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Archive for the ‘Issue 3.1’ Category

Review: For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance, by Laura Vivanco

Review by Maryan Wherry

Nearly thirty years ago, Margaret Ann Jensen wrote Love’s $weet Return: The Harlequin Story (1984), perhaps the first full-length academic study of category romance fiction. Jensen lamented the status of popular romance, which when not ignored is “vilified as is no other category of popular fiction” (25). It was considered, in short, “trash,” and Jensen defended its value, attraction and appeal, specifically from the perspective of its readers (159). In her historical study, The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s (1999), jay Dixon continued to defend the category romance, this time concentrating on the adaptability and diversity of the romance story itself. Both of these foundational texts in popular romance studies present the conclusion that popular romance novels in general, and category romances in particular, are often complex, culturally-informed stories undeserving of the contempt heaped upon them. In For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance, Laura Vivanco extends the study of Harlequin Mills & Boon (HMB), moving from readers and publishers into close reading and analysis of the texts of the romances themselves.

John Cawelti, in his seminal study of popular fiction, Adventure, Mystery and Romance, separated mimetic fiction from formulaic popular fiction. “The mimetic element in literature confronts” readers with reality, he argued, while the “formulaic element reflects the construction of an ideal world” (13). Jensen had claimed that readers and critics “measure formula fiction with mimetic standards and find it wanting” (17). Vivanco takes what is denigrated by Cawelti and the Literary World as the most formulaic type of genre fiction and examines its mimetic modes, turning Cawelti’s distinction on its head. She deftly shows how HMB romances weave the conventions of the romance formula with threads of mimetic material, displaying all the creative invention and originality of novels that are widely understood to display Literary Merit.

Because of the formulaic structure of category romance, there is a preconception that action and character are ready-made and pre-motivated, so there is little to no room for radical originality or even individuality. The limitations of the genre formula, therefore, must restrict literary artistry; after all, it is more difficult to create within restrictions. Here, too, Vivanco up ends and disproves such myths with a bit of critical jujitsu. Rather than lament the conventionality of the romance and the rigor of HMB guidelines, she shows the real artistry of HMB writers, who work within and play with these conventions, creating “well-written, skillfully crafted works which can and do engage the minds as well as the emotions” (15). “A few” of these works, she argues, “are small masterpieces,” and her discussion goes on to explore and illustrate the artistry within them (15).

Using Northrop Frye’s rubric of mimetic modes, Vivanco analyzes issues, characters and plots in nearly eighty years of HMB romances. Frye’s five mimetic modes—myth, romance, high mimetic, low mimetic, and irony—appear and operate at various capacities in HMB novels, ranging from larger social concerns to use of vocabulary. Through close textual readings, Vivanco shows how these modes are incorporated and interwoven by authors, not by accident, but as conscious constructions and aesthetics of social and physical context. She offers a virtual tutorial of determining levels of realism regarding setting and details, issues, and the happy ending. The direct derivation of romance “protagonists from mythic and romance modes” gives insight into the types of characters and relationships HMB romance novels contain. The heroes of romance range from the high mimetic knight to low mimetic commoner. Vivanco then traces the foundational plotlines of HMB fiction, examining explicit and implicit influences from Greek mythology, Arthurian legends, and Western fairy tales and showing how these mythoi function within various modes. The rich and complex heritage of the romance genre, placing the HMB romance in a long tradition of literature that extends from ancient Greek texts and Medieval poetry to the contemporary period, is clearly established.

Having established the structural components of HMB romance, Vivanco moves to the “metafiction” of “romances which acknowledge or explore their own fictionality, their relationship to other fictions, or their place in popular culture” (109). HMB writers, readers, and novels themselves are clearly aware of the intertextuality of these books, their self-reflexivity both as romances and as popular fiction more generally. Literary allusions to classic writers, Shakespeare, and other popular culture forums appear liberally in HMB romances. Vivanco’s discussion neatly deflates the assumption that romance authors, novels, or readers lack an awareness of the difference between fantasy and reality: to the contrary, she shows that their sense of the relationship between these is thoughtful, subtle, nuanced, and playful.

As with all other literary genres, the romance employs stock allusions, words, and phrases, which function as “codes” to evoke emotion. Such uses of metaphor and symbolism have deep roots in Western Literature and HMB romances are no different from so-called “literary” texts in their use of verbal and visual metaphors, not only to describe love but also to build thematic continuity within a particular text. Whether the metaphors are drawn from building and construction or gardens and flowers, such conscious choice and use of metaphor is very close to a poet’s concentration on the power of a specific word. Vivanco’s argument underscores Angela Toscano’s suggestion that the “romance narrative ritualizes language,” investing crucial metaphors with multiple layers of meaning and purpose (¶ 30). It is at this point that the HMB romances are perhaps their most literary, and For Love and Money is most revealing.

For Love and Money is an ambitious work, rigorously researched and documented with a daunting wealth of examples. If there is a weakness to this study, it is the author’s reliance on long block quotations, which can become distracting to the overall discussion and inhibit readability. The introduction, which flirts with a defensive tone, is also perhaps a bit disappointing, as it suggests that the field of romance criticism hasn’t progressed since Jensen’s study; certainly it stands at odds with the assertive, upbeat sense of the book as a whole.

Overall, however, Laura Vivanco’s analysis of the category romance is both meticulous and inspiring. And while Vivanco limits her examples and discussions to category romances by Harlequin Mills & Boon and the HQN imprint, her application of Frye’s mimetic modes begs for expansion to texts and authors across the genre. This piece of literary criticism should serve as a template for romance scholars to move from defending the genre to discussing its values and complexity as a literary art.

Works Cited

Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.

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

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

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

Toscano, Angela. “The Liturgy of Cliché.” That Sly Wench 11 November 2011 <é.html>


Review: Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction, by Lynn S. Neal

Review by Margaret M. Toscano

Lynn Neal’s book Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction is an important book for scholars of popular romance, even if they never intend to read in or write on the subgenre of evangelical romance. In thinking about what separates such a subgenre from the broader category, scholars are required to reexamine some basic assumptions about the nature of popular romance and its female writers and readers. As Neal points out, the two distinguishing characteristics of evangelical romance are a lack of explicit sexuality and a focus on God as a third party in the romance: one who both sanctions and sanctifies the bond between the heterosexual couple. These two elements of evangelical romance should come as no surprise to either scholars or readers of secular romance. What might be a surprise is the way the lines between secular and evangelical romance blur somewhat upon close examination.

At the center of the romance plot for both secular and evangelical fiction is the love story between a man and woman that must involve strong sexual tension, however euphemistically it is described. Overt sex scenes are certainly common in almost all popular secular romance today, except in designated lines at publishers like Harlequin. However, this was not true before the 1970s, when sexual interaction was only hinted at indirectly. Moreover, many who never read evangelical romances still love old-fashioned romances like those of Georgette Heyer, which always feature a strong undercurrent of sexual attraction between a man and woman, though Heyer never goes beyond vaguely-described kisses or embraces. And some evangelical romances, such as Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love (discussed by Neal in chapter 6), depict both the abuses and joys of sex quite frankly, if not graphically.

There is also some continuity between the moral values of secular and evangelical romances. Fidelity, monogamy, mutuality, consent, and marriage are prized in both categories, though extra-marital sex is not often condemned per se in secular romance (and of course the erotica subgenre allows a broader range of acceptable sexual practices). Interestingly, BDSM, at least in its mild forms, is appearing more in mainstream popular romance (even before the advent of 50 Shades of Grey), as illustrated by Victoria Dahl’s 2009 Start Me Up. But readers do not expect bondage scenes ever to make their way into evangelical romance, even as wider acceptance grows among the general public. Still, it is not just sex, but the kind of romantic intimacy that stems from mutual trust and faithful love that is at the heart of a successful story for both evangelical and secular readers.

The focus on Christian belief in action is a stronger marker between evangelical and secular romance. Women who read evangelical romance want the presence of God, often combined with redemption through Christ’s love, portrayed in these novels, both as an expression of their faith and to validate the human love relationship, while mainstream romance readers might be distracted or more likely put off by such references. Still, there is some overlapping here too. The sense of fate or some larger purpose guiding the union of the lovers is not uncommon even in secular romance. In Lisa Kleypas’ Hathaway series, Cam Rohan’s gypsy belief in the divinity of fate drives his attraction for Amelia toward marriage. There may even be references to God in secular romance that does not fit into the “inspirational” genre. Maddy Timms’ Quaker beliefs are central to her conflict with the Duke of Jervaulx in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. In order to accept the Duke as her husband, Maddy must feel she is not in opposition to God’s light within her. Though such religious beliefs lend an air of authenticity to historical romance set in periods and settings where religion infiltrated everyday life, it is not uncommon for such well-known authors as Nora Roberts or Susan Elizabeth Phillips to make some reference to their characters’ belief in God, though such descriptions do not dominate secular novels with contemporary settings. Still, given the fact that most surveys show that somewhere between 80-95% of Americans today believe in God or some kind of higher power, it would be unrealistic to eliminate God or moral issues from popular romance, at least in the United States. The character development of both heroine and hero depend upon their struggles between meeting societal expectations and being true to their own convictions and desires. Perhaps we should even ask whether Neal’s term “secular” romance is an accurate descriptor of romances that are not obviously inspirational or evangelical since religious questions (using a very broad definition of that term) are often raised in popular romance: What gives purpose to my life? What duties do I owe to my family and friends? Is there a destiny that guides me? Can I find happiness and fulfillment without looking beyond myself?

Although the questions I am raising about genre boundaries are not explored in Neal’s book itself, they flow naturally from her discussion. Breaking down the strict division between what is secular and/or religious can be helpful in thinking about the reasons the popular romance genre in general “inspires” women coming from many perspectives, helping them work through their own problems and relationships. Nevertheless, seeing the ways specific evangelical beliefs and identity infiltrate the evangelical romance genre highlights some of the unique characteristics of evangelical women writers and readers, as can be seen by an overview of Neal’s book Romancing God. Neal describes in her Prologue how her study “moved from textual examination” to “a story about evangelical women” (7-8). After interviewing and talking with fifty readers and twenty authors who self-identified as evangelical, Neal became interested in how these women interpret their writing and reading practices as helping them “maintain their religious commitments” (10). She is not interested in either critiquing these women’s beliefs or their choice of reading; rather she wants to get away from stereotypes to show “the complicated piety of ordinary people” (10). Neal’s study reveals that evangelical women read and write romance for three main purposes: first, “to demonstrate and maintain their religious identities” (12); second, to validate “women’s experience of evangelicalism and their roles as wives and mothers, friends, and leaders” in a culture where men still dominate leadership and discourse (12); and third, to both express and strengthen women’s devotion to God. Neal explains: “Through the novels, readers maintain a theology of hope as they realize the power of God’s love amidst the struggles of daily life. For them, a relationship with God represents the ultimate happy ending, an ending that evangelical romances reflect and help them achieve” (13).

In her first chapter, Neal gives a brief history of evangelical romance, starting with the work of Grace Livingstone Hill (writing from 1915-1940s), who was later joined by authors like Catherine Marshall, with her famous novel Christy (1967), Janette Oke, who has written over “two dozen books and sold over sixteen million copies” (29), and two other current writers of best-selling Christian fiction books,” Beverly Lewis and Lori Wick (33). As is true for the romance market in general, “women wield the almighty dollar” in the Christian marketplace (32). Here, too, women’s romance usually is dismissed as “sentimental kitsch,” but evangelical publishers understand the power of multi-million dollar sales, justifying their interest in profit as a means to spread the Christian gospel. Though willing to overlook what they see as literary defects or women’s lack of intellectual rigor, evangelical publishers and booksellers, such as Bethany House, Tyndale, and Zondervan, set up guidelines for women writers to make sure they meet evangelical theological and moral standards.

In chapter two, Neal explores the way evangelical women negotiate their need for entertainment and relaxation with their commitment to fill their everyday lives with service to their religious community and family, devotion to God, and the need to spread their faith. Not surprisingly, evangelical women choose forms of entertainment that also support their religious beliefs and goals. While these women admitted to Neal that they enjoy romance because it allows them to escape and “forget” their problems, they also justified their romance reading, if they did not feel it was out of control, on the basis that it helped them be better people, much more so than TV or other forms of entertainment. Such women also argued that romance fortifies their friendships with other women, including their mothers, daughters, and sisters. These women find “the novels full of fun and faith” (45) that also encourage female bonds. Neal discovered that these romance connections were more likely to happen among white evangelical women than African American Christian readers, who usually were unaware that such a genre as Christian romance exists. Not surprisingly, women of African American descent wanted to read evangelical romances by and about black women, which are difficult to find (54).

Chapters three and four focus on the ways women readers and writers evaluate the worth of evangelical romances in terms of how the novels correspond with their Christian faith and how they work as a ministry to promote evangelical ideals. Sexual depictions, as noted above, are the primary demarcation between romances that inspire and those that detract, in these women’s estimations. These readers assume that secular romances focus on casual sex and promiscuity, as shown by the cover art of “‘unclean romantic novels that are out there everywhere’” (78). Still, evangelical readers want enough sexuality that the main characters do not end up “more like brother and sister” (83). Most of these female readers want their romances to be realistic and to show real women’s problems. They do not like characters that are too perfect or stories that are too “fluffy” (92). They want happy endings that come after a spiritual struggle. They want “novels that worked for them religiously and romantically” (94). As Neal also argues, these women “imagine evangelical romance reading as a devotional practice through which to articulate a women’s faith and a women’s ministry” (106). Though most avenues for ministry are closed to evangelical women, “novels represent a ministry by, for and about women” (108). Many women writers of evangelical romance describe how they felt called by God to minister to other women through their novels; and the letters they receive from their readers reinforce the effectiveness of their spiritual calling.

Neal further explores how women evaluate the benefits of evangelical romance in chapter five. First, readers want characters that fortify their own evangelical identity, characters who are strong, courageous, and full of faith. Second, women want to find everyday encouragement; they hope for change and transformation through the novels, such as learning to forgive, to have more faith, to live better lives, and to love the Bible. Third, women use these novels to feel the presence of God in their lives as part of a larger Christian community.

This last goal connects with Neal’s last chapter, which also ties back to her title Romancing God. As she states, romance “situates my consultants at the center of evangelicalism and God’s love. God is the ultimate lover who pursues them and will always be there for them. For these readers, then, Christianity itself becomes a love story as the novels narrate the power of God’s love, not the force of his judgment” (159). In this view, God is not against romance and sex, but is their author. God created the attraction between men and women, and he uses it to promote his plan for humanity. Using the scriptural language that describes the relationship between God and his people as that between husband and wife, many evangelical readers see romance connected to a divine narrative that transforms “history from a series of random events into a carefully ordered design that demonstrates God’s romance with humanity. Women’s fictional devotion, then, both shapes and reflects this narrative of a God who loves unconditionally” (184). Interestingly, many evangelical romances are set in the nineteenth-century American West as a locus for the hand of God in history.

While this last chapter may show the widest gap between “secular” and evangelical romance, other benefits and tensions religious women find in their romance reading correspond with those identified by Janice A. Radway in her 1984 study of women romance readers, which Neal mentions in her Prologue. Both Radway’s and Neal’s readers use romance to escape their problems, but they also wish to find enlightenment of some kind, even if it is only knowledge of other places and times. Both groups of readers use romance to work through their own identities and relationships, finding both hope and disappointment as they compare their real lives to fictional ones. Both Neal and Radway describe how women romance readers can use their reading practice in a subtly subversive way to claim female empowerment within a patriarchal system, though neither group who were interviewed described it this way. For secular women, this may involve claiming free time for themselves away from family responsibilities to discover personal pleasure. For evangelical women, their belief in their calling to minister to each other and to themselves as they seek to increase their faith and good works elevates the female power they feel through romance; their reading becomes transformational for them personally, even if it does not directly challenge the male system. Unlike Radway, Neal does not make a feminist critique of the content of romance or the reading practice of those she interviews. Rather, she leaves it to readers to make their own evaluation, and the helpful details of Neal’s study make a number of interpretations possible. The scholarly frame and references Neal provides for her data and analysis give a larger context for understanding the nature of her very fine study. What emerges is a nuanced picture of evangelical women readers that will interest scholars of popular romance, material culture, American religious history, and women’s history and literature.


Review: The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies, by Leger Grindon

Review by Betty Kaklamanidou

Whenever I write about the romantic comedy film genre, I start by underlining the absence of adequate academic references, especially regarding contemporary films. Fortunately, during the last two decades a limited number of academic titles have begun to fill in this gap, providing a long-overdue systematic analysis of a culturally significant body of films and one of the most durable film genres in cinematic history. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, there are only four titles that take a holistic approach to the genre, examining it from the screwball comedies of the 1930s to the contemporary filmic texts of the 2000s: Claire Mortimer’s Romantic Comedy (Oxon: Routledge, 2010), Celestino Deleyto’s, The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy (Manchester University Press, 2009), Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s Short Cuts: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre (New York: Wallflower Press, 2007), and Cherry Potter’s I Love You But. . . (London: Methuen, 2002).

Therefore, as a film scholar and especially one that specializes in romantic comedy, I was excited to read and review the most recently published contribution to the romantic comedy (rom com) genre’s bibliography: Professor Leger Grindon’s 2011 The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing). Grindon’s book consists of thirteen chapters and aims to cover the history as well the inherent complexities of the genre from the beginning of the sound era to the present in a readable manner, which is also perfectly suitable for a teaching environment.

In “The Introduction,” the author provides an overview of the main structural ingredients that are found in the majority of the genre’s examples and proceeds by examining them separately under the following headings: “Conflicts,” “Master Plot,” “Characters,” “Masquerade,” “The Setting,” and “Love and Laughter.” Grindon’s structural “anatomy” of the genre is succinct, helpful, and well-founded. The author also delves into the sometimes-ignored aspect of laughter and humor in a genre whose combination of love discourse and the comic constitutes its raison d’être.

In the second chapter, “History, Cycles, and Society,” Grindon charts the history of the genre and establishes the following nine cycles and clusters: the transition to sound cluster (1930-3); the screwball cycle (1934-42), the World War II cluster (1942-6); the post-war cluster (1947-53); the comedies of seduction cycle (1953-66); the transition through the counter-culture cluster (1967-76); the nervous romance cycle (1977-87); the reaffirmation of romance cycle (1986-96); and the grotesque and ambivalent cycle (1997 to the present). This categorization is based on specific time and societal criteria; Grindon’s taxonomy is interesting and constitutes a valuable methodological tool that can be used and/or amended by future researchers of the field. Furthermore, the author’s analysis of each cycle or cluster contains a lot of insightful comments on characterization, plot, and societal relevance of the genre in specific time periods.

In the third chapter, “Thinking Seriously about Laughter and Romance,” Grindon draws mainly on Northrop Frye’s work on comedy, and examines how jokes, humor, and laughter are intertwined in the genre and also inextricably associated with the journey of the heterosexual couple towards a blissful union. The author then proceeds by discussing the political dimension of the genre, and concludes by showing how the romantic comedy “exhibits a wide-ranging capacity for political expression rather than a predetermined ideology” (81). Grindon’s clear writing style makes complex theoretical issues easily accessible to every reader—from the first-year undergraduate student and/or romance enthusiast to the foreign scholar—and thus facilitates not only the reading process, but also the understanding and assimilation of concepts that can sometimes remain abstract or confusingly undetermined.

The next ten chapters are dedicated to the close reading of a single film from each of the nine cycles and clusters the author defined in his second chapter (there are two films from “the grotesque and ambivalent cycle”). The majority of the films Grindon discusses are paradigmatic instances of the genre, such as His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), The Graduate (1967), Annie Hall (1979), and When Harry Met Sally (1989). Although most of the films in Grindon’s book have already been meticulously examined in various rom com and/or genre anthologies, the author adds to the discussion with his perceptive analysis, and it is very useful to the film/media student/scholar, the romance scholar/enthusiast to have all these canonical texts in a single volume. The model readings Grindon provides could also be of great use to anyone interested in writing on something less canonical or at the borders of the genre.

The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies does not try to offer a new, comprehensive theoretical or sociopolitical account of this popular genre. Rather, as its subtitle suggests, this slim, two-hundred-page volume takes a practical, teachable approach to the romantic comedy genre. However, in emphasizing the practical and pedagogical use of this book, I do not mean to suggest that those with an extensive scholarly background will not learn from it as well. Quite the contrary: Grindon’s analysis of the importance of humor and laughter cover a much needed theoretical aspect of the genre’s structure, whose importance and narrative function constitute a fruitful terrain for future scholarly discussion. What is more, his readings of less examined and/or non-canonical romantic comedies, such as the almost scatological There’s Something About Mary (1998), or the little known independent gem Waitress (2007) offer astute observations that illuminate the reader and stimulate the scholar.

Grindon’s contribution to the romantic comedy film bibliography is a valuable addition to the limited number of similar scholarly endeavors, and it seems well-designed for classroom use—not just for teaching the particular films he discusses, but also for teaching methodology. The romantic comedy genre has rarely received the sort of academic recognition it deserves, but students, film scholars, romance scholars, and rom-com enthusiasts all over the world will find The Hollywood Romantic Comedy a fine introduction to this culturally and politically significant  film genre.


“Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries” by Crystal Goldman


As the field of Popular Romance Studies grows, greater emphasis needs to be placed on how and where popular romance scholars gain access to research materials, specifically in regard to academic libraries. While there is a growing amount of information available freely on the internet, relying solely on web-based sources can leave gaps in research. Libraries provide access not only to proprietary subscription journals, databases, and books, but also to rare and fragile primary source material in their special collections.

Some attention has been given to the collection of popular romance1 works in public libraries in the United States (Adkins et al.), but very little has been documented on the collection development practices of university libraries, which facilitate access to primary and secondary sources for popular romance studies. Unlike the U.S., Australia remains a forerunner in popular romance collection development. In 1997, Juliet Flesch wrote about the University of Melbourne’s Australiana collection beginning to include romance novels written by Australian and New Zealand authors, although they do not seek a comprehensive but rather a representative collection (Flesch 120-121). However, this is vastly more than can be said for academic libraries anywhere else in the world.

Most university libraries actively purchase resources that support departments on their campus—with shrinking acquisitions budgets, this is often all that libraries can afford to collect. Despite Nora Roberts’ donation to McDaniel College to establish a minor program, Popular Romance Studies has yet to gain a toehold as a major department on any university campus in the United States, which means that collections in this area tend to be haphazard, at best (“Nora Roberts Foundation”). In addition, the cross-disciplinary nature of this field makes purchasing new sources difficult for librarians who serve as liaisons to specific academic disciplines and have only the power to buy materials for their assigned departments. Library special collections may collect popular romance materials, despite the lack of a major department on campus; however, this is often dependent on donations rather than a commitment of funds toward a comprehensive collection (Sewell 459; Flesch 121).

With no cohesive vision for which items to collect and little justification for fiscally supporting popular romance studies material, vital monographs, papers, and articles are not being preserved by libraries for future researchers’ use and may, indeed, be lost from record entirely. The question of how to assure ongoing access to resources that are valuable to this field is one that must be acknowledged and addressed as soon as possible.

Defining Library Collections

There are multiple models for who is responsible for collection development in university libraries. The most common model is that each librarian specializes in different academic disciplines and serves as the liaison to that department or set of departments. What this means is that those who are liaison librarians are responsible for all library instruction, reference consultations, and collection development for their assigned departments. Note that with each librarian tied to major departments, collection development becomes problematic for areas such as Popular Romance Studies, which is not a major or minor available at most universities. An exception to this model are librarians who work in special collections, which focus on collecting and preserving rare and valuable items for future researchers, whereas subject liaison librarians typically collect for their library’s general collection.

Collection development may be carried out by different librarians, depending on the practices, policies, and organizational model each library employs; however, the process and goals remain essentially the same.

Collection development is a term representing the process of systematically building library collections to serve study, teaching, research, recreational, and other needs of library users. The process includes selection and deselection of current and retrospective materials, planning of coherent strategies for continuing acquisition, and evaluation of collections to ascertain how well they serve user needs. (Gabriel 3)

The strategies involved in planning for continuing acquisition of library materials must inevitably touch on the deep budget cuts most U.S. universities and their libraries have faced in the last decade. What libraries can afford to spend money on has become increasingly narrow. In the course of collection development, librarians have to ask themselves what the library cannot do without—what make up the core works in each area—so that the library has the essentials for students and faculty to use for their research. The fundamental principle of a core collection is that “certain books and films are standard classic titles that are at the very heart of a library’s collection and form the foundation upon which a library’s collection is built” (Alabaster vii).

However, what has also become an issue in the field of Library and Information Science is the very definition of a collection. While collection development for librarians is a “process of dealing with the collections they acquire, maintain, and evaluate. These three areas of collection development have undergone extensive technological expansion in the past few years and this has lead to a conflict with the more transitory nature of genre literature” (Futas 39). What we see is that collections have been traditionally defined by four criteria: ownership, tangibility, a distinct user community, and an integrated retrieval system (Lee 1106). The proliferation of freely available information online, combined with users from across the globe entering the library through search engines such as Google Scholar, instead of patrons from the home institution finding library sources through the traditional catalog, makes it difficult for librarians to define which users they are serving primarily and how best to facilitate that service so users find the most relevant sources. Compounding that issue are the many electronic refereed journals that are open access, such as the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. It is online and available to anyone to view, so can every library consider it part of their collection, or can none of them? It is not tangible and the library will never own a physical copy to keep on their shelves, so the question becomes as nebulous as trying to define a collection.

Moreover, the research status of a library—very high research activity, high research activity, etc—is partially determined by counting the volumes available in the library, meaning ownership plays an important role in this determination. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate representation of how patrons use the library. Circulation statistics for books and other physical items are going down, and use of online sources such as article databases and ebooks is skyrocketing. However, this kind of content is neither tangible nor owned. In many cases, it is leased, licensed, or rented, but it is not owned as part of a library collection, and if a library gives up a subscription, the back files often go with the subscription, unlike a print journal where the older volumes would still belong to the library.

Without the constraints of the traditional criteria, the best definition for a collection is that it is an “accumulation of information resources developed by information professionals intended for a user community or a set of communities” (Lee 1106). How one defines the community or communities one serves is a matter decided by the administration of each library or university.

Who Should Collect Popular Romance?

With shrinking budgets, librarians must decide what is essential to their collections and spend what monies they have on those items. The audience or community most academic librarians serve is the faculty and students of their home institution. With that in mind, the first priority has to be to buy for the departments on campus. So far, only McDaniel College has a department on campus with a popular romance minor, and thus a mandate to purchase materials in that area. There are other universities who collect popular romance as part of a larger popular culture collection or in their special collections, but those collections are, by definition, special and not always accessible to those who use the general collection. Furthermore, libraries may acquire romance as a subset of the general collection, specifically geared toward leisure reading for students and faculty rather than as material used for scholarly study (Dewan; Heish and Runner).

There are those librarians who advocate for buying best-sellers such as romance novels for research purposes in academic libraries because these works are a reflection of our culture and, if we do not collect and preserve them now, these materials may be lost forever (Sewell 450; Crawford and Harries 216; Moran 6; Hallyburton, Buchanan, and Carstens 109). A study conducted by Justine Alsop confirms that collecting contemporary popular fiction as part of the library’s general research collection has found increasing acceptance among English literature librarians (584), but this movement has a long way to go before it receives the mass acceptance needed for popular romance to be a significant part of academic library collections.

Several factors play into why popular romance may not be collected by university libraries. For example, librarians have variously claimed that popular culture materials: do not relate to their institutional mission, are delivered by public libraries, garner only transitory interest from patrons, place too high a demand on limited budgets, shelf space, and staff time, and are often printed in paperback format, which is a preservation nightmare (Sewell 453, 459; Van Fleet 71; Alsop 581-582; Hsieh and Runner 192-193; Odess-Harnish 56; Hallyburton, Buchanan, and Carstens 109).

Mass-market paperbacks are often printed on acidic paper that becomes yellow, brittle, and unusable over time. The options available for preserving these works, such as performing a deacidification process on the paper or reformatting the books by microfilming or digitizing, are all quite costly, especially considering the volume of romance novels printed per year. Pillete (2003) estimates that the cost for microfilming one book is $125 U.S. dollars, digitizing is $50 U.S. dollars per book, and neither of these methods does anything to preserve the original work. Deacidification, even if done in mass quantities, could still be as much as $16 U.S. dollars per average volume (Pillete 1-5). One might think that ebooks would be a viable solution, considering they are in their native digital format and solve many preservation and space-saving concerns; however, many older romance titles are not yet available in ebook format and the licensing agreements for ebooks with libraries can become a barrier to access, especially since there is no possibility of checking out an item to a researcher who is not a patron of the library that has licensed the ebook, as in the case of interlibrary loan.

Another reason for lack of collection in this area is that liaison librarians tend to depend on review sources to help make collection development decisions. Popular romance is not generally covered by standard review sources, and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Review sources claim there are too many romance novels to possibly begin to review them all, and there is not enough space to deal with them on the pages of the review issues (Fialkoff 118). Consequently, librarians claim there is not enough space to handle romance novels in the stacks of the library, especially when librarians must ask themselves if this is the best use of the space they have. Is this what researchers are going to need or use the most? Is it the best way to spend a limited library budget, especially if they cannot even get reviews of these books in their normal sources to indicate the quality of the work?

This could be seen as a string of excuses, or prejudice against popular culture materials, or prejudice against popular romance, specifically. There has been an ongoing resistance to collecting popular materials in academic libraries, with these items viewed as a “disposable culture” not worthy of preserving (Hoppenstand 236), and libraries are slow to change to a new way of collecting (Sewell 453; Odess-Harnish 56). However, beyond any prejudice is the reality of romance publishing. According to the most recent statistics from the Romance Writers of America, romance makes up 13.2% of the consumer market and produces over 9,000 books per year (RWA, “Romance Literature Statistics: Industry Statistics”). Not only would collecting all of these works take up a lot of shelf space, but it would also require a library to invest a not insignificant amount of money into purchasing the books, and also preserving them. It is perhaps for this reason that even libraries that do collect popular romance materials often rely heavily, if not exclusively, on donations to grow their collections (Sewell 459; Flesch 121; Adkins et al. 63).

Where Should Popular Romance Materials be Shelved?

Despite the budgetary and spatial constraints, there are libraries that have impressive collections of popular culture materials, which may include popular romance. If a library acquires popular romance, a decision must then be made about where these materials should be housed within the library’s collections. The two usual options are a special collection, which can mean the main special collection of a library or a smaller subset, such as a popular culture special collection; or the general collection, which may indicate the library’s main stacks or a subset called a “browsing collection” or “leisure reading collection.” There are clear benefits and drawbacks to both special and general collections. The benefit of a special collection is that special collections librarians actively work to preserve their materials, and the drawback is that sometimes their finding aids may describe their collections, but not the individual items in that collection. If a patron is looking for a specific book, finding out if the library owns it can become an issue. Conversely, general collections usually provide full cataloguing for materials, but there is less concern for preservation. Any patron can check these materials out, not just researchers, and if these books are lost or damaged, they may not always be replaced.

Even within the main stacks of the general collections, it is often unclear where popular romance material will be shelved. The field of Popular Romance Studies is cross-disciplinary, as noted on the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance’s (IASPR) and the Journal of Popular Romance Studies’ (JPRS) websites. IASPR’s Mission page claims that the organization is “dedicated to fostering and promoting the scholarly exploration of all popular representations of romantic love,” and the JPRS’s About page adds that these representations may be in “popular media, now and in the past, from anywhere in the world.” This is an undeniably, and deliberately, broad definition for the field. The JPRS About page goes on to elaborates that

we welcome [ . . . ] contributions from all relevant disciplines, including African American / Black Diaspora Studies, Art, Communications, Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, Education, English, Film Studies, History, LGBTQ Studies, Marketing, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies, Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies.

There is nothing wrong with a field having a broad scope, especially when the journal publishing these resources is online. However, libraries are physical buildings that are “highly organized systems which provide information which is, by and large, contained in print materials [ . . . ] that can be only in one place at a time” (Searing 7). Cataloguing materials for the general collection of most academic libraries in the United States involves using the subject headings from the Library of Congress Classification system. While multiple subject headings can be assigned to each work, only one can be primary, which then indicates where an item will be shelved. A small sampling of subject headings assigned to scholarly monographs in Popular Romance Studies include

Love stories — Appreciation.

Love stories, American — History and criticism.

Love stories, English — History and criticism.

American fiction — 20th century — History and criticism.

Authors and readers — United States.

Sex role in literature.

Popular literature — History and criticism.

Popular literature — English-speaking countries — History and criticism.

Women and literature — Australia — History — 20th century.

Women — Books and reading — United States.

Therefore, as with all interdisciplinary fields, even if a library does acquire popular romance, the materials will be scattered throughout the general collection, unless it is placed together in a special collection. There is no uniform approach to handling popular culture materials in academic libraries. How each library chooses to handle this issue is individual to the library and the group of librarians entrusted with managing the collection.

Popular Romance Scholarship Core Collection

While “academic libraries may collect mainstream fiction, it is more often the case that works about a particular author or novel [or film] will be included in the collection, while the specific works (primary sources) are unavailable except through interlibrary loan or a visit to a local public library” (Van Fleet 66). If this is the case, one might ask how likely it is for academic libraries to collect these secondary sources when they do not have a popular romance major or minor program? Secondary sources can also be primary sources, but for the sake of simplicity, this article is going to label secondary sources as those which analyze or examine popular romance for a scholarly audience.

