jemma’s agreement that “incapability lies at the heart of this situation” (20), however, as the conversation end, shows that the novel is aware of and informed by modern American discourse about male virginity as a sign of lack, something for wimps. Never, for example, do the women praise Simeon for having remained loyal for eleven years to his proxy bride; instead, he seems at fault for not having learned about “this sort of thing on [his] own” (13).

Given the elaborate explanations other novels have offered for the hero’s virginity, we might expect to find something comparable here, and we do. Simeon, it seems, spent his childhood “long[ing] to escape his parents’ pitched battles” (22)—a version of the sick virgin archetype—and as an adult he now aspires to “quell” any strong emotion and be instead a “follower of the Middle Way” (22), a vaguely Eastern philosophical discipline he adopts during three years of “rigorous solitude” in India. (57). The novel explicitly links this philosophy’s aspiration to mastery over emotions and the body with a particular construction of masculinity: he spent those years “learning endurance, manliness, the Middle Way,” we read; “he had learned to create an oasis of calm around himself, no matter what happened” (57). Clearly, then, Simeon is not just a version of the sick virgin, but also a version of the genius virgin as well, a man who embodies the patriarchal split between body and mind, alternatively disciplining or ignoring the former, “animal” side of himself and identifying only with the latter, “principled, thoughtful” side that makes him a “human being” (162).

In this novel, the genius virgin tends to pride himself not just on his intellect, but on his self-control. When his Indian teacher Valamksepa “used to recite the poetry of Rumi,” we learn, “Simeon had exulted because he was free from the embarrassments described by the poet,” particularly the way that “reason was powerless” in the face of desire (162). At one point, Isidore laments that “she had the remarkable bad luck to be married to the one man in control of his body” (206), but Simeon associates the absence of self-control with “violent tempests of emotion” (162) both inside himself and between members of his household, as he witnessed with his parents. This issue of control, or the lack of it, is crucial to the point in James’ narrative where both hero and heroine lose their virginities. “That was the wonderful thing about it—there wasn’t an ounce of composure about Simeon now, nothing of the controlled man,” Isidore marvels. “His face was alive with pleasure” (263). In this scene, self-control begins to take on a new meaning, redefined or displaced into the sexual act: “I can’t control myself much longer,” Simeon says as he makes love to Isidore, and to her delight “his voice sounded dark and anguished” (263). As the scene ends, the narrator locates us squarely in Simeon’s point of view: “[p]leasure was roaring in his legs, and Isidore was meeting him now, raising her lips in a way that made him want to bite her on the collarbone, act like a rampaging beast” (264). Finally during the orgasmic moment, we are told, “[h]e threw his head back and roared like a man who was never quiet, like a lion claiming his mate” (264): a clear signal that he has finally come to inhabit and “claim” his own animal nature.

With this turn, Simeon’s virginal journey might seem to be complete. However, unlike earlier novels considered in this study, the post-coital moments in James’s text are not spent considering the completion or perfection of the sexual experience; that is, the sex was not entirely satisfying, neither for Isidore (who has yet to climax, and who finds Simeon’s semen rather disgusting) nor for the hero himself. “‘We weren’t very good,’ he said propping himself upon an elbow” (267). Having both become sexual subjects, this couple must now learn to be ‘good’ at it: a remarkable displacement and revision of the teacher / student motif that I discussed earlier. Simeon is quite willing to act as both student and teacher, asking Isidore a series of questions about her sexual body and offering to demonstrate certain aspects and capacities of his. She finds the questions and offers startling: in response to his inquiry about how it feels to have breasts, for example, she initially replies “How does it feel? Simeon, do you think you’re a normal man” (267). The fact that she does so with “a delicious low gust of laughter,” however, shows that the novel does not consider being a “normal” man an entirely good thing, since it implies a lack of curiosity about women, or at least women’s sexual subjectivity.

The first time marks a juncture between having completed the necessary act of virginity loss and becoming a sexual subject; however, as we likely know, the first time is hardly ever a good time, let alone “pretty damned amazing,” as it was in Under Fire (149). But James’ novel does not simply distinguish between sexual activity (i.e. losing one’s virginity) and sexual happiness (which is to say, being “good” at sex, or making it both enjoyable and satisfying for both partners). It further distinguishes between sexual happiness and marital happiness, which requires much more than mere sexual compatibility. The final hundred pages of the novel focus primarily on how the couple arrives at the latter. But in an elegant turn, James frames the couple’s mutual struggle towards marital success in the same terms that shape their virginity loss and subsequent sexual education. The two forms of happiness cannot be reduced to one another, but the obstacles to both, and the lessons that must be learned to achieve both, are set in parallel. Control, vulnerability, respect, the desire to belong to a beloved and to possess him or her (not exclusively as a rare commodity, although not entirely not as a rare commodity): these topics and their key terms come up in each context.

The final moments of the novel offer a scene that embodies this parallelism. As the novel enters its closing chapters, there has been a constant, even growing tension about the success of the marriage; indeed, “the king has interested himself personally in the dissolution of [Simeon’s] marriage,” we learn, “on the ground of [his] insanity” (342). But after a series of melodramatic twists and rescues—and the novel itself calls them “melodramas” (346)—the couple find themselves ensconced in a sumptuous carriage, a vehicle metonymous with marriage, enjoying a passionate scene in which sex and love and companionate union are inextricably conjoined. “In the moments that followed, broken only by their whispered endearments,” we read, Simeon “realized something his heart already knew. They were partners” (363). And, as we learn in the novel’s two-part epilogue, their marriage is not only re-consecrated after this, but “a year or so later” the couple become the parents of triplets (371), each of them a “living, breathing, adorable source of chaos” (372). As Simeon thinks to himself in the closing lines of the text, “living in a clean tent on the banks of the Ganges river” leaves one with “no gummy smiles, no warm little bundles, no beautiful, impetuous wives, no responsibilities. . . . No life. Real life” (373). Isidore’s pregnancy and childbirth are thus metaphorically shared: the metaphorical virginity loss of their true, marital union (rather than of their first sexual encounter) has transformed each of them into a child-rearing, if not child-bearing, parent.

To close, virginity in popular romance fiction is never simple, even—or perhaps especially—for when the virgin is the romance hero. Romance authors do not simply treat the male virgin as an alazon or ridiculous character who is simply in need of sex, post-haste; instead, writers of romance treat male virginity as a topic worthy of serious consideration and sometimes quite elaborate exploration. No matter which archetypes he belongs to, the virgin hero can be read as a narrative trope, whether moral, structural, ideological, or as an opportunity to explore female desire. But more than that, in some contemporary popular romance fiction—as in the James novel—the male virgin asks us to read him through all of these lenses at once and by turns: a complexity that borders on the complexity of male virginity in real life, if one can still speak of “real life” in an academic context. Romance novels have been criticised and even discarded by many in the academy for the ways in which they apparently reinforce patriarchal norms, but when we read these novels with a particular focus on male virginity, we find that romance novelists are quite conscious of these norms, and they sometimes break new ground in both gender and genre. Male virginity may receive its most honest and most complete fictional treatment in the genre pervasively written “by women, for women”: the popular romance novel.

Works Cited

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Dir. Judd Apatow. Perf. Steve Carrell, Catherine Keener, Seth Rogen, et al. Apatow Productions, Universal Studios, 2005. Film.

Bernau, Anke. Virgins: A Cultural History. London: Granta Books, 2007. Print.

Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, USA, 2007. Print.

Burns, Monica. “Virgin Heroes and Experienced Heroines by Monica Burns.” Hannah Howell. 29 Nov. 2010. Web.

Carpenter, Laura M. Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print.

Child, Maureen. Last Virgin in California. Silhouette Desire #1398. New York: Silhouette Books,  Oct. 2001. Print.

Clair, Daphne. The Timber Baron’s Virgin Bride. Harlequin Presents Extra #47. Toronto: Harlequin, March 2009. Print.

Davis, Jo. Under Fire. New York: Signet Eclipse, 2009. Print.

Deauxville, Katherine. The Last Male Virgin. New York: Dorchester, 2002. Print.

Dee, Bonnie. The Countess Takes a Lover. Macon, GA: Samhain Publishing, 2009. Print.

Deleyto, Celestino. “The New Road to Sexual Ecstasy: Virginity and Genre in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film. Ed. Tamar Jeffers McDonald. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 255-68. Print.

Dunlop, Barbara. His Convenient Virgin Bride. New York: Silhouette Desire, April 2010. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S. G., Katharina Rennhak. “Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000: An Introduction.” Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2010. 1-10. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Vol. 22 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Alvin A. Lee, gen. ed., 29 vols to date. 1996 – . Print

Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance. Ed. Michael Dolzani. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2004. Vol. 15 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Alvin A. Lee, gen. ed. 29 vols to date. 1996 – . Print.

Graham, Lynne. Virgin on Her Wedding Night. Harlequin Presents #2915. Toronto: Harlequin, May 2010. Print.

Hamilton, Diana. The Spaniard’s Virgin Housekeeper. Harlequin Presents #2804. Toronto: Harlequin, March 2009. Print.

James, Eloisa. When the Duke Returns. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009. Print.

Kendall, Katherine. First and Forever. Harlequin Temptation #360. Toronto: Harlequin, July 1991. Print.

Kendrick, Sharon. The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl. Harlequin Presents #2843. Toronto: Harlequin, August 2009. Print.

Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997. 171-90. Print.

Milburne, Melanie. The Virgin’s Price. Harlequin Presents Extra #39. Toronto: Harlequin, Jan. 2009. Print.

Morgan, Sarah. Capelli’s Captive Virgin. Harlequin Presents #2829. Toronto: Harlequin, June 2009. Print.

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

Rosemoor, Patricia. Rescuing the Virgin. Harlequin Intrique #1128. Toronto: Harlequin, April 2009. Print.

Snitow, Ann. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women Is Different.” Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 307-22. Print.

Vivanco, Laura; Kyra Kramer. “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010): n.p. Web.

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

Wogan-Brown, Jocelyn. “Virginity Always Comes Twice: Virginity and Profession, Virginity and Romance.” Miastresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholar. Eds. Louise D. D’Arcens & Juanita Feros Ruys. Turnhous: Brepols, 2004. 335-69. Print.

The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and of the Romance Writers of America.

[1] For further contextualization of Snitow’s place in the canon of critical theory of romance, see Pamela Regis’s “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” in this issue.

[2] My study does not attend to matters of queer or gay virginities in popular romance; however, there is much to be said about this concern. Queer virginities are problematic precisely because they define themselves in contradistinction to the overarching heteronormative definitions of virginity, which are dependent upon penile/vaginal penetration as a deciding factor. In male/male romance, for instance, the presentation of virginity loss is not always dependent upon penetration (either actively or passively). As such, this study brackets this area of concern as another space wherein the polemics of virginity in m/m romance can be further discussed and developed. What does seem certain is that the tripartite process discussed in this article does, for the most part, hold true. However, there is one striking difference that must be attended to in a study that would consider virginity in these textual spaces; that is, there is often a necessary recognition of the epistemology of the closet and a surrendering of the previous, closeted, identity. But, it must further be acknowledged that this is not always the case; likewise, sometimes heroes of these novels have had sex with women. Clearly the matter of virginity in male/male romance is complicated and deserves to be studied further.


“The Comic, the Serious and the Middle: Desire and Space in Contemporary Film Romantic Comedy” by Celestino Deleyto

Romantic comedy is a genre that promotes and celebrates romantic love. This commonsense description may be more problematic than it seems at first sight. Indeed, the equivalence between romantic love and romantic comedy is not historically tenable. Romantic love as a specific Western concept consolidated itself in the eighteenth century and only became a dominant discourse in the nineteenth century (Giddens 39). By then, romantic comedy had already been in existence for several centuries, since its beginnings in sixteenth-century Italy and its artistic consolidation in Shakespeare’s plays. Even though the two concepts share the adjective “romantic” it is unclear that such an adjective means exactly the same in both cases. In the sixteenth century this new type of comedy incorporated a then radical view of love as a spiritual force, a beneficial feeling capable of making people happy and of becoming the engine of a new social organization. At the same time, however, the new genre partly retained love’s medieval associations with physical passion and its destructive potential (for men). In Shakespeare’s plays, for example, love is both an ideal union of minds and physical desire, except that now desire becomes more positive, something to celebrate rather than fear. But there is as much sexual energy as there is spiritual well-being and social integration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado about Nothing and Twelfth Night. Since then, however, love in the Western world has undergone a process of desexualization that reached its peak in Victorian times (Seidman 7). Even though the twentieth century brought about a resexualization of love and, later, an elevation of sex parallel to the one that occurred in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature (65-66), the popular discourse that separated romantic love from sex, and defined them as predominantly female and male experiences respectively, has remained very much at the center of our ways of thinking about intimate matters. This discourse has survived two waves of feminism, a sexual revolution, the relative normalization of homosexuality and various other vicissitudes during a century that brought about drastic changes in people’s attitude towards love and sex. It has also affected the evolution of romantic comedy and both popular and critical attitudes towards the genre to the extent that romcom has become both in popular and critical discourse a privileged example of a non-sexual attitude towards romantic love.

