ISSN: 2159-4473

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

Archive for the ‘Issue 2.1’ Category

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

See also: “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

“What do Critics Owe the Romance?”, one of three keynote lectures at the 2010 IASPR conference, is a strong and much-welcome contribution to the development of a meta-perspective on the practice of popular romance criticism. Such self-reflexive, meta-critical accounts of the scholarly study of popular romance fiction are still rather rare. Indeed, although the field of popular romance studies is currently booming, there are relatively few discussions of the state of the art of popular romance criticism which thoroughly consider the scholarly and conceptual origins and histories of this rapidly developing field.[1] Moreover, the few meta-critical reviews that do exist have such a wide-ranging group of studies to cover that they rarely manage to move beyond an enumerative overview of the different scholarly claims that have been made regarding the popular romance novel. With “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” Pamela Regis does precisely this: she looks beyond the enumerative overview that merely establishes and describes differences between different studies and starts to consider both how and why such differences occur.[2] This brief response to Regis’ endeavour argues that while her meta-critical efforts are overall strongly commendable and insightfully identify and elaborate upon some of the key challenges of romance scholarship, Regis’ overall disregard for the historical and theoretical frameworks in which other scholars work could be considered problematic.

In order to get a grip on some of the dynamics that underlie the diverging interpretations of popular romance novels put forth in different scholarly studies of the genre, Regis adopts as a methodological approach the rhetorical analysis of literary criticism as texts constituting a discourse community. This approach allows her first to establish that the critical community of popular romance scholars shares a set of values, and second to analyse how the critics’ different positioning of the object of study (the contemporary popular romance novel) in relation to these shared values informs the rather different findings, interpretations, claims, and conclusions formulated by each of them. By emphasizing the notion that all romance scholars are essentially answering the same, community-imposed question—namely, are popular romance novels complex?—Regis draws attention to a core issue that all romance critics have in common, regardless of their many different approaches, frameworks, and objectives. Each act of criticism, Regis’ analysis makes irrefutably clear, requires the scholar to take up a position in relation to the object of study—requires, that is, a basic conceptualisation of the romance novel. It is in this process of conceptualising the romance novel, Regis essentially argues, that one of the core explanations can be found for critics’ rather differing takes on the same genre.

One of the most important elements of Regis’ discussion is her eloquent articulation and clarification of one of the basic methodological issues that has haunted the critical community of romance scholars since its inception: the methodologically sound selection of study-texts. As Regis implies, popular romance criticism has a somewhat problematic reputation in this regard: many older studies—like the ones by Ann Snitow, Tania Modleski, and Janice Radway[3]—make quite general claims about the entire genre of “the” popular romance novel despite being based on rather small and/or undiversified corpi. As Regis points out, these methodologically problematic overgeneralisations are often based on a too simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text and reveal that these scholars tend to underestimate or overlook the complexity of the popular romance genre.

However, Regis’ critique of these older critics, correct as it may be, fails to recognise the historicity of these studies—that is, it does not sufficiently take into account the historically and conceptually vastly different context in which these early scholars of the genre were working in comparison to their present day counterparts. Indeed, when these early critics started conducting their at-that-time highly innovative, groundbreaking studies, they were facing somewhat different conditions than we are today. Scholars like Janice Radway, Kay Mussell, and Tania Modleski, who were operating in a context in which hardly any previous scholarship on the genre existed, were taking on a huge and virtually unexplored body of literature that was, nonetheless, surrounded by very strong cultural associations of sameness and simplicity. Negotiating these circumstances, these foundational scholars indeed made too general claims on the basis of too small and undiversified corpi, but the knowledge needed to correct them was simply not accessible to them in the academic context in which they were situated. While Regis then indeed identifies a problematic aspect of these older studies, in now evaluating these methodological errors a consideration of the original historical contexts in which these studies took place—the virtual inexistence of any scholarly knowledge about the popular romance genre and the nearly complete lack of a scholarly tradition or exemplary previous study to guide the way—might further elucidate part of the underlying causes of this methodological problematic.

Whereas the methodological flaws of excessive overgeneralisation can then be, to an extent, if not excused at least explained with regard to the work of the earliest generation of popular romance scholars, this is a different matter today. As the field is moving from the foundational discussion of generalities to a more mature discussion of specifics, the need for a well-considered methodology in the selection of texts as well as in the manner in which the texts are analysed becomes urgent. The field’s genealogical development from studying the popular romance genre’s general properties to focussing on more specific and particular aspects of (subgroups within) the genre is currently ongoing and can be observed in numerous recent works of romance scholarship. It is visible in Regis’ own work, particularly in her much-cited A Natural History of the Popular Romance Novel—perhaps the most influential study of the genre published in the last decade—in which the author devotes two sections to a general discussion of the romance genre and then moves on to a thorough analysis of individual romance authors and novels. Other instances of such recent, more narrowly focussed scholarly discussions of popular romance abound; think for example of recent scholarly work on geographical subgroups of the genre (e.g. Juliet Flesch’s excellent study of Australian romance novels), on particular subgenres (e.g. Lisa Fletcher’s magisterial analysis of historical romance novels), on particular publishers (e.g. Paul Grescoe’s study of Harlequin and Joseph McAleer’s and jay Dixon’s studies of Mills & Boon), on individual authors (e.g. Sarah Frantz’s work on Suzanne Brockman [2008; 2010] and J.R. Ward and my own doctoral dissertation on Nora Roberts) or even individual novels (e.g. Eric Selinger’s sophisticated discussion of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm). While such studies use more self-evident and coherent principles of corpus selection, it remains methodologically crucial to adopt a constant and unwavering vigilance for the actual representativeness of the particular with regard to the whole for which it is envisioned to stand. This methodological concern is all the more important in popular romance studies because both the (early) traditions of this developing field and the cultural stereotypes that stubbornly continue to surround its main object of study tend to obscure the diversity and complexity of the genre’s cultural reality that these studies aim to unlock.

Whereas Regis’ concern for the methodologically sound selection of study texts in the study of popular romance novels is very commendable, there are other aspects of her account that are perhaps more problematic, though not less intriguing. One of these elements is the scholar’s acknowledged attempt to gloss over or look beyond differences in theoretical approach or conceptual framework between the studies she critically discusses. That is, although Regis herself advocates “theoretical self-awareness [ . . . ] in any critical endeavour,” she proceeds to compare these critical endeavours without much consideration for their different theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Although this approach is inspired by the findings of the rhetorical studies that form the methodological basis of Regis’ argument, this does not change the fact that the risk of ignoring theoretical positions is that one remains blind to the impact of one’s own theoretical position. This position is relevant to Regis’ meta-critical discussion because it plays a role in shaping her critique and evaluation of other scholars’ acts of romance criticism.

Regis’ own theoretical position fundamentally influences, for example, her evaluative discussion of Janice Radway’s classic Reading the Romance, which is, apart from Regis’ own work, perhaps the best-known and most influential popular romance study to date. Regis’ approach to the study of popular romance is one which she herself characterises in A Natural History as “a traditional literary historical approach” (112) in which the primary site of interest is the text and the secondary site of interest the broader historical and socio-cultural context in which the text figures. Following this approach, Regis defines the genre and traces its history on the basis of textual and narrative features—an impressive endeavour that includes the identification of the now famous eight essential narrative elements which, according to Regis, define the romance novel. Although Regis convincingly argues that the concrete textual embodiments of these eight narrative elements undergo multiple diachronic and synchronic changes in response to wider historical changes, her core position is nonetheless that the romance novel—as literature—is defined by its narrative (that is textual) properties. Underlying this approach is a conceptualisation of romance novels as literature and of literature as something that is primarily and pervasively textual.

While this is of course a perfectly legitimate, interesting, and insightful approach to the study of the popular romance novel—indeed, Regis’ definition of the romance novel is often cited in scholarly and other discussions of the genre—like any other approach it is one which highlights certain aspects and disregards others. For example, Regis pays little considered critical attention to such elements as the materiality of the text (its peritext, that is its physical properties as not only an aesthetic form but also a material object in the world), the reader (that fascinating figure that seemed to endlessly intrigue but essentially elude a scholar like Radway), and the institutions fundamentally shaping both the production and reception of these novels. It is, however, towards these aspects of the genre, which Regis’ approach conceptually obscures, that many scholars, including Janice Radway, have directed most of their critical effort. Radway, who carries out an ethnographic study of romance readers, is, unlike Regis, not primarily focussed on the romance novel’s textual properties, but in the reader’s use and interpretation of this text. While Radway does indeed, as Regis points out, seem to hold a rather simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text, this conceptualisation might in part stem from the fact that Radways’ main conceptual interest is not in the romance text as such—as is Regis’—but in the popular romance novel as a strongly gendered socio-cultural phenomenon.

Radway herself demonstrates a recognition of the important difference between these two approaches when, in the conclusion to the 1984 edition of Reading the Romance, she notes the importance of “analytically distinguishing between the meaning of the act [of reading romance novels] and the meaning of the text as read” (210). The text as such—Regis’ primary site of interest—is of less importance to Radway than the ways in which the text is used by its readers, which, Radway’s account continuously indicates, are highly complex. The “patient unravelling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” (Wilder 105) that the topos of complexity implies is then performed by Radway not in her discussion of the romance text, but in her discussion of the romance reader, the process of reception and the material production of the text read. If we (re)consider the question of complexity to not pertain solely to textual properties, but to the romance novel as a cultural phenomenon, Radway answers it with a resounding affirmative. The fact that Regis’ overlooks this kind of complexity in her otherwise impressive and articulate discussion stems, it seems to me, from her own conceptual position which obscures or disregards non-textual issues. This brief example then indicates that Regis’ own theoretical position is relevant to her meta-critical discussion and, more generally, that in such meta-critical endeavours an awareness of theoretical positions and conceptual frameworks is important.

On the whole it seems to me Regis’ discussion can be interpreted as an example of a broader developmental dynamic that is currently taking place in the field of popular romance studies. As the field matures the natural tendency arises to look back at its foundations and, in an attempt to distinguish the present from those past origins, to identify, analyse, and even emphasise certain problematic aspects of older popular romance studies. Such endeavours could be considered as figurative instances of ritual matricide in which scholars like Radway, Modleski, and Mussel function as the figurative mothers of the field who, in order to create the possibility for the field to grow up, develop, and mature, have to be figuratively “killed”—taken away, put aside, moved beyond. This process is a natural mechanism of evolution and growth and one which on the whole has positive effects; as is apparent in Regis’ discussion, it enables a much-needed identification and analysis of problems and errors in earlier studies. This is itself a necessary condition for present and future studies and scholars to improve in these regards and avoid making the same mistakes as their predecessors. Although critical accounts such as the one by Pamela Regis can then be placed within a positive broader dynamic that stimulates the further development, maturation, and improvement of the field, prudence is called for in such endeavours because they run the risk of overstating or exaggerating the problematic aspects of older studies. Indeed it seems to me that in particular Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, perhaps because of its fame and enduring identification with popular romance studies (certainly in the eyes of scholars outside the field), is regularly subjected to quite harsh and even unforgiving critiques which seem to create and perpetuate a stereotypical image and too simplistic interpretation of this complex and theoretically sophisticated study. In this regard Regis’ present meta-critical account is mainly to be praised, since it moves beyond the stereotypical interpretations of past studies and presents a thorough and well-considered critical discussion.

This brief response to Pamela Regis’ meta-critical discussion of popular romance scholarship has pointed out some of what I consider to be the account’s strongest and weakest points. While I endorse Regis’ identification of the methodological problem of overgeneralisation as one of the main challenges that the field of popular romance studies faces, I also critique her account for being too ahistorical and undertheorised. I briefly attempt to demonstrate the potential problems of such a disregard for theoretical positions in meta-critical discussions. In this context I must acknowledge that, much as Pamela Regis’ theoretical position influences her meta-critical discussion, my own critique of her paper is shaped by my position as a scholar inspired by post-structuralism. Instead of considering the clashing of such theoretical perspectives as problematic, it is my firm belief that if we manage to continue to achieve meetings of and conversations between these, and many other, critical and theoretical perspectives—as we did at the 2010 IASPR conference—the future of popular romance studies look brighter than ever before.

Works Cited

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

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

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

Frantz, Sarah S.G. “Darcy’s Vampiric Descendants: Austen’s Perfect Romance Hero and J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood.” Persuasions Online. 30.1. (2009) Web.

—. “‘I’ve tried my entire life to be a good man’: Suzanne Brockmann’s Sam Starrett, Ideal Romance Hero.” Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Eds. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak. MD: Lexington Books, 2010. 227-247. Print.

—. “Suzanne Brockmann.” Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. 2.2/3 (2008) 1-19. Web.

Goade, Sally. “Introduction.” Empowerment versus Oppression. Twenty First Century Views on Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 1-11. Print.

Goris, An. “From Roberts to Romance And Back Again: genre, authorship and textual identity.” Ph.D. diss., Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2011. (in preparation).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selinger, Eric. “Milton, Cavell, Kinsale: Thinking Through Flowers from the Storm.” Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association National Conference. New Orleans, April 2009. Address.

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.

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

[1] Amongst the most important state of the art accounts of romance criticism are discussions by Juliet Flesch (11-23), Pamela Regis (3-7), Kay Mussell (6-13) and Sally Goade (1-5).

[2] Both Juliet Flesch and Kay Mussell provide somewhat similar meta-critical considerations in their above mentioned overviews of romance criticism, though neither of these accounts is as elaborate as Regis’ present one.

[3] Mussell’s study (1984), which is based on a corpus of over eighty romance novels, is somewhat of an exception in this regard.


“Belles, Beaux, and Paratexts: American Story Papers and the Project of Romance” by William Gleason

The mass marketing of modern romance fiction in North America began not with the emergence of Harlequin Books in the 1950s but during the dime novel and story paper boom of the 1860s and 1870s. Seeking to capitalize on the longstanding appeal of love stories, which had been appearing alongside other popular genres in the weekly family story papers since the mid-nineteenth century, many of the most influential “cheap” U.S. publishing houses—including Beadle and Adams, Street and Smith, George P. Munro, and Norman Munro—began to experiment with more distinctly marked romance series aimed primarily or exclusively at women readers. Several of these series were quite successful, others wildly so. Beadle and Adams’s Waverley Library, for example, which offered both classic fiction and popular romance novels, produced a total of 353 issues between 1879 and 1886 (Johannsen 304, 314). Street and Smith’s Bertha Clay Library, launched in 1900, ran (along with its successor, the New Bertha M. Clay Library) for more than thirty years (Carr 81). And from the mid-1880s through the 1930s popular publishers fought over exclusive rights to publish and republish the works of prolific American romance novelist Laura Jean Libbey, both as stand-alone volumes in various “library” series and as serialized novels in weekly story papers (Masteller 205). These late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing successes laid the groundwork for the mass marketing of popular romance with which we are familiar today. Understanding this inaugural phase of the production of American romance fiction as an independent genre is thus critical to any fuller investigation of the literary and cultural history of popular romance.

Although haphazardly archived by libraries and all but overlooked by literary history, the romance dime novels and story papers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have slowly begun to receive much deserved scholarly attention. In this essay I examine the experimentation described above: the initial attempts by cheap fiction publishers to market romance as a distinct genre to women readers. Rather than focus on the eventual successes, however, I consider the early—and repeated—failures. For despite the backing and expertise of some of the most powerful popular publishing concerns of the day, as well as the demonstrated appeal of romance fiction to nineteenth-century women readers, the first romance-centered dime novel series and story papers were more likely to fold than to flourish.

A variety of explanations have been ventured for these failures. In his landmark bibliographic study of the publishing firm Beadle and Adams (whose introduction in 1860 of the first continuous series of fixed-price popular books effectively created the hugely successful concept of the “dime novel”), Albert Johannsen nominates price sensitivity as one factor. When in 1869 Beadle and Adams launched the predominantly romance-focused New Twenty-Five Cent Novels series, for example, Johannsen surmises that the publishers misjudged the willingness of readers in the dime novel era to pay more than ten cents for cheap fiction (165). The series, which published a complete novel in every issue, folded after only four numbers. Felicia Luz Carr has similarly argued that, for working-class women in particular—the primary audience for dime novel and story paper romance fiction—every expenditure for entertainment, including popular fiction, had to be carefully justified (67). And yet even low-priced romance serials, at least initially, fared little better. Indeed, the first three inexpensive romance story papers marketed aggressively to women readers—Beadle and Adams’s Belles and Beaux and Girls of Today, and Norman Munro’s The New York Weekly Story-Teller, all published between 1874 and 1877 for no more than ten cents an issue, each of which offered lengthy installments from at least two, and sometimes up to five different romance novels—failed to thrive.

In accounting for these puzzling disappointments scholars have blamed both publishers and readers. Noting that the absence of business records for Beadle and Adams makes definitive judgment difficult, Carr tentatively lays the failure of Belles and Beaux—launched in 1874 as the first story paper focused exclusively on romance but which lasted only thirteen issues—on editorial impatience. “Three months is hardly sufficient time to develop a readership,” observes Carr, “but it seems Beadle and Adams were against risking capital on a venture that did not produce an immediate return. [ . . . ] Rather than develop an audience slowly, they opted to end the experiment” (73). Taking a slightly different tack, Johannsen speculates that the highly gendered content of Belles and Beaux, aimed primarily at women despite the titular invitation to readers of both sexes (belles and beaux)—limited the scope of its potential audience. The journal did not pay, in other words, because “it was too ladylike an affair to appeal to young men” (60).

Both these explanations assume that a predominantly female audience could not be counted on to support a story paper or dime novel series—at least not quickly, and not in large enough numbers to sustain a profitable business model. In evaluating the equally disappointing failure of Girls of Today, Beadle and Adams’s 1875 follow-up venture to Belles and Beaux, Johannsen and Carr lay specific blame on female readers. “Girls alone, apparently,” Johannsen asserts, “could not be depended upon to support the journal” (470). Carr suggests that working women may not yet have been capable of conceiving themselves as a targetable audience in the first place. “It seems that Beadle and Adams were just a bit ahead of the times in their attempt to reach an all female audience, or that they were in the process of developing an audience who did not quite think of themselves as a specific group of readers,” she concludes. “The fact that the paper ran stories similar to those that appeared later in successful book series, such as the Eagle Library, suggests that the failure of Girls of Today was not due to insufficient writing talent or the selection of unpopular tales” (74). Indeed, Carr argues that the eventual success of dime novel and story paper romance fiction should be attributed to the astuteness of the publishers, who “succeeded in creating not only a new genre of women’s books, but also a corresponding demand for it” (18).

In the pages that follow I question the assumptions that women readers were a leading cause of the early failures of the romance dime novel and story paper series and that mass-market romance could only flourish once astute publishers created a demand for it. My analysis suggests that the editors and publishers of the earliest romance dime novel and story paper series repeatedly misjudged their audience, conspicuously failing to give women readers enough not only of what they desired but of what they had been promised—and were more than ready to buy. I draw my evidence primarily from the three failed romance story papers mentioned above—Belles and Beaux, Girls of Today, and The New York Weekly Story-Teller—with special emphasis paid to Belles and Beaux as both the first paper of its kind and a model for the failures that followed. Against Johannsen, for example, I argue that Belles and Beaux failed not because it was “too ladylike” but because it wasn’t “ladylike” enough. Though marketed as one-stop shopping for romance—“Tales of [Cupid’s] doings deftly told / Shall charm these pages week by week,” announced the front page of the inaugural issue (“Belles and Beaux, Greeting,” lines 41-42)—Belles and Beaux (like its imitators) was packaged with material that not only had nothing to do with “Cupid’s doings” but at times attacked, even misogynistically, the very idea of romantic love. In contrast to Carr, I do not believe women readers had to be convinced they existed as a specific group in order to purchase romance story papers. Instead I argue that women readers quite astutely recognized that periodicals like Belles and Beaux, Girls of Today, and The New York Weekly Story-Teller were simply not giving them their hard-earned money’s worth and decided to withhold their dimes until they found publications that did. Although there was much in these early story papers that affirmed the power of romance, and although editors often went to significant lengths not merely to provide love stories but also to foster what I term “practical romance” in readers’ own lives, trial purchasers of Belles and Beaux and its followers could not have helped but be disappointed by the anti-romantic elements that routinely appeared in every issue—elements that may not always have been front and center (though sometimes they were) but that nonetheless contributed crucially to the overall reading experience. Reader dissatisfaction, not an inability to recognize themselves as a target audience, I argue, sent these early periodicals to their printer’s graves.