Van Fleet’s statement again raises the issue of the need for a core collection. Which works define the absolute minimum that would be required to say a library had a core collection of romance scholarship? If popular romance scholars cannot define this, it will be difficult for a library unversed in popular romance to do so either. To begin the process of defining a core collection, and to find out how likely it is for those core works to be collected by academic libraries, this article will borrow from a list complied by Pamela Regis and posted on the RomanceScholar Listserv (see Appendix A). Also, the author of this article received a $1,000 U.S. New Faculty Fund to buy monographs for the library collection when hired in 2009 at San Jose State University in California. This fund was used to purchase popular romance scholarship, and a list of those purchases was compared to Pamela Regis’s list. The two lists compiled many of the same works, with the exception of approximately 10 titles (see Appendix B). Combined, these lists make up a rough estimate of the core collection in this area, which added up to 45 titles in total.

To gain an understanding of how likely it is for universities to collect popular romance scholarship, this article examines the two public university systems in California as a case study.

The California State University (CSU) system has 23 campuses, a full time undergraduate enrollment of almost 350,000 students, and an additional 49,000 graduate students. The CSUs are teaching institutions that offer Bachelors and Masters degrees. A few CSUs offer joint or gateway doctoral degrees and several campuses are in the process of opening doctoral programs in education, physical therapy, and nursing, but these programs are the exception rather than the rule (“CSU Term Enrollment Summary – Fall 2010”; “CSU Historic Milestones”).

The second system is the University of California (UC), which has 10 campuses with a full time undergraduate enrollment of approximately 180,000, and a graduate enrollment of 45,000. The percentage of graduate enrollment is much higher in this system because these are research institutions, offering doctoral studies for many of their major departments (“UC Statistical Summary of Students and Staff – Fall 2010”).  It would seem logical that the UC campuses would have more romance scholarship in their collections because they have more money to spend on research materials, but with no major departments in the area, it did not seem likely that many of the core list items would appear in their collections.

In addition to examining the collections of California’s public university systems, this study also took an initial look at how many libraries worldwide owned the popular romance core works. This was accomplished by searching for each title in WorldCat, the largest catalog in the world, which indexes the holdings of about 72,000 libraries in 170 countries (“WorldCat Facts and Statistics”). All of the CSU and UC libraries are represented in WorldCat, so there was some cross over in the results.

For the UC libraries, a search for each popular romance core title was conducted in Melvyl, the union catalog for the UC system, which lists the holding for each edition and format of the volumes in those libraries. The union catalog for the CSU libraries was also searched for each title. It is important to note that this study was not weighted toward any specific edition or format. If a library held a first edition in hardcover in their collections, it would be counted equally with a library that held a third edition in ebook format, for example.

Fig. 1 displays the results for the search of the CSU libraries. Only one campus had none of the books on the list, but it was the California Maritime Academy, which focuses on educating those who want to join the merchant marines. The CSUs at Channel Islands and Monterey Bay are both the smallest and newest campuses, which would attribute to a smaller collection overall and thus lower numbers in this study (“CSU Term Enrollment Summary – Fall 2010”; “CSU Historic Milestones”).

Fig. 1 Number of core popular romance titles held by each CSU library.


The results for the UC institutions are displayed in Fig. 2. Again, the newest and smallest campus at UC Merced returned low numbers, as well as UC San Francisco, which focuses heavily on medicine and the hard sciences and thus would be less likely to collect in an area such as Popular Romance Studies, which, despite its interdisciplinary nature, is still weighted toward social science and humanities disciplines.

Fig. 2 Number of core popular romance titles held by each UC library.


Overall, the CSU average was 17.4 of the 45 popular romance core titles, and the UC average was 28.5 titles. The highest collectors in the CSUs were San Jose with 34 titles, which can be attributed to the selections made with the author’s New Faculty Fund, Fresno with 29 titles, and a tie between East Bay and San Bernadino, each with 28 titles. There are two librarians at East Bay who have most likely contributed to the high number of core titles there. Doug Highsmith, who has published several times on the importance of collecting popular culture materials, and Kristin Ramsdell, who co-wrote an article called “Core Collections in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101” (Wyatt et al.). It is unclear, however, why San Bernadino or Frenso would rank above the other CSUs in this area.

The top three UC libraries were Berkeley with 39 of the core titles, and Davis and Irvine, each with 36 of the titles. Other than the fact that these are some of the largest UC campuses, there is no clear reason why they collected more popular romance scholarship than the other UCs. A key question is whether librarians specifically selected these titles for acquisition, or if they came into the library’s collections via an approval plan.

Many libraries do not make all of their acquisitions decisions. Instead, they subscribe to an approval plan through a book vendor, which sends a selection of books based on a profile of the library’s patrons. These approval plans can save libraries money both in staff time as well as through discounts from the vendors. However, the vendors often overlook smaller publishers in their approval plans; therefore, librarians need to fill in those gaps with individual title selection. If the popular romance titles became part of the library’s collections through an approval plan, it is possible the librarians, faculty, and staff on that campus had very little or nothing to do with those acquisitions. If they were individually selected titles, one has to wonder which librarian supported popular romance studies, or which major department she was gearing the selection toward. There are many questions still unanswered, and further research needs to be conducted in this area.

Regardless of how or why the titles became part of library collections, they are still available to the faculty and students of those campuses for research. Of the titles on the core list, which were the most likely to be collected, for whatever reason? This is a broader question than the CSU and UC systems, so it was important to include results from WorldCat as well. Fig. 3 shows the top five titles collected by libraries indexed in WorldCat. There are columns comparing how many UC or CSU libraries also collected these same titles. In WorldCat, Germaine Greer’s work was the most collected and was held in over 3,000 libraries. In the top five, Greer was followed by Janice Radway, John Cawelti, Northrop Frye, and Tania Modleski.

Fig. 3 Popular romance core titles held by the greatest number of libraries in WorldCat.


For the CSUs, we see the same titles, but in a slightly different order, with Frye jumping up from fourth to third. Cawelti, Modleski, and Leslie W. Rabine were in a three-way tie for the final spot. These numbers and their comparative UC and WorldCat rankings are displayed in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4 Popular romance core titles held by the greatest number of CSU libraries.


In the UC results displayed in Fig. 5, a few other titles rose to the top. Greer tied with Lynn Neal and Lynn Pearce as the most collected works in the UC system.

Fig. 5 Popular romance core titles held by the greatest number of UC libraries.


Interestingly, there were sixteen titles held by eight of the ten UC campuses, lending some credence to the idea that research universities are, on the whole, more likely to collect popular romance scholarship, despite the lack of a Popular Romance Studies program.

Fig. 6 Sixteen popular romance core titles held by eight UC libraries.


None of the UC or CSU libraries had a complete collection of the core list; however, only one title was not collected at all, and that was Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan. One might speculate that this book would be considered the least “academic” of the works listed, and was thus overlooked by academic librarians and not included in approval plans for these university libraries.


There are several recommendations for popular romance scholars that can be given based on the information presented in this article. The first is that, if popular romance scholars want libraries to collect their core list of titles, especially with the vast amount of primary source material produced each year, they need to have a list of core titles. Librarians rely on review sources to help them choose which titles to select, and the review sources neglect popular romance materials. To fill this gap, it is recommended that IASPR put together a committee to compile a true core list of primary and secondary titles for popular romance studies. This list would need to be updated annually to include new titles.

As demonstrated by the comparison of research institutions, the UCs; and teaching intuitions, the CSUs; it is much more likely for research institutions to have the fiscal ability to collect new materials. Therefore, it would seem the best way to have an academic library dedicate the funds towards collecting popular romance materials would be to have a university—preferably a research level, doctoral granting institution—with a major department for Popular Romance Studies. How likely or how soon that is to happen is unknown, but it is a goal romance scholars should continue to strive for.

While it is possible for an academic library to collect every scholarly work on the popular romance core list, it would be an overwhelming expense for any one library to acquire a comprehensive collection of every primary source in popular romance studies. Therefore, a final recommendation would be to identify several libraries interested in collecting in this area and focus on a coordinated collection development effort at a national, regional, or consortial level in order to spread the cost and ensure a broader coverage of materials. In this way, romance scholars can ensure every primary and secondary core title is held and preserved by at least one library, and that there is no danger of losing valuable research materials forever, which, in the case of romance novels printed on acidic paper, becomes ever more likely with each year that passes.

Works Cited

“About.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, n.d. Web. 14 June 2011. <>

“About the Romance Genre.” Romance Writers of America, 2012. Web. 11 June 2012. <>

Adkins, Denise, Linda Esser, Diane Velasquez, and Heather L. Hill. “Romance Novels in American Public Libraries: A Study of Collection Development Practices.”  Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services 32.2 (2008): 59-67. Science Direct. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.

Alabaster, Carol. Developing an Outstanding Core Collection. 2nd ed. Chicago: American Library Association, 2010. Print.

Bowring, Joanna. “And then he kissed her. . . ” Library & Information Update 7.6 (2008): 35-37. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 28 May 2011.

Crawford, Gregory A., and Matthew Harris. “Best-sellers in Academic Libraries.” College & Research Libraries 62.3 (2001): 216-225. WilsonWeb. Web. 26 May 2011

“CSU Historic Milestones.” Public Affairs. The California State University, 2011. Web. 25 July 2011. <>

“CSU Term Enrollment Summary – Fall 2010.” Analytic Studies Statistical Reports. The California State University, 2011. Web. 21 May 2011. <>

Dewan, Pauline. “Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Reading Collection Now More Than Ever.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 17.1 (2010): 44-64. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 28 May 2011.

Fialkoff, Francine. “Romancing the Patron.” Library Journal 117.21 (1992): 118. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 28 May 2011.

Flesch, Juliet.  “Not Just Housewives and Old Maids.” Collection Building 16.3 (1997): 119-124. Emerald Managment Xtra. Web. 23 February 2011.

Gabriel, Michael R. Collection Development and Evaluation: A Sourcebook. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1995. Print.

Hallyburton, Ann W., Heidi E. Buchanan, and Timothy V. Carstens. “Serving the Whole Person: Popular Materials in Academic Libraries.” Collection Building 30.2 (2011): 109-112. Emerald. Web. 5 April 2011.

Hsieh, Cynthia, and Rhonelle Runner. “Textbooks, Leisure Reading, and the Academic Library. Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services 29.2 (2005): 192-204. Science Direct. Web. 28 April 2011.

Hoppenstand, Gary. “Editorial: Collecting Popular Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 38.2 (2004): 235-238. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 July 2011.

Johnson, Peggy. Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004. Print.

Lee, Hur-Li. “What is a collection?” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51 (2000): 1106-1113. Wiley. Web. 26 May 2011.

“Mission.” International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, n.d. Web. 14 June 2011. <>

Moran, Barbara B. “Going Against the Grain: A Rationale for the Collection of Popular Materials in Academic Libraries.” Popular Culture and Acquisitions. Ed. Allen Ellis. New York: Hawthorn, 1992. Print.

“Nora Roberts Foundation Gives McDaniel $100,000 for Research, Course Development.” McDaniel College News & Events, 1 June 2011. Web. 2 June 2011. <>

Odess-Harnish, Kerri. “Making Sense of Leased Popular Literature Collections.” Collection Management 27.2 (2002): 55-74. InformaWorld. Web. 7 July 2011.

Overcash, Gina R. “An Unsuitable Job for a Librarian? Collection Development of Mystery and Detective Fiction in Academic Libraries.” The Acquisitions Librarian 4.8 (1993): 69-89. InformaWorld. Web. 28 April 2011.

Pillete, Roberta. “Mass Deacidification: A Preservation Option for Libraries.” World Library and Information Congress: 69th IFLA General Conference and Council. 1-9 August 2003, Berlin, Germany. Web. 7 July 2011. < >

Regis, Pamela. “Canonical Works in Romance Studies.” RomanceScholar Listserv Online Posting. RomanceScholar, 17 May 2011.  Web. 18 May 2011.

“Romance Genres.” Romance Writers of Australia, 2012. Web. 11 June 2012. <>

“Romance Literature Statistics: Industry Statistics.” Romance Writers of America, 2009. Web. 6 June 2011. <>

Searing, Susan E. “How Libraries Cope with Interdisciplinarity: The Case of Women’s Studies.” Issues in Integrative Studies 10 (1992): 7-25. Web. 12 May 2011.

Seeman, Corey. “Collecting and Managing Popular Culture Material.” Collection Management 27:2 (2003): 3-21. InformaWorld. 28 April 2011. Print.

Sewell, Robert G. “Trash or Treasure? Pop Fiction in Academic and Research Libraries.” College & Research Libraries 45:6 (1984): 450-461. Web. 12 May 2011.

“UC Statistical Summary of Students and Staff – Fall 2010.” Statistical Summary and Data on UC Students, Faculty, and Staff. University of California Office of the President, 2011. Web. 21 May 2011. <>

Van Fleet, Connie. “Popular Fiction Collections in Academic and Public Libraries.” Acquisitions Librarian 15.29 (2003): 63-85. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 28 May 2011.

“What is Romantic Fiction?” Romantic Novelists Association, 2012. Web. 11 June 2012. <>

“WorldCat Facts and Statistics.” Online Computer Library Center, 2011. Web. 23 May 2011. <>

Wyatt, Neal, Georgine Olson, Kristin Ramsdell, Joyce Saricks, and Lynne Welch. “Core Collections in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 47.2 (2007): 120-125.  Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.


Appendix A

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

Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1994.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mussell, Kay, ed. “Where’s Love Gone?: Transformations in the Romance Genre.” Paradoxa Vol. 3, No. 1-2. Vashon Island, WA: Delta Production, 1997.

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

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Appendix B

Byatt, Antonia. Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. New York: Turtle Bay Books, 1992.

Carr, Helen, ed. From My Guy to Sci-fi: Genre and Women’s Writing in the Postmodern World. London: Pandora Press, 1989.

Frantz, Sarah S.G., and Katharina Rennhak, eds. Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010.

Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity, and Popular Culture. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

McKnight-Trontz, Jennifer. The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Salmon, Catherine, and Donald Symons. Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Schurman, Lydia Cushman, and Deidre Johnson, eds. Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-produced Fiction in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Watson, Daphne. Their Own Worst Enemies: Women Writers of Women’s Fiction. London: Pluto Press, 1994.

1 “Popular romance” can also be referred to as “romantic fiction,” and either term can include works that do not have a happily-ever-after ending. Although novels are not the only medium for popular romance/romantic fiction, this article relies on definitions provided by romance author organizations such as the Romance Writers of America, the Romance Writers of Australia, and the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association for its definition of popular romance/romance fiction. While the Romantic Novelists’ Association sidesteps a true definition, it does call for a love story within the scope of the work (“What is Romantic Fiction?”). Both of the other organizations’ basic definition of romance includes works that have a central focus on a love story with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (“About the Romance Genre”; “Romance Genres”). This article prefers the narrower parameters offered by America and Australia, but embraces the idea that popular romance/romantic fiction need not conclude with the traditional happily-ever-after.


“’Just Say Yes’: the Romanticisation of Love in Sex and the City” by Beatriz Oria

Welcome to the age of “un-innocence.” No one has breakfast at Tiffany’s, and no one has affairs to remember. Instead, we have breakfast at 7:00 a. m . . . and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. Self-protection and closing the deal are paramount. Cupid has flown the co-op. How the hell did we get into this mess? (“Sex and the City” 1: 1).

Taken from Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (1996), this short passage is featured at the beginning of the pilot episode of its successful eponymous series, thus announcing its ironic tone and detached attitude towards love. It is precisely this self-conscious pride in its cynical view of romance that makes SATC’s[1] contradictions the more paradoxical: the show is fully aware of the impossibility of belief in fairy tale endings at the turn of the millennium, but its narrative premise is largely based on its protagonists’ tireless search for the “One” and the elusive “happily ever after.”

SATC is not alone in this contradiction. Many contemporary romantic popular culture texts aimed at women are caught in this double bind. The recurrence of this pattern prompts a variety of questions. In a moment in which there is an unprecedented number of options at our disposal for the organisation of our intimate lives, why this vehement insistence on pursuing old blueprints for romance? In a time in which women are presumably freed from conventional gender roles, what is still so compelling about the most “traditional” model of heterosexual coupling? What is so fetching about romantic love in a society which systematically scorns clichéd romantic notions? How can our postmodern self-awareness and romantic cynicism be compatible with the desire for a “happily ever after”?

All these questions are routinely tackled by SATC, a show aired between 1998 and 2004, which earned a remarkable popularity and cultural influence at the turn of the millennium. The show appeared on HBO, a subscription-only cable channel free from the pressure of satisfying advertisers and mainstream audiences’ tastes, and the cable network’s brand identity—it was and remains associated with quality, cutting-edge products often featuring sex, violence and profanity (Leverette; McCabe and Akass)—also contributed to SATC’s freedom to address “thorny” subjects, especially in terms of sex. However, despite the centrality and explicitness with which sex is shown and discussed in the series, a closer look reveals that SATC’s real preoccupations are more far-reaching. Rather than focusing primarily on sex, as its title seems to announce, SATC is more prone to dissect the vicissitudes of contemporary romantic relationships, posing such questions as: can women aspire to “have it all”, or should they settle for what they can get before it is too late? How much of oneself is it acceptable to sacrifice in a relationship? Is the One just a harmful myth? What are the deal breakers in contemporary relationships? Have men really accepted the new roles played by women? Deep down, do women just want to be “rescued” by Prince Charming? When it comes to relationships, is it smarter to follow your head or your heart?

Some of these questions have been addressed in the extensive scholarship that exists on the show. Much of this work attends to the treatment of sex on SATC (Markle; Henry; Ross; Comella; Arthurs; Akass and McCabe). Critics have also debated the series’ progressive or conservative attitude in terms of gender, class and race representations (Hanks; Nelson; Siegel; Odendhal; Arthurs, 2003; Merck; Greven; Gerhard; Gill; Baird; Jermyn; Escudero-Alías). Most of all, though, SATC scholarship has wrestled with the show’s stance towards feminism, an issue which provokes a striking degree of disagreement. On the one hand, there are those who, broadly speaking, regard the show as anti-feminist (Raven; Bignell; D’Erasmo; Coren; Roberts; Gill), describing it with terms which range from “feminism lite” (Bunting) to “surprisingly retrograde” (Orenstein). Many other scholars, however, praise what they see as the show’s feminist commitment to empowering female viewers and to supporting a model of female friendship which not only presents singleness as a legitimate way of life for women, but also contributes to the development of an alternative vision of the contemporary family (Wolf; Sayeau; Jermyn; Nelson; Gerhard; Henry; Kohli).

This heated debate on SATC’s status as “feminist” or “antifeminist” may stem from the fact that this series cannot be easily classified as either one. A product of the postfeminist zeitgeist in which it is inscribed, SATC—like postfeminism itself—features highly contradictory (and even antithetical) discourses, which render it a more complex text than some critics are willing to concede.[2] Although the term postfeminism sometimes refers to the backlash that took place against feminist achievements in the 1980s (Faludi; Modleski; Greer), when referring to contemporary media texts the term has come primarily to signify a mixture of feminist and anti-feminist ideas, continuity and rupture, an updating of the movement, and a return to pre-feminist values. This is not surprising, as one of postfeminism’s main objectives is a realignment between feminism and femininity (Brunsdon; McRobbie; Hollows). This “realignment” is commonly perceived as a kind of “schizophrenia” when consuming postfeminist texts, either in written form, like Bridget Jones’s Diary (Fielding) and Marian Keyes’s “chick-lit” novels, or in their visual counterparts (SATC and Ally McBeal on TV and most romantic comedies made today for the big screen). These texts present conflicting attitudes towards traditionally feminist preoccupations such as women’s sexuality, marriage, or the family, reflecting what Angela McRobbie has termed the “double entanglement” of postfeminism, which “comprises the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality, and family life [ . . . ] with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual, and kinship relations” (255-256). Thus, for example, postfeminist heroines may use their empowered positions to choose apparently anti-feminist options. For some, such choices represent the healthy “return” of a kind of femininity repressed by second-wave feminism, which is said to have dismissed the pleasures connected to the most “traditional” values associated to femininity. For others, of course, the same decisions are more plausibly read as the distressing re-packaging of pre-feminist ideas as postfeminist freedoms (Gill 269-270), a step backwards in the feminist struggle cloaked in the rhetoric of liberal market values.

A paradigmatic postfeminist text, SATC lends itself to either reading, even within individual episodes: at one moment, the show is reassuring women of the pleasure of being able to buy one’s own apartment, while the next it is panicking at its protagonists’ singleness (“Four Women and a Funeral” 2: 5). The show’s postfeminist contradictions are particularly visible when we consider the show’s ambivalent take on the issue of romance. Torn between the potentially emancipatory power of love and the limitations that love imposes on the self, the show portrays contemporary women as torn between a longing for intimacy and their wish to preserve their autonomous subjectivity, often framing the latter in contractual, even consumerist terms. Rather than attempt to analyze SATC’s approach to the issue of romance in the series as a whole—ninety-four episodes of ambivalence and conflicted discourses, spread across six different seasons—this essay will focus on a single exemplary episode: “Just Say Yes” (4: 12) Using sociological theories on contemporary individualisation processes (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002) and the tendency towards the romanticisation of love (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2004), I will argue that the show’s apparently cynical view of love actually betrays a deep wish to believe in the possibility of old-fashioned, unrestrained romance. The tension between love as a matter of “closing the deal” and love as Cupid’s return to the co-op, to paraphrase the voice-over quoted above, might well have left the show, in Carrie’s terms, a “mess.” The “mess” is managed, however, through SATC’s deployment and revision of conventions from the romantic comedy genre.

Wrong Ring, Wrong Guy

The central plot of “Just Say Yes” concerns Aidan’s (John Corbett) marriage proposal to Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker). It starts with “ominous” words: “My building is going co-op!” Carrie announces to Aidan as she walks into her apartment. This means that she either has to move, or buy the place, which she cannot afford. Aidan offers to buy both her apartment and the one next door, so that they can tear down the wall and live together. This is Carrie’s and Aidan’s second attempt at their relationship after Carrie’s infidelity with Big (Chris Noth). However, this time everything seems to be going smoothly, so Aidan’s offer is tempting. She does not say “yes,” but this does not stop him from unofficially moving in, leaving his stuff all over the place and upsetting Carrie. In the next scene we see Carrie cleaning up while he is having a shower. While tidying his bag she accidentally finds an engagement ring. She looks at it in astonishment for some seconds, after which she runs to the sink to throw up. This is followed by a quick cut to Charlotte’s (Kristen Davis) reaction to the news: “You’re getting engaged!” she gurgles, excitedly. Evidently, her interpretation of the event is very different from Carrie’s. As usual, the girls have gotten together for lunch and they are discussing the issue.

The episode’s premise hinges on the many possibilities regarding coupling in contemporary America (and elsewhere). Coupled life may be accessed through marriage, through cohabitation or simply through “interpersonal exchanges and cognitive mobilization and affective exchanges,” as Bernadette Bawin-Legros points out (243). However, statistical research carried out by sociologists confirms that people do not regard “living together” as implying the same level of commitment as marriage. The idea of “forever” is still firmly attached to wedlock, as opposed to cohabitation. Thus, there is still a clear boundary in the collective mind distinguishing the life project of those couples who decide to marry and those who remain legally unbound (243). Carrie’s strong reaction to the thought of marriage attests to this assumption, since she seems more or less ready to live under the same roof as Aidan, but not for the firm attachment marriage implies.

In order to convey this idea, the text also brings into play the audience’s familiarity with romantic comedy’s conventions. Fans of the genre know that the marriage proposal usually constitutes the climactic moment in the couple’s narrative, and all the paraphernalia surrounding this moment is perceived as holding a quasi-magical value. Thus, Carrie’s prosaic discovery of her engagement ring—in her boyfriend’s sports bag, among his dirty clothes—and her “atypical” reaction to the prop which has traditionally elicited the greatest amount of tears in the genre is not accidental. Traditional approaches to genre criticism would say that this can be read as a clear subversion of romantic comedy’s conventions. However, according to less taxonomical views, genres are not fixed categories that can be simply subverted, but a fluid set of conventions (Altman; Neale; Deleyto 2009). Genres find themselves in a constant state of flux, constantly in tune with the cultural context in which they are inscribed. With its repeated “challenges” to romantic comedy’s best-known conventions, for example, SATC might be said simply to be reflecting the changing romantic milieu which frames its characters’ love lives: Carrie’s reaction to the discovery of the ring is a sign of the volatile intimate panorama of turn-of-the-century New York City, a context which fosters (in this show, at least) a pathological fear of deep attachments in general, and of marriage in particular. [3]

Alongside this contextual understanding, Carrie’s vomiting at the sight of the ring might also be read as an internal shift within the conventions of romantic comedy. Carrie’s exaggerated reaction is not only “troubling,” but also comic. In romantic comedy, humor often plays a paramount role in the path towards romantic transformation; in the case of SATC, it also plays an important role in its protagonists’ occasional rejection of this transformation. That is, SATC stretches the boundaries of the genre by using humour not only as enabler of romance but, sometimes more importantly, as a tool to surmount the disappointments love repeatedly brings our protagonists. Since SATC’s lead women find themselves in a constant turmoil of relationships, the latter function of humour often proves to be more useful than the one it has traditionally served, at once marking and normalizing the women’s unsuitability for coupled life.

In either case, it is no accident that this scene’s humor—and its emotional conflict—centers on an engagement ring. The ring is a significant prop within romantic comedy’s iconography, and its importance here is foregrounded by the lunchtime discussion after Carrie’s reaction, since what seems at first to be a conversation about Carrie’s decision whether to get married or not ends up revolving entirely around the ring itself. It turns out it is a disappointment: “It was a pear-shaped diamond with a gold band,” which apparently is a bad thing. Carrie justifies her dislike for the ring because “it is not her”—that is, she takes Aidan’s mistaken choice as a sign that he does not really know her and they are not meant for each other: “How can I marry a guy who doesn’t know which ring is me?” she demands. The conversation thus reveals the importance that Carrie bestows on material objects, which points towards her association between (luxury) consumer goods and happiness and romance. It is the ring that makes her throw up—presumably because she does not like it—making her think the marriage is doomed to failure because of its unsuitability. Tellingly, she will be happy to accept Aidan’s proposal later on in the episode, when she is presented with a “good” ring. Of course, this connection between consumption and happiness does not only concern Carrie; it extends to the other characters, who also endorse the show’s consumerist spirit, extending the equation of ring and person first made by Carrie (for whom the right ring “is me”) to Aidan as well. “Wrong ring, wrong guy,” Samantha (Kim Cattrall) thus declares, underscoring the series’ strong link between consumer goods and relationships.

When It’s Right, You Know

With all the ring talk, Carrie’s conversation with her friends does not help her solve her actual dilemma: whether or not to marry Aidan. Once alone at home, she starts to think about something Charlotte said: “When it’s right, you know.” This is a commonplace that fans of romantic comedy are familiar with: love takes over you when it comes, leaving no doubt about its truthfulness. However, faithful to SATC’s mission to interrogate every single romantic cliché, Carrie wonders:

Do you really know when it’s right? And how do you know? Are there signs? Fireworks? Is it right when it feels comfortable or is that a sign that there aren’t any fireworks? Is hesitation a sign that it’s not right or a sign that you’re not ready? In matters of love, how do you know when it’s right?

To know when it is “right” is another way of phrasing a concern that has been repeatedly addressed in the show: the concept of the “One” or the soul mate. The roots of this idea might be traced back as far as Aristophanes’s famous account of love in Plato‘s Symposium, but it has grown pervasive in late-20th / early 21st-century American popular culture: for example, a 2001 national Gallup Poll carried out in the US showed that 94 percent of surveyed people (single women and men between twenty and twenty-nine) were seeking a soul mate to marry and 87 percent were confident they would find it (Trimberger, 2005: 1). Their confidence is remarkable: this idealizing account of love as a quasi-demiurgic process implies that we will recognise the “one”; that we will be recognised in return; and that the relationship between “soul mates” will be flawlessly harmonious, a completion of each self by the other. No wonder, then, that the idea of “soul mates” depends on supernatural discourse, the discourse of miracles, rather than on the liberal discourse of “closing the deal” or consumer choice. Thomas Moore, for example, thus says that a soul mate is “someone to whom we feel profoundly connected, as though the communicating that takes place between us were not the product of intentional efforts, but rather a divine grace” (xvii).

The problems with this “divine grace” version of love are manifold: what if we never meet our twin soul, or meet him / her and are not recognised as “the One”? If total harmonious fusion proves impossible—if “the One” leaves us, say as a consequence of some misunderstanding, or if we have to inject our “intentional efforts” (Moore, 1994: xvii) into the relationship to make it succeed—does that mean we were mistaken? Will we never, now, be “complete”? The “soul mate” model of love puts extraordinary pressure on the individual’s actual romantic relationships, potentially spoiling them as they fall short of this ideal; at the same time, this model implies that “only through coupled love can one be truly fulfilled” (Trimberger 4), thus devaluing one’s network of friends and other non-romantic partnerships.

Given the popularity of this myth of love, and the ambivalence it might provoke, it is no wonder that the writers of SATC were fond of the topic. In “The Agony and the ‘Ex’-tacy” (4: 1)—an episode which ponders the question: “Soul mates – reality or torture device?”—the protagonists discuss the different aspects of this myth. Charlotte believes in it blindly, while the rest are skeptical:

– Miranda: Soul mates only exist in the Hallmark aisle of Duane Reade Drugs.

– Charlotte: I disagree. I believe there’s one perfect person out there to complete you.

– Miranda: And, if you don’t find him, what? you’re incomplete? It’s so dangerous!

– Carrie: Alright, first of all, the idea that there’s only one out there? I mean, why don’t I just shoot myself right now? I like to think people have more than one soul mate.

– Samantha: I agree! I’ve had hundreds!

– Carrie: Yeah, and if you miss one, along comes another, like cabs.

– Charlotte: No, that is not how it works.

( . . . )

– Samantha: The bad thing about the one perfect soul mate is that it’s so unattainable. You’re being set up to fail.

– Miranda: Exactly, and you feel bad about yourself!

– Samantha: Yeah, it makes the gap between the Holy Grail and the assholes even bigger.

This short dialogue touches on three main doubts about the twin soul ideology: whether the twin soul actually exists, whether there might be more than one “One,” and whether the ideology itself might be a harmful construction. Notably, however, the exchange also contains hints of another, contrasting ideology of love: one based on consumer choice among multiple options. “If you miss one, another comes along, like cabs,” Carrie quips, and her joke underscores the power that the consumer of love might have in an ideal romantic marketplace, one in which the possibilities of romantic transport are multiple and available to anyone with sufficient funds. Carrie’s relentless self-questioning about Aidan’s suitability—and basically about the suitability of every partner she has—shows her acting like a wary consumer, evaluating each “cab” as it comes into view, but her wariness would surely not be so intense if it were not for the high expectations this kind of myth has created in her. Indeed, we might say that on some level, conscious or unconscious, Carrie is turning twin soul ideology against itself, using it to justify the actual (consumerist) choice she has already made. Carrie’s fondness for the single life, that is to say, is the main reason behind her doubts about Aidan, and all this talk of the One essentially helps her rationalize her unwillingness to marry. She would hardly be alone in this self-justification: in fact, Trimberger connects the pervasiveness of the twin-soul myth with many contemporary women’s single status (17), while other authors warn women that they will have to forsake this myth and “settle for Mr. Good Enough” if they want to settle down (Gottlieb; Lipka).

However we interpret Carrie’s motivations, SATC’s treatment of the topic makes clear that the twin soul ideal forms an important part of the contemporary “resuscitation” of romantic love. Such quasi-religious faith in love as the path towards personal fulfillment has largely replaced other reasons for long-term partnership and/or marriage (Trimberger 1). This is reflected in the episode under analysis, since Carrie’s dilemma about marrying Aidan or not is entirely concerned with whether he is “right”—that is, whether he is the One for her or not—and it glosses over other factors which have traditionally played a paramount role in the decision to get married: economics, friendship, sexual attraction, communal / family approval, and so on, all of which are nascent in its plot. This tendency towards the idealization and romanticisation of love, the preoccupation with that “special someone” able to cater to the individual’s every need, is particularly in tune with romantic comedy’s ethos, since the genre has always been based on the wish to believe in the possibility of the perfect romantic communion. However, we cannot overlook the way that “perfect romantic communion” in this show puts a distinctive twist on this enduring wish. Love here entails a reconciliation or perfect accord between spiritual ideals and their material instantiation, the right guy with the right ring. As Carrie says in the opening episode of this fourth season, “The Agony and the ‘Ex’-tacy,” the soul mate ideal consists in the “belief that someone, somewhere, is holding the key to your heart and your dream house. All you have to do is find them” [my emphasis]. One key for both: otherwise, the search goes on.

Why Hasn’t He Asked Me Yet?

Let us return, now, to “Just Say Yes.” As I mentioned earlier, Carrie discovers Aidan’s ring shortly after he offers to buy both her apartment and the one next door, so that they can tear down the wall and live together: a gesture that would suggest he sees himself as the “someone” who holds the key to her heart and her dream house (or at least her co-op). Carrie’s initial reaction to the offer is lighthearted and flirtatious:

– Carrie: Would that make you my landlord or my roommate?

– Aidan: A little of both.

– Carrie: What would the rent be like?

– Aidan: Like . . . this? (Kissing her)

Behind the flirtation, however, lies a serious problem. If the modern couple is supposed to be a democratic, freely-chosen contract between equals (Giddens 192), where does this agreement leave Carrie? Will she live in the apartment in exchange for sexual and emotional gratification for Aidan? His gesture looks romantic and disinterested, but it actually gives him the upper hand in the relationship. As is always the case in the series, SATC refuses to acknowledge explicitly the important role played by class and economic issues in its romantic dynamics, even as it implicitly returns, again and again, to precisely those factors.