This discursive separation between love and sex is based on a simplification of the concept of romantic love and a generalized disregard of the complexities and potential of romantic comedy. In an influential study of the genre in the cinema, Tamar Jeffers McDonald rightly places sex at the centre of the history and the conceptualization of romcom and decries those periods and specific movies in which sex is downplayed in favor of a vague spiritual intensity (97). Sexual desire and erotic pleasure were indeed the engine of the structure of Shakespearean comedy and have remained very much at the heart of the meanings articulated by the genre. For Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare created these plays in order to convey some of the excitement and beauty of sexual attraction. Since he could not represent sexual intercourse directly on the Elizabethan stage he replaced it by verbal friction: “Dallying with words is the principal Shakespearean representation of erotic heat” (90). For Greenblatt, the heated arguments between apparent rivals were a transposition onto the stage of what could not be directly shown. The strategy of showing lovers quarrelling has remained a staple of the genre to this day and some of the most memorable moments in its history are constituted by such scenes. In them it is not so much that initial incompatibility leads to final compatibility. Rather, the friction itself represents sexual compatibility: it is a metaphor for it, not a prelude to it. These comic fights are not interesting because they show moments of crisis, dysfunctions and contradictions in interpersonal relationships but because they produce sparks of electricity between those who, in the fictional worlds of the genre, are destined for each other. Fights in romcom are happy occasions, moments to savor and celebrate, experiences to envy. What is important for my argument here, however, is the notion that in romantic comedy, although censorship has not always been an issue, desire, sexual attraction, and sexual heat tend to appear in a displaced manner and hardly ever directly. Explicit sex may be seen occasionally but it is far from a staple of the genre, and obvious eroticism and display of the sexual body finds a more natural home in other generic contexts. In many contemporary instances sex, when it does appear, is more often than not an object of ridicule, something to be laughed or giggled at. Yet, at the same time, the films are very much about the central place occupied by desire in our lives. Since Shakespeare’s times, other strategies have been added to the charged dialogues that have shaped the genre as a prime producer of erotic energy and have allowed it to play a prominent role in cinema’s endless production of desire.

For these reasons, I would like to suggest that romantic comedy is not, as earlier critics have asserted, primarily a genre that celebrates marriage, monogamy and compulsory heterosexuality (for example, Krutnik 138). Rather, what is most characteristic and unique about it is that it offers, through its specific generic configurations, love and sexual desire as endless sources of pleasure and as the most powerful dimension of human experience. The view of romantic love to which it is committed is openly sexual, as much nowadays as it was at the beginning of its history. Like all other genres, romantic comedy exists in history and, as the very old genre that it is, it has experienced important changes. Within the history of cinema, it has not only reflected but also contributed to shaping interpersonal relationships, intimate matters, and sexual protocols in the course of a packed century. More recently, since its commercial boom in the mid-1980s, it has consolidated itself as one of the most industrially viable and successful genres, and, at the same time, as one of the most universally despised by the critics. One of the reasons for this has been excessive attention to the convention of the happy ending (Neale and Krutnik 12-13). According to this dominant view, since all romantic comedies have a happy ending, they all have the same conservative ideology and they are all very similar to one another. There is no denying the importance of romcom’s endings, although it could be argued that these endings are often considerably more complex and more interesting than they are given credit for. More importantly, however, there is much more to romantic comedy than the happy ending: in narrative terms, the middle of the comic narrative is just as important. It is often in the middle that we find variety, contradiction and complexity. It is also in the middle that we are most likely to encounter cultural nuance and historically relevant discourses on intimate matters. Finally, it is also in this middle section that the energy and exhilaration produced by sexual desire is displayed with greatest power and complexity.

All genres and all films employ their own mechanisms to convert experience into fictional worlds. I would like to propose the concept of the comic space as a way of understanding what is special about this genre and, more specifically, how the lovers are encouraged to fulfill their desires. This is not a new concept: it comes close to Northrop Frye’s “green world,” the forest or foreign city to which Shakespearean lovers escape in their quest for a new identity and more mature sexuality. Frye, for whom “green world” comedy and romantic comedy are synonyms, finds this trope central for an understanding of Shakespeare’s and later comedies (1957 and 1965). More recently, Deborah Thomas starts her discussion of the filmic categories of the comedic and the melodramatic with a discussion of space and argues that, unlike melodrama, comedic films present a single space, the social space, which, in the course of the narrative, is transformed into something better. This space is benevolent and sheltering for the couple (14). Thomas is referring to something larger than romantic comedy—a filmic mode that she calls the comedic, although at certain points of her discussion she seems to slip into the more specific territory of romcom. In any case, this sheltering space acquires particular resonance in the case of this genre.

I have described elsewhere the particular details of this comic space, and a brief summary of that longer argument may be useful here. As I argue in The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy, romantic comedy’s fictional worlds are very close to the real world of intimate protocols and therefore immediately recognizable by the spectator. Yet, unlike in our real lives, here lovers are protected in their amatory pursuits and encouraged to shed their inhibitions and oppose the social and psychological obstacles that we all tend to fall prey to in our daily experience. Because we recognize the comic space as very close to our own, we are attracted to a genre that allows us to believe in the unstoppable power of desire, and makes us confident that an alternative regime of feelings, not governed by social law, personal inhibition and constant frustration, is possible (30-38).

A great deal of the creative energy of the filmmakers goes towards the construction of this comic space. In films, we find not only the verbal sparring theorized by Greenblatt but also formal elements related to mise en scène, actor performance, use of the soundtrack and more. Among the most important of these formal elements is humor. Humor may have a variety of functions in romantic comedy but it is very often part of the displaced manner in which sexual desire is transferred onto the screen. This is another striking fact about the genre: in its verbal confrontations, in its frequent gags and jokes, in its apparently frivolous attitudes to intimate matters, it seems to court attacks of superficiality and irrelevance, of failure to tackle important matters very seriously. Yet romantic comedy, like all comedy in general, is deceptive in this respect, too. Intimate matters constitute, for the genre, the core of our humanity and the genre is very earnest in its defense of those privileged human beings who put love and desire before anything else. The fact that it deals with its subject matter through jokes, gags, ridicule, irony, and often general hilarity should not make us forget its seriousness. In this sense, it is a very demanding genre: it requires us to laugh and to take it seriously at the same time—to take laughter and humor seriously (Palmer 1). This paradox is partly the essence of the magic space that romantic comedies deploy in their middle section. In the rest of this article, I would like to explore the workings of this comic space and its displaced representation of sexual desire in two films from the year 2009, The Ugly Truth and (500) Days of Summer.

These two films, while clearly remaining within the realm of romantic comedy, have very different registers. In (500) Days a balance is struck between subdued comic moments and more melodramatic ones in order to depict the ups and downs of a relationship which is ultimately not blessed with the stylistic display of energy that the genre usually reserves for the couples it protects. Humor, whenever it is present, tends to be reserved for secondary characters or to all-too-brief moments of the action. The Ugly Truth integrates its comedy much more thoroughly within the dynamic established from the beginning between the two protagonists. A magic space is constructed around the humor of their exchanges and interactions. This space transmits to the spectator the sexual energy that cements their relationship, and this relationship, in turn, is protected by the comic space. What is instructive about these two instances is how their different uses of the comic space produce different degrees of sexual energy and different approaches to the genre.

Visually and structurally, (500) Days of Summer is a very distinctive film which uses some of the strategies of so-called independent cinema to tell the story of the relationship between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). He falls head over heels in love with her but she is not looking for a meaningful relationship and, although they have a few months together, their affair soon fizzles out. In the course of the film Tom voices a more or less conventional attitude towards love and relationships whereas Summer has a more cynical outlook. When the external narrator says in the prologue that this is not a love story, he is partly equivocating. It may be an imperfect love story, but Tom’s belief in “the one” person, in spite of his disappointment in Summer, remains part of the film’s intimate discourse: as Summer tells him when they meet again at the end of the film, it is not that she did not believe in the special person—rather, Tom wasn’t her special person. However, since the bulk of the film focuses on their relationship, the emphasis is less on the power of desire when it exists than on the frustrations it causes when it is unrequited.

The film’s most distinctive formal characteristic is its scrambled narrative structure. Although the manipulation of chronological linearity is not as radical as it may seem at first sight, the overall effect is a feeling of loss and disenchantment: even the moments of happiness from the early days of the relationship are immediately followed in the film’s timeline by moments of frustration, and awareness of the outcome from the beginning prevents the spectators’ trained hope that they might still end together. Narrative structure, therefore, constantly denies compatibility while conveying a feeling of fragmentation and loneliness. The soundtrack is peppered with numerous pop songs that comment on the various stages of the relationship, but the central theme is a low-key whistled rendition of “Moon River”, which evokes the melancholy atmosphere of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and its elusive protagonist Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Music and narrative structure construct a playful mode in the narration, which is complemented by home-movies footage, faux-documentary black and white sequences, and parodies of European films from the 1950s and 60s. Tom’s job, as a greeting card writer, also explains the frequent drawings that sometimes replace the action, including the main motif, a “naïf” rendition of Angelus Plaza, the protagonist’s favorite spot in downtown Los Angeles.

All of these devices contribute to the construction of the film’s fictional and affective space but none of them help to transform it into a magic space where desire may reign supreme. In fact, they are there to constantly reject such a transformation. As a consequence of this, the strong sense of place we get throughout (500) Days of Summer does not turn downtown LA into a space of romantic comedy. Rather, the city tends to expressionistically reproduce here the wistfulness and longing of the frustrated lover. The one exception to this mood is the musical scene when, after a happy night with Summer, Tom goes back to work the next morning. This musical number is the most exuberant moment in the film, with all the passers-by turning into participants in the communal dance that conveys his momentary but deep exultation. But even this musical fantasy is not a shared moment, as we would expect it to be in the comic space. There is no sign of Summer amongst the dancers, no indication that she might be enjoying a similar fantasy at the same time. When Tom finally gets to the office, not only does the fantasy disappear but the film cuts from a shot of him going into the lift to a similar one, many days later, when Summer has already left him and he feels desperately lonely. Not only is the musical fantasy incomplete but the energy it promises is cut short by the text before we begin to harbor any serious hope.

(500) Days of Summer is not lacking in moments of humor or a comic outlook on human experience. Through its comic perspective the text asks us to accept disappointments in love with humor and equanimity, and also with a certain cool detachment, as pertains to the world of independent cinema in which the movie inscribes itself. However, the film’s very inventive gags and comic moments never contribute to the formation of a comic space; in fact, they tend to undermine it. Consider, for example, the use of split screen at a crucial point in the narrative. Sometime after their break-up, Summer invites Tom to a party at her new apartment. When he arrives, the screen splits in two and two simultaneous actions start to take place, one defined by the title “expectations” on the left and the other by “reality” on the right. As the scene develops, the two actions drift further and further apart, Tom’s dream of a romantic reconciliation contrasting bitterly with the reality of Summer’s polite but offhand attitude towards him, topped by the moment when, with Tom as an unnoticed witness, she shows her engagement ring to another friend. The scene is funny in its visual inventiveness, but its humor, rather than contributing to the protection and liberation of the lovers, revels in the gaping distance between them and underscores the male protagonist’s misery and frustration. Once the split screen disappears, as Tom runs away from the party and finds himself walking alone in the middle of the street, the live action is turned into one of the greeting-card drawings that the film has used before, which, in this case emphasizes the unbearable loneliness of those whose desire is not returned.