The publishers and editors of the early romance dime novels and story papers were certainly astute enough to recognize the profit potential in turning romance into a stand-alone genre. During an era in which print culture more generally was rapidly stratifying into separate “brows” (high-, middle-, and low-), each with different target audiences and expectations, the decision by cheap publishers to supplement the broadly successful family story paper (with its multiple departments and “something for everyone” approach) with series focused more narrowly on the interests of a particular gender, for example, would seem to have made good business sense.[1] But in the case of romance fiction, these publishers appear, in their initial experiments, to have lacked the courage of their own convictions. Instead of committing unreservedly to the project of romance, they hedged, filling the spaces around the serialized love stories with collateral materials that at times mocked their readers’ own desires. Indeed, by voting with their dimes women readers showed story paper editors that this paratextual material—what literary critic Christopher Looby has helpfully described as “the variety of devices and conventions that surround a text and mediate between it and its readers” (182)—mattered as much as the love stories themselves. Romance buyers, it would appear, demanded a coherent reading environment. They were unwilling to commit to series that were themselves unwilling to commit, wholeheartedly, to romance. As we will see, only when story paper publishers agreed to give women readers what Belles and Beaux had initially promised—and not before—did the first mass-marketed romance series finally flourish.

Cupid’s Doings

With its intrinsic rhythm of desire and delay and its rejection of the traditional comedic courtship plot (in which the hero falls in love at first sight) in favor of what Pamela Regis has identified as the romance heroine’s story of “slowly developing love” (57), romance fiction was particularly well-suited to the narrative cycles of serial publishing. One of the earliest and most successful family story papers to incorporate romance, for example, was Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger, which ran from 1855 to 1898. Devoted, as its masthead announced, to “choice literature, romance, the news, and commerce” (Cox 190), this large eight-page weekly saw romance as one among many genres through which to appeal to a family audience. The term “romance” itself was deployed broadly in Bonner’s paper, describing not merely stories of (female) love and courtship but also (male) adventure and daring. But Bonner’s success at attracting women readers—particularly young women readers attracted to the works of romance novelist E.D.E.N. Southworth, who was under exclusive contract to the Ledger—is likely what led several of the leading story paper houses to try their hands in the mid-1870s at more narrowly focused periodicals targeting a primarily female readership.[2]

The first of these experiments was Beadle and Adams’s Belles and Beaux. Slightly smaller than the Ledger, but twice as thick (sixteen pages instead of eight) and with a roomier approach to typesetting (four columns per page instead of the Ledger’s more cramped five), Belles and Beaux made its debut in January 1874.[3] Carr describes it as “a story paper of exceptional quality for a mass produced, cheap periodical.” She notes that its size gave the journal “a sense of importance, and provided ample room for large, eye-catching cover illustrations,” suggesting that Beadle and Adams “were hopeful that the ‘glitz’ of the storypaper, combined with the popular authors, would earn it an instant following” (71).[4] The cover of the first issue announces the special focus of the periodical through a dramatic combination of image and rhyme (see fig. 1). In the middle of the page, occupying approximately two-thirds of the sheet, appears a collage-like illustration of the phases of heterosexual courtship, featuring a single couple in snapshots from preadolescence to young adulthood and culminating in the prominently centered image of the newly married pair taking their wedding bow. Beneath this arrangement of pictures the editors offer a versified “Greeting” to their readers. “Love gilds the day, ye Belles and Beaux!” affirms the poem, which describes the joys of romance before introducing Cupid, desire’s mythological proxy and instigator, as the paper’s muse:

Tales of [Cupid’s] doings deftly told
Shall charm these pages week by week,
With pure enchantment which the old
And wise may either shun or seek.
God gave its music to the bird,
Its sweetness to the blushing rose,
And those soft hopes by which are stirred
The dreaming hearts of Belles and Beaux. (“Belles and Beaux, Greeting,” 41-48)

Fig. 1. Belles and Beaux: A Home Weekly for Winter Nights and Summer Days 31 January 1874: 1. Courtesy Rare Books and Special Collections, Founders’ Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University.

By any count, “Cupid’s doings,” “soft hopes,” and “dreaming hearts” constitute a significant percentage of the weekly contents of Belles and Beaux. Readers of the first issue were treated, for example, to initial multi-chapter installments from three different long romantic fictions, including The Rothcourt Heir; or, Betrothed at the Cradle, an English love story “by the author of ‘Of High Degree,’ etc.”; Alida Barrett; or, The Door in the Heart, by Mrs. E. F. Ellet; and Kate Darling; or, The Belle of the School (listed without an author but now known to be from the pen of Canadian romance novelist May Agnes Fleming). In addition to these featured installments, readers would have found in this issue a selection of poems devoted to love, as well as two short love stories, Lucille C. Hollis’s “How Cora Went to Europe” and Henri Montcalm’s “Bertie’s Tutor.” These short stories are notable in part for their differing points of view: though both written in the third person, Hollis’s tale is focalized through the eyes of a young woman, Montcalm’s through those of a young man. Perhaps befitting the paper’s declared interest in belles and beaux, this attention to both male and female perspectives on falling in love would become characteristic of the periodical even in its short publishing span (and despite the fact that many more female writers would be published in its pages than male ones).

The editors of Belles and Beaux also made a discernable paratextual effort to create a romantic environment for its readers, male and female, both within and outside the paper itself. In using the term “paratext” I draw on the work of narratologist Gerard Genette, who highlights the ways in which such liminal elements as titles, epigraphs, dedications, prefaces, jacket copy, promotional blurbs, and the like, “mediate” a book to its reader (Macksey xviii). Although Genette restricts his analysis to books, Looby has demonstrated how paratextual theory may be applied to nineteenth-century story papers through his examination of Southworth’s serialized novels in Bonner’s New York Ledger. In these periodicals, Looby suggests, the paratext includes not only the publishing apparatus but also the adjacent texts and topics that share physical and ideological space with the serialized romance stories: that is, the poetry, advertisements, illustrations, letters to the editor, and so on—materials Looby colloquially terms “the rest of each issue” (186). All these elements “impinge influentially upon our reading experience,” Looby argues, by “soliciting our attention to particular texts (or portions or details of texts), preforming our horizon of expectations, guiding our reading as it transpires, and otherwise governing our understanding of the text in remarkably powerful, if often unnoticed, ways” (182).

Where the stories and poems of love inside each issue of Belles and Beaux help immerse readers in an imagined world of romance, other equally prominent paratextual elements work to foster what I term “practical romance” in readers’ lives outside the paper. Belles and Beaux did this in many ways. It featured, for example, a weekly advice column counseling readers on such topics as the etiquette of courtship. It also provided multiple opportunities for readers to turn the written contents of the paper into actively social, and quite possibly romantic, interaction. Many of the early issues, for example, include detailed descriptions of mixed company parlor games for winter evenings, games whose penalties (or “forfeits”) often included kisses. The very first issue highlights a winter evening parlor game called “The Revolt of the Flowers.” Players select the names of one or more flowers, whose actions they must imitate when described in the accompanying story, which is read aloud. The lists of forfeits for this game (incurred when a player fails to imitate his or her flower at the proper moment) includes the following: “Two gentlemen to stand against the wall behind two chairs, and the lady who owns the forfeit must stand upon the chairs, and kiss both (the chairs)” (14). Although the forfeit playfully suggests that the lady’s penalty is to kiss the chairs, not the gentlemen, the erotic potential of such proximity may well have encouraged actual or acted kisses between players. In addition to social games, Beadle and Adams also typically reserved the last page of every issue for a piece of parlor sheet music, usually a popular love song adapted for voice and piano, which the editors encouraged readers to preserve and collect. The first issue concludes, for instance, with sheet music for “Love May Change, But Dieth Not,” a paean to the stages of undying love, from youthful adoration, through the “holy rapture” of matrimonial love, to the angelic affections nurtured by one’s grandchildren (see fig. 2). In other weeks readers were offered music for such romantic songs as “Boundless Rapture” or “The Pledge Ring.”

Fig. 2. “Love May Change, But Dieth Not.” Belles and Beaux: A Home Weekly for Winter Nights and Summer Days 31 January 1874: 16. Courtesy Rare Books and Special Collections, Founders’ Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University.

Alongside these overt inducements to “practical” romance, the paratextual apparatus of Belles and Beaux also evinced a decided interest in global and comparativist perspectives on love. The paper frequently provided articles and anecdotes, for example, on women’s matrimonial lives around the globe, including such diverse social practices as Polish weddings, German trousseaus, and Indian polyandry.[5] More than the literary materials, these short non-fiction pieces were typically narrated from a woman’s point of view. Indeed, only women wrote regular columns for Belles and Beaux, not men, giving these portions of the paper, though ostensibly targeted to both genders, the feel of a woman-centered environment in which female readers might safely and perhaps instructively calibrate their own social, romantic, and/or sexual identities against a wide range of possibilities.

A Reluctance to Commit

Despite the breadth of attention paid in the pages of Belles and Beaux to the discussion, depiction, and performance of love, however, in many other ways, both subtle and obvious, the story paper’s editors seemed unwilling to commit themselves to romance without reservation. They betrayed this reluctance in part by including, from the very first issue, substantial material with only tangential connection to love—or in some cases, with no direct link whatsoever. The inaugural issue, for example, includes a multi-column article on the increasingly common use of fake jewelry. Although jewelry has, of course, long played an important role in courtship, this particular article expresses little interest in either the practical or ethical implications of ersatz ornament for modern romance, focusing instead, almost clinically, on the chemical processes that turn cobalt oxide into sapphire necklaces (“Sham Jewelry” 6-7). Later in the same issue the reader is offered a lengthy discussion of “National Songs.” Here, too, although the article briefly notes an evolution in European balladry from songs of war to “warbl[ings] of love and home,” and mentions in passing the “beautiful” love songs of the French Troubadors (“National Songs” 14), the article’s main concern lies with old tunes, usually military in origin, that have worked their way so deeply into the consciousness of nations that they are known by persons of all ages and classes.

If there were only one or two pieces per issue that bore little direct relationship to love, readers might find them refreshing rather than distracting—grist, perhaps, for courtship’s conversational mill. But nearly all the regular weekly columns of Belles and Beaux—which together make up a considerable amount of each issue—incorporate a good deal of non-romantic material. In the weekly “Random Reading” column, for example, a collection of ten to twenty brief articles on assorted topics that appeared in the back pages of every issue, one was as likely to find an entry on “Milk for Typhoid Fever” or “How Good Writers Worked” as one on love, romance, or marriage.[6] The same can be said of the weekly “Mail Bag” and “Fun Flashes” columns, out of whose dozens of brief facts, anecdotes, and jokes in every issue one might count a relatively small portion that deal directly or even indirectly with “Cupid’s doings.”

The miscellaneity of these weekly columns affirm the “something for everyone” family paper origins of the story paper romance series. Bonner’s New York Ledger, for example, often interspersed short pieces on a variety of unconnected topics among its serial installments. Bonner also included a weekly “Notice to Correspondents” in which the editors answered reader mail, a common family story paper feature imitated in Beadle and Adams’s own Saturday Journal (launched in 1870) and mimicked in the “Letter-Box” column of Belles and Beaux. Like many other elements of Belles and Beaux, the “Letter-Box” also commingled the romantic with the non-romantic. Indeed, for every response offering valuable courtship advice (Should I run away with my betrothed, who has had an unexpected financial reversal, against my parents’ wishes? Answer: No), there are braces of mundane questions whose solutions promise to quicken no lover’s pulse. “Can a railroad ticket bought a week ago and marked ‘Good for this day only,’ be used next month, as unexpected detention will prevent its use until that time?” urgently inquires one correspondent in the same issue. The surprising, if not especially romantic, answer: Yes (“Letter-Box,” 21 February 1874, 8).

Of course merely tallying up the non-romantic column inches in this early, failed romance paper seems rather cold calculus for gauging the potential frustrations of readers paying ten cents a week for a periodical that was supposed to be uniquely focused on the ways of Cupid. After all, family story paper editors, often desperate for copy and averse to paying for new material unless absolutely necessary, had always filled out their weekly issues with miscellany and recycled content. But if that strategy fit neatly with the eclectic appeal of the family papers it was not necessarily well suited to the more tightly focused audience of the romance papers. While it is possible the editors of the romance weeklies simply lacked sufficient material of a romantic nature to include, the eventual success of a romance story paper like George P. Munro’s New York Fashion Bazaar—which first appeared in 1879 and whose paratextual materials (fashion plates, gossip columns, and sheet music) seem to have been more coherently calibrated to the anticipated desires of female readers—suggests it should have been possible to align paratext to primary text in the mid-1870s as well.

To identify a better measure of the self-sabotaging failure of a periodical like Belles and Beaux, then, we need to look elsewhere—not at what I have been calling the non-romantic elements, but instead at what might best be termed the anti-romantic ones. Often although not exclusively written by men, these are the bits and pieces that mock, undermine, or even reject the idea of romance itself, elements that seem designed to make a reader question rather than embrace the possibility of true love, and perhaps even wonder why he or she has spent good money on a magazine that belittles its readers’ own desires.

These anti-romantic elements come in different guises. One fairly common version is a brand of misogynistic humor perhaps meant to appeal to certain male readers but likely quite offensive to women. In addition to frequent jokes about shrewish wives or the vanity of women (always told from the male perspective), there are contributions that ostensibly focus on love but take a starkly misogynistic turn. The first poem in the very first issue of Belles and Beaux, for example, features a male voice describing—with either relief or sadistic glee—how the “delicate girl” he once courted has now grown middle-aged, red-faced, and large: “And I could not help smiling to see her—,” reflects the speaker, “With figure so heavy and round, / For she used to be slender and airy, / And dance like a sylph o’er the ground” (Rexford, “A Youthful Fancy,” lines 13-16). The poem not only mocks the former belle’s loss of her graceful figure, it implicitly suggests that in her current state she is unlovable (“No longer the delicate girl, / That she was, years ago, when I loved her” [10-11]), even though the poem makes clear she is now married and a mother. In the jarring final stanza the speaker of the poem appears sexually attracted instead to his former lover’s own offspring: “They gave us a grave introduction; / I think she’d forgotten me quite, / But presented to me her first daughter, / A pretty young lady in white” (21-24). And there the poem ends. Whether this “pretty young lady” redeems the former belle in the speaker’s eyes (is he speechless with regret, perhaps, that this is not his own “pretty young” daughter?) or merely highlights the narrator’s attraction to thin young things, is never made clear. Nor do we ever learn whether the narrator himself has married, and thus whether he speaks from a position of secure love or wistful longing, although the poem’s title hints that in the end the speaker’s chief emotion might best be paraphrased as, “thank goodness I didn’t marry this woman. Look how fat she turned out to be.”

An even more scathing indictment of certain women as potential marriage partners concludes the third issue. Titled “Poor Wykhoff Jones,” and appearing in place of the customary sheet music on the back page of the paper—in itself a surprising substitution for a journal trying to establish a sense of continuity and readerly expectation—Metta Victor’s three-part narrative poem chronicles the life (and death) of a young man who marries a wealthy older woman. In Part I, “The Courtship,” romance flourishes: “They had stolen apart from the careless crowd, / Whose heads were whirling with waltz and wine” (lines 1-2). In Part II, “The Marriage,” the couple unites. But by Part III, “The Result,” the older woman is revealed not as a passionate lover but a vampiric killjoy who reneges on the promises she has made to support Jones in the style to which he has become accustomed. Rather than decry the motives of both lovers, the poem focuses solely on the indignities visited upon the emasculated trophy husband by his aged, domineering benefactress—a perspective reinforced by the illustrations that accompany the poem (see fig. 3). In the final lines of Part III, the despondent Jones finally commits suicide by hanging himself with one of his tormentor’s apron strings.[7]

Fig. 3. Illustration for “Poor Wykhoff Jones,” Belles and Beaux 14 February 1874: 16. Note the self-satisfied leer on the bride’s aged face in this wedding-day snapshot, in contrast to the frustrated pout of “poor” Jones, making it clear where the sympathies of the viewer should lie. Courtesy Rare Books and Special Collections, Founders’ Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University.

A very different but equally prominent anti-romantic gesture in Belles and Beaux, particularly in the early issues, may be found in stories that do not end in a proposal or marriage but in death or tragedy. These stories may include romantic elements, but they are not fundamentally about the power of love; indeed, they seem instead to highlight the failure of love to make a meaningful difference in the world. Bizarrely, both the second and third issues of Belles and Beaux place one of these stories—always complete in a single issue, not serialized—in the most prominent possible position: front and center on page one. The cover story of the second issue, for example, Frank H. Norton’s “The Diamond-Dreamer,” offers a Poe-esque tale of alchemy and death. Told in the first person by a young professor of chemistry who has taken up new lodgings close to the college at which he has been hired to teach, the story describes the professor’s discovery of a secret process by which to turn charcoal into diamonds. Revealed to him by a beautiful young female somnambulist—the daughter of a chemist who used to own the very house in which the professor has taken rooms—the secret process succeeds beyond the professor’s wildest dreams while simultaneously draining the life out of the young woman and also the professor himself. Realizing this danger too late to avert tragedy, the “terror-stricken” (3) professor recounts for the reader the sudden death of the maiden only moments before he too succumbs to the mysterious dark force of this strange magic. (His first person narration is literally interrupted in mid-sentence.) A coda to the story, told by an unidentified third person narrator, describes “thousands of glittering gems” scattered around the “ghastly corpses” (3) on the professor’s floor silently transforming themselves back into charcoal. Although the tale suggests that the souls of the professor and the maiden will be united in “the world to come” (3), “The Diamond-Dreamer” is fundamentally a story of the destructiveness of obsession, not the eternity of love.[8]

How strange it must also have been for readers expecting the “pure enchantment” of “Cupid’s doings” to find on the cover of the third issue—the Valentine’s Day number, no less—“Luriel: A Story of the Sunshine Islands” (see fig. 4). A tale of a woman driven insane by the murder of her beloved at the hands of her own father when she refuses to marry the husband he has picked out for her, “Luriel” (written by frequent contributor Eben E. Rexford, also the author of the misogynistic poem “A Youthful Fancy”) invokes the agony of true love denied without ever granting its heroine relief from her emotional pain. Like a female Ancient Mariner, Luriel corners every visitor to the madhouse in which she has been committed to tell them her story and beg for news of her beloved, whom, in her delusion, she believes is still alive. “I have been here hundreds and hundreds of years,” she tells one listener. “I shall never die till Rupert comes for me. He will come sometime. He said he would” (2). But as the story makes clear, Luriel will never leave her asylum nor be reunited with her lover. She is an object of fascination not for her devotion but for the elaborateness of her dementia, fervently believing she is from the “Sunshine Islands,” that Rupert is a prince, and that she has been exiled from her native land—though the story makes clear she is merely a planter’s daughter from one of the southern states. The stark half-page cover illustration, which depicts Luriel as a bedraggled lunatic telling her story to two men who look on, impassively, further affirms that she should be regarded with pity rather than admiration.