The truth is that Carrie never falls for “poor” men. Even though she has dated men who were not particularly well-off, the three men she has had serious relationships with (Big, Aidan, and Petrovsky) were far above her on the economic and social ladder, and Carrie’s conception of her partners’ suitability seems deeply shaped by their “provider” status. She is not the only woman in the show to behave this way; in fact, the series follows remarkably traditional patterns when it comes to the definition of gender roles within the couple.[4] In theories of democratic love, relationships are presented as negotiated contracts entered by mutual agreement (Giddens 3, 63). However, as Wendy Langford argues, mutual agreement does not automatically imply equality. The democratic contract between the couple does not mean the end of domination; rather, it is “an effective means by which consent of the subordinate is at once secured and made hidden” (12). The fact that Carrie is attracted to wealthier men and seems happy with this situation, that she chooses her wealthy partners, does not diminish the economic inequality that underlies her relationships; it simply conceals it. Carrie’s agreement to be supported by Aidan, paying her rent in kisses, thus does not lessen her economic dependence on him, but it does suggest that kisses are the way that this inequality might be masked, at least for a while, by the discourse of romance. In particular, the soul mate version of love does not stoop to consider such “prosaic” questions as material conditions, thus conveniently overlooking the practical aspects of the union; conversely, the more that material conditions reassert themselves, the less wholeheartedly one can embrace or espouse this romanticised version of love.

Carrie herself seems conscious, on some level, of this tension between love as a contract between equal subjects and love as the “divine grace” that merges true soul mates. Immediately after the scene where Carrie and her friends discuss Aidan’s ring, we see Carrie and Aidan having dinner together at a posh restaurant. She has not yet decided whether to marry him or not, a decision which would be made on the basis of romantic love or twin-soul ideology, of “knowing that it’s right.” Instead, she accepts his proposal of living together, a more rational, contractual domestic arrangement in which it seems that economic and political factors can be acknowledged. “So . . . yes,” she tells Aidan. “I say yes to living together. I think we’re ready for that step. Yes, we still have to work out the money, ‘cause I don’t want a free ride. We’re still individuals, but we’ll be sharing a life and an apartment.” The episode never clarifies what kind of financial arrangement their new life plan is going to follow, but even this brief nod to financial reality shows how an economic understanding of relationships (“we still have to work out the money”) entails a sense that the two members of the couple remain distinct “individuals,” a version of romance that stands in sharp contrast with the idea of “completion” found in twin-soul ideology.

Even as Carrie accepts cohabitation, however, a second sharp contrast undermines the scene. Carrie’s rational, qualified “yes” to living together takes place in a mise-en-scène that invokes neither reason nor egalitarian contracts, but rather the emotional and erotic extravagance of romance. The restaurant in which they are having dinner is elegant, they are dressed in formal clothes: in sum, all the “signs of romance” are “activated” in this scene (Illouz 125-132). In accordance with capitalist society’s scripts of romance and with romantic comedy’s conventions, everything around them indicates—both to Carrie and to the viewer—that this is the moment in which Aidan is going to make his proposal. The scene’s editing increases her and our suspense by having Aidan reach for his pocket in slow-motion. However, our expectations are disrupted when it turns out it is his wallet that he was reaching for, not the ring. Romantic comedy’s mise-en-scène has tricked both Carrie and the viewer, and paradoxically, she feels both relieved and puzzled. “Why hasn’t he asked me yet? What if he realised I’m not the One?” she wonders in a phone call to Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) the following day. It is as though Carrie were untroubled by her own willingness to think rationally and economically about the relationship, but the suggestion that Aidan is likewise thinking about it in any terms other than twin-soul ideology—reaching for his wallet, not a ring—fills her with self-doubt. She is not sure she wants to marry Aidan, but she wants to be asked.

Carrie’s ambivalence and anxiety are typical for her character, but they are not reducible to individual psychology. Rather, they illustrate the difficulties faced by lovers in a particular institutional context: one that we can understand through the individualisation theory of Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002). As the sociologists explain, in wealthy Western industrialised countries previously stable institutions of family, marriage, parenthood, sexuality, and love are no longer fixed or secure, and must therefore be negotiated by individuals on a case by case, couple by couple basis (2004: 3-5). The disappearance of traditional points of reference puts pressure on individuals to supply their own guidelines for living, and the dissolution of traditional blueprints of action forces us to make choices, not in a vacuum, but in a context that is cluttered with competing, often contradictory value systems and life narratives. This freedom of choice appears to open the door to the possibility of happiness, but the constant need to decide every aspect of life also creates anxiety, irritation, and never-ending questions, whose answers provide only “precarious freedoms”:

pacification is achieved temporarily, provisionally; it is permeated with questions that can burst out again at any time. Think, calculate, plan, adjust, negotiate, define, revoke (with everything constantly starting again from the beginning): these are the imperatives of the ‘precarious freedoms’ that are taking hold of life as modernity advances (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 6).

In pre-industrial societies, marriage’s purpose was to contribute to the family’s prosperity (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2004: 79). Today, it is not stability that is sought after, but freedom, love and self-realisation, but there are no clear-cut, uncontested guidelines to follow in order to reach these. The disintegration of traditional certainties and institutions opens a sea of possibilities, condemning us to design our own biography in accordance with the dictates of an ostensibly “true” self that turns out to be as elusive as any soul mate. Indeed, there’s a link between these two searches. In these times of uncertainty, the individual’s romantic life gains unprecedented significance, as s/he turns to love in search of answers, idealising it as a source of security and self-identity. Decisions about love, sex, romance, marriage, even erotic lifestyle are therefore elevated to more-than-practical importance, since only in these decisions can the true self be made securely visible and knowable. In the theorists’ terms, these decisions are “deified,” even as “[e]very day life is being post-religiously ‘theologised’” in what is otherwise an increasingly secular world (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 7).

In this sense, SATC in general and this episode in particular, constitutes a faithful reflection of the contemporary individual’s constant state of self-scrutiny, especially in the romantic realm. It could even be argued that a TV series like SATC is better equipped than cinema to reflect accurately the maze of introspection in which the individual is today immersed. Unlike film, which due to time constraints is usually forced to offer less nuanced readings of their characters’ existential and romantic fates, television can portray the uncertainty and volatility which characterises the contemporary intimate panorama, as well as the psychological unrest produced by individualisation processes. SATC captures this spirit of uncertainty and self-questioning, not just in any given episode, but in its formal structure as a series, since the answers it provides by the end of each episode are merely provisional, the cycle of self-interrogation bound to repeat again and again with a different romantic ideology—twin soul, consumerist, or something else—being embraced and contested by turns.

Maybe You Just Have to Say What’s In Your Heart

The uncertainty, ambivalence, and multiplicity of discourses surrounding contemporary love are summed up quite memorably in the actual proposal scene of “Just Say Yes.” It is late at night, and Aidan has tricked Carrie into walking his dog with him. At one given moment, he kneels down to pick up the dog’s excrement and surprises Carrie by putting a ring box in her hand while she is not looking. She is clearly struck, but her face lights up when she opens the box and sees the ring: it is not the one she had seen the previous day in his sports bag. Overcome by emotion, she accepts his proposal. How are we viewers meant to take this scene?

On the one hand, Aidan’s proposal demonstrates the series’ endorsement of a particular ideal of democratised romance: one in which simplicity and lack of artifice are the hallmarks of true love. Having pulled out the conventional stops of romantic luxury in the earlier dinner scene—the false or feinted proposal, which ended with Aidan reaching for his wallet—the episode now stages a self-conscious intervention in the conventions of romantic comedy by having a marriage proposal, traditionally the genre’s climactic moment, play out in the middle of the street, in pajama-like clothes and while taking the dog out for a pee. The romanticism of the scene is heightened precisely because of its quotidian staging, as well as its unexpectedness; it is as though, in order to create an atmosphere of believable romance in the postmodern era, conventions have to be inverted or reworked. The show thus seems to be in agreement with those who think that the sphere of consumption has “undermined the capacity of people to engage in an authentic experience of romance” (Illouz 112), since in order to reach an authentic moment, Carrie and Aidan have to leave the world of consumption behind. They are not the only couple to do so: some of the most self-consciously “romantic” moments in SATC often take place in non-consumerist situations, as is the case with Miranda’s low-key wedding with Steve and later in the series, Carrie’s preference for dinner at McDonald’s with Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov) to a night in the opera (“The Ick Factor”, 6: 14). “Authentic” love would thus seem to demand a retreat from or rejection of consumerist romantic scenarios, as though freedom from the world of money and things were needed in order certify the truth of the feelings involved.

However, SATC’s apparent embrace of this “non-consumerist” ethos is deceptive, and the romantic utopia proposed by the show remains, just below the surface, powerfully determined by economic factors—or, to be more precise, consumption remains the arena in which the truth of love is proved. When Aidan kneels down, Carrie’s face transmits her unease with what is to come. However, her expression changes completely when she sees the new ring. Nothing in the emotional or interpersonal situation has changed—Aidan is still proposing marriage, as she feared he would–but the material object that embodies and enacts his proposal has changed, such that the first thing Carrie says when she opens the box is “Oh, my God. It’s not . . . It’s such a beautiful ring!” Just as in the brunch scene, then, the real issue here is not the serious consideration of whether to spend her life with Aidan or not, but the virtues of the ring in itself, that is, the ritual of consumption enacted in the marriage proposal. Helped by the endorphin-fueled high of Aidan’s consumerist gesture, Carrie lets herself get carried away and agrees to marry him, rationalising her decision with these words: “Maybe there are no right moments, right guys, right answers. Maybe you just have to say what’s in your heart.” Implicitly admitting that she has not really worked out whether Aidan is her soul mate or not, she lets herself be taken in by the magic of romance anyway—and, the skeptical viewer notes, by the rightness of the ring. Despite the series’ habitual cynicism, in this scene, everything works in order to create a climactic romantic moment. The full power of romantic comedy is summoned with no hint of irony, resorting to one of its most reliable clichés: in matters of love, follow your heart, not your head. To use Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s term, Aidan’s choice of the right, beautiful ring allows Carrie to “theologise” her decision to “just say yes” to marriage.

We are not finished, however, with unpacking the complexity of the scene. It may well be true that Carrie’s momentary impulse to “say yes” to romantic love illustrates the temptation of deracinated, well-off urban lovers—even the most cynical among them—to idealise love as a source of “salvation” because it offers what Beck and Beck-Gernsheim describe as “person-related stability” (2004: 32-33). “The more other reference points have slipped away,” they explain, “the more we direct our craving to give our lives meaning and security towards those we love” (50). In this context, marriage takes a new meaning. It does not just provide a social structure for the individual’s life, it becomes a matter of identity, as we seek ourselves in the other (51). Aidan’s choice of the “right ring” may not prove that he is the “right guy”—the “someone, somewhere” who “is holding the key to your heart and your dream house,” as Carrie mused at the start of season four—but it does suggest that he knows and ratifies Carrie’s identity in the way she (and perhaps the viewer) secretly craves.

Who, though, really chose that “right ring,” enacting this intimate knowledge? Rather than having the happy couple kiss to seal their engagement while the closing credits unfold, this episode ends with a coda devoted, not to Aidan and Carrie, but to Carrie and Samantha. Carrie knows that Samantha dislikes the idea of her marriage and thinks she is not going to take it well. They meet in a bar and she tells her the news. Once again, they talk about the ring, not the engagement in itself, and it turns out Samantha helped Aidan pick the new, “right” ring, just as Miranda had previously helped him pick the “wrong” one. In effect, Carrie’s circle of female friends are shown to be the ones who give her “person-related stability,” functioning simultaneously as a pre-modern social network that must give a suitor their approval and as modern (or postmodern) lovers and love-objects in their own right. Despite her misgivings, that is to say, Samantha gives Carrie her “blessing,” much as a parent would, even as she demonstrates that it’s she, not Aidan, who knows what ring “is” Carrie, and thus who recognises Carrie’s true self. Once Samantha gives Carrie “consent” to Carrie’s marriage, they embrace, and one cannot help but feel that this constitutes the episode’s true happy ending, reminding us that, underneath the apparently “regressive” obsession of the show with the search for Mr. Right, its heart lies with an apolitical version of female sisterhood. By having the girls close the episode rather than the heterosexual couple, the show seems to imply that their relationship is more important, and, certainly, more lasting.


Beneath the glossy, comforting surface of its Hollywood-like happy ending, “Just Say Yes” is thus marked by remarkable tensions and paradoxes, an exemplary instance of the mix of romantic ideals and discourses in SATC as a whole. On the one hand, the episode illustrates SATC’s secret longing to believe in the possibility of true romance—or, as we might now put it, the episode demonstrates that Carrie, too, is subject to the contemporary tendency towards the romanticisation of love brought about by individualisation processes characteristic of modern liberal capitalism. In a world devoid of the old certainties which gave a sense of security to the individual, she—and some of her viewers—take refuge in romantic love as the one context in which market values are suspended, rational choice is set aside, our elusive “true selves” can be known. At the same time, the episode undercuts or unmasks this “theologising” longing, revealing how deeply it remains embedded in a neoconservative nostalgia for financial inequality between the sexes and in the consumer culture that twin-soul ideologies of love purport to escape. In a final twist, the episode offers an alternative context in which affection, consumerism, and a “person-related stability” seem to coexist quite amicably: that is, the world of female friendships, in which the fraught search for the One who will perfectly complete a partial self is replaced by an ineluctably multiple, deliciously imperfect exchange of affirmation, critique, communication, misunderstanding, forgiveness, recognition, and more.

If the episode finally immerses the viewer in the utopian world of romantic comedy, appealing to one of its basic tenets—just do what your heart tells you—it offers two competing sites for that “happily ever after.” The first is in Carrie and Aidan’s romance, but as viewers know, this does not last; they break their engagement only three episodes later, keeping the series in motion. The second, of course, is in the circle of friends who know and appreciate one another as much as they know and appreciate luxury culture: the right shoes, the right dress, the right ring, the right spot for lunch. Focused on women and meant for a female audience, the show might well be said to romanticise, or even “theologise,” female friendship, deploying it in service of consumer culture and various forms of racial and class privilege—but that is the subject of another essay. For now, suffice it to say that if diamonds are a girl’s best friend in the postfeminist fantasy of SATC, that’s because a girl’s best friends are, like diamonds, in this fantasy, forever.[5]

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[1] From now on, Sex and the City will be referred to as SATC.

[2] This complexity is, however, acknowledged by authors such as Amanda Lotz, (2006), Angela Chiang (2007), Astrid Henry (2004), Stephen Gennaro (2007) and Jane Arthurs (2004), who argue that the contradictions exposed in texts like SATC serve the function of interrogating the culture in which they are produced, thus encouraging us to “question the costs as well as the benefits of living in a postfeminist consumer culture” (2004: 142)

[3] SATC’s conflictual approach to marriage is mainly reflected in its protagonists’ different attitudes towards it: Charlotte and Samantha represent diametrically opposed views, while Miranda and, especially, Carrie stand in an ambiguous middle ground. Despite her willingness to marry Big in the SATC film, Carrie seems to reject the idea of marriage throughout the series, as becomes obvious when she gets a rash from trying on a wedding dress (“Change of a Dress”, 4: 15).

[4] The series offers numerous examples of how a well-off economic position is always implicitly presented as men’s prerequisite to be considered for the “title” of Mr. Right. The girls sleep around with all kinds of men, but their serious suitors are always wealthy: that is Charlotte’s case with her two husbands, and Samantha’s with her boss Richard Wright (James Remar). When the men are not richer or occupy a higher social position than the girls, relationships tend to go astray. In the last season, for instance, Carrie dates Jack Berger (Ron Livingston), a writer who seems to meet all her expectations. However, the relationship fails because he is not at the same professional level as she is. Samantha’s relationship with the young waiter Smith (Jason Lewis) is not taken seriously until he becomes a famous model/actor. A similar thing happens with Miranda’s husband-to-be, Steve (David Eigenberg). Their relationship is problematic because he feels inferior to her, which largely motivates their break-up. However, when they come together for the second time, he has been magically “upgraded” by the series from bartender to bar owner, which seems to greenlight the relationship. Nevertheless, the clearest sign of SATC’s soft spot for Darcy-like male characters is Big: very much like Austen’s hero, he is the wealthiest character in the show, and he is consistently presented as Carrie’s knight in shining armour.

[5] Research towards this article was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education, project no. FFI2010-15263, and by the Aragonese Governement (Ref. H12). Thanks are also due to the JPRS’ reviewers and, especially, to Eric Selinger for his careful editing of this essay.


“The Upper-Class Bisexual Top as Romantic Hero: (Pre)dominant in the Social Structure and in the Bedroom” by Ann Herendeen

As an illustration of the attractions of wealth and high social status in a marriage partner, it’s hard to surpass Elizabeth Bennet’s reply in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to her sister Jane’s question as to how long she has loved Mr. Darcy: “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (353; vol. 3, ch. 17). While the remark is presented as a typical jest from the wittiest of Austen heroines (“Another entreaty that she would be serious, however, produced the desired effect”), some readers can’t help seeing a grain of truth in this supposedly humorous answer. We recall Elizabeth’s thoughts during her visit to Mr. Darcy’s beautiful grounds, “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (note the exclamation point) and her “lucky recollection” that her “uncle and aunt would have been lost to [her]” which “saved her from something like regret” (235-236; vol. 3, ch. 1).

In my second novel, Pride/Prejudice, I develop Austen’s link between status and attraction, teasing out its sexual undertones. On his wedding night, Fitz(william) Darcy is momentarily deflated, literally and figuratively, upon learning that Elizabeth has seen him, naked and aroused, in the company of an equally naked and aroused Charles Bingley. Elizabeth attempts to joke her new husband into confidence and potency: “Although Charles is a very well-formed man, appropriate for a respectable four or five thousand a year, your far more magnificent appearance confirmed my every idea of the grandeur of a large estate, a house in town, and a clear ten thousand pounds” (Herendeen, P/P 318).  This is the place in my book where the deliberate correlation of wealth, power and sexuality is stated most clearly, and as Elizabeth cheerfully admits, crudely. But the combination of high economic, social and sexual status as desirable ingredients in the romantic hero underlies all my fiction, and is an obvious theme in my two published novels: P/P; and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander.  That the romantic hero in each of these books is not simply a wealthy, upper-class man, but also a bisexual top, as dominant in the bedroom as he is in the social structure, is the twist on the Austen model that I wish to explore in this essay.

The connection these novels imply between the heroes’ social status and their dominant bisexuality seems to have struck some readers as not only confusing but contradictory. Consider, for example, the way that Meredith S. Faust began her presentation on my work at the 2011 PCA/ACA conference: “Many [ . . . ] old school romances depict sexuality according to strict patriarchal hegemonic heteronormative structures: masculinity rules. [ . . . ] Therefore, when I picked up Ann Herendeen’s Phyllida . . . a female / male / male polyamorous love story, I expected to see [ . . . ] characters whose understanding of relationships and preferences in relationships was evolved. [ . . . ] I was [ . . . ] astonished by the patriarchal and rigid heteronormative structures in place” (1).  Faust seems to have assumed that a romance novel featuring bisexuality and polyamory would necessarily contest “old school” constructions of masculinity and sexuality, and I can understand why, given how the genre itself has “evolved” in recent years.  Over the past three decades, after all, as first feminism and then “gay” liberation (now more inclusively seen as LGBTQ: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) brought into question the nature of “masculinity” and “femininity” and the very concepts of “men” and “women,” the popular romance novel has undergone profound changes. Contemporary romance novels—those written recently, including those set in the past—reflect readers’ increasingly diverse outlooks and advanced ideas of sex roles and relationship dynamics. Alpha males are more likely to be vampires or shape-shifters than human beings, and gender roles are constantly being reevaluated and renegotiated in romance subgenres like BDSM, m/m and paranormal. Members of minority groups such as African-Americans, gay men and lesbians and, occasionally, people with disabilities are the heroes and heroines of love stories from which they were not so long ago excluded.  The idea of a romance hero who is wealthy, upper-class, and sexually dominant seems at odds with a presumably “progressive” decision to cast this hero as a bisexual.  To Faust, at least, it seemed positively retrograde.

Set during the English Regency (1811-1820), near the end of the Georgian era, my novels take place at a time when traditional ideas of social class were only beginning to be questioned.  As I wrote them, I imagined heroes who embody late Augustan-age,[1] robust masculinity: men at the top of their society who enjoy every material advantage and who expect to control their partners. The characters of my heroes, Fitz in P/P and Andrew Carrington in Phyllida, are determined primarily by their social and economic class.  Both are wealthy, even by the standards of their rarefied stratum of society; both are nephews of earls; and both are, I imagined,  “tops,” men who prefer the dominant position in sexual activity. As their creator, I was making a deliberate connection between their social class and their sexuality—one which, as I hope to show, has some basis in actual history, however refracted through a novelist’s eyes.

What, though, of their bisexuality, their status as outsiders in a harsh, punitive, heteronormative society? At a time when same-sex love between men was a capital offense, how could these men also be at the top of their world?

To address these questions within the limited space of this article, I will have to survey changes in attitudes toward male human sexuality over time and place in a necessarily cursory fashion, concentrating on eighteenth-century England.   I will be interpreting these changes from the point of view of a novelist, especially in their relation to the fiction that has directly influenced my own writing; I hope that this perspective will help me escape, at least in part, the solipsism of any author’s analyzing her own work, yielding me something to offer an academic forum on a popular genre of fiction.  My intent is not to refute Faust (or any other scholar kind enough to discuss my work) but rather to contribute the viewpoint of both a writer and a longtime reader of the romance genre to the evolving scholarly conversation about it, and not just in the cases of P/P and Phyllida.


“Homosexual behaviour is common among social animals, and is mainly expressed within the context of a bisexual sexual orientation,” Aldo Poiani declares in the abstract to his 2010 work on animal homosexuality. Poiani’s statement, something that would have seemed radical not so long ago, is now almost mainstream; it takes for granted a distinction between sexual acts (behavior) and an individual’s identity, his or her “sexual orientation.” Poiani goes further, applying the concept of sexual orientation to other animals besides human beings and, most radical of all, acknowledging “bisexual” as an orientation, one still not entirely accepted even within the LGBT community.[2]

If most animal “homosexuality” can be interpreted as behavior that occurs in the context of a bisexual orientation, it can also be said that, as far as we can tell from the sketchy historical record, most human “bisexuality” has occurred in contexts where modern ideas of “orientation” only awkwardly apply.  From classical to early modern times, for example, sexuality was defined or categorized by what I call a “vertical” divide, based on a person’s role in the sexual act itself and in relationships, both sexual and social:  a conceptual framework that spanned Greco-Roman antiquity, Christian Europe, and much of the Islamic world (Andrews and Kalpakli 11-15), and is also quite common elsewhere (Werner 330). The important distinction was who inserted or penetrated (the “top”) and who received or was penetrated (the “bottom”). In vaginal heterosexual sex, the man is the inserter, the woman the receiver. Inserter/penetrator and receiver/penetrated defined the concepts of masculine and feminine, and the inserter/receiver distinction was applied to same-sex male relationships as well, influencing a society’s acceptance or rejection of the individual participants and of their place in the social structure.

This inserter/receiver understanding of gender identity and sex roles can take two forms (Werner 330-331). In one, the “gender-stratified society,” cisgender males (men who exhibit the appearance and behavior their society considers masculine) (“Cisgender”) are distinguished from “pathics,” men who engage in sex exclusively with other men and prefer the receiver role. Only the pathics are considered to be homosexual, and there is often a specific word in the language for them. Pathics may dress as women and perform women’s jobs, and in some societies they may marry a cisgender man as his second or third “wife.” The cisgender men who have sex with pathics are not considered to be homosexual and are not recognized as a separate group from men who do not engage in sex with pathics.

In the second type, the “age-stratified” society, boys or youths take the receiver role with older men, either in a monogamous relationship with a “mentor,” or in a “catamite” system in which the boys are available as sexual objects to older and socially powerful men. When the boys reach an age at which they are considered to be (young) men, they switch over to the inserter role with younger boys/men. In some age-stratified societies, the period of same-sex relationships is a distinct phase for all males between early adolescence and heterosexual marriage; in others, access to youths is a permanent privilege of masculine adulthood.

Many societies contain elements of both gender and age stratification, but among these various societies there are two constants: the view of cisgender males as “masculine,” whether or not they engage in homosexual behavior with pathics or boys; and the relegation of adult men who choose the receiver role to a separate category, pathics, distinguishable by their “effeminate” dress and behavior. Reinforcing the view of the receiver as taking the “feminine” role, K. J. Dover compares the acceptable behavior for a youth courted by an older man in ancient Greece to that of a proper Victorian lady (90). The modest youth, like the nineteenth-century woman, does not desire or seek out sexual intercourse for its own sake, but yields to an honorable proposal from a good man whom he admires. It is the adult masculine role to pursue and to take the top position in sex; it is the feminine or youthful role to submit to the bottom position, but only out of love for a worthy suitor.

Both age- and gender-stratified societies, then, might be said to be “heteronormative,” in the sense that even when a degree of same-sex male sexual behavior is accepted or encouraged, it occurs within a cultural context that feminizes the man or boy in the receiver role. In the gender-stratified society, the pathic is female-identified by appearance and behavior. In the age-stratified society, it is boys who are too young to show secondary sex characteristics that are acceptable objects of adult male attraction. Stratification, social hierarchy, is the crucial conceptual framework involved, not what we might think of now as “sexual orientation.”  In fact, in both kinds of stratified society, adult men married to women might engage in sex with pathics or boys as their society allows, without their activity being labeled “bisexual” and without their identity as (heterosexual) men being questioned, as long as they do so in the active, penetrating role.

It is important to note that I am talking now only about socially-approved behavior. The fact that in ancient Athens adult men were not supposed to engage in the receptive role in same-sex relationships tells us very little about men’s actual sexual behavior. The disapproval of adult males’ taking the receiver role applied only to citizens (Dover 31-34). Working-class men, foreigners, and especially slaves were by definition on the bottom of this vertical divide, expected or required, for reasons of poverty or disenfranchisement, to engage in the receptive role with wealthy higher-ranking men.

By the time we come to early modern England, acceptable behavior no longer includes any same-sex activity. But the vertical distinction between masculine inserter/top and feminized receiver/bottom is still in place. Up until the middle of the seventeenth century, invisible homosexual relationships could exist within a hierarchical society that contained, along with the usual age and gender stratifications, a third one—social class—also present in ancient Greece. Master with servant or apprentice, schoolmaster with pupil, and gentry and noblemen with “boys” of all sorts, the Ganymedes and linkboys of Lord Rochester’s Restoration-era contests with his mistress, “When each the well-looked linkboy strove t’ enjoy, / And the best kiss was the deciding lot, / Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy” (lines 38-40): all these couplings allowed the older or higher-ranking man to engage in the active sexual role while retaining his masculine identity, and we know from both public and private texts (diaries, letters, etc.) that such couplings were far from uncommon (Andrews and Kalpakli 125-129).

At the end of the seventeenth century, for complicated and much-debated reasons involving urbanization and the concentration in cities of young unmarried men, as well as the desire to persecute Roman Catholic institutions, male same-sex activity came to the attention of the legal and religious authorities. The sporadic single prosecutions of the 150 years following the passage of the Buggery Act of 1533 gave way to cycles of raids and hangings that both Bray (92) and Norton (Mother 16-18) relate to the development of a subculture of “molly houses” and the men (“mollies”) who frequented them.  Since the law made no distinction between inserter and receiver, all men accused of “sodomy” were equally guilty, equally “unnatural,” and equally “gay,” and the old, vertical model of sexuality began to seem obsolete. Inserter/receiver or masculine/feminine no longer made sense as ways of describing or thinking about same-sex male relationships, and some Western European societies moved toward a third way of classifying sexual identity, the “egalitarian system.”

In an “egalitarian system,” as opposed to a stratified one, all men who engage in same-sex activity, whether inserter or receiver, cisgender or pathic, are considered to be homosexual (Werner 331).  Under this new way of thinking, sexuality is defined, not by a vertical division, top and bottom, but by what we might call a horizontal division between “male” and “female” based on a person’s (perceived) gender and the gender of his or her partner. This horizontal division is similar to, and perhaps the first step toward, the modern concept of sexual orientation or identity.  In an egalitarian system, men who are consistently attracted to other men and choose men for their partners are classified as homosexual in orientation; men who consistently choose women are considered heterosexual.

I don’t mean to suggest that the older conceptual model vanished away entirely.  Indeed, the older, stratified system and the emerging egalitarian one sometimes converged as they grappled with male (homo)sexuality.  Under the old system, the “unnatural” man was the one who, as an adult, chose the bottom position. He was considered to be feminized, or partaking of both male and female identities (two-spirit, etc.). In the transitional eighteenth century, sexual subcultures, perhaps celebrating their freedom from the constrictions of earlier gender roles, were often characterized by effeminate behavior, cross-dressing, and the use of female nicknames by men whose occupations are conventionally masculine (butcher, bargeman, blacksmith, coal merchant, etc.), reinforcing this notion of sexual duality, androgyny, or even metaphoric hermaphroditism (Norton 93).[3]  By the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, theorists like Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing were debating whether the newly-defined group called “homosexuals” constitutes a “third sex,” and the idea that male homosexuals are “feminine” men while lesbians are “masculine” women became entrenched in the popular imagination (Norton, “Critique”), from which it has never entirely vanished.  My fictional character Sylvester Monkton, a proud and outspoken man of exclusive homosexual orientation, expresses his (and my) exasperation with this enduring idea: “The world is so ignorant of these things, [that] they confuse buggery with incapability and a sodomite with a hermaphrodite” (Herendeen, P/P 214).[4]

As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has observed, this three-sex conceptual model necessarily created new suspect, boundary-crossing categories.  What, for example, was one to do with that problematic figure, the “straight-acting and -appearing gay male” (Sedgwick, Closet 46)?  And what, I would add, of the male bisexual?  As an adjective, “bisexual” originally signified a pathic, “two-spirited,” androgynous, hermaphroditic quality:  “having both sexes in the same individual” (“Bisexual”), precisely the confusion lamented by my Monkton.  The older idea of a man who is attracted to members of both sexes, but is in no way “feminized” by that attraction—who is, quite the contrary, the ultimate in dominant masculinity precisely because of it—seems to me to have slipped out of learned discourse about the sexes with the arrival of the three-sex model. In a curious twist of history, however, it has lingered within popular culture, preserving the older, stratified model of sexuality even as the broader culture has embraced the egalitarian model. [5]

This version of the bisexual man—the one who is the inserter, the top, with “anything that moves”—shows up in both progressive and deeply conservative aspects of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Western culture.  As recently as 2002, for example, the deliberately humorous title of a national publication for bisexuals was “Anything That Moves.”  Less happily, Mark Simpson quotes the advice that openly bisexual author Colin MacInnes (Thirkell) received from his father—”What you must do, son, is become a fucker and not [ . . . ] a fucked” (69)—and notes that such admonitions help explain “why ‘bisexual’ is not an identity taken on by the vast majority of men who are bisexual in behaviour: they regard themselves as straight men who happen to have sex with other men” (209). From the few reputable studies that have been conducted, there does appear to be a small but genuine subset of men that enjoys dominating both male and female partners (Werner 335-336; Dixson 397). In a gender-stratified society—a society in which, as Faust said in her conference paper, “masculinity rules”—such men would find a comfortable home at the top of the economic and political hierarchy, since what we now think of as bisexuality is, in such contexts, an established, if often covert form of male dominance. Recall my earlier point about gender-stratified societies: they generally are, as we would now say, “heteronormative,” but they define adult masculinity in terms of male dominance, and not in terms of the sex of one’s partner. In such societies, the “straight man who happens to have sex with other men” is not an outlaw or outlier, but something like a cultural ideal, at least if he has the money and power to be “a fucker” and not “a fucked.”

The aristocratic bisexual heroes of my Regency novels are precisely these sorts of men, unabashed tops (in every sense of the word) in a society still stratified by class and gender. No wonder Faust was all astonishment! In the egalitarian system, bisexuality has been reclassified from a mode of male dominance to an oppressed minority’s sexual orientation, so that just like people of different ethnicity or racial heritage and people with disabilities, the bisexual male is someone whose rights are being trampled on by “The Man.” My heroes have gone from being The Man to being Born This Way. And as the transition from gender- or age-stratified to egalitarian society can be seen as “evolution,” an upward progression from discrimination against an outcast group to acceptance, progressive readers might mistakenly expect to find “evolved” modern men in my novels instead of men who (rather shockingly, I gather) recall the traditional romance heroes of the old-school, heteronormative romance. It is to those old-school heroes, my literary models, that I want to turn next.


The modern popular romance novel, if we follow Pamela Regis in beginning with Richardson’s Pamela, and progressing to Austen and Georgette Heyer, has been necessarily situated within its own heteronormative society. Its heroines are disenfranchised, inevitably by gender, and often additionally by poverty or inferior social status; its theme is the heroine’s elevation, through romantic love and marriage, to a situation more appropriate to her nature, defined as intelligent, spirited and virtuous—a natural aristocrat. In such works as Pride and Prejudice and most of Heyer’s historical romances, the agency of this elevation is a man with the requisite status and wealth to accomplish it. Only a Mr. Darcy or a Duke of Avon—an alpha male—can afford to marry purely for love, to choose a young woman of superior character without regard to her (lack of) fortune, land, or aristocratic connections.