(500) Days of Summer proves that for the lovers to be protected by the comic space they must be ready and willing to let themselves be driven by their desire, even if, as happens often, at the beginning of the story they may not yet be aware that they are. In this movie, it is not so much that the text fails to provide the generic context for the fulfillment of desire. Rather, the incompatibility between the two protagonists prevents the comic space from materializing. The text itself, on the other hand, shows obvious potential for the construction of such a space. The sunny appearance of downtown Los Angeles, a place hitherto little exploited by romantic comedy (another recent exception being In Search of a Midnight Kiss, 2007), and, particularly, the two scenes in Angelus Plaza suggest the familiar presence of desire in the Californian air. However, this desire, like the narrative itself, is excessively one-sided: both scenes are central to the romantic structure of the film but they are both equally dominated by Tom’s dreams and hopes, with Summer little more than a reluctant appendage. This diminutive park in the middle of the old and new skyscrapers of the financial district has always been his magic space, but as we learn in the film’s final turn, he has been looking in the wrong direction, missing the woman who is, in fact, his romantic destiny. Within this logic, the film’s final turn is not a gratuitous bid for an undeserved happy ending but the confirmation that the text shares the ethos of the genre and that its magic space only needed to be activated.

Having decided to quit his job and to pursue his initial vocation as an architect, Tom meets another woman, Autumn (Minka Kelly) in the final scene while both of them are interviewing for a position at an architectural firm. She recognizes him because she has seen him before at Angelus Plaza, also her favorite spot in town. Absorbed as he was with Summer all those past months, he never noticed her. Now, however, things may be different and the film ends on a hopeful note. There is some light positive humor in their brief dialogue but what most decisively suggests that something has changed is the distinctiveness of the physical space in which the action takes place: the Bradbury Building, one of the most famous sites in downtown LA and certainly one of the most familiar presences in earlier movies. Best known as the most recognizable location in Blade Runner (1982), it had also featured prominently in many others, including classical films noirs Double Indemnity (1944) and D.O.A. (1950), and the more modern horror Wolf (1994). Because of these and other films, the beautiful late nineteenth-century building has mostly been associated with genres related to the thriller but (500) Days of Summer effortlessly reverses the connotations and immediately turns it into the central element of the protective atmosphere that now envelops these two potential lovers. The scene shows the power of romantic comedy to transform both real places and locations from earlier movies into a distinctive space where desire can flourish.

In (500) Days the comic space only materializes in the final scene, making it coincide with a wary happy ending. In most romantic comedies, however, this comic space is, as has been argued before, firmly in place much earlier and it becomes not only the environment for the lovers to prosper but also the site in which the various intimate discourses and the film’s sexual ideology are articulated. Romantic comedy has always employed the compatibility of the lovers and the obstacles to their union to put forward certain attitudes towards gender relationships, sexual politics, and intimate matters. Both the vicissitudes of desire and the textual ideology are most forcefully displayed in the middle section. This is as much the case of (500) Days as of The Ugly Truth, the second film that I want to explore in this essay. If in the former, downtown LA is the unusual location of a very imperfect love story, in the latter Sacramento is an equally unexploited town for a more successful relationship, although another film of the same year, All About Steve, also takes place in this city.

There are frequent disagreements between the lovers in (500) Days but little friction, which should alert the romcom-savvy spectator that things can never go well between these two. In The Ugly Truth Mike Chadway’s (Gerard Butler) ultra-sexist attitude towards gender relationships, apart from fitting in with the intensification of female objectification and openly anti-feminist diatribes to be found in other contemporary romcoms—especially of the grossout and hommecom variety (see Jeffers McDonald 108-12)—guarantees abundant friction with professionally successful but personally lovelorn Abby (Katherine Heigl). The starting situation, with a “liberated” man who has taken to the wild side and a woman whose dedication to her career has taken its toll on her “femininity,” is almost textbook 1980s New Men-inspired backlash. Much more than in (500) Days, as corresponds to a mainstream Hollywood vehicle, star personae are crucial to the sexual dynamic established between the protagonists. Butler’s ruggedness and gruff demeanor are put at the service of his ridiculously macho showman. Heigl, through the parts played in Knocked Up (2007), 27 Dresses (2008) and this film, has successfully followed up on her popularity in Grey’s Anatomy (2005-) to become a considerable romcom presence. In this film she combines her image of healthy and strong girl-next-doorness with a readiness to submit to post-Cameron Díaz gross-out situations, here most notoriously illustrated by the vibrating underwear episode. She has succeeded in making the combination of post-feminist sophistication, romantic aspirations, and embarrassing physicality that has become a regular convention of twenty-first century romcoms seem natural. It is to the credit of this apparently conventional narrative and of the two actors’ performances that the sparks are almost visible when these two unlikely lovers come together.

A great deal of the humor in the film revolves around their charged exchanges, and while the comic rallies between them generally tend to ridicule Abby’s uptightness and obsession with control and celebrate Mike’s relaxed and confident masculinity, they simultaneously convey the growing attraction between the two, an attraction that will also make him more vulnerable. To these comic dialogues, which gradually begin to reveal the growing affinity between the future lovers, is added the powerful presence of a setting equally made up of real and constructed spaces. This setting comprises the television station where Abby and Mike work, assorted places in Sacramento and a hotel in Los Angeles where they spend an evening and the following night. All of these are part, to a greater or lesser extent, of the comic space, with the LA hotel, and particularly the elevator when they go up to their bedrooms, as the most openly protective corner of this space. But an apparently less relevant but very recurrent setting is equally important for our understanding of the workings of this convention: the garden area in the middle of the block of apartments where both Abby and Colin (Eric Winter), her doctor boyfriend, live. Shots of this space punctuate the narrative and chart the evolution of Abby’s character toward sexual maturity, but at least two important scenes take place here.

In the first of these scenes, the magic quality of the garden, an echo of the Shakespearean “green world,” is emphasized. Always suffused in an artificial yellow light, always seen in the evenings, this space defines the female protagonist as somebody looking for love and amenable to change in her attitude towards intimate matters. As the scene gathers pace, the comic space becomes more prominent, both in terms of the delineation of the nature of desire and of the specific textual attitude towards sex. The cat that is responsible for starting the comic action is a symbol of the animal nature that on the one hand is so lacking in Abby’s life and on the other can be glimpsed, lurking just underneath the surface and waiting to be tapped by the right person. The incident starts with the cat smashing a vase and upsetting the immaculate order in the lifeless apartment as Abby is getting ready for bed. The cat leads Abby to her first, if displaced, confrontation with her own sexuality at the top of the tree where she has followed it. Once there, and while wondering how to get down again, she sees through a conveniently open window her extremely good-looking new neighbor coming out of the shower, surrounded by steam, like an apparition. His beautiful body makes Abby gasp with admiration, not so much because of its sexual attraction as because it complies with her ideas of physical perfection in a man. What really excites her, though, is the fact that he flosses, again in accordance with her very demanding code of personal hygiene. In the meantime, the magic space is in full swing and it is now her turn to display her body, but in a more embarrassing pose, as a branch breaks under the weight of her floss-related excitement, and she ends up hanging upside down from the tree, with her slip round her upper body and her comfortable knickers in full display. Her upturned position suggests that her values and desires are soon going to change drastically, but also the long shot of her body in this ridiculous position anticipates, in comic terms, that she is ready for this change, and that she will eventually become a worthy comic lover, no matter what type of underwear she is donning right now. In this respect, of course, the trajectory from the ample knickers to the black vibrating panties openly reflects the evolution of Abby’s attention to the centrality of sexual desire in her life.

Dutifully reacting to Abby’s screams, Colin comes to the rescue, still only wrapped in his bath towel, and Abby, looking for something to hold on to, pulls the towel off and is suddenly faced with an upside down close-up of his genitals while the spectators have to make do with a brief glance of his bare buttocks. Although, after a second or two, both automatically use their hands to recuperate a minimum of decorum, it is interesting that after the cut an ellipsis takes us to the inside of Colin’s apartment where, in the next shot, Abby is still apparently looking in the direction of his crotch with an expression of girlish excitement but also lack of inhibition. Although a reverse shot discloses that what she is actually looking at is her own foot, as he expertly bandages her ankle, Abby is obviously impressed with what she has previously seen. When telling the story to her friend Joy (Bree Turner) the next morning, the highest compliment she can pay him is that he is “symmetrical” (“you have no idea” [how symmetrical he is]), but the brief comic scene has shown Abby’s romcom potential and also the transitory nature of her present inhibitions. That these inhibitions are closely connected with her post-feminist identity are part of the ideological work of the text but in any case what the committed spectator wants is to see her shed those inhibitions as soon as possible. The impression we get from this scene is that the stage is set for such a change and that the comic space is fully in place to help her through her discovery. The unobtrusive tracking shot with which the scene started almost invisibly has transported us to this magic space in which those values that are incompatible with “true” desire are given a comic bent in order to reveal her adaptability. Colin, who will become the traditional wrong partner (Neale 288-90), is here mostly part of the magic space, as are the colors, the camera movements and certainly Abby’s underwear. As with Tom in the previous film, she still has not learned to look in the right direction but her unconscious readiness to submit to the dictates of desire is both emphasized and protected by the comic space.

The same comic space is in full force in her constant arguments with retrograde, less than symmetrical and most likely no-flossing Mike. Its constant presence and influence on the narrative development allows the spectators to understand that both Abby and Mike, in spite of appearances to the contrary, will become ideal subjects for the genre (unlike Colin, whose professional status, political correctness and physical symmetry are coded as boring and deadly). As usual, the lovers are the last to realize that they are attracted to one another but in this film this comes as a revelation to both of them, as a shock that, as in Shakespeare’s best comedies, will forever change their lives and, gregariously, reinforces the willing spectators’ belief in the supremacy of desire over all earthly things. Conversely, the happy ending is, in this as in many other films, rather deflating. Abby and Mike’s literal reconciliation and final clinch takes place in a hot air balloon, a space more openly magic and “special” than the more realistic locations of the rest of the movie, but the clumsy and too-obvious rear projection employed in this last scene may work, with many spectators, to break the illusion and distance us from the powerful magic atmosphere of the middle section.

The magic space of romantic comedy and its presence in the middle section of many examples of the genre is so powerful and spectators have internalized it to such an extent that it can sometimes produce unexpected effects. In another movie from 2009 also set in Los Angeles, I Love You Man, the magic space is firmly in place even though sexual desire often becomes a secondary part of the action and is generally subservient to male friendships and what Eve Sedgwick calls male homosocial desire. The strong articulation of a magic space in a film which is very much about the relationship between two heterosexual male friends energizes that friendship and gives it an uncanny intensity to which we are unaccustomed in our culture. The conventions conjured up by the film in order to construct this space are the usual ones in romantic comedies, but the relationship that this magic space protects and celebrates is openly not sexual. A text like I Love You Man that celebrates friendship through the same mechanisms that romcom has used for centuries to celebrate desire is still so unusual that it puzzles even as it fascinates. What it proves, in any case, is the lingering power of the comic space in the genre and its endless potential to guarantee the continuing evolution and the unacknowledged variety and complexity of romantic comedy.[1]


Deleyto, Celestino. The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

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

—. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Print.

Giddens, Anthony. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love & Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988. Print.

Jeffers McDonald, Tamar. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. London & New York: Wallflower, 2007. Print.

Krutnik, Frank. “Conforming Passions?: Contemporary Romantic Comedy.” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. Steve Neale (ed). London: British Film Institute, 2002. 130-47. Print.

Neale, Steve. “The Big romance or Something Wild?: romantic comedy today.” Screen 33.3 (1992): 284-99. Print.

Neale, Steve and, Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television Comedy. London & New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Palmer, Jerry. Taking Humour Seriously. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.

Seidman, Steven. Romantic Longings: Love in America, 1830-1980. London & New York: Routledge. 1991. Print.

Thomas, Deborah. Beyond Genre: Melodrama, Comedy and Romance in Hollywood Films. Moffat: Cameron & Hollis, 2000. Print.

[1] Research towards this article was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (project. nos. HUM2004-00418 and FFI2010-15312). I would also like to thank the two anonymous readers for their comments and suggestions.


“What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by Pamela Regis

Response: “Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’s Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by An Goris

As my contribution to the central concern of this conference—theorizing romance—I will examine not romance novels, the particular form of popular romance that I study, but criticism of popular romance fiction (hereafter designated “romance”). In this examination I wish to answer an important question: have we as critics, in our exploration of these novels, been fair to them? My aim is not to pick a winning theoretical approach from among the ethnographers, psychoanalytic critics, post-modernists, Marxists, and the rest. Instead, I wish to see what values lie behind the assorted, and in many cases competing, theoretical assumptions that structure various critical statements about romance. What assumptions about texts, the role of critics, and the world lie behind influential statements about the romance novel, and can we from these refine an ethics of romance criticism to help us chart the way forward? In short, what, if anything, do we as critics owe the romance?