Fig. 4. Cover illustration for “Luriel: A Story of the Sunshine Islands,” Belles and Beaux 14 February 1874: 1. Courtesy Rare Books and Special Collections, Founders’ Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University.

Three of the first four issues of Belles and Beaux feature cover stories or poems that not only reject happy endings but also seem to insist on their very impossibility. The strangest of these, by far, is the poem that graces the cover of the fourth issue. Unlike “The Diamond-Dreamer” and “Luriel: A Story of the Sunshine Islands,” which each invoke (if only to reject) an initial love story, Richard Gerner’s “Terrible Snow” dramatizes only horror, poverty, and despair. The poem opens with a lamentation for the destructiveness of a winter storm before turning, ominously, to the desperate hunger of a dangerous wolf, “Howling, / Baying, / Eyes all aflame, / Through snow-covered forests in quest of game” (lines 5-8). The poem suggests this wolf might well turn to human prey, specifically to the “poor man” (14) who, with “quivering foot, frost-bitten and cold” (21), can do little against the elements, let alone find comfortable shelter. Although the poem never actually describes an attack, the accompanying illustration, which shows snarling creatures menacing, in the poem’s words, “those who are freezing in darkness and night” (36), suggests such an attack might be imminent (see fig. 5). The target of the poem is partly those “thoughtless” (15) middle- and upper-class persons—presumably the family pictured around the Christmas tree at the top center of the illustration—who ignore the privations of the poor, but in the final, bloody stanza the poem symbolically obliterates romance itself:

In a valley stands a romantic cot,
On a charming, delightful, healthy spot;
One winter snow threatened the peaceful dell,
And gathered in strength and size as it fell,
An avalanche
Crushed into the roof of the little ranche,
Striking its inmates all torn to the floor,
Their dread winding sheet all crimsoned with gore;
Their last mutter was, in their fearful woe,
A dying curse for the terrible snow. (60-72)

Fig. 5. Cover page with illustration for “Terrible Snow.” Belles and Beaux 21 February 1874: 1. Courtesy Rare Books and Special Collections, Founders’ Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University.

Although the editors of Belles and Beaux follow “Terrible Snow” with a short love story, I suspect that if you covered up the masthead of this number, with its snarling wolves, and that of the paper’s inaugural issue, with its romantic collage of courtship, love, and matrimony—and then handed them to an unsuspecting reader—that reader would be stunned to discover they were from the same periodical. Not until the fifth issue, with the introduction of a new serialized romance novel, “The Maddest Marriage Ever Was,” does Belles and Beaux once again put romantic love on the front page. The paper may have promised readers to be the source “for gay romance— / When feet are swift and hearts are true” (“Belles and Beaux, Greeting” lines 1-2), but some of the most prominent contents of the early issues tell a very different, and at the least, a very conflicted, tale.[9] It is not difficult, under the circumstances, to imagine even the most devoted readers of romance wondering, and wondering quickly, whether their weekly dime should be spent somewhere else.

For their part, the editors of Belles and Beaux often strained to give the impression they were delivering a more consistent product. Every so often the paper would evoke an image of itself for readers that closely mirrors the promises of the cover page of the first issue. The sheet music on the back page of the same issue that opens with “Terrible Snow,” for example, is a work for piano titled “Belles and Beaux Fantasia,” at once a celebration of the pleasures of courtship and romance and by implication of the paper itself. More explicitly, the seventh number includes a poem titled “Belles and Beaux” that describes the ecstatic “delight” (Hazard, line 6) with which readers—and particularly women readers, “the fair ones” (5)—have supposedly embraced the “charming” periodical (8). “Oh, how their eager fingers / Flit o’er the rustling page!” the poem exclaims (9-10). In a short piece in the ninth number, titled “Our Poets,” the editors praise the verse published in Belles and Beaux for communicating the “sweetest thoughts” to those readers to whom the paper especially “caters”: “those who love and are beloved” (8). Where a poem like “Terrible Snow” fits into this self-image is anyone’s guess.

At times one wonders whether the paper’s editors read all the material they published with equal care. In the “Letter-Box” of the fifth number, for example, a female columnist counsels a young woman reader in no uncertain terms that dying her hair blond is dangerous folly. “If you are really silly enough to wish to destroy the color of your hair,” she writes, “there are plenty of dyes advertised, but we can not indorse [sic] any from our own experience” (“Letter-Box,” 28 February 1874, 15). Directly opposite this advice, in the lower right corner of the same page, however, is a large advertisement for none other than “Aurora” hair dye—“for quickly imparting a rich golden flaxen shade to hair of any color.” Such juxtaposition confirms that editorial coherence was not the periodical’s main priority.

The Best Paper for Ladies in the World!

The romance papers that appeared in the immediate wake of Belles and Beaux suggest that nineteenth-century publishers aiming to reach a predominantly female readership glimpsed the potential of an all-romance format yet remained slow to embrace it, a reluctance that hampered their projects from the beginning. Beadle and Adams’s next woman-centered venture, Girls of Today: A Mirror of Romance, for example, seemed to promise female readers they would finally have a periodical devoted exclusively to matters of the heart. The first issue, launched in December 1875, trumpets:

In Girls of Today, the young women of America have their own paper! Bright, spirited and cheering—Answering their tastes and fancies—Anticipating their needs and wants—Administering pleasure and profit! A mirror of romance and the real—reflecting love and heart-life—portraying passion, feeling and emotion—photographing life and experience—presenting the strange, the novel and the new—delineating society and human nature—by the pens of the most charming men and women writers. (Quoted in Johanssen 470)

And yet, like Belles and Beaux, Girls of Today retained the non-romantic eclecticism of a family paper from the start, mixing love stories and poems with weekly columns and other materials designed to appeal to a broader readership. After only thirteen issues, Beadle and Adams began to reformulate the paper in an attempt to reach a wider audience than just women. They tinkered first with the title, adding The New York Mirror above Girls of Today in the fourteenth issue, which then morphed in the following number into The New-York Mirror: A Journal of Romance (with Girls of Today printed faintly above the new title). By issue sixteen, the designation “Girls of Today” had disappeared from the paper entirely, part of a new strategy, the editors explained, to appeal “to all classes, interests, and readers” (Johanssen 470). Instead of reaching a wider audience, however, what had begun as Girls of Today folded after five months in May 1876.

In much the same way, Norman Munro’s New York Weekly Story-Teller—first issued in November 1875 as the self-proclaimed “Best Paper for Ladies in the World!”—also gradually forsook its woman-centered approach. Hedging its bets from day one, the Story-Teller promised to attend “to the wants of ladies” more assiduously “than any paper or magazine published in the United States” while assuring purchasers that each issue would also contain “plenty of other matter thrown in to please everybody” (“Best Paper”).[10] Eventually forsaking romance for heavy doses of mystery and detective fiction, the Story-Teller soon shifted gears entirely, marketing itself to young boys by promoting installments like the adventures of “Big-Mouthed Billy” even as it still claimed, emptily, to be “The Best Paper for Ladies in the World!”[11] Though it lasted longer than either Belles and Beaux or Girls of Today, Munro’s paper still folded after fewer than eighteen months.

To argue that these papers failed because their publishers were “ahead of the times” in seeking a predominantly female audience for a romance-centered story paper before such an audience had come into being ignores the signal differences between these failures and the more successful romance series that would emerge at the end of the decade. The periodicals that thrived in 1879 and beyond, like George Munro’s New York Fashion Bazaar, were those that gave readers seeking romance no reason not to buy them. Beadle and Adams finally embraced this strategy in 1879 with their introduction of Waverley Library, which gave readers a single long form romance story in each weekly issue without any of the non- or anti-romantic elements of Belles and Beaux, Girls of Today, or the New York Weekly Story-Teller. Priced at a nickel—“A Fifty Cent Novel for Five Cents!” (Johannsen 304)—this new series finally offered women not simply what they wanted but what they had initially been promised, and at the right price.

Rather than fault readers for failing to recognize their own desires, it thus seems more plausible to wonder whether the publishers were either too wedded to the family paper model and its textual and paratextual potpourri of “something for everyone” or too nervous to commit wholeheartedly to what they may have thought was a risky venture—even going so far, as we have seen in the case of Belles and Beaux, to sabotage the romantic aura of an otherwise innovative periodical by aiming, consciously or unconsciously, anti-romantic missiles at love itself. Rather than regard these periodicals as failed experiments, in other words, we might better see them as poorly designed experiments in which popular publishers learned, from their own readers, that paratext matters.

In the end, what is striking about this literary history is the way it also mirrors the stutter-step emergence of mass-market romance publishing in the twentieth century. At its founding in 1908, British publisher Mills & Boon printed “anything it could lay its hands on—fiction, politics, humor, health, child care, cooking, travel,” turning exclusively to romance only in the 1930s (McAleer 17). In similar fashion, Harlequin Books, which opened its doors in the 1940s as a multi-genre reprint house, only committed to romance a decade later in the late 1950s (Regis 156). These histories suggest that, when it comes to love, even the most successful publishers have had to be brought around to the realization that all romance, all the time, was a winning business proposition—and that women readers could be counted on as consumers. Perhaps it should thus come as little surprise that the success of the first nineteenth-century romance story papers would come only after a series of failures. For what we find when we look at the very earliest attempts to market romance to American women in the nineteenth century are the same hesitations exhibited by publishers in the twentieth century, including the refusal to commit, in the first place, to the project of romance itself.

Works Cited

“Belles and Beaux, Greeting.” Belles and Beaux 31 January 1874: 1. Print.

“The Best Paper for Ladies in the World!” Advertisement. New York Weekly Story-Teller n.d.: n.p. Print.

Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print.

Carr, Felicia Luz. “All for Love: Gender, Class, and the Women’s Dime Novel in Nineteenth-Century America.” Diss. George Mason University, 2003. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2003. Print.

Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. Print.

Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America. Rev. ed. London: Verso, 1998. Print.

Gerner, Richard. “Terrible Snow.” Belles and Beaux 21 February 1874: 1. Print.

Harper, S. M. “A Farewell.” Belles and Beaux 4 April 1874: 12. Print.

Hazard, Hap. “Belles and Beaux.” Belles and Beaux 14 March 1874: 5. Print.

Johanssen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature. Vol. 1. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950. Print.

“The Letter-Box.” Belles and Beaux 21 February 1874: 8. Print.

“The Letter-Box.” Belles and Beaux 28 February 1874: 8, 15. Print.

Looby, Christopher. “Southworth and Seriality: The Hidden Hand in the New York Ledger.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 59.2 (2004): 179-211. Print.

Macksey, Richard. Foreword. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. By Gerard Genette. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Masteller, Jean Carwile. “Serial Romance: Laura Jean Libbey and Nineteenth-Century Story Papers.” Dime Novel Round-Up 74.6 (December 2005): 205-16. Print.

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

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, 1850-1865. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938. Print.

“National Songs.” Belles and Beaux 31 January 1874: 13-14. Print.

Norton, Frank H. “The Diamond-Dreamer.” Belles and Beaux 7 February 1874: 1-3. Print.

“Notice.” New York Weekly Story-Teller 12 June 1876: 8. Print.

“Our Paper.” Belles and Beaux 31 January 1874: 8. Print.

“Our Poets.” Belles and Beaux 28 March 1874: 8. Print.

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

“The Revolt of the Flowers.” Belles and Beaux 31 January 1874: 14. Print.

Rexford, Eben E. “Luriel: A Story of the Sunshine Islands.” Belles and Beaux 14 February 1874: 1-2. Print.

—. “A Youthful Fancy.” Belles and Beaux 31 January 1874: 5. Print.

“Sham Jewelry.” Belles and Beaux 31 January 1874: 6-7. Print.

“Suicide of Nine Chinese Girls.” Belles and Beaux 7 February 1874: 14. Print.

Victor, Metta. “Poor Wykhoff Jones,” Belles and Beaux 14 February 1874: 16. Print.


I wish to thank Lynne M. Thomas and the curatorial staff of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Founders’ Memorial Library at Northern Illinois University for providing me with photocopies of a complete run of Belles and Beaux during my research. I am also grateful to the audience at the August 2010 conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and to the two anonymous JPRS readers for their very helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

[1] On the separation of literary “brows” in the nineteenth century, see Brodhead 77-83. On the formal distinctions between dime novels, story papers, and cheap libraries, see Denning 10-12.

[2] On Bonner’s success with “romance-hungry” readers, see Mott 358.

[3] The Ledger measured approximately 22 by 14 inches (Looby 186); Belles and Beaux, 16 by 11.25 inches (Johannsen 468).

[4] Carr speculates that the size of Belles and Beaux may have been a drawback for working class women readers. “The large size of the paper made it hard to carry and difficult to read,” Carr suggests, “matters of concern to working women who often read on their way to work or on their lunch breaks in small rooms or on the streets” (71). Readers who folded the paper in half, however (as is common even with today’s much thicker tabloid papers), would likely have had a manageable object to carry.

[5] One striking entry in the second issue of the paper describes the collective suicide of a group of Chinese girls who kill themselves rather than submit to the “slave-like obedience of wives to the wills of their husbands” (“Suicide of Nine Chinese Girls” 14).

[6] To take one issue at random, only four of the seventeen topics in the “Random Reading” column of the third number, for example, have any direct connection to love or romance (Belles and Beaux 14 February 1874, 14-15).

[7] Although “Poor Wykhoff Jones” credits no author, the poem had previously been published at least twice before, under the popular dime novelist Victor’s name, first in the Cosmopolitan Age (in 1860) and later in Beadle’s Monthly (in 1867).

[8] The Poe-esque flavor of this tale may help make sense of a somewhat strange reference in the inaugural issue of Belles and Beaux, the editors’ announcement that “What Poe’s ‘Rare and Radiant Maiden’ was to the world of Poesy, we propose to make this weekly—a rare and radiant creation in the world of popular periodical literature” (“Our Paper” 8). Given that Poe’s “Rare and Radiant Maiden” Lenore, who first appears (unnamed) in “Paean” (1831), then in “Lenore” (1843), and then again in “The Raven” (1845), is both always beautiful and always dead, one wonders whether the editors of Belles and Beaux fully understood the implications of this reference. Or conversely, perhaps the invocation of Poe in the opening issue should have been a signal to readers that death would not infrequently be commingled with love in the issues to come. Later Poe-esque stories to appear in Belles and Beaux would include the two-part tale of horror, “A Mad Night,” by the prolific gothic writer Harriet E. Prescott—better known today by her married name, Harriet E. Prescott Spofford.

[9] The anti-romantic elements I have been highlighting are not the same as simply writing about the pain of love. There are many instances of the latter in Belles and Beaux, particularly in the poetry, but even the most despairing of those pieces remain fundamentally romantic. They reaffirm the importance of love by lamenting its loss, rather than insisting on its impossibility. See, for example, S. M. Harper’s “A Farewell,” about a deceiving lover. The final lines of the poem exemplify its overall tone: “Inconstant one, I hate thee now, / So fare thee well forever” (23-24).

[10] This promotional copy for the New York Weekly Story-Teller appeared on the back of a piece of collectible parlor music inserted into one of the issues in the first volume. Munro promised readers a new piece of music every three months, suggesting that his paper, at least initially, sought to create a similar sense of “practical romance” as had been encouraged by the editors of Belles and Beaux.

[11] The Story-Teller’s editors could not have been more explicit about the age and gender of the intended readership of “Big-Mouthed Billy: One of Our Boys.” The prefatory notice to the story reads: “Every boy who is fond of fun and likes to laugh, should read ‘BIG-MOUTHED BILLY,’ commenced this week in The New York Weekly Story-Teller. This story is intended particularly for the boys, and they must not fail to purchase a copy of this week’s Weekly Story-Teller, containing the opening chapters of this wonderful story” (“Notice” 8).


“Safe Sex with Defanged Vampires: New Vampire Heroes in Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries” by Chiho Nakagawa

Although we are witnessing a surge of vampire novels and movies today, this popularity is not merely a contemporary phenomenon. Many vampire-themed stories have been written since the publication of the first popular vampire novel, Dracula (1897), and many TV shows and films have been produced, notably including Nosferatu (1922), Blood and Roses (1960), TV series Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), its spin-off Angel (1999-2004), and Underworld (2003). Of contemporary vampire media, two examples are of particular interest to popular romance scholars, both because of their extraordinary popularity and because of their distinctive deployments of romance plots: the Twilight saga, which started as a series of novels and has been made into a series of films, and Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries (SVM), sometimes also known as the Sookie Stackhouse Novels, after its female protagonist, which has been adapted into the HBO TV drama series True Blood. Borrowing many conventions from romance novels and Gothic fiction, both of these series portray a romance between a human female and a male vampire; however, in a startling departure from the dominant traditions in vampire fiction, in which vampires signify transgression—excess of sex or deviation from some sexual norm—the vampires do not show any deviation from decency. Edward Cullen in Twilight and Bill Compton in the SVM usually do not kill humans, and (with one notable exception, for Bill) they do not attack humans sexually, either. Quite the contrary: they display almost perfect control over their “natural” urges. No longer dark or horrifying, these vampire heroes are almost defanged.

In reading these vampire novels, I will take the same position as Linda Barlow in reading romance novels: that is, I will treat them as “psychological maps which provide intriguing insights into the emotional landscape of women” (46). By analyzing the heroes (or hero-villains) of these new vampire romance novels in the context of Gothic novels and romance novels, I hope to explore the emotional landscape of women today. More specifically, I will argue that these two vampire stories reflect contemporary women’s lowered sense of danger concerning sexuality as such, yet heightened sense of danger in terms of the boundaries of self. Targeted at young adult audiences, Twilight thus ends as a fairytale in which the man makes every effort to talk the woman into sex and marriage by convincing her that the horror stories girls hear about men are not always true. Targeted at a more mature audience, the Sookie Stackhouse Novels offer a warier lesson, as Sookie realizes that her vampire hero is indeed not to be trusted, and worthy of being feared. Unlike Twilight’s Bella, that is to say, Sookie finds that her safe hero is not really defanged, but that his fangs are merely retracted. This realization is crucial to her acquiring a more mature perception of both sexuality and self, one appropriate to an adult woman negotiating the risks of contemporary romance.

Vampires of the Past and Vampires Today

Vampire stories in the nineteenth century offer us glimpses into illicit desires, allowing the writers to talk about sexuality in a way that otherwise cannot be done. Even in the absence of explicit descriptions of sexual acts, nineteenth-century vampire stories offered their authors the opportunity to hint at, or even revel in, a variety of sexual transgressions. Those celebrations of illicit desires can be seen in some of the earliest examples of vampire story: John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), for example, in which male-to-male desire comes to the forefront, and then, about fifty years later, Sheridan Le Fanu’s story of female-to-female desire in another vampire story, “Carmilla” (1872). In these older stories, the fatal penetrations of a vampire’s bite displace/replace the unspeakable sexual penetrations they signify, a technique still employed in contemporary popular novels, where actual sexual acts might presumably be named or portrayed, perhaps in order to give an air of ominous significance and meaning to them that goes beyond the merely physical. Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, for example, plays with vampires’ transgressive sexuality, invoking both male to male desire and child sexuality. The Southern Vampire Mysteries can also be placed in this tradition, since many of its vampire characters show a variety of sexualities.

The characterization of today’s vampires has deep roots as well. The most enduringly influential presentation of the vampire remains Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Building on Polidori’s model, this fin-de-siècle Gothic novel molded what used to be a folkloric monster into a dark hero; in the process, it softened, or at least modulated, the figure’s transgressive sexual overtones. As Christopher Craft argues, vampire attacks confuse the “gender-based categories of the penetrating and the receptive” (261), but in Stoker’s text, the potentially homosexual desires that link Count Dracula and Jonathan Harker are lessened through the novel’s deployment of female vampires. What remains, however—giving a model for writers to come—is a novel that plays in memorable ways with the thrills, fears, and pleasures of sex more generally, as though even heteronormative sex were, in the vampire context, shadowed by a deliciously and exotically transgressive quality. Count Dracula’s national and class exoticism, as an aristocrat who hails from the backwoods of Europe, serves to emphasize his Otherness: a Byronic, “dangerous lover” figure, in Deborah Lutz’s terms, whose erotic allure “represents the paradoxical fascination and repulsion of sex that is desirable because it is dangerous, because it might lead to pain, expulsion, and/or death” (85).