The setting for my two novels, the England of 1811-1813, is a society in transition. A new, wealthy middle class is making inroads on the aristocracy’s monopoly of power, but rank and title still establish a man’s place in the hierarchy; the gay subculture exists, but for most people sexuality is still divided the old-fashioned, vertical way. In novels by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, wealthy and powerful men, including titled aristocrats, landed gentry, and merchant princes, reflect the privileges of rank in their sexual practices. Richardson’s dedicated seducer-rapists, Fielding’s cheerful libertines, Defoe’s entrepreneurs, those dark lords of commerce—all enjoy the hunt, the chase and the conquest.[6] Sedgwick’s interpretation of English literature at this time, however, teases out how transitions in class and in sexuality appear in the subtexts of some authors of the time, including the “feminization of the aristocracy” in the eighteenth century (Men 93, ch. 4) and evidence of “homosexual panic” in some male authors’ Gothic novels (Men ch. 5). [7]

As for the fiction of Jane Austen, I would argue that Austen’s place in the literary continuum is decidedly with the heterosexual and “masculine” first half of the eighteenth century.[8] Her only response to the Gothic is parody (Northanger Abbey), and the authors she admires, whether men (Richardson, Samuel Johnson) or women (Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney), wrote in the realistic tradition. From her position on the lower rungs of the gentry, Austen sets her works within her own milieu; influenced by her female contemporaries Edgeworth and Burney, she created a new kind of hero, appealing to women readers tired of being conquered. Empathetic and respectful, Austen’s heroes are gentleman, not noblemen, and each accepts his female partner as an equal from the beginning. With one exception: that darkest of Austen heroes, Mr. Darcy. It’s no coincidence that he’s the most aristocratic and by far the wealthiest.

Writing a century after Austen, in a world transformed by extraordinary gains in women’s social and legal status, Georgette Heyer likewise consistently rejects the sentimental and the Gothic, preferring Austen’s humor and common sense. Building on Austen’s transformation of the romance hero, but never losing sight of Mr. Darcy, Heyer glamorizes and, dare I say, romanticizes the upper-class man. Her heroes are paragons: educated and intelligent, fashionable and well-dressed, athletic and financially responsible—sound minds in exceptionally fine bodies. And however much they love the heroine, their expectations for marriage are traditionally masculine. The Heyer hero will be on top after marriage as before, and his only “feminization” is an appreciation for the woman who is his proper mate: not his equal, but his complement.

My two Regency novels are deliberate homages to Austen (P/P) and Heyer (Phyllida), and their respective heroes, Fitz Darcy and Andrew Carrington, are written to be as un-evolved as their literary predecessors. Andrew was imagined as the direct descendent of the domineering, alpha-male heroes of Georgette Heyer’s romance novels,[9] while Fitz was simply my reading of Austen’s most-desired hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Of course, my reading took place through a very particular set of historical and erotic lenses. Given the correlation of social class and sexuality in Mr. Darcy, how could I not see him as potentially (OK, to me, obviously) a bisexual dominant? As for Heyer’s aristocratic heroes, many could easily be interpreted as bisexual tops with little or no change in their personality.

To me as both reader and author, the character of the traditional romance hero, from Pamela onward, already corresponds almost perfectly with what history and anthropology tell us about dominant male bisexuality in stratified sexual cultures. Like these old-school heroes, my particular type of “bisexual” hero dominates his partners, male and female, just as he dominates his society with his ten thousand pounds a year and his great estate, his control of electors and clergymen’s livings—because the top is his rightful place in the world. He is “to the manner born,” a phrase from a time when aristocratic behavior (“breeding”) was thought to be transmitted, generation through generation, to those born into the top of society. For such a man, bisexuality of the “anything that moves” variety is a natural fit, reflecting the persona of the man who is born to power and accepts his role as leader. In the dichotomy of modern terminology, it is who he is, expressed naturally and happily, by what he does. To me, the hero’s bisexuality enhances his masculinity, making him even more desirable to me as participant/heroine in the love story I am writing. His ability to top other men, and women, is proof, in my view, of his extraordinary virility.

This version of masculinity does not have to be cruel or selfish; it can be loving and generous, as it is, eventually, with both my heroes. Eventually—because the plot of the old school romance novel, from Richardson to Austen to the present, is mostly the story of an upper-class (and therefore, to Austen, morally suspect[10]) hero who is “properly humbled” by love, and I wanted to use this plot as well. Just as the hero in heterosexual romances often begins with a negative outlook on women, love, and marriage (leaving him sexually predatory, rejecting love, and uninterested in monogamy), my bisexual heroes have been damaged by past loves, here inflicted not by women but by other men. Just as the hero in heterosexual romances is “humbled” by love for the heroine, emerging as an ideal husband only after an enforced metamorphosis from the pupa of a rather prickly caterpillar, my alpha-male bisexual heroes must evolve toward an emotional equality with two partners, male and female, making two parallel and simultaneous transformations. And, as in heterosexual romances, the transformed heroes must retain a degree of masculine pride, even dominance, the quality that made them so appealing (to me) in the first place.

In Phyllida, envisioned as an old-school romance of the highest order, I approached this challenge through a version of that oldest of old-school plots, the marriage of convenience. As we meet Andrew Carrington at the start of the novel, he is a man of large fortune who—after some heterosexual experimentation in his teens—thinks of himself simply as a “sodomite,” acting on his desires without apology or regret. Reconciled to the new egalitarian system which has made him an outsider, he is hopeful that his wealth and social status will allow him to live as he pleases (Herendeen, Phyllida 4, 31); to be on the safe side, however, and to do his family duty, he arranges to marry Phyllida Lewis, an impoverished young lady[11] who writes Gothic romances. Phyllida accepts his offer, agreeing to ignore his sexual orientation in return for access to his wealth and social position, but also in return for his willingness to ignore her continuing work as an author, so long as she continues to publish anonymously. As she finds herself falling in love with her “sodomite husband” and aroused rather than disgusted by his same-sex activity, Phyllida must reexamine her earlier, innocent ideas on physical and emotional love between men and women, as well as her fulfillment in the kind of marriage that society sees as mercenary, even if approved (67-68, 145-147). Andrew, meanwhile, must come to terms with the fact that he is aroused by and, in time, quite in love with his wife, even as he also pairs off, sexually and emotionally, with his male partner, Matthew Thornby, the tall, blond, muscular, financially comfortable son of a tradesman.[12]

Abrasive as he may be to modern sensibilities, Andrew is not envisioned as a morally challenged aristocrat but simply as sexually dominant. He’s cocky, not corrupt. His favorite form of sexual encounter is a sort of verbal / sexual sparring, filled with drawled insults and sneering orders, but he reserves “playing the game” (85, 168) for encounters with equals:  men like Matthew, and certainly not women. How to “properly humble” such a hero? First, I unsettle Andrew by having Phyllida be less than pleased by what to him seemed a more than adequate performance on their wedding night (49-52), so that he’s forced to turn to his straight younger brother (oh, the humiliation!) for advice on how to satisfy her sexually. Next, he is emotionally wounded—that old trope —by the ending of a long-distance relationship with a young officer serving overseas: a turn that is quickly followed by a Big Misunderstanding that leaves poor Andrew convinced, quite erroneously, that he has not just failed to please his wife, but struck her in anger. Aghast, abashed, he finds himself impotent at the thought that he has abused his power. In a final twist, near the center of the book I have Andrew read Austen’s anonymously published Sense and Sensibility, believing his wife to be the author. He admires her talent, but is downright terrified at the thought of being married to such a brilliant writer. “She could eviscerate him with a chosen phrase, demolish him with a sentence. His manhood would never withstand that cold scrutiny” (448).

Andrew’s lowest point occurs when his emotional distress over the problems with his wife affects his sexual performance with Matthew (368-372). The aspect of his sexuality about which he has been most confident, his relationships with other men, has been undermined, but it’s the woman who has unmanned him. While Matthew, an ideal partner, is properly encouraging and sympathetic, Andrew’s return to healthy masculine sexuality requires the reparation of his relationship with Phyllida. Their rapprochement begins when Phyllida no longer perceives Andrew as a threat but as a wounded hero in need of healing. Instead of demanding that Phyllida submit to him in fulfillment of her wifely duty, Andrew requests that she share his bed, and only when she is ready (265). And it is here, in his flaccid state, that Andrew experiences his first genuinely egalitarian sexual moments. Unable to engage in intercourse, Andrew takes the “submissive”[13] role in oral sex, bringing Phyllida to full, screaming orgasm and giving Andrew the sense of accomplishment that has been lacking in their earlier “vertical” encounters. Not only does he acquire a new respect for women’s powerful sexuality, but he reaps an immediate reward for his submission, as Phyllida reciprocates and brings him to his own first climax since his loss of confidence.

Over time, as the two become comfortable with each other, Andrew’s recovery to dominant masculinity will be complete, but within an egalitarian, consensual context, without the earlier overtones of coercion. In their first encounters, despite the spark between them, Andrew’s unconscious reliance on “the game” confused and frightened Phyllida. Her involuntary response to Andrew’s dominant manner unnerved her, and she worried that there may be no clear line between consensual sex and rape (67-68). Once Andrew discovers that Phyllida responds to the teasing words of the game as well as any man, and once Phyllida recognizes the game as Andrew’s peculiar but enjoyable sexual style and has gained the experience to participate in it as an equal, their lovemaking can become egalitarian regardless of who is on top in any particular act. Andrew signals their impending reconciliation by calling his wife a “slut” who is “hungry for cock” and threatening to strip off her inappropriate attire, to which Phyllida responds by calling him a “foulmouthed beast,” a “brute” and a “fiend.” As Andrew explains to the shocked bystanders, “Mrs. Carrington was merely expressing her love in our own subtle idiom” (419-420).

Andrew’s necessary sexual evolution occurs almost entirely with his wife, as his feelings of pride and later on, love, require him to learn the differences in women’s anatomy and responses. He can experiment with a beginner’s level of nonthreatening equality, such as mutual oral gratification, and when Phyllida later tops him in bed it’s at Andrew’s invitation, following a spectacularly successful demonstration of the old, dominant method. With his male partner there are no such difficulties. Matthew’s submissive desires are a perfect complement to Andrew’s dominant ones; their only problems are caused by plot devices related directly or indirectly to Andrew’s troubles with Phyllida. By the end of the story, Phyllida and Andrew are evolving into genuine versatility, while Andrew continues to enjoy the dominant role with Matthew. With both partners, Andrew adds words of love to his repertory while engaged in some form of dominant sexual activity (484,498-499), although the almost identical verbal role-playing (“slut” and “brute”) will continue indefinitely.

Outside the bedroom, Andrew’s social evolution is accomplished through clashes with both partners. Although Phyllida and Matthew may enjoy the submissive role in the bedroom, neither is submissive in character, and their strong wills challenge Andrew’s authority as a gentleman of leisure and wealthy provider. Matthew continues to work at his father’s business, while Phyllida insists on pursuing her career as author, writing it into the marriage contract. Both partners engage in the kind of teasing banter with Andrew that is the opposite of the obedience he expects from a wife or the deference of a working-class man. More seriously, they unintentionally (at first) and without malice deceive Andrew, for reasons of necessity and expedience (Phyllida) or simply because it’s so easy (Matthew). Phyllida doesn’t correct Andrew’s mistaken ideas about her writing, finding it preferable to his discovering its true Gothic (and semi-autobiographical) nature, but also enjoying the secret pleasure it gives her, a form of emotional and financial independence. In a similar fashion, she lets Andrew continue to believe he struck her, despite the cost to their marital happiness, convinced that her silence is protecting Andrew from the threats of a blackmailer.

It’s only with Matthew’s seemingly lighthearted deceptions that Andrew confronts all the deepest conflicts of wealth and social class. Andrew perceives Matthew as his inferior in wealth as well as socially, and Matthew deliberately encourages Andrew’s misconceptions, lapsing into Yorkshire-inflected speech on occasion and complaining about the expensive lodgings at the Brotherhood. As it turns out, Matthew’s “tradesman” father is an obscenely wealthy cotton baron, the personification of the social upheaval wrought by the Industrial Revolution on the English nobility’s inherited wealth and titles, leaving Matthew more than a match for Andrew in size, in strength, and in wealth. He can buy and sell Andrew if not “ten times over,” “at least once or twice,” and is the beneficiary of a similar education (Harrow to Andrew’s Eton) (489, 528). What’s worst, from Andrew’s point of view, is that Matthew is not ashamed of his inferior background. He works by choice, not out of necessity, despite having enough ready capital to buy a landed estate, and he deliberately provokes Andrew’s displays of upper-class hauteur, as when Andrew covers his hurt at Matthew’s seeming abandonment by correcting his expression of going “up” to the country, instead of “down” (454).

But Andrew’s evolution toward equality with his male partner is relatively easy. As the men’s climactic confrontation shows, their fistfight turned into lovemaking (chap. 27), it is the logical outcome of all of Andrew’s—and his world’s—conflicted desires. Andrew has discovered the truth of his lover’s vast fortune, earned through despised “trade” rather than inherited, as Andrew’s is, and the reality of Matthew’s gentlemanly education. “The Yorkshireman is heavier, but Carrington’s got style,” one of the upper-class spectators remarks (493), and as the fight progresses, Andrew’s style triumphs over Matthew’s brawn. For Andrew, there’s a thrill to be had in topping someone who outmatches him in size, in strength, and in wealth. In the Heyer model, upper-class style (manners, “breeding”) has value beyond its “weight;” the rising middle classes emulate their social superiors because they want to join their ranks, not displace them, and the aristocratic bisexual top may dominate the heavier middle-class or working man—but only with his acquiescence.

Once I moved from writing an original work to interpreting Austen’s famous novel, I felt as if I was entering a darker, harsher universe. My original creation, Phyllida, and its male protagonists, Andrew and Matthew, were shaped in part by the worldview of Georgette Heyer and her relatively benign assessment of upper-class masculine dominance. Austen, by contrast, takes a more jaundiced view of the aristocracy, male and female, and its assumption of privilege.[14] The conflicts of wealth and social class are explicit in Austen’s novel, leading me to focus on bringing out the implicit bisexuality in mine. Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is an aloof, arrogant, and disdainful man at the beginning of her novel, and his “humbling” by Elizabeth Bennet is not only an argument in favor of equalizing male-female relationships but a representation of the superiority of middle-class manners and morals. Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy’s first proposal because he has not behaved in a “gentleman-like manner” (Austen 188; vol. 2, ch. 11), and from the beginning of the novel it is his friend, Mr. Bingley, whose father made his fortune in trade, who is described as “gentlemanlike” (12; vol. 1, ch. 3).

Austen’s novels have become classics both of popular romance and of English literature, to an extent almost unimaginable a century ago. Perhaps it’s their iconic status that colors our perceptions of their characters. While I deliberately wrote Andrew Carrington to be as arrogant and overbearing as the most self-assured of Heyer’s heroes—and readers have read him that way—I’ve been astonished at reactions to my Fitz, with some readers apparently remembering Mr. Darcy as having been flawless from the beginning. As Faust says: “Thus, instead of idolizing Mr. Darcy as the perfect mate, as the reader does in Austen’s novel, the reader of Herendeen’s novel grows disgusted with Fitz’s behavior” (MA thesis 32). But the Mr. Darcy presented at the start of Austen’s P&P strikes me as a most un-evolved hero indeed, hardly someone to idolize. That, to me, is the theme of Austen’s story, and of so many romance novels that followed: that an ideal husband is made, not born; that he is the product of hard work—and hard knocks—the heroine’s initial rejection leading to his desire to improve.

In fact, the only major difference between my bisexual heroes and their heterosexual counterparts is one of number, not kind. I saw my Fitz as a bisexual hero with a bad attitude, engaged in two relationships, with Charles Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet, which require him to evolve emotionally if he wants to retain (Charles) or gain (Elizabeth) his partner’s love. Fitz’s treatment of his lover, Charles, in the first half of P/P is overbearing and domineering, just as Mr. Darcy’s treatment of his friend Mr. Bingley is verbally condescending and bullying in Austen’s novel. He’s not an “evolved” personality in either book, and the sexual and romantic relationship between the men in my P/P is not equal. It’s not intended to be a model of an ideal same-sex male romance, but the starting point for a story of a dominant male’s transformation from an unlikable but sexually compelling “player” into a husband or lover who wins his partners’ love through courtship, by treating them not merely as conquests, but as worthy of the respect that inspires love.

The story of my P/P follows Austen’s novel, bringing out what I see as an implied bisexuality in Fitz (Mr. Darcy’s) character, as shown in his two same-sex relationships: with Charles Bingley; and with his foster brother, the seductive and manipulative George Wickham. Austen’s novel gives us several instances of Mr. Darcy’s affectionate but seemingly contemptuous style of conversation with his friend Mr. Bingley,[15] which Elizabeth in P/P recognizes as similar to that of “the clever husband with the simple wife” (Herendeen P/P 30-31), saying that “Mr. Darcy could not be more jealous of a new bride than he is of [ . . . ] Mr. Bingley” (26). Similarly, the exploitative and deceptive nature of the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Wickham strikes me as one that can easily accommodate a physical sexual manifestation, and I wrote explicit scenes with both men in which Fitz displays his dominant bisexual masculinity.

Where Andrew Carrington’s dominance was an exultant, happy expression of his sexuality, Fitz’s dominance has darker roots, related to Austen’s view of Mr. Darcy as having been “encouraged [by my parents . . . ] to be selfish and overbearing [ . . . ] to think meanly of all the rest of the world [ . . . ] of their sense of worth compared with my own” (Austen 349; vol. 3, ch. 16). Building on this self-description in Austen’s novel, I imagined my Fitz as expressing this unpleasant side of his nature in his private sexual activity, although here I felt that there were mitigating factors. Fitz has been deeply scarred by his first love for Wickham, who seduced Fitz with submissive “favors” and led him on to make declarations of love, only to reveal, with the cruelest words, that his motives were mercenary and practical. “Love you? Are you really that stupid, Darcy?” (Herendeen, P/P 192) Where Andrew’s wounds, the result of a reciprocated love affair reaching a natural if unwelcome ending, were easily healed, Fitz’s wounds are permanent and disfiguring. Wickham’s practiced duplicity has left Fitz suspicious of love and looking for a partner who is innocent and naïve—one whose love is genuine, or whom he can easily influence, if not control.

Partly as a result, for Fitz the allure of domination is more difficult to overcome. While Andrew’s partner, Matthew, is submissive only in the bedroom, Charles Bingley is submissive in all aspects of his character. At the start of the novel, Charles is beginning to assert his independence, questioning the ideal of man/boy love underlying his relationship with Fitz, and beginning to think that “it might be very nice to have a wife” (Herendeen, P/P 6). But ultimately he enjoys being “taken care of” by Fitz, as Elizabeth remarks scornfully to Colonel Fitzwilliam (Austen 180; vol. 2, ch. 10). The challenge for Fitz with Charles is to continue to play the roles he enjoys: sexual top, protector, and mentor, while accepting Charles as his equal in spirit. Just as in a democratic society everyone is supposed to be equal before the law regardless of ability or income, so Fitz must not let his own areas of genuine superiority—wealth, intellect, pedigree, size and strength—undermine the equality and reciprocity necessary to sustain a relationship of love. Contrasting their uncomplicated love with the inescapable realities of heterosexual relationships, Fitz tells Charles, “We share the purest form of love, one that can exist solely between men—disinterested love whose only object is its own fulfillment, that looks for no advantage of money or condition” (Herendeen, P/P 226).

Where Andrew’s two partners are similar, Fitz’s male and female partners are opposites. Unlike Charles, Elizabeth is most certainly not submissive, and I could not imagine her exuberantly active nature melting away into passivity in the bedroom. On their wedding night, Fitz takes the dominant position at first, as he is the experienced lover. Elizabeth, overcome by the pleasures of lovemaking, utters the essential words, “I love you,” as a form of submission (Herendeen, P/P 324). But by the next morning, after three or four sexual encounters, Elizabeth has developed the skill to top Fitz by winning a sexual wrestling match, and I imagined Fitz’s astonished delight at being topped by someone he loves: “Never had surrender felt so like victory” (334). To underscore the significance of this reversal of positions, I show Fitz imagining himself as a racehorse with Elizabeth as the jockey whipping him to the finish line, and it is he who now “submits” by saying the words of love. Later in their marriage, Elizabeth dominates Fitz emotionally as well as physically, topping him on a chair in the breakfast room, forcing him, through his uncontrollable arousal, to perform despite his voiced fear that “Someone might come in” (350).

In the marriage of Fitz and Elizabeth I see a joyful combat between two dominant personalities; their only solution is to take turns. Fitz and Elizabeth will remain sexual tops, enjoying an equal, unwinnable contest, their more erudite conversational sexual intercourse an exalted version of Andrew and Phyllida’s coarser “game.” In fact, I saw Fitz’s relationship with Charles as similar in many ways to a conventional marriage, domestic and comfortable, the two men naturally fitting their respective roles of “husband” and “wife,” while Fitz’s connection with Elizabeth has the allure of forbidden passion, more like an ongoing extramarital affair that neither partner can give up because it’s so exciting—and transgressive.

For the two men, Fitz and Charles, it is only after they have entered into heterosexual marriages that they can resume their sexual relationship on new terms—an agreed-upon, negotiated dominance. Where Fitz has been humbled by his love for his exceptional wife and mellowed by winning her affection, Charles has matured, his character strengthened by marriage to his perfect female complement, the equally sweet and submissive Jane. “You have grown into marriage,” Fitz tells Charles. “From a youth to a man. I admit to liking it very well” (360-361). Only now can the two former lovers approach each other with something resembling equality, and in their first reunion after their respective marriages Charles “surprises” Fitz by taking the initiative in their lovemaking. But evolution cannot entirely transform fundamental nature, and these two men will always be perfectly matched as opposites, as they are similar to their wives. When Fitz expresses the desire to make love “as they were used to,” with Fitz on top, Charles replies, “I shall always want that” (365-366). Where upper-class male dominance wins the day with a timely left hook in Phyllida, in my version of Austen’s world, the dominant aristocrat stoops to conquer, adopting some of the qualities of his middle-class partner and meeting him halfway.


In writing my masculine, bisexual heroes, I had to make some concession to the realities of their time. My heroes are anomalies under the old systems governing male sexuality, cisgender men who desire, not boys or “pathics,” but other cisgender men, and each must come to terms with the changing definition of sexual identity and orientation. And in some ways they are already moving toward the future, as embodied by the men they desire: other cisgender men, neither pathics nor effeminate, who choose the bottom position in sex.

In our modern understanding of “gentle doms” and “pushy bottoms,” the man who plays the top role in bed is often motivated by the desire to please his partner rather than to control him, and the man in the submissive role as often as not directs the action (“Pushy bottom”). Both Andrew and Fitz perform oral sex on their wives as a matter of course, and although consistently dominant with their male partners during anal intercourse, willingly and eagerly take the “submissive” role in oral sex at times. When Andrew meets Matthew, his first clear statement of intent “involves your cock in my mouth and my cock in your arse” (Herendeen, Phyllida 298), and as soon as the two men are in bed, he makes good on his promise (306-307). Fitz, like Andrew, takes on the “submissive” role in oral sex as a way of both controlling and gratifying his partner. By pleasuring Charles orally, Fitz allows him to climax first, while also preparing him for the receptive role in the anal sex that will be Fitz’s “reward” (Herendeen, P/P 21-23).

For Andrew, already psychologically adapted to the new social order, and accepting himself as a “sodomite,” it’s the unexpected passion for a woman that most disturbs him. On his wedding night, after worrying that he will have to perform on demand, he’s astonished to find himself “[holding] back with difficulty. He liked this, wanted this” (Herendeen, Phyllida 46). His early hope that Phyllida will become pregnant immediately and “he might never have to do it again” (51) soon turns to frustrated desire when Phyllida, displeased by his performance, locks him out of her room, and the transition from dominant “homosexual” to dominant “bisexual” is ultimately a natural one for him.

Fitz, the more introspective—and bisexual—of the two, labors toward self-acceptance. In two extended flashbacks, readers see him struggling to reconcile his position as a dominant bisexual man with the new egalitarian system that is being established, even at the top of the social and economic hierarchy he inhabits (Herendeen, P/P 191-200, 255-262). Fitz belongs to the same “gentlemen’s club” of the earlier novel, but resists identifying as a sodomite or molly. His university education, with its exposure to the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, has given him a different perspective. “Not all love between men is sodomy, any more than all love between a man and a woman is fornication,” Fitz says (103), to the scorn of Monkton and the others.

My two stories are novels—fiction—that take place during a time of significant changes in both the literary and sexual traditions that still resonate today. I wanted my heroes not only to be transformed by their relationships with women, but to confront the Gothic, which Sedgwick sees as “feminizing” the literary and cultural aesthetic of the time—the fictional counterpart to the physical details of the men’s sexual evolution. In Phyllida, a work that plays on the divide between “higher” literary fiction like Austen’s novels and “low” popular romances, the influence of the Gothic is empowering. Although steadfastly scorning Gothic novels as “sensational trash, only a step up from obscenity” (326), and admiring Austen’s work as superior, Andrew admits that marriage to a writer like Austen would be uncomfortable (see above). Later, while reading Phyllida’s real work, a Gothic novel with an improbable but arousing m/m/f plot, Andrew realizes that the author of this novel is the perfect match for him, combining “the best of mind and carnality in a mixture that [he] had thought [ . . . ] could only be found in men” (449). The encounter with the feminized, homosexual Gothic has unexpectedly reinforced his dominant bisexuality.

In P/P, the friendship between Fitz and Charles is a perfect example of what Sedgwick calls “homosexual panic,” a man’s fear that he is “under the compulsion of another male” (Men 91). There is also a direct reference to Gothic romances when Charles, entering Fitz’s darkened bedroom, compares it to a scene from The Mysteries of Udolpho, while Fitz replies that he “hoped to be spared talk of ladies’ novels in my own home” (Herendeen, P/P 223). But just as Austen rejected the supernatural Gothic in favor of sympathetic realism, so P/P must come down on the side of the “higher” literary genres. Fitz and Charles eventually reach a more equal relationship based on mutual agreement rather than the dominance and submission of Gothic control—while Fitz is introduced to the pleasure of realistic “ladies’ novels” by his wife (347-349).

Sedgwick’s idea of the feminization of the aristocracy in the eighteenth century seems to be a way of describing the upper-class adoption of a middle-class or bourgeois concept of the family. In discussing my two romance novels, with their conventionally masculine heroes and the most unconventional families they create, I have also been talking about social class. In the old class- and gender-stratified world, one that did not have a concept of bisexuality or sexual orientation, these men were indistinguishable from other cisgender males. Now, with the new vertical division of sexuality, these upper-class heroes are “humbled” by love.

That the “submissive” male partners in both books are the sons of tradesmen is an outgrowth of my (and Austen’s, and perhaps Sedgwick’s) view of the social hierarchy. In Phyllida, the direction of accommodation is “upward,” as Matthew, benefitting from his father’s wealth and the education and opportunities it affords, adopts the manners of the upper classes and moves effortlessly (or so it seems) into the landed aristocracy. By the end of the novel, it is his estate, purchased from its impoverished owners, that becomes the de facto country home of Mr. and Mrs. Carrington and site of the infamous “molly weddings” that close this comic novel. In P/P, Charles Bingley’s personality and background are Austen’s creation, a personification of middle-class virtue to contrast with the inherently amoral aristocracy (in Austen’s view) from which Fitz must be reclaimed. Like Matthew, Charles is introduced at the beginning of Austen’s novel as in the market for an estate, but his status as gentleman is already established by his superior manners. It is Mr. Darcy, and my Fitz, who must improve themselves by moving “downward,” adapting their domineering upper-class behavior to fit the modern, egalitarian world being shaped by the middle classes. There’s hope for Fitz, as his father was a commoner, however wealthy, and the redeeming force is love: for Elizabeth—and, I would argue, for Charles—in both novels, mine and Austen’s. “Perhaps we can create a new ideal,” Charles says (Herendeen, P/P 366).


In both novels, I portray a form of male bisexuality that, invisible from the outside, coexisted with the rigid heteronormativity, class system, and economic structure of their historical setting. Bisexuality of this kind was not, in itself, revolutionary, even if it might seem, to modern eyes, subversive, and I underscored the socially “natural” state of this bisexuality in my portrayals of both sets of men. Just as both Andrew and Fitz are dominant bisexual men by nature, so their male partners, Matthew and Charles, are sexual bottoms; when they submit to the hero, it’s out of love, and because bottoming is their preferred position in bed. In the outside world, however things are changing in the social and economic structure, these cisgender but submissive men are still on top by virtue of their sex and masculine demeanor. It’s the women who will want to equalize their marriages, and in both novels the heroes are ultimately “humbled,” not by their male partners, but by their wives.

That was my both my problem and my solution as a writer: to retain the reality of eighteenth-century male dominance, while at the same time “feminizing” it by allowing the heroines (and readers) to be aware of, even share in the men’s bisexual activity. Phyllida and Elizabeth are “modern” heroines; unashamed of their sexuality, attracted to their husbands physically as well as emotionally, and actively enjoying the fulfillment of their marital duties. Indeed, I take my heroines’ liberation from old-school sexual submissiveness several steps further, imagining them, rather than disgusted by their husbands’ same-sex activities, instead reveling in the vicarious arousal they provide.

But there’s more at stake than arousal, important as that is for women’s empowerment in marriage. According to Sedgwick, male homosocial desire is an expression of the patriarchy’s “traffic in women.” What may look like homoerotic attraction is just another form of male dominance, with women as commodities to be acquired and exchanged. Similarly, the traditional view of the married bisexual man is that he is “deceiving” his wife by engaging in same-sex activity or “cheating” on her with his male partner. In my contemporary reinterpretation of this very old situation I hoped to free my characters, male and female, from the “traffic in women,” and the means of this liberation is a rejection of the passive, depressing, wifely “acceptance” or “tolerance” of her husband’s sexual activities, in favor of a more active and positive response.

For these liberated wives and bisexual husbands, marriage is no longer something to endure for the sake of wealth and social position, or respectability. Released from the demeaning business of subterfuge, the men can pursue their male partners for no ulterior motive, only love, while their wives discover in their husbands’ male partners a comrade: a kindred soul, not a rival. As Phyllida says to Matthew, dismissing Andrew’s suggestion of “brother-in-law” as an “artificial relationship”: “You are one of the family. Not exactly a husband, but far more than a friend” (Herendeen, Phyllida 530-531). Elizabeth Darcy, inspired by her sister Jane’s belief that “A truly happy marriage ought not destroy a longstanding [male] friendship,” reexamines her own understanding of love (Herendeen, P/P 402-403). By the end of both novels, the heroines’ original ambivalence, nurtured by joyful and happy marriage, has blossomed into endorsement and encouragement of their husbands’ bisexuality. Phyllida acts as the “groomsman” at her husband’s marriage to Matthew (Herendeen, Phyllida 521), and Elizabeth allots a room to her husband and Charles for use during “inclement weather” (Herendeen, P/P 403).

Within the shell of a very old social order, a new one is beginning to emerge: playful, polyamorous, lit up by what Pam Rosenthal has called “the revealed spectacle of male homosocial desire” (7). It’s an order centered, still, on the concept of marriage, but a marriage grounded in honesty and equality, chosen freely by all partners. That was a radical idea in Austen’s time, and it remains one, as appealing to my heroines and heroes—and, I hope, my readers—as the beautiful grounds of Pemberley.

Works Cited

Andrews, Walter G. and Mehmet Kalpakli. The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. Vivien Jones. Penguin classics ed. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

“Bisexual, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print.

“Cisgender.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, LLC, 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

Dixson, Alan. “Homosexual Behaviour in Primates.” Animal Homosexuality: A Biosocial Perspective. Aldo Poiani. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. Updated ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. Print.

Eisner, Shiri. “Monosexual Privilege Checklist.” Radical Bi. WordPress, posted 28 July, 2011. Web. 28 July, 2012.

Faust, Meredith S. “[A] strange primitive feeling of lust”: Heteronormative Rigidity in Herendeen’s Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. Paper presented at the PCA/ACA Conference, San Antonio, 22 Apr., 2011. Print.

———. “Love of the purest kind”: Heteronormative Rigidity in the Homoerotic Fiction of Ann Herendeen. MA thesis. DePaul University, 2010. Print.

Herendeen, Ann. Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.

———. Pride/Prejudice. New York: Harper, 2010. Print.

“Morphodite.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, LLC, 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

Norton, Rictor. A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, “The Medicalization of Homosexuality.” Rictor Norton. 2008. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

———. Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830. London: GMP, 1992. Print.

Poiani, Aldo. Animal Homosexuality: A Biosocial Perspective. With a chapter by Alan Dixson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

“Pushy bottom.” Def. 1. Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, LLC, 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

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

Rochester, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of. “The Disabled Debauchee.” The Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Rosenthal, Pam. The Queer Theory of Eve Sedgwick at the Edge of the Popular Romance Genre. Paper presented at the Second International Conference on Popular Romance, Brussels, 5-7 Aug., 2010. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. 1985. With a new preface by the author. New York: Columbia University Press, [1992]. Print.

———. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Updated with a new preface. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Simpson, Mark S. Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Werner, Dennis. “The Evolution of Male Homosexuality: Implications for Human Psychological and Cultural Variations.” Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective. Ed. Volker Sommer and Paul L. Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 316-346. Print.

[1] While Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, its earliest version, “First Impressions,” was written 1796-1797, and its sensibility seems more 18th-century than Regency. Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, especially those set in the early years, like Regency Buck, show a society in transition from the old century to the new, as reflected in dress, in speech and particularly in morals.

[2] For example, see Shiri Eisner’s “Monosexual Privilege Checklist” that begins, “Society assures me that my sexual identity is real and that people like me exist.”

[3] As the exemplary quotations that define the old slang term “maphrodite” reveal, this corrupt form of “hermaphrodite” was long used as a synonym for “homosexual” (“Morphodite”).