The most influential critics of the popular romance novel have examined the late twentieth-century popular romance novel written in English and published in America, the UK, and Canada. For this cumbersome phrase, i.e., “the late twentieth-century popular romance novel written in English and published in America, the UK, and Canada,” I will use the term “romance novel.” I realize, of course, that many romance novels are older and others are newer than this body of texts, that many are written in languages other than English, and many are published in places other than the US, the UK, and Canada. However, claims made about this body of texts have been widely applied to romances that are not novels at all, and to romances that originate in various non-Anglo cultures. In other words, the work of these critics lives on in current criticism. Their subject matter might once have had chronological and geographic boundaries, but their pronouncements inform the contemporary, international view of romance writ large. Hence, their relevance to all of us, and my analysis of them here.

From a list of thirty-nine important critical works on this body of romance novels, most of them one-author monographs, I have chosen eight study texts.[1] The four texts in the first group (see Table 1), published in the five-year period from 1979 to 1984, analyze novels written during the beginning of the boom in romance writing and reading that began to make itself felt in response to the publication, and explosive sales, of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972.

Table 1. The First Wave of Romance Criticism: or, the Four Horsewomen of the Romance Apocalypse

Author / year Title Critic begins with /

critic concludes with

Complexity topos: are romances complex? Contemptus mundi and/or social justice topoi: one or both present?
Ann Barr Snitow


“Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” Formula: “the novels have no plot in the usual sense” (309) /

pornography for women


“easy to read pablum” (309)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: Harlequins “reveal and pander to [ . . . an] impossible fantasy life” (320)
Tania Modleski


Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women “Mass-produced” texts and psychoanalytical identification of reader’s “repetition compulsion” /



“rigid” (32)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: “Harlequin romances’ [ . . . ] insistent denial of the reality of male hostility toward women point[s] to” profound “ideological conflicts” (111)
Kay Mussell


Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Fantasies of Women’s Romance Fiction Formula /



“romances are adolescent dramas that mirror the infantilism of women in a patriarchal culture” (184)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: “Romances’ [ . . . ] failure” as narratives “belongs [ . . . ] to [ . . . ] patriarchy’s denial of women’s right to explicate their own lives” (185)
Janice A. Radway


Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature Smithton readers and their romances /

romance as patriarchy’s tool, readers as patriarchy’s dupes


“superficial plot development” (133)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: romances “give the reader a strategy for making her present situation more comfortable [ . . . ] rather than a comprehensive program for reorganizing her life” (215)

I chose these four because the conclusions these critics reached about the romance novel have, indeed, entered the public consciousness as descriptors of not just the romance novels that they studied—the ones written in English in the late 1970s and early 1980s—but as characteristics of the romance novel, period. Ann Barr Snitow’s “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” has branded romance with the dismissive label of porn. Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women asserted that reading romance is an addiction. Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Fantasies of Women’s Romance Fiction attached the term “fantasy” to romance—“fantasy,” in her view, is a bad alternative to “reality.” Finally, Janice A. Radway in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature has cemented in the public mind, apparently for all time, the notion that romance is patriarchy’s tool, and its readers patriarchy’s dupes. I must emphasize that the full arguments of these critics provide considerably more nuance and, on close examination, their claims are considerably narrower than these portable labels for the romance would imply.

Snitow, in her article-length study, cites five Harlequin romances published between 1977 and 1978–that is, just five novels published during just two years–and then goes on to describe the “underlying structure of the sexual story” that she identifies as the point of Harlequins (319). Modleski cites just nine Harlequins, all from one year, 1976, in her chapter on Harlequins, and then conjures Roland Barthes, Wolfgang Iser, Karl Marx, Jonathan Culler, and others in her pursuit of a psychoanalytic explanation for the “increase” in “the reader’s . . . psychic conflicts” and “dependency” on these novels, which she likens to a “narcotic” (57). Although Mussell has a wider reading list—more than 80 romances including such “originals” as Pamela, most of her study texts were published from 1955 through 1982. She pursues the insights that these “escape fantasies” provide into women’s lives (4). Radway’s ethnographic study of the “Smithton” readers—40 or so Midwestern U.S. fans of long, sensual historicals—concludes with her now-world famous claims about patriarchy’s power as revealed in these novels.

Outliving both the study texts that their conclusions were based on as well as their specific origins in the 1970s and early 1980s, the shorthand labels furnished by these critics have made them the Four Horsewomen of the Romance Apocalypse—Porn, Addiction, Fantasy, and Patriarchy’s Dupes. Like the original four horsemen—pestilence, war, famine and death—they have assumed a dark immortality.[2]

To understand what has and has not changed about critical practice between then and now, I will contrast the work of the Four Horsewomen with four Millennial critics, all of whom published after the turn of the 21st century (see Table 2).

Table 2. Millennial Romance Criticism

Author /


Title Critic begins with /

critic concludes with

Complexity topos: are romances complex? Contemptus mundi and/or social justice topoi:

one or both present?

Pamela Regis


A Natural History of the Romance Novel Texts both canonical and popular as literature, their structure as genre (not formula)

/ joy and freedom


romances can be “complex, formally accomplished, vital” and “the form is neither moribund nor corrupt” (45)

Social justice advanced: The ending of a romance is “joyful in its celebration of freedom” (207)
Lynne Pearce


Romance Writing Love x+y → x’+y’ and many, many romances of all types /

x+y > x’ (y) in Mills &Boon type romances (141)


present “glamour / kudos” of women’s lifestyles “rather than meaningful observation on women’s liberation” (182)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: The very existence of such “degenerate” works—i.e., romances— indicates a less than desirable state of society. (138)

Social justice blocked: A completed love, one that results in x+y → x’+y’, does not result

Lisa Fletcher


Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity Speech act “I love you” as definer of historical romance fiction. Butlerian post-modernism

/ historical romance defined, occupied, and dominated by heteronormativity


Historical romance’s “I love you” is an “incessant rendition of heterosexuality’s promised but never fully achieved absolute intelligibility” (34)

Contemptus mundi affirmed: Hegemony of heteronormativity is lamentable

Social justice blocked: Romances preclude the depiction of something better than heteronormativity

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan


Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels Practical criticism (reviewing) and love for the romance

/ acknowledge the “ludicrous” (1) but assert the overall “good” (128) of romances


“[R]omance novels . . . share a structure but diverge wildly based on subgenre and the innovation and creativity of each author” (122)

Contemptus mundi rejected: Romances provide a social good: happiness

As these critics are less known, more eclectic, and wider ranging than the Four Horsewomen, a more detailed overview of their work is in order. Regis—I—begins A Natural History of the Romance Novel with the view (which I hope that I demonstrate) that popular romance novels are literature, that they are representatives of a genre that includes canonical works. I offer a definition of “the romance novel,” namely, that it is “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more protagonists” (19)[3] and I identify eight essential elements to use as analytical categories in understanding the romance novel. The earliest of my study texts is William Congreve’s Incognita, published in 1692 before he made his name writing for the stage. I conclude that romance delivers joy and demonstrates the protagonist’s, especially the heroine’s, freedom.

Lynne Pearce begins Romance Writing with an algebraic expression of love’s transformation of lovers: x+y → x’+y’, in which x and y are individuals, transformed by love (+) into new versions of themselves—into x-prime and y-prime.[4] Her chronological sweep is long. She begins as early as Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur (1470). She ranges across media as well, with film in addition to print receiving due attention. Her look at popular romance in this volume concludes with what she herself calls an “ungenerous” typification of texts of the “Ur-Mills & Boon romance” type: x+y > x’ (–y) , where x-prime is the superficially self-fulfilled heroine and minus-y the “disposable” hero (141). For Pearce, the end of love in a mass-market, Mills & Boon romance is the “story-line of personal triumph” that the heroine pursues, which she gains at the hero’s expense (140).

Lisa Fletcher, in pursuit of a definition for the historical romance, identifies in the beginning chapter of Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity the words “I love you” as a speech act, and, via an impressive list of theorists, the most important of whom is Judith Butler, she defines the historical romance by this very phrase, claiming that these three words are repeated in romance novel after romance novel because the statement cannot once and for all manage to do what it always tries to do, which is to install heteronormativity as an unchallenged ideal in our society’s ideology, specifically, our sexual ideology.

In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan begin with their own love for the romance as a genre, and using edgy humor and over-the-top, often profane language, they produce astute descriptions of the plots, the characters, the covers, the conventions, and the stigma attached to reading romance novels, concluding—after having acknowledged the “ludicrous” in romance novels (1)—by asserting the overall “good” (128) of the genre. They claim “anything written for an audience of mostly women by a community of mostly women is subversive, reflective of the[ir] current sexual, emotional, and political status, and actively embraces and undermines that status simultaneously. [ . . . ] Emo may be chic. Angst is undoubtedly chic. Happiness is definitely not chic. But happiness is good” (128). On their website, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, where one of their stated aims is to raise the bar on what qualifies as a romance that deserves high marks, Wendell and Tan have reviewed hundreds of romance novels.

Because studying the ethics of argument is the traditional province of rhetoricians, my approach to these eight works of criticism will be rhetorical. Three rhetoricians have, indeed, studied literary critics as a discourse community. In “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice,” Laura Wilder, extending an earlier study by J. Fahenstock and M. Secor, pinpoints our discipline’s values. Fahenstock and Secor had analyzed criticism published between 1978 and 1982, the era in which the Four Horsewomen researched and published their findings. Laura Wilder extended and enlarged this earlier study when she examined criticism published between 1999 and 2001, the period out of which the Millennials’ criticism grew. All three rhetoricians analyzed articles from the very best, peer-reviewed literary critical journals such as PMLA, diacritics, and The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. They identified and analyzed the “special topoi” that the critics writing in those journals employed. A “topos,” (the plural is “topoi”), is a common theme or topic in argument, and at least since the Greeks topoi have been the subject of rhetorical study. “Special” topoi are those specific to a given group of arguers. Wilder explains that these special topoi “invoke the shared assumptions” of their group (84). In our case, these special topoi both reveal our assumptions as literary scholars, and simultaneously, create our scholarly community. We identify ourselves as members of the literary critical community in part by our use of shared special topoi. Wilder describes these topoi as the “unstated premises that seek to connect [a work of criticism] with an audience’s hierarchy of values” (84). They are, therefore, morally charged; indeed, taken together they constitute a sort of ethics of critical practice, present despite the diverse works, periods, and genres from which the critics draw the literature that they analyze, and despite the diverse theoretical approaches that the critics use in creating their arguments. Thus everyone from unrehabilitated formalists to cutting-edge postmodernists deploys the same special topoi. The presence of a given special topos, then, is a sort of ethical litmus paper. A critic’s participation in the discourse community is signaled by these special topoi, which align the writer with the values of the community while passing judgment on the literature under scrutiny. In a discourse community whose measure of accomplishment is the publication of peer-reviewed written argument, the special topoi signal not only our membership but also our belief in the correctness of the values that each of these topoi embodies.

The first pair of rhetoricians, Fahenstock and Secor, identified five shared special topoi: appearance/reality, paradigm, ubiquity, paradox, and contemptus mundi (see Table 3). Wilder, in updating the Fahenstock and Secor foundational study, added four more topoi to the original five: complexity, mistaken critic, context, and social justice.

Table 3. Special Topoi of Literary Critics






Contemptus Mundi*

Social Justice **

Mistaken Critic**


*Identified by Fahenstock and Secor, 1991

**Identified by Wilder, 2005

Although analyzing our critics’ deployment of any of these special topoi would reveal the ethical values in their criticism, three topoi—complexity, contemptus mundi, and social justice—provide the most fruitful categories for the examination of the ethical stance we find in the Four Horsewomen and the Millennials.[5]

Complexity and the Romance Critic’s Values

Wilder found that the special topos she calls “complexity” is an overarching value in all critical work from whatever era. Literary critics—we—all believe “that literature is complex and that to understand it requires patient unraveling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” (105). Indeed, for some of the critics she examined, simplicity, the opposite of complexity, was nothing less than a “much-maligned state” (110). So fundamental is the idea of complexity, that either by direct statement or by implication, each of us answers the question, “Are romance novels complex?” I think our answer to this question matters a great deal. Look at Table 1, at the column labeled “Complexity topos: are romances complex?” which summarizes relevant evidence for the Four Horsewomen. Snitow calls romances “easy to read pablum” (309), Modleski calls them “rigid” (32), Mussell labels them “adolescent” (184), and Radway, “superficial” (133). Our most influential early critics, the ones who have proven to have staying power, each viewed the romance novel as simple.