We need not read the fin-de-siècle vampire text in exclusively sexual terms, however. Vampires in these novels might also be said to represent the British Empire’s latent fears of the colonized, with the mysterious deaths that vampires cause suggesting the Empire’s fears and guilt coming back to haunt it (in this case, quite literally). These cultural and sociopolitical overtones endure in contemporary American popular fiction, although they naturally play out somewhat differently in a nation of immigrants. As Count Dracula represents antiquity and exoticism to the English readers, for example, vampires in the United States are also often associated with something old and exotic—and, in the process, they allow authors to emphasize the antiquity and exoticism, or the sunny modernity, of specific American locations. Anne Rice, for example, sets New Orleans as the capital of American vampires because of its exotic atmosphere, especially in antebellum periods with its aristocracy and slavery, while Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which featured a mix of immigrant and homemade, all-American vampires, played the contrast between these figures and his setting, fictional “Sunnydale,” California, for both horror and humor. Buffy even has an episode in which Buffy encounters the one and only Count Dracula, and while he manages to exert his hypnotic influence on Buffy, he seems comically out of place in a bright, West Coast suburb.

Both of the series I am considering here offer elaborate negotiations with Otherness, trying by turns to emphasize the alluring exoticism of the vampire characters and to Americanize them. In Twilight, for example, the heroine’s move from sunny and scorching Phoenix, Arizona, to gloomy and overcast Forks, Washington, a setting that has its own traditions of exotic horror (it recalls the 1990-91 TV series Twin Peaks) and which seems a believable home for sun-avoiding vampires, who find the environment quite favorable. The Cullen children, Edward Cullen’s vampire siblings, keep to themselves and stand out as a distinct group in a school cafeteria, rather like an ethnic or racial group in any American high school. However, the Cullens are not exactly foreign; the patriarch of the family, Carlisle came from seventeenth century England but the Cullen children were born, raised, and turned to vampires in the United States. They are, at heart, Americanized vampires, a fact that is emphasized when Dracula-like Romanian vampires, Stefan and Vladimir, visit near the end of the series, only to find themselves at odds with both the physical environment and with the other vampires in the New World. In the Sookie Stackhouse Novels, as a nod to the influence of Anne Rice’s work, New Orleans is the vampire capital of the United States. But although New Orleans retains some of its exoticized, Old World flair, Harris seems more interested in its place within a broader Southern context. Sookie’s first love interest, Bill Compton, used to be a Civil War soldier when alive, making him a hundred-percent Southern homeboy, and the first personal favor she asks of him is to talk about his Civil War experience to a history group to which Sookie’s grandmother belongs. Harris’s vampire heroes are still “Others,” yet if they are immigrants, they are primarily immigrants from the past (which is, at least proverbially, a foreign country).

Upon finding habitats in the U.S., then, vampires have lost some Otherness, a natural progression for outsiders in the land of immigrants. Indeed, if the vampires of both series evoke the image of cultural and racial minority inside the United States, they do so not in a mode of guilt or anxiety (as in the fin-de- siècle texts) but in an almost upbeat fashion: these “immigrants” have succeeded in assimilating to American society and values, their acculturation made evident by their success in the stock market or other investments. [1] (Each of the Cullen families, for example, has accumulated considerable wealth, impressing people with their expensive foreign cars.) New vampires maintain an old charm by remaining slightly foreign, slightly aristocratic, but they are also comfortably Americanized.

Heroes and Hero-Villains

The reduced foreignness and Otherness of vampire heroes in those stories points to broader changes in the “darkness” (in a non-racial sense) of their previously dark heroes. The hero-villain in the Gothic holds mysteries, which normally means unspeakable secrets; for example, aside from being an egomaniac, he could be a wife-beater, a murderer, a demon, and of course, a vampire. It was Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony (1933) who coined the phrase, the “Fatal Man,” to describe one prototype of main characters of the Gothic. Praz’ s example is Schedoni in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, and he sees the Fatal Man to be a descendent of John Milton’s Satan. He describes the Fatal Man to be of “mysterious (but conjectured to be exalted) origin,” marked by “traces of burned-out passions, suspicion of a ghastly guilt, melancholy habits, pale face, unforgettable eyes” (61).

In Praz’s account, the Fatal Man normally takes the position of the main character in Male Gothic, in which he pursues his insatiable desires—whether for power, for sex, for money, or for knowledge—using all the means available to him. This figure was memorably transformed into an actual hero (as opposed to simply a main character) in Jane Eyre’s hero-villain, Rochester. As Robert Heilman insists, Rochester is not simply a hero or a villain; he is a hero-villain—a hero with some villainous aspect, which must be resolved (or dissolved away) before the conclusion of the novel. This duality seems linked to Rochester’s masculinity: that is, Rochester is the Male as Other, a figure who has never entirely left the genre of popular romance. In their classic studies, both Janice Radway and Tania Modleski argue that sociopolitical conditions under patriarchy produce a psychological distance between men and women, and that romance novels represent this distance by having the heroes’ “masculine behavior” (Modleski 60) and their rejection of expressing emotions, as much as their access to power, make them seem “Other” to women. Ontologically alien to the heroine, the hero is difficult or impossible for her to read—until, that is, she finds a way to see through this cold and hard surface and discover that the hero is, in fact, sensitive and affectionate, and not “fatal” after all.

As many critics have argued, in romance fiction since the 1980s this distant hero figure has been supplemented by a new, more emotionally available presentation of man: a transformation in the genre that takes place in part by the addition of the hero’s point of view to the romance novel, and in part by an actual change in his behavior. In a study of the “hero’s presentation” from the 1970s to the 90s, Dawn Heinecken asserts that the romance hero has become “less silent, more emotional, and more overtly tender and caring” (158). The new vampire hero belongs to this new generation of men. Edward Cullen and Bill Compton express their feelings often enough to avoid major misunderstandings; as Bonnie Mann bluntly puts, “Edward gets it,” a sharp contrast both to earlier romance heroes and to real life teenage boys who are clueless about girls’ feelings (140). Indeed, both Edward and Bill always try their hardest to understand their girlfriends’ emotional lives, often putting concern for them ahead of their masculine code of behavior. Each may go away for a period of time, leaving their girlfriends to interpret physical distances as emotional distances, but on their return, each soon explains himself and clarifies the situation, easing the heroine’s anxieties: hardly the behavior of an ontological Other.

Safe Vampire Heroes

Whether they feature the dark alpha heroes of the past or the softer, caring heroes of today, romance novels have to end happily. In the former case, as Jayne Ann Krentz insists, the heroine must conquer or tame the hero to achieve their happy ending; in the case of a softer, caring hero, Heinecken explains, the heroine has to heal him. Theoretically speaking, a vampire love story might fit into either category: after all, vampire heroes are traditionally aristocratic and powerful, and the need to feed on blood gives the vampire hero plenty of reason to be a brooding hero, if he has any conscience at all, or to be sheer, terrifying evil if he continues to indulge his appetite.  (Angel, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, torments himself for what he has done as a vampire before he regains his soul by a gypsy’s curse; over the course of the series he is arguably both conquered and healed by the heroine.) In the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse Novels, however, what has to be solved before the conclusion of the story and the consummation of love is neither the heroes’ cold and distant attitudes nor his emotional wounding, because their boyfriends are, on the whole, conscientious, peace-loving creatures.

Edward Cullen in the Twilight saga, for example, belongs to a family that feeds only on animals, and he himself exhibits incredible self-control, subduing his desires—for blood and for sex—to the point that Bella does not have to worry about her safety at all, at least from him. Throughout the Twilight saga, Edward keeps trying to make Bella admit that he is a dangerous hero, but he only makes her feel safe, and his repetitious warnings serve mostly to remind us, by contrast, of how unthreatening he really is. As Carrie Anne Platt points out, Bella’s physical vulnerability reflects “social anxieties surrounding adolescent [female] sexuality” (80), but Edward behaves like an ideal boyfriend that a girl’s parents dream of. Because he sees Bella as easily “breakable” (Eclipse 466), he treats her like fine china until her transformation, preaching and practicing “mind over matter” (Twilight 300). Bella may find herself in occasional dangers because of her vampire boyfriend, but if Bella is a “magnet for trouble” (Twilight 174), this is so that Edward may repeatedly rescue her. The love affair itself is not a flirtation with death. As Bella aptly comments, Edward in fact belongs to a “fairy tale, rather than the world of horror stories” (BD 479). The safe vampire is less a dark hero than he is a knight in shining armor.[2]

In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, we see a parallel to the Cullen family’s decision not to drink human blood. Here, vampires have “come out from the coffin” (Dark 1) and live among humans upon the invention of artificial blood called “TrueBlood.”[3] Indeed, the vampires themselves are sometimes at risk from evil humans; on the day of their first meeting, Sookie saves Bill, the vampire hero of the series, from the Drainers, people who rob vampires of their blood to sell. Bill is so damaged and battered that Sookie coos, “poor baby” (Dark 10). This power inversion, however, is shortly corrected: Bill saves subsequently Sookie from those Drainers, who come back to attack her, and kills them. Since he is “mainstreaming,” i.e., attempting to live among humans, he does not kill to eat, but he can kill to protect her and himself. This killing does not disturb Sookie, and the peaceful feeling he can give to her is “priceless” “no matter what this creature beside [her has] done” (Dark 50). While witnessing the proof of his ability for violence, Sookie does not believe he would hurt her, “even if [he] were really mad at [her]” (Dark 166): a selective and controlled practice of violence, that is to say, establishes Bill to Sookie as a savior and protector. In this series, however—unlike the Twilight saga—the heroine’s faith that her vampire hero is harmless turns out to be incorrect, a turn that I will discuss shortly in the context of the third of the Southern Vampire Mystery novels, Club Dead.

Animalistic Sex and the Significance of Virginity

In both the Twilight series and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires thus suppress and control their animalistic aspects in order to assimilate into modern American society. These animal aspects include both the thirst for human blood and sexual desire; in fact, the two are linked. Edward refrains himself from kissing Bella because he is worried that his sexual drive triggers his desire for blood, while in the Southern Vampire Mysteries, bloodsucking functions as foreplay. Bloodsucking is thus no longer a metaphor for sexual intercourse but a sexual act itself, and, in turn, this suggests that sexual desire, like the desire to feed, is irresistible. Edward’s abstinence and the “vegetarianism” in both series paradoxically crystallize the libidinal and hedonistic nature of bloodsucking and sex, and as a result, these novels reinforce the old and traditional view that sex is instinctual, uncontrollable, and potentially fatal. The attraction between the hero and the heroine is described as comparable terms. Both heroines feel an instant attraction for their “own vampire[s]” (Dark 1), while in return, Bella attracts Edward with her smell, and Sookie also possesses special fragrance irresistible to Bill. None of the complex negotiations, ambiguities, or misunderstandings of non-paranormal human relationships are on display in these novels; indeed, we do not even see the preliminary dislike that was once so common between the heroes and heroines of popular romance.[4] Attraction, compatibility, and true love are all somehow one.

This conjunction of attraction and true love is central to another motif in these series: the heroines lose their virginity to their vampire heroes. Like the construction of sex more generally in the novels, their use of the romantic convention of virginal heroines is curiously old-fashioned. What can we make of it? Romance writers such as Doreen Owens Malek and Brittany Young have defended this motif in the genre, arguing that virginity loss creates more drama and power to a story (Malek 118) and that this motif encodes an ideal of female autonomy and self-possession: as Young explains, the heroine “makes the choice to give [the hero] the gift of virginity” (122, my emphasis). From a more skeptical standpoint, however, one might observe that the traditional emphasis on female virginity in popular romance “enlists sexuality under the banner of love” (Cohn, 29), suggesting as it does that sex outside the context of “true love” remains somehow sinful, or at least unfortunate. It is thus notable that although many contemporary popular romance novels, according to Abbi Zidle, acknowledge the difference between love and lust in women, and even the existence of multiple true-love interests (30), in these series, a more traditional view of sex and virginity still seems to hold. In the words of romance author and critic Jayne Ann Krentz, who defends the virginity motif, there are “high stakes involved” (Krentz 112). And if popular romance generally embraces an “idea of selfhood as sexual” (Cohn, 35) those stakes include the selfhood of Bella and Sookie, a psychological issue we can distinguish from the more obvious moral and political issues bound up in female virginity.

Psychological Barriers

If the attraction between hero and heroine is instantaneous and instinctual and if the romance hero does not pose any threats, theoretically speaking, there lies no obstacle in consummating love. Where are the problems to be solved, the misunderstandings to be clarified, the mysterious pasts to be overcome? In their place, these new vampire romance novels offer heroines’ psychological barriers as obstacles. The concept of “boundaries of self,” familiar from critical accounts of Gothic, helps clarify what is at stake. Eugenia Delamotte argues that Female Gothic is concerned with the boundaries of self, signified in negotiations at the thresholds. According to her, Gothic episodes in which a heroine has to fend off an intruder threatening to come in, or struggle to escape from an underground cellar, all symbolize women’s anxieties about the boundaries of self: “terrors of separateness and the terrors of unity,” the “fear of being shut in, cut off, alone,” and the “fear of being intruded upon” (19). These new vampire novels also express the concerns with the boundaries of self of these heroines, who reject men or people in general, raising emotional barriers against them.

When we first meet Bella, her emotional barriers seem realistic enough. A social outcast in Phoenix, where the sun shines all year around and is inhabited with tanned blond girls, Bella does not “fit in,” either physically or socially. She does not “relate well to people [her] age,” the novel tells us, or to people in general (Twilight 10); even when she finds herself surrounded with admirers and friends in perpetually overcast Forks, Washington, she keeps to herself without finding a friend whom she can truly trust. Because the Twilight series is paranormal fiction, however, Bella’s emotional barriers can also be represented supernaturally. Edward, who can read the minds of others, cannot read hers, and other vampires cannot use their supernatural powers to harm her even while she is human, a power that becomes even greater when she turns into a vampire herself.

Sookie’s barrier is likewise literalized in supernatural terms. A telepath, Sookie cannot build any connection with others because their thoughts and feelings are oppressively transparent and overwhelming to her. What she calls “disability” makes her particularly stay away from men, rejecting any sexual advances from them. As a result, she has kept her virginity until the age of twenty-five, and has already given up on having a relationship, thinking that she will just “grow old and die” (Dark 56). In order to cope with her ability as a telepath, Sookie has to consciously reject hearing and understanding people’s minds; this training in shutting others off develops into a barrier against vampires’ supernatural intrusion. Thus, like Bella who intrigues Edward because of her blocking ability, Sookie surprises Bill Compton with her immunity to his hypnosis. In effect, these series return to the notion of an unreadable, gendered Other—but this time, it is the heroine who stands aloof and resistant. These heroines’ emotional barriers are the symbols of their isolation and alienation, but also of their obstinate defense of the boundaries of self against romantic approaches. To balance out softened heroes, we have hardened heroines.

In a more literal sense, barriers and thresholds hold a particular significance in vampire lore. On the one hand, DeLamotte argues that vampirism “represents the threat of physical violation—a transgression against the body, the last barrier protecting the self from the other” (21). On the other hand, vampires cannot enter a house unless invited, or so the convention runs. Between these two extremes we find vampires’ legendary propensity for psychological violation. Because they cannot enter houses uninvited, vampires have to have the mental ability to manipulate and intrude upon human minds so that the physical intrusion becomes possible; in other words, a psychological penetration precedes a physical penetration. Although the convention of “no entry unless invited” is not employed in Twilight, Edward does have the ability for mental intrusion, i.e., to read people’s minds, and what intrigues him most about Bella is that he cannot read her. In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do have to be invited into a house, and they do hypnotize humans in order to do so—but sometimes in these novels, blood consumption also serves as an invitation into the psychological domain, reversing the trope. When injured, for example, Sookie has to drink Bill’s blood to heal, resulting in the first penetration that prepares their eventual sexual encounter.[5] Sookie lowers her guard, and then she realizes how she “reveals herself” to Bill (Dark 33). Not every blood-drinking incident in this series is as symbolically fraught as this one, but clearly this (inverted) human/vampire bodily penetration promotes the emotional and psychological dissolutions of boundaries, which ultimately leads to a sexual union that combines physical and psychological aspects.

Sex as Psychological Mediator

In these vampire novels, sex becomes a means to “share” feelings, rather than simply to exchange bodily fluids. In the world in which dangerous vampires are not so dangerous, the heroines’ special abilities concerning “penetrability” complement the relative lack, or unwillingness of vampires to “penetrate” in creating a necessary obstacle to be overcome. Before the intrusion and invasion can occur, the heroines have to learn the mistake of their ways by spending time with the patient and conscientious vampires so that the heroines’ boundaries of self stop being a problem. Here, again, we see a role inversion from traditional romance; the one who has to be understood and healed is now the heroine. Bella learns to trust others and to make friends, mostly with the Cullens; Sookie Stackhouse has to be healed by opening up about her painful past, in which she was sexually molested by her uncle. Bill Compton is a perfect healer and avenger who helps Sookie prepare herself to love a man.[6] Pamela Regis suggests that in the romance novel, “intimacy” is a means to conquer the barrier of gender, both physical and emotional (180). In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, this intimacy is achieved in a profoundly literal way, as the “blood bond” established through drinking and being drunk (a mutual “penetration”) establishes a psychic bond. After sex, as well as blood-sharing, the heroines literally can feel the vampires’ feelings. To borrow a metaphor from more traditional vampire narratives, these heroines have opened a door, psychologically and physically, and invited their vampire heroes into their inner place.

Bella’s impenetrability might also be understood in a religious context. The author of the Twilight series, Stephanie Meyers, is a Mormon, and the saga can be read as an allegory of indoctrination to Mormonism, in which a non-Mormon “gentile” girl from a dysfunctional family finds faith with the guidance of a Mormon man, who advocates abstinence until marriage, and finally becomes assimilated into a close-knit “beautiful family,” united “forever and forever and forever.”[7] On the physical level, Bella seems willing to step up her relationship with Edward further, and she even suggests that their roles are reversed; “you make me feel like a villain in a melodrama—twirling my mustache while I try to steal some poor girl’s virtue” (Eclipse 453), but unlike Sookie, Bella remains unreadable to Edward even after losing her virginity and being transformed into a vampire. As Penelope Williamson argues about romance and the heroine’s virginity, the “heroine does not lose her innocence along with her virginity” (130), and Bella’s continuing psychological “impenetrability” is a vivid instance of that ongoing innocence and the inalienable power of her separate selfhood. Indeed, when Bella becomes a vampire herself, a transformation required for her to safely give birth to her half-vampire child, her power is amplified. Bella’s impenetrability is no longer limited to herself but expanded to protect her “family” from outside threats. Williamson argues that in late 20th-century romances, “through the hero’s lovemaking” the heroine “discovers the power and potential of her woman’s sexuality” (130). In keeping with the generally conservative ethos of Twilight, Bella does not become a sexually powerful or exploratory wife. [8] But she does acquire a new, particularly womanly power through her sexual experience—or, to be specific, through maternity. Once Bella becomes a mother, she can protect her family.