[4] This remark occurs in the context of the “ignorant world” betting against the possibility of newlywed and former “confirmed bachelor” Andrew Carrington’s impregnating his bride. Suspicions of a penchant for “buggery” have been conflated with incapability, even for this most masculine-appearing man.

[5] Werner calls the gender-stratified society the “most common” in the ethnographic record (330), with only 30 modern societies having the egalitarian system. He also cites a 1995 study that found a number of societies in the process of changing over from gender-stratified to egalitarian (331).

[6] Bray (106) cites Ian Watts’s 1957 work The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding in his discussion of the cultural change from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. While we no longer restrict our discussion of the early English novel to these three male authors, I feel that their works are an accurate representation of the heterosexual orthodoxy of the time.

[7] The statement appears in a discussion of Gothic fiction and is related to Laurence Stone’s belief that the molly houses were “gentlemen’s clubs,” which Bray disputed and Norton’s work (not yet published when Men was written) entirely exploded, showing that the molly culture was a working- and middle-class phenomenon.

[8] I consider Austen’s writing sympathetic to women but “masculine” in style and mood: harsh, satirical and witty (while of course not believing that these qualities belong only to one gender).

[9] Influences for Andrew are many: Julian Audley, 5th Earl of Worth, in Regency Buck; Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, in These Old Shades (aka Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, in The Black Moth); Sir Richard Wyndham in The Corinthian, etc., along with the way this version of the romance hero was distilled through romance novels of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

[10] For an example of the ultimate amoral aristocratic Austen antihero, see the unpublished novella “Lady Susan,” in which the eponymous protagonist, the daughter of a nobleman, breaks every rule of female sexual behavior and wins through to an ending which, if not exactly happy, is certainly successful in terms of wealth and respectability.

[11] I mean “lady” here in the period sense of the word:  it meant, at the very lowest, middle class status, and usually implied gentry.  Phyllida’s family is poor by middle-class standards, as was Austen during most of her adult life, but as a gentleman’s daughter she is an eligible match for Andrew.

[12] Hugo Darracott, the hero of Heyer’s An Unknown Ajax, was the direct inspiration for Matthew. The idea of a large, tall, blond, muscular Yorkshireman, the epitome of masculine stereotypes, as a sexual bottom struck me as hilarious and very appealing.

[13] I use the term “submissive” for the person performing oral sex and “dominant” for the one receiving it. Although the person performing oral sex is usually more “active,” the performance is commonly perceived as submissive and the dominant partner may not reciprocate.

[14] Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, is even more disagreeable than her nephew. The aristocratic minor characters in other novels are usually buffoons or villains or both at once. Some examples: Sir Walter Eliot, the heroine’s vain father in Persuasion; Willoughby, seducer of innocents, in Sense and Sensibility; and coldhearted General Tilney and his rakish elder son, Frederick, in Northanger Abbey.

[15] For example, when Mr. Darcy accuses Mr. Bingley of “the indirect boast … being proud of your defects” (47-49; vol. 1, ch. 10).


“Queering the Romantic Heroine: Where Her Power Lies” by Katherine E. Lynch, Ruth E. Sternglantz, and Len Barot

Five years ago, a letter to the editor of the Romance Writers Report (a monthly publication issued by the Romance Writers of America), suggested that “romance” should be defined as between one man and one woman. Specifically, the writer asserted that “what [has] brought romance fiction to its present level of success is a collection of decades’ worth of one-man, one-woman relationship stories, in all their richness, variety, and power” (Rothwell). This letter caused a great deal of discussion, and no small controversy, within the RWA membership and the romance community. Ultimately, the debate came down to one central question: What, exactly, is a romance?

Romance comes from the Old French noun romanz, which was used to describe “a medieval narrative (originally in verse, later also in prose) relating the legendary or extraordinary adventures of some hero of chivalry” (OED s.v. romance, def. 1). Over time, of course, the word’s meaning has changed. In 2003, Pamela Regis defined the romance novel as “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (21). Regis acknowledges, however, that romance novels written within the last several decades do not necessarily require marriage as long as the protagonists end up together by the conclusion of the book. This is especially good news for queer readers living in locations where same-sex marriage is not recognized by law.

The early twentieth century saw the emergence of love stories featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered protagonists. However, these stories often ended tragically and were thus not romance novels in Regis’s sense. Over time, however, the queer female hero has been able to inhabit the romance genre in ways that reflect the rapidly changing landscape of sexual identity politics in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America.

This article will analyze the development of queer romance as a literary subtype that emerges both parallel to and intertwined with trends in mainstream romance literature. The authors of this paper are, respectively: an English professor and lesbian romance novelist, a medievalist and editor of queer fiction, and a publisher and author of queer fiction. As we trace the evolution of the queer romance genre, we will demonstrate the literature’s indebtedness to the LGBTQ civil rights movement, which began to gain traction in the late 1960s and has become a powerful and vociferous lobby in contemporary politics.

One Small Step for Romance: The Evolution of the Queer Female Hero

Women in the queer community are accustomed to reading themselves into works of literature. This process is analogous to transposing a piece of music; with subtle concentration, a hero can be transformed into a second heroine. In her article “Every Book is a Lesbian Book,” award-winning author Dorothy Allison describes this act of re-imagination: “I had spent my adolescence reinterpreting the reality of every book, movie and television show I had ever experienced—moving everything into lesbian land.” Occasionally, the queer female reader finds—to her immense delight—a passage in which the author has paved the way for her imagination. The author need only hint that the heroine is willing to deviate from the status quo as regards her love interest.

This re-interpretive project can be brought to bear on texts throughout history. One important example in English literature is Sir Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, which was published in the late sixteenth century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Book III of the poem takes as its subject Britomart, a woman on a quest for her one true love—a man named Arthegall. Knowing that she will be unable to proactively seek out Arthegall so long as she looks like a woman, Britomart dons a legendary suit of armor and takes up a magical spear in order to pass as a knight. During the course of her adventures, she rescues a lovely woman named Amoret, who has been imprisoned by an evil enchanter. Initially, Amoret fears for her own virtue because she believes Britomart to be a man who might force himself on her. However, once Britomart removes her helmet to expose, in Spenser’s words, “her golden lockes, that were vp bound” (III.1.13.2), Amoret’s attitude changes dramatically. Amoret’s relief that her savior is a woman takes an interesting turn as night falls:

And eke fayre Amoret now freed from feare,

More franke affection did to [Britomart] afford,

And to her bed, which she was wont forbeare,

Now freely drew, and found right safe assurance theare.

Where all that night they of their loues did treat,

And hard aduentures twixt themselues alone,

That each the other gan with passion great,

And griefull pittie priuately bemone. (Book IV, Canto I, stanzas 15.6 – 16.4)

The homoeroticism of this passage is undeniable and has been noted by several literary critics. In her 1998 monograph The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative, for example, Dorothy Stephens asserts that this moment is “the one happy bed scene in the whole poem” (38). For the queer female reader, this scene is an unexpected delight: Britomart, having just proven her superiority on a field of battle traditionally dominated by men, comes out as female and proceeds to spend a sensual night with another woman.

But the scene is ultimately dissatisfying; the reader’s joy is tempered by her knowledge that Britomart’s romantic destiny is predetermined. While Spenser’s poem may hint at romantic possibilities outside of the traditional pairing of a man and a woman, heteronormativity always prevails. In English texts from the medieval and early modern periods, one woman seeks out another for one of two reasons: either to avoid a man or to find a man.

Not until the early twentieth century did English literature produce a text that chronicled a full-fledged romance between two women. In 1928, two decades after the first English medical texts about homosexuality had been written,[1] British novelist Marguerite Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness. The book’s protagonist is a woman named Stephen Gordon, who was christened with a male name because of her father’s desire for a son. Stephen is the prototypical butch lesbian: “[She was] handsome in a flat, broad shouldered and slim flanked fashion; and her movements were purposeful, having fine poise, she moved with the easy assurance of the athlete. In face she had [ . . . ] the formation of the resolute jaw [of her father] Sir Phillip.” Even from a young age, Stephen typifies the butch lesbian hero emotionally as well as physically. As an adolescent, she falls in love with a married woman and declares herself ready and willing to sacrifice her name, her legacy, her inheritance, and her social status for love: “For your sake I’m ready to give up my home [ . . . ] I want the whole world to know how I adore you. I am done with these lies [ . . .] [W]e will go away, and will live quite openly together, you and I, which is what we owe to ourselves and our love.” Self-sacrifice is a fundamental trait of the romantic hero, and throughout the novel, Stephen repeatedly sacrifices herself on the altar of forbidden love.

As an adult, Stephen falls in love with a young, unmarried woman named Mary. The primary barrier to their love is the social stigma of being, in the medical terminology of the time, a “sexual invert.” Stephen, who has already experienced rejection at the hands of her own mother, attempts to dissuade Mary from falling in love with her. But Mary refuses to be cowed and courageously declares, “What do I care for the world’s opinion? What do I care for anything but you, and you just as you are—as you are, I love you! [ . . . ] Can’t you understand that all that I am belongs to you, Stephen?” (312-3). This passionate declaration of love is followed by an equally passionate embrace, “and that night,” Hall writes, “they were not divided” (313).

While The Well of Loneliness chronicles Stephen and Mary’s romance, it is not a romance novel. In the end, Stephen’s despair at the world’s rejection compels her to drive Mary into the arms of a man who can give her the respect she deserves from society. Stephen kills herself, crying out to God with her last breath in a prayer for compassion and recognition: “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” (437)

For decades following The Well of Loneliness, fiction about queer women offered no happy endings. Despite this trend, lesbian stories became ever more popular, particularly during the pulp fiction explosion of the 1950s and 60s. Stephanie Foote, in her article, “Deviant Classics: Pulp and the Making of Lesbian Print Culture,” asserts that “pulps changed the accessibility and affordability of fiction” (170). These books were widely available, and even the ones with lesbian themes sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Most of the early lesbian titles ended in despair. Dorothy Allison remembers her frustration with the grim ending of many a lesbian pulp, referring to them as “paperbacks from the drugstore that inevitably ended with one ‘dyke’ going off to marry while the other threw herself under a car.” In the late 1950s, however, several brave authors began to change the rules.[2]

One such author was Ann Bannon, whose best-known work, Beebo Brinker, was written in 1962 and tells the story of a young woman who leaves her rural home for New York City. Early in the novel, Beebo, who is still in the process of coming out to herself, mentions finding and reading a lesbian pulp: “I read a book once [ . . . ] under my covers at night—when I was fifteen. It was about two girls who loved each other. One of them committed suicide. It hit me so hard I wanted to die, too” (50). Stephanie Foote describes this particular moment as “a self-conscious, even playful metafictional reference to the pulps that Bannon herself helped to make famous.” She also acknowledges, however, that Beebo’s anecdote parallels the lived experience of many lesbian readers during that time. By making Beebo a reader of these tragic books, Bannon comments on the paucity of empowering fiction for the queer female readership.

During this time, lesbians found ways to compensate for their literature’s testimony that death was the only recourse for a woman who loved another woman. Carol Seajay, the founder of the Feminist Bookstore News, would read pulps “only up to the last twenty pages, to avoid sharing the lesbian protagonist’s inevitable tragic end” (Adams 122). In Beebo Brinker, Bannon rejects the paradigm of self-destruction and allows Beebo to find happiness, thus paving the way for the rise of the lesbian romance in the 1970s.

The pulps inaugurated a time of intense literary production around lesbian themes. “Between 1968 and 1973,” writes Adams, “over 500 feminist and lesbian publications appeared across the country, and what would become an organized network of independent women’s bookstores began to appear.” For many years, Naiad Press, founded in 1973, dominated the lesbian market. The press was most famous for its romances, one of which—Curious Wine, by Katherine V. Forrest—remains one of the best-selling lesbian romances of all time.

Curious Wine, first published in 1983, tells the story of Diana and Lane, two women who meet at Lake Tahoe and fall in love. Neither protagonist identifies as a lesbian prior to the events of the novel; in fact, both have been married to men in the past. The world that provides the backdrop for their story is very much a straight world, populated by their ex-boyfriends and straight girlfriends. Told from Diana’s point of view, the novel focuses on how difficult it can be to come out to oneself. Diana’s instinctive and powerful attraction to Lane leads them to fall into bed together a third of the way through the story. On the brink of consummating their desire, however, Diana pulls away, stuttering, “I can’t . . . I don’t . . . I’m not . . .” (77). The next day, she very deliberately seeks out a sexual encounter with a man who very nearly rapes her. She realizes in the wake of this experience that she is allowing fear to get the best of her true desires. She thinks to herself, “Diana Holland, you have really made a mess of things. You let that crude animal do that to you, but you wouldn’t let a tender sensitive woman—someone you care for—do what both of you want. [ . . . ] What is it that you’re afraid of, Diana Holland? What you feel? What other people think? Where is your courage? Your honesty? Your self esteem?” (89). Diana fears society’s judgment, just as Stephen Gordon does, but neither she nor Lane ever contemplates suicide. The book ends with a declaration of resolve in the face of the world’s opinion. “We’ll have problems, Diana, being together,” Lane reminds her. Diana’s response is to acknowledge the problem and to recognize its solution: “Yes, I know. But we’ll be together” (160). While Forrest’s novel does not shy away from a discussion of the difficulties Diana and Lane will face, the book focuses most of its attention on the exhilarating passion and depth of emotion that develop between the protagonists as they fall in love. Forrest’s lovers echo Stephen Gordon’s agony but move beyond it to fulfill her dying prayer.

Over the ensuing decades, lesbian fiction has evolved in a variety of ways, many of which mirror Western societies’ increased concern for LGBTQ equality. Radclyffe’s Safe Harbor, for example, was first published in 2001. Set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Safe Harbor chronicles the romance of deputy sheriff Reese Conlon and physician Tory King. Reese is a new arrival in Provincetown where Tory runs a clinic. Reese is wholly dedicated to her career and has never been physically or emotionally intimate with anyone. Tory is afraid to become romantically involved again after having been betrayed by her ex, and Reese’s innocence also deters her from pursuing a relationship. As in Curious Wine, the issue of coming out is at the heart of this book. But where Forrest describes this journey as private and internal, Radclyffe presents Reese’s coming out process as a collaborative effort on the part of the entire community. In a frank discussion with her friend Marge, Reese learns that, unbeknownst to her, she has become the talk of the town. “Carol from the Cheese Shop put it best,” says Marge. “She said you were an impossibly good-looking, unapproachable butch, who probably does the asking. And, my friend, there’re a fair number of women waiting in line, hoping that you’ll ask” (134). Marge is shocked to learn that Reese, as she puts it, has “never had that kind of relationship with anyone” (135). As time passes, Reese and Tory’s friends and families subtly—and often not so subtly—encourage their burgeoning romance. In fact, it is a conversation with Tory’s sister, Cath, that prompts Reese to first declare her love to Tory:

[Reese] remembered Cath speaking of all that Tory had lost, understanding the enormity of that pain as she contemplated what a life without Tory would be like. Barren and so lonely.

“Tory,” she said, her voice soft but crystal clear.

“Yes?” Tory questioned as she lay listening to the strong, steady heartbeat beneath her cheek.

“I love you.” (199)

Reese’s coming out process is a matter of public record, and her relationship with Tory is recognized and celebrated by the majority of the town’s citizens. Their love is reinforced by the community in which they live and whose constituents they serve and protect. In many ways, the story reflects changes in the landscape of sexual identity politics; just one year prior to Safe Harbor’s publication, for example, Vermont became the first state to legislate civil unions for same-sex partners. As the battle for equal marriage rights continues to be waged publically in courts and legislatures across the nation, stories in which queer women learn to love each other openly and unreservedly take on a powerful political undertone.

Other contemporary lesbian romances take this trend one step further. Often, the protagonists are already out and their sexual orientation is never seen as a barrier to anything or anyone; their queerness is simply accepted and rarely, if ever, questioned. By normalizing sexual queerness, such stories allow both the author and the audience to explore other modes of difference, whether a function of world or character. Moreover, in a lesbian romance these modes of difference are necessarily connected to the female-ness of the characters, and thus allow for a deeper interrogation of contemporary femininities. The following section will explore the ways in this subgenre offers up the notion of difference—what we prefer to call wildness, in deference to its Amazonian roots—as a celebrated quality, rather than a threat that must be contained.

Lesbian Romance and the Undomesticated Queer Hero

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, offers a string of definitions for the word wild. Among them (offered in order of the dictionary listing):

1a: living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame;

3a(1): not subject to restraint or regulation; also: passionately eager or enthusiastic;

4: uncivilized, barbaric; and

6a: deviating from the intended or expected course.

Wildness, in each of those forms, is a key element in the power dynamic driving the romance novel. Indeed, Pamela Regis, in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, defines the female hero of the twentieth-century romance novel in relationship to wildness—crucially, not her own wildness, but the wildness of the romance hero:

Rather than achieving affective individualism, property rights, and companionate marriage through courtship as the earlier [nineteenth-century] heroines did, the twentieth-century heroine begins the novel with these in place. [ . . . ] The novel chronicles the heroine’s taming of the dangerous hero or her healing of the injured hero, or both. [ . . . ] They are [ . . . ] dangerous men and must be tamed. (206)

This notion of the domestication of the dangerous hero—the dangerous male hero—is echoed in the title of Jayne Anne Krentz’s 1992 essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance. Krentz posits that in certain late-twentieth-century romance novels, “The trick is to teach the hero to integrate and control the two warring halves of himself so that he can function as a reliable mate and as a father. The journey of the novel [ . . . ] is the civilization of the male” (6). But Krentz goes a step further, arguing that these romance novels don’t just trace the civilization or domestication of dangerous wild men, but do it through the agency of “female power”: “In the romance novel [ . . . ] the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman” (5). According to Krentz, then, male power in much contemporary romance is dangerous, wild, and in need of taming, while female power is courageous, intelligent, gentle, civilizing, and domestic. But what happens to the power dynamic when there is no male hero? What happens in lesbian romance?

It is not our intent here to thoroughly explore—or explode—the paradigm, and there are surely lesbian romances in which a courageous, intelligent, gentle woman domesticates her wild female lover. For instance, in Jove Belle’s 2009 novel Chaps, Eden Metcalf, an L.A. drug-lord’s enforcer, steals his money, goes on the run, and—when her Ducati breaks down in the middle of nowhere—finds herself relying on the kindness of Brandi Cornwell, a hardworking, clean-living Idaho rancher. The story ends in Idaho, on the ranch, with Eden wrapped in the protective warmth of Brandi’s arms. The final words of the novel are, “Eden was home.” Few romance protagonists are more dangerous than Eden is at the top of the story or more domesticated than she is at its conclusion. But there is a parallel track in contemporary lesbian romance, one in which wildness or dangerousness is a quality to be celebrated and cultivated and embraced, rather than tamed or controlled.

Before turning to the transformation of this character in contemporary lesbian romance, it is necessary to take a brief look at the medieval and early modern roots of dangerous women in romance. There is a long tradition of dangerous women in English romance, long before the advent of the romance novel.[3] It is appropriate to begin this discussion with Geoffrey Chaucer, because one of the overarching themes of Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales is how women mediate power in romance. In the “Knight’s Tale”—the chivalric romance at the start of the Canterbury Tales—Theseus returns triumphantly to Athens, having conquered the kingdom of the Amazons. He brings his new wife—formerly the queen of the Amazons—to the Athenian court, along with her younger sister Emily. Emily promptly finds herself the unwilling apex of a love triangle, as two knights vie for her hand. Their love for Emily provokes war and chaos and copious bloodshed; an entire military/industrial complex springs up to support a tournament to determine who wins the girl. Emily prays to the goddess Diana, reminding her that she never wants to marry a man—she wants to spend her life in Diana’s service, hunting and walking in the wild woods. She begs Diana to divert the knights’ attention from her. But she does have a contingency clause: if she must end up with one of them, she begs, “sende me hym that moost desireth me” (2325). She clearly knows how romances end in the fourteenth century. It is not the dangerous male hero who is domesticated, but the dangerous woman who is silenced, who marries the knight who survives the tournament. And we are told that he lives happily ever after: “For now is Palamon in alle wele,/ Lyvynge in blisse, in richesse, and in heele” (3101-3102).

This brief excursus into early English literature reveals two possible models for heteronormative romance. On the one hand, there is the early modern English story, in which dangerous, wild women are domesticated and tamed. On the other, there is the contemporary romance novel, in which dangerous, wild men are domesticated and tamed.

Contemporary lesbian romance offers a third way. Perhaps because our heroes reach back to Chaucer’s Emily, who dared admit that she didn’t want to marry a man, who asked for nothing more than to spend her life in the wild wood, but who prepared for the contingency of having her wildness tamed, we view wildness in our romance heroes as a quality to be cultivated. Perhaps because we write our stories in the shadow of and standing on the shoulders of Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, whose Stephen Gordon believes that she is dangerous to the woman she loves, that she cannot offer her a happy life, we write romance novels where dangerous heroes are loved for their dangerous qualities, for their wildness, for their transgression—not in spite of it. In contemporary lesbian romance, wildness is not the enemy of happily ever after.

How does this play out in contemporary lesbian romance? Putting aside for the moment works of romantic intrigue or paranormal romance, where the persistence of the female hero’s dangerousness and wildness is arguably intrinsic, the discussion that follows will address character-driven romances that feature a dangerous, wild woman who not only remains untamed, but is loved for her wildness by the end of the novel.

Radclyffe’s Love’s Melody Lost, first published in 2001, is a romance between Graham Yardley, a reclusive composer-pianist living alone with a trusted housekeeper, and Anna Reid, who arrives to manage the affairs of the estate. Terribly injured over a decade before the action of the story in an accident that cost her her sight and her music, and abandoned by her lover Christine, Graham has locked herself and her heart away in a Victorian mansion on Cape Cod Bay, protecting both others and herself from the dangers of her unruly passions. After she and Anna finally make love, Graham knows she must send Anna away, much as Stephen Gordon resolved to drive her lover away:

She remembered with shattering clarity each sensation—the longing and the wonder and the miracle of communion, body and soul. She could not drive the memory of the past from her thoughts—the complete desolation of the spirit she had suffered when Christine left her. She feared that ultimately her deepest needs would force Anna to leave her, too. She knew with utter certainty that this would be a pain she could not bear a second time in her life. Despite the years, the wounds still bled, and she could not banish the fear. She had not sought this love; in fact she had hidden herself from the very possibility of it for years. (144-5)

Anna does leave, but because this is a romance novel, her love for Graham brings her back to fight for the woman she loves—for her wildness, for her dangerous passionate needs. Indeed, Radclyffe rewrites the ending of The Well of Loneliness as Anna refutes Graham’s claims: “There is nothing you could do, short of not loving me, that would ever make me leave you. I am not afraid of your needs, or your wants, or your passions. I want you” (165).

Radclyffe herself has said that Love’s Melody Lost is “an intentional retelling of Jane Eyre,” with Graham corresponding to Mr. Rochester (“The Hero and The Lady”). But Graham, the dangerous woman, the woman with destructive, disruptive powers, the woman locked up in the grand house, can also be read as Bertha Rochester, the so-called madwoman in the attic. In lesbian romance, not only are dangerous women freed from the attic, but they are embraced and loved.

In Radclyffe’s first medical romance, Passion’s Bright Fury (2003), the dangerous, wild woman is Saxon Sinclair, trauma chief at a Manhattan hospital, and the woman who loves her for her wildness is Jude Castle, who is shooting a documentary in Sax’s trauma unit. Jude’s first glimpse of Saxon tells her—and us—that she is transgressive:

At the sound of the footsteps in the deserted hallway behind her, Jude Castle turned and got her first look at the elusive Dr. Saxon Sinclair, chief of trauma at St. Michael’s Hospital in lower Manhattan. The surgeon wasn’t entirely what she expected of someone with that title—particularly not with a motorcycle helmet tucked under one arm, a well-worn black leather jacket, and faded blue jeans. (20)

But Sax’s wildness goes beyond her appearance and actions. Like Graham, whose wildness is organic to her talent, and like Stephen Gordon, whose hardwired queerness—whose status as invert—makes her dangerous, Saxon’s brain chemistry is idiosyncratic. She revs at a higher speed than most people. As a child and young adult, misdiagnosed and misunderstood, she was rejected by her parents, and as an adult she has borne this secret truth about herself alone, refusing intimacy, expecting rejection. She has learned to be afraid of her own wildness. But like Anna, Jude refuses to allow Sax to push her away. She wants to know her, and she wants her, not in spite of her wildness, but for it. By the end of the novel, Sax declares: “‘Jude [ . . . ] you make it safe for me to be myself. I am not afraid when I’m with you’” (214). Thus, in lesbian romance, love frees wild women to be fully themselves. It certainly doesn’t tame them.

Wild women come in many different packages. Lea Santos’s 2010 romance Under Her Skin offers a distinctly nurturing wild woman, Torien Pacias, who falls in love with international supermodel Iris Lujan. While all of Santos’s novels feature Latina characters, Tori is not only Latina but a Mexican, supremely conscious of her outsider status among Americans, uncomfortably aware that she and Iris live in different socioeconomic worlds. Iris’s—and our—first glimpse of Torien is in the garden where she works—the wild woman in the state of nature:

Torien’s sleeveless shirt was buttoned low enough to expose a good portion of her sports bra, like she’d thrown it over her body as an afterthought. Sweat glistened on her defined delts and the exposed area of her chest. Mud caked the bottoms of her worn jeans and work boots. Her callused hands—Lord, get a load of those hands—were clearly unafraid of hard, honest, sweaty work. (17)

While there is certainly nothing conventionally dangerous about Tori, we see in Tori an echo of Stephen Gordon’s fear, of Graham Yardley’s fear, of the wild lesbian romance heroine’s fear that she will hurt the woman she loves. Torien believes that she, a lowly gardener, will only hold Iris back. Throughout the novel, Iris is the pursuer and Torien the pursued, until Iris finally manages to convince Torien that she loves her and they can be together. What is fascinating about this novel is that it is about the domestication of one of the lovers—but not of the dangerous wild one. Indeed, it is Iris who is domesticated, who turns down a lucrative long-term overseas modeling contract when she realizes that it’s Tori she wants. As for Tori, far from being domesticated, far from losing her wildness, Iris quite literally joins her in her garden. Not only is the wild woman not domesticated, but in this novel, domestication means going wild.

Emma Donoghue notes in her recent study of desire between women in literature that “[a] society’s literature is its dream: immensely suggestive, yes, but not a simple reflection of its daily reality” (14). For several hundred years, wild women in romance were silenced and domesticated. For two thirds of the twentieth century, lesbian love stories invariably ended in tears. Indeed, in 1941, a review in the New York Times stated categorically: “It is surely time to concede that the subject of Lesbianism, if used otherwise than in the scientific investigation of human abnormality, should fall into a special category of its own, possibly as a minor subsidiary of tragedy” (Southron).

Now, not only are lesbians the heroes of romance novels, but these wild women are dangerous because they are passionate, because they are artists, because they buck convention—and not simply because they are sexually queer. Contemporary lesbian romance creates a safe space for the wild hero, for the dangerous madwoman, who refuses to be trapped in the attic, and who will not be silenced in the closet.

This trend is amplified when the lesbian romantic hero is the protagonist of a paranormal romance. The final section of this article will explore the figure of the lesbian alpha hero, the recent resurgence in popularity of the alpha hero in the paranormal romance novel, and how this subgenre has served to legitimate wild heroines within mainstream romance—regardless of their sexual preference.

Queering the Alpha

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler suggests that “the dramatic purpose of the hero is to give the audience a window into the story. Each person hearing a tale or watching a play or movie is invited in the early stages of the story to identify with the hero, to merge with him and see the world of the story through his eyes” (36). Romance authors would argue that the dramatic purpose of the hero is to embody a character with whom the heroine (and by extension, the reader) can fall in love. In fact, those who write erotic romances contend, as does Angela Knight in A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance, that the hero is responsible for the “sexual heat” of the story. The heroine may determine, as Knight posits, when and how sex ultimately takes place, but it is the hero who pushes the agenda. He creates the erotic focus of the work. He is also, however, constrained in certain ways by societal mores—both those of the story in which he finds himself, and those of the author who creates him. Jay Dixon asserts in her review of the romances of British publisher Mills and Boon that “social reality necessarily colours the portrayal of heroes in all popular literature” (64). As a consequence, since most romances are written by women, the portrayal of the hero is most often influenced by the social reality of women. This is no less true for lesbian romances.

Romance fiction allows authors to create heroes who may diverge from acceptable contemporary social and cultural parameters, thereby freeing the reader to embrace extreme psychosexual experiences in a defensible and safe forum. The alpha hero illustrates this inherent duality of social unacceptability and secret desirability more clearly than any other. The alpha hero, as with most heroes, is depicted as intelligent and supremely confident—a leader and a warrior. What critically defines him however is his ultraprotective, overtly territorial, controlling, and domineering nature. Sexually he is aggressive and often compels the heroine to accept his sexual advances by overpowering her emotionally and psychologically, if not outright physically, earning him the reputation of being a brute, an abuser, or a jerk. He appeared frequently in the historical romance, the most popular form of romance fiction until the late twentieth century, as Lord of the Manor.

As noted by Krentz, “these men are the tough, hard edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of best-selling romance novels. [ . . . ] They are the heroes who carry off the heroines in historical romances. These are the heroes feminist critics despise” (107-108). The single word that crystallizes both his appeal and his malignity is power. The alpha hero is in possession of power, and he wields it without apology.

As with all heroes, what prevents the alpha hero from being despicable and allows the heroine (and by extension, the reader) to embrace him is his hidden vulnerability—his secret need, his private torment, the wounds that only the heroine can heal. With the rise of feminism in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the alpha hero fell out of favor. Women in a fight for equality, recognition, and self-actualization rejected the dominating male persona along with the need to be protected, either from the outside world or their own inner impulses. Virginity was no longer an essential requirement for the romance heroine. The male, the hero, no longer held all the power in the sexual arena. In fiction, as in life, women sought partners, not father-figures, saviors, or knights in shining armor. Women and romance readers sought heroes who were partners with a focus on communication, sensitivity, shared responsibility, and a fierce need to protect the heroine’s independence, giving rise to the beta hero. In contradistinction to the alpha male, the beta male was more of a friend than a protector—more able to communicate his feelings, more sensitive, less controlling, less dominating. Forced seduction scenes disappeared.

The late twentieth century saw the emergence of the lesbian hero in romance fiction, along with an explosion of lesbian romances ushered in by the pulp fiction era of the 1950s and 1960s. The lesbian hero, however, is not a simple replica of the male hero, except with different body parts. She is, in fact, her own archetype, in early works close to the classic butch lesbian persona that pre-dated both the sexual revolution and gay liberation movements. Just as the portrayal of the male hero was colored by social reality, so was the early lesbian hero a reflection of the social-sexual butch-femme dynamic within the lesbian community of the early- to mid-twentieth century. Butch lesbians assumed the attributes/roles traditionally reserved for men—emotional reserve, sexual aggression, provider, and protector, while self-identified femme lesbians expressed the socially designated feminine role of caretaker, nurturer, and seductress. The lesbian hero emerged initially in detective fiction and gained popularity in intrigue/adventure romances featuring traditional hero figures: warriors, law enforcement agents, soldiers, and business tycoons. These women held traditional power roles and were often the POV characters.

Mysteries and romantic intrigue provided the perfect vehicle for merging the socially acceptable, newly independent female hero with the butch lesbian archetype. In Amateur City by Katherine V. Forrest (1984), the first work to feature a lesbian detective, the hero, Kate Delafield, was characterized as “[t]aller and stronger, more aggressive than the other girls; in look and manner hopelessly unfeminine by their standards. Among similarly uniformed women in the Marine Corps, she had been resented for her unusual physical strengths and command presence. [ . . . ] And always there had been that one most essential difference: she was a woman who desired only other women” (23-4). As the lead detective on the case, Kate is empowered with what traditionally had been reserved for men—the task of meting out justice. She represents not only a female hero, but a lesbian hero in classic alpha form. She is physically strong, commanding, and in control in the bedroom.

The lesbian hero was rising in popularity in lesbian romance fiction as the alpha male hero was simultaneously losing his place, temporarily at least, to the beta hero. Many similarities existed between the male and female alphas, however. The lesbian hero of the 60s, 70s, and 80s was often a loner, often assumed responsibility for others, willingly sacrificed herself for the greater good, and was the driving force behind the erotic tension in a work. Unlike the alpha male hero, however, the lesbian hero would always stop short of any kind of sexual encounter to which she was not invited. In Death By the Riverside (1990), Micky Knight, the lesbian alpha hero of J.M. Redmann’s detective series (widely considered to be the first lesbian noir) says, “I never, ever touch virgins unless they’re very sure of what they want and they practically beg me. (This happens more often than you think)” (Chapter 2).

While the lesbian hero found her voice, what then became of the alpha male? Did he slink back to his cave (or his castle), relegated to a footnote in the history of romance fiction? Fortunately, the alpha hero wasn’t alpha for nothing, and he did not go quietly. He exploded back onto the romance scene a changed man—literally—in a form more acceptable to the liberated woman. The alpha male returned with claws, fangs, and wings, becoming even more of an alpha-creature than previously—larger, more dangerous, darker, and more deadly. He also resumed his controlling, territorial, and dominant ways. The paranormal romance genre provided a stage upon which it was once again permissible to write a hero who was dominant, aggressive, protective, and controlling, and who claimed his woman for all the world to see. When the alpha male reemerged in heterosexual romance, he was paired with a strong, independent, aggressive heroine befitting the social role of the late-twentieth-century woman, thereby re-igniting the essential conflict at the heart of all good romance fiction.