The Millennials offer some contrast, as the complexity column in Table 2 shows. Regis—I—claims complexity for the romance, saying, in as many words, that it is “complex, formally accomplished, vital, neither moribund nor corrupt” (45). Wendell and Tan agree that despite their shared structure, romance novels “diverge wildly based on the creativity of each author” (122), wild divergence being a form of complexity. Two of the Millennials do not agree. Pearce, in her consideration of the romance of the Mills & Boon type, finds superficiality—surely the enemy of complexity—in the Mills & Boon romance’s depiction of “glamourous” lifestyles rather than “liberation” (182), while Fletcher views “I love you,” which is for her the romance’s defining speech act, as a constantly-repeated-because-never-adequate assertion of heterosexuality’s attempt to assert its “absolute intelligibility”; an “intelligibility,” of course, that is not intelligible at all (32). Reducing the romance to a monotonous, repeated, and impotent sentence also tars the genre with the suspect brush of simplicity.

This, then, is the situation: our discipline values complexity in its study texts. This is, Wilder tells us, the “central, highly flexible value of [ . . . our] disciplinary discourse community” (110). But many of us depict the romance, in our criticism, as not complex at all. Yet we study it—and we write about it—anyway. From this conflict between our assessment of the romance as simple and the insistence of our discipline on the value of complexity several answers suggest themselves to the question in my essay’s title: “What do critics owe the romance?”

We owe it to the romance novel to make overt and to defend our conclusion that the romance is simple, if this is, in fact, our assessment. Surely, we owe the romance at least an acknowledgment that many readers, writers, and, yes, even some critics do find the romance novel complex, and we further owe it to the genre to make overt the value judgment that is a part of this topos—that simplicity is a “much-maligned state.” But more than identifying romance as simple, if that is indeed our view, we should defend this claim—ideally in some detail. I also contend that a critic confronted with a text that she considers simple should be careful of the conclusions that she draws in working on that text. I would argue that in assuming that the texts are simple, we flirt with what to me always seems like a dangerous idea—that it is not just the texts that are simple, but that the readers of the texts must, by extension, be simple, as well, or else why would they read these texts? Consumers—the term “reader” almost seems too sophisticated—of pornographic, rigid, infantile, superficial pablum must surely be mindless. Even Radway’s ethnographic analysis of readers—so carefully constructed, so rich in data—comes to very dark conclusions about those readers. We should examine our own conclusions about the romance novel’s simplicity.

A corollary: We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly. A skilled literary critic can see the complexity in any apparently simple text. Another corollary: We owe the romance novel great care in choosing our study texts—more care, not less, than we take in choosing study texts from literary fiction. In writing our criticism, we are creating not only the critical context for the study of the romance novel, we are also creating the romance novel’s canon. Surely identifying and studying the strongest romance novels will benefit the entire critical enterprise and help us avoid making claims about simplicity and other qualities that critics assign to the romance novel based on an unrepresentative set of study texts.

The choice of study texts is vexed, a minefield, but we must accept the difficulty and chart a path. The romance genre is big, and growing all the time. Between publication of the Four Horsewomen’s study texts in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the publication of the Millennials’ study texts, the number of romances published in North America alone rose from just under 2000 new romances per year in 1998, to the 8090 titles published in 2007 (Romance Writers of America). This means that from 1998 to 2008, more than 39,000 romance titles were published. Think of it this way: a reader reading one romance per day, every day, would take 106 years, 10 months, and 5 days to clear this To Be Read stack. Nonetheless, we should seek out and study the strongest ones.

We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that the values of its fans are not identical with the values of our discourse community. If we decide to read and study favorites suggested by romance fans then we may find ourselves confronting prose like this passage: “Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet.” That is the first sentence of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, published in 1972. The possible representativeness of this miserable sentence to the rest of Woodiwiss’s work, I leave to students of Woodiwiss. We, however, should not assume that this miserable sentence is representative of popular romance novels. It is not. Confronted with bad writing in a study text, we have two good choices—we can choose another book to work on, or we can acknowledge the bad writing and figure out a way to say something interesting—which is to say, figure out a way to invoke the complexity topos—despite the lamentable prose. Fans love books for many reasons, but their values and ours will often be at odds.

We owe it to the romance novel to recognize that our study texts are probably not representative of “the romance” and to stop committing the logical fallacy known as hasty generalization.[6] This is not to say that all claims of representativeness are wrong—but they must be proven, they must be substantiated and argued for. It is a failure of critical imagination to assume we have seen it all. A corollary: We owe it to the romance to stay within our evidence when we state conclusions. So, if we have not demonstrated that our study texts are representative, we must qualify our conclusions, and avoid talk about what “the romance novel” writ large is or does.

For too long, we have accepted the conclusions of the Four Horsewomen (see the third column of Table 1), which are based on romance novels written three decades ago. Recent critics  who have also seen simplicity in the romance novel when our discipline values complexity (see the third column of Table 2), have added to the impressive list of negative conclusions about the romance: in addition to their status as mere pornography for women, as an addiction, as fantasy, and as patriarchy’s tool for duping romance readers, romances also extinguish the hero (that’s Pearce’s “minus-y”), and endlessly reinscribe the destructive falsehood that is heteronormativity (that’s Fletcher). Now is the time to stop committing the fallacy of hasty generalization.

Contemptus Mundi, Social Justice, and the Romance Critic’s Values

Contemptus mundi, literally, contempt for the world, is a second very important topos for us as romance critics. Wilder explains that this term refers to the critic’s sense that the world is fallen, in the face of which fact “the critic exhibits an assumption of despair over the condition of society” (85). Moreover “the critic tends to value works that describe despair, alienation, seediness, anxiety, decay, declining values, and difficulty in living and loving in our society” (85). Finally, “the critic attempts to point out the unresolvable tensions and shadows in literature that at face value seems optimistic” (85). Wilder found that, by the turn of the twenty-first century, contemptus mundi was replaced by the “social justice” topos. This is the assumption that “literature, regardless of when it was written, speaks to our present condition” and critics deploying this topos seek “in that [ . . . ] connection [between literature and life] avenues toward social justice through advocating social change” (98).

The last column of Table 1 records the Four Horsewomen’s deployment of the contemptus mundi topos. For them, romances offer various versions of a fallen world: a world in which the “fantasy life” represented in the romance is “impossible” (Snitow 320), a world in which the reply to “male hostility toward women” is “denial” (Modleski 111), a world in which women are deprived of the power to “explicate their own lives” (Mussell 185), and, finally, a world in which romance fails to offer the reader a “comprehensive program for reorganizing her life” (Radway 215). These conclusions complement the idea that the texts are simple.

The last column of Table 2 catalogs the Millennials’ deployment of these topoi. Regis—I—along with Wendell and Tan, reject contemptus mundi, and I, at least, find social justice advanced: the romance delivers and depicts “joy” and “freedom” (16). Wendell and Tan find a clear social good: “happiness” (128). This failure to deploy the contemptus mundi or social justice topoi brand Regis as well as Wendell and Tan as outliers, Pollyannas, and as critics remiss in our critical duties. By contrast, Pearce and Fletcher reflect the discipline’s usual stance with regard to these topoi in romance. Pearce sees the Mills & Boon type romance as a sign of a degenerate society, and regards as sadly absent the good outcome of a successful romance, one in which the heroine plus the hero yields not only a new improved heroine but also a new, improved hero as well, an outcome often otherwise found in her book-long analysis of a staggeringly impressive range of non-Mills & Boon romance (138, 141). Fletcher has similar observations: heteronormativity as the message of the form itself is certainly a symptom of a fallen world, and the possibility of a better something—social justice—is blocked by the hegemonic, incessant repetition of heteronormativity’s omnipresent, but impotent, “I love you” (132). Once again note that the use of contemptus mundi and social justice aligns with a view of the romance’s lamentable simplicity.

In light of critics’ deployment of the contemptus mundi and social justice special topoi, several more answers to my title’s question suggest themselves. We owe the romance a just consideration of its happily-ever-after or happy-for-now ending. Our views that the world is fallen or that literature should indicate the need for or reveal a path from the current, lamentable state of conditions in the world to a more just world are major impediments to a fair treatment of the romance novel, perhaps even to a complete understanding of it. Think of the sort of romances that we are considering: the late twentieth-century popular romance novel written in English. This body of texts is in some ways misnamed by the term “romance.” True, like all romances, these novels are “situated in and speak [ . . . ] of timeless moments” (Saunders 1). However, these novels combine romance with comedy.[7] The much-derided happily-ever-after (or even the happy-for-now) is an important marker of comedy, which traces a fictional society’s movement from a beginning state of disorder to a final order. This improvement is comparative—society’s state at the conclusion is more orderly, more just, compared to society’s state at the beginning of the narrative. The new order is rarely (I am tempted to say never) a complete solution to society’s ills or a righting of all social injustices. A reader who finds in the text’s final action a society essentially unchanged has missed the import of the ending. A reader who dismisses the happily-ever-after without due consideration of its generic import has treated the romance novel unfairly.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not proposing that we owe the romance novel our approval, or that our reaction to it requires a positive view of any kind. Awareness of our critical assumptions is what I am recommending, and care in stating conclusions. Overstatements and other inaccuracies in criticism written about canonical, much-analyzed texts will be taken care of by the “mistaken critic” topos. Romance criticism is too thin on the ground—the canon not established, the mass of romance texts too unexplored—to provide this corrective. Individual critics need to be extra mindful of their participation in or rejection of the pervasive topoi of the discipline, and the values that they represent.

I close with an observation from one of my critical forebears in my current research project, which is writing a literary history of the romance in America beginning in 1742 when Benjamin Franklin printed the first novel in America, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. In speaking of the traditionally devalued novels of early American writers, a devaluation that she has in large part reversed, literary historian Cathy N. Davidson reminds us, “Artifacts [including novels] are always labeled by virtue of a whole history of past labeling; they carry their archaeology in their name” (69). We owe the popular romance a recognition of the archaeology carried in its name, an archeology written, in large part, by the critical assessments of the Four Horsewomen, and not yet rewritten by the critics who have followed. We cannot escape that archaeology, but we can be aware of it. Awareness is all. The romance calls upon us to be imaginative, careful, considered thinkers and writers, more so than the critics of other, more thoroughly studied, genres. There is so much we do not know, so many texts we have not read, so many approaches we have not considered.

We have to imagine what might be out there—what texts there might be—in that sea of unanalyzed and unread romance novels. Moreover, we have to imagine what may have been overlooked in the romances that have already been used as study texts in earlier criticism. When I return to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, and return to it I must because that novel is a landmark in the history of the American romance, I will not begin with its lamentable prose, but with the heroine’s journey from poverty and servitude in England to freedom in Charleston, South Carolina, in the newly created United States of America. I will find its complexity, and locate this novel in the long line of American romances that stretches from 1742 to yesterday. I will search for what has been overlooked in earlier criticism.

Imagining what might be out there and looking again at what has been dismissed lie at the heart of the ethical issues involved in criticizing romance. We can, thereby, improve the practice of romance criticism. Moreover, this effort of imagination and reexamination, like the undertaking of all good actions, will also improve the human beings who perform these good acts—this effort of imagination will improve us, the critics, ourselves.

Works Cited

Cowan, Tyler. “eBooks Help the Romance Novel.” Marginal Revolution. 9 April, 2009. Web.

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. 1986. Expanded ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. 1957. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CN: Archon, 1982. Print.

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

Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Reissued with a new introduction. 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.

Romance Writers of America. “About the Romance Genre.” RWA, 2010. Web. 12 Dec 2010.

Saunders, Corinne. Introduction. A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. 1-9. Print.

Smith, Jennifer Crusie. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance to Reinforce and Re-vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93. Print.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: NYU Press, 2001. 307-22. Print.

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

Wilder, Laura. “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice.” Written Communication 22.1 (2005): 76-119. Print.

Woodiwiss, Kathleen. The Flame and the Flower. New York: Avon, 1972. Print.

[1] 1969 Mann. Peter H. The Romantic Novel: A Survey of Reading Habits. London: Mills & Boon.

1970 Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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

1974 Mann, Peter H. A New Survey: The Facts About Romantic Fiction. London: Mills & Boon.

1976 Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1976 Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

1979 Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20: 141-61.

1982 Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CN: Archon.

1984 Jensen, Margaret Ann. Love’s $weet Return: The Harlequin Story. Bowling Green OH: Bowling State University Popular Press.