In both of these vampire series, then—and in sharp contrast to earlier, more transgressive vampire narratives—sexual intercourse and blood-sharing lead to the building of the familial bond. Bella gets pregnant immediately after her first sexual encounter, followed by her transformation, and Sookie has her first sex soon after her Grandmother, her only close family member, dies.[9] Sex is a way to create a family or create a substitute for a family. In other words, these new vampire romance novels uphold the traditional fantasy of emotional bonding and merging of self through sexual intercourse. What were once transgressive acts of sex with (or penetration by) vampires are now safe and morally and socially legitimate. In keeping with the other ways that the vampire narrative has been Americanized, these series present sex with vampires as an expression of what conservative discourse in the United States commonly refers to as “family values.”

Rich Vampires and Poor Heroines

In her 1999 study of “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction,” Heinecken links the changing construction of the romance hero, with his newfound emotional accessibility, to a new construction of sexuality. In late 20th-century romance novels, she posits, sex is “no longer a mere physical act” but rather an “expressive form of communication” (168). The heroes and sexual encounters in these new vampire romances—especially in the Southern Vampire Mysteries—might both seem to follow this new model, but as we have seen, the ideologies of the series remain remarkably conservative, especially in their construction of the romance heroine’s career prospects or financial situation. In Twilight, Bella does not have any future plan other than marrying Edward. She has a chance to get a college education, but she does not seem to take that path at the end of the series. Repeatedly Bella insists that she does not want to be one of the girls who get married and have children right out of high school, but she does exactly that. Naomi Zack insists that the popularity of Twilight indicates “what young women aspire to in ‘having it all’” (122), yet Bella has only Edward (and later, Renesmme). He is the “only raison d’être” for her (158), as Abigail E. Myers says, and we can understand this from an economic standpoint, as well as a psychological one. Bella is, after all, a lower-middle class girl marrying into a rich family, without any financial independence. In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, Sookie has a job (she is a cocktail waitress), but she too goes out with a rich man, and at one point memorably envies the financial help Bill gives to his descendents while she is struggling financially. The class difference between the heroes and the heroines in these new vampire romance novels looks back to the much older model of romance narratives described by Jan Cohn in Romance and the Erotics of Property (1988); it does not correspond to the more feminist worldview Heinecken saw emerging at the end of the twentieth century. Those men in these new vampire novels may have nearly equaled women in their emotional capacity, but women have not correspondingly increased their social or economic power.

Similarly, the reduced Otherness of vampire heroes do not indicate that the codes of behavior for men and for women have become less different, or that men and women no longer live in separate worlds. Quite the contrary: although these safe heroes share more feelings with the heroines—an ideologically progressive development—they do still live in different worlds, a gendered difference that is underscored by the difference between vampires and humans. Only marriage can bring these disparate worlds together. This union is accomplished in the Twilight series, but the Southern Vampire Mysteries present a more challenging, adult narrative, lacking this comfortable closure. The poor heroine who does not “want anyone owning” her (Gone 98) has to keep fighting to find a more equal relationship with a powerful man—and in the process, she rediscovers the danger that he—as both man and vampire—actually poses to her.

No Longer Safe

As the Southern Vampire Mysteries progress from novel to novel, Sookie learns that the safe vampire, Bill, is not as safe as the reader has come to believe. Normalized for us through his profession (he is a computer programmer and vampire census worker), Bill remains both male and a vampire, and the dangers posed by both of these natures become painfully clear when, in a momentary loss of self-control under physical stress, Bill forcefully sucks blood from Sookie and rapes her. The novel handles this assault in an interesting way. As a rule, Sookie turns a blind eye to Bill’s violent tendency; from quite early in the series she has known his nature, which makes him lose his personality with the scent of blood. She is, in fact, less wounded emotionally by this assault, based on presumably uncontrollable urges, than she is by learning that Bill originally approached her with an ulterior motive, under orders from a vampire boss who wants to exploit her telepathic ability, a fully conscious decision. In effect, she regards his emotional encroachment of her boundaries—her blind trust and emotional attachment—more seriously than his physical encroachment. It is the emotional betrayal that makes her feel a pain that is “tied up with a rage so profound” (Definitely 185) that she has never felt before because the “structure” that her emotion is built upon since she has met him is “torn down” (Definitely 187). Rather than flee from this risk into a safer, more secure relationship, Sookie moves on to romances where the risk is more clearly visible, right from the start: first a brief affair with the weretiger, Quinn, and then another vampire lover, Eric Northman, a man who looks “kind of like the guys on the cover of romance books” (Dark 105). “Blond and blue-eyed, tall and broad shouldered,” (Dark 105), Eric is a thousand-year-old Viking with an accent occasionally peeking through. Arrogant, narcissistic, power-hungry, emotionally inaccessible, Eric is thus more exotic than Bill, and a more traditional romance hero.

With this invocation of “romance books,” the Sookie Stackhouse Novels step into the realm of metafiction—in fact, there are many references to popular romance fiction in the series. Sookie and her grandmother read romance novels in their spare time, and there is another character, in addition to Eric Northman, who not only looks like a romance hero but also competes for “Mr. Romance” (well-known a cover model competition) at a romance readers’ convention.[10] Like a romance reader gazing at attractive cover models, Sookie turns a fetishizing gaze on naked weretigers and shapeshifters; she mentions that she wants to “remember the sight” of a man’s naked body because she wants to “recall it at [her] leisure later” (World 251), and her distant cousin Claude is such a “treat for the eyes” (Doornail 20) that every time he appears, Sookie and all the other women stare appreciatively at him, despite his conspicuous lack of interest in women. More importantly, however, the series’ turn from Bill, who seems like a “new model” romance hero, but is not really safe, to Eric, the “old school” arrogant romance hero, suggests that the gender negotiations in romance novels, especially of the older, more traditional variety, remain a useful model to keep in mind when confronting the dangers of adult sexual relationships. Sookie’s growth as a woman entails learning that a safe man does not exist, that to be a woman is to learn how to manage a difficult man, and that it is a dangerous illusion to believe that one’s own emotional barriers are a woman’s only obstacle to full sexual happiness.

As the series progresses, Sookie’s love life becomes more and more complicated. Bill’s vampire obligation comes before his romantic interest; Quinn, a weretiger, is bound by his family obligation; and Eric’s priorities lie in the political power game he pursues in the vampire world. Sookie treads more carefully with Eric, since “trust [has] gotten [her] burned in the past” (Family 17), a clear reference to her experience with Bill. She may have opened up her barriers to accept Bill, but now she has to lift up her guard again to protect herself; indeed, in one novel, Dead Reckoning (2011), she goes so far as to cut off her “blood bond” with Eric, an attempt at restructuring and reestablishing her boundaries of self. Eric softens to Sookie to the point that his subordinate worries that he is not practical when it comes to her, but he never unequivocally puts her before his political ambitions. Even when the two marry, in Dead and Gone (2009), the marriage fails to stabilize their union, in part because Eric tricks Sookie into marrying him, and in part because their vampire-style marriage, as with all the other marriages in the vampire world, is of a matter of ownership, not of idealized emotional union.[11] Occasional appearances of Bill tangle up her love life still further, for he always has a “special place in [her] heart” (Family 33). It is Bill, not Eric, who comes to rescue Sookie when her life is critically in danger, and she confidently states that he still loves her even after her marriage to Eric (Gone 224). Refusing simplicity, the series refuses to present Sookie’s original psychological obstacle as the only barrier between her and a happy and safe relationship. No man she is involved with is ever free from other obligations that complicate their relationships, whether their vampire customs or political considerations, and the vampire world remains dangerous, in multiple ways. In short, in this series, romances are never simple or straightforward, and for a woman who believes that marriage is not, in fact, supposed to be “like a settling back in a La-Z-Boy” (Gone 98), exciting but never-comforting romance adventures may continue to unfold.


The Twilight and Southern Vampire Mystery series both show a new breed of vampire heroes, and they both locate the obstacles to true understanding and the consummation of love, at least initially, not in those new heroes, but in the heroines. Things develop quite differently as each series goes on, in part because of their contrasting audiences. Aimed at a Young Adult readership, Bella’s story is a traditional story of a woman who transforms from a daughter to a mother and a wife—a regression, politically speaking, from the feminist outlook of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a decade before, and one that depends on readers’ willingness to commit to the series’ fairytale ending, in which the heroine and the hero end up eternally free from adult obligations (in addition to freedom from mortality). Sookie Stackhouse, by contrast, does not get a fairytale ending. After suffering disappointment and betrayal with her first love, she finds herself married to a vampire who is explicitly compared to a “romance hero,” a man who is, and remains, both attractive and terrifying, with a world of his own outside of their relationship. (Where Bill had to confront Sookie’s “Otherness,” Sookie must negotiate Eric’s.) Awakened from the dream of a safe, “defanged” vampire lover, this romance-reading heroine has to face the numerous, ongoing, unromantic problems involved in adult love, including the crucial issue of keeping her own integrity and owning her own life while in a relationship. Safe vampire heroes, that is to say, are young women’s fantasies, but safe vampires may not be able to stand the test of more mature readers, especially when they are readers of popular romance.

Works Cited

Ames, Melissa. “Twilight Follows Tradition: Analyzing ‘Biting’ Critiques of Vampire Narratives for Their Portrayals of Gender and Sexuality.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 37-53. Print.

Barlow, Linda. “The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 45-52. Print.

Botting, Fred. & Dale Townshead. Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies Vol.III. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Click, Melissa A., Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, ed. Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

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

Craft, Christopher. “‘Kiss Me With Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies Vol.III. Ed. Fred Botting & Dale Townshead. London: Routledge, 2004. 259-86. Print.

DeLamotte, Eugenia. Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Donald, Robyn. “Mean, Moody, and Magnificent: The Hero in Romance Literature.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 73-80. Print.

Gelder, Ken. Reading the Vampire. London: Routledge, 1994.

Gravett, Sandra L. From Twilight to Breaking Dawn: Religious Themes in the Twilight Saga. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2010.

Harris, Charlaine. All Together Dead. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2007.

—. Club Dead. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2003.

—. Dead and Gone. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2009.

—. Dead as a Doornail. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2005.

—. Dead in the Family. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2010.

—. Dead to the World. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2004.

—. Dead until Dark. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2001.

—. Definitely Dead. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2006.

—. Dead Reckoning. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2011.

—. From Dead to Worse. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2008.

—. Living Dead in Dallas. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2002.

Heilman, Robert B. “Charlotte Brontë’s ‘New’ Gothic.” From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad. Eds. Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958. 118-32.

Heinecken, Dawn. “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler & Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 149-72. Print.

Housel, Rebecca. “The ‘Real’ Danger: Facts vs. Fiction for the Girl Audience.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 177-90. Print.

Housel, Rebecca & J. Jeremy Wisnewski, ed. Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

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

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

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

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1982, 2008. Print.

Malek, Doreen Owens. “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 73-80. Print.

Mann, Bonnie. “Vampire Love: The Second Sex Negotiates the Twenty-first Century.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 131-45. Print.

Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Hachette, 2008.

—. Eclipse. New York: Hachette, 2007.

—. New Moon. New York: Hachette, 2006.

—. Twilight. New York: Hachette, 2005.

Myers, Abigail E. “Edward Cullen and Bella Swan: Byronic and Feminist Heroes. . . or Not.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 147-62. Print.

Praz, Mario. Trans. Angus Davidson. The Romantic Agony. 1933 London: Oxford University Press, 1970. Print.

Platt, Carrie Anne. “Cullen Family Values: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Twilight Series.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 71-86. Print.

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

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

Shaw, Marc E. “For the Strength of Bella? Meyer, Vampires, and Mormonism.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 227-36. Print.

Toscano, Margaret M. “Mormon Morality and Immortality in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 21-36. Print.

Williamson, Penelope. “By Honor Bound: The Heroine as Hero.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 125-32. Print.

Wilson, Natalie. “Civilized Vampires Versus Savage Werewolves: Race and Ethnicity in the Twilight Series.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 55-70. Print.

Young, Brittany. “Making a Choice: Virginity in the Romance.” Krentz. 121-24.

Zack, Naomi. “Bella Swan and Sarah Palin: All the Old Myths Are Not True.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 121-29. Print.

Zidle, Abby. “From Bodice-Ripper to Baby-Sitter: The New Hero in Mass-Market Romance.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler & Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 23-34. Print.

[1] Natalie Wilson argues on the implications of race and ethnicity in her article, “Civilized Vampires Versus Savage Werewolves: Race and Ethnicity in the Twilight Series,” pointing out the use of stereotypical “savage” image of Native American in representation of the Quileutes. I agree with this reading, and I have to point out that the Cullens as new immigrants do not necessarily contradict her reading, for they do seem to acquire their “ultra-white, ultra-privileged” lifestyle through their assimilation efforts they have made in the United States. In the SVM, too, these two contrasting images are clear, too. As opposed to “aristocratic” vampires, weres and shapeshifters, especially a clan of werepanthers, who are mostly construction workers and mechanics, evoke the image of working class people who live under deprived conditions.

[2] Some critics offer various analyses of Edward both in positive and negative lights. For example, Edward can be read as a self-sacrificing savior and Christ figure, according to Sandra Gravett. Yet more important is the argument that Edward is not a caring tender boyfriend, but a controlling and overbearing stalker. Rebecca Housel goes as far to say, “In any world other than the fantastical one created by Meyer, Edward would be jailed” (188). For more detailed analyses of the power issue between Edward and Bella, see, for example, Platt’s “Gender and Sexual Politics in the Twilight Series,” Melissa Ames’ “Twilight Follows Tradition,” and Abigail E. Myers’s “Edward Cullen and Bella Swan: Byronic and Feminist Heroes…or Not.”

[3] As one can tell by the phrase “come out,” the vampires and shapeshifters (who come out in the ninth book, Dead and Gone) are evocative of minorities, especially sexual minorities. Harris consciously uses this analogy to take up the issue of the civil rights of vampires and shapeshifters occasionally. Characters sometime react with “I am Christian” statements in denying the accusation of being vampires or shapeshifters, suggesting these supernatural characters represent people with unChristian lifestyles. However, the main character Sookie is unhesitatingly straight, and her love interests respond to her as traditional heterosexual heroes.

[4] In Twilight, the view that a marriage is based on an animalistic and instinctual bond is further confirmed with the werewolves’ habit of “imprinting,” whereby they instinctively find their future mates.

[5] This process is repeated in her second union with Eric. After sharing each other’s blood, they form a “blood bond,” which enables them to understand each other’s feelings and thinking, and that bond eventually leads to their vampire marriage.

[6] However, Bill Compton’s solution to Sookie’s pain—to have her uncle killed—gives her the first moment of hesitation regarding the safety of Bill. And she does regret her decision later. Sookie wonders if she “should have cut and run” when she found out he was capable of violence (Family 33).

[7] Some critics offer analyses of Twilight in the contexts of Mormon teachings. Marc E. Shaw and Margaret M. Toscano both point out the ending with the happy vampire family is a supernatural version of the Mormon teaching of an eternal marriage, “forever and forever and forever.”

[8] Sandra Gravette points out that Bella “shows herself as the model of a timid virgin” (41) once she becomes a wife, contrary to her former sexually-curious self.

[9] In a later development, Sookie discovers and unites with her lost (non-human) family members while she goes through various troubles and disappointments in love.

[10] To a lesser degree, especially in the movie adaptations, Twilight also offers the objects of female gaze with always half-naked Jacob and other werewolves, suggesting the way in which the movies are consumed.

[11] Their marriage becomes more strained in Dead Reckoning, when she learns that Eric may have to fulfill an arranged marriage with another vampire, set up by his superior.


“Translated Romances: the Effect of Cultural Textual Norms on the Communication of Emotions” by Artemis Lamprinou

The present paper focuses on romances in translation in order to observe how cultural norms affect the translators’ work on conveying emotions. More specifically, it focuses on the translation of universal emotions in contemporary British English romances into a different language and culture; that is, into Greek. Τhe paper starts with a short section on the complexity of the concept of ‘romance’ forging a link between romances and culture; this section also prepares the ground for the discussion of translation and emotions since culture is the common thread that brings all three areas—romances, translation and emotions—together. The second part of the paper addresses the need for translation in the ever-expanding book markets and presents the concept of translation norms, while the third part briefly deals with the concept of universal emotions and stresses the cultural character of emotions in translation and their importance in romances. In order to explore these ideas further, the final part of the paper consists of a discussion of selected examples portraying emotions. These examples come from British English, twentieth-century popular romances, accompanied by their Greek translation, and arguably indicate the effect of cultural norms on the translators’ work.

1. The Complexity of the Concept of “Romance”

Attempting to define the concept of “romance” is a rather challenging task because, as Diane Elam points out, romance “exists as a contradictory term” (5). What is more important, she argues, is realizing that romance unites a number of seemingly unrelated elements ranging from medieval tales to gothic stories, from fairy tales to folk tales and from canonized texts to Harlequins and Mills & Boon. As Pamela Regis maintains, romance is, thus, “confusingly inclusive” (19), or in other words, it includes far more than the love stories found in the checkout lanes of the supermarket (Elam 5). Also supporting the notion that romances are a complex phenomenon, Radford claims that, although romances have been written since classical times, “the only continuity is in the term” (8) as the romances of different periods are often characterized by different unique traits.

One explanation for the heterogeneity of romance can be provided through the literature on genre fiction. However, it has to be stressed that, for the purposes of this article, the concept of genre is applied descriptively and without any intention of raising issues of high (a-generic) vs. low (generic) literature, a distinction that several researchers, such as Swirski, have tried to analyze (28). “Genre fiction,” as Stephen Benson explains, cannot be studied in a vacuum: it is closely linked to a given cultural and historical context in which it is formed and back into which it feeds its “prototypes” (104). This give-and-take relation results in an unofficial “contract” between the writers and the readers (Radford 8 ) or, as Heather Dubrow prefers to call it, “a code of behavior” (2), a phrase that signals more clearly the communication between authors and their readership. This cultural contract changes over the centuries, adapting itself to the contemporary needs of both writers and readerships and evolving into the expectations of twenty-first century popular romance readers. It is these expectations which form the norms, as will be explained later, that both romance authors and translators are likely to follow.

Focusing on modern romance and the readership’s expectations, Radway believes that romance readers expect to derive pleasure or satisfaction from reading romance fiction, and that romance authors aim to supply it (60). The prototypical romance reader is not interested in the complex process of deriving meaning through interpretation, yet this does not mean that s/he is passive. As they imagine the characters and events described, and invest in them emotionally, romance readers actively participate in constructing the story. Moreover, as Cawelti maintains, the pleasure and excitement provided by books like romances allow the readers to ‘escape’ their everyday lives and insecurities through their identification with the often, but not always, idealized characters (15-18). In order to make this escape, romance readers need a story that can be easily decoded so as to focus on their “affective reactions” (Radway 196), that is, their emotional responses to the described events. This focus will help them in moving “from confusion to enlightenment” (Benson 103) while the story unfolds and the characters reveal their true natures and lead the reader towards a happy ending. To facilitate this escape, most popular romances are based on cultural textual norms, what Cawelti presents as the “common ground” (8) between writers and readers, assisting the communication between the two parts. These norms affect the plot of the story together with many of its constituent elements, such as the communication of emotions, and since they are shared by both the author and his/her audience, they help the readers to effortlessly interpret the text. To this assertion, it could be added that when a romance addresses an audience with a mother tongue different from that of the author’s, the communication between the author and the readers becomes even more complex, because the effective sharing of norms will depend on the mediating role of the translator.

2. The Need for Translation and the Concept of Translation Norms

Modern popular romance fiction has been the result of capitalism and mass culture (Paizis, Love and the Novel 27). The eradication of illiteracy together with the technological developments that revolutionized book production and distribution and helped in the lowering of book prices have played a leading role in the formation of popular romance. Popular romance is a (sub)genre that can be traced back to the eighteenth century in Britain and that was shaped within ever-expanding mass markets which today have acquired a ‘global’ character. In order for this global character to be sustained, romances had to reach culturally heterogeneous readerships and translation has proven to be the means for overcoming, as will be argued below, more than the language barrier. Translating a cultural product such as romances—that is, a product that varies from period to period and which carries specific characteristics depending on the reader-author contract—poses much more than linguistic problems: it presents the challenge of dealing with the cultural textual norms that allow the reader to effortlessly interpret the story in order to escape his/her routine. In this way, norms are not important only for the study of romances but also for Translation Studies. For this reason, the current section will present some basic characteristics of norms, as defined by translation scholars, also combining them with examples from the study of romances in order to make them more comprehensible.