This new (old) dynamic is evidenced in this passage from River Marked by Patricia Briggs (2011), which illustrates the instinctive aggressiveness of the alpha male, Adam, countered by the willing acceptance of his aggression and the control over it exerted by the heroine, Mercy. She is not dominated by his sexual drive or his territorial aggression. She welcomes it even as she tempers it.

Beside me, Adam rose with a snarl. I lowered my head to show that I was not a threat. After a bad change, it would be a few minutes before Adam had a leash on his wolf. [ . . . ] The wolf put his nose just under my ear. I tilted my head to give him my throat. Sharp teeth brushed against my skin, and I shivered. (Chapter 10)

In this passage the alpha hero is literally an alpha—in this case an alpha wolf, and the heroine recognizes and accepts his innate need to claim her. He, in turn, recognizes her independence (he seeks her acceptance with his nose just under her ear). Her submission is willing (she gives him her throat) and his dominance (teeth at her throat) is both consensual and sexually arousing. Very much as occurs in sadomasochistic power dynamics, the apparent submissive in this situation (Mercy) controls the exchange by recognizing Adam’s need to dominate her and allowing it. The key to their relationship of equals is consent.

In lesbian fiction, the hero has never been male, but that does not mean the lesbian hero is not alpha. The lesbian butch hero slowly underwent a transformation, just as did the alpha hero in heterosexual romance fiction, as the romance genre diversified and as societal gender roles blended. Romantic intrigue, swords and sorcery, space opera, and other romance subgenres where women held positions of power became more and more popular. Then the paranormal romance revolution hit lesbian fiction a decade after the similar surge in mainstream fiction. Suddenly, lesbian heroes could be Weres, Vampires, demons, and other preternatural beings. These heroes are as alpha as any alpha male hero ever hoped to be. Like the male alpha hero, the lesbian alpha hero is driven by her primal instincts to mate, to protect her young, to preserve her species, and to defend those she leads. She is also most effectively paired with a strong heroine, which generally creates a great deal of the internal conflict that drives the romance. Like her male counterpart, she is often a loner, secretly wounded, and in need of healing or redemption.

Perhaps most important within the context of lesbian romantic relationships, the lesbian alpha hero has given us, for the first time in our romance fiction, what the alpha male always brought to heterosexual romance fiction—the opportunity to write (and experience) unfettered sexual aggression. Just as is true in heterosexual paranormal romance fiction, the inherent sexual aggression of the alpha hero, male or female, has been validated by their very nature—these are not humans, but preternatural creatures driven by inhuman instincts, needs, and desires. No one can fault an alpha werewolf for being excessively territorial, for claiming her mate with a bite or demanding submission from a lover. We cannot criticize a vampire who enthralls the object of her desire when she prepares to feed and forces her lover to orgasm in the process. Forced seduction becomes biologically permissible and, most importantly, consensual.

In L.L. Raand’s The Midnight Hunt (2010), for example, jealousy and possessiveness are portrayed as biologically hardwired into werewolf mated pairs. Near the conclusion of the novel, Sylvan, the werewolf Alpha, takes umbrage at anyone who touches her new mate Drake—even if that touch is the purely pragmatic examination of the Pack medic, Sophia:

“Back away from her,” Sylvan snarled in Sophia’s direction, her whole body shuddering with the effort not to tear Sophia apart.

“Sylvan,” Drake murmured, pressing her mouth to the bite on Sylvan’s chest. She had felt Sylvan calling out to her long before Sylvan had reached the room, had felt her power—hungry and demanding. She scraped her teeth over the bite and Sylvan shuddered. “I’ve missed you.”

Sylvan grasped Drake behind the head and yanked her forward, covering her mouth in a ferocious kiss. [ . . . ] Drake pressed her hips into Sylvan’s and raked her blunt claws down the center of Sylvan’s abdomen. She drew Sylvan in, welcomed her questing tongue, her demanding mouth. The more she gave—the more she took—the calmer Sylvan became. [ . . . ]

“You have nothing to growl over,” Drake murmured. “I hunger only for you.” (258-259)

This passage illustrates the alpha’s instinctual sexual aggression, the subsequent desire unleashed in her mate by the alpha’s primal demands, and the mate’s recognition of and control over the alpha’s needs.

By portraying a female alpha in whom dominance, aggression, and territoriality are innate and not assumed—not only beyond her control but admirable and acceptable in certain circumstances—Raand and other authors of lesbian paranormal romance set the stage for the ultimate romantic challenge, the literal taming of the beast within by love. Only a heroine strong enough to maintain her own identity in the face of the alpha’s power can be a worthy mate, thus establishing the core conflict: the alpha’s need to dominate and protect is at odds with the heroine’s fierce need to maintain her autonomy and sense of self. Sexually the two are often equally aggressive, allowing a dynamic exchange of power within fluid gender boundaries. Ultimately, the heroine will come to trust that being cared for will not diminish her, and the alpha will learn not only to rely on her mate’s strength, but to protect what her mate values the most—her independence.

The lesbian alpha thus can be seen to serve the same function in a romance as does the alpha male—she presents a larger-than-life hero with unquenchable erotic power, a dominant personality, and a proprietary attitude toward her mate likely to infuriate an equally strong heroine—all within a context that allows the contemporary heroine to embrace her, even when she bites.

It is not a coincidence that as mainstream and queer romance converge upon the figure of the alpha paranormal heroine, there are signs of increased interest in queer romance generally from the mainstream romance community. As a recent blog on the RT Book Reviews site reports, “the question of mainstreaming, can these [queer] love stories make the leap to everyday public consumption, was put up to discussion during a recent panel at the 2012 RWA Conference in Anaheim.” Len Barot (one of the co-authors of this article and a member of that RWA panel) noted that while it is becoming easier—particularly in mainstream paranormal romances—to find characters who identify as queer, “the revolution is not here yet.” In some respects, however, we have already seen a revolution in the emergence of the lesbian romantic hero. And there is no question that the romance novel, like the broad romance tradition from which it developed, will continue to reflect and refract the hopes and dreams of those who seek a safe space to imagine their deepest desires.

Works Cited

Adams, Kate. “Built out of Books: Lesbian Energy and Feminist Ideology in Alternative Publishing.” Gay and Lesbian Literature since World War II: History and Memory. Ed. Sonya L. Jones. New York: Haworth, 1998. 113–41. Print.

Allison, Dorothy. “Every Book is a Lesbian Book.”, 10 June 1999. Web. 19 April 2011.

Bannon, Ann. Beebo Brinker. 1962. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press, 2001. Print.

Belle, Jove. Chaps. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2009. eBook.

Briggs, Patricia. River Marked. New York: Penguin, 2011. eBook.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales” in The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Print.

Dixon, jay. The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909 – 1995. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Donoghue, Emma. Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

Foote, Stephanie. “Deviant Classics: Pulp and the Making of Lesbian Print Culture.” Signs 13.1 (2005): 169-190. Web. 12 April 2011.

Forrest, Katherine V. Amateur City: A Kate Delafield Mystery. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1984. Print.

—. Curious Wine. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1983. Print.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. 1928. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. Print.

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

Raand, L.L. The Midnight Hunt. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2010. Print.

Radclyffe. Love’s Melody Lost. 2001. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2005. eBook.

—. Passion’s Bright Fury. 2003. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2006. Print.

—. “The Hero and The Lady.” DC Bardfest, October 2004. Web.

—. Safe Harbor. 2001. Philadelphia: Bold Strokes Books, 2004. Print.

Redmann, J.M. Death by the Riverside. 1990. Reprint. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2009. eBook.

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

Rothwell, Kate. “What I’m talking about above–the letter in RWR.” Kate Rothwell., 22 July 2006. Web. 19 April 2011.

RT Book Reviews. “RWA 2012: Alternative Romance Goes Mainstream.” RT Book Reviews. 27 July 2012. Web. 29 July 2012.

Santos, Lea. Under Her Skin. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2010. eBook.

Schwarz, Kathryn. Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000. Print.

Southron, Jane Spence. “Various Lives: The Little Less by Angela du Maurier.” New York Times, August 17, 1941.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. New York: Longman, 2001. Print.

Stephens, Dorothy. The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1998. Print.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd ed. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007. Print.

[1] Specifically, Havelock and Krafft-Ebing. Stephen is depicted as reading the latter’s Psychopathia Sexualis in her father’s study.

[2] Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, published 1953 and written under the name Claire Morgan, is the first lesbian romance with a happy ending.

[3] For a thorough and thought-provoking study of the figure of the Amazon—the paradigmatic dangerous woman—in early modern English literature, see Kathryn Schwarz’s Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. Schwarz investigates the ways in which Amazons in the literature of that period can be seen both to define and to disrupt the heteronormative construction of domesticity.


“Charm the Boys, Win the Girls: Power Struggles in Mary Stolz’s Cold War Adolescent Girl Romance Novels” by Amanda K. Allen

Here was what she’d been waiting for. Not something—someone. Here, as so often in the daydreams, Douglas Eamons was talking to her. Doug . . . in college now, emptying the vast high school when he left, leaving the crowded corridors, the wide classrooms empty, taking the flicker of promise from lunch hours, when she might see him, stripping the crisp, vivid pageant of football to nothing but bands, color, battle, and hundreds of people. (Stolz To Tell 15)

So begins Mary Stolz’s first teen girl romance novel, To Tell Your Love (1950), the story of seventeen-year-old Anne Armacost’s summer of first love, wrapped in the arms (and popularity) of Doug Eamons. From the outset, Anne knows that her meeting with Doug is critical: “She was a girl well used to charming and captivating boys. But this time, she told herself, I must be very careful. This time it’s very, very important” (16). In the world of post-war/Cold War adolescent girl romance novels—what I call “female junior novels”—Anne is right. Her meeting with Doug is important, for if Stolz follows the major tropes of the genre, Anne’s future happiness—and social status—is entirely dependent on her ability to “captivate” Doug.

Female junior novels were a new genre of adolescent romance literature, published between 1942 and 1967, and aimed at the freshly-minted American teenage girl consumer. Written by authors such as Betty Cavanna, Anne Emery, Rosamond du Jardin, Amelia Elizabeth Walden, and Mary Stolz, these novels showcased the brave new world of malt shops and high school clubs, as well as eagerly narrating the first loves, dances, and class rings that formed the teen girl realm. While Maureen Daly’s 1942 novel, Seventeenth Summer, provided the wellspring for the genre, hundreds of novels quickly followed over the next two decades, all eagerly imparting stories of female maturation through romance. Simple, pleasurable, and often formulaic, the female junior novels divided those working in the newly emerging field of literature for adolescents. Although they were initially welcomed by many practitioner-oriented critics (such as librarians and educators) as “wholesome” because of their capacity to show girls “how to approach the problems of dating with common sense” (Edwards 465), the texts were often simultaneously derided by then-contemporary academic critics. Richard Alm, a professor at the University of Hawaii,[1] was clear in his emphasis on the pejorative positioning of the female junior novels:

most novelists present a sugar-puff story of what adolescents should do and should believe rather than what adolescents may or will do and believe. [ . . . ] Their stories are superficial, often distorted, sometimes completely false representations of adolescence. Instead of art, they produce artifice. (315)

Of course, the division between the two types of critics was not entirely clear-cut, and even the practitioner-oriented critics had their reservations about these texts. Margaret Edwards, for example, head of young adult services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and arguably the most staunch supporter of the female junior novels, also admitted that “the warmest defender of these stories would not recommend them for the Great Books list nor ask to be marooned with them on a desert island, but they have their good points” (465).

While now-contemporary critics have a tendency to be just as condescending toward these texts as our academic forebears, I believe that to continue to neglect these novels is to do a disservice to the fields of both young adult literature and popular romance studies. Indeed, the female junior novels may be “sugar puff” stories, but they also highlight competition, machinations, and general manipulations involved in the girl protagonists’ attempts to “land” the perfect boyfriend, thereby revealing the social structures that force the protagonists to think, feel, and behave in pre-established manners. This paper focuses on texts written by one prolific author in this genre, Mary Stolz, and suggests that the heterosexual romance plots within her novels mask complex female power struggles within an adolescent social hierarchy—struggles which further suggest the possibility of a surprising female-focused alternative to patriarchy.

This article is organized into four main parts, each of which corresponds with four overarching factors that contribute to the possibility of the female alternative to patriarchy: i. girls’ conformity, ii. use of “boy capital,” iii. establishment of a female dominant society, and iv. recognition of the prom queen as the object of her own desire. Thus, in the first part I focus on female conformity, and suggest that it is necessary for the protagonists’ romantic success and acts as a measuring rod against which female maturity can be measured. In the second section I draw on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of distinction as a lens through which to study the girls’ use of “boy capital” to raise their positions in the teen society. While the society in Stolz’s novels is patriarchal, it is paradoxically run—and regulated—by the popular girls. Luce Irigaray’s theory of the commodification of women is therefore my dominant tool in the third part, and I employ her ideas to suggest that Stolz’s novels incorporate a kind of all-female commerce, subordinate to and reliant on male characters, but functioning based on the protagonists’ desire to be recognized, accepted, and codified as one of the popular girls. Finally, in part four, I examine girls’ homosocial / homoerotic desire through Stolz’s use of a female gaze, in which the female protagonists watch the most popular girls, and in which the girls’ yearning for social dominance becomes visible. In their moment of prom crowning, the popular girls become not only the object of other girls’ desire, but the object of their own. They therefore somewhat remove themselves from male commodity exchange, and instead entrench their status as governing figures within the adolescent society. In doing so, they reveal that the romance plot at the heart of Stolz’s novels ultimately creates and masks complex female power struggles within a highly regulated adolescent social hierarchy.

Female Conformity in Female Junior Novels

I take as the starting point for my argument a quotation from the preface to Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel, in which Regis states:

The [romance] genre is not silly and empty-headed, as mainstream literary culture would have it. Quite the contrary—the romance novel contains serious ideas. The genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The romance novel is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom. (Regis xiii)

The concept of women’s freedom—or, at least, a hint of the possibility of such freedom—is what underscores many of Mary Stolz’s female junior novels, although its presence is not always obvious. Indeed, the majority of current criticism of the female junior novel genre positions its texts as reinforcing a kind of female bondage or lack of agency. As girls’ literature critic Anne Scott MacLeod states regarding female junior novel protagonists:

More striking [ . . . ] is the pervasive leveling pressure in these novels. In dozens of ways, implicit and explicit, the literature counsels acquiescence, acceptance, and adjustment to undemanding prospects. Ambition is decidedly not “part of it”; in fact, fictional girls often reduce their already meager choices by adopting further, and self-constructed, boundaries. [ . . . ] Whatever else she may consider doing, a girl must conform to conventional ideals of feminine attractiveness and behavior, even if it means putting her own tastes and aspirations aside. (MacLeod 60-61)

If one focuses on the heterosexual romance plots of these novels, MacLeod’s statement is absolutely correct: the female protagonists are repeatedly taught to conform, particularly when it comes to the behavior and trappings of a 1950s femininity aimed at luring future husbands. Moreover, for some protagonists that conformity is not only necessary for romantic success, it is desired and actively sought.

Before I detail this conformity in Stolz’s texts, I should include a brief caveat: Stolz’s novels are representative of the female junior novel genre because they incorporate many of the typical tropes and concerns of the genre, not least of which are the four that provide the foundation of my current analysis: conformity, “boy capital,” the female dominant society, and the crowning rite of the popular girl/prom queen. While Stolz’s novels share these characteristics with other texts in the genre, however, they are also very different in a multitude of ways, particularly when it comes to quality of writing and age of readership. Thus when I state that Stolz’s texts are representative, I hope that the reader will accept that “representative” does not necessarily equate with a sense of “all female junior novels are completely like this.” Indeed, Stolz was often singled out from the other female junior novelists by academic critics like Alm, who declared Stolz to be “surely the most versatile and most skilled of that group” (320), and one who “writes not for the masses who worship Sue Barton Barry” (320). Practitioner-based critics similarly separated Stolz from the other authors of the genre, although this separation was sometimes to Stolz’s detriment. Margaret Ford Kiernan, for example, observed in her Atlantic Monthly review of Stolz’s In a Mirror (1953) that

[In a Mirror] is as penetrative and analytical as anything [Mary Stolz] has ever done. But is it a teen-age book? I confess I bogged down for a minute while I went through it because, as a stream-of-consciousness journal of a present-day college girl, it would surely have Henry James looking to his laurels. [ . . . Well-balanced teenagers] could handle it and would thoroughly enjoy it, no doubt, but for the more immature I think it is too introspective and somehow disturbing. (547)

Still, although the level of writing sophistication within Stolz’s texts may separate them from the other female junior novels, they still share the fundamental tropes of the genre, including an actively-sought conformity. Jean Campbell, in The Sea Gulls Woke Me (1951) watches all the other girls in her class “producing by sleight of hand the little colored combs that were as much a badge as the white, everfresh turned-up socks they wore” (2). Jean, whose hair, “braided and heavily hairpinned in the morning, required no further care till evening” (2) looks “with accustomed and unhopeful longing at the sleek shining caps of the girls around her” (2). Later, in a moment of adolescent rebellion, Jean visits a department store in New York City to have her hair cut. This act leaves her feeling “divinely content,” (37), and she joyfully exits the hair salon “in an access of the poise that comes, at sixteen, from looking exactly like everybody else of sixteen” (37). Interestingly, this act of conformity is not celebrated by the adults in the text who, with the exception of Jean’s father, all seem disappointed by the loss of Jean’s hair. Mr. Armando, her hairdresser, mourns: “Mr. Armando walked around her, lifting the unbound locks, hefting them. His face was brooding. ‘Glorious,’ he murmured, almost reluctantly. He sighed” (36). Similarly, when Jean asks her Aunt Christine if she likes the haircut, Christine replies:

“Oh, very much,” said Christine, who thought it was a great, if understandable, pity. “I suppose there aren’t many girls of your age with long hair.”

“I was the only one left in the United States.” (55)

Jean’s haircutting act may appear trivial, but it is one of many seemingly superficial acts within Stolz’s texts that demonstrate the sheer joy that her female protagonists experience whenever they are able to behave or appear like “everyone else” (or, in other words, like the popular girls). As Amy Pattee notes in Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult Romance Novel, “in the adolescent novels of the mid-century, the ‘question of maturity’ was successfully answered by the hero or heroine who succeeded in adhering to and maintaining dominant scripts” (11). Jean’s act of conformity not only establishes her desire to be part of the group, it also hails the beginning emergence of her maturity—a maturity that will be further established as she slowly develops her first love affair.

In many of the female junior novels, looking and acting like everyone else is, of course, the key to attracting a boyfriend. Once the girls achieve that, their conformity ensures that they will fulfill their gendered roles and pass through the prescribed checkpoints of their burgeoning heterosexual relationships: from the promise indicated by a class ring, to engagement, and finally to marriage (and, one would assume, to the eventual production of a family). Although the majority of female junior novels end with a token of the future relationship (through a pin, a class ring, or a kiss), rather than an actual engagement or marriage, the longevity of the couple is assumed. An exception to this trope, however, may be seen in Mary Stolz’s secondary characters, such as Nora in To Tell Your Love, who “loved her baby and longed to be free of him” (174), who act as cautionary tales regarding the danger of too-early marriage and children.

In the majority of these texts female maturity is not just tied to conformity and the establishment of long-term heterosexual relationships, it is implicitly founded on such factors. Indeed, there is an obvious pattern in hailing male characters as “men” while female characters remain “girls” until they become married “women.” Still, although the elements that determine the heterosexual romance plot within these novels—the focus on clothing,[2] dates, dances, and first kisses—suggest a pressure on female conformity, they also mask complex machinations that point not to female bondage, but rather to the potential for the kind of women’s freedom that Regis ponders. Indeed, as the next sections of this article will demonstrate, the very elements that may appear most conformist and superficial (dates, dresses) are the same elements that allow the protagonists to form their own semi-autonomous female society, hidden in the plain sight of heterosexual romance.

“Boy Capital” and Gatekeeping

The potential for female autonomy emerges from the structure and functioning of the adolescent society in which the girl protagonists reside. On the surface, the female characters in Stolz’s novels dwell in a kind of hieroglyphic world, in which possession of the right dress, the correct “slang,” or the proper seat in the malt shop all determine one’s place within a firmly entrenched adolescent social hierarchy. While the ability to follow social codes regarding what to buy or wear implies a common democratized culture, the adolescent classes are predicated on more than simple economic ability.  Rather, they function according to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital, which extends traditional notions of economic-based capital to include other forms (including social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital), all of which work to define a person’s position within a multidimensional social space. In other words, capital acts as a kind of resource that enables a person to gain or to maintain a position within a status-based social hierarchy. Although economic capital may seem to be the dominant form in a capitalist society, Bourdieu notes ways in which different categories of capital can be exchanged and transformed into each other. Such conversion, however, requires the complicity of all people. Part of this complicity stems from the habitus, which is a residue of one’s inherited class past (functioning below one’s consciousness) that shapes one’s present perception. The complicity is also based on the impact of the habitus on a person’s drive or desire to acquire symbolic capital. This symbolic capital, moreover, can manifest itself in any form that is recognized through socially-inculcated classificatory structures.

In Stolz’s female junior novels, that symbolic capital takes the form of what I call “boy capital:” a girl’s ability to date—that is, to accumulate—multiple dominant-class boys. The more higher-ranked boys who are willing to take a girl to the movies, or the malt shop, or—and this is the really important, Cinderella-creating event—the prom, the more dominant a girl becomes within the adolescent social hierarchy.

To understand the girls’ use of “boy capital” in these novels, one must first recognize the gendering of Stolz’s teen societies. Considering the time period in which they were written, it is likely no surprise that they appear to function within a patriarchal paradigm. As Linda K. Christian-Smith notes in her study of what she hails as Period I adolescent romance novels (1942-1959, the period that coincides with many of Stolz’s female junior novels):

romance is about learning how to relate to males and the importance of this. [ . . . ] What [the female protagonists] learn is that the ability to “get along” is primarily worked out within romance, a set of relations of power and control, that do not favor feminine power and initiative. The novels contain no mention of female and male parity. Rather, the romance situates girls within a set of relations whereby they are the ones that must compromise and change. (375)

Indeed, as Betty Wilder in Stolz’s And Love Replied (1958) remarks concerning the gendered social division around her:

It was, as Carol frequently complained, a man’s world. And in this man’s world, Betty thought now, a girl has to take what she can get by wiles, subtlety, coercion, or blandishment. But she can never, not ever, say simply, honestly, and aloud, This is what I’d like. (51-52)

Like Betty, many of Stolz’s female junior novel protagonists profess Bourdieu’s “that’s not for the likes of me” slogan, which Leslie McCall characterizes as “the dominated classes’ practical consideration of their lack of opportunity to join in the cultural and economic life of the dominant classes” (849). McCall adds that these “social divisions appear obvious and self-regulated by individuals and social groups” (849), and thus most Stolz female characters rarely question this gendered social arrangement.

Still, while I agree with Christian-Smith that these adolescent societies are patriarchal, I would complicate her analysis by suggesting that they are—paradoxically—ruled by females, not males. That is, male and female characters rarely struggle for dominance against each other; they only battle against characters of their own gender. The lack of struggle between the genders is predicated on the seemingly automatic dominance of the males. Although boys are powerful in Stolz’s teenage societies, their power is that of accessories to legitimation: they are not legitimizers themselves—and this is where the paradox emerges. The boys exist somewhat above the social hierarchy, in a kind of super-terrestrial twilight where their presence affects the lives of the girls, but where the girls have less effect on them. Consequently, while dating a boy can help a girl to gain the necessary symbolic capital to climb the hierarchy, it is the girls on the top rung of the ladder who ultimately determine each social climber’s place, not the boys who help them. Or, as Betty Wilder eloquently phrases it, “boys might be kings, but it was the girls who ruled the court” (And Love 123).

This queendom becomes obvious in the way in which Pris and Madge, two girls who possess the most boy capital in Stolz’s Because of Madeline (1957)—and who therefore hold the highest ranks in their adolescent society—refer to their boyfriends. Rather than using their given names, the girls refer to the boys by the names of the boys’ prep schools: “Exeter was in town last week end. Woodbury Forest was coming all the way up from Virginia for the Junior Assembly. They weren’t seeing Choate any more, he was just too darn fresh, and if he thought for a minute [ . . . ]” (Because 36). Although they decide to drop Choate for being “too darn fresh,” Pris’s and Madge’s language makes it clear that the boys’ individualities matter far less than which prestigious preparatory school they attend. The boys are simply forms of capital, to be collected and used at the Junior Assembly or some such social gathering, then disposed of when they become bothersome.[3]

While Pris and Madge know how to seek and wield their boy capital, it is Dody Jenks, in Stolz’s Pray Love, Remember (1954), who becomes the most trenchant example of a girl whose ability to brandish boy capital in manipulating her adolescent society rivals that of the Marquise de Merteuil or, in a more contemporary analogy, Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf. Dody may come from a working-class background, but within her adolescent society she is still “the high school girl who would incontestably be elected Snow Queen that year” (39). Stolz makes it apparent that the reason for Dody’s social success is her ability to manipulate boy capital:

But there were other girls, as pretty, a good many with more pleasing backgrounds . . . more clothes, better manners, homes to which they could freely and without embarrassment invite people. None of this had prevailed against Dody, who knew by instinct how to charm boys. And, she had told herself simply, charm them and the girls will have to like you, whether or not they do. (40)

Dody is masterful in charming men, and acknowledges it as an inherent talent:

how had she known that directness was the lure which would bring Ben to her side? [. . .] She simply knew, as she knew Roger liked vivacity, Mr. Newhall a sort of ingenious coquettishness, the young policeman at the corner a bright-eyed dependence. (56)

This seemingly inborn knowledge of how to attract men exists in almost all of Stolz’s popular characters. Lotta Dunne in Who Wants Music on Monday? (1963) purposely looks at a boy with “an oblique and fetching glance—a practiced glance, one that had not yet failed her” (207); Honey Kirkwood in Hospital Zone (1956) knows how to “lift her head in the way she knew was winning” (174) and to “look into his eyes a fraction of a second longer than an introduction demanded” (174); and Betty Wilder knows how to enter a room with

the quick sweet smile, the airy walk, the heightened sensibility that automatically took possession of her in the new presence of any young man. [. . .] You held your head so, you moved and lifted and dropped your eyes thus, you put into your voice something it was innocent of in the sole presence of your family, say, or of Carol. If the boy was dull, or obviously chartered by someone else, if no slightest current moved between you and him, why, you tucked the whole pleasant pantomime away, not because it was artificial, but because it served no purpose. (And Love 18)

While Stolz’s popular girls seem to have no difficulty in attracting their male counterparts, it is important to note that possession of boy capital does not automatically equate with entry into the ranks of the social elite. Although Dody Jenks is partly correct in suggesting that the dominant girls are forced to accept an outsider if she dates a dominant boy, possession of too much boy capital risks the danger of a reputation of promiscuity. These are, after all, postwar teen romance novels. In Rosemary (1955), Rosemary Reed attempts to gain social mobility through a dominant class boy, Jay, but unknowingly pushes her possession of boy capital too far:

She was aware of talking a little too much, a little too loudly. Aware, too, that many of these boys were holding her closer than they should, but she laughed with them excitedly, and thought how Jay would certainly have to be proud of his date, his vivacious, popular, sought-after-date. [. . .] She danced endlessly, and though the girls at the table ignored her more pointedly than they had earlier, Rosemary assured herself she didn’t care. (24)

Whereas Rosemary’s date with Jay has the potential to pave the way into the dominant society, her attempts to appear popular by gaining more boy capital ultimately create a barrier to that movement.

While Rosemary’s failure demonstrates the danger of too much boy capital, it also highlights the fact that boy capital is only helpful when it is recognized—even reluctantly—by dominant girls. The girls—not the boys—are the gatekeepers to teen popularity. An obvious example of this gatekeeping can be seen in Stolz’s The Sea Gulls Woke Me, in which Jean Campbell, an unpopular girl, hides in the lavatory during the school dance, and overhears Sally Gowans and a few other popular girls mocking both her dress and her date, Rhet Coyne. When Jean steps out of the lavatory, the rest of the girls, “giggling a little through nervousness, or perhaps remorse, ran out, looking at one another as they fled” (26). Sally, however, stays, and attempts to apologize. In that moment, Jean realizes that Sally’s sympathy for her could be her entrée into the popular crowd:

Jean thought later that she probably had her chance there to escape through the dark mirror into the Wonderland of acceptance. This girl was Sally Gowans, acknowledged leader of the school. [ . . . ] But Jean, at the moment she might have received help, was too numbed by the evening to realize it. (27)

The fact that Jean fails to accept Sally’s help does not negate the fact that it is Sally’s judgment of Jean, more than the influence of Jean’s date, Rhet, and certainly more than Jean’s own opinion of herself, that establishes Jean’s place within the social hierarchy.

The Female Dominant Society

In Stolz’s texts, then, female control of the adolescent society suggests not only the partial subversion of traditional forms of (patriarchal) dominance, but the emergence of a semi-autonomous female society—what I call the “female dominant society”—which functions within patriarchy, yet still remains somewhat separate from it. In acknowledging the contradictory nature of the heterosexual romance plot for female junior novel protagonists, Linda K. Christian-Smith notes that the process of romantic recognition

creates young women themselves as terms in a circuit of exchange where their value is acquired through affiliation with males. Romance is one of the sites for the learning of gendered relations of subordination and domination. The code of romance is ultimately about power: who has it and who may legitimately exercise it. (375-376)

Christian-Smith’s suggestion that these girls act as “terms in a circuit of exchange” is reminiscent of Luce Irigaray’s theory of women as commodities, in which Irigaray suggests that the foundation of heterosexual society (as we know it) is based on the use, consumption, and circulation of women. Women function exclusively as “products,” in that “men make commerce of them, but they do not enter into any exchanges with them” (172). Instead, women’s otherness stimulates men’s exchanges of other forms of “wealth” while simultaneously smoothing the relations between men. In terms of women’s relations with other women, Irigaray states: “uprooted from their “nature,” [women] can no longer relate to each other except in terms of what they represent in men’s desire, and according to the “forms” that this imposes upon them” (188).

Still, Irigaray questions: “But what if these ‘commodities’ refused to go to ‘market’? What if they maintained ‘another’ kind of commerce, among themselves?” (196). In Stolz’s texts, this other kind of commerce is the “female dominant society.” While it may be subordinate to and reliant on male characters, its power stems from female desire. That desire functions as related forms of longing: to be recognized, to be accepted, and ultimately to be codified as one of the popular girls. Thus Betty Wilder spends much of And Love Replied falling in love with Clifton Banks, but spends an equal amount of time pining to be accepted—perhaps even loved?—by the dominant girls in her new high school:

One morning , when a couple of girls whose names—Ginny and Rowena—she knew, and whose place—at the summit—she knew, passed her in the hall and waved pleasantly, not slowing their steps, and called, “Hi, Betty, how are you?” not waiting for her reply, she stood rooted, looking after them. A girl named Eleanor, whose command was queenly in these halls, gave her a queenly nod and sailed by among her cohorts. The cohorts glanced quickly to see who’d been favored, but pressed in so as not to get out of the royal train.

Take a chance on me, Betty cried in her mind. You’d like me if you knew me. . . . Oh, please! (And Love 120)

Rosemary Reed, similarly, dreams of membership in the female dominant society. In her mind, girls from the college “would stop by of an evening for a Coke and gossip” (Rosemary 8). Her craving to belong is almost entirely female-oriented:

She wanted to sit, on a winter’s night, as girls must be doing this moment, pajamaed ridiculously like the girls in ads, crowded into one lovely bedroom, eating things out of bakery boxes and drinking coffee and talking, talking. [. . .] Rosemary, want some more cake? Rosemary, could I borrow your yellow jacket? Rosemary . . . Rosemary . . . Rosemary . . . (122)

This scene of the “pajamaed” girls-only sleepover is repeated in multiple Stolz novels,[4] and in each the emphasis is on a kind of female communication and understanding that seems to be absent from the protagonists’ interactions with boys. In Stolz’s Good-by My Shadow (1957), Barbara Perry experiences a daydream that is similar to Rosemary’s, only Barbara’s dream is fixated on a single popular girl:

She pictured herself and Margaret Obemeyer, spending the night together at one of their houses, doing their nails perhaps, and talking things over. They’d be such good friends that they could discuss anything . . . not just boys and sex, though those would certainly form a part of their evening’s communication . [. . .] Yes, she could hear herself, going on and on, confident of understanding. (Good-by 74-75)

As Barbara’s dream suggests, the girls’ desire in each of these instances is not simply to be accepted by the female dominant society, but to be fully understood and valued.

The Gaze and the Prom Queen

Of course, while Betty’s and Rosemary’s hopes focus more on the female dominant society as a group, Barbara’s intense concentration on Margaret as an individual suggests a possible move from the homosocial to the homoerotic. Situations that can be read as indicative of both homoerotic and homosocial desire are actually quite common to girls’ interactions within the female junior novel genre.[5] For the majority of Stolz’s female protagonists, however, the underlying cause of either type of longing remains the desire for social status.

The merging of homosocial/homoerotic desire with a yearning for social dominance becomes visible through Stolz’s use of a female gaze, in which the female protagonists watch the most popular girls in the female dominant society. By the end of Good-by My Shadow, Barbara has achieved enough social status that when Randy Lawson (or Boy Capital) takes her to a party at Margaret’s house, Barbara is able to relax and enjoy watching Margaret:

Margaret was beside her, saying in her slightly husky voice, “How’re you, Barby? I’m so glad you could come.”