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

1984 Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Reissued with a new introduction, 1991.

1985 Rabine, Leslie W. Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

1986 Radford, Jean, ed. The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. New York: Routledge.

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

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

1988 Frenier, Mariam Darce. Good-bye Heathcliff: Changing Heroes, Heroines, Roles, and Values in Women’s Category Romances. New York: Greenwood Press.

1990 Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

1991 Chappel, Deborah K. “American Romances: Narratives of Culture and Identity.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University. Ann Arbor: UMI. 9202485.

1991 Ross, Deborah. The Excellence of Falsehood: Romance, Realism, and Women’s Contribution to the Novel. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

1992 Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers and the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

1994 Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present. London: McMillan.

1994 Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1995 Stacey, Jackie and Lynne Pearce, ed. Romance Revisited. New York: NYU Press.

1996 Grescoe, Paul. The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance. Vancouver: Rainforest.

1997 Mussell, Kay, ed. Paradoxa 3.

1998 Paizis, George. Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

1998 Pearce, Lynne and Gina Wisker, eds. Fatal Attractions: Re-scripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. London: Pluto Press.

1999 Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press. Reprinted London: Routledge, 2003.

1999 Kaler, Anne K. and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek, eds. Romantic Conventions. Bowling Green OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

1999 McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

2003 Strehle, Susan and Mary Paniccia Carden, eds. Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

2004 Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: The History of Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, W.A.: Curtin University Books.

2006 Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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

2007 Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity.

2008 Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

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

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

[2] Partial evidence of these texts’ staying power may be found in Corinne Saunders’s recent A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary (2007), where Modleski, Mussell, and Radway all appear in the index and are cited approvingly throughout the various chapters. For Snitow’s “romances are porn” label, one need only look at the comments section of the blog post at Marginal Revolution reporting the strength of romance ebook sales despite the economic downturn. Economics professor and blogger Tyler Cowen speculated about the affinity of romance buying and the ebook format. This elicited the “romance is porn” response over and over again in the comments section. Marginal Revolution’s readers and commenters are ordinarily evidence-loving, balanced thinkers.

[3] “Protagonists” replaces “heroines” in my original definition, to include m/m, f/f, and ménage romance novels.

[4] She explores many permutations of this basic formula of love.

[5] To briefly define the remaining topoi: A critic’s use of the appearance/reality topos is evidence for that critic’s belief in the value of searching below the surface and beyond the obvious; the “paradigm” topos reveals the critic’s desire to discover templates—patterns—to place over the details of a text, or to find within a text templates that apply to ever-larger portions of the text; “ubiquity” bespeaks the critic’s belief that uncovering or identifying patterns of repetition is valuable; the presence of the “paradox” topos demonstrates the critic’s belief in the value of bringing together in “a single startling dualism” apparently irreconcilable opposites (making this, perhaps, the most New Critical of these topoi identified just at the high water mark of this critical school). “Mistaken critic” enters the critical arena when late twentieth-century critics pointed out that “previous critics who treated the literary work under discussion did not see some aspect of the text correctly”; and “context” refers to the process of bringing “historical details to bear on the interpretation of literary texts,” which opens up the hermetically sealed text of the New Critics to a consideration of influences from outside that text (Wilder 101, 103).

[6] This trend has plagued romance criticism since the beginning.  See Jennifer Crusie Smith, who derides critics with a “mindset that refuses to see romance novels not only as a valuable genre but also as a varied one” (82).

[7] See Northrop Frye: “Comedy blends insensibly into romance” (162).


“Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love” by Lynne Pearce

The need for, yet denial of, repetition constitutes a paradox that seems set to confound romantic love for ever more. Inasmuch as many of our most enduring definitions of love regard its non-repeatability as key (“love is forever”; “you and no other” etc), and others (particularly those stemming from psychoanalysis) regard the human subject’s compulsion to repetition as equally non-negotiable, philosophical tension and dispute are guaranteed; and inasmuch as the romance genre depends upon an inexorable process of repeating and refiguring narrative and other conventions, so must the tension also live on in the love story itself. Repetition, in other words, is the seemingly inexhaustible, yet infinitely exhausting, life-blood of romance, regardless of whether the story in question is bound for tragedy (where death is invoked to vouchsafe love’s non-repeatability) or a “happy ending” (where past relationships, as well as new ones glimmering darkly on the horizon, are temporarily dazzled and silenced by an all consuming present). In this article I reflect further upon the theoretical and philosophical challenges that repetition poses for romantic love (the discourse and the genre) before turning to Sarah Waters’s novel, The Night Watch (2006) to reveal under what circumstances repetition may, indeed, become the enemy of romance.

Love as Repetition-Compulsion: The View from Psychoanalysis

Without wishing to rehearse in any detail those psychoanalytic theories of subject and sexual development that offer, often incidentally, some insight into the set of emotions commonly referred to as “love,” it is useful to begin this discussion of romance and/as repetition with reference to the work of Freud and Lacan (whose writings on the subject are, of course, themselves complicit in the circulation of amorous discourse [cf. Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse]).

For Freud, the patterns of adult love-relationships can be linked explicitly to early psychosexual developments in terms of both gender identity (and identification) and power. The oedipal attachments of children to their parents are repeated in love relationships in later life, including both the initial idealisation of/obsession with the love-object and the accompanying jealousy and hostility felt towards any rivals for that object’s affections (“On Narcisissm”). Although problematic in feminist terms—not least because of its assumption that all desire is, by default, phallocentric and heterosexual—the tensions Freud exposes in early childhood arguably do find their echoes in adult relationships, in the subject’s desire to possess both what is not strictly hers (inasmuch as our parents belong, first and foremost, to each other) and what is not easily had (seduction, deviousness, and general “bad-behaviour” may well be involved [see Gallop]). Furthermore, according to Freud’s repetition-compulsion hypothesis (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle”), it is the difficulty and/or failure of these childhood attempts to win affection that causes us to want to repeat them later in life, sometimes to the extent of seeking out an overtly hostile or inaccessible love-object (see Benjamin, The Bonds of Love). In his essay on “The Uncanny,” Freud gives additional spin to his hypothesis by implying that the compulsion to repeat is stronger than “the pleasure principle”: that is, the compulsion to sex itself. He writes:

In the unconscious mind we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which proceeds from instinctual impulses. This compulsion probably depends on the essential nature of the drives themselves. It is strong enough to override the pleasure principle and lend a demonic character to certain aspects of mental life. (145)

The implications of this startling realization for Freud were, of course, profound (ending in his hypothesis of the “death-drive”), but here I wish simply to note the gauntlet it throws down to all theories of love that are predicated upon the power exerted by an ideal object. For Freud, in this instance, the “object” has completely disappeared: we repeat, not in order to find “the other,” nor even a missing part of “ourselves,” but simply for the pleasure and empowerment of repetition itself.

For Lacan, meanwhile, it is the fact that all desire is, by definition, unmet and unmeetable—the intolerable Lack that grounds the human condition—that explains our compulsive tendency towards repetition in adult life (Ethics 151). Because of the fundamentally narcissistic character of the human subject, whose first love affair is an idealised encounter with the self, all subsequent attempts at relationships are characterised by a desire to return to this original state of imagined wholeness (“immortality”); and all, of course, are doomed to fail: “For what is love other than banging one’s head against a wall, since there is no sexual relation?” (“Seminar” 170). As Fred Botting observes, it is prognoses such as these that situate Lacan firmly to one side of all the theorists and artists that explain love as “the self’s completion of fulfilment” (27, emphasis added). While this end point may, admittedly, be the desire that fuels the process, Lacan’s narcissistic reflex is, in practice, far bleaker: for Lacan, the lover is banging his or her head against a wall not because the “thing” that s/he is seeking is no other than him/herself, but because that “self” is, itself, illusory and lost: a mere “sexed living being [ . . . ] no longer immortal” (Botting 27). While, at first sight, this claim may seem rather perversely counter-intuitive (surely the “sexed living being” is a subject of sorts, capable of participating in relationships that are capable of delivering mortal comfort and satisfaction?), it is important to remember that Lacan’s theory is not concerned with the everyday practice of desire but rather its psychic origins; in particular, the way in which our egotistical fantasies (where we aspire to be extra-ordinary beings) are repeatedly undermined by the disillusioning events of everyday life, including the romantic encounter. As Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse dramatizes so vividly, the condition of being-in-love is circumscribed by the threat that the other/lover will turn out to be rather less than “ideal” (25-8): merely another “sexed living being,” in fact, who can no longer deliver the subject from his/her own pitiful insignificance.

In the Lacanian economy, then, the notion of a “pure love” that is exclusive and non-repeatable is quite simply unthinkable: love, inasmuch as it can be said to exist at all, is only repeatable. Because we are never going to find what we desire (since the “ideal” lover/other will always, ultimately, fail us) we are compelled to keep searching and thus stave off the nightmare encounter with our own profound ordinariness and mortality.

Both Freud and Lacan, then, can be seen to have produced theories that move repetition to the centre of adult sexual desire and, by implication, test the limits of more idealised, object-centred definitions of love. Jessica Benjamin, too, sees the habitual tendency to repetition within the (typically asymmetric) family unit as key to the perpetuation of unequal power-relationships in adult life, often with recourse to sadistic/masochistic subject positioning (The Bonds of Love), even though—in contrast to Freud and Lacan—she does not regard either the originating dynamics or their reproduction as necessary or inevitable. Although destructive patterns of relationship may have become habitual in the contemporary Western world, it is a repetition that can, with effort, be broken (Like Subjects, Love Objects). In general, however, it may be said that, for psychoanalysis, “love” is a palliative discourse that seeks to conceal the unrealizable (and therefore insatiable) desire(s) that subtend it.

Love as Essence: The Philosophical Tradition

What any investigation of the history of romantic love quickly teaches us, however, is that psychoanalysis is a relatively recent and, in many respects, tangential, addition to the vast pantheon of philosophical and theological writings on the subject. Recent publications (for example, Høystad’s A History of the Heart) reveal that there are still a large number of scholars investigating “love” from within a tradition that looks back to Greek and other ancient cultures and has little interest in psychoanalytic explanations. For contemporary philosophers like Alan Soble, for instance, the quest remains rigorously metaphysical: the concern is not with how love functions (either as an ideology or as psychic mechanism), but with what it is, as an essence, as an aspect of Being.

While there are many ways of attempting to answer this question within a metaphysical tradition, it is clear that temporality has always been a key determinant in both defining and ascribing value to love. Similarly, wherever one looks in the history of Western literature and popular culture—be it folk-songs, Arthurian Legend, or, indeed, popular romantic fiction—there are few instances of love that are not tested, to a greater or a lesser extent, by time: through non-repeatability, simple longevity, or love’s capacity to survive the use, loss, or death of the beloved object.[1]

It is in the annals of philosophy, meanwhile, that we find the clearest proposition that love is an event defined by exclusivity and non-repeatability: inasmuch as “genuine love” is expected to survive the loss or death of the other, the issue of its repetition via a subsequent relationship becomes irrelevant. There is no need to repeat the experience since the first love lives on: “Love never dies.” Such a view is consistent with the defining characteristics of what, in the classical tradition, is known as “Agapic Love” (Pearce 4-6). In contrast to “Erosic Love,” which arises from a cognitive appreciation of another’s qualities, Agapic Love is predicated upon an idealized, some may even say fundamentalist, set of “first principles” that have exclusivity and non-repeatability at their core:

Love of individual Love of God / Neighbour(s)
Based on personal properties Involuntary / unconditional
Object-centred Subject-centred
Repeatable Non-repeatable
Indefinite Infinite
Rational Irrational
Bodily Spiritual
Heaven-bound Heaven-present            (Pearce 5)

As may be seen from this table of comparative features, Agapic Love is distinguished from Erosic Love through a series of binaries that places it firmly within a transcendental philosophical tradition. As I observe in Romance Writing (4-5), there are significant problems with this set of oppositions (derived from a number of philosophical texts which invoke Eros and Agape in their quest for a credible definition of “love”). These include both their rather crudely oppositional relationship to one another (e.g., “object-centred” vs. “subject-centred”) and, in terms of internal consistency, the way in which Agape’s association with the “love of God” and the “love of one’s neighbours” (both familiar to us as Christian injunctions) implies a degree of conscious piety at variance with the attendant notion of “unconditionality” and, it must be said, any love that includes erotic elements. If we take “spirituality” as the key term binding all the Agapic elements, however, the collocation makes better sense because of its association with both subject-centred fulfilment and sublimation. What binds together all the terms in the right-hand column is arguably the notion that love comes to us in a sudden, involuntary access of emotion (often expressed as an “out-pouring”) that, once-begun, is unstoppable and hence non-repeatable: the Agapic lover, thus construed, needs only to be struck once to be struck forever. A floodgate has been opened, and the waters of love will flow endlessly (towards God, towards neighbours, and towards one’s elective partner). The conversion of this “outpouring” towards an/other into intensely solipsistic spiritual satisfaction is familiar to us through the conventions of courtly love poetry which, according to de Rougement, is ultimately an exercise in spiritual salvation: “Passion has thus played the part of a purifying ideal” (45-6). In signal contrast to the psychoanalytic models of desire discussed previously, Agapic Love delivers so consummately that it is inexhaustible and without need of repetition.