As earlier mentioned, norms have been rather prominent during the last decades in the area of Translation Studies. In simple words, following the work of translation scholars such as Toury, norms are seen as internalized shared ideas of what can or cannot be considered acceptable within a given context. Toury, whose work arguably shifted the focus of Translation Studies on norms, perceives translation as a system governed by norms and tries to explain how norms work by focusing on their characteristics. The first main characteristic of norms is that they are internalized during the process of socialization (Schäffner 1) and this is the reason why most people have a sense of what can and what cannot be perceived as ‘acceptable.’ Another characteristic is that norms are not static; Hermans stresses the fact that norms are actually dynamic, changing over time and evolving together with individual cultures (74). Most norms have to adapt in order to survive, yet some of them may be more resistant to change than others; a good example is perhaps the happy ending in romances which has come to be considered one of the elements that define this particular genre. Thirdly, concerning the observation and study of norms, Toury stresses that their presence is not easy to detect: norms can only be detected indirectly through monitoring the occurrence of regularities (15, 16). In other words, frequently occurring elements, perhaps such as certain characteristics of the heroine[1], suggest the existence of norms and allow the formation of hypotheses that often have to be addressed through research in order to be verified or rejected. The last essential quality of norms is their potency. Both Toury and Chesterman agree that norms are stricter than conventions but less binding than laws, since ignoring norms may have considerable consequences (e.g.: being criticized and not just being seen as ‘unconventional’) but not as severe as in the case of laws (Toury 14, 17; Chesterman 84). The implication is that norms create expectations; in the case of a translated romance, for example, if the text fails to satisfy the expectations of the intended readership, there will be dissatisfaction which may, for instance, affect the sales of the book or harm the reputation of author, publisher, and translator. Nevertheless, under the right circumstances, meaning the right timing and the appropriate context, norms can be broken and this breaking of the norms could be seen as part of their evolution. Ramsdell provides just such an example when she states that in the late twentieth century, romance writers began discussing in their works such previously taboo subjects as rape and alcoholism, a trend that continues to shape the genre (44). For instance, in Koomson’s romance Marshmallows for Breakfast (2007), the heroine has been a rape victim, a fact that has affected her entire life and more specifically her relations with men.

In an effort to provide a more concrete example of how cultural norms work in translation, the following section will focus on the translation of the universal emotions (a term that will be defined below) of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear in popular romances. The experience of different emotions, and not just love, is essential for both the protagonists and the readers of a story as they make their way towards their happy ending. As Paizis argues, the secret of a good romance partly lies in “the emotional intensity” (Love and the Novel 29). This phrase is not used just to describe the emotional changes in the characters of the romance, but also the experience of the reader, since many scholars of the genre assume that identification between reader and protagonist is essential for this genre (see, for example, Radford 11). Moreover, even readers who do not literally “identify with” the protagonist feel a certain affinity with the novel’s characters, sympathizing with their emotional turmoil.

3. Universal Emotions and Culture

Emotions may appear to be a common experience to all people across the globe but this is a generalization that requires some refining. All people feel and convey emotions but different cultures have their own emotional repertoires and their own norms regulating not only the expression of emotions, but as some scholars argue, even the variety of the emotions experienced. The study of emotions has been approached from many different angles, two of which are the evolutionary and the cultural perspective. In the 1960s, the evolutionary approach perceived emotions as universal “genetically coded programs” that assist a person’s survival (Niedenthal, Krauth-Gruber, & Ric 11). In other words, emotions were perceived as a survival mechanism having as its basic aim the passing on of a person’s genes. Culturalist researchers disagreed with the idea of universality, claiming that emotions are formed and learned while living in a given culture and cannot, consequently, be uniform and universal but are, rather, culture-specific. Since then, the cultural theory has adapted itself to new data that has proven that some basic human emotions are, in fact, universal, but it has not abandoned the idea that emotions, and particularly their expression, are cultural products.[2] This opinion has been gaining ground, especially when taking into consideration that the extreme universalist positions of the 1960s have today also been abandoned. The more modern version of the cultural approach to emotions, and the one that this paper adopts, is that some basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, are indeed universal. However, culture plays a considerable role in the suppression or heightening of emotions and generates norms governing the when, where, and how these emotions can be expressed (Shaver, Wu, & Schwartz 183). These cultural norms affecting the communication of emotions cannot be ignored in the translation of romances, especially when experiencing the emotions is vital for the identification of the reader with the characters, on which reader satisfaction depends.

Taking examples from British bestseller romances translated into Greek during the period 2000-2009, such as Gregson’s East of the Sun, Hislop’s The Island, and De Bernières Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, this section presents some of the observed regularities in the translators’ behavior that can be associated with the influence of norms. In the next section, these examples will be combined with a brief discussion of the communication of emotions in Greek romances, in an effort to show that some changes observed in the translations are the result of the expectations of the Greek readership as formed by their own reader-author contract. It must be noted here that these points constitute only the initial findings of a research project on translation norms involving the study of two larger corpora, one of British bestseller romances together with their Greek translations (parallel corpus) and one of the same British original romances together with Greek original romances (comparable corpus).[3]

4. Observing how Cultural Norms Affect the Translation of Universal Emotions in Romances

As was stated in section 2, the translation of romances has historically grown in importance as book markets expanded. However, very little research has been conducted on the general subject of translation of romances and even less in the translation of romances specifically from British English into Greek. One of the researchers who has tried to combine the idea of romance as a cultural product with the translator’s choices is George Paizis (“Category Romances” 3-22). In this article, Paizis suggests that translation as a form of “interpretation” (17) leads to the adaptation of certain elements of the original text in an effort to satisfy the target culture’s expectations. In some other cases, this goal is satisfied through a process of elimination. These two approaches are introduced in order to overcome barriers posed by the inherited cultural and linguistic systems, as well as by the readers’ experience of the genre. As the following examples will demonstrate through an analysis of cultural textual norms, adaptation and elimination are the two major strategies adopted by Greek translators to overcome differences at the level of Greek and English romance cultural norms.

The examples demonstrate the communication of emotions in the translated romances. Before moving on to their presentation and analysis, it must be mentioned that romance authors employ a considerable variety of strategies for expressing or describing the emotions of a character. These strategies may vary from the use of nouns and adjectives denoting emotions to the use of sophisticated figures of speech and the typographical representation of suprasegmental features, as when an author uses bold letters or italics during a disagreement between two characters to compensate for the loss of pitch and/ or intonation in written text. The following sub-sections will address three cases that seem to represent the effect of cultural norms on translation. All of them are associated with the differences in terms of the force of emotions traced in the source and target text and each point will be demonstrated by the use of two examples. Every pair of examples will be followed by a short description of the context in which the passage appears as well as of the linguistic choices of the translators. After this, a brief discussion of some hypotheses concerning Greek cultural romance norms (based on the comparable corpus) will follow. This discussion aims to explain the translators’ choices in light of how their work may have been affected by differences between English and Greek cultural textual norms.

4.1 English “anger” turns into Greek “rage”: the case of single lexical units expressing emotions

The first pair of examples is related to the expression of universal emotions through the use of a single lexical unit such as a noun or adjective. This is one of the most common and easily-observed strategies for the description of emotions traced in the romances studied. Examples 1 and 2 below, taken from different romances, feature the emotion of anger and show how this emotion has been rendered into Greek. The reason why anger is chosen for discussion here is that, from the initial findings of the research, it appears that translators have a tendency to increase its force in the Greek translation, as the examples show. The first instance is taken from De Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, while the second from Gregson’s East of the Sun (the abbreviations ST, TT, and BT stand for Source Text, that is the original English romance text; Target Text, that is the Greek translation; and Back Translation respectively):


ST: He went into the kitchen and moved all the knives from one drawer into another, so that Pelagia’s anger would find a new occasion for catharsis. (De Bernières, Captain Corelli 147, emphasis added).

TT: Πήγε στην κουζίνα και μετακίνησε όλα τα μαχαίρια από το συρτάρι τους σ’ ένα άλλο, έτσι ώστε η οργή της Πελαγίας να βρει μια καινούρια ευκαιρία για κάθαρση. (De Bernières, Το Μαντολίνο 179, emphasis added).

BT: He went into the kitchen and moved all the knives from their drawer into another, so that Pelagia’s rage would find a new opportunity for catharsis.


ST: Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, and he was so angry he could not look at her. (Gregson, East of the Sun 89, emphasis added)

TT: Κόμποι ιδρώτα διακρίνονταν στο μέτωπό του. Ήταν τόσο εξοργισμένος που δεν ήθελε να τη βλέπει στα μάτια του. (Gregson, Στην Καρδιά 131, emphasis added)

ΒΤ: Knots of sweat could be seen on his forehead. He was so enraged he did not want to see her in his eyes.

In example 1, the author employs the noun “anger” to describe Pelagia’s, the protagonist’s, emotional state. Pelagia, a Greek girl, has fallen into depression after not receiving a letter from her fiancé fighting against the Italians during the Second World War. This is why her father, a doctor, tries to make her angry through different ‘tricks,’ such as moving her knives, in order for her to forget her sadness and express her emotions. Interestingly enough, the translator prefers to replace “anger” with the Greek noun “οργή” [rage], although the Greek language offers the alternative of “θυμός” [anger], a choice which clearly expresses a stronger emotion than that in the original text. The tendency to translate “anger” as rage into Greek can be traced in many different passages of the text, as well as in the translation of other modern romances, as can be seen in example 2.

In example 2, Viva, one of the protagonists of the romance and a chaperone, is facing the rage of a man for neglecting one of the young persons she is accompanying. The emotions of the male character in the original English text are described through the adjective “angry.” However, the translator decides to substitute this adjective with the Greek participle “εξοργισμένος” [enraged], instead of simply employing the participle “θυμωμένος” [angry], which results in an emotionally more intense passage. Examples 1 and 2 suggest that the translators’ adaptation of the original text could be attributed to a difference in norms between English and Greek concerning what is considered as the acceptable or expected force of anger in different cases.

Apart from the study of English romances, as earlier mentioned, the research project also studied the regularities in the communication of universal emotions observed in Greek romances. The reason was to form some hypotheses regarding the norms dominating the expression and description of emotions in the particular Greek texts. Again based on the initial findings of the research, it could be claimed that the Greek romance authors (included in the comparable corpus) seemed to prefer the employment of strong emotions and especially of rage; the noun (“οργή” [rage]) together with adjectives and adverbs of the same word family was identified in two-thirds of the Greek romances studied (i.e. in four out of the six texts); to be more precise, “οργή” [rage] and its word family dominated more than half of the identified passages expressing an emotion of anger in these four texts. This observation could lead to the hypothesis that the translators’ tendency to translate anger as “οργή” [rage], could have been the result of the influence of Greek cultural textual norms which slightly differ in this case from the English ones as Greek authors value the production of more ‘dramatic’ passages.

4.2 Changing the intensity of emotions: the translation of figures of speech

As Bronislava Volek maintains in her research, the communication of emotions can be achieved through a range of means, not only through single lexical units. One of these means is the use of figures of speech such as metaphors and personifications. The tendency of the translators in the present study to reinforce the emotional intensity of the English passage can be occasionally observed in the translation of figures of speech as examples 3 and 4 show. In the case of example 3, the translator chooses to substitute the English metaphor for a more ‘striking’ one, while in example 4, the translator adds a personification:


ST: I hope you are happy too. Such banal words; they’d hurt so much. (Gregson, East of the Sun 231, emphasis by author)

TT: Εύχομαι να είσαι κι εσύ ευτυχισμένος. Τι τετριμμένα λόγια ˙ τον έκοβαν βαθιά (Gregson, Στην Καρδιά 332, emphasis by translator)

BT: I hope that you are happy too. How trite words; they cut him deeply.


ST: Carlo and the doctor looked at one another, fearing that if Pelagia could work it out, someone else might. (De Bernières, Captain Corelli 287)

TT: Ο Κάρλο και ο γιατρός κοιτάχτηκαν κι ο ίδιος φόβος τρύπωσε στις καρδιές τους: αν η Πελαγία μπορούσε να σκεφτεί και να καταλήξει σ’ αυτό το συμπέρασμα, τότε ασφαλώς θα μπορούσαν κι άλλοι. (De Bernières, Το Μαντολίνο 331)

BT: Carlo and the doctor looked at each other and the same fear crept in their hearts: if Pelagia could think and end to this conclusion, then certainly more people could.

In example 3, one of the male characters of the romance laments the loss of his lover who just got married to another man. In this passage, the translator substitutes the English metaphor “the words hurt” with the Greek original metaphor “τον έκοβαν βαθιά” [they cut him deeply]. In the Greek text the words do not simply hurt; the emotional pain is compared to the physical damage and pain produced by a deep cut. By using the verb “κόβω” [cut], a verb that calls into mind a violent image when the object is a person, the translator manages to raise the force of sadness in the Greek text.

In example 4, the translator introduces a personification, a figure of speech that rhetorician Edward Corbett characterizes as highly emotional, in order to stress the fear of the characters (451). In this case, the two characters, the heroine’s father and an Italian soldier, have created and distributed antimilitary leaflets during the occupation of Greece by the Italian troops in the Second World War. When Pelagia, the heroine, realizes that it was these two who were behind the leaflets, the two men are afraid that maybe somebody else could also come to the same conclusion; consequently, they start fearing for their lives. In this passage, the emotion of fear is described as having animate characteristics in order to be more easily understood by the readers: slowly, it creeps in their hearts and starts growing. It could be argued that the use of this figure of speech increases the force of the emotion in the Greek translation.

As can be observed, in both examples 3 and 4, the translators again chose to raise the force of the described emotions, in the first case by altering the metaphor employed and in the second by introducing a personification. These observations could be again associated with the hypothesis that Greek romance authors prefer more intense emotional passages than their English counterparts. This preference for more intense emotional passages, arguably, and over time and continuous exposure, could create certain expectations in the Greek romance readers. This binding contract between readers, authors, and translators results in the ‘establishing’ of cultural textual norms that affect either consciously or subconsciously the work of the Greek romance translators as a response to the readers’ needs.

4.3 Elimination of less frequently employed strategies

As Paizis argues, one of the strategies that translators employ in order to cope with different cultural norms is elimination (“Category Romances” 17). As the two following examples aim to show, the Greek translators seem to eliminate, or at least ignore, certain strategies that were absent from the Greek romances, such as allusions and alliterations.

The first example relating to elimination is taken from Victoria Hislop’s The Island. In this case, the translator ignores the striking alliteration employed by the author and produces a target text that is not as powerful as the original (for ease of reference, the phonological transcriptions of the Greek words are provided within parentheses in the BT) :


ST: At last she saw not humiliation but heroism, not perfidy but passion, not leprosy but love. (Hislop, The Island 472, emphasis added)

TT: Στο τέλος, δεν διέκρινε ταπείνωση αλλά ηρωισμό, όχι προδοσία αλλά πάθος, όχι λέπρα αλλά αγάπη. (Hislop, Το Νησί 499)

BT: In the end, she did not see humiliation (/tapinosi/) but heroism (/iroismo/), not betrayal (/proðosia/) but passion (/paθos/), not leprosy (/lεpra/) but love (/aγapi/).

The strategy of alliteration adopted in example 5, where the author pairs nouns starting with the same sound (humiliation/heroism, perfidy/passion, leprosy/love), arguably has a specific aim: to intensify the character’s success in making peace with her past and her effort to substitute the negative elements with positive ones. However, the translator of the text chose not to reproduce this strategy in Greek, even if the language system itself is not an obstacle (e.g. leprosy/love could have been translated as αρρώστια/αγάπη [illness (/arostia/) / love (/aγapi/)] to maintain a similar pairing).

Nevertheless, alliterations were not the only strategies for expressing emotions that were ignored by the Greek translators of the British English popular romances, as can be seen in example 6:


ST: “A mastiff. A Rottweiler. A hound. A Baskerville hound. I’m not getting out of this car.” (Pilcher, Winter Solstice 193).

TT: «Μάστιφ. Ροτβάιλερ. Κυνηγόσκυλο. Κυνηγόσκυλο Μπάσκερβιλ. Δεν βγαίνω από το αυτοκίνητο.» (Pilcher, Χειμερινό Ηλιοστάσιο 183)

BT: A mastiff. A Rottweiler. A hound. A Baskerville. I’m not getting out of the car.

In the above passage taken from Pilcher’s Winter Solstice, Elfrida, the heroine, is afraid to get out of her car because of a barking dog. The author of the text employs the phrase “a Baskerville hound” to express her fear by alluding to Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Hound of the Baskervilles. The translator’s choice to render this passage into Greek word for word (literally “Baskerville hound,” as the article can sometimes be omitted in Greek) results in a Greek translation whose word order and phrasing remind readers less of the famous Sherlock Holmes book and sound more like the name of some strange breed of dog: a “Baskervillian hound” or simply “A Baskerville,” as it is rendered in the BT above. Especially if the reader is not familiar with the Holmes story, this allusive technique for expressing fear is totally lost.

In the corpus of Greek romances no instances of allusions were identified, while the cases of alliterations were limited and traced mostly in one of the books. This fact could suggest that the particular strategies are not perhaps favored in original Greek popular romances for conveying emotions; this hypothesis could also be associated with the translator’s decision to ignore these strategies, even at the expense of decreasing the passage’s emotional intensity. While it is not easy to know whether the elimination of these strategies constitutes a conscious or subconscious decision of the translators, the absence of alliterations and allusions from the Greek original texts combined with their elimination from the Greek translations may be cautiously interpreted as an indicator of the influence of the Greek cultural textual norms on the translation process. Arguably, the translators may have eliminated the above-mentioned linguistic strategies in an effort to abide to the Greek textual norms, or, more possibly, they did not manage to recognize the importance of the strategies as they have not been often ‘exposed’ to such linguistic strategies through the Greek original romances.


The present paper has attempted to bring together Translation Studies with the study of popular romance through the discussion of romance, emotions, and translation norms. The examples discussed aimed at presenting a number of possible norms that affect the work of translators when conveying emotions. The paper briefly discussed the translators’ choice of turning anger into rage or of modifying figures of speech in order to create emotionally intense passages, a preference that was associated with the data collected from the combined study of the Greek and British English original romances (comparable corpus). At the same time, the translators’ tendency to ignore or eliminate strategies for communicating emotions such as alliteration and allusion, even though this technique dilutes the emotional force of the given excerpts, can possibly be explained by the fact that the Greek romance writers themselves—that is, those who write original texts in Greek—do not use such strategies frequently. From these initial findings, it can be assumed that the choices of the Greek translators can be understood through research into the work of Greek romance authors, which enables us to form hypotheses about the Greek cultural textual norms. It appears that Greek translators have a tendency to consciously or subconsciously follow the Greek cultural textual norms even if the British English culture is more widespread and highly influential due to its projection through modern media. Still, it has to be stressed that the suggestions discussed in the present paper are neither definitive nor exhaustive. Further work on the translation of romances is needed in order to form more concrete norm-related hypotheses; similarly, it is useful to remember that the dynamic nature of norms and the difficulties of studying them do not allow for explicit, unambiguous results.

Works Cited:

Benson, Stephen. “Stories of Love and Death: Reading and Writing the Fairy Tale Romance.” Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Eds. Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham. London: Longman, 1996. 103-113. Print.