Barbara looked at her, at the short springy hair, the direct bright eyes, the fine bones and animated posture. Margaret had always given her the impression that she could, if she wished, merely leave the floor and sail from one point to another. She listened to the throaty, friendly voice, and the tension within her loosened. She could almost feel it flowing away through her fingertips, as she said, “I’m glad, too.” Did she dare to call her Margy? “Margy.” (Good-by 197)

While this passage has the potential to be read as Barbara’s homoerotic desire for Margaret, it can also be read as Barbara’s desire to be Margaret, in terms of wielding Margaret’s power to be “everybody’s dream girl” (116), or the most dominant of the female dominant society. Barbara’s impression that Margaret can “leave the floor and sail from one point to another” (197) suggests a level of social ability that Barbara still lacks, but ultimately desires (although her date with Randy Lawson and inclusion in the party suggests that she, too, will soon gain social dominance).

The visual climax of the desiring female gaze is revealed in the culminating event of many of the female junior novels: the prom. For dominated girls within Stolz’s novels, this is the instance when the struggle for dominance ceases momentarily, and the apotheoses of the female social elite—those beautiful and popular sovereigns, the prom queens—are watched and celebrated in all their glory. These are the girls who, according to Lotta Dunne’s Aunt Muriel in Stolz’s Who Wants Music on Monday (1963),

sail lightly along the surface of their youth, never suspecting the existence of undercurrents, riptides, rapids. The cheer leaders, the prom and hop belles, the flirts, who look forward to the next date, the next dress, anticipate college as a more glamorous extension of high school and marriage as a state of being adored by a perfect man. (54)

In that fateful moment of prom crowning, these girls, the most dominant of the female dominant society, become not only the object of other girls’ desire, but the object of their own. In Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory, Catherine Driscoll examines the role of the bride in popular culture. She notes that the bride can be understood as both the object of patriarchal desire and as an instance of identified passivity, but she also suggests that “the desire to be the bride that looks at the bride is not a desiring gaze defined by this standard heteropatriarchal narrative, and perhaps contains no narrative of sexualized possession at all” (187). The same, I suspect, may be said of the prom queen within the female dominant society. She is no longer a commodity passed between men, although she may view her position as a sort of commodity in itself, since it entrenches her as a governing figure in the adolescent society. Still, even if she holds that view, she is the only one who enacts the possessing. Her prom king or date—for there has to be a male figure to provide her with the appropriate boy capital to enable her to gain her position—is simply an accessory; as Driscoll explains, the bride (prom queen) “is her own ideal and love object, and any groom (the one who loves me) is a means to that idealization” (187). Thus although Dody Jenks plans and implements a social coup to secure her date, Ben, in Stolz’s Pray Love, Remember, Ben is completely forgotten in the instant of her social crowning. Instead, the moment becomes solely about the rightful homage that must be paid to Dody Jenks, Snow Queen, most dominant member of the female dominant society:

The music changed to Strauss, the big doors swung wide, and Dody, with the faintest of smiles, surveyed her domain. As at home, there was complete silence, except for the music, and then a long breath of capitulation [. . .] as they all stared. [. . .] There had been lovely queens in Plattstown High other years, but without question, Dody Jenks, in her frosty green sheath with the rhinestones sparkling like icicles against her hair, was a Snow Queen from a fairy tale. (121)

Irigaray’s vision may not be completely fulfilled, but the female dominant society of Stolz’s texts—and her prom queens, in particular—certainly express a possible alternative to a society in which women are exchangeable commodities in relations between men. They may still exist under the ultimate rule of patriarchy, but their paradoxical power within the teen society suggests a kind of hope for the protagonists, regardless of whether or not the reason behind that hope—the establishment of “‘another’ kind of commerce, among themselves” (Irigaray 196)—is truly possible.[6]

As this article has attempted to articulate, the elements that form the romance plot of Stolz’s specifically 1950s style of female junior novel—the female conformity, “boy capital” and girls’ attempts to gain social dominance by dating boys, pajama parties and the emergence of the female dominant society, and, of course, the recognition of the prom queen as the object of her own desire—may seem “sugar-puff” or “saccharine,” but they ultimately create and mask complex female power struggles within a highly regulated adolescent social hierarchy. Perhaps Betty Wilder’s observation, which feels both suffocating and combative in its surface reading, may actually suggest a course of action, and a hope: “boys might be kings, but it was the girls who ruled the court” (And Love 123).

Lingering Questions

The first question that inevitably arises following an analysis of Stolz’s novels through the lens of either popular romance or young adult literature is this: to what extent did the teen girl readers recognize the female struggles hidden within these stories of first love? My answer is, unfortunately, necessarily inadequate: we cannot know. The teenage girls of the 1950s and 1960s have long since grown up, and very little record remains of their relationships with these novels.

There are a few studies available regarding the use of Stolz’s texts in relation to educational and psychological theories of their day.[7] The most notable of these is Cynthia Frease’s 1963 dissertation, in which she examines Stolz’s texts in terms of bibliotherapy and R.J. Havighurst’s developmental tasks. In 1950 David Russell and Caroline Shrodes created the dominant definition of bibliotherapy, or therapy through reading, as:

a process of dynamic interaction between the personality of the reader and literature—interaction which may be utilized for personality assessment, adjustment, and growth . . . it conveys the idea that all teachers must be aware of the effects of reading upon children and must realize that, through literature, most children can be helped to solve the developmental problems of adjustment which they face. (335)

Connected to educational bibliotherapy was psychologist Robert J. Havighurst’s concept of a developmental task, which he defined as “a task which arises at or about a certain period in the life of an individual, successful achievement of which leads to his happiness and success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval by the society, and difficulty with later tasks” (6).[8] Frease’s dissertation uses these connected concepts to focus on “the popularity of the Stolz books with adolescents,” “the recognition by adolescents of the novels’ literary merits,” and “the help received from them by teen-agers striving to master the developmental tasks of adolescence” (206). Thus we know from Frease the assumed popularity of Stolz’s novels,[9] whether or not the girls recognized the texts’ literary merit (as defined by Frease),[10] and whether or not the girls thought that the novels helped them to mature successfully.[11] We still do not know, however, how the girls actually read these texts, or what they thought about them.

Fan letters to Stolz (from 1967 onwards), preserved in the De Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, record some of the girls’ thoughts. One letter-writer was Gail Morton, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who read A Love or a Season for her English class and informed Stolz that “the characters seemed so real and the way it was written made me feel as if I were a part of it” (Morton). Eleven-year-old Kim Richardson, from North Versailles, Pennsylvania, similarly noted that “I liked your book Ready or Not because I felt that I could just go around the corner and meet the characters” (Richardson). Her favorite part was when “Morgan was telling Tom that she loved him. And guess what I was doing! Crying. When things are really happy I get all filled up inside a [sic] cry.” The tone and content of many of these letters are similar: the majority of the girls seem to feel that Stolz’s characters are realistic, and that they can empathize with them. They (sometimes effusively) express great joy when the protagonist achieves her “happy ending” with her boyfriend. One may speculate, however, whether these girls’ sensations of realism are predicated solely on Stolz’s mimetic abilities, or whether they recognize—however hazily—Stolz’s articulation of both acknowledged and unacknowledged codes and rules of feminine adolescence.

Some letters suggest that these girls perceived something existing behind the love plot. Carol Piascik, from Cleveland, wrote to Stolz regarding her experience of reading about Anne Armacost in Stolz’s To Tell Your Love. Notably, that text is one of Stolz’s female junior novels that does not include a happy ending, in that the boy Anne loves—Douglas Eamons—ends up with another girl, Dody:

Well, this is the way it happens. You don’t believe it, but it does. All this time, underneath all the ache, I’ve been thinking there’d be a day that he’d come back, a day when he’d explain, and it would be all right again. He isn’t going to explain. He’s never going to tell me one word of a reason. And he doesn’t have to . . . because I know. He’s afraid of me. He’s worked too hard, he and his father, for him to go to college, and that’s all he wants right now. So Dody was smarter than I was. I loved him too much, and he didn’t love me enough, and neither of us knew what to say. . . . (242)

As Piascik stated: “it was sad in a way how things worked out for her. It gives a person who’s reading the story a funny feeling.” This “funny feeling,” of course, may simply be a kind of sadness for Anne’s heartbreak. I wonder, though, if it may also be a response to the complex layers and struggles present in Stolz’s texts—a sense of “not rightness” that is greater than the loss of the happily ever after ending.

The second question that seems to arise when studying Stolz’s novels—and which I again cannot answer—is once more directly related to the issue of readership, and particularly to adolescent readership. Are these books “good” or “bad”? Implicit in this question are anxieties that lie at the heart of both the field of children’s and young adult literature, and the field of popular romance studies. Responding to the good/bad debate in children’s literature, Peter Hunt suggests that:

instead of saying ‘better/worse’, or ‘suitable/unsuitable’, criticism would be more profitably employed in saying ‘This text has certain potentials for interaction, certain possibilities of meaning.’ If nothing else, we would escape from the present confusion of ‘good’ with ‘good for.’ (83)

In the difference between “good” and “good for” lies the relationship between the major disciplines that participate in the fields of children’s and young adult literature: English, Education, and Library Science.[12] The power imbalance involved in creating texts for younger and seemingly less powerful (although such positioning is debatable) readers, coupled with the interdisciplinary nature of the fields, causes the questioner of whether Mary Stolz’s books are “good” or “bad” to contemplate numerous other questions and suppositions, most of which are unanswerable. Such questions might include: how do we determine what is “good”? Who determines “good”? Does “good” change over time? Is “good” affected by readership? How does “good” relate to any of the following: literary value, helpfulness in promoting literacy, helpfulness in creating literacy, helpfulness in navigating life events, etc.?

The seeming need to assess texts as “good” or “bad” also lies at the heart of stigmatized fields. The popular romance field, like the field of children’s literature, has traditionally addressed the question in an effort to bolster its validity as a scholarly field, as if empirical evidence that its texts are “good” (or, at least more than “not bad”) will promote its legitimacy to those prejudiced against it—both readers and scholars alike. In their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S.G. Frantz trace the “generations” of popular romance scholarship, starting with the foundational studies that argued against judgments of popular romance fiction as escapist, formulaic, or trivial. Instead, these early studies focused on the ideological complexity within the genre to suggest that “what seemed like formulas were, in fact, a ritual struggle with ‘very real problems and tensions in women’s lives’” (3), and that “beneath the trivial exterior lay ‘elements of protest and resistance,’ a ‘hidden plot’ of ‘buried anger or hostility’; far from an escape, these novels encoded ‘anxieties, desires and wishes which if openly expressed would challenge the psychological order of things’” (3-4).[13] Selinger and Frantz note the usefulness of this early attention to the subtexts of power, but further suggest that

The ideological focus of that first generation of scholars, for example, had its uses—but it also implicitly framed their work as an updated, feminist version of a very old, patently moralizing question: “Are these books good or bad for their readers?” [ . . . ] Only with popular romance fiction [ . . . ] do otherwise sophisticated academics continue to treat this question seriously, whether raising it in the context of political debates or fretting over the practical, empiricist exigencies of how “to measure and understand the actual consequences of romance reading.” (5)

Thus, I choose not to state whether Stolz’s female junior novels are “good or bad.” Rather, like Hunt, I suggest that these texts have certain fascinating possibilities of meaning. In fact, I like to hope that, with all their underlying tales of girls’ struggles and attempts to wield power, the female junior novel genre, with Stolz’s texts as representatives, fulfills the possibility inherent in Pamela Regis’s earlier statement: “the genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The [female junior novel] is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom” (xiii).

Works Cited

Alm, Richard S. “The Glitter and the Gold.” The English Journal 44.6 (1955): 315-322, 350. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Cart, Michael. From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Christian-Smith, Linda K. “Gender, Popular Culture, and Curriculum: Adolescent Romance Novels as Gender Text.” Curriculum Inquiry 17.4 (Winter 1987): 365-406. JSTOR. Web. 24 May 2011.

Donelson, Kenneth L. and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 7th Ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2005. Print.

Driscoll, Catherine. Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print.

Edwards, Margaret. “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” English Journal 46.8 (Nov. 1957): 461-469, 474. Print.

Enciso, Patricia, Karen Coats, Christine Jenkins, and Shelby Wolf. “The Watsons Go to

NRC—2007: Crossing Academic Boundaries in the Study of Children’s Literature.” 57th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference. Oak Creek, Wisconsin: National Reading Conference, 2008. Print.

Frease, Cynthia. “Mary Stolz, Junior Novelist: An Analysis of the Literary Characteristics and the Concern with Developmental Tasks of Adolescence in the Stolz Junior Novels and the Reactions to Them of Professional Critics and Adolescent Girls.” Diss. Greeley, Colorado: University of Northern Colorado, 1961. Print.

Havighurst, Robert James. Developmental Tasks and Education. New York: Longmans, Green, 1948. Print.

Hunt, Peter. Criticism, Theory, and Children’s Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Irigary, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

Kiernan, Margaret Ford. Rev. of In a Mirror, by Mary Stolz. “Mary Stolz (1920-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Eds. Dedria Bryfonski and Gerald J. Senick. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 547. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 8 December, 2009.

Lambert, Janet. Candy Cane. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1943. Print.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Print.

Morton, Gail. Letter to Mary Stolz. 7 March, 1967. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder . De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

McCall, Leslie. “Does Gender Fit? Bourdieu, Feminism, and the Conceptions of Social Order.” Theory & Society 21.6 (1992): 837-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 October 2009.

Pattee, Amy S. Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult Romance Novel. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011. Print.

Piascik, Carol. Letter to Mary Stolz. 12 March, 1967. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder. De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

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

Richardson, Kim. Letter to Mary Stolz. 16 January, 1969. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder. De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

Russell, David H. and Caroline Shrodes. “Contributions of Research in Bibliotherapy to the Language-Arts Program I.” The School Review 58.6 (Sept. 1950): 335-342. JSTOR. Web. 4 September 2008.

Selinger, Eric Murphy and Sarah S.G. Frantz. “Introduction: New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2012.

Stolz, Mary. And Love Replied. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958. Print.

—. Because of Madeline. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. Print.

—. Good-by My Shadow. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. Print.

—. Hospital Zone. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956. Print.

—. Pray Love, Remember. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954. Print.

—. Rosemary. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955. Print.

—. The Sea Gulls Woke Me. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951. Print.

—. To Tell Your Love. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950. Print.

—. Who Wants Music on Monday? New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print.

[1] Alm was also a member of the Committee on Senior High School Book List of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), as well as an editor of the English Journal.

[2] For a closer examination of the use of clothing in the female junior novels, and how it relates to girls’ attempts to climb their social hierarchies, please see Amanda K. Allen, “The Cinderella-Makers: Postwar Adolescent Girl Fiction as Commodity Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn 33.3 (Sep. 2009): 282-299.

[3] Linda K. Christian-Smith notes that, in each period of her 1942-1982 study of teen romance novels, “sexuality constitutes a troublesome element of romance as far as girls were concerned. [. . .] Although girls understand that sexual favors are one element of exchange in romance, they are by no means happy about it [. . .] one is expected to pay for an evening’s entertainment with kisses” (373).

[4] Other texts that emphasize either the pajamaed sleepover scene or the desire for it include The Organdy Cupcakes (1953), In a Mirror (1953), and Hospital Zone (1956).

[5] In Janet Lambert’s Candy Cane (1943), for example, Candy’s recollection of her first meeting with Anne seems quite ecstatic:

Anne was golden-brown and black. Black hair like Barton’s, brown eyes that danced, and a smile—Candy felt faint from joy because, oh miracle, Anne’s smile was for her. Anne had come to see her. [. . .] Candy clasped her hands around her thin little knees and sat looking at Anne like a thirsty flower in a warm spring rain. (36-37)

[6] Indeed, although I view the presence of this semi-autonomous female society as positive, the protagonists’ use of boy capital does cause me to wonder just how far these characters may actually invert Irigaray’s theory of exchange, to the point at which the male characters could become the new objects of exchange intended to soothe relationships between women (although still, paradoxically, within a patriarchal society).

[7] Such studies include Cecile Magaliff, The Junior Novel: Its Relationship to Adolescent Reading, (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat P., 1964); Mary Quarles Whitehurst, “An Evaluative Bibliography of Adolescent Fiction by Rosamond Dujardin, Jackson Scholz, Mary Stolz and John Roberts Tunis,” (Diss. Washington, Catholic University of America, 1963); and, more generally, Dwight L. Burton, Literature Study in the High Schools (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).

[8] Havighurst included his first list of tasks in his 1941 publication, Adjusting Reading Programs to Individuals, but developed the concept more clearly in Developmental Tasks and Education (1948) and Human Development and Education (1953).

[9] Summarizing her findings, Frease notes that:

the Mary Stolz junior novels are well represented in the large secondary-school libraries in Colorado; that they are checked out frequently in a majority of the schools queried; that grades eight, nine, and ten are the ones in which Stolz novels seem to be most in demand; that the Stolz novels are noticeably less popular at the junior-high level than junior novels by other prominent authors but are in the category of one of the most popular at the senior-high level. (216)

[10] Frease states that the girls’ judgments “correspond fairly closely to those of the professional critics and the writer’s own, especially in the recognition of virtues” (223).

[11] Frease seems almost disappointed in these particular findings:

Students recognize that they have received help in mastering the developmental tasks of adolescence from reading the junior novels by Mary Stolz. The evidence is not so marked as the writer had anticipated, however, nor are the tasks which the writer’s own analysis of the novels indicated the books would be most helpful with exactly the ones the students found more usefully presented. Perhaps the students are still too close to some of their reading experiences to be able to judge exactly what benefits they have received from them. (228)

[12] As Patricia Enciso, Karen Coats, Christine Jenkins, and Shelby Wolf describe in their analysis of the three major disciplines that study children’s literature, as they relate to Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963:

In Library and Information Science (LIS) courses, Curtis’s novel raises questions of its historical significance in relation with other Civil Rights era narratives. In education courses, students discuss how they will mediate children’s responses and how they will develop critical, intertextual insights across this story and other novels, poems, and curricula. While English professors might address all of the questions considered by education and LIS scholars, they focus primarily on theoretical frames to interpret the story’s narrative structure, character development, extended metaphors, and imagery. (219)

[13] As they state in their book, Selinger and Frantz are drawing their observations of the foundational studies from three watershed texts in particular: Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, and Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction (3).


“Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies” by An Goris


These are exciting times for popular romance scholars.[1] Over the last few years a number of interconnected developments—including the founding of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) in 2009 and of the peer-reviewed Journal of Popular Romance Studies in 2010, the increase of international conferences about popular romance (Brisbane (2009), Brussels (2010), New York (2011), McDaniel (2011), York (2012), Freemantle (2013)) and the funding of substantial academic grants by Romance Writers of America (RWA) and The Nora Roberts Foundation—have stimulated the increasing institutional establishment and recognition of the field of Popular Romance Studies. As the overall study of the representation of romantic love in popular culture gains academic ground, the scholarly examination of one of the genres at the epicenter of this emerging field—popular romance fiction—is in transition as well. The inclusive, genre-wide and generalizing approach that characterizes many older studies of popular romance fiction, including such foundational works as Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) and even some parts of Pamela Regis’ seminal A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), is slowly being replaced by a more focused and differential approach.

Such a differential approach to the study of popular romance fiction seeks to address not the whole of the genre (as older studies are wont to) but specific subparts of it. These studies are then based on more specified corpora of primary texts. Examples of such studies are recent work on romance subgenres (see e.g. Neal (2006), Fletcher (2008) and Betz (2009)), particular authors (see e.g. Frantz (2009)) and even individual novels (see e.g. Selinger (2012)). The findings and conclusions formulated in these studies are usually less general and wide-ranging than those often formulated in older romance studies. Slowly, the decades-old scholarly tradition of making very general claims about the popular romance genre as a whole is then being replaced by a more specified perspective in which the scholar seeks to address not the similarities of the whole, but the specifics of the parts of the whole. In this setup, the general claims of older studies often serve as a (normative) framework against which individual cases—of particular romance authors or novels, for example—are being tested. As will be illustrated in this paper, such a more differential approach to the study of popular romance leads to analyses that recognize (instead of obscure) the variety that exists within the genre and that are often more refined, nuanced, and sophisticated than before.[2]

The general claims about popular romance fiction that are taken to task in this paper have to do with the representation of romantic love—and, more particularly, of the mind and the body in love—in popular romance novels. Specifically, the paper investigates Catherine Belsey’s claim that popular romance novels offer a particular construction of the mind and the body in love that purports to resolve the (postmodern) tension between the body and the mind—the material and the immaterial—but eventually fails to do so. This recurrent construction, Belsey suggests, explains the massive appeal of the popular romance novel as well as the curious disappointment readers supposedly feel at the end of the happily ending romance tale (21-41). In this paper, Belsey’s general(izing) claims about popular romance novels are used as a framework to study the work of Nora Roberts, the single most popular romance author of our time. In particular, the paper analyzes the representation of the body and the mind in Roberts’ construction of romantic love on the basis of eight of the author’s novels. By investigating if Belsey’s claims about the irresolvable tension between body and mind hold true for Roberts’ hugely popular work, this paper develops a nuanced understanding of one of the core motifs in Roberts’ vast oeuvre that might shed some light on its immense popularity.

The General Claim: Mind, Body and Love in Popular Romance Novels

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the popular romance novel appear in the second chapter of Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (1994), the scholar’s theoretically sophisticated and wide-ranging study of the representation of desire in Western texts. In line with this work’s overall theoretical interests, Belsey turns to critical theory to try to explain the popular romance novel’s massive appeal. Her analysis focuses mainly on the representation of romantic love as a phenomenon that impacts both the body and the mind in popular romance novels. This dual conceptualization of love, Belsey notes, is in line with long-standing Western traditions of dual conceptualisations of identity and the self that originated with René Descartes and his colleagues of the Enlightenment. These thinkers put forth conceptualisations of the human subject as internally disjointed and divided along the line of the body and the mind that have held sway in Western culture ever since. Although Belsey notes that such dual conceptualisations have come to seem “natural and inevitable” (23), the notion that the self is internally disjointed remains a deeply unsettling idea in many ways. Popular romance novels, Belsey finds, capitalise upon this anxiety and this is the secret to their extraordinary appeal. In these novels, romantic love offers “a promise to bring mind and body back into perfect unity, to heal the rift of experience which divides individuals from themselves” (23). Such a promise, Belsey posits, strongly appeals to the contemporary reader.

However, Belsey is quick to note, fulfilling this central promise is easier said than done and herein lies the romance genre’s problem. Romances attempt to bridge the gap between mind and body by consistently connecting intense sexual sensations to moral and emotional feelings of commitment and love (23). This goal, Belsey elaborates, induces the genre’s rather specific representation of sexuality as “elemental, beyond control, majestic, thrilling, dangerous” (27)—a construction that is in part achieved by the stereotypical representation of sexual passion in metaphors of powerful natural phenomena such as a hurricane, a flood, a storm, an earthquake or a wave. While such extremely intense sexual sensations ensure the involvement of the body in the experience of romantic love, physical passion alone is not enough. Indeed, Belsey observes, for this passion to constitute true love, not only the body but also the mind has to be engaged: the rational, knowing subject is, in love, “required to speak, to assert his identity as a subject” (29).

It is here, Belsey claims, that the crux of the problem lies. Words spoken in the heat of passion are not to be trusted since this passion has explicitly been presented as “bewildering, transporting of consciousness, sweeping away all sense of the self, [which] precisely deflects subjectivity and consequently defers the moment of moral commitment” (29). Only the words that are spoken afterwards, “independently [from the bodily experience], once the knowing, willing subject is restored,” are the words that really matter (30, emphasis mine). But herein lies also the failure of the romance novel to live up to its promise of unifying mind and body. Inasmuch as the romance project hinges on words spoken in this separate, post-passionate context, it does not bring body and mind together, but rather enforces the distinctions between them. “To the extent that the aim was to dissolve the opposition between mind and body in a story of true love,” Belsey concludes, “the project signally fails in these instances” (30). This failure, Belsey finally suggests, explains why “the fantasy [romances] offer is a little disappointing” (31): romance novels consistently fail to live up to the promise that constitutes (at least in Belsey’s eyes) their biggest appeal.

The sense of disappointment Belsey speaks of is not, as such, identified or described by romance readers. To the contrary: in Janice Radway’s classic study, to which Belsey repeatedly refers, readers consistently identify positive emotions at the end of the romance reading experience and claim romance reading makes them feel good (60-66). Belsey does not consider these claims to be incompatible with her own conclusions, however. Instead she suggests that the frequent repetition of the romance reading act Radway observed likely confirms her hypothesis:

It emerged that the Smithton women were reading a great many romances. [ . . . ] Is it conceivable that this avid reading is an indication that the optimism created by romance is more precarious than it is possible to say? Perhaps the next romance is there to compensate for the disappointments engendered by the last? All we can be sure of is that readers of romance tend to crave more romance. A number of the Smithton women acknowledged an anxiety about whether they might be depressed by their reading [ . . . w]hat if the anxiety is precisely an effect of their extensive reading experience, a silent recognition of unconscious disappointment that the stories have consistently failed to resolve the divisions they depend on? (34-35)

Although Belsey formulates her ideas as questions, she quite strongly suggests that the repetition of the romance reading act is not, as readers tend to claim, primarily motivated by positive emotions, but rather by a sense of disappointment that readers might not be consciously aware of: a disappointment which is, in Belsey’s eyes, very likely a consequence of romance reading itself.

Belsey and the Evolution of Romance Scholarship

Although Belsey’s claims have found very little response in subsequent romance criticism, she puts forth a set of interesting, challenging and even provocative ideas. The notion that the popular romance novel’s massive appeal—a (seeming) conundrum that has confounded many a critic—has something to do with the texts’ complex relation to anxieties about self and identity that are typically associated with the (post)modern condition is a new, intriguing and valuable suggestion that certainly deserves further scrutiny. While Belsey’s discussion of the romance reader’s lack of awareness of her own negative response comes off as somewhat belittling, the suggestion that romance reading triggers a more complex reaction than straightforward happiness—and that this reaction might have something to do with the desire to read more romance—is fascinating nonetheless. Belsey’s study thus offers a number of suggestions that deserve further exploration.

Such further exploration is undertaken in this paper, but in line with the ongoing development in the field of Popular Romance Studies there is an important methodological difference between this study and Belsey’s. Notwithstanding the impressive theoretical suggestions the latter makes, Belsey commits an important methodological faux pas in her study by failing to adequately discuss the size, composition and selection of the primary corpus on which her findings are based. Moreover, since in the course of her discussion Belsey refers to no more than six romance texts, the (apparent) size of her corpus seems decidedly too small to warrant the genre-wide scope of her claims. The present study deliberately makes different methodological choices by first, focussing on the oeuvre of a single author and second, selecting novels from that oeuvre according to explicit, clear-cut principles.

Nora Roberts

This paper focuses on American writer Nora Roberts, who is widely considered the most popular and successful romance author of our time. Since her first category romance novel was published in 1981, Roberts has written more than 200 romance novels. A staggering 178 of these have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, on which the author’s novels have so far spent a total of 932 weeks (or 17 years). As the first (and only triple) inductee in RWA’s Hall of Fame and the recipient of a record-breaking twenty-one RITA Awards, Roberts is one of the most distinguished romance authors in RWA’s and the romance genre’s history. With more than 400 million copies of her books currently in print Roberts is, moreover, not only the top-selling romance writer, but also one of the bestselling authors in the world.

Remarkably, Roberts is also one of the most understudied authors in the world. Whereas the oeuvres of Roberts’ fellow bestselling authors such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and John Grisham are studied regularly, Roberts’ romance oeuvre has hardly drawn the academic gaze.[3] Barely a handful of studies on her work have been published; a monograph that takes on Roberts’ complete oeuvre does not currently exist.[4] In this regard Roberts does not differ from other contemporary romance authors—the author study remains an important lacuna in scholarship on this genre—but her status as one of the bestselling authors in the world makes the lack of studies on her work especially remarkable.

Perhaps one of the reasons scholars have been reluctant to take on Roberts’ oeuvre is its sheer size. Already counting more than 200 novels and increasing by an average of five new novels every year, Roberts’ body of work is simply colossal. It is also decidedly too large to subject to the close reading analysis on which this present study is based, so for the purposes of this study a selection had to be made. This selection takes into account a number of the most significant variables present in Roberts’ oeuvre—including year of publication, subgenre, part of series or standalone and original publication format—and eventually resulted in eight novels.

  Publication Subgenre Series / stand alone Original format
Irish Thoroughbred 1981 Contemporary Irish Hearts series Category
One Man’s Art 1985 Contemporary MacGregor series Category
Suzanna’s Surrender 1991 Contemporary/


Calhoun series Category
Montana Sky 1996 Western/


Stand alone Single title


Morrigan’s Cross 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (1) Single title


Dance of the Gods 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (2) Single title


Valley of Silence 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (3) Single title


High Noon 2007 Suspense Stand alone Single title


Although this collection of eight novels does not represent the full range of Roberts’ oeuvre—Roberts’ alter ego J.D. Robb is missing and the decade between 1996 and 2006 is underrepresented, to name its two most important shortcomings—the corpus is nonetheless fairly well-balanced and compatible with the practical constraints of a study like this one.

The Integration of Body and Mind in Nora Roberts’ Romance Fiction

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the pivotal importance of the representation of the body and the mind to the immense appeal of the popular romance genre open up interesting avenues of inquiry for the study of Nora Roberts’ work. As Belsey’s observations imply, the complex relation between body and mind plays a central role in Roberts’ representation of romantic love, which is indeed conceptualized as a dual force that impacts the body as well as the mind. While to a large extent Roberts’ romance novels follow the patterns of the genre insightfully uncovered in Belsey’s study, in one crucial regard Roberts’ novels deviate from this pattern. Whereas Belsey claims that popular romance novels consistently fail to realize the bridging of the gap between body and mind their conventional representation of romantic love promises, the analyses in this paper reveal that in Roberts’ romance fiction the unification of body and mind is always represented as successful. The potential implications of this observation for our understanding of Roberts’ popularity are addressed in the conclusion to this paper after the pattern that achieves this unification is described in more detail.

Divided Selves During the First Meeting

In Roberts’ romances, the process that ends with the complete and successful integration of the lover-subject’s body and mind starts with their explicit separation. Indeed, at the beginning of Roberts’ stories the division between the lover’s body and mind is repeatedly stressed in the narration. All first meeting scenes analyzed in this study emphasize the protagonists’ double, diverging response to each other: strong and immediate physical attraction is combined with a form of conscious dislike, irritation, or anger. Although this representation differs slightly from the pattern observed by Belsey—who finds that the division between mind and body is mainly situated in the heroine’s emphatic bewilderment over, lack of understanding of, or even full-out distrust of her body’s uncontrollable, explicitly sexual response to the hero (24-26)—the first meeting scenes in Roberts’ romances nonetheless systematically introduce, and emphatically stage, the basic dichotomy between body and mind around which the rest of the romance narrative essentially revolves.

The first meeting scene between hero Grant Campbell and heroine Gennie Grandeau in Roberts’ 1985 category romance One Man’s Art is an example of this construction. Hero Grant is severely “annoyed” (264) when heroine Gennie shows up at his doorstep during a stormy night, disrupting his much-valued solitude and privacy. Roberts quickly adopts the hero’s point of view to emphasize that barely seconds after letting the heroine in he already “wished fervently he’d never opened the door” (263). Gennie, put out by Grant’s “unfriendly, scowling face” and rude and unwelcoming behavior, adopts an “icy tone” and remains “distantly polite, [ . . . ] frigid and haughty” (264), but privately “seriously consider[s] heaving her purse at him” (265). The narration of this immediate dislike and annoyance is instantly complemented with the narration of their physical attraction. Grant is “thrown” by Gennie’s “sea green, huge and faintly slanted” eyes (264) and “when the sight of her [ . . . goes] straight to his gut” he realizes she is “too beautiful for his peace of mind” (267). The unambiguous statement that Grant is “furiously annoyed by the flare of unwelcome desire” (268) makes the opposition between his mental and physical response textually explicit. Gennie is portrayed as equally attracted, experiencing a physical “stir” and “a thrill [of . . . ] anticipation” (269). Again, the body’s response is explicitly opposed to the mind: she is depicted as “catching herself” and internally lecturing that “even her imagination ha[s] no business sneaking off in that direction” (269). The division between body and mind, staged continuously throughout this first meeting scene, is once more explicitly narrated in the scene’s closing paragraphs:

He wondered what she would do if he simply got up, hauled her to her feet and dragged her up into his bed. He wondered what in the hell was getting into him. They stared at each other, each battered by feelings neither of them wanted while the rain and the wind beat against the walls, separating them from everything civilized. (270)

The parallel syntactic construction of the first two sentences (“He wondered . . . He wondered”) discursively reinforces the notion—made explicit in the narration—that within one person, one self, two opposing reactions are simultaneously ongoing; the physical, sexual response is represented as a force separate from the conscious self—indeed, Grant experiences it as “getting into him.” The opposition between mind and body is again stressed in the statement that both Gennie and Grant are “battered” by physical “feelings neither of them want.” The subsequent sketch of the violent natural setting in which these “feelings” occur explicitly underlines the distinction: the “civilized” mind is “separated” from the unruly, feeling body.

The Body As Marker of Sincerity

A fundamental aspect of Roberts’ representation of the divided self at the beginning of her romance novels is the emphasis on the mind’s inability to control the body in these instances. Roberts’ narrations consistently stress the passive, powerless position of the mental self who undergoes the sexual attraction, the invasive physical impact of the romantic other, but who emphatically lacks power over these bodily reactions and cannot stop them. This uncontrollability not only stresses the schism between body and mind that exists within the lover’s self at this early stage of the romance narrative, but is also an essential aspect of Roberts’ construction of the body as a site of (emotional) truth. In Roberts’ fictional universes the body consistently functions as a marker and display of (emotional) truth. Profound, heart-felt, sincere emotions instantly manifest bodily: faces pale in shock, fingers tremble from sadness, hands jerk in surprise, voices shake from anger and eyes are bruised, battered or smudged from emotional pain. Time and again, Roberts’ narrations stress that the mind—the conscious, thinking self—has no control over these physical manifestations.