As with all binaristic thought, moreover, it is not difficult to see how Agapic Love, which is so manifestly on the side of the angels, has become the dominant term within metaphysics, and why more recent philosophers like Alan Soble have had to work so hard to prove that Erosic Love isn’t merely a mundane and compromised version of “the real thing.” Further, as Soble himself argues, it is important to recognise that what we think of today as specifically romantic love very clearly combines features of both Eros and Agape; in particular, romantic love can sometimes seem to arise from the personal properties of the beloved (for example, their goodness and/or beauty), but on other occasions manifests itself as an involuntary and unpredictable shot from the blue–as in the proverbial “love at first sight.” I nevertheless believe that it is the persistence of the binary itself in our everyday thinking about love (in particular, our tendency to contrast something called true love with its ephemeral imitation) that helps explain why, despite the persuasiveness of the psychoanalytic models, Western culture still clings to the notion that “true love” is both durable and non-repeatable: it is, by definition, an emotion that stands the test of time.

A similar absolutism is to be found in the work of contemporary French philosopher, Jean Luc Nancy, who, like myself, has preferred to understand and define love vis-à-vis the radical transformation experienced by the amorous subject at the moment of ravissement (Barthes 189). My own proposition, expressed through the equation x + y → x’ + y’ (Romance Writing 2007 1 et seq.), is, quite simply, that it is the change wrought upon the lover at the moment of ravissement that most surely prevents him or her from being capable of repeating the event a second time inasmuch as s/he is now no longer the person s/he once was. On the surface this is an unremarkable observation, but it is striking how rarely the changes to the lover (x) are considered when theorists and philosophers debate the reproducibility, or not, of love. All the attention has traditionally been focused, instead, on the (lost) love-object: whether that is, or is not, replaceable. However, Nancy, too, has observed that the trouble is rather with the lover who, having undergone a transformation akin to a chemical reaction, is unable to return to his or her previous state. Working with the evocative motif of the “shattered heart,” Nancy writes:

I do not return to myself from love [ . . . ] I do not return from it, and consequently, something of I is definitively lost or dissociated in its act of loving. That is undoubtedly why I return [ . . . ] but I return broken: I come back to myself, or I come out of it, broken. The “return” does not annul the break; it neither repairs it nor sublates it, for the return in fact takes place across the break itself, keeping it open. Love represents I to itself broken [ . . . ]’ (96)

A little later, Nancy reiterates the radical consequences of this break not only for the subject-in-love but for the subject per se:

For the break is a break in his self-possession as a subject; it is, essentially, an interruption in the process of relating oneself to oneself outside of oneself. From then on, I is constituted broken. As soon as there is love, the slightest act of love, the slightest spark, there is the ontological fissure that cuts across and disconnects the elements of the subject-proper—the fibers of its heart. (96)

Although the cadences of Nancy’s prose (in translation, at least) make this “shattering” of the heart and self in the act of love appear tragic, it is clearly also possible to embrace this uni-directional model of love as evidence of love’s miracle: x + y → x’ + y’.

To summarize, then: what I hope to have shown in the first part of this article is that the question of whether love is, or is not, repeatable is at the very centre of attempts to both define and understand it. I have shown how, and why, certain theories and intellectual traditions (notably, the philosophical and theological) posit love as either metaphysically or practicably non-repeatable, while others (notably, the psychoanalytic tradition) have argued that love (albeit reconfigured as desire) is nothing but repetition.[2]

It is, of course, possible to escape this impasse, as Soble has done, by signing up to an essentially Erosic definition of “Personal Love” (5) which is fully rational and voluntary and predicated upon admirable qualities in the beloved (Pearce 4-6). Inasmuch as this love arises as the result of an individual being smitten by the unique properties of particular individuals, it is acceptable for a subject to be enamoured of more than one individual in a lifetime: hence the logic of the widower who claims, “I can love my second wife as much as my first because they are so completely different.” For the purposes of this article, however, I have chosen to leave the Erosic variant to one side in order that we may focus more closely on the more dramatic—and certainly more traumatic–tension that exists between the discourses of Agapic love and the “will-to-repetition” as figured by psychoanalysis.

In anticipation of the discussion of Waters’s novel that follows, my particular interest is in the crisis that arises when the non-repeatability—implicit in the most ancient descriptors of “Love” as an involuntary affect which, once ignited, is both “shattering” and inexhaustible—is challenged by the desire or need to repeat the first, earth-moving event a second time (typically as the result of the death of a former beloved). In other words, I shall be focusing on the tension—and agony—that proceeds from the fact that, rather than enter into a new experience with a different person (as is possible within the Erosic model), all the amorous subject wants is “the same again” even though s/he soon discovers that this will necessarily undermine the “totality” of the first love. This, of course, is the moment that Lacan comes knocking on the door (“I told you so!”) and the lover, thus held to account, may suddenly, if perversely, hope that his or her attempt to repeat the love affair will fail in order to prove that the first love was “true” and the beloved rather more than an (reproducible) object-ideal.

In the second part of this article I thus move on to consider the implications of repetition for romantic fiction writing: first, in terms of the different narrative responses available to authors; and second, through some reflections on Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch (2006), a novel which very self-consciously deploys repetition to test the limits of love.

Romance and Repetition: The Literary Response

A moment’s reflection will be enough to remind all readers of this article of the debt that the romance genre owes to repetition as compulsion. The philosophical conundrum of whether or not “genuine” love is repeatable arguably matters very little to the writers and readers of romance as long as the appetite to repeat the story per se remains. Indeed, it may be argued that it is in the context of its textual consumption that the paradoxical status of love vis-à-vis repetition is rendered a positive delight inasmuch as stories which celebrate non-repeatable love can, themselves, be repeated: and according to de Rougemont, this is the story (originating with the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult) that Western Civilization has most wanted to hear (23-37).

The history of the romance genre, especially the trajectory that runs from courtship fiction through to contemporary popular romance, must nevertheless be seen to challenge de Rougemont’s view of its readership. For many, romance has become synonymous with the promise of “happy endings” and this has necessarily given rise to storylines where the possibility of repetition stalks both past and future: the relationships the lover(s) may have had before and the ones that are yet to come.

How romantic fiction has, in practice, dealt with the spectre of repetition is surely a question worthy of investigation, and—although I have not had the opportunity to conduct such a survey as yet—I offer below some hypothetical models predicated upon the canon of classic romance:

  1. Happy Marriage: The most popular solution to the problem is to avoid repetition completely by focusing on only one relationship for the duration of the story and then bring the romance in question to a clean and definitive ending in marriage (“the white wedding”). If previous relationships did feature for one or both of the parties, they are very manifestly not “the real thing” and explained away (see 2 and 3 following). Even though common-sense tells us that it is impossible for any relationship to come to a fixed point, the illusion of closure remains one of the most singular pleasures that romance fiction trades in.
  2. Discredited Former Relationship 1: As in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet wherein Romeo is enamoured of a girl called Rosalind before he meets with Juliet. Although this “repetition” of behaviour has the potential to debase “genuine love,” Romeo’s devotion to Rosalind is treated comically, with the Nurse roundly sending up his heart-sick lament. Discrediting previous relationships through the implication that they were (for example) predicated upon lust, or convenience, rather than love is clearly a neat way of solving the repetition problem. In other words, the characters (and especially the male characters) can be permitted more than one relationship, providing that only the current one is “the real thing.”
  3. Discredited Former Relationship 2: As in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, there is also the possibility of a character having been “in love” more than once through a plot device which ensures that that the previous love-object is retrospectively discredited. This scenario was perfected in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca , a text in which it is possible to accept that Maxim loved both Rebecca and the narrator but only because his first wife is subsequently exposed as “not quite all that she seemed.”
  4. Definitive Death: Here the notional finitude of marriage is replaced by the absolute finitude of death. The fact that there is no possibility of death-bound lovers repeating, and hence discrediting, their UR-passion explains why tragedy remains the most cast-iron means of supporting the view that love is exclusive, non-repeatable, and forever. The fact that so many tragic lovers actively seek death as a means of protecting their love from compromise underlines the principle that “true love” eschews repetition.
  5. Duplicitous Afterlife: Although clearly a variant of “Death,” the solution offered by Gothic Romance is remarkable inasmuch as it simultaneously eschews and embraces repetition. While it is true that the star-crossed lovers at the centre of a Gothic Romance must never be seen to recover from their (one and only) love or its loss, this need not prevent them attempting a re-union with the lost loved-object (or, on occasion, his/her “double”) beyond the grave. Further, the crimes and mishaps that have caused the lovers to be doomed are subsequently seen to repeat those of their forbears and/or to generate a repetition in future generations (Pearce 86). In this respect, then, Gothic Romance must be seen as an instance of a genre both having its cake and eating it: “Genuine Love” is, of course, unique and forever—but so is the (doomed) will-to-repetition.

Taken together, then, what these models suggest is that, throughout history, romance has been consummately successful in side-stepping the problem that repetition poses for the integrity of love, through plot devices that either draw the curtain on previous/subsequent relationships or, alternatively, find some means of discrediting former love-affairs after the event. Gothic Romance is an interesting variant inasmuch as it ideologically adheres to the non-repeatability of “genuine love” while shamelessly indulging the Freudian will-to-repetition through supernatural possibilities.

What I would next like to propose is that, from the early-to-mid twentieth century onwards, the paradox of love’s “compulsive (non) repeatability” has been actively embraced by writers in search of a more honest account of how we wrestle with our drives and belief systems when in pursuit of love. Rather than a problem to be artfully evaded, repetition has been moved to the centre of contemporary literary fiction (high-profile examples in the UK would include Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi, and A.L. Kennedy), even if the “fallen worlds” in which these love stories typically take place cannot easily be compared with the zeitgeist of popular romantic fiction.

Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (2006)

In Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch, love’s repeatability—or not—is the existential question that propels the text’s story-line and presses upon its characters as a trauma every bit as nerve-splitting as the Blitz. For readers not familiar with the novel, the action is set in London during and immediately after the Second World War, with the story of the novel’s chief protagonists (Kay, Helen, and Julia; Viv and Reggie; Duncan and Fraser) narrated backwards in three sections: 1947, 1944, and 1941. The effect of this temporal inversion is twofold: first, it renders starkly visible how events in our past make us the people we are today (viz. x + y → x’ + y’); secondly, it highlights the extent to which our lives are, indeed, inscribed by repetition: willed and unwilled, individual and institutional, local and national.

In The Night Watch, repetition is a thematic pre-occupation as well as a narrative device. While its potential for dramatic irony, not to mention (poetic) justice and revenge, makes repetition a tempting plot embellishment for any fiction writer, Waters disguises her authorial orchestration well, not least because these are life-stories in which the characters’ will to repetition is routinely thwarted or culminates in an unpleasant surprise (c.f. Lacan: “For what is love other than banging one’s head against a wall since there is no sexual relation?” [my italics] [170]). Consequently, The Night Watch is characterized by a series of half-repeated, half-completed events which expose the doomed will-to-repetition for what it is as well as the extent to which the war, itself, changed everything: made repetition a historical impossibility.