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

Chesterman, Andrew. Memes of Translation: The Spread of Ideas in Translation Theory. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1997. Print.

Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

De Bernières, Louis. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. London: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.

—. Το Μαντολίνο του Λοχαγού Κορέλι [Captain Corelli’s Mandolin]. Trans. Maria Aggelidou. Athens: Psichogios, 2000. Print.

Dubrow, Heather. Genre. London: Methuen, 1982. Print.

Ekman, Paul & Wallace V. Friesen. “The Repertoire of Nonverbal Behavior: Categories, Origins, Usage, and Coding.” Semiotica, 1, 1969. 49–98. Print.

Elam, Diane. Romancing the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. Print.

Gregson, Julia. East of the Sun. London: Orion Books, 2008. Print.

Gregson, Julia. Στην Καρδιά των Μουσώνων [In the Heart of Monsoons]. Trans. Voula Avgoustinou. Athens: Dioptra, 2009. Print.

Hermans, Theo. Translation in Systems: Descriptive and System-Oriented Approaches Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome, 1999. Print.

Hislop, Victoria. The Island. London: Headline Review, 2005. Print.

Hislop, Victoria. Το Νησί [The Island]. Trans. Michalis Delegos. Athens: Dioptra, 2007. Print.

Koomson, Dorothy. Marshmallows for Breakfast. London: Sphere, 2007. Print.

Niedenthal, Paula M., Silvia Krauth-Gruber, and François Ric. Psychology of Emotion: Interpersonal, Experiential and Cognitive Approaches. New York: Psychology Press, 2006. Print.

Paizis, George. Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998a. Print.

Paizis, George. “Category Romances, Translation, Realism and Myth.” The Translator 4.1 (1998): 1-24. Print.

Pilcher, Rosamunde. Winter Solstice. London: Hodder, 2000. Print.

Pilcher, Rosamunde. Χειμερινό Ηλιοστάσιο [Winter Solstice]. Trans. Poli Moschopoulou. Athens: Okeanida, 2000. Print.

Radford, Jean. “Introduction.” The Progress of Romance: the Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. 1-21. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. London: Verso, 1987. Print.

Ramsdell, Kristin. Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1999. Print.

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

Schäffner, Christina. “The Concept of Norms in Translation Studies.” Translation and Norms. Ed. Christina Schäffner. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1999. 1-8. Print.

Shaver, Phillip. R., Shelley Wu, & Judith C. Schwartz. “Cross-cultural Similarities and Differences in Emotion and its Representation. A Prototype Approach.” Emotion. Ed. M. S. Clark. London: Sage Publications, 1992. 175-212. Print.

Swirski, Peter. From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. Print.

Toury, Gideon. “A Handful of Paragraphs on ‘Translation’ and ‘Norms.’” Translation and Norms. Ed. Christina Schäffner. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1999. 9-31. Print.

Volek, Bronislava. Emotive Signs in Language and Semantic Functioning of Derived Nouns in Russian. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1987. Print.

[1] Norms as socio-cultural constructs influence every socio-cultural activity such as translation or literature. Consequently, in the case of popular romance fiction and the depiction of popular romance heroines, norms result in the existence of some prevailing characteristics; for instance, the heroine has always to stand out from other women (Radway 126) and to be ethical with nurturing abilities (Fowler 162). These characteristics are used just as an example in order to illustrate that norms do not exist only in translation. Still, as the present paper focuses on literature in translation, the chosen researchers mentioned observe and discuss the existence of norms mainly within the context of literary translation.

[2] The “new data” I refer to began to emerge in the late 1960s, in research by Paul Ekman into the experience and expression of emotions in Papua New Guinea communities that had not been exposed to western culture.

[3] The parallel corpus consists of six British English popular romances and their translations into Greek. All six texts were translated into Greek between 2000 and 2009 and their translations became bestsellers in the Greek book market. It has also to be noted that all six original texts come from different authors, while the translations have been produced by different translators. The comparable corpus consists of six popular romances originally written in Greek, together with the above-mentioned British English original romances. The original Greek texts were written during the period 2000-2009 and also became bestsellers. All six of them have been written by different modern authors. The number of texts in each corpus was determined by a number of factors, one of them being the limited amount of time for the completion of the study (three years). The choice of British English texts was based on the researcher’s familiarity with the British culture, while the study of American romances was not attempted because of the time constraints of a doctoral research project.


“‘The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal’: Marriage and Gender in the Contemporary Greek Romantic Comedy” by Betty Kaklamanidou

Recent academic work on Hollywood romcoms of the past and present has demonstrated how such films encode significant meanings concerning gender politics, in their plots, characterization, structure, and point-of-view (Harvey, Evans & Deleyto, Beach, Glitre, and Abbott & Jermyn, among others). This paper takes a comparable approach to the Greek romantic comedy, a genre whose popularity in the new millennium coincided with a resurgence of the genre in Hollywood. In particular, I will look at the way ideologies of gender play out in the representation of weddings and of marriage—two linked, but not identical narrative elements—in the three most commercially successful Greek romantic comedies of the new millennium: The Kiss of Life (To Fili tis… Zois), 2007; Just Broke Up (Molis Horisa), 2008; and S.E.X. (Soula Ela Xana), 2009.[1]

Before I proceed with the analysis, let me briefly shed some light on the virtually unknown landscape of the Greek romantic comedy, placing the discussion which will follow in a clearer context. (Greek cinematography in general has rarely been explored in the international scholarly bibliography, and the situation is even worse for this particular genre.[2]) The apogee of the Greek romantic comedy took place during the heyday of the popular Greek cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s. During this decade, films such as Maiden’s Cheek, Alice in the Navy, I Liza kai I Alli, Modern Cinderella, Miss Director, and Jenny, Jenny were constantly placed in the domestic box office top ten (Valoukos, 577-81). Most of these films were vehicles for the female stars Aliki Vougiouklaki and Jenny Karezi, but their female focus was hardly feminist; rather, the films served to perpetuate stereotypical images of femininity, upholding the social status quo. As Greek film scholar Athena Kartalou has argued, in films of this era “professional and gender identities of women interact with each other in such a way that good performance in one domain presupposes and/or imposes incompetence and/or crisis in the other” (4-5). If the stars of these romantic comedies appear as strong working women at the start of the film, in the end these women trade in that “good performance” in the professional world for a more appropriate “performance” of femininity in the context of romance, subdued by male authority in the form of love and a marriage proposal.

The emergence of the New Greek Cinema in the 1970s temporarily displaced the romcom as a genre. Films of this era were often explicitly political, and their experiments with form and narrative resisted the conventional (and commercial) appeal of Old Greek Cinema. Resisted it, one might say, all too successfully: unlike the popular films that preceded them, these new films did not manage to attract a comparable audience to the theatres, eventually sending the Greek film industry into something of a crisis. By 1989/1990, only six new releases made their way to the theatres (Valoukos, 594): an unsustainable situation, and one to which Greek filmmakers responded, in part, by reintroducing the romcom.

The second wave of Greek romcoms, which began in the mid- to late-1990s, started by taking a curiously tentative or resistant approach to the genre. As I have argued at length elsewhere, Olga Malea’s The Cow’s Orgasm, The Mating Game, and Rizoto, which reintroduced the genre to a Greek audience, offered a rather cynical take on love, going so far as to avoid the word “love” and the talismanic phrase “I love you” almost completely. As a result, they failed to exude an atmosphere of romanticism, fantasy and heterosexual companionship, which is a fundamental aspect of the genre (2011).  (Perhaps this is part of the reason that Malea is still considered more an “auteur” than a commercial director, despite her box office success.)

The new millennium, however, has witnessed a return to more traditional, upbeat, and Hollywood-like romcoms–and, with them, a commercial renaissance in domestic cinematography. For the first time in decades, Greek films have managed to compete quite successfully with such heavily-promoted American “opponents” as Ocean’s Thirteen, Quantum of Solace, Sex and the City, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In the case of the Greek romcoms I will examine, this commercial appeal seems due to their ability to combine the main structural elements of the American romcom genre with details of plot, structure, and characterization that speak to the films’ specifically Greek social and cultural context—and, in the process, to issues of gender that are playing out somewhat differently in contemporary Greece than they are in the United States.[3]

The Wedding Cycle

According to Rick Altman, a genre film is a narrative with specific semantic and syntactic elements that are shared, at least to a certain extent, by all the films that belong to the same “family.” The semantic elements may comprise common plots, key scenes, character types, familiar objects, or recognizable shots and sounds while the syntactic elements refer to plot structure, character relationships, or image and sound montage (224). If we apply Altman’s theory to the romantic comedy, we can easily recognize that the semantic “ingredients” include a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual male and a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual female, and an urban environment, while the syntax usually follows different versions of the notorious boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-in-the-end scenario. Naturally, these structural elements undergo changes according to the social context of any given film; as Altman jokes, genres did not “spring full-blown from the head of Zeus” (218). Contemporary Greek romantic comedies may keep the structural elements intact (the heterosexual central couple, the obstacles, and the happy ending), but they update the conventional formula by adapting to their specific social environment.

One set of adaptations centers on marriage, both as a lived social institution and as part of the cultural imaginary. Again, some background may be helpful, this time starting in the United States. American writer and actress Rita Rudner has quipped that “In Hollywood, a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk,” but although this quote may ring true if we count the speed with which the vast majority of stars discard and/or change their legal spouses, contemporary Hollywood films often idealize the institution of marriage, perhaps even more so now than at some periods in the past. Romcoms that question what happens after the happily-ever-after end credits are rarer now than they were in the 1930s and 1940s, the heyday of what Stanley Cavell has called the “comedies of remarriage.” [4] And even films such as Just Married, Trust the Man, Marley & Me, and Couples Retreat, which highlight the ways that a couple in trouble tackles different obstacles within a marriage, end up offering robust, sentimental affirmations of marriage as an institution worth struggling for. This affirmation reflects what one might call an American return to marriage, since in the United States divorce rates “abruptly stopped going up around 1980” and have since fallen, particularly among college-educated women (Hurley). No wonder the climactic scenes of twenty-first century romcoms so often take place in front of the altar or in a Town Hall, with the films thus visibly affirming the public nature of what might otherwise be a private, couple-centered declaration of eternal love.

Between 2001 and 2010, many of the most commercially successful American romcoms took this emphasis on the public nature of marriage one step further. The plots of such films as The Proposal, Sex & The City, 27 Dresses, Made of Honor, Bride Wars, and Enchanted revolved, not just around marriage, but around a long-awaited or even unwanted wedding ceremony, a ceremony whose primary importance is not religious but consumerist, a matter of material culture. The central focus of these films seems as much about finding and/or showcasing the perfect venue for the reception, the right dress, or the right cake as it is about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right.[5] Film scholars have explored how “cycles” emerge within a given film genre, a practice in which the industry capitalizes “on the (often unexpected) success of a film that offers a new twist on an old genre” (Glitre 20) by producing subsequent films marked by what Rick Altman calls “common features” such as “subject matter, character types, plot patterns,” thus gradually “associating a new type of material or approach with already existing genres” (60). In effect, the films I have noted mark the emergence of a “wedding cycle” within the romantic comedy genre.[6]

Like cycles in other genres, the wedding cycle seems “influenced by the specific cultural situation—a moment at which a genre’s tropes seem particularly resonant” (Glitre 20).[7] In these films, not only do love and marriage remain “indissolubly linked” (Evans & Deleyto 6), as has long been traditional in the romcom, but both of them are unmistakably linked to an idealized version of consumer culture. The perfect wedding that the wedding-cycle heroine longs for is the utopian site in which her individual agency as a liberal subject in the capitalist marketplace can be reconciled with her romantic selfhood as a woman in love. Sociologist Eva Illouz has argued that “consuming the romantic utopia” (as the title of her study calls it) is a characteristic ideal among postmodern lovers; the prominence of the wedding ceremony and reception in the wedding cycle romcom signals just how “resonant” (Glitre 20) these issues of choice, money, and female sociality now seem to be, at least in the American context.

What, though, of the contemporary Greek romcom, and the Greek context? The three films I wish to discuss, The Kiss of Life, Just Broke Up and S.E.X. might be said to belong to various “cycles” within the genre of romantic comedy—as, indeed one could also argue about the above-mentioned six American productions, since cycles are not exclusive entities). For instance, Bride Wars is about how two best friends (Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway) fight over the coveted venue of their wedding and can also be characterized as a “female friendship” film while Sex and The City can also belong to the emerging “mature cycle” of the Hollywood romcom genre since all of its heroines are in their early to late forties.[8] How can the theorist, then, determine his/her object of analysis? Roman Jakobson’s theory of the “dominant” offers the answer to this theoretical dilemma. According to the Russian formalist, “The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components.” It is “the element which specifies a given variety of language [or any narrative element,] dominates the entire structure and thus acts as its mandatory and inalienable constituent dominating all the remaining elements and exerting direct influence upon them” (751).

Therefore, given how emphatically these films use marriage as a narrative cardinal function which “dominates” the whole plot—and given their shared emphasis on the significance of the wedding per se—I will consider them as Greek instances and transformations of the “wedding cycle.” In them, the desire for marriage and the obstacles which have to be overcome before the wedding proposal or the ceremony can be seen to comment on “resonant” tropes in Greek culture; in this case, gender representations which are well worth examining. Altman (26) underlines that “Film genres are functional for their society. Whereas producers and exhibitors see genre films as ‘product’, critics increasingly recognize their role in a complex cultural system permitting viewers to consider and resolve (albeit fictively) contradictions that are not fully mastered by the society in which they live.” In other words, the insistence of the three Greek rom coms on the importance of the institution of marriage may constitute a reflection, a justification, and/or a solution regarding specific societal “contradictions” in contemporary Greece.

One of these “contradictions” may have to do with the tension between the returning popularity of domestically-produced American-style romantic comedy and the actual facts of romantic life in Greece. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the divorce rate in Greece has been steadily on the increase, reaching 24% in 2005 from 8% in the 1980s. Not only does this mean that one in four marriages will eventually be dissolved in a courtroom; it means that the Greek trajectory (in terms of marriage / divorce statistics) is exactly the opposite of the American one, and has been for some time. It is not surprising, then, that the films I will explore take a more divided, even ambivalent approach to the “wedding cycle” than their American counterparts, mixing progressive and conservative elements in ways that make the endings of the films (which tend to be conservative) seem oddly in contrast with material elsewhere.

To Fili tis…Zois [Kiss of Life]

Consider, first, the contradictions at work in Kiss of Life. The Greek title of this romcom, To Fili tis… Zois, already signals one of the film’s central tensions. Zois,” here, refers to the female heroine, Zoi (Katerina Papoutsaki), whose name is also the Greek word for life—but as the ironic ellipsis signals, the “kiss of life” here is also, potentially, a “kiss of death,” since Zoi/Life begins the film as a ruthless contract killer. Independent and uninhibited, Zoi does not like marriage since she “doesn’t want to share the bed with someone or have to sleep first not to hear him snore,”[9] a multiple inversion of gender expectations. We see a similar inversion in the hero, Pashalis (Laertis Malkotsis), a sweet and harmless agriculturist who, as the film begins, is getting married in three days on the island of Milos. Pashalis accidentally finds himself on a boat to Sifnos with no way of getting back because of a strike and his fear of flying. The film depicts Pashalis as a kind and sensitive man who is not afraid to cry and lives to makes his future bride happy; when Zoi spots him on the boat to Sifnos, she sees him as the perfect cover she needs in order to assassinate the influential magnate Anestis (Themos Anastasiadis).

As the film proceeds, however, these initial reversals begin to shift, and the film’s ambivalent impulses become more and more evident. The first shift concerns Zoi. When her first assassination attempt fails, with Pashalis accidentally saving the magnate’s life, the two find themselves guests of Anestis and his beautiful wife Sofia (Zeta Douka). Zoi begins to feel attracted to the clumsy and naïve Pashalis, who is constantly trying to find a way to get back to Milos and marry Anthoula (Parthena Horozidou), his betrothed. The film invites us to attribute her willingness to succumb to a summer romance with Pashalis—a romance that could upset her professional plans—to several factors: the natural beauty of Sifnos and of Anestis’s house, which provides a utopian, liminal setting conducive to romance (see Illouz 142-45); to the apparently loving and companionate marriage between Anestis and Sofia, which seems, at least at first, to be an alternative to the negative model of marriage Zoi has espoused (Sofia shows her love by caring about her husband’s diet and health and Anestis treats her with understanding and affection); and, ultimately, to the alternative model of masculinity provided by Pashalis himself. In such contexts, the film suggests, even as hard-edged a woman as Zoi might well soften her stance against love.

However, as the film reaches its climax, this mildly progressive narrative breaks down. Zoi discovers that it was Sofia that had initially hired her to assassinate her husband as she (mistakenly) believed he was responsible for her father’s death. Their marriage comes into focus as the cliché of the rich man with a trophy wife, “recasting” Sofia, in a sense, as the classic noir film’s femme fatale. Sofia’s final apology and explanation to Zoi, although sincere and heartfelt, does not persuade the spectator that hers was ever a marriage based on mutual respect, trust and companionship: a failure that would seem to validate Zoi’s initial negative feelings regarding the institution. Yet rather than revert to that initial suspicion, Zoi remains committed to love—and the reason the film offers is that Pashalis, too, has changed. Kind and sensitive he may be, but the more we hear his fiancée, Anthoula, screaming and threatening him on the phone, furious that he has not found a way to return for their wedding, the more these qualities in Pashalis seem weak, repressed, and emasculated. He acts, we sense, more out of a sense of duty than out of love. We thus approve when he starts having feelings for the sensual and dangerous Zoi, the complete opposite of Anthoula—indeed, in the only scene where Anthoula appears, an aborted wedding ceremony on a little boat, she is a plain, overweight woman with not even a line of dialogue—and are meant to cheer when he finally becomes more properly “masculine,” decisively calling off his wedding to Anthoula by jumping off the boat in the middle of their ceremony, an act that also shows that he has overcome his earlier fear of the sea.

This newfound or restored masculinity is not, I hasten to add, accompanied by traditional alpha-male qualities. Pashalis remains a plain-looking, low-income, kind and sensitive man who simply wants to spend the rest of his life with Zoi. (Perhaps he has one alpha quality: a newfound willingness to claim what is “his.”) But the film presents Zoi as oddly eager to ascribe male “authority” to him, as though she fundamentally longed for a return to some properly “feminine” identity. Even though she does not accept Pashalis’ marriage proposal, she does agree to start a new life with him on the island where they first met, and the last scene finds the couple in front of a little church—a sign of their eventual formal, legal union. Even more telling, Zoi’s confession to the magnate’s wife, Sofia, that “once she met a bad guy who taught her a bad job” reduces her to a woman who was always already submissive to male authority, and never an independent individual in her own right. Zoi’s white dress in this final scene, which reminds us of the color of a traditional wedding dress, thus connotes her return to an innocent and honest life, a sort of metaphorical “virginity” that might have been taken from her by that “bad guy,” but has now been restored to her, just in time for her to step into traditional roles as wife and mother: roles implied earlier by Pashalis, and never refuted by her, and roles which make her unequivocally a figure of life (Zoi) and not death (a femme fatale).

Molis Xorisa [Just Broke Up]

It’s hard to get more old-fashioned, traditional, and conventional than the Valentine’s Day setting and release-date of Molis Xorisa [Just Broke Up]. As in the United States, this holiday has come to represent in Greece the pinnacle of romantic fantasy and promises of eternal love: the perfect setting for a romantic narrative, or for a narrative that will explore the mass culture of romantic love. This connection is reinforced by a plot device: February 14 is also the birthday of the film’s heroine, Electra (Zeta Makripoulia). Adapted from a successful stage comedy from 1999, Just Broke Up resembles a fast-paced seventeenth-century farce à la française, characterized like these by “a mixture of skillfully used doses of the comical and the real,” as well as an assortment of recognizable and stereotypical character types (Lagarde & Michard 181).