Importantly, this emphatic lack of mental control implies an inability to consciously manipulate the body—in Roberts’ fictional worlds, when true love is involved, the body cannot lie. The uncontrolled body thus necessarily and certainly displays true, sincere, authentic emotion—and to say that the body displays these emotions means, in effect, that in Roberts’ romance fiction the body becomes a text that can be read in order to gain insight into one’s true emotional state, even when the novel at hand does not explicitly deploy textual metaphors. This “reading” of the body is undertaken by both the characters within the fictional world and the novels’ readers outside of it. Indeed, in an interesting doubling act, the novels’ characters, like the novels’ readers, become readers and interpreters who turn to the body-text to gain insight into their own or another character’s true emotions.

Roberts’ deployment of the body-text as a marker of sincere emotion is exemplified in a scene from the 1996 single title Western romance Montana Sky. The scene depicts the story’s heroine, Willa Mercy, in a state of profound emotional distress. She has just discovered the murdered and mutilated body of her long-time employee Pickles and faces the loss of her home, ranch and livelihood due to the murder. While throughout the novel Willa is usually characterized as an exceptionally strong and decisive woman, this is a point in the narrative where she reaches emotional rock bottom. In the following excerpt she is confronted with her two half-sisters, with whom she has a strained relationship, and experiences a range of conflicting emotions. Willa’s complex emotions—which include grief over Pickles, horror over the image of the mutilated body, guilt because she had words with the victim mere hours before his death, bone-deep fear of losing her home and livelihood and eventual extreme relief when she realizes the ranch is safe—impact her body, which instantaneously displays them.

Willa came into the kitchen, stopped short when she saw the women at the table. Her face was still pale, her movements still jerky. [ . . . ] She slipped her hands into her pockets as she stepped toward the table. Her fingers still tended to shake. [Her sister confirms the ranch is safe. . . . ] Because wine seemed like a fine idea, Willa crossed to the cupboards and took out a tumbler. Then she just stood there, unable to move, barely able to think. She hadn’t been able to fully consider the loss of the ranch. [ . . . ] But it wasn’t until now, until she knew [it was safe], that it hit her. And it hit her hard. Giving in, she rested her head against the cupboard door and closed her eyes. Pickles. Dear God, would she see him for the rest of her life, what had been done to him, what had been left of him? [ . . . ] But the ranch, for now, was safe. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” She didn’t realize she’d moaned it out loud until Lily laid a tentative hand on her shoulder. (110)

In this scene, Willa’s body clearly functions as a text displaying her emotions as both the characters within the fictional world and the novel’s reader outside of it interpret Willa’s emotional state of mind via the physical signs displayed by her body. Her pale face, jerky movements, shaking fingers, closed eyes and unconscious moaning are conventional physical signs of emotional upheaval. The pronounced contrast between her purposeful, controlled physical actions—“cross[ing] to the cupboards and tak[ing] out a tumbler”—and the purposeless, uncontrolled ones—“just [standing] there, unable to move, [ . . . ] rest[ing] her head [ . . . ] clos[ing] her eyes”—constructs and reinforces the interpretation of the latter as manifestations of and responses to profound emotions.

The character’s lack of conscious control over her body’s display is stressed multiple times in this short scene and ensures the sincerity of these emotions. It is clear that the characters in this fictional world are aware of their bodies’ truth-revealing and communicative potential: Willa attempts to hide her shaking fingers, knowing those bodily manifestations would reveal a depth of emotional turmoil she is uncomfortable displaying in front of her sisters. Lily’s supportive “hand on [Willa’s] shoulder” indicates, reversely, that not only grief but also support and comfort can be communicated solely by the body. The marked absence of language—dialogue—in this scene adds to its emotional impact as it constructs this world as one in which emotional truth can be read directly from and conveyed by the body-text, making emotional deceit and insincerity virtually impossible.

Sex: So Much More Than Just Sex

Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—which is pervasive in her texts and an important conceptual pillar on which her fictional worlds rest—implies that the body uncontrolled by the mind displays emotional truth. This notion puts another perspective on the function of sex in the representation of romantic love. Roberts’ texts emphasize the physical, natural, powerful and non-rational aspects of sex and sexual desire, which are represented as ultimate acts of the body as opposed to the mind. In the experience of sexual sensations “the body rule[s] the moment” (High Noon 222) and the thinking, rational, controlling self is temporarily suspended as the natural impulses of the body take over. This representation is frequently based on the association of sex with powerful natural phenomena and a lack of rationality and control on the part of the mental, conscious self. As Belsey notes, metaphors of powerful natural phenomena and disasters are often used to describe sexual sensations in popular romance novels, and Roberts indeed tends to depict sex in rather unimaginative and very conventional—even clichéd—metaphors. Sexual sensations are like a “flame [ . . . and] fire, in the blood, in the bone” (Valley of Silence 62), “long, liquid waves” (High Noon 312), “turbulence,” “a tidal wave” (Irish Thoroughbred 195; 129), “a rage” (Montana Sky 134), “a fever” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389), “a full-scale explosion” (One Man’s Art 306) and “liquid flames” (Dance of the Gods 96). Via these metaphors Roberts not only emphasizes the powerful, uncontrollable force of the sexual experiences—sex is literally and metaphorically depicted as a force of nature—but of course also inscribes the texts in the conventions of the romance genre.

The rational subject’s lack of control in the physical sexual experience is further emphasized in Roberts’ narration by her representation of sexual desire and sensations as a near-violent force that seems to attack the body. Descriptions such as “desire [ . . . ] pierced through him” (Morrigan’s Cross 43, emphasis mine), “each separate scent slammed into his system, pumping through his blood, roaring through his head,” “dozens of sensations knifed into him, all sharp and deadly” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389; 429, emphasis mine), “the stab of desire [ . . . ] left a nagging ache,” “it rocket through him, fierce and fast,” and is “an assault on the system” (One Man’s Art 304-5, emphasis mine) systematically invoke the semantic field of violence and thereby stress the uncontrollable nature of this desire.[5] These descriptions also serve to represent the subject’s experience of sexual desire as an external phenomenon which does not seem to originate within the (conscious) self. The gap between body and mind seems wider than ever in these passages.

This dissociation between body and mind is reinforced by the recurring and explicit associations of sex with a lack of rationality; physical sexual sensations are repeatedly represented as causing the mind to “turn off” (Valley of Silence 141). Here are two exemplary passages:

He brushed his thumb over her nipple, watched the shock of pleasure flicker over her face. “Turn that busy mind off, Moira.” It was already as if mists clouded it. How could she think when her body was swimming in sensation? [ . . . H]er mind misted over again as his hands, his mouth, slid like flaming velvet over her body. [ . . . ] She was nothing but feelings now, a mass of pleasures beyond any possibility. [ . . . ] His hands simply ruled her until she was a hostage to this never-ending need. Half-mad she struggled with his shirt. (Valley of Silence 141)

But right at the moment, with her back up against the door and his mouth hot on hers, thinking wasn’t part of the equation. [ . . . ] His hands dove into her hair, skimmed over her shoulders, molded down her body with such purpose and skill that any idea [ . . . ] went straight out of the window, and kept on flying. [ . . . ] With her mouth under assault and her blood flashing from comfortably warm to desperately hot, her body ruled the moment. [ . . . ] The sensations careening inside her flew too fast, too high for [ . . . ] any hope of sanity. (High Noon 221-22)

Physical sexual pleasure is explicitly presented as causing a temporary suspension of the self’s rational capacity: Moira’s mind is “clouded” by “mists” and “misted over” due to the hero’s sexually arousing touches; “thinking [isn’t] part of the equation” in these scenes as rational thoughts go “straight out the window and [keep] flying.” Again, the sexual body is presented as the opposite of the rational, thinking mind: “how could she think when her body was swimming in sensations?” During sex the self is then reduced to “nothing but feelings, a mass of pleasures” and the “body rule[s] the moment;” the rational self is temporarily suspended in this act and, the love scenes stress over and over again, overpowered by the natural body that for an instant overtakes and occupies the entire self. This hyperbolic representation of sex—Roberts projects the feelings surrounding the orgasmic moment to all sexual sensations—emphasizes and exaggerates the uncontrollable nature of sex and, by extension, the body.

Whereas Belsey interprets this representation of sexuality as indicative of how body and mind are and remain separated, my reading of Roberts’ use of these topoi recasts them as a pre-condition for the authenticity of the true love that is later realized in the complete unification of body and mind. This interpretation builds on Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—an interpretive strategy that constructs sexuality as undeniable physical proof of the authenticity of an as-yet mentally unacknowledged emotion. This interpretation of sex is further supported by other, explicitly non-sexual manifestations of the body. Indeed, the bodies of Roberts’ lovers/protagonists do not exclusively respond to the other in a sexual way, but also experience and display strong non-sexualized reactions. These are diverse and range from the small and seemingly unremarkable—an “uneven beat of [the] heart” (Irish Thoroughbred 43), hands that naturally “belong” (One Man’s Art 328) together, a “quick hitch in [the] gut” upon seeing the other cry (Montana Sky 65), a throat snapping shut when being “wooed” (Dance of the Gods 90), and the natural “fit” of each other’s bodies (Montana Sky 115)—to more elaborate physical responses.

In the following brief scene from the 1991 category romance Suzanna’s Surrender, for example, hero Holt’s body experiences and displays his strong emotional response to heroine Suzanna at a time in the narrative when he has not yet consciously realized or acknowledged his feelings for her (let alone openly confessed them to her). Holt’s body displays as-yet-unspoken feelings of affection and love, but this display is clearly not sexual:

[Holt] rubbed a thumb over the line between [Suzanna’s] brows in a gentle gesture that surprised them both. Catching himself, he dropped his hand again. (Suzanna’s Surrender 421)

Again the conscious self’s lack of control over this bodily act (“catching himself”) is stressed; the body, disconnected in these acts from the mind, displays and reveals an emotional truth the rational, conscious self has not yet acknowledged. While the overwhelming sexual response then generally dominates the protagonists’ physical reaction to one another, such non-sexual physical manifestations confirm what the emphatic uncontrollability of the sexual acts already indicate, namely the existence of an as-yet linguistically unacknowledged emotion of which these bodily manifestations are both the physical trace and proof.

The Meaning of the Body

Although these physical manifestations and reactions are an essential part of true love, they do not suffice: as Belsey remarks, for popular romance novels the difference between love and lust lies in the complete involvement of the mental self (28-29). In Roberts’ novels as well, true romantic love comes into being when not only the bodily but also the mental self is involved in the phenomenon. This mental involvement consists, as Belsey already indicates, essentially of language: the lover speaks about love, in doing so asserts his/her identity as a subject and involves his/her complete self in the romantic love he/she speaks of. However, whereas Belsey posits that it is in this speaking that the dichotomy between mind and body is reconfirmed and reconstituted—the words have to be spoken “independently” from the body (Belsey 30)—I claim that in Nora Roberts’ romances in this speaking of love the gap between body and mind is definitively bridged.

In a fictional world in which the body functions as a text the physical manifestations of love have double significance: they offer the unquestionable physical proof of love’s truth by making it tangible, anchoring the immaterial to the material, and they signal and display this truth to be read, interpreted and linguistically realized. Still, Roberts’ representations of romantic love consistently make the point that without the active intervention of the conscious, thinking, speaking self this physicality is and remains mute. It is only when the thinking, speaking subject intervenes with the transformative act of interpretation that these otherwise meaningless physical manifestations become significant and meaningful, in the etymological senses of both words. This transformative act, the “making” of meaning and sense, takes place in language; physical reality (the body) is “put into words” and thereby transformed from meaning-less to meaning-full. As long as love is only apparent in the body and remains consciously, rationally and linguistically unacknowledged, it remains without meaning, regardless of how materially real and true the bodily manifestations prove it to be. It is in this transformative process of making the meaningless physical truth meaningful that the gap between body and mind—emphatically staged at the start of the romance—is bridged in Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love. This bridging takes place in three successive stages.

The first stage consists of a remarkable discomfort, unease and even fear the protagonists experience over (some of) their physical reactions. Montana Sky hero Ben, for example, is “unnerved” (115) by the way Willa fits in his arms, Irish Thoroughbred’s Adelia finds her physical “awareness” of Travis “disturbing” (47), Blair, in Dance of the Gods, feels “wary” (48) about kissing Larkin, Holt and Suzanna both “resent and fear” (Suzanna’s Surrender 383) the intensity of their physical attraction, and Morrigan’s Cross’ Hoyt “fears” (82) the intensity of his desire for Glenna. This resentment and fear is all the more remarkable because it is often connected to physical and sexual sensations that are essentially pleasurable (exceptionally so even). The lovers’ marked unease then indicates a consciously unarticulated awareness on their part that the intensity of their bodily response is a sign of an otherwise as-yet-unacknowledged emotional truth: they are falling in love. The concept of love—that is, the signifier ‘love’—remains strictly unarticulated by the protagonists in this stage of the story, however.

The second phase in the bridging of the gap between mind and body by making meaningless physical truth meaning-full via interpretation and linguistic actualisation consists of a rudimentary linguistic acknowledgement of the physically enacted emotional truth. This elementary linguistic acknowledgement takes place in the use of the explicitly vague and generic term “something” (sometimes “it”) to refer to the phenomenon that in a later stage will be acknowledged as true love. Roberts uses this word in this way multiple times in all the novels in this study; a few examples:

[S]he had tapped into something inside him he hadn’t known was there—and was still more than a little uncomfortable with. Finding it, feeling it left him as vulnerable as she. (Suzanna’s Surrender 470)


I feel for you. You stir something in me. Yes, it’s difficult, and it’s distracting. But it tells me I’m here. (Morrigan’s Cross 127)


There was longing in him for her, which he thought as natural as breath. But there was something tangled with it, something sharp that he didn’t recognize. (Dance of the Gods 100)


Still, there was something inside her, something she couldn’t quite see clearly, or study, or understand. Whatever it was made her uneasy, even nervy around him. (Dance of the Gods 212)

“Something” is an interesting choice of words: on the one hand it signifies a rudimentary linguistic actualisation of the physically manifesting truth, which is at this stage in the story still unnamed and thus unsignified; “something” changes this and brings the uninterpreted, mute physicality into the meaning-full, human world of language. On the other hand, however, “something” is a word that essentially means nothing. It is so vague and generic that in the act of naming it signifies not-naming; even as it puts into words—signifies, linguistically actualises—a physical reality, it refuses to assign it actual, concrete meaning. Still, this use of “something” signals the beginning of the bridging of the gap between mind and body as it starts the mental naming process of a bodily experienced truth. It does not, however, fully bridge the gap; the lack of concrete meaning makes the transformative act of interpretation and signification incomplete.

The gap between body and mind is fully bridged in the third phase: the actual use of the word “love” in naming the physical and emotional phenomenon the protagonists are experiencing. This first conscious naming takes place in the protagonist’s initial, introspective realization or acknowledgement that he/she is in “love” with the other. It is one of the most important moments in the romance novel and its representation as an isolated, crystal clear moment poised in time and place reinforces its perceived significance.

Why did he always send her into a flutter? she wondered. Why did her pulses begin to race [ . . . ] whenever she looked up and met those marvelous, blue eyes? [ . . . ] She’d lost. She’d lost the battle, and though she fought against it, she was in love with Travis Grant. (Irish Thoroughbred 78)


Love. He’d managed to avoid it for so many years, then he had thoughtlessly opened the door. It had barged in on him, Grant reflected, uninvited, unwelcome. Now he was vulnerable, dependent—all the things he had promised himself he’d never be again. (One Man’s Art 408)


He glanced toward her and felt the punch low in his gut. [ . . .] When his palms grew damp on the wheel, he looked away. Not falling in love, he realized. He’d stopped falling and had hit the ground with a fatal smack. (Suzanna’s Surrender 442)


Love. His heart ached at the word so that he pressed his hand to it. This was love then. The gnawing, the burning. The light and the dark. Not just warm flesh and murmurs in the candlelight, but pain and awareness in the light of day. In the depths of the night. To feel so much for one person, it eclipsed all else. And it was terrifying. (Morrigan’s Cross 247)[6]

In these scenes, the most crucial step in the bridging of the gap between mind and body is taken: the physical materiality of the body—already rudimentarily signified by “something” but still lacking true meaning and thereby a place in the ordered, comprehensible, signified human world—is transformed into a signified linguistic entity and irrevocably takes on meaning. The gap between mind and body is then completely bridged in these scenes since these words are not spoken independently from the body, as Belsey would have it, but are to the contrary both a linguistic, mental actualisation of the bodily experience which cause further bodily repercussions. Indeed, the use of the word love impacts the body. Body and mind are intimately connected; the self is unified.

From Love to True Love Via “I Love You”

Although in the initial linguistic actualisation of love the gap between the lover’s body and mind is bridged, the love that is realized here does not yet qualify as the utopian true love around which popular romance novels conventionally revolve. The discourse that is used in the initial realization scenes tends to signal that something is still amiss. In the examples cited above, for instance, love is considered a “lost battle”, it “aches [ . . . ] gnaws [ . . . ] burns,” brings “pain” and uncomfortable “awareness;” and is explicitly “uninvited, unwelcome,” “terrifying,” and “fatal.” The semantic fields of battle and violence which are systematically invoked in thinking about love in this stage of Roberts’ romance narratives are discursive traces of an underlying problem: the lover has not yet freely, rationally, actively chosen this love. Instead, this love is a physically proven truth, a fait accompli, a material fact the existence of which the lover can no longer ignore or deny, but to which he is at this point essentially subjected. In other words, the lover lacks agency in love.

That the lover’s agency and volition, his free and active choice to accept and embrace love, is crucial to Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love is something that is established repeatedly in the narratives in this study. Roberts’ lovers tend to make a clear distinction, for example, between the physical manifestation of sexual desire and other bodily signals of love on the one hand and the choice to accept and want those desires and manifestation—to want, in other words, romantic love—on the other. Morrigan’s Cross’ heroine Glenna Ward pointedly formulates the central dilemma Roberts’ lovers/protagonists face in this regard when after her first, fiercely passionate kiss with reluctant hero Hoyt, she muses: “He wanted her, there was no question of that. But he didn’t choose to want her. Glenna preferred to be chosen” (Morrigan’s Cross, 83). The signifier “want,” here a reference to sexual desire, and “choice,” here a reference to the innately human capacity of free will, explicitly differentiate between the desires of the body and the mind in play in this scene and the entire romance. The heroine’s explicit assertion that she “prefer[s] to be chosen” indicates the importance of the lover’s conscious volition in the matter of true love. In deliberately choosing to accept and actively embrace love—a love that has been constructed as both physically and emotionally overwhelming—the lover takes on agency in the experience and finally completes the realization of true love.

Lovers in Roberts’ popular romance novels take on the necessary agency in the declaration of love, which is constituted by uttering the deceptively simple words “I love you.” The communicative nature of the declaration of love distinguishes it from the earlier, interior linguistic realization of love. In uttering the words “I love you,” the lover openly declares his love to the other and transforms the status of his love from private to public. As love becomes a shared knowledge between the lover and the beloved, it also becomes part of the world outside the self and, consequently, requires a place within that exterior world. The successful declaration of love signals the lover’s free will to assign love that place in the world, to freely and completely accept the potentially overwhelming experience and give it a meaningful place in his reality, as we can see in this example of a successful declaration scene:

I love you. [ . . . Y]ou’re my breath, and my pulse, my heart, my voice. [ . . . ] I’ll love you even when all of them stop. I’ll love you, and only you, until all the worlds are ended. So you’ll marry me, Blair. And I’ll go where you go, and fight beside you. We’ll live together, and love together, and make a family. (Dance of the Gods 313)

The lover first re-establishes the truth of the love-phrase by explicitly referencing the body and then places his declared love in the meaningful, recognizable socio-economic and cultural order of the world by tying it to the culturally conventional institutions of marriage and family. In this way the lover takes on agency in the experience of love as he performs the choice to accept and embrace the potentially overpowering natural phenomenon and places it in the meaningful world of culture. The subject’s cultural placing of love in the conventional entities of marriage, home and family checks love’s natural, potentially uncontrollable power and transforms it into a steady and strong basis for the protagonists’ lives together.

Although the successful declaration of love that completes the realization of true love is always constituted, in Roberts’ popular romances, by the phrase “I love you,” the words alone are not enough. “I love you” is only successful as a declaration of love when it performs the lover’s volition to place love in the cultural order and to make romantic love into the foundation of the culturally conventional entities of marriage (a lifetime spent together), home and family.[7] That simply speaking the words “I love you” does not constitute the successful declaration of love becomes clear when we look more closely at one of the few unsuccessful declarations the corpus of this study includes. In One Man’s Art, for example, the protagonists declare their love to one another for the first time about halfway through the novel, but these declarations are ultimately unsuccessful (the relationship still falls apart afterwards). A closer reading of the scene reveals the problem:

[Hero Grant:] “I feel like someone’s just given me a solid right straight to the gut. [ . . . ] So now I’m in love with you, and I can tell you, I’m not crazy about the idea.” [ . . . ]

[Heroine Gennie]: “If you’re in love with me, that’s your problem. I have one of my own because I’m in love with you.” [ . . . ]

[Grant] “We both would have been better off if you’d waited out that storm in a ditch instead of coming here. [ . . . ] I’m in love with you, and damn it, I don’t like it. [ . . . ] I love you [ . . . ] I don’t like it, I may never get used to it, but I love you. [ . . . ] You make my head swim.” (405-7)

Although both hero and heroine speak the conventional words of love—words which are, moreover, explicitly connected to the body, so the material truth of this love is not in doubt—the characters do not perform the free choice to accept that love. Grant’s repeated assertion that he “does not like” being in love with Gennie signals his lack of agency in the experience. The love he speaks of is the one over which he has no control and in which he makes no choice; it is the powerful, dangerous, potentially overwhelming kind of love which has not yet been brought into the cultural system—love without a place in the conventional cultural order. This unplaced love, though physically real and linguistically declared, is a “problem” to which neither character, in this stage of the story, has the solution. This problem is solved in the final scene of the novel when the protagonists’ declarations of love lead to a marriage proposal and, implicitly, the perspective on a shared home and family (492-98).

As a successful declaration of love, the phrase “I love you” then works in a very particular way in Roberts’ romance novels. Declared under the appropriate circumstances and conveying a particular set of meanings, the declaration realises—actualises, makes real—true love and thereby literally changes reality. Indeed, it is precisely in saying the words that true love is realised: the declaration “I love you” performs true love. “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in all of Roberts’ romance novels, but this functioning is especially clearly illustrated in the paranormal romance Morrigan’s Cross, in which the story’s paranormal setting is used to explicitly depict the reality-changing impact of the declaration of love.

“I love you.” She saw his eyes change. “Those are the strongest words in any magic. I love you. With that incantation, I already belong to you.”

“Once I speak it, it’s alive. Nothing can ever kill it. [ . . . ] I love you.” A single beam of light shot out of the sky, washed over them, centred them in a circle of white. (249-50)

“I love you” is considered an “incantation,” “strong [ . . . ] magic[al]” words which perform the belonging to each other that romantic love implies. This scene emphasizes the power the spoken love-word has in Roberts’ romances: once love is spoken, it is “alive. Nothing can ever kill it.” The words, moreover, not only have an immediate effect on the body (“his eyes change”), but also literally change reality (“A single beam [ . . . ] white”).

This performative speech act, which can only be realized by a lover whose body and mind are harmoniously unified within the self, completes the lover’s journey and often heralds the beginning of the romance novel’s (in)famous happily-ever-after ending. The unification between body and mind—between the order of the material and of the immaterial—that is ultimately achieved in the experience of true love in Roberts’ romance novels turns these happily-ever-afters into epistemologically very appealing fictional universes. In these implied fictional worlds the radical insecurities that are part and parcel of the (post)modern condition are overcome and replaced by epistemological certitudes. These are worlds in which the self is unified, the body displays truth and the truth can be spoken. In these worlds true love not only exists, but becomes the epistemological, emotional, cultural, and economic foundation on which all else rests. These are, in short, the massively appealing fictional worlds that Belsey claims the popular romance novel promises but fails to deliver.


If Nora Roberts succeeds where, at least according to Belsey, other romance authors fail, is this success then the secret to Roberts’ unprecedented popularity? According to the terms set by Belsey’s older study, this would be the logical conclusion indeed. If Belsey is right in claiming that the massive appeal of popular romance fiction lies in its promise to unite mind and body and if Nora Roberts is the only author to actually consistently achieve this fictional unification, the logical outcome would be that it is Roberts’ mastery of this particular construction of romantic love that underlies her exceptional popular success.[8] This suggestion is certainly intriguing and deserves further scrutiny in future work. But for the moment methodological rigor—of a kind that is characteristic of the further maturation of the field of Popular Romance Studies discussed in the introduction to this paper—urges caution in an attempt to avoid hasty conclusions.

A number of questions in fact remain open. While it is, for example, clear that this construction of romantic love recurs in Roberts’ romance novels, it remains unclear whether it is specific to Roberts’ work. Comparative analyses of other authorial romance oeuvres are necessary to determine the wider occurrence of this pattern. If the construction turns out to be specific to Roberts, further sociological or anthropological study of the reception of these novels is necessary to substantiate Belsey’s theory-based claim that it is precisely this particular representation of romantic love that determines the massive appeal of Roberts’ oeuvre. If the construction is not specific to Roberts’ oeuvre, it is possible that this study points towards an important wider historical shift in the romance genre. It is imaginable, for example, that the representation of the body and the mind as it was recorded by Belsey is a textual reflection of a particular cultural moment of anxiety about female sexuality. In the more than two decades that have passed since the publication of the novels used in Belsey’s study, this cultural anxiety surrounding female sexuality has lessened. Roberts’ representation of romantic love might in fact be a textual trace of this wider socio-cultural evolution. Further study is necessary to substantiate such speculations.

As the scholarly study of popular romance fiction enters its fifth decade, transformations in the practice of this scholarship are in full swing. While these transformations necessarily imply a certain degree of distancing or separation between older and younger generations of romance scholars, the discussions in this paper illustrate the continued relevance of older studies to the present generation of popular romance scholars. Although we might be inclined to reject many of these older studies because of their (over)generalizing approach to the genre (see e.g. Selinger (2007)), this paper has shown how such general claims continue to be valuable as they provoke new and interesting analyses of the genre. The future of the study of popular romance fiction lies neither in the outright rejection of older claims nor in the uncritical acceptance thereof, but in our ability to use the powerful tools we find in earlier work to further our growing understanding of this complex and evolving genre.

Works Cited

Belsey, Catherine. Desire. Love Stories in Western Culture. Cambridge (U.S.A.): Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. 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 30.1 (2009): n. pag. Web. March 14 2012.

Goris, An. “Response to Pamela Regis: Matricide in Popular Romance Scholarship?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Lennard, John. Of Modern Dragons and Other Essays on Genre Fiction. Humanities-Ebooks, 2007. Ebook.

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

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Print.

Olivier, Séverine. “ “Femme, je vous aime…”? Nora Roberts, une inconnue sortie de l’ombre dans l’univers sentimental.” Belphégor 7.2 (2008) n. pag. Web. 4 May 2010.

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

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

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

—. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?”  Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Roberts, Nora. Dance of the Gods. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

—. High Noon. London: Piatkus, 2007. Print.

—. Irish Thoroughbred. 1981. Nora Roberts. Irish Hearts. New York: Silhouette Books, 2000. 9-205. Print.

—. Montana Sky. 1996. New York: Jove Books, 1997. Print.

—. Morrigan’s Cross. London: Piatkus, 2006. Print.

—. One Man’s Art. 1985. Nora Roberts. The MacGregors Alan-Grant. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books, 1999. 249-498. Print.

—. Suzanna’s Surrender. 1991. Nora Roberts. The Calhoun Women. New York: Silhouette Books, 1996. 361-506. Print.

—. Tonight and Always. 1983. Nora Roberts. From the Heart. New York: Jove Books, 1996. 1 – 166. Print.

—. Valley of Silence. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

Selinger, Eric Murphy. “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance).” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 33-46. Print.

–. “Re-reading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48:2 (2007):307-324. Print.

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

Valeo, Christina. “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 229-240. Print.

[1] This paper could not have been realized without the help and support I received from Professor Eric Selinger; I thank him most cordially for his feedback. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers who reviewed earlier versions of this piece and provided many valuable suggestions.

[2] For a more extensive discussion of the development of the study of popular romance fiction and the relation between older and more recent studies of the genre see Regis (2011) and Goris (2011).

[3] That vastly less scholarly attention is paid to Roberts than to other contemporary bestselling author of genre fiction is indicated, for example, by data in the academic databank JSTOR which stores bibliographical information about scholarly articles. Several sample searches of JSTOR in September 2010 and September 2012 resulted in 599/800 hits for the search term “Rowling” (“Harry Potter” gave 607/1064), 1158/1449 for “Stephen King”, 213/264 for “John Grisham”, but barely 11/17 for “Nora Roberts” (three of these articles are about a different Nora (Ruth) Roberts and none of them are actual studies of the romance author).

[4] The most important academic discussions of Roberts’ oeuvre are by Pamela Regis (“Complicating Romances” and Natural History 183-204), John Lennard (2007), Séverine Olivier (2008) and Chris Valeo (2012). A first academic monograph on Roberts is currently being prepared by the author of the present paper and is expected to be published by McFarland in 2014.

[5] Given the popular romance genre’s infamous history with rape, an important distinction has to be pointed out here: while Roberts unabashedly emphasizes the violent force of the desire within the self, this violence does not translate into any kind of forced sexual interaction. Choice and free will are of paramount importance in Roberts’ romance fiction and the texts never leave any doubt that the protagonists fully consent to all sexual interaction they have. There is, arguably, one exception in Roberts’ entire oeuvre: in Tonight and Always (1983) the hero comes very close to raping the heroine. Although she eventually “stop[s] struggling … soften[s] and surrender[s]” (142) to him, it can be debated if this is consensual sex or so-called “forced seduction.”

[6] For similar scenes in these and other novels in this study, see: One Man’s Art 348, Susanna’s Surrender 431, Montana Sky 426, Dance of the Gods 228 and High Noon 282.

[7] The idea that “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in popular romance novels has been developed and discussed much more extensively by Lisa Fletcher in her ground-breaking study Historical Romance Fiction; see in particular pp. 25-48.

[8] The keen reader notes a logical inconsistency here because Belsey in fact suggests that the disappointment readers supposedly feel over the failed unification of mind and body drives the desire to read more romance. From this perspective, Roberts’ exceptional success is inexplicable according to the terms set out by Belsey.


Editor’s Note: Issue 3.1

Just over a year ago, scholars from around the world gathered at the Fales Library and Special Collections of New York University, for the Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance:  “Can’t Buy Me Love?  Sex, Money, Power, and Romance.”  (The Fourth International conference was held in York, UK, late in September, 2012; the Fifth will be next September, in San Francisco.)  The representation of romantic love in fiction, film, TV, and other media was, of course, our primary topic, with speakers from both the academy and the romance industry, including authors, editors, and publishers.  Several talks at the conference, inspired by our venue, also stepped back to consider the practical exigencies of building and sustaining the study of popular romance at the university level.

This issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies features four essays built from work at the New York conference, along with a fifth by An Goris, keynote speaker from the international conference on “Popular Romance in the New Millennium” (McDaniel College, 2011) and reviews of recent and significant scholarship.

The lively range of voices and topics to be found in our field is on display in issue 3.1:

  • Drawing on their varied expertise as scholars, authors, editors, and publishers, a trio of contributors (Katherine E. Lynch / Nell Stark, Ruth E. Sternglantz, and Len Barot / Radclyffe) collaborate to trace the history of the queer heroine in high-art and popular romance from the Middle Ages to 21st-century lesbian paranormal romance;
  • Novelist Ann Herendeen (author of Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander and Pride / Prejudice) reflects on the literary, historical, and erotic underpinnings of her novels’ surprising—yet oddly familiar—heroes, each of them a bisexual “top,” as dominant in the social structure of Regency England as he is in the bedroom;
  • Bringing Young Adult literature into our discussions, Amanda Allen explores the female power struggles and economics of “boy capital” in Mary Stoltz’s novels of adolescent romance in the years after World War Two;
  • In our first essay on TV romance, Spanish scholar Beatriz Oria offers a close reading of the mix of consumerism, postfeminism, and romantic nostalgia in a crucial episode of Sex and the City;
  • An Goris offers a “differential” approach to popular romance fiction, revisiting the broad theoretical claims made by an earlier scholar, Catherine Belsey, about how romance novels represent the mind and body in love and testing them against a selection of novels from across the career of Nora Roberts;
  • In a groundbreaking essay, librarian Crystal Goldman attempts to define what a core collection in Popular Romance Studies would look like, and she considers the likelihood of academic libraries allocating funds to build such a collection.

With the buzz of our 2012 conference fresh in our minds, all of us at JPRS look forward to bringing you the best new scholarship from that gathering—and of course, the best new peer-reviewed work that comes in to us throughout the year.  As you’ll see from our list of upcoming Special Issues, we have a lot of exciting topics to consider in the years to come:  some thematic, some regional, some focused on a particular author or medium.  (Watch out for the new one on “Film Love Matters: Romance, Love, and Sexuality in World Cinema,” which will be coming soon!)

We hope you’ll submit your own work, or send friends and colleagues here.

And, as always, if you find some use for our pieces in the classroom or your research, we hope you’ll let us know!