The generic interplay between “history” and “romance” is, indeed, one of the things that distinguishes Waters’s novel: a retrospective account of three sets of relationships that span the war and post-war period. In the manner of historical fiction, Waters also strives hard to connect the experiences of these central characters with those of the population at large by making two of them, Helen and Viv, work for a post-war dating agency. The task of finding new loves for men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by the war is seen to be very difficult indeed. As Helen observes:

People came to look for new loves, but often—or so it seemed to her—only really wanted to talk about the loves they had lost [ . . . ] Recently, of course, business had been booming. Servicemen, returning from overseas, found wives and girlfriends transformed out of all recognition. They came into the bureau still looking stunned. Women complained about their ex-husbands. “He wanted me to stay in all the time.” “He told me he didn’t care for my friends.” “We went back to the hotel we spent our honeymoon in, but it wasn’t the same.” (15)

The collective “will-to-repeat,” as the concluding sentence here suggests, is strong, but the common experience is one of disappointment: both pre-war existence, and the heightened sensibilities of war-time, are impossible to recapture: the breach in history suffered by the nation is similarly visited upon personal relationships. In a later conversation, Helen and Viv comment on the fact that the war, but two years hence, already seems “a long time ago” (113). And yet it is manifestly clear that, in many respects, everyone is still “living it”: as Kay, the character who is arguably having the most trouble “moving on” confesses: “I don’t want to think about it. But I don’t want to forget it either” (109).

Yet while the war’s breach in history undoubtedly contributes to the demise of the relationships explored in the novel, it cannot be held fully responsible for their trauma. This is especially true of the relationship(s) between Kay, Helen and Julia where a distinctly Freudian will-to-repetition is seen to be at work (at least, in the case of Helen and Julia). The dramatic twist, for readers unfamiliar with the text, is that Helen enters into a relationship with Julia in the knowledge that her present partner, Kay, was involved with Julia before the war. As the affair between Helen and Julia takes hold, both reveal—belatedly and, at first, unconsciously—that their attraction to each other has been fuelled by a desire to repeat the earlier relationship with Kay. Julia is curious to find out about “the wife” (i.e., Helen) that Kay preferred to her, while Helen—mistakenly believing that Kay was rejected by Julia—is fuelled by a vengeful desire to assume Kay’s former role and succeed where the latter failed. After their second, sexually-charged encounter exploring the bomb-blasted houses, churches and streets of London Helen exclaims: “This is what Kay wanted, isn’t it? I know why she did, Julia! God! I feel like—I feel like I’m her! I want to touch you, Julia. I want to touch you, like she would—” (375). The uncontrolled—indeed, “hysterical”—nature of this outburst works well to underline the unconscious and irrational nature of Helen’s will-to-repetition. Her behaviour reminds us of Freud’s reading of Hoffmann’s The Sandman and his conclusion that human beings are driven to repeat in their desire to achieve control, not of the other, but of their own subjectivity (”The Uncanny”). By, albeit mistakenly, fantasizing that she was repeating Kay’s actions in making love to Julia, Helen is temporarily empowered. However, as subsequent events reveal, Helen’s action has arguably very little to do with either Kay or Julia: not only is she mistaken about the nature of Kay’s relationship with Julia (as Julia later tells her: “It wasn’t like that you know [ . . . ] she was never in love with me” [424]), but so, too, are doubts cast about “what she sees,” quite literally, in Julia. Not only does Helen habitually regard Julia with Kay’s eyes, but there is also the suggestion that her declaration of love is following an unconscious, yet calculating, script: “She hadn’t known, until that moment, that she’d been going to utter those words; but as soon as she said them, they become true” (369). Further, as the relationship begins to unravel, both Helen and Julia are seen to call each other’s bluff on why they got involved with one another in the first place. Although, on one level, we may be inclined to think that the demise of the relationship is the sole consequence of Helen’s spiralling jealousy and paranoia, a crucial segment of conversation hints at the fact that both characters are addicted to affairs (and, perhaps especially, affairs with women) on account of the thrill of transgression and, of course, the pleasure of repetition (which is given an extra spike in a triangulated relationship such as this):

“It always amazes me [said Julia], that’s all, that it should be you who has this fucking—this fucking fixation. Is there something about affairs? Is it like—I don’t know—Catholicism? One only spots the other Romans when one’s practised it oneself?”

She met Helen’s gaze, and looked away again. They stood in silence for a moment. Then, “Work it up your arse,” said Helen. She turned and went back downstairs to the sitting room. (150-1)

Suddenly, both women are quits. Julia, who has assumed the moral and emotional high-ground in the fight thus far is, herself, reminded of her past, and present, behaviour. In retrospect, it becomes clear that neither woman entered into the relationship on account of the “special properties” she perceived in the other (viz. “Erosic love” as defined above) but because of the thrill of repetition itself. What Helen and Julia’s story exposes, however, is the horror that awaits those successful in the chase: instead of finding the happiness and completion that eluded you formerly through some synthesis of self and other (in this instance, the fantasy of merging oneself with one’s former lover by assuming her role), all that is waiting is your shadow self (Lacan’s “sexed living being” [Botting 27]).

Entering into a relationship with one’s partner’s former lover is, it must be said, a fairly extreme means of re-igniting the spark of love and elsewhere The Night Watch explores some rather less convoluted types of repetition. For instance, Viv may be seen to be repeating, in increasingly banal and glamour-less ways, her wartime romance with Reggie, a married man. The irreversible bodily and psychological scars that this relationship has left on Viv are palpable: not only has she suffered a horrendous abortion, but—despite being still only twenty-five—she is described as having “something disappointed about her [ . . . ] a sort of greyness, a layer of grief, as fine as ash, just beneath the surface” (18). Thus, although this relationship was positively transformative of Viv at its outset, its demise has stripped her of agency and, two years after the war has ended, she is neither capable of ending it or falling in love afresh. And while Waters concludes her story with an action that is potentially redemptive (she finds Kay who “rescued” her on the night of her abortion), we are offered no assurance that she will go on to live and love again.

A similar uncertainty hangs over the fate of Viv’s brother, Duncan, who has recently rediscovered Fraser: his friend and cell-mate from the war. Although the story-line suggests that Duncan’s “brave” act of going to find Fraser at his house late one night might be the existential act that commits the men to a sexual relationship, there is no assurance of this either. Indeed, we have already been told how differently the men have recovered from the War (or not, in Duncan’s case) and Fraser’s homophobia is still evident in his attempts to chat up girls, including Duncan’s sister.

Kay, too, begins and ends the 1947 section of the novel going, quite literally, nowhere. Her daily life, post-war, consists of wandering the bomb-blasted streets of London, all the while appearing as though she has somewhere to go–when, in fact, she hasn’t: “She stepped like a person who knew exactly where they were going, and why they were going there—though the fact was, she had nothing to do, and no one to visit, no one to see. Her day was a blank, like all of her days” (6). Kay, it seems, may retrace her footsteps, but there is no sense that she will easily repeat her romantic attachment to Helen. As readers of the novel will recall, Kay’s love for Helen—whom she rescues “fresh and [ . . . ] unmarked” (503) from a bomb-site—is the most simply romantic of all the relationships featured. Helen is Kay’s “object-ideal” and, to invoke Freud on mourning (“Mourning” 252-3), has assumed a libidinal position in Kay’s life that will not easily be replaced. Further, in terms of how her story is told, I would suggest that this has less to do with the impossibility of replacing Helen (or, indeed, recovering from the traumatic nature of the latter’s betrayal) but rather (viz. Nancy’s “shattered heart”) the extreme and irreversible nature of her own transformation: a transformation that owes both to the war, and to Helen. As she confides to her friend, Mickey: “I’ve got lost in my rubble, Mickey. I can’t seem to find my way across it. I don’t think I want to cross it, that’s the thing. The rubble has all my life in it still” (108).

In conclusion, then, I would suggest that Waters’s The Night Watch is a text that can be used to think through, with some complexity, the ways in which repetition tests the limits of love. Several of the theoretical paradigms that I discussed in the first part of the article are given vivid, fictional expression in this text, each of them commenting upon the challenge posed by repetition in a different way. For example, while the behaviour of Helen and Julia may be seen to typify the Freudian will-to-repetition and its Lacanian demise, Kay may be seen to stand, heroically (but perhaps no less self-deceivingly?) for the non-repeatability of a “genuine love” that is focused on the other and entails a radical transformation of the self; meanwhile, Viv and Reggie’s attempt to recycle their love would appear to be doomed to failure on account of the fact that it can never be brought to a satisfactory “romantic” conclusion: that is, marriage or death. Indeed, arguably the only relationship in the novel that holds out any possibility of hope for the future is that between Duncan and Fraser inasmuch as their reunion may be seen as a continuation of their original relationship following a period of separation rather than a repetition per se.


Staring repetition in the face is clearly not an easy thing to do. While Waters’s novel is unblinking in its analysis of Helen and Julia’s relationship as the lovers reprise their own, and each other’s, former patterns of behaviour vis-à-vis the absent body of Kay, the text stops short of declaring that solipsism is the beginning, and end, of all romance. Through the parallel story of Kay’s enduring love for Helen, the text keeps faith with the possibility of an ideal, if “shattered” (viz. Nancy), love in which the amorous subject is transformed so radically that she will not be able to “repeat” the event even if, at some point in the future, she enters into a new relationship. Even in contemporary literary fiction, then (as opposed to classic or popular romance), the final disappointment posited by Freud and Lacan (“there is no sexual relation”) is too much to bear: better to give one’s self, or one’s lover, up to death or, as in Kay’s case, to stay “lost in the rubble” (106), than to concede that we repeat only for the pleasure of repeating or that our objectideal is, at last, only a poor substitute for the (ever elusive) “real thing.”

It is possible, as we hurtle through the twenty-first century, that qualitatively new ways of understanding the self and the self-in-relation (not least as a consequence of the impact of virtual reality) will render the philosophical issue of whether love is or is not repeatable something of a red herring. For the moment, however, I would argue that it persists as a nagging anxiety for all those of us invested in a concept of love as an “outward motion” (Pearce 8 ) involving at least the fantasy of “an/other” rather than proving itself to be a tawdry, solipsistic quest. Unfortunately, the brilliance of Waters’s forensic analysis of Helen and Julia’s slide towards the Lacanian abyss renders it a very close call (147-58) (“there is more to love than this—isn’t there?” [my paraphrase]) and I therefore hope that the romance genre continues to find ways of living with the tension, keeping the faith.

Works Cited

Bacharach, Burt & Hal David. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Perf. Chuck Baxter & Jill O’Hara. New York: Shubert Theatre, 1968. Performance.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978. Print.

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problems of Domination. London: Virago, 1990. Print.

—. Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.

Botting, Fred. Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000. Print.

Cahn, Sammie & Jimmy van Heusen. “The Second Time Around.” High Time. Perf. Bing Crosby. 20th Century Fox, 1960. Film.

De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. Trans. M. Belgion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. Print.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Arrow Books, 1992. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism.” On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 59-97. Print.

—. “Mourning and Melancholia.” On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 245-268. Print.

—. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 269-338. Print.

—. The Uncanny. Trans David McLintock. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. New York, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986. Print.

Hollaender, Friederich & Sammy Lerner. “Falling in Love Again (I Can’t Help It).” The Blue Angel. Perf. Marlene Dietrich. UFA/Paramount, 1930. Film.

Høystad, Ole M. A History of the Heart. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2007. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar of 21 January 1975.” Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école Freudienne. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. London: Macmillan, 1982. 162-171. Print.

—. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Shattered Love.” The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. Print.

O’Connor, Sinead. Sean Nós Nua. Netherlands: Roadrunner Records, 2002. CD.

Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge : Polity, 2007. Print.

Soble, Alan. The Structure of Love. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990. Print.

Waters, Sarah. The Night Watch. London: Virago, 2006. Print.

[1] Within the folk tradition there are countless songs in which the (male) lover is separated from his beloved for long periods of time (typically, seven years) on account of war or other commitments, and the (female) beloved is required to wait patiently and faithfully for his return. In the tragic variants (e.g. “Lord Baker”, “Her Green Mantle” [see O’Connor 2002]) the lover often returns just too late (the woman is dying or has finally given up and married another) though in many instances (e.g. “The Moorlough Shore” [O’Connor 2002]) the songs include defiant professions of love (on both sides) that will follow the lovers to the grave. However, it has also been pointed out to me that popular music includes many classics that celebrate the heart’s capacity to heal and love again: for example, “Falling in Love Again” (Lerner and Hollander (1930); “Second Time Around” (Cahn and van Heusen); “I’ll Never Love Again” (Bacharach and David) which ends with the line “so at least until tomorrow / I’ll never fall in love again.”

[2]As I discuss in Romance Writing (19-23) it is important to keep in mind the fact that “love” and “desire” originate in very different discourses even though they are often used interchangeably in everyday speech. In my own writing, I am always mindful that desire is a psychoanalytic concept which understands affect as an expression of the psycho-sexual drives, while love (as noted in this article) is a concept that means differently across a wide range of historical and cultural discourses but which is typically bound up with metaphysical and spiritual belief-systems.