The opening sequence of the film introduces us to several of these farcical features. As the story begins, Electra has been with her DJ boyfriend Petros (Giannis Tsimitselis) for six and a half years. Stereotypically panicked regarding the prospect of marriage, Petros dreams he is married to Electra and has three children, waking up in a horrified sweat. His fears are not entirely unfounded, since Electra’s birthday starts, for her, with a positive pregnancy test: playing again to stereotype, the film renders this as something that makes her deliriously happy. As she waits impatiently to break the news to Petros in the club he works, she dreams of her future married life. Unbeknownst to her, however, Petros has decided to break up with her by leaving a message on their answering machine. When her friends and mother come over to throw her a surprise party, they inadvertently hear Petros’ message and comically try to prevent Electra from learning the truth.

The English title of Just Broke Up might well remind us of the American production The Break-Up, a film with rather somber overtones about relationships that deals in-depth with a break-up and its implications, in the tradition of such films as Breaking Up and The Story of Us. The Greek film, however, has no interest in social or romantic realism. Mixing verbal gags with an Almodovar-influenced set and costume design—a visual vocabulary characterized by the use of vivid and clashing colors, as well as extravagant and/or eccentric costumes[10]Just Broke Up is overtly stylized, extravagant, even almost campy in its deployment of gender roles and romantic tropes. From the start, for example, Electra is presented as a modern female control freak. She leaves notes to all her friends in the building dictating what presents she wants, she instructs Petros to dedicate a specific song to her on the radio and she walks around the streets of Athens fantasizing about her wedding day. Despite her being financially independent, she is portrayed as a “closeted” housewife who craves for a family more than anything else and states that if ever Petros left her she would jump off the balcony and onto the street. Indeed, when she finally hears the break-up message, she dresses in black and plays the part of the tragic heroine connoted by her name.[11]

In what sense, then, does Just Broke Up belong to the “wedding cycle”? Certainly the film is structured by the viewer’s desire for Petros to realize that Electra is “the one” and by Electra’s desire, within the film, for the wedding that will give the same public, institutional, and conventional form to their relationship that Valentine’s Day gives to romantic love more generally. And, indeed, the film does move towards closure with that much-anticipated recognition on the part of Petros, with a final confrontation, and with the couple’s decision to wed in a highly public forum: one of the main streets of Athens. But the film reserves two surprises for its end sequence. Accompanied on the soundtrack by a new remix of a 1974 Greek hit song about the joy of an impending wedding ceremony, the audience witnesses all the characters getting ready for a wedding—but the married couple getting out of the city hall is not Petros and Electra but two gay friends of theirs, Mitsos and Vitor. This gay wedding—which is not yet legal in Greece—seems a welcome subversion in an otherwise conservative film: indeed, it reinforces our sense that there is something campy or queer about the heterosexual romance we have witnessed so far. What might potentially have been an interesting social critique of Greek conservatism, however, is abruptly interrupted when Electra shouts that she’s in labor, trumping the romantic union of Mitsos and Victor with the “real,” biological union of Electra and Petros. We may not actually witness the hero’s and heroine’s ceremony, but we are left with the expectation that this couple’s wedding will coincide with the Orthodox baptism of the child: a common practice in the domestic celebrity culture of the last decade, and a two-fold reinforcement of precisely the conservative values that might otherwise seem satirized by the film.

S.E.X (Soula Come Back)

Of the three Greek “wedding cycle” films, only S.E.X. centers explicitly on the heroine’s decision to wed. The initials in the title stand for Soula Ela Xana (Soula Come Back); in the film, Soula (Zeta Makripoulia) is a beautiful elementary teacher who lives and works in Spetses, an island near Athens. On her 30th birthday, Soula unexpectedly receives presents from four ex-boyfriends, each accompanied by pleas for her to resume the relationship. The four men represent four stereotypically flawed male figures: Manolis (Memos Begnis) is the traditional mamma’s boy, a type who is encountered in abundance in Greek society; Apostolis (Kostas Fragolias) represents the eternal Don Juan; Zisis (Manos Gavras) is the insanely jealous guy; and Tassos (Mihalis Marinos) the irritating scrooge. Unimpressed by the gifts (and the men they represent), she celebrates her birthday with her friend Vassilis (Tzortzis Mouriadis) with whom she shares rather skeptical views regarding marriage. Both find it oppressive and unnecessary, and both regard children a burden. Even as Vassilis leaves her to hit on a sexy woman, Soula seems content and self-sufficient, lighting the candles on her cake and blowing them out at a table surrounded by photos of her loved ones.

As in Kiss of Life, however, S.E.X. soon robs its heroine of her self-sufficiency. When Soula hears the take-out guy call her a spinster on the phone, she becomes obsessed with her need to get married: a reversal the film explains, in part, by having her re-read a set of letters she wrote to her deceased parents, in which she had promised to get married by the time she is thirty. Like Zoi, in Kiss of Life, Soula was thus originally a properly feminine subject, who needs only to be restored to that earlier status; she needs to “come back,” as the film’s full title suggests. However, like Electra, the control freak in Just Broke Up, Soula retains agency through much of the film, concocting a plan to take charge of her romantic life by inviting her four exes to the island, along with her two best girlfriends, in order to choose the man she will marry in two weeks. (She may have no choice in whether to marry, locked in by the past, but she ostensibly retains some choice as to whom she will marry, though even here the past plays what looks at first to be a determining role.)

For a substantial portion of the narrative, S.E X. makes an effort to present the modern Greek woman as an independent individual: one who stands in sharp contrast with the weak, irresponsible, naïve, and sexually confused lead and secondary male characters. The portrayal of these “flaws”—however exaggerated—that Greek masculinity entails should not be easily dismissed, nor should the attribution to female characters of traits mainly associated with masculinity. These include assertiveness, practicality, courage, inventiveness, and strength, but also sexual desire: a desire that the films seem to ascribe to the female members of their audience as well. Like Just Broke Up, that is to say, S.E.X. is not only narrated through a predominantly (here exclusively) female point of view, but that point of view is a desiring and even objectifying gaze, as the film contains numerous shots of half-naked and extremely fit male bodies for the heroine’s and viewer’s shared delectation.

As you might expect, the ending of S.E.X. unites Soula not with one of the four flawed “contestants,” but with her best friend, Vassilis: the man who shared her reservations about marriage at the start of the film. Soula goes to the church to call everything off once she realizes a simple game is not the way to find her life companion, only to find Vassilis waiting for her in front of the building. He’s confident she will not turn him down—which of course, she does not—but unlike the restoration of traditionally “masculine” confidence to Pashalis in Kiss of Life, which comes at a cost to Zoi, the end of S.E.X. emphasizes the commonality between the two, since as Vassilis stands waiting for Soula he holds her traditional bridal bouquet. The person Soula must “come back” to, in the end, is the one who was most like her at the start of the film, before the “spinster” insult, before her reading of the letters to her parents, and before her decision to marry someone for the sake of being married. It’s notable in this context that the wedding ceremony itself is never shown onscreen, as though it had been displaced as a telos, however slightly, by the union of two characters who started the film as skeptics about the institution.

I do not wish to be unequivocally positive about the sexual politics of S.E.X. There is, after all, something odd in the fact that Soula ends up with a man she has not so much as kissed throughout the film, who needs neither to court her or win her “contest.” But as the film ends, with all the characters singing and dancing happily during the end credits, it seems as though the film’s assertions of female agency and desire—again, admittedly a limited, heteronormative, and hardly radical form—are meant to seem integrated quite comfortably into the broader social order. In the film’s fantasy, precisely the characters who find marriage oppressive and unnecessary turn out to be its exemplary representatives.

As each of these films demonstrates, the ending of the contemporary Greek romantic comedy tends to reinscribe the genre’s generally conservative nature. The Kiss ends near a picturesque white little chapel, Just Broke Up closes with the heroine going into labor and S.E.X. completes its circle with a song performed by the cast during what seems to be the couple’s wedding reception: at a time of rising divorce rates, in these films religious marriage, procreative sex, and communal affirmation of the married couple are all, in some sense, affirmed. Yet if we take into account the full arc of each narrative, as I have tried to do, however briefly, here, we see that all three films also try to renegotiate gender identities. These efforts were not evident in Greek romantic comedies of the 1950s and ‘60s, nor are they the same engagement with “resonant” social and political issues that we see in contemporary American wedding-cycle romcoms, which tend to focus rather more on the relationships between romantic love and consumer culture.

Although romantic comedies are often discarded as escapist narratives with little depth, I subscribe to David R. Shumway’s assumption “that these fictional narratives do in fact teach readers and viewers even if they are often unaware of the lesson” (2-3). As I have already noted, “Film genres are functional for their society” Altman (26); in this case, the romcoms I discussed may well function by providing models of gender behavior and of relationships, which despite their fictional status may be consciously used by the spectator (see Anthony Giddens in Shumway 7). Certainly their happy endings validate the institution of marriage exactly at the time of its crisis in Greek society, and they do so by “teaching” (in Shumway’s sense) that marriage is on every woman’s agenda, however financially and emotionally independent she may be. Of course, as Shumway adds, “what individuals actually do with these various models [or relationships] differs” (5), and as yet, there are no ethnographic studies about how these film narratives are actually perceived. Still, it can be safely assumed that male and female spectators alike are invited to think about, revisit or even re-evaluate their own views regarding marriage and weddings, witnessing the joy that both the male and female protagonists exude in the final cinematic sequences. The contemporary Greek romcom can thus offer the scholar important insight regarding gender relations both diachronically and synchronically, and also a valuable window into how gender identities and romantic relationships are represented and negotiated cinematically in a transnational, twenty-first century context.

Works Cited

Abbott, Stacey and Deborah Jermyn (eds.). Falling in Love Again, Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema, UK: I. B. Tauris, 2009. Print.

Allinson, Mark. A Spanish Labyrinth. The Films of Pedro Almodóvar. UK: I.B. Tauris, 2001, 2005. Print.

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. USA: Indiana University Press, 2006. Print.

Beach, Christopher. Class, Language and American Film Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Bordwell, David & Kristin Thompson. Film History. An Introduction, US: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Buscombe, Edward. Cinema Today, New York: Phaidon Press, 2003. Print.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness. US: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.

Charsouli, Alkistis. Rev. of To Fili tis Zois, 2009. In Greek.

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film, 4th edition, New York: WW. Norton & Co., 2004. Print.

Delveroudi, Elisa-Anna. “H Politiki stis Komodies tou Ellinikou Kinimatografou.” Istorika, 14/26 (1997): 146-165. Print.

Evans, Peter Williams & Celestino Deleyto. “Introduction: Surviving Love.” Terms of Endearment. Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s. Eds. Peter Williams Evans & Celestino Deleyto. UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Print.

Glitre, Kathrina. Hollywood Romantic Comedy. UK: Manchester University Press, 2006. Print.

Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy: In Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988. Print.

Hurley, Dan. “Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think.” The New York Times. 19 Apr 2005. Web.

Jakobson, Roman. Selected Writings III: Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry, The Hague: Mouton, 1981. Print.

Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. U of California P, 1997. Print.

Kaklamanidou, Betty. “The New Millennium Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Charting a Genre’s History.” Gender and Genre. Eds. Kornelia Slavova & Isabelle Boof-Vermesse. Bulgaria: Sofia University Press, 2010. 167-178. Print.

—. “The Greek ‘American’ Dream: The Semiotics of the Greek Romantic Comedy.” Semiotics and ideo-logies. Eds. Grigoris Pashalidis & Eleni Hodolidou. Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, in Greek. (forthcoming).

Kartalou, Athena. “Gender, Professional, and Class Identities in Miss Director and Modern Cinderella.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 18/1, (2000): 105-118. Print.

Lagarde, André & Michard, Laurent. XVIII siècle. Paris: Bordas, 1985. Print.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Papamihos, Dimitris. Rev. Of Molis Horisa. October 14 2007. In Greek.

Paradeisi, Maria. “H Parousiasi tis Gynaikas stis “komenti” tou ellinikou kinimatografou.” To Vima ton Koinonikon Epistimon 11, (1993): 185-204. Print. In Greek.

Shumway, David R. Modern Love, Romance, Intimacy,and the Marriage Crisis. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Print.

Stassinopoulou, Maria. “Ti Gureyei h Istoria ston Kinhmatografo?” Istorika, 12/23, (1995): 421-437. Print. In Greek.

Valoukos, Stathis. Filmography of Greek Cinema (1914-2007), 3rd Edition. Athens: Aigokeros, 2007. In Greek. Print.

Vassiliou, Giannis. Rev. of Soula Ela Ksana, 2008.


27 Dresses (2008)
300 (2007)Alice in the Navy (1960)
Angels & Demons (2009) Because I Said So (2007)
Breaking Up (1997)
Bride Wars (2008)
Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)Enchanted (2007)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I Am Legend (2008)

I Liza kai I Alli (1961)

Iron Man (2008) Jenny, Jenny (1965)
Last Chance Harvey (2009)
Made of Honor (2008)
Maiden’s Cheek (1959)
Miss Director (1964)
Modern Cinderella (1964)
Molis Horisa (2008)
Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)Prime (2005)

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Rebound (2010)

Rizoto (2000).

S.E.X. (2009)
Serious Moonlight (2009) Sex & The City (2008)
Shrek the Third(2007)Spider-Man 3 (2007)

The Break-Up (2006)

The Cow’s Orgasm (1996)
The Dark Knight (2008) The Mating Game (1998)
The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End(2007)The Proposal (2009)
The Story of Us (1999)
To Fili Tis Zois (2007)

Trust the Man (2006)

Twilight (2009)

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

Up (2009)

Watchmen (2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

[1] The three films were not only the most commercial romantic comedies in their respective year of release but the most commercial Greek films irrespective of generic categories at the same time, grossing $2,721,704, $4,587,030, and $2,151,669 respectively (

[2] Apart from the internationally acknowledged and awarded director Theo Angelopoulos, Greece is considered a country whose cinematography has little to offer. Suffice it to say that in Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s 778-page Film History (2003) the country is mentioned only once on page 559 in a larger segment of collective productions and militant films of the 1960s and early 1970s. The same reference is found in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996) while in Douglas Gomery’s Movie History (1991) Greece is not mentioned at all. Only in Edward Buscombe’s Cinema Today (2003) and David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (2004) does the mention in Greek Cinematography surpass the limits of a single phrase or one paragraph. Nevertheless, the domestic cinema has had a long history which is worth investigating. Drawing from Hollywood models but adapting them to the specific cultural context of each specific era, Greek filmmakers have dabbled in many genres (film noir, comedy, melodrama, musical, romantic comedy) while creating new genres that stemmed from unique socio-cultural roots. On the same note, it should also be mentioned that the Greek bibliography is also limited. The Greek romantic comedy, for instance, has not been the object of systematic scholarly examination with a few notable exceptions that mainly focus on films of the past (i.e. Maria Paradeisi (1993), Maria Stassinopoulou (1995), Elisa-Anna Delveroudi (1997), and Athena Kartalou (2000)).

[3] The three romantic comedies which constitute the focus of this essay were consequently placed in a difficult race. According to the boxoffice.mojo online database, in 2007, The Kiss had to compete with such blockbusters, as 300, The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spider-Man 3, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Despite the fierce competition, it placed in the 10th position surpassing Ocean’s Thirteen, and Shrek the Third, gathering a little less than 3 million dollars which is a significant number in the domestic landscape. Just Broke Up came in 3rd in 2008, surpassing such international successes as Quantum of Solace, The Dark Knight, I Am Legend, Sex and the City and Iron Man, while in 2009, S.E.X. came in 10th after Angels & Demons and Twilight, but “beating” Up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Watchmen. What these numbers prove is that despite the Hollywood supremacy, popular Greek films can easily attract the audience since they can relate to them on a more intimate level despite the mediocre reviews they usually receive by the Press which considers them unworthy of attention (see Dimitris Papamihos 2007, Alkistis Charsouli 2008, and Giannis Vassiliou 2009).

[4] In a corpus I have studied of approximately 200 romantic comedies from the new millennium, Did You Hear About the Morgans? and Serious Moonlight (both 2009) are among the few that belong to Cavell’s category.

[5] According to the data, these six films grossed more than $1,453,000 worldwide which is an impressive number if we consider that the most expensive film in this group, Enchanted, cost $85 million.

[6] This observation is based on a corpus which includes more than 150 romantic comedies produced in the U.S.A. and released domestically and/or worldwide from 2001 to 2009 (Kaklamanidou 167-178).

[7] For instance, Glitre (20) argues that “the revival of ‘old-fashioned’ romantic comedy in the 1980s is hardly coincidental in a decade noted for its reactionary cultural and sexual politics (a situation exacerbated by the emergence of AIDS in 1981).”

[8] The new millennium romcom witnessed the birth of a new cycle which renegotiates gender roles through the representation of the mature “cougar” and/or divorced older woman. Films, such as Under the Tuscan Sun, 2003, Prime, 2005, Trust the Man, 2006, Last Chance Harvey, 2009, Rebound, 2010, among others, showcase how the mature female heroine enters a new life chapter, where romance is discovered, or re-discovered.

[9] All translations of dialogue, from this and the other films, are mine.

[10] For more on the unique use of color, décor and costume in Pedro Almodóvar’s body of work, see Mark Allinson (158-193).

[11] According to ancient Greek dramaturgy, Electra the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra convinced her brother Orestes to kill their mother and her lover to avenge their father’s murder by the illicit couple.


Editor’s Note: Issue 2.1

In August, 2010, thirty-one scholars from four continents gathered in Brussels for the second annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies sponsored by the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. (The third was held in New York City June, 2011; a call for papers is out for the fourth, to be held in York University, UK, in September 2012.)

These annual gatherings do more than simply provide a venue for the best new work on romantic love in global popular media. They also challenge scholars of film, fiction, TV, marketing, and other media to learn from one another across the great divides of historical period, national tradition, and academic discipline—borrowing terms and conceptual models, refining distinctions, discovering what new ground has been broken, and how much still remains to be done.

In addition to two new full-length essays (by Roger Nicholson, on the New Zealand film River Queen, and Federica Balducci, on Italian chick lit and romanzo rosa) and four new book reviews, this issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies presents our first gathering of IASPR Conference Proceedings: six selectively chosen and peer-reviewed presentations, along with keynote addresses by the Spanish film professor Celestino Deleyto, the British literary scholar and theorist Lynne Pearce, and the American literary historian Pamela Regis, this last with a response from our Belgian conference chair, An Goris.

The talks selected by our guest editors, IASPR president Sarah S. G. Frantz and conference chair An Goris, reflect the diversity of the conference—and of our emerging field. They trace, for example, the earliest, awkward attempts to mass-market romance fiction to American women in late nineteenth-century “story papers”; they explore the sexual politics of twenty-first century Greek romantic comedies, which put a national spin on Hollywood conventions; they anatomize male virginity in heterosexual romance novels, distinguishing it from the representation of male virginity in other media, and more.

Our keynote addresses theorize the vexed motif of repetition in romantic love, reverse-engineer the construction of a “comic space” at the heart of the romcom, and analyze the shifting critical rhetoric surrounding popular romance fiction from the early 1980s to the present.

This special forum of Conference Proceedings is the first of several special gatherings of essays we will feature in JPRS. Calls for Papers are currently available on “Animals in / and Romance” (submissions due Dec. 1, 2011), “Georgette Heyer” (due May 4, 2012, forum guest edited by Phyllis M. Betz), and “Love and Religion in Global Popular Culture” (due June 1, 2012, forum edited by Lynn S. Neal). Details for each can be found on our Submissions page.

As always, we look forward to your comments on all our essays, and if they prove helpful to you in your own research or teaching, please let us